Considering wrestling is the world’s first sport, it’s not surprising people are still so invested in the art of fighting. Let’s be honest, there’s something primal about watching people fight for glory, especially when done skillfully! Martial arts take years to master, and even longer to make it translate flawlessly on-screen.
It’s one of the reasons people enjoy watching a good kung-fu flick, especially if legends such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or Michelle Yeoh are involved! Some of these names might look familiar, but others are going to have you running to your TV to watch their mastery at work.
Bruce Lee is one of the most famous kung fu actors, paving the way for what we know today as mixed martial arts, aka MMA. He is considered to be one of the most influential martial artists of all time, bringing the sport into film and bridging the gap between the Eastern and Western hemispheres.
Lee’s introduction to the art of fighting came from his father, who thought he had to learn how to fight properly. But his most influential teachings are said to have come when he was 16, in the form of Wing Chun. Unfortunately, due to cerebral edema, Lee passed away in 1973.
When it comes to comedic fighters, Jackie Chan is at the forefront of the list. In the world of cinema, Chan is known for his slapstick fighting style, acrobatics, and the use of everyday objects as weapons. His style hasn’t gone unnoticed over the years, as he has appeared in over 150 films.
One film scholar even said Chan’s perhaps one of the most recognized stars in the world! Today, Chan is slowly but surely letting doubles do the more extreme stunts in his films, but he is still doing a majority of his own fighting. He’s been married to Joan Lin since 1982, and they have one son together.
Starting his martial arts training at the young age of ten, Bolo Yeung is now known as one of the greatest “kung fu film” actors of all time. Unlike other martial artists, Yeung did a bit of bodybuilding, gaining a larger physique that helped him land villain roles in movies throughout the 70s and 80s, such as Enter the Dragon with Bruce Lee.
Not much is known about Yeung’s personal life. But we do know that the legendary martial artist is now settled down with a wife and three kids, all of whom wish to follow in their father’s footsteps and becoming a master.
Considering Jet Li was winning gold medals at the Chinese Wushu Championships at the age of 12, it’s no wonder he’s considered one of the best martial artist actors around. Beginning his training at age eight, masters quickly realized the young boy’s talent, training Li in several styles of wushu.
After retiring from competition at age 19, Li went on to be a critically acclaimed actor, starring in multiple films throughout the 80s and 90s. His most recent film is the 2020 live-action remake of the Disney movie Mulan where he plays the role of the Emperor of China.
Tony Jaa grew up wanting to be like the likes of Bruce Lee, Let Li, and Jackie Chan. He’d study their moves on-screen, practicing them outside in his dad’s rice paddy fields until he’d perfected them. He went on to be a stuntman for 14 years before making his way to star in feature films.
He went on to become a well-known face in the genre of kung-fu movies. Even one of his heroes, Jackie Chan, said Jaa was “the most well-rounded action star,” when asked why he recommended the young actor to the Rush Hour 3 director.
While most martial artists are trained in various fighting styles, actress Lucy Liu stuck to one while growing up. The American-born actress studied kali-eskrima-silat during her childhood, a style that incorporates the use of sticks, knives, and other forms of weapons while fighting. Honestly, if you take a look at the films where Liu fights, such as Charlie’s Angels, she typically has some sort of “prop.”
For Liu, it’s not all about physical strength. During an interview with AP News, Liu discussed martial arts, saying it comes from within, “It gives you an inner strength. And that’s what martial arts should be; it should come from inside.”
If you’re an internet dweller, then you probably know that Chuck Norris pretty much broke the internet a few years back. And for a good reason, considering he is one of the best martial arts actors ever to grace the silver screen. Interestingly, he didn’t get into fighting until he joined the military in 1958.
There, he became a black belt in Tang Soo Do and even developed his own form, Chun Kuk Do. It wasn’t until a year later, in 1972, that Norris made his big break in Hollywood with the film Way of the Dragon, a movie he starred opposite Bruce Lee.
Michelle Yeoh is probably one of the most influential martial artist actresses, having starred in popular films such as the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies and the Chinese film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The beauty queen even performs all of her own stunts, her flexibility coming from years of intense ballet training.
Today, Yeoh is still acting, but taking on less physically intense roles, such as her character in Last Christmas. Instead, she is focusing her attention on the Save China’s Tiger project to help the endangered tigers of South China.
Coming from extremely humble beginnings, actor Chow Yun-Fat had his big break after college, when he replied to an ad in the local newspaper for an actor-trainee job for TVB. He was hired, signing a three-year contract that paved his way to becoming one of the most well-known faces in Hong Kong.
He is known for his work in the action heroic bloodshed–genre, appearing in films such as Hard Boiled, A Better Tomorrow, and The Killer. And, although he has hair in the above picture, people also might recognize him as the character Sao Feng, the pirate Elizabeth Swan takes over for in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.
Actor Jason Statham didn’t join the industry until the late 90s, but when he did, he was quickly regarded as a top-notch on-screen martial artist and fighter. Considering he studied kickboxing, karate, and kung fu throughout his youth, it makes sense. One thing is for sure, though, if Statham is in the film, get ready for some good old fashion hand-to-hand combat.
