Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is a term used to describe someone who is trained in all or many areas of combat. Someone proficient in MMA will be a well-rounded fighting machine, but since we’re talking about actors here, we’re going to use MMA as that all-encompassing term that considers all combat sports and martial arts styles. While many of the actors on this list study multiple styles of martial arts, some have become proficient in only one area, so we want to include them as well.
Because of the intense physical nature of martial arts and the growing popularity of MMA in recent history, many people around the world, including celebrities, have begun to pick it up as an intense physical workout. There are a number of additional benefits to picking up the discipline as well, including learning self-defence, providing a stress outlet and offers an environment for healthy competition. Since MMA has been picked up by many as substitute or a supplement for traditional exercise, there are countless actors and celebrities who do it “for fun.” What we mean by this is that, while they may have some training and experience in martial arts or MMA, they have no formal training and no recognition of competence, such as with belts or competition. We have none of that on this list. If we did, we could include Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale, Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Robert Downey Jr and MANY more. What we’ve focused on here is the well-known actors who have accomplished something of significance in a specific martial arts style, a black belt for example. Sadly, this omits our boxing friends, Mickey Rourke, Liam Neeson, Mark Wahlberg and more. But let’s not cry for who we’ve cut; let’s celebrate those actors who have demonstrated they can make more money than us and kick our asses. We have tried to rank them in order of rank, but it’s difficult with so many different styles.
We haven’t included them on this list, but both Paul Walker and Arnold Schwarzenegger hold “honorary” black belts in their disciplines. Walker was awarded his black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu at his funeral and Schwarzenegger was given a black belt in Taekwondo because he’s the Arnold. While both men had significant training, neither of them technically earned these belts. Here are 15 well-known actors who are surprisingly trained in Mixed Martial Arts.
15. Sarah Michelle Geller – Black Belt – Taekwondo
When Sarah Michelle Gellar was hired on to play Buffy Summers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she started training in Taekwondo to help her perform the basic stunts. Obviously, there were stunt doubles for the more complex stuff, but Gellar still gave it a go. She would end up training for about seven years and would earn her black belt. She also is trained in kickboxing and some basic street fighting, which is pretty gangsta. These days, she practices these styles just to keep in shape, but there was a time when she was much more serious about it, proving she is more than just a pretty vampire slayer.
14. Naomi Watts – Judo/Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
We will put Naomi Watts near the top because she is the only member on this list who doesn’t have a black belt. She makes the cut because, while she may not have a black belt in either Judo or Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, she has been training in both of these styles for many years. Though today, she mainly uses the training to stay in shape, she was very competitive in the sport when she was younger. From 1989 to 1992, when Watts was in her early 20s, she competed in the amateur Judo championships. So yeah, she’s the only one on the list to not have a belt, but she deserves to be on here because of her dedication to the sport and the competitions she’s been a part of. Plus, she’s a hell of an actress and that’s gotta count for something.
13. Eric Roberts – Black Belt – Taekwondo
To prepare for his role in the movie, Best of the Best, Eric Roberts began studying Taekwondo under Master John Chang in Beverly Hills. Not a whole lot is known about where he stands today, but he does still train and he did earn a first degree black in Taekwondo at some point. This has served Roberts well over the years as he has performed in countless action flicks, often as the bad guy. In Best of the Best, Roberts looks pretty comfortable with the style of fighting, so it seems like his training paid off. Perhaps when you saw Roberts in The Expendables, you questioned his right to be there with all the other action stars, but take a second and run through his resume and then add in the fact that he is actually a trained martial artist and you’ll see why.
12. Evan Rachel Wood – Black Belt – Taekwondo
Evan Rachel Wood has been acting since she was very young, but that doesn’t mean she never had time to do some extracurricular work. She says that because she was never very good at ballet, she took Taekwondo classes instead and fell in love with it. Over the next four years of study, Wood would gain enough experience to be recognized with a black belt. While she no longer studies or trains in martial arts, she claims that she has some fun with it every now and again. “My best friend, who’s also my assistant, I’ve known her since fifth grade and we met in Taekwondo class,” she says. “Every now and then I’ll look at her and we’ll bust out some forms.”
11. Ryan Phillippe – Taekwondo
When Ryan Phillippe was just eight years old, he started training in the art of Taekwondo and it became a large part of his life. Earning a black belt years later, Taekwondo would remain with Phillippe for the rest of his life and it’s something he would never go back and change, even if he could. “I still train and try to keep up my flexibility… I lived in a bit of a rough area growing up and my parents put me in it. It was my first passion in life. I still want to find a film where I can use it before I get too old.” Throughout the years, Phillippe has competed in tournaments and has even helped teach kids martial arts.
10. Forest Whitaker – Black Belt – Kenpo Karate
On top of being a phenomenal actor and an all-around nice guy, Forest Whitaker is also a black belt in Kenpo Karate. On top of that, he’s also studied in-depth the art of kali stick fighting. Though Whitaker isn’t known for his action movies, we have seen him put some of these skills to use throughout the years, like Repo Man for example. For his training in kali stick fighting, Whitaker trains under Dan Inosanto, who was a student of the legendary Bruce Lee, so maybe some of Lee’s moves have rubbed off on Inosanto and then Whitaker.
9. Sean Connery – Black Belt – Kyokushin Karate
Many years ago, Sean Connery was in countless action films, so to be capable of walking the walk, Connery took on martial arts. He studied under Mas Oyama, the legendary founder of Kyokushin Karate, and earned his black belt. In the Bond film You Only Live Twice, starring Connery, Kyokushin Karate is the style of martial arts being demonstrated. It’s also probably the reason why Connery started training in the style in the first place. There’s a story that Connery, being an overzealous student, actually broke his instructor’s wrist (this story is sometimes switched to say it was Steven Seagal who broke Connery’s wrist). No one knows if this is true or one of those Chuck Norris-type stories. We like to imagine that it’s true.
