It’s no secret that a lot of professional fighters have been influenced by the early UFC events, featuring a little guy named Royce Gracie tapping out one-gloved boxers and Dutch kickboxers knocking out the teeth of 400-lb. men.
But MMA fighters were also influenced by martial arts movies, which is where they share real common ground with fans of the sport. Georges St. Pierre, like so many of us who were young and impressionable during the 80s and 90s, idolized Jean-Claude Van Damme. We already know that Brazilian fighters are the only people left who give a crap about Steven Seagal. The point is, you can rest assured that many of the fighters we follow wore out their copy of “Best of the Best” just like the rest of us did.
What if the roles were reversed, though? What if, instead of the fighters being influenced by the movies, the movies themselves were more like the real world of mixed martial arts? As it turns out, the results wouldn’t be so favorable.
Kickboxer features Jean-Claude Van Damme as Kurt Sloane, the younger brother of Eric Sloane, a successful American kickboxer who travels to Thailand in search of a bigger challenge. Of course, things don’t go so well, because Thailand is full of 6’2″ fighters who can kick down a building’s beams without breaking a sweat.
The Original Version
When Eric goes up against the great Tong Po, a scary Thai fighter with a long ponytail and a disregard for referees rivaled only by Gilbert Yvel in his prime, he is brutally beaten and paralyzed from the waist down when he is elbowed directly in the spine, since such a move is guaranteed to paralyze the recipient.
Kurt wants revenge, but he knows he doesn’t have the skills. Luckily, he’s mentored by a random friendly black guy (a pattern in Van Damme’s films, see: Lionheart) who introduces him to a hardcore muay Thai trainer, who uses unorthodox training methods to get Kurt ready to face Tong Po. When they do, they fight according to the “ancient way”, which of course, involves tying rope around your knuckles and dipping them in resin, then shards of broken glass, assumedly because we are to believe that everyone outside of America does primitive-ass things like that.
Though distracted by his brother being kidnapped and his best girl having been assaulted by Po himself, Kurt takes an ass whooping and still prevails.
The MMA Version
In the MMA version, Tong Po cripples Eric Sloane, but he technically loses the fight because he used an illegal 12-to-6 downward elbow strike to target Eric’s fragile spine.
Kurt is enraged nonetheless, and hears from the locals that only one trainer can help him beat a fighter like Po: Surat Jackson. He goes to Jackson’s MMA, which leads the Thai fans to complain that Jackson is going to force Kurt to use a dull gameplan and turn him into a boring fighter.
When Kurt finally faces Po, they dip their hands in broken glass, which is supposed to lead to a more exciting fight, but ultimately backfires. Po cuts Kurt with the first punch he throws and at :07 of the first round, ringside doctor Margaret Goodman waves off the fight, giving Po the victory via TKO (cut).
The Karate Kid
“The Karate Kid” tells a typical story of a teenager moving to a new town. It seems like every time a teen starts at a new school, he hits on the wrong girl and the local karate punks beat him up unmercifully and on a regular basis. Of course, that always seems to lead to the new kid finding out that his apartment’s maintenance man is secretly a karate master, which leads to the new kid doing chores for weeks only to find out that he’s secretly been learning the ancient art of karate, after all.
We all know what happens after that. It seems like the new kid tends to enter a karate tournament that conveniently takes place immediately after the bullying gets to a breaking point, and during the tournament it’s typical that the biggest bully of them all makes it to the final, setting up an epic showdown. Seriously. Happens all the time.
The Original Version
Daniel (the new kid, played by a 37-year old Ralph Macchio) advances through to the finals of The All Valley Karate Championship, which for some reason attracts thousands of rabid spectators, even though it’s just high school kids doing point-sparring. Along the way, though, evil karate instructor John Kreese (Martin Kove in what should have been an Oscar-nominated role) tells one of his high school thugs to hurt Daniel’s leg, which he does.
Fortunately, Daniel is still able to fight in the final because his sensei, Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita in what actually was an Oscar-nominated role- seriously), umm…rubs his hands together and then places them on Daniel’s thigh. Daniel then wins with a move that nobody in their right mind would think could work in a fight (until Lyoto Machida did it to Randy Couture), and everybody goes home happy.
