Martial Art Pretenders: A History of Imitators and Snake Oil
The UFC’s creepy uncle, action star Steven Seagal reappeared last week when he taught contender Daniel Cormier some deadly tricks that were going to guarantee his victory over Light Heavyweight champion Jon Jones. He also showed up, wearing his best PJs and John Travolta toupee, as part of Cormier’s entourage at UFC 182 on Saturday night.
Seagal’s continued insistence on pretending that he’s a super serious and totally legit martial arts expert, especially when it’s almost painfully clear that no one takes him seriously, left us with many questions:
How does a human being manage to look so much like Frylock from Aqua Teen Hunger Force? What does Seagal get out of this bizarre pantomime? What do the fighters get out of it? And what inspires someone who, by all appearances, seems to genuinely care about martial arts wind up engaging in behavior that makes such a mockery of the discipline?
Martial arts are about honor, which makes lying about one's education, prowess, or accomplishments an unforgivable sin. Real martial artists detest this kind of behavior, and actively condemn it. So what motivates anyone to attempt it? Especially in our Google-able times?
With this in mind, we took a look back at some of the most famous embellishers, frauds, and nutjobs in martial arts history. It didn’t give us many answers, but it at least offered us plenty of stories of no-touch knockouts, mail order black belts, fake Russian boxing matches, and melting babies.
There’s really no easy way to sum up the polarizing exploits of Sin Kwang The’, a Shaolin Grandmaster (?) who has been teaching a highly contested martial art called Shaolin Do in Kentucky since the late-‘60s. He claims to have mastered over 900 forms from over 100 fighting systems and that his martial art has a direct lineage to the Fukien Temple. He has an estranged brother, Hiang The, who is also a Grandmaster and tells a very different story about their history. Some say that his master melted a baby during some sandburn training gone awry.
Sin The’ still has staunch defenders to this day, but the case against him is hard to ignore. According to these posts on Bullshido, The’ has fudged his credentials, his martial art’s lineage, and the number of forms he has mastered. And that melting baby story is just a rumor he heard that he started telling his students because, well, why wouldn’t you pass on shit about a melting baby when you’ve essentially invented a martial art out of various other arts’ techniques?
Arguably the second most notorious BJJ fraud of all time, David Lang has made the following claims over the years: he is a Brazilian American who moved to the U.S. at 19 as a BJJ brown belt, he served two tours in Afghanistan with the 101st Infantry Division, and he received his black belt under BJJ and vale tudo legend Wallid Ismail. Lang was first exposed in 2010 when a thread on Underground started to dig into his past and discovered that Lang had no connections to Brazil, had grown up as a homeschooled Christian in the U.S., and had never served in the military. Wallid Ismail had never even heard of him, and promptly issued a video statement on the issue.
Instead of defending himself, admitting guilt and/or disappearing, Lang doubled down and began a letter-writing campaign to clear his name that somehow resulted in him, among other things, becoming prison pen pals with BJJ black belt Hermes Franca, and swindling well-respected black belt Carlos David Oliveira. And he’s still at it.
American Ryuku kempo karate master George Dillman has been a successful figure in the American martial arts scene since the ‘60s. He’s taught Muhammad Ali (or at least shared some awkward photo ops with Ali) and joined Black Belt magazine’s Hall of Fame as Instructor of the Year in 1997.
His claim to fame, no touch knockouts, is essentially the homeopathy of the martial arts world, though. He can’t seem to provide any scientific proof that his methods work, but at least he entertains the rest of us while he tries to offer both proof and excuses.
His protege Harry Thomas Cameron a.k.a. The Human Stun Gun, has been continuing this proud tradition of embarrassing himself and his art on TV. Above is a video of him failing to do anything to Stephan Bonnar.
John Timothy Keehan was a well-to-do young man who boxed as a teen, learned jujitsu techniques in the army, and earned his black belt in karate as an adult. Apparently none of these real life accomplishments were enough for Keehan, though, so he changed his name to Dount Jerjer Raphael Dante, invented a noble lineage for his family, and made up his own martial arts system called Dan-te, and founded the Black Dragon Fighting Society. He advertised Dan-te (“... the DEADLIEST and most TERRIFYING fighting art known to man”) and himself (“THE DEADLIEST MAN WHO EVER LIVED”) in comic books. In reality, the deadliest thing he ever did was instigate a fight with a rival dojo that lead to the murder of one of his students.