As an actor who does his own fighting and stunts, Statham is a huge advocate for “stunt performers” getting their own category at the Oscars. Today, he and his fiance Rosie Huntington-Whiteley live in Beverly Hills, California, with their young son.
Michael Jai White
Michael Jai White began his martial arts training at the young age of seven, starting with the art of Jujutsu and moving on to become a master in eight different fighting styles. One of Jai’s first films portraying his stellar moves is the 1997 superhero flick Spawn, where he plays the title character. He’s one of the first African-American’s to be cast as a superhero.
And that’s not where his superhero likeness ends. In 2014, Jai assumed “The Mantle of The Black Dragon” from martial artist legend Ron Van Clief, an extremely high honor in the world of kung-fu films.
Actress Cynthia Rothrock began her studies in martial arts at the age of 13. From there, she won championship after championship, becoming the “Grand Master” in five tournaments after winning four out of five events. She also holds a black belt in seven disciplines, including Eagle Claw, Ng Ying Kungfu, and Pai Lum White Dragon Kung Fu, to name a few.
Rothrock got her big break in 1985 when she starred in the martial arts film Yes, Madam. The movie proved to be a box office success, solidifying Rothrock’s place and popularity in the Hong Kong film industry — one of the few Westerners to do so.
Jean-Claude Van Damme
Belgian actor Jean-Claude Van Damme began studying the art of fighting when he was ten, with his dad enrolling him in a Shōtōkan karate school. By the age of 18, he was a black belt in karate, moving on to study different forms such as Taekwondo and Muay Thai.
The macho actor even studied ballet for five years, saying, “If you can survive a ballet workout, you can survive a workout in any other sport.” And while Van Damme is now known as one of the best martial artist actors, his breakout film didn’t come until years after he entered the industry, in the 1988 movie Bloodsport.
Actor Scott Adkins became interested in studying martial arts at the age of ten after he visited a Judo club with his brother and father. Then, he became infatuated after being robbed, jump-starting his passion with the art. That year he began practicing Taekwondo, eventually receiving his black belt at the age of 19.
His big break into the acting world came in 2001 when he was asked to play a role in the upcoming Hong Kong film Dei Seung Chui Keung. Apparently starring opposite huge names like Jackie Chan worked in Adkins favor, as movie roles started to roll in left and right.
Actor Wesley Snipes began studying martial arts at the age of 12, achieving a second-degree black belt in Hapkido and a fifth-degree black belt in Shotokan karate later in life. Ironically, Snipes was “found” at the age of 23, while competing in one of his many martial arts competitions.
His film debut was the 1986 Goldie Hawn movie Wildcats. From there, he went on to star in some major blockbusters, including the classic film White Men Can’t Jump and the Blade trilogy, where he starred as the title character.
Steven Seagal jumped headfirst into his martial arts studies, moving to Japan sometime between 1971 and 1973. He is often credited as the first non-Asian to open a dojo in Japan as well as the trainer who helped Brazilian MMA fighter, Lyoto Machida, perfect his front kick, a move that knocked out his opponent at the 2011 UFC 129.
Of course, he is another talented martial artist who brought his skills to the silver screen. Seagal’s big break was in the 1987 film Above the Law. Following that movie’s success, Seagal went on to appear in multiple films, such as Out for Justice and Hard to Kill.
One could argue Iko Uwais was born with martial arts in his blood. His grandfather, H. Achmad Bunawar, found a silat school, encouraging Uwais to study the indigenous form of fighting. Then, in 2007, he was discovered by Gareth Evans, a director who was filming a documentary about silat in what happened to be Uwais’ training hall.
Evans believed Uwais’ charisma made him the perfect choice for his first kung-fu movie, Merantau. The film garnered positive reviews and even won the Best Film award at ActionFest in 2010. Uwais went on to have a solid career in film, with his next project being Snake Eyes, a spin-off of G.I. Joe.
Between the ages of seven and 18, Mark Dacascos won multiple karate and kung-fu competitions and championships. And being discovered walking down the street of San Francisco’s Chinatown by Chris Lee only makes people think this man was born to be a martial artist actor.
While the first film he was in cut his part, Dacascos went on to develop a solid career as a martial artist actor. He’s come a long way from his 1993 breakout role, playing the lead antagonist in John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum as well as having a reoccurring role in the popular series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Donnie Yen is considered to be one of Honk Kong’s premiere action stars, showcasing an array of talent across multiple martial arts disciplines. He is trained in a variety of forms, including Muy Thai, wrestling, Judo, Jeet Kune Do, Wing Chun, and Tai Chi, just o name a few.
But it isn’t his fighting skills that gained him attention on the international stage. Already considered one of the most popular actors in Asia, Yen crossed over to the Western hemisphere when he played the role of Chirrut Îmwe in Rouge One: A Star Wars Story.
Martial artist and actor Robin Shou didn’t start studying fighting until he was 19 and in college at California State University. There, he began to train in the art of Kenpo Karate but soon realized the fighting style wasn’t for him and, ironically, quit.
