While a great many actors (and actresses, but we’ll get to that in another list) play kick-ass tough guys, these actors have genuine martial arts skills and have spent many years training to become fully-fledged bad-asses.
Some are just a little too cliché or obvious, and hence we’re leaving Steven Segal out this time. We think you’ll find that there are some actors, known as anything but action heroes, that could, perhaps surprisingly, kick your butt. You’ll want each of these fifteen stars on your side if you ever find yourself in a brawl, and if they’re not on your side, run.
Here are 15 Male Actors with Serious Martial Arts Skills.
15. Ed O’Neil
While most famous for his roles in Married with Children and Modern Family, where he plays the quintessential “dad” role, Ed O’Neill is actually a highly-skilled martial artist. A talented athlete as a young man, Ed O’Neill won a football scholarship to Ohio University but he had a reputation as a party animal and transferred to Youngstown State University, where he was a defensive lineman. He signed for the Pittsberg Steelers, but was cut during training camp.
For the last 22 years, O’Neill has trained in Brazilian jiu-jitsu after being introduced to it by his friend, the writer and director John Milius. He has studied under Grand Master Rorion Gracie, and in December 2007 received his black belt. O’Neill has talked openly about his training and in the 2012 documentary I Am Bruce Lee, he referred to getting his black belt as “the greatest achievement of my life, apart from my children.”
14. Ashton Kutcher
Another actor you’d generally associate with comedy over action is Ashton Kutcher. Since making his name in That ‘70s Show alongside Topher Grace and future wife Mila Kunis, he’s gone on to make numerous movies and even returned to television when he replaced Charlie Sheen as the lead, alongside Jon Cryer, on Two and a Half Men. While he hasn’t made a name for himself in the action genre, should he chose to move in that direction, he’s certainly got some great skills to bring to the big screen.
Kutcher has trained in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Ricardo De La Riva Goded, a sixth-degree black belt and master of his signature move, the “De la Riva” Guard (grappling) position. Kutcher has trained with him for several years and has achieved his black belt. He credits jiu-jitsu as part of his healthy lifestyle when people ask about his physique. He has even travelled to Brazil several times to train – now that’s devotion to the art!
13. Jason Statham
One of the biggest names in action cinema right now is Jason Statham. Since his break-out roles in Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, he’s gone on to carve out an unlikely niche as one of the most in-demand men in Hollywood.
Training in various martial arts, as well as diving and soccer, since a child, Jason Statham has stepped it up a gear since becoming an action icon and is now considered to be as skilled as most MMA fighters. His speciality is kickboxing, but he is also highly trained in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. His insistence on doing his own stunts in movies, all unchoreographed, is credited for the authentic look of his fight scenes. It’s not just fighting either, while shooting The Transporter sequel, he really did make the jump to the rear of a school bus from a jet ski, proving his athleticism isn’t just confined to kicking butt.
12. Mickey Rourke
Having trained as a boxer as a youth, Mickey Rourke turned his attention to acting and became one of the more recognised faces of the 1980s with performances in movies such as Diner, Rumble Fish, and 9 ½ Weeks. It was for the Charles Bukowski biopic, Barfly, that he received the most critical acclaim. Rourke surprised many when he quit acting in 1989 and became a professional boxer. He had become more famous for his personal life and his acting decisions, and by his own account had “had no respect for [himself as] an actor”.
Despite being too old for many boxing promoters to take seriously, his professional record was surprisingly solid. Rourke was undefeated in eight fights, with six wins (four by knockout) and two draws. Having retired from boxing in 1994, Rourke returned to acting but struggled in mainstream Hollywood. However, appearances in Sin City, The Wrestler (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award), The Expendables, and Iron Man 2 have seen his career have a degree of resurgence. He has studied the martial art of Hwa Rang Do for six years under Tae-joon Lee, the son of the art’s founder, and he credits the discipline he has found under Lee as inspiration for turning his life around.
11. Jean Claude Van Damme
It’s hardly surprising that Jean-Claude Van Damme has serious martial arts skills. He began his training in Shotokan karate at the age of ten and earned his black belt at the age of 18. At age 12, Van Damme training for the national karate team, and by age 15 began a competitive career in semi-contact karate, with an impressive 44 wins to his name. He also took up body building to improve his physique, which led to him earning a Mr Belgium bodybuilding title. At 16 he took up ballet to improve his overall physique and balance. While he also studied both taekwondo and muay thai, his style is generally a combination of karate and kickboxing. After a full-contact career that consisted of 18 victories, he caught the eye of Hollywood casting directors after small roles in the TV series War and Remembrance and the film, No Surrender, No Retreat.
