The transcript below is from the video “Martial Arts Actors Who Don’t Even Have A Black Belt” by Looper.

Looper (YouTube Channel on go-to source for the movies, TV shows and video games):

There’s nothing quite like a good fight scene, who doesn’t love seeing cinema’s greatest martial artists duke it out on the big screen? But while they might look awesome throwing those high kicks, some of the most iconic martial arts actors don’t even have a black belt. It’s probably important to get a handle on how the belt system works. It’s also worth knowing that the term “martial arts” is plural for a reason. There are hundreds of different schools of fighting across the globe, and as much as movies like to simplify things down to being either “karate” or “kung fu,” those are only two of the most popular styles. They’re certainly not the only ones practiced by martial arts actors. In fact, many of these disciplines don’t follow a belt system at all, and many of the most revered martial arts actors have no belts, simply because none were offered by their discipline.

Looper (YouTube Channel on go-to source for the movies, TV shows and video games):

Many martial arts actors also come from a dance background instead of a fighting one. This tracks because the main attribute for a movie star is performance, not victory. Fight scenes in any movie, especially martial arts movies, are about cooperation and telling a story, rather than defeating an opponent. The best comparison is professional wrestling, where many wrestlers show off their skills by fighting “Invisible Men” to demonstrate how to take bumps and tell stories at the same time. There’s also a trend in martial arts now known as “black belt factories” or McDojos, schools that teach watered-down, fast-paced martial arts lessons with the goal of pumping out as many black belts as possible. This is done just so people can have the prestige of having a black belt without putting in the work. Many martial arts websites now offer warnings about black belt factories and how to spot them. In other words, in today’s age, black belts can be highly overrated, and just because an actor doesn’t have one, that doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re doing.

Looper (YouTube Channel on go-to source for the movies, TV shows and video games):

Bruce Lee is the name most associated with martial arts movies, and to many people, martial arts in general. He almost single-handedly started the martial arts revolution in the West. His movies are bedrocks of the martial arts movie genre. And he never held a black belt in any discipline. Lee’s primary martial arts background was in Wing Chun, which he studied directly under the famous Ip Man. He excelled at this art, but it just so happened that Wing Chun offers no belts to its students. When Lee moved to America, he studied acting at the University of Washington. He soon began teaching his own variation of Wing Chun, which eventually morphed into Jeet Kune Do. He described this as a hybrid style rather than an organized institution, and it’s this philosophy that shines throughout all of Lee’s movies.

[Interview]: “As an actor, as a martial artist, as a human being, all these I have learned from martial arts.”

Looper (YouTube Channel on go-to source for the movies, TV shows and video games):

David Carradine was best known for starring as the titular villain in Kill Bill, and in the TV show Kung Fu as Caine, a Shaolin monk wandering the American Old West. Kung Fu was the first exposure many Americans had to kung fu, or to any other kind of martial arts, and in many ways, Carradine was the face of American martial arts. But not only did Carradine have no black belt during the height of the show’s popularity, he also lacked any kind of formal martial arts training whatsoever. Carradine originally relied on his experience in dance, gymnastics, and fencing through the early stages of the show’s run. He later developed a deeper interest in kung fu, and while he never became a master, he nonetheless saw himself as something of an ambassador for the style. Carradine later learned enough martial arts to produce his own instructional videos on tai chi. But as for his skill as a fighter? As Chuck Norris, who faced him in Lone Wolf McQuaid, once quipped:

“David Carradine is about as good a martial artist as I am an actor.”

Looper (YouTube Channel on go-to source for the movies, TV shows and video games):

Gina Carano was the most recognizable name in women’s MMA for years, and she’s since gone on to enjoy a solid career in acting. In addition to a series of direct-to-video martial arts movies for the diehards, she has also appeared in Fast & Furious 6, Deadpool, and The Mandalorian. Despite all these accomplishments, however, she doesn’t have a black belt…at least, not yet. Carano got her start in Muay Thai, which doesn’t follow traditional belt rankings. She compiled a 12-1-1 record before getting involved in MMA, where she found even more success. Carano was often labeled the face of women’s MMA, where she compiled a 7-1 MMA record. Her final match was a loss against Cris Cyborg, in the first ever women’s match to headline a major MMA event. Not long after, Carano went into acting, but she never left martial arts behind. In 2014, she started practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, working her way up from a white belt.

Looper (YouTube Channel on go-to source for the movies, TV shows and video games):

Jet Li is one of the most recognizable martial arts stars out there. American fans will know him from movies such as Hero, Fearless, Unleashed, and more commercial fare such as The Expendables and Lethal Weapon 4. All of this is backed up with genuine skill, too, and Li is a champion in at least one field of martial arts. That said, he’s never acquired a black belt. This is because Li studies Wushu, a martial art with no belt ranking system. From a young age, he was a martial arts prodigy, competing against adults before he was even a teenager and winning a number of medals in the process. At one point, his Wushu team made a visit to the White House and met Richard Nixon. The president humorously offered the young Li a role as a bodyguard. Li responded:

“I don’t want to protect any individual. When I grow up, I want to defend my one billion Chinese countrymen!”

