×
Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

Martial arts actors who don't even have a black belt

Martial arts movies are a mainstay of motion picture industries across the world. From cheesy beat-em-ups to complicated philosophical stories, these films maintain a following in all hemispheres, largely thanks to charismatic stars and their super cool karate chops. But even though they look pretty awesome throwing those high kicks and delivering flurries of well-placed punches, not all martial arts actors are actually martial arts experts. Or at the very least, many of these cinematic badasses don't have black belts.

Of course, we're not implying there's any shame in not having a black belt. Actors, after all, act. It's about perception, not reality. Also, even people with lower belts are still way more skilled than most of the population. Still, when you see a star up on the big screen, taking on a legion of bad guys with just bare knuckles and furious fists, you naturally expect for them to have a black belt lying around back home. But when it comes to formal martial arts training, the actors on this list might know how to throw a roundhouse kick, but they certainly don't have a black belt.

A few housekeeping notes on the belt system

"Martial arts" is plural for a reason. There are hundreds of different schools of fighting across the globe, all of which have spent years influencing each other. As much as movies like to simplify things to either "karate" or "kung fu," those are only two of the most popular styles, but they're not necessarily the most practiced by martial arts actors. In fact, many of these disciplines don't follow a belt system, and as you'll see on this list, many revered actors have no belts because none were offered.

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 instead of beating 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 via combat.

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.

Bruce Lee never needed a black belt

Bruce Lee's legacy speaks for itself. He's the name most associated with martial arts movies, and in some ways, martial arts in general. He almost single-handedly started the martial arts revolution in the West. His movies — including Way of the Dragon, Enter The Dragon, and Game of Death — are bedrocks of the martial arts movie genre. 

He also never had 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, but it was also a martial art that offered no belt system. When he 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 it as a hybrid style instead of an organized institution, and it's a philosophy that shines throughout all of Lee's movies.

David Carradine was the star of Kung Fu, but he didn't know any

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. It was the first exposure many people in America had to kung fu or any other kind of martial arts, and in many ways, Carradine was the face of martial arts in America alongside Bruce Lee. But during the height of the show's popularity, Carradine not only lacked a black belt, he lacked any kind of formal martial arts training.

Carradine originally relied on his experience in dance, gymnastics, and fencing through the early parts of the show's run. He later developed a deeper interest in kung fu, and while never a master, he saw himself as something of an ambassador for the style. He later learned enough martial arts to make instructional videos on tai chi.

As for his skill as a fighter, though? Chuck Norris, who faced him in Lone Wolf McQuaid, quipped, "David Carradine is about as good a martial artist as I am an actor."

Gina Carano, MMA legend, avoided belts until recently

Gina Carano was the most recognizable name in women's MMA for years, and she's since gone on to a solid acting career. In addition to a series of direct-to-video martial arts movies for the diehards, she's appeared Fast & Furious 6 as DSS Agent Riley Hicks and more prominently in Deadpool as Angel Dust. She's also starring in The Mandalorian as Cara Dune. Despite all these accomplishments, she doesn't have a black belt ... at least, not yet.

Carano got her start in Muay Thai, which doesn't have traditional belt rankings. She compiled a 12-1-1 record before getting involved in MMA, where she found great success. She was often labeled "the face of women's MMA," although she disputed that. She compiled a 7-1 MMA record, with her final match being a loss against Cris Cyborg in the first ever women's match to headline a major MMA event. She went into acting and television work not long after.

She never left martial arts behind, though. In 2014, she started practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, working her way up from white belt.

Jet Li is a martial arts actor who's beyond belts

Jet Li is one of the most recognizable martial arts stars of the past few decades. Seeing his name on a poster lets fans know they're in for an action-packed but thoughtful martial arts flick. American fans know him from movies such as Hero, Fearless, Unleashed, and more commercial fair such as The Expendables and Lethal Weapon 4. All of this is backed up with genuine skill. He's a champion in at least one field of martial arts. That said, he's never acquired a black belt due to his martial art of choice.

Li studied Wushu from a young age, a martial art with no belt ranking system. He was a martial arts prodigy, competing against adults before he was even a teenager and winning many 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 with, "I don't want to protect any individual. When I grow up, I want to defend my one billion Chinese countrymen!" He retired at age 19 to pursue a career in film, doing just that.

Michelle Yeoh never went through the belt system

Michelle Yeoh is one of the most recognizable martial arts actresses of her era. Most famous to Western audiences for her turn as Wai Lin in Tomorrow Never Dies and Yu Shu Lien in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, she also has a long history of starring in major Hong Kong action flicks only recognized by dedicated fans. She performs many of her own stunts ... and she also has no formal martial arts training and has never earned any kind of belt. 

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. The victory got her an offer to star in a commercial with Jackie Chan, and this snowballed into her acting career in Hong Kong and, eventually, Hollywood.