After being fired as the original Predator, replaced by the late Kevin Peter Hall, he broke out in the low budget movie Bloodsport. Numerous roles followed through the ‘80s and ‘90s that made use of his martial arts skills, including Kickboxer, Lionheart, and the more respected Universal Soldier and Timecop. While his career has become less high-profile in recent years, roles such as those in The Expendables 2 prove that he still has plenty of moves left.
10. Dolph Lundgren
Lundgren has often claimed that his difficult relationship with his father encouraged him to push himself to constantly achieve more. Not merely content to focus on his academic studies, he holds a degree and master’s degree in chemical engineering, he also took up karate and earned a 3rd dan black belt in Kyokushin karate. After becoming a bodyguard for Jamaican singer Grace Jones, the two began a relationship which saw them relocate to New York. When Jones was cast in the James Bond thriller A View to a Kill alongside Roger Moore and Christopher Walken, Lundgren scored a small role as a KGB henchman.
His massive stature combined with his physicality caught the attention of Sylvester Stallone, after Lundgren petitioned hard for the role, and he was cast as the iconic Ivan Drago in Rocky IV in 1985. He trained in both weightlifting and boxing for five straight months in preparation for the role. Sylvester Stallone said in an interview: “During Rocky IV, Dolph had hit me so hard I had swelling around the heart and had to stay in intensive care at St. John’s Hospital for four days.”
9. Wesley Snipes
Wesley Snipes began training in martial arts at the age of 12, earning a 5th dan black belt in Shotokan karate and 2nd dan black belt in hapkido. He has also trained in capoeira under Mestre Jelon Vieira and in a number of other disciplines including kung fu at the USA Shaolin Temple and Brazilian jiu-jitsu and kickboxing.
While he initially gained attention for serious roles in Jungle Fever and New Jack City, it wasn’t long before he was as in demand for his martial arts skills as much as his acting skills (if not more so).
Roles in Passenger 57, Demolition Man, Money Train, The Fan, and U.S. Marshals led to him becoming a bona fide action star as well as a reliable leading man. His martial arts skills would be used to their fullest effect in the action flick Blade in 1998. His martial arts skills along with his brooding performance captured the character perfectly and ushered in the modern age of comic book-based box office hits.
8. Taylor Lautner
Taylor Lautner may well have been born doing martial arts. Truthfully, he began training in karate at the age of six, earning a black belt by age eight, and was at one time ranked number one in his category by the American Sports Karate Association.
A talented athlete, Lautner also excelled in football and dance. His exceptional skills at such a young age was put to good effect in the film The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lava Girl where he played the imaginary hero Sharkboy. While the film was met with negative reviews, he did manage to bag several more roles as a child actor, usually as a jock or “cool kid”. When he bagged his breakout role as Jacob Black in the Twilight series of movies, he put on over 30 pounds of muscle through extensive weight training alongside his continuing martial arts training.
While his career hasn’t quite matched expectations post-Twilight, his background in martial arts could still lend itself towards future action roles if he can shake off the teen-idol image as he matures.
7. Neil Brown Jr.
Neil is probably still most recognised for his role on AMC’s The Walking Dead in season 1 as Guillermo, leader of the Vatos. The seemingly menacing adversary to Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln), he is later revealed to be a kind-natured custodian, looking out for a home full of elderly survivors of the zombie apocalypse.
Overall, he’s spent twenty-six years training in martial arts and boxing and appeared in the martial arts TV series WMAC Masters. The show lasted 2 seasons and featured heavily choreographed fight scenes between genuine martial artists. While the show wasn’t a massive hit, it did allow him enough screen time to garner some attention. While still mostly known for background roles, he has appeared in numerous TV shows such as Castle, Harry’s Law, Suits, and Weeds, as well as roles in high-profile movies such as Fast and Furious (2009), Tigerland (2000) and Battle Los Angles (2011). He recently appeared in the biopic Straight Outta Compton as DJ Yella.
6. Mark Dacascos
Typically cast in action roles throughout his career, Mark Dacascos is a highly skilled martial artist having trained extensively since the age of seven. Between the ages of 7 and 18 he competed in, and won, several kung fu and karate championships. While Dacascos is proficient in his father’s style of martial arts, Wun Hop Kuen Do, he has also studied muay thai with kru puk, capoeira with Mestre Amen Santo, and wushu with Coaches Eric and Debbie Chen.
He has used these skills in several movies and TV shows over the years and received much attention for his role in the movie Drive (1997) which became a cult-hit and the sequel to The Crow, The Crow: Stairway to Heaven playing Eric Draven, a role made famous by the late Brandon Lee.