It wasn’t until he saw Wu Shu practitioners from Beijing do a demonstration that he found his craft. Today, he is best known for his role as Liu Kang in the Mortal Combat series, as well as his character 14k in the popular Death Race franchise.
Ernie Reyes Jr.
Ernie Reyes Jr. was born into a family of martial artists, with his father being a stuntman and founder of the “West Coast Demo Team,” a martial arts demonstration group Reyes Jr. joined when he was only six. From there, it wasn’t long until the young boy was going to auditions and landing roles in film and television.
He landed his first role at the age of 13, in the 1985 movie The Last Dragon. And while he has many credits under his name, such as performing motion-captured stunts for Avatar, Reyes Jr. now spends most of his time training MMA fighters.
Don “The Dragon” Wilson
Now known as perhaps the greats kickboxer of all time, Don “The Dragon” Wilson started off his martial arts journey by getting pushed around by his brother, his future trainer. During his time in the circuit, Wilson went on to win 11 Professional Kickboxing World Championships and scoring a ridiculous 47 knockouts over four decades.
While it is evident competing was at the forefront of this actor’s mind, he still made it to the silver screen a few times. His film credits include Terminal Rush, Redemption, Batman Forever, and Futurekick.
Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren grew up wanting to be a rock star. Well, clearly that dream got derailed, and at the age of seven, he began training in judo, working his way up to Kyokushin karate by the age of 10. In college, he honed his karate skills, training hard for five years, and obtaining a second dan black belt in the process.
His big break came in 1985 when he played Soviet Union boxer Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Since then, he’s made quite the career out of being an action star, appearing in over 40 films, including a lead role in The Expendables franchise.
While actress Maggie Q has training in the Chinese martial arts forms of Wing Chun, Qi Gong, and Wushu, she doesn’t credit it for being what’s helped her through her career. Instead, she credits the stuntmen she’s worked with over the years, saying they gave her a good background for how to do action scenes properly.
You might recognize Maggie Q for her recent blockbuster films, such as her role in the Divergent franchise, but her big break came in 2006 when she was cast in Mission: Impossible III. From there, she went on to land her own show on the CW for a few years, Nikita.
Sho Kosugi is a former All Japan Karate Champion, having studied various forms of martial arts extensively throughout his life. Some of the forms he’s trained in include Shindō jinen-ryū Karate, Judo, Iaido, and Aikido, to name a few. The martial arts master gained popularity in the 80s, making a name for himself playing various ninja roles.
A nice chunk of his resume includes a trilogy of ninja-themed movies produced by Cannon Films. Then, in 1984, Kosugi landed one of the lead roles in the NBC series The Master. Unfortunately, the series only lasted 13 episodes.
To say Randy Couture has a few titles to his name would be an understatement. This mixed martial artist is a very decorated athlete, being a three-time UFC Heavyweight Champion, a six-time UFC Champion, as well as a two-time UFC Light heavyweight Champion. The former and latter making him the first fighter to win a UFC Championship in two different divisions, heavy and light.
With his notoriety in the fighting world, it’s no wonder why he’s considered one of the best martial artist actors out there. Some of his credits include Human Fighter on the History Channel, Hawaii Five-0, and Setup.
Jason Scott Lee
Actor Jason Scott Lee grew up studying martial arts, something that came in handy when he auditioned for, and ultimately won, the part of Bruce Lee in the 1993 film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. From there, he went on to appear in a slew of films.
Some of his credits include the live-action 1994 adaption of The Jungle Book, Arabian Nights, and Mortal Kombat. Also, if you can picture it, he lent out his voice for the surfer dude David in the animated film Lilo & Stitch.
Sammo Hung is said to be one of the figureheads who reinvented the martial arts genre in film during the ’80s. He was a student of martial arts and had his foot in the entertainment industry from a young age, so it’s not too surprising.
Starting his career off as a child actor, it wasn’t until the age of 16 when Hung realized he wanted to make a career out of fighting on-screen, either as a stuntman or an actor. Some of his acting credits include Around the World in 80 Days, Lucky Stars, and Winners and Sinners. The latter came to redefine 80s martial arts films.
Starting off his athletic career playing football, track and field, and basketball, Jim Kelly actually didn’t start martial arts training until he was in college. After quitting football, Kelly took up Shorin-ryu and Okinawan karate. Apparently he had an affinity for the sport because he became one of the most decorated karate champions during the 1970s.
When it comes to his acting career, Kelly made history by becoming the first black martial artist actor, starring alongside the likes of Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. The role opened many doors for Kelly, who went on to appear in multiple films throughout his career.
Tony Leung Chiu Wai
Unlike other martial artist actors on this list, Tony Leung Chiu Wai didn’t begin training in any style of fighting until he was 46 years old. He spent five years training in the art of Wing Chun for his role in The Grandmaster. Apparently, he even broke his arm not once, but twice while learning different moves.
He is considered to be one of Asia’s most successful actors, having a solid career in the industry since the early ’80s. Some of his more notorious credits include Hard Boiled, In the Mood for Love, and, most recently, his casting in the Marvel film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings