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Ron Van Clief New York-based writer Nigel Clarke continues his series on the martial arts film scene in New York City during the 1970s and early ’80s by interviewing Ron Van Clief, a veteran of over 200 feature films including starring roles in BLACK DRAGON and BLACK DRAGON’S LAST REVENGE. Van Clief talks about his film career, as well as battling racial discrimination and the trauma of war, hanging with rock legend Jimi Hendrix and being christened the “Black Dragon” by none other than Bruce Lee.

In the wake of The History Channel’s recent release of the documentary, HOW BRUCE LEE CHANGED THE WORLD, I was compelled to seek out those who knew the man intimately, someone who Bruce had actually talked to, someone whose life was changed after meeting him.

“You are the Black Dragon.” Those were the words imprinted on Ron Van Clief’s soul after meeting Bruce Lee years ago. Those words changed Ron Van Clief. Many martial arts film aficionados have heard of Ron Van Clief and may remember him as the star of BLACK DRAGON and BLACK DRAGON’S LAST REVENGE.

Ron Van Clief, the five-time world karate champion and 15-time all-American champion, is a native of New York City, born and raised in Brooklyn. Ron and I discussed his early training, and mentioned many martial arts “heavyweights” as early instructors. “My first sport was bodybuilding. Most of my teenage years were consumed with becoming a gymnast and martial artist. I started my martial arts training in the 1950s with Moses Powell, Tom Lapuppet, George Cofield, and in 1959 with Peter Urban in the USA Goju [Karate] system.”

As I learned more about Ron, I tried to picture him on the streets of New York City during the late 1950s and early ’60s. I know he had participated and been successful in plenty of sanctioned events, but he also spoke on some closed-door type events saying, “The illegal tournaments that I attended were in New York City’s Chinatown. It was exciting! The tournaments were in dirty, stinky basements. Fighters who were hurt, laid on the dirty floor as the crowd screamed. I wasn’t afraid, just excited.”

Ron Van Clief (left) and Conan Lee.

Ron’s training in the martial arts did not make him exempt from the blatant discrimination that was prevalent in this country during that time. Ron shared an experience he had while he served as an enlisted Marine (1960-65). “Racism was alive and well in the south in the 1960s… An elderly black lady was harassed by a white bus driver. I stood up for her. I was taken off the bus and put in a holding cell in Jacksonville, North Carolina. When I was released, I was attacked and beaten. I suffered a broken jaw, three knocked out front teeth, a broken arm, numerous cuts and contusions. I was hospitalized for four months. When I tried to report the incident, I was shipped off to Asia. I was sent to Vietnam and told, ‘If we don’t finish you, maybe the gooks will!’ I survived Vietnam.”

Ron had been “through the fire, to the limit” so to speak, and he “turned tragedy to triumph,” as he recalled. “I studied Okinawa-Te in Okinawa, with Grandmaster Shimabuku. I attained first-degree black belt while a marine at Camp Sukiran. I studied some Shoryn-Ryu, Isshinryu and also Kobudu weaponry. I competed in Okinawa’s Karate tournament in 1961. I fell in love with the martial arts.”

Although Ron managed to physically overcome his oppressors, the experiences in Vietnam have left psychological scars that may never heal. “After leaving Vietnam I was depressed. PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) affected my life. My PSTD has never gone away. I’ve been in therapy for over 35 years, learning how to cope. [I] learned to kill and had to learn how to live.”

Ron was honorably discharged in 1965. He came home to a new world filled with new thinking and attitudes. He recalls, “Coming back to the world was a great cultural shock. I became a hippie and beatnik. I hung out with Jimi Hendrix.”

Ron’s experiences with Jimi Hendrix had started years earlier while they were both enlisted. “He was a paratrooper and I went to jump school at Ft. Benning, Georgia. We smoked a lot of weed together… those were the days. He told me he wished he could do the martial arts like me. I wanted to play the guitar like him. Jimi and I had common interest like music and the martial arts. He had some Shotokan training and we played around with jiujitsu. I did security for him and the Band of Gypsys – real good friend and martial arts aficionado. He was a genius. Too bad drugs took over his life. He will always be remembered as a legend in rock and roll.”

Ron’s dedication to the martial arts would eventually open doors and allow him to enter the martial arts film world. “I started my film career as an extra and stuntman in 1968. One of my students was Harry Madsen, the president of the East Coast Stuntmen’s association. I worked in many films as a background, extra and set security. I got my SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild) card in 1973 and retired in 2002 after working on over 200 films. I worked on an additional 50 films in Hong Kong, Philippines, Thailand, Taiwan, and Korea.”

Ron Van Clief (right)

Considering Ron’s extensive experience in film, I asked him what elements created a successful martial arts movie. He said, “The keys to success… good script, good action director, good stunt personnel, good director, and good martial arts coordinator. A good camera man aware of fighting sequences is very helpful in getting the right material on the screen. Lastly, a good editor who can make the right cuts and transitions.”

Through a previous interview I learned that Ron was a fan of many martial arts movies. He listed all of the Shaw Brothers classics with FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH among his favorites. Seeing how he was fan of some of the movies, I wondered if he ever imitated any of the actors. “I imitated Carter Wong and Alexander Fu Sheng,” he admitted. Both actors had successful careers in Hong Kong martial arts cinema and were good friends with Ron.

“My good friend was Alex Fu Sheng….Wang Yu (ONE-ARMED SWORDSMAN) was also a friend of mine in Hong Kong. Bruce [Lee] and Carter Wong turned me on to the martial arts scene in Hong Kong. It gave me a new life.”

I asked Ron if he remembered the first time he met Bruce Lee. “I met Bruce in 1966 at the All-American Championships at Madison Square Garden,” recalled Ron. “Although I didn’t win the title, Bruce Lee told me that I was the ‘Black Dragon.’ It was something that I never forgot.”

Less than a decade later, Ron would star in BLACK DRAGON.

Although he worked on over 200 films, he counts BLACK DRAGON’S REVENGE and THE LAST DRAGON as two of his most memorable movie experiences. Taimak, star of THE Last dragon, studied with Ron Van Clief from 1981 until 2002. Although Taimak was the lead, many of Ron’s other students also appeared in the movie.

“My best film experience besides the BLACK DRAGON’S REVENGE was working as a fight coordinator on Berry Gordy’s THE LAST DRAGON,” remembers Ron. “I started working in 1984. I brought Taimak and about 30 of my students to the production. I was the senior fight coordinator and stunt coordinator. We worked on the film for one year. Eight of my students auditioned for the Bruce Leroy part. Several of my students played Shogun’s goons”

“What made THE LAST DRAGON so special is that it was shot in New York City and it starred an African American. No drugs, no prostitution. Just a clean Disney-like story. I consider it a martial arts fantasy. They used my Chinese Goju virtues in the film. It was excellent that over 30 of my students worked on the film. Taimak was selected from over 100 wannabes.”

Considering how Bruce Lee had changed his life, I went back to the topic to ask him how he learned of Bruce’s death and how he felt upon learning the news. “I was in Hong Kong when I heard about his death. My good friend Carter Wong told me. I was shocked. I had just seen him a few days earlier on the set. He was a legend in his own time. Bruce was a brilliant strategist and philosophically ahead of his time.”

Ron has left the turbulent streets of New York behind him. He is living in the Virgin Islands, raising and training his son. He is currently a tactics instructor for the Virgin Islands Police Department. He has also recently completed a pilot for Discovery Channel/PBS entitled “The Black Kung Fu Experience.”

Ron Van Clief (left)

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  • John

    Wow, martial arts legend, told by Bruce Lee that he is the black dragon, worked on over 200 films and now lives in the gorgeous Virgin Islands. What an awesome life.

  • Nigel Clarke

    Yeah… I’d settle for living in the Virgin Islands.

  • jiujitsu77

    the black kung fu experience?

    well i know what im looking to watch in the oncoming months

    hell anything with ron van clief is good

    even antonio margarhiti’s “the squeze” with lionel stander and my man LVC!!

  • http://ShorinKaiInternational Charles Bonet, Sensei

    Ush! It gave me great pleasure to read about my good friend Ron VanClief. The article is very impressive and well written.If you meet him up close, you ‘ll see a very gentle, possitive, and dedicated man. He’s not afraid to take chances, and when he does; he succeeds. I’m very proud of being his friend and co-star, he taught me a great deal, during of the films we made together. Journey well my brother…Charles Bonet,Hanshi

  • Cesar

    It’s so great to see GM Ron Van Clief recognized! I recall his popularity in the NYC martial arts circle and his work on films in the 70′s, 80′s, 90′s through this day. My instructors, past and present, have great respect for him (GM Bahiy Muhammad, Prof Pierre, etc.). He’s one amazing human being who continues to stay active in martial arts teaching and inspiring many. All the best and much respect!