As for martial arts, however? "I don't profess to be, I can't profess to be, a martial artist because I've never been formally trained," she once said. "I've never gone through the belts system because I never had the time in that way." And honestly, taking her own path to martial arts fame seems to have worked out pretty well for Yeoh.

Cheng Pei-pei is no fighter, but she was a dancer

Cheng Pei-pei is often considered the first female martial arts star. She's had a long career, ranging from being one of the biggest stars of the Hong Kong martial arts genre to an elder stateswoman today. Her role in Come Drink With Me is considered one of the foundational parts of the kung fu movie genre. Western audiences might recognize her from her turn as Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She accomplished all of this without a black belt ... or much martial arts training at all.

Pei-pei started her career as a dancer. She came to the attention of wuxia film director King Hu, who was convinced that her skills in dance could translate to combat. She had doubts, but she accepted the challenge head on. "I wanted to beat all the boys," she said. "If boys could do it, I could, too." Her willingness to get physical, take a punch, and do her own stunts got her far. Now she proudly has fans of all generations, all without going through the traditional belt system.

Paul Walker only got his black belt posthumously

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is one of the most popular forms of martial arts for actors. Jason Statham said that he practices BJJ because there's little-to-no facial contact, so he won't be visibly bruised when on camera. Another 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 made sure his movies included action scenes that highlighted his skills instead of simple punches and kicks. Techniques from his training sessions were included throughout the Fast and Furious franchise. He saw it as a lifestyle, and he wanted to be an ambassador for it.

He trained for almost ten years under Ricardo Miller at Paragon Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Los Angeles, and he wanted more than anything to be a black belt. He knew he'd have to earn it and said, "I will get my black belt, even if I need to get it in my coffin." He fell shy of his goal before his fatal crash. Miller posthumously awarded Walker a black belt at his memorial service. 

Eve Torres has a BJJ purple belt

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 and facing off against Jackie Chan as Dasha in Skiptrace. She also appeared in an episode of Supergirl as the villainous Maxima. And she's accomplished all of this without a black belt.

Torres comes from a dance background. She was co-captain of the Fly Girls, USC's hip hop dance crew, and she also danced for the NBA Summer League. She won the aforementioned 2007 WWE Diva Search, and she worked full-time as a wrestler for six years. During her time as a wrestler, she 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. She now teaches the Gracie Women Empowerment self-defense program.

Nathan Jones is more strongman than fighter

Another wrestler who went into acting, Nathan Jones is best known for a lackluster run in WWE before turning his attention to cinema. His most prominent role was Rictus Erectus in Mad Max: Fury Road, but he also starred as Enkidu in The Scorpion King: Book of Souls, and he's had minor acting appearances dating back to Police Story 4: First Strike in 1996. He did all this without martial arts training, much less a black belt. Instead, he's relied on his background in strongman competitions.

Jones served time in prison in his native Australia for armed robbery when he was 18. It was during this time that he was introduced to powerlifting. After his release, he became a fixture in the strongman competition circuit, and he also fought in one MMA match during the first Pride FC event in a losing effort. 

He jumped to pro wrestling in 2001 and debuted on-screen for WWE in early 2003. He's best remembered for his brief partnership with the Undertaker, who took the Australian in as his protégé. He was set to team with Taker at Wrestlemania 19, but he was written out of the match last minute. He left the company at the end of the year, and he was later named by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter as both the Worst and Most Embarrassing Wrestler of 2003. It's easy to see why acting was a better fit.

Keanu Reeves doesn't know kung fu, but he does know BJJ

Even before the Keanussance brought upon by John Wick, Keanu Reeves had a long career as an action star. Simply saying "I know kung fu" in The Matrix spawned years worth of memes and jokes. His turns in Speed and Point Break years earlier demonstrated his big screen combat skills, and his recent movies have shown way more legitimate martial arts skills. But despite battling Agent Smith and facing down the Russian mob, Reeves has never 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, Reeves had to learn judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Many of the action sequences in the movies feature throws and armlocks common to BJJ. Since he started from the bottom, he earned a white belt and has only been working his way up. As such, he has no black belt — at least not yet. But when he finally does, those movie bad guys are in really big trouble.

Robin Shou is a martial arts actor who doesn't need a black belt

Robin Shou was one of the more visible 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. Plus, he appeared in all three of Paul W. S. Anderson's Death Race movies. Shou has since carved out a niche playing video game characters, appearing as Gen in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li and a pirate in DOA: Dead Or Alive. And, of course, he's done all of this without a black belt tied around his waist.

Shou studied karate in college but disliked it, so he left the martial arts world behind to become a civil engineer. But one day, while on vacation in Hong Kong, he was recruited to be in a martial arts movie because of his shoe size (which is evidently really big). He performed stunts so well that it snowballed into a movie career. He later studied Wushu, a martial art with no belt ranking, in China, and he used that as the basis for all of his fighting scenes.