8. Taylor Lautner – Black Belt – Karate
Love him or hate him, Taylor Lautner is the real deal when it comes to Karate. The guy earned his black belt at the age of eight and went on to win a few National Championships. By 11 years old, Lautner was ranked number one in the world in open forms, traditional weapons and traditional forms. The following year, when he was 12-years old, Lautner would win the World Championships. Lautner was able to blend the competitive fighting side of karate with its aesthetic, showmanship side, showing that he was well versed in all areas of the sport.
7. Ed O’Neill – Black Belt – Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
In 1991, Ed O’Neill started studying the art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under the coaching of Rorion Gracie. For those who don’t know, Gracie is a prominent member in the famous Gracie family and holds a 9th degree black belt in the style. In 2007, after 16 years of training, O’Neill earned his black belt. When he’s not shooting episodes of Modern Family, O’Neill still trains in the art, a journey that is in its 25th year now. O’Neill has said that earning his black belt was one of the greatest achievements in his life. He also made a little noise last year when he challenged CM Punk to a fight in the ring. Considering that O’Neill trains with Punk and outranks him in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, there may have been a good reason why he was confident enough to issue a challenge.
6. Guy Ritchie – Black Belt – Judo & Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Guy Ritchie is a director. We know this. But he’s a famous director and he has acted, so to speak, so we included him on the list. Back in the early 2000s, Ritchie and Jason Statham started training together to get in shape. Statham wanted to carve out an action career and Ritchie wanted to be able to fight, so they helped each other. Last year, Ritchie was awarded his black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by his trainer Renzo Gracie, making it his second black belt (he earned his Judo black belt some time earlier). When asked who would win in a fight between the two friends, Statham had this to say: “He has better chances to achieve good results. We started training Jiu-Jitsu many years ago. We first started out in a garage, where we parked our cars, then later we moved over to a gym. This was 10 years, no maybe 12 years ago. He works hard, he’s a good fighter.” Sounds like Statham thinks he could beat Ritchie.
5. Sean Patrick Flanery – Black Belt – Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu & Taekwondo
You probably know Sean Patrick Flanery best for his role in Boondocks Saints or maybe from Dexter, but this guy has put in a lot of good work in his time acting. What most people don’t know though, is that he’s also highly trained in MMA. He has two black belts, one in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and the other in Taekwondo. He’s been training for most of his life, starting at the age of nine and has stuck with it through the years. Today, he actually owns two martial arts studios in Los Angeles and helps teach kids whenever he gets the chance.
4. Dolph Lundgren – 3rd Degree Black Belt – Kyokushin Karate
Just by looking at Dolph Lundgren you can tell he’s the real deal, but maybe you never realized how real of a deal he actually is. This guy holds a 3rd Degree Black Belt in Kyokushin Karate and was the captain of the Swedish National Karate Team. He was also the champion of the Swedish, Australian and European Heavyweight divisions. He was asked to be the team leader for the U.S. Pentathlon Team during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as well, to top it all off. Still to this day, Lundgren puts on Karate exhibitions at international tournaments and he looks like a mean mofo when he does it. As you can tell, he’s much more than a body made of pure muscle.
3. Wesley Snipes – 5th Degree & 2nd Degree Black Belt – Shotokan Karate & Kapkido
Perhaps it’s not all that surprising that Wesley Snipes is proficient in mixed martial arts. Just look at the guy. He may not be the superstar he once was, but Snipes is still an action film legend. As you may have expected, Snipes is well-trained in MMA (remember that talk about him fighting Joe Rogan in the octagon?). Since the age of 12, Snipes has studied Shotokan Karate and Kapkido. He’s a 5th degree black belt in Shotokan Karate and a 2nd degree black belt in Kapkido. He’s also studied Capoeira and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, so he’s about as well-rounded in MMA as they come, at least for an actor.
2. John Cusack – 6th degree black belt – Ukidokan Kickboxing
You might look at John Cusack and think you could take him, but the reality is, he would rip you to shreds. For over 23 years, Cusack has trained in Ukidokan kickboxing under the coaching of legendary full-contact karate pioneer, Benny “the Jet” Urquidez. If you’ve ever seen Grosse Pointe Blank, you might have recognized two things relevant to this discussion. One, Benny Urquidez is the guy who gets stabbed to death with a pen, and two, Cusack looks pretty comfortable kicking butt. If you spend 23 years dedicated to martial arts, you can earn some nice recognition and Cusack has certainly done that. He’s a 6th degree black belt in Ukidokan Kickboxing. As his teacher explains, “He’s got the kind of control that I can put a cigarette in my mouth and he can kick it right out without hitting me.”
1. James Caan – 6th Degree Black Belt – Gosoku Ryu Karate
Most people don’t need a reminder that James Caan is a bad, bad man, but this guy doesn’t just look mean, he is mean. He’s considered a master in the art of Gosoku Ryu Karate. He’s been training for over 30 years now and has reached the level of 6th degree black belt. Caan has trained directly under Takayuki Kubota, who is a legend in the Karate world. Kubota is the founder of the International Karate Association and he holds black belts in more than five disciplines. James Caan himself trains students, including the Culver City Police Department. Caan was also given the title of Soke Dai by the International Karate Association, which basically means second in command. He might not be able to beat everyone on this list in a fight (it’s tough to imagine anyone beating Lundgren), but he probably has the most training.