Top 10 Fighters Turned Action Stars

Written by Q.V. Hough From inside the fighting ring to on the movie set, these martial arts fighters went from being awesome fighters to legendary action heroes! WatchMojo.com presents the Top 10 sports fighters who turned their success into a career in the movies. But who will fight their way to the top spot? JCVD, the muscles form Brussels? Or maybe Chuck Norris, the the internet's favourite action star! Watch to find out! Watch on WatchMojo: WatchMojo.com Thanks to JustinGiglio for suggesting this idea, and to see how WatchMojo users voted, check out the suggest page here: http://WatchMojo.comsuggest/Top+10+Fighters+Turned+Action+Stars
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Real-life fights made them famous, but their talents translated perfectly to the big screen. Welcome to WatchMojo.com, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 fighters turned action stars.

For this list, we’re looking at successful fighters that managed to cross over into mainstream cinema. We’ll be excluding those who did martial arts before becoming famous, but who weren’t technically competitive fighters, so Jackie Chan and Jason Statham aren’t eligible. We’re also excluding professional wrestling stars like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, as their original careers were more about mass entertainment than traditional fighting.

#10: Michael Jai White

In 1995, this esteemed martial artist put on the gloves to portray a fellow Brooklynite in HBO’s “Tyson.” And while the role highlighted Michael Jai White’s athletic ability, the film was essentially an audition for more action-oriented flicks. As a master of the martial arts, and with eight black belts to his name, White utilized his skills for a ground breaking lead performance as the titular Spawn in 1997, which opened the doors for black actors in the superhero genre. Over the years, he’s built an impressive resume thanks to his multifaceted skills, with lead roles in “Blood and Bone” and “Black Dynamite”, not to mention a role in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” as well.

#9: Cung Le

You’ve seen him in the UFC, and you’ve seen him alongside Wu Tang’s RZA in 2012’s “The Man with the Iron Fists.” But it was in Strikeforce where the South Vietnamese Cung Le originally thrived, accumulating a 7-1 record between 2006 and 2009. And though Le has experienced plenty of drama inside the octagon, he’s come a long way in the entertainment industry since a 2001 appearance in “Walker, Texas Ranger.” In fact, 2009 marked perhaps his most prolific year on screen, with roles in “Tekken,” “Bodyguards and Assassins,” “Pandorum” and the appropriately titled “Fighting” opposite Channing Tatum. As a three-time world champion in kickboxing, Le has proven to be more than valuable to action directors.

#8: Donnie Yen

Known for his insane fitness regimen and jaw dropping action choreography, this Hong Kong native is a true icon of Asian cinema. North Americans probably know Donnie Yen as the titular character of the “Ip Man” franchise, and with good reason, considering the exceptional action sequences. But as far back as 1992, he starred alongside Jet Li in the film “Once Upon a Time in China II,” this coming nearly a decade after his film debut in “Drunken Tai Chi.” As an actor, Yen can handle his business, but it’s his wing chun routines and martial arts abilities that separate him from his peers.

#7: Gina Carano

During her mixed martial arts and kickboxing careers, Carano amassed a record of 19-2-1. Named “The Hottest Woman in America” in 2008, Gina starred alongside Michael Jai White in 2009’s “Blood and Bone”, and not just because of her looks. Of course, the performance didn’t go unnoticed by one of cinema’s most acclaimed directors, Steven Soderbergh, who cast the fighter in a leading role in “Haywire.” The action sequences, in which Gina performed her own stunts, proved to be phenomenal, leading her to the “Fast and the Furious” franchise and a role in “Deadpool.” Gina’s bound to be a unique and lasting force in Hollywood for years to come.

#6: Wesley Snipes

This esteemed actor may be a recognized Hollywood figure, but it was Karate and Hapkido that got him started. In fact, Wesley Snipes earned black belts for both martial arts in the early-‘70s, a full decade before he appeared in Michael Jackson’s music video for “Bad.” With his striking onscreen presence and phenomenal agility, it only made sense that Snipes became a legit action star in the early-‘90s. For his performance in “Demolition Man,” Snipes earned a Best Villain nomination at the MTV Movie Awards. And by the end of the decade, he choreographed and starred in the box office sensation “Blade.” In terms of Hollywood, Wesley Snipes first demonstrated his acting talent and later crossed over into action, making him a unique martial arts figure of his generation.

#5: Jet Li

This former Wushu champion has seen his martial arts skills translate beautifully to the silver screen over the years. After establishing himself as a bonafide action star in Chinese and Hong Kong movies through the ’80s and ‘90s, Jet Li would first arrive onto the Hollywood scene in Lethal Weapon 4. He’d then find himself top billing in movies like Romeo Must Die,Kiss of the Dragon, and Cradle 2 the Grave. Nowadays, he’s been known for starring among a host of other big-name action heroes as martial arts expert Yin Yang in the Expendables franchise.

#4: Randy Couture

Aside from being a UFC Hall of Famer, this veteran brawler is also one of the original “Expendables.” During the mid-2000s, Randy Couture wasn’t exactly landing the biggest roles, but he was in the midst of an epic run as UFC champ. And so, his absolute dominance in the octagon set in motion a noteworthy movie career. In 2008, Randy appeared in “The Scorpion 2: Rise of a Warrior,” which preceded an iconic run as Toll Road alongside other action icons in “The Expendables” franchise. Not a bad credit to have on the old action-star resume

#3: Chuck Norris

As seen in the 2015 documentary “Chuck Norris vs. Communism,” this man’s influence on the modern world is truly extraordinary. Chuck Norris even founded his own martial art called “Chun Kuk Do.” But the legend all started in the late-‘60s, as Black Belt Magazine named the former Air Force policeman “Fighter of the Year” in 1969. That same year, Chuck made his film debut in “The Wrecking Crew” and later appeared with the one and only Bruce Lee in 1972’s “Way of the Dragon.” Of course, it was his 80s filmography that influenced an entire generation of action fanatics and meme-makers.

#2: Jean-Claude Van Damme

The 80s were a magical time for action flicks, and this man elevated the genre through his blood, sweat and the fear he imposed on his enemies. As a teenager, Jean-Claude Van Damme actually studied karate AND ballet, which led to a successful martial arts career in his native Belgium. But Van Damme was not destined to dance; he was destined for 80s classics like “Bloodsport” and “Kickboxer.” The 90s only enhanced his persona as a legend within the genre. Most stars of his kind tend to easily fade away with age, yet JCVD keeps finding new ways to impress, all the while proving that he’s far from expendable given his prolific resume.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Quinton “Rampage” Jackson

Tommy Morrison

Ronda Rousey


#1: Bruce Lee

As the preeminent example of a fighter turned action star, this man’s untimely death produced a mythical persona. Born in the Chinatown section of San Francisco, Bruce Lee studied under the legendary Yip Man, learning the art of Wing Chun, which came in handy on the rough streets of late 50s Hong Kong. But as the son of a noted opera star, Lee was naturally drawn to performance art. By the early 70s, he not only starred in “Fist of Fury,” but also established an immediate legacy with his breathtaking turn in “Way of the Dragon.” Perhaps most notably, however, 1973’s “Enter the Dragon” is arguably the most influential martial arts film ever made, and with good reason. Bruce Lee is the go-to example for any fighter looking to become a legit action star.
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