The MMA Version
Daniel hurts his knee, but when Miyagi rubs his hands together and places them on his leg, nothing happens. Daniel still thinks he can fight, and he waits until the last possible moment to inform the All Valley Karate Tournament promoters that he can’t fight, after all.
The promoters scramble to find a last-minute sub, but literally nobody wants to fight Johnny Lawrence on just eight minutes’ notice. That is, except local trash-talking point-fighter Ray “Chill Son” Nenn. Nenn is ready to step in, but Johnny surprises everybody by saying that his sensei has advised him not to take the fight on such short notice. Instead, Johnny simply walks off with the trophy.
The spectators riot, with local karate pundits blaming tournament organizers for not having a better undercard to soothe the feelings of the local karate fans. The organizers pass the buck, too, blaming Kreese for the whole thing and calling him a “fucking sport killer” as the credits roll.
I’m tempted to say that if I have to explain the plot of “Bloodsport” to you, you should stop reading, go watch it like any rational person already should have, and then come back. Seriously. “Bloodsport” is not just a classic martial arts film. It’s a rite of passage and should be required viewing before being able to so much as watch a UFC pay-per-view or take a karate class at your local YMCA.
Whatever, though. “Bloodsport” follows the (cough) “true” (cough) story of Frank Dux, the first Westerner to ever win the mysterious Kumite, mostly because everybody else in North America didn’t know the damn thing existed.
The Original Version
In the original version, Frank Dux (played by a young Van Damme) uses his flashy kicks to advance past what can only be called a motley crew of various martial artists skilled in everything from sumo to savate to um, jumping around like a monkey.
The end of the film pits him against Chong Li (silently played by Bolo Yeung who creepily never seems to age), who has already killed one guy, viciously broken the leg of another, and put Dux’s buddy in the hospital. Dux is on the run from the po-po because he skipped out on his Army duties to enter the tournament, and he evades them on the day of the final, promising to turn himself in after he wins the tournament. He does, defeating Li even though he is momentarily blinded by a mysterious powder that Li keeps next to his crotch in case the fight doesn’t go his way.
The MMA Version
Dux is successfully arrested on the morning of the tournament. The Kumite’s organizers tell all of the fans to calm down, promising that they’ll get Dux out of jail in time for the big fight. They even chastise the local media for daring to speculate that Dux won’t be let out of jail in time to face Chong Li.
However, the Kumite’s organizers never succeed in getting Dux out of jail and the movie ends with an anticlimactic finish, as Li is given his show money and goes home with a shrug. As the film ends, the Kumite officials say they made several offers to the local police to get Dux out of jail just long enough for the fight, but the Army really wants to “stick it to him.”
Enter the Dragon
“Enter the Dragon” is the best-known work of the legendary Bruce Lee, who played the title role of Lee (go figure). Lee goes to fight in a mysterious tournament that is only available by invitation and is presumably called something other than “The Kumite”. The tournament is organized by a rich guy named Han, who was once quite the martial artist himself, but now prefers to bring in fighters from around the world to pummel each other for his enjoyment.
The Original Version
Lee arrives on Han’s island and is befriended by American martial artists Roper (John Saxon, AKA the dad from “A Nightmare on Elm Street”) and Williams (Jim Kelly, sporting an amazing Afro). However, things are not as they seem. Han is involved in some shady business and Lee is asked to help investigate the situation. Fighting in a no-holds-barred tournament on a mysterious island isn’t enough of an adrenaline rush for him, so he agrees.
Williams is eventually murdered for meddling in Han’s affairs, and Han tries to slow the momentum of Lee and Roper by forcing them to fight one another. They refuse, and set their sights on Han, instead. While Roper takes care of the minions, Lee engages in a spectacular fight in a room full of mirrors against Han, who fights like a sissy by using claws that look like they belong to someone doing a shoddy Wolverine cosplay. Lee prevails, and he and Roper sail home, having defeated Han for good.
The MMA Version
Lee is supposed to fight Williams, but citing their friendship, refuses. Williams shrugs it off and says that he and Lee aren’t actually all that good of friends, as they just met the day before. Lee is flabbergasted and says that he’s too busy exploring the island to fight Williams, not to mention that he has a tummy ache from eating too much at the feast the night before, plus his back is feeling really stiff that day.