Ashida Kim, ninja author and YouTube personality, has a completely untraceable history in martial arts. There is no record of where he trained, or who trained him. But he did tell The Believer that he first trained with Count Dante in 1968 and became involved with Dante’s Black Dragon Fighting Society, which potentially makes him a second generation martial arts fraud. Ashida Kim also offers mail order black belts.
Frank Dux rose to fame as the real-life inspiration (and choreographer) for the Jean-Claude Van Damme classic Bloodsport, but a Los Angeles Times story published in 1988 revealed that the film wasn’t exactly based on a true story. Dux never made it to Southeast Asia while in the military, and the closest that he came to being injured in the line of duty was falling off a truck that he happened to be painting at the time. The Ministry of Sports in the Bahamas, where the tournament immortalized in Bloodsport allegedly took place, has no record of any such competition. And at least one of his many martial arts trophies was purchased by him at a trophy shop in California. The owner of the store has the receipt to prove it, but Dux claims it’s a forgery.
How do you topped the much-loathed exploits of David Lang to become to the most loathed fraud in the history of BJJ and MMA? You throw a fight. And then you murder someone.
Rafiel Torre, a fighter-turned reporter, was a fairly beloved figure in the formative years of MMA and, at first, no one disputed his claims that he was a BJJ expert from Brazil. Things started to fall apart when he decided to “come out of retirement” for a fight at King of the Cage 7 on February 24, 2001. He won the fight with a poorly-executed kneebar and county fair pro-wrestling-level theatrics which immediately made his friends and supporters suspect that fight was a work. As it turns out, his background and accomplishments in the sport were as fictional as his fight. In a tragic bit of irony, the only legitimate combat move he ever executed was the rear naked choke that he used to murder his lover’s husband, Bryan Richards in December of 2001. Torre was convicted of first-degree murder in 2011 and is currently serving a life sentence with no chance of parole.
We’ve already covered The King’s bizarre karate issues in detail here at Fightland, but here’s the tl:dr version: Elvis discovered karate while he was in the army. After that, he embarked on a half-legit, half-questionable career in which he earned a contestable black belt, performed drug-fueled karate demonstrations during concerts, and split his pants while training.
His karate looked like this:
Actor Mickey Rourke caused a massive stir this past November when he “beat” 29 year-old Elliot Seymour (who had a 1-9 record) in an exhibition match in Russia because, well, the fight looked like this and Seymour subsequently admitted to taking a dive for some much-needed cash. But his storied past as an amateur boxer was under dispute long before that. Neither the Golden Gloves organization nor his stepfather think he fought much at all.
This case is particularly sad and perplexing, because, if you listen to Rourke’s appearance on Chael Sonen’s podcast, it’s clear that he genuinely loves the sport and cares about its history. So what in the hell is possessing him to make such a farce of it?
Before he became one of the biggest action stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Steven Seagal was an Aikido instructor – and the first American instructor– in Japan. That much is verifiable, but his own training is under a certain amount of debate.
His most questionable martial arts-related behavior, though, has been his association with various UFC fighters like Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida, and Daniel Cormier. (He’s also tried to pal around with Jon Jones and give him tips, but the champ turned him down. This has clearly become one of the UFC’s more amusing in-jokes, but it’s less clear who is in on it. Silva was, but then began to distance himself from Seagal when the muumuu-sporting action hero started taking way too much credit for teaching him the kick that knocked out Vitor Belfort and Cormier definitely had his tongue in his cheek when he learned from the master before his fight last weekend. But Seagal himself either believes that he really is teaching these UFC whippersnappers something new, or he believes that we all believe him. And both of those options are uncomfortably sad at this point.
He also denies that Judo Gene Lebell ever choked him out despite all evidence to the contrary.
Check out these related stories: