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In 1988, the classic Jean-Claude Van Damme film Bloodsport was released. All hardcore martial arts fans immediately lose any and all credibility if they do not adore this movie. It is the definition of a cult classic, a giant in the martial arts film genre. The film purports to tell the true story of a man named Frank Dux, who competed in and won a secret martial arts tournament known as the Kumite. Decades after the dust has settled, after the controversy surrounding this figure and his story is old-hat, producer/director Jesse Barrett-Mills offers the enigmatic martial artist the chance to weigh-in himself and speak his piece in the new documentary Put Up Your Dux.
Now, with propaganda pieces such as this, it is imperative that one maintain a certain degree of objectivity. Documentaries like Put Up Your Dux attempt to play on your emotions, get you to ignore your gut feelings of idiocy and ridiculousness. And credit to Mr. Barrett-Mills, he is a very skilled documentarian, and in Frank Dux, he found a hell of a subject. While a preface like that may make it seem like I’m gearing up for a large-scale assault on the film and its subject, I’m actually not. I have a lot of respect for Frank Dux as a martial artist and as a teacher, and I believe his claims regarding his martial arts history are true to a large degree. I can’t say the same thing about his silly CIA stories, which make his life sound hilariously identical to the plot of Enter the Dragon, the granddaddy of all modern martial arts films and the film to which Bloodsport owes its existence.
For those who don’t know, the controversy that resulted subsequent to the release of Bloodsport stems in large part from the skepticism surrounding the Kumite itself, the secret martial arts tournament depicted in the film and in which Dux claims to have competed and of which he claims to have become champion. In addition to questions of whether Dux’s martial arts background is true or false, his military history has also come under scrutiny, and a significant portion of Put Up Your Dux is dedicated to this aspect of the Frank Dux saga.
Even though I believe a lot of his claims are completely made up, my purpose here is not to tell you what you should think. That’s what the film is for. Watch the film, read up on the history, and come to your own conclusions. What concerns me is not whether Dux’s claims about the Kumite are real or not, or even if his military history is accurate or not. Rather, what concerns me is what the film has to say about the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and the premiere MMA organization, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
At several points in the film, Dux is referred to as some sort of founding father of MMA and people being interviewed imply that his “real-life” story is the basis of the UFC and, by extension, MMA, and that is not a matter of speculation, it is not something we can all decide for ourselves and then retire to our separate corners. This, I assure you, is 100% untrue. As documented in innumerable books and documentaries, chief among them the excellent chronicle of the early days of MMA competition No Holds Barred: Ultimate Fighting and the Martial Arts Revolution, the UFC was the creation of the Gracie family, a martial arts family from Brazil who competed in events in their home country that were known as Vale Tudo, the Portuguese term for no-holds-barred competition. Vale Tudo events go back to before Dux was born, and the patriarch of the Gracie family, Hélio Gracie, competed in Vale Tudo matches starting in the 1930s. Arguably the most famous Vale Tudo match took place in 1951 (Dux had still yet to be born) in a stadium in front of 20,000 people, including the President of Brazil, wherein Hélio competed against and ultimately lost to renowned Judoka Masahiko Kimura.
Bringing up the Vale Tudo heritage not only brings to light the proper UFC lineage; it also allows for a different perspective on Dux’s claims regarding the Kumite. While it is difficult, if not impossible, to verify his claims, this is the case for a lot of martial artists without a documented record. The Gracie family was a pioneering family in many ways, and a great example is the way they were always documenting their fights. The famed “Gracie Challenge,” which goes back to Carlson Gracie’s open challenge to other martial artists in the 1920s, created a notoriety that allowed for a lot of witnesses as well as video footage once technology evolved. Not everybody had the same presence of mind, however; Bruce Lee is rumored to have had innumerable challenge matches during his lifetime, but without video of these fights, it is up to each individual to believe whatever they want to believe, and the strength of Put Up Your Dux as a documentary is in its ability to really make you want to believe Frank Dux.
Thankfully, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what is and is not true. The important facts of the case are all that matter, and they are as follows: First, Frank Dux is a skilled martial artist and a dedicated teacher; second, he is responsible, whether due to facts or ingenious storytelling, for the creation of Bloodsport, one of the quintessential martial arts films in the genre’s history and a defining cult classic of modern cinema; and lastly, he is the subject of an intriguing and entertaining documentary that everyone should check out called Put Up Your Dux.
Kyle Barrowman is the Senior Editor of Film Monthly. He is studying film theory and criticism in Chicago.
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