Li retired at age 19 to pursue a career in film.

[Dialogue]: “Right on.”

Looper (YouTube Channel on go-to source for the movies, TV shows and video games):

Michelle Yeoh is one of the most famous martial arts actresses of her era. Most known to Western audiences for her turn as Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies and Yu Shu Lien in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Yeoh also has a long history of starring in major Hong Kong action flicks. She performs many of her own stunts, too, despite having no formal martial arts training and no belt of any kind. Yeoh was a natural athlete growing up, but her true passion was ballet. She attended the Royal Academy of Dance in London before her mother entered her in a beauty pageant, which she won. That victory landed her an offer to star in a commercial with Jackie Chan, and this snowballed into her acting career in Hong Kong and, eventually, Hollywood.And as for martial arts? Yeoh once said: “I don’t profess to be, I can’t profess to be a martial artist because I’ve never been formally trained. I’ve never gone through the belts system because I never had the time in that way.”

Looper (YouTube Channel on go-to source for the movies, TV shows and video games):

Cheng Pei-pei is often considered the first female martial arts star. She has had a long and successful career, and was, at one time, one of the biggest stars of the Hong Kong martial arts genre. Her role in Come Drink With Me is considered one of the iconic appearances within the kung fu movie genre, but Western audiences might recognize her from her turn as Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Of course, Cheng accomplished all of this without a black belt of her own. Cheng started her career as a dancer. She came to the attention of Wushu film director King Hu, who was convinced that her skills in dance could translate to combat. She had her doubts, but accepted the challenge head on. As she later said: “I wanted to beat all the boys. If boys could do it, I could, too.” Cheng’s willingness to get physical, take a punch, and do her own stunts got her far in the industry, and cemented her legacy as one of the all-time martial arts greats.

Looper (YouTube Channel on go-to source for the movies, TV shows and video games):

Eve Torres made her name in the WWE, where she won the 2007 Diva Search and went on to hold the WWE Divas Championship three times. After retiring from wrestling in 2013, she took on acting work, playing Chancara in The Scorpion King 4 and facing off against Jackie Chan in Skiptrace. She also appeared in an episode of Supergirl as the villainous Maxima. Because Torres comes from a dance background, however, she has no black belt to speak of. She was co-captain of the Fly Girls, USC’s hip hop dance crew, and also danced for the NBA Summer League. She won the aforementioned 2007 WWE Diva Search, and worked full-time as a wrestler for six years. During her time as a wrestler, Torres started practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In 2014, she married Rener Gracie of the famous Gracie BJJ family, who she met while training at the Gracie Academy. She was awarded the purple belt in 2016 after nearly nine years of study, and now teaches the Gracie Women Empowerment self-defense program.

Looper (YouTube Channel on go-to source for the movies, TV shows and video games):

Robin Shou was one of the more notable martial arts actors of the ’90s. Best known for playing Liu Kang in both Mortal Kombat and Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, he also starred in Beverly Hills Ninja opposite Chris Farley. On top of that, Shou appeared in all three of Paul W. S. Anderson’s Death Race movies. Shou studied karate in college but disliked it, so he left the martial arts world behind to become a civil engineer. But while on vacation in Hong Kong, he was recruited to be in a martial arts movie, because of his noticeable large shoe size. He performed his stunts so well that it quickly snowballed into a movie career. Shou later studied Wushu, a martial art with no belt ranking, and has since used that as the basis for all of his fighting scenes.

Looper (YouTube Channel on go-to source for the movies, TV shows and video games):

Even before the Keanussance brought upon by John Wick, Keanu Reeves had enjoyed a long and illustrious career as an action movie star.

[Dialogue]: “You wanted me back. I’m back.”

Looper (YouTube Channel on go-to source for the movies, TV shows and video games):

His turns in Speed and Point Break first demonstrated his big screen combat skills, before The Matrix put him on the martial arts map, and his recent movies have shown off even more of the actor’s fighting skills. But despite battling Agent Smith and facing down the Russian mob, Reeves has never actually earned a black belt. Reeves has a bit of a sporty background, as he was a successful hockey goalie during his school years. But for the titular role of John Wick, he had to learn both judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, since many of the action sequences in the movies feature moves that are very common in BJJ. Since he started from the bottom, he earned a white belt and has been steadily working his way up. In 2017, he was awarded an honorary black belt, but he has yet to earn the real thing. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is one of the most popular forms of martial arts for actors.

Looper (YouTube Channel on go-to source for the movies, TV shows and video games):

One such practitioner was the late Paul Walker, who loved BJJ but never got his black belt, at least while he was alive. Walker was an enthusiastic student of BJJ. He even made sure his movies included action scenes that highlighted his skills instead of simple punches and kicks,and techniques from his training sessions were included throughout the Fast and Furious franchise. Walker trained for almost ten years under Ricardo Miller at Paragon Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Los Angeles, and wanted more than anything to be a black belt. He knew he’d have to earn it, however, and once said: “I will get my black belt, even if I need to get it in my coffin.” Tragically, Walker fell shy of his goal before he died in a car accident in 2013. Miller posthumously awarded Walker a black belt at his memorial service.

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