5. Michael Jai White
Most famous for his appearances in the Tyler Perry movies Why Did I Get Married? and Why Did I Get Married Too? and the spin-off TV series, Tyler Perry’s For Better or Worse, Michael Jai White has also carved out a niche in several action movies over the last few decades. He also holds the distinction of being the first black actor to star as a major comic book superhero in a major motion picture: 1997’s Spawn, beating Wesley Snipes’ Blade by a full year.
White is an exceptionally gifted and dedicated martial artist holding no fewer than 8 black belts in shotokan, taekwondo, kobudo, goju ryu, tang soo do, wushu and kyokushin, having been training in jiu-jitsu since the age of seven.
While many of his movies have made good use of his martial arts skills, most notably 2001’s Exit Wounds alongside Steven Seagal, he has been in several high-profile action movies where he has played physically imposing characters, but has had no fight scenes himself, such as 2008’s The Dark Knight where he played a mob boss.
4. Chuck Norris
It has been said that when Chuck Norris does a push up, he doesn’t push himself up so much as he pushes the world down. While the amusing series of Chuck Norris facts are less than reliable (under his beard is not another fist), his reputation as a tough guy is well-deserved.
He joined the Air Force in 1958 and was stationed in Korea where he first trained in tang soo do. His interest led to black belts and eventually in developing his own fighting style, chun kuk do. He currently holds a 10th degree black belt in that, a 9th degree black belt tang soo do, an 8th degree black belt in taekwondo, 5th degree black belt in karate, 3rd degree black belt in brazilian jiu-jitsu and a black belt judo. In 1990, he became the first westerner to be awarded an 8th degree black belt in taekwondo, becoming a Grand Master.
Besides his impressive martial arts skills, he has also had a successful film and television career after a breakout role in Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon. A string of action movies during the 1980s, including the Delta Force series, made him a household name, but by the ‘90s his star had seemed to fade. In 1993 he began the role he is most famous for, Texas Ranger Sgt. Cordell Walker, in the long running series Walker, Texas Ranger.
3. John Foo
One of the more up-and-coming actors on the list, John Foo is fast carving out a role for himself as a reliable action star. He started out as an extra/stunt performer in movies such as Batman Begins (2005), where he played a member of the League of Shadows, and Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2010). He is currently starring in the TV series Rush Hour, based on the movie series of the same name, as Detective Lee, the character played by Jackie Chan in the original. His version of the character is more self-assured, and less like a fish out of water, than the previous version.
He is a practitioner of Wushu and has been seriously training since the age of 15. He studied Kung Fu and Judo from the age of 8. This skill set gave him an edge when breaking into Hollywood, and combined with his skills as a stuntman and his surprisingly quick delivery with a deadpan one-liner makes him a star to keep an eye on moving forward.
2. John Cusack
John Cusack rose to fame in the mid-1980s in movies such as Say Anything, Stand by Me, and Sixteen Candles. Since then he’s taken incredibly diverse roles in the comedies High Fidelity and Hot Tub Time Machine, the dark comedy Grosse Point Blank, and blockbusters such as Con Air and 2012.
It was while preparing for 1989’s Say Anything that John Cusack began to train as a kickboxer, as his character, Lloyd, was an aspiring kickboxer himself. He trained under former world kickboxing champion Benny Urquidez, and continued working with him for over 20 years. He currently holds a level six black belt in Urquidez’s Ukidokan kickboxing system.
While he has appeared in some action films over the years, he’s rarely displayed his impressive skills on-screen, preferring to keep the two aspects of his life separate. However, should he ever make a sequel to Grosse Point Blank, we’d love to see him kick ass as the veteran hitman once again.
1. Keanu Reeves
Initially planning on a career in ice hockey, an injury led a young Keanu Reeves towards acting. Roles as an airhead-type in movies like Parenthood and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and more serious roles in Point Break (1991) and Speed (1994) established him as a solid action star. It wasn’t until making The Matrix (1999) that Keanu became hooked on martial arts.
Playing the saviour of mankind in the post-apocalyptic world of The Matrix involved Reeves training in numerous martial arts, including Jiu Jitsu, Wushu, Boxing, and Krav Maga. His respect for the various stunt performers he worked with on the movie led to him petitioning for them to receive higher salaries for the sequels Reloaded and Revolutions (both 2003) and him continuing to train in various forms ever since. His real-life friendship with stuntman Tiger Chen led to his being inspired to make the movie Man of Tai Chi (2013).
While he doesn’t profess to be an expert in any form, roles in Man of Tai Chi (2013) and John Wick, among others, have seen him train in yet more forms such as Judo and Karate. If he continues at this rate, it won’t be long before he basically becomes Neo…
Is there an actor with an impressive talent you’d like to read about? Tell us in the comments!!
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