Me, I’m a Seagal man. Don’t tell me about Van Damme’s fancy kicks–Van Damme’s a ballet dancer, a girl! Here’s how the fight goes: Van Damme simpers around the ring like Baryshnikov for a few minutes. Finally, he throws a kick at Seagal’s head. Seagal snatches the foot out of the air, twists Van Damme’s leg 180 degrees, and tears half-a-dozen knee ligaments from the bone. End of story. Van Damme is Van Damaged. He hops around the ring, begging for mercy. Seagal pounds his pretty face into a mushy pulp–just for fun. Seagal vs. Jackie Chan? Forget about it. Seagal’s 6 feet 4 inches and full of muscle: He’d snap Chan like a twig.
My friend Jonah disagrees. He takes the Terminator, all the way. Once Schwarzenegger wraps his Mr. Universe arms around Seagal, it’s over. Seagal can juke and wiggle and shout Japanese aphorisms till he’s hoarse, but it won’t matter. Arnold will smash his head into the ground, then yank Steve’s ponytail till he wails like a baby. Or so Jonah says.
Jonah and I should settle our dispute in an alley. But he wouldn’t know a spinning back-kick if it hit him in the ribs. And I haven’t fought since Lars Gutenberg TKO’d me in a sixth-grade playground brawl. But we need to resolve this. It’s time to answer, once and for all, the most important unanswered question in cinema: Who is really the greatest action hero of them all? Or, to put it in the vernacular, which actor could kick everyone else’s ass?
The Hollywood Rumble
The Competitors (in no particular order):
Jean-Claude Van Damme (the “Muscles from Brussels”); Jackie Chan; Arnold Schwarzenegger; Sylvester Stallone; Dolph “Drago” Lundgren (Stallone’s opponent in Rocky IV); Chuck Norris; David Carradine (for sentiment’s sake); Steven Seagal; Wesley Snipes; and, because this is fantasy, Bruce Lee himself.
The likelihood that Arnold et al. will actually climb into a ring and do battle is only slightly greater than the likelihood that Bruce Lee will rise from the grave to join them. Therefore, Slate has secured the services of a panel of experts to predict how the tournament would unfold. The all-star judges include a two-time Ultimate Fighting champ, black-belt martial artists, a U.S. Army Ranger, a fight trainer, a legendary street brawler, and Jackie Chan himself. For a complete list and bios,.
None. Who needs ‘em? This is real fighting. Two men. One ring. A fight to submission, knockout, or–hey, why not?–death. Just like the.
First, let’s get rid of the early-round losers.
10. Kung Fu star David Carradine is dead last, and he might die getting there. “He’s kind of lost it,” says Black Belt editor Jim Coleman. Put it this way: Lundgren kickboxes; Carradine studies tai chi–those slow-motion exercises that old people do in the park.
9. Stallone. Rocky also falls in Round One. He’s beefy, and he learned to box for the Rocky movies, but that’s not enough. Norris, says trainer Tony Blauer, would have Stallone “down on the ground, making convulsing pig sounds.”
8. Snipes. He’s big, and he studied martial arts for 10 years. Those who’ve seen him practice say he’s tough. That experience gets him past Stallone, but no further.
7. Van Damme. Not as good as he looks. The Muscles from Brussels is fabulous on screen. He claims to be a karate champion, but the judges doubt his credentials. “He’s a ballet dancer, not a fighter,” says Ultimate Fighting champ Ken Shamrock. “In a real fight, he’d probably panic,” says fight historian Eric Perret. “He’d be lucky if he got one kick off before a real fighter took him down and had him for lunch.”
6. Chan. I adore Chan. Some of the judges do, too. “Chan does stuff that professional stuntmen won’t do,” says Blauer. “He’s crazy, and you don’t want to fight someone who has fun being crazy.” Chan, more acrobat than martial artist, is quicker and more innovative than anyone but Lee. If the fighters could use props–pool cues, ladders, chairs–Chan would win the whole tournament. But at 5 feet 10 inches and 150 pounds, he’s too small to fight barehanded in a ring against monsters like Schwarzenegger and Lundgren. Chan admits this, cheerfully. “If I can use tricks, I have many ways to win. But if I am standing there [in a ring], there is no way I can win … But I could run away fast.”
5. Norris. The sentimental favorite. Twenty years ago, Norris would have topped this list. He is the real deal, America’s greatest karate champion during the 1960s. “Norris has pure technical ability and savvy,” says U.S. Army Ranger Maj. Lucas. But Norris is 55–“past his prime,” says Blauer. “He should do color commentary for the fight.”