Han throws his hands in the air and instead enlists the aging Roper to fight Williams for the championship. Roper is widely expected to win, but uses his unattractive, yet effective style of “old man boxing” to stifle Williams’ powerful counter-punching attack en route to the win.
Suddenly, Lee feels good enough to compete and insists upon facing Roper, but Roper dominates that fight, too. Lee throws a huge hissy fit and begins a rivalry with Han. Han has a previous martial arts background as a boxercise instructor and says that he has no problem whooping Lee’s ass if that’s what he wants to do. Lee agrees, but ultimately ends up backing out, though Han films a one-hour special showing him training for the fight even as he knows by that point that the fight isn’t going to happen.
Best of the Best
“Best of the Best” enters the exciting and completely fabricated world of international point-sparring, which apparently is one of the world’s biggest sports in the alternate reality in which the film takes place. A United States karate team (sorry, karate “TEEEEAAAAAM“) is assembled by James Earl Jones, who is the only man capable of putting together a squad capable of beating those damned South Koreans. Yes, this is the first time in film history where the bad guys are not Russians, not even North Koreans, but South Koreans.
The Original Version
The US team is comprised of the best karatekas in the world, who of course, have ridiculously diverse personalities. You’ve got The Buddhist Who Loves Sweaters (Virgil), The Redneck (Travis), The Ladies Man (Sonny), The Asian Guy (Tommy), and The Guy We’re Supposed To Relate To (Alex). Amidst entertaining bar fights and in-fighting among the team, they discover what it means to be a TEEEEEAAAAM.
Of course, it will likely not matter against the evil South Korean squad, which is full of cold-blooded that KILL DUDES in point-sparring tournaments. It turns out that Dae Han, the leader of the South Korean squad, actually beat Tommy’s brother to death in a tournament years before. And if that’s not enough to prove that he’s a badass, he also wears an eye patch. So there.
After a brief and completely stupid subplot involving Alex and his stupid kid who doesn’t know not to play in traffic, the two teams meet, with Ahmad Rashad providing fight commentary, as he is known to do. The two teams face off and trade wins and losses, with one fight (Travis’ bout) coming down to a block breaking contest (which is how ALL ties in karate are broken, don’t you know) and Alex bravely fighting through a shoulder injury. With seconds left, Tommy has the chance to put away both his rival and the South Korean team, but he lets the clock wind down, refusing to land a final strike that would win the matchup but likely kill a beaten and bloody Dae Han in the process. (“Why didn’t he just tap him with a strike?” WE DON’T ASK THOSE QUESTIONS.)
The MMA Version
The US team is referred to as the “Silverbacks”, and the South Korean team is called the “Pitbulls”, and both are given hideous looking jerseys to wear. Why are they given corny team names and basketball jerseys? None of the fans know, but they don’t give a crap since they’re just there to watch dudes beat each other up, anyway.
Virgil and Sonny get the US team– er, the Silverbacks— off to a bad start, both losing by KO due to front kicks. Afterward, the camera pans over to a chubby fellow wearing yellow-tinted sunglasses and a ponytail, who knowingly nods in approval. Travis wins his fight by a close decision, but in the process, both he and his opponent (Yung Kim) are so drained afterward that they go to the hospital for checkups. While there, Travis and Kim lock eyes again and Travis gives Kim the finger, inciting a brawl. As nurses crap themselves in fear and try in vain to break them up, they exchange punches. The hospital becomes a battleground as the two duke it out in their gowns, with Kim’s IV coming out of his arm and blood flying around during the chaotic scene.
Back at the tournament, Alex injures his arm during his fight, but wants to continue. Unfortunately, referee Herb Dean sees the injury and frantically calls off the fight. The fans boo, even as they see Alex’s injury in horrific slo-mo on the big screen. As the final fight arrives, the Silverbacks cannot beat the Pitbulls due to having already lost three out of four fights, but Tommy doesn’t care, since he’s out for revenge.
Tommy beats Dae Han brutally, and in the final seconds, he puts him down with a huge overhand right. In that instant, he knows that his rival is finished, and he has a choice- whether or not to take his revenge with one extra strike. Tommy does what any fighter would do, and after a brief moment of pause, launches himself into the air and lands a flying elbow strike to the head of an unconscious Dae Han. Afterward, Tommy puts his false teeth back in long enough to explain to Ahmad Rashad in the post-fight interview that Dae Han had it coming.