  • BTR

    Awesome!

  • http://www.okinawahdr.com okinawa

    That movie is a classic! (Black Dragon)

  • jiujitsu77

    hey nigel, was Ron part of the BKF? has he mentioned anything about it? did he retire the patch and so on? i always found the BKF as a great source of martial arts history/exciting stories. forgive my ignorance as to his background. he has always been one of those guys ive highly respected and tried to find everything he has done (hell i even bought colorz of rage for my video store…and i cant stand when people misspell titles on purpose!!). every interview or commentary ive listened to/read gave me the impression he was quite personable.

    back in the day i almost jumped out of my seat watching UFC 4. when he came on to fight Royce, my JJ instructor kept telling me to shut the hell up and root for the home team.

    and to mr. bonet. man you should have made more movies. much respect

    keep it up nigel

  • http://www.pricebonus.com/ PB

    Wow, martial arts legend, told by Bruce Lee that he is the black dragon, worked on over 200 films and now lives in the gorgeous Virgin Islands. What an awesome life.

  • http://www.myspace.com/courtneyfaison Courtney Faison

    Chien Shidoshi!
    As a student of GM Van Cleif I am honored and proud! It is good to see some of his story in print and know that others may be exposed to the legendary man that is Grand Master Ron Van Clief. I have had the good fortune to know him and hear a great many of the amazing stories of his life and times as a world renown martial artist of the highest caliber in a time where his skin color meant more than his belt rank. If you get a chance, check out his book “Black Heroes of the Martial Arts.”

  • Geno

    Shidoshi,

    The man, the myth, the legend…You have had a blessed journey through hard work determination and sacrifice. Overcoming racial discrimination and war you are truly a man with an indomitable spirit… Two years ago I prayed for a instructor, who besides being a good technician, also had good values, moral fiber, integrity and spirit…I am honored to be your student and friend!!

  • http://www.metrocardfame.com Nigel Clarke

    jiujitsu77,

    BKF?

    At age 51 verses Gracie… it is impressive. I would have like to have seen him 20 years younger, in the UFC fight.

  • http://www.shiaimagazine.net Aurelien Henry OBAMA

    Great Article, great interview.
    He’s a true legend

  • Darrin Kemp

    I know Master Van Clief worked on Blazin’. I’d be really interested in his evaluations of other brothers making martial arts movies presently:Billy Blanks,Ron Hall,Bobby Samuels,Chuck Jefferys,and of course Micheal Jai White.Good article by the way. Peace. :)

  • http://www.intelsecconsultants.com Claude Myles, Sensei -

    Grand master, Ron VanClief,
    My teacher, my mentor, my adopted father, my friend, to our many years training, working, hanging, and growing together
    - Shidoshi Ron Van Clief, a legend indeed…. Claude Myles, Cayman Islands

  • http://watchkungfu.com Kung Fu Movies Rock!

    Great article. Thank you thank you thank you! Grand Master Ron Van Clief is a legend and one of the all time great martial arts stars. Nice to hear he’s still kicking around and I can’t wait to watch the documentary. Please please keep us posted on this important project!

  • jiujitsu77

    the black karate federation. it is currently headed by Sijo Steve Muhammad and Grandmaster Donnie Williams. i was certain that RVC trained with Donnie Williams

  • http://www.tenshogoju.com Thomas Felder

    Grand Master Ron Van Clief has always been one of little words and more action. He is very humble in casual conversation and possesses dominating skills once unleashed. The article is a great vehicle exposing some new topics to the world. However, I only hope the future releases a biography to unfold a more vivid chronicle of Grandmaster Van Clief’s experiences. There’s no doubt… He is a true martial arts living legend. I am honored to be one of his many students and truly grateful for the many lectures, and teachings he has provided over the years. Moreover, I am with extreme gratitude for the faith he has in me by privileging me to establish my own system. It is truly my pleasure to applaud one of the greatest martial artists on the planet. Chien! Hanshi Thomas (Peacemaker) Felder ….. God is good!

  • Victor

    Yes Ron Van Clief deserves all the respect, even at his age , he looks and moves 30 yrs younger. btw, Jui