Schwarzenegger vs. Lundgren; Seagal vs. Lee
Aryan Warriors Lundgren and Schwarzenegger fight first. This one’s a tough call, because opinion is divided about Arnold. The purists mock him: “There are huge, muscle-bound guys all over Venice Beach who don’t know what to do when they get into fights. Arnold’s probably one of them,” says a judge. But other judges drool. “He has enough strength to cripple you. If Arnold goes in there and says, ‘I have to win for my box of cigars, and Maria and the kids and the $100 million for my next picture,’ then he could beat anyone,” says Blauer.
But Schwarzenegger won’t beat Lundgren. The Swede doesn’t have Arnold’s acting range–Dolph is strictly a vicious-murderers kind of guy–but he’s a better athlete. He is an expert in kickboxing and karate, and he’s huge–6 feet 6 inches, around 230 pounds. He would stay away from Schwarzenegger and fire long, cruel kicks at his jaw. If Arnold charged him, Dolph could feint and punch him away. Eventually, Arnold would tire, and Dolph would kick him into submission.
Seagal and Lee fight second. Seagal is an enigma. On the one hand, he’s got the credentials. He’s an aikido black belt who once ran a dojo in Japan (no mean feat for an Occidental). He’s also large, powerful, and notoriously belligerent. “He has the will to kill,” says Coleman. “That is not the kind of guy you want to be in a fight with.”
But doubt lingers. Seagal’s a braggart; most great fighters are quietly arrogant. He has the mannerisms of a bully, someone who abuses the weak and is cowed by the strong. “I don’t think he has the heart or stomach for a real fight–it might mess his hair up,” says Perret. Another handicap: Aikido is too stylized for a real showdown. Blauer says, “It’s a wonderful movie system, but you have to be fighting a very sloppy opponent to make it work.”
And Lee would not be a sloppy opponent. The Jesus Christ, Elvis, and Abraham Lincoln of martial arts, Lee would be a flea next to Seagal at 5 feet 7 inches and 130 lbs. But he was immensely strong. He trained more fanatically than anyone in the history of martial arts, mastering grappling, boxing, karate, kickboxing, footfighting, and other styles. Unlike the other actors, Lee loved to fight, instigating street fracases as a teen-ager in Hong Kong. And he was ruthless: He would as soon break an opponent’s arm as let him submit.
The Seagal/Lee fight would be quick and bloody. Lee would circle Seagal. Once he found an opening, he would aim lightning-fast kicks to Seagal’s groin or knees. One blow would land, laming Seagal. The finish would be nauseating: Lee might cripple Seagal by kicking him in the throat or gouging out an eye. Seagal’s only hope: his size. If he managed to grab Lee, he might be able to pin him, then punch him unconscious.
Lundgren vs. Lee
Probably much like the Seagal/Lee fight. Lee would dance and feint, tempting Lundgren into kicks. When Lundgren struck, Lee would duck the blow, counterattack with a fast low kick, and retreat. Lundgren’s chance? If he landed a kick or two, it might stun Lee momentarily. If Dolph were quick enough, he could then pull Bruce to the ground and pin him into submission. But that’s not likely. Probably Lee’s barrage of kicks would stagger and tire Lundgren. When Dolph weakened enough, Bruce would break his knee and win the tournament.
The Reality Check:
In closing, however, let me introduce you to David “Tank” Abbott. Tank is probably the most vicious professional fighter in America. He stands 6 feet tall, weighs 275 pounds, and bench-presses more than 600 pounds. In 10 Ultimate Fighting Championship bouts, he has sent six opponents to the hospital. I asked him how the best fighting actors would fare against him. He laughed awhile. Then he said: “OK. Seagal–I would knock Seagal out in 30 seconds. I would just jack him up–straight-arm street fighting. There was a big martial-arts guy I fought in the last UFC. He was like Seagal. He lasted about 20 or 30 seconds. People thought I killed him. That’s what would happen to Seagal.
“Lundgren–I would slam him to the mat and beat him up on the ground. Lundgren’s a big guy, right? But I don’t think he’s wrestled for 21 years or boxed for six or been in more than 250 street fights or been arrested 12 times for assault and battery and attempted murder. Which I have.
“And Lee. I could beat Bruce Lee drunk off a liter of Stoli. I could backhand him and knock him out. That’s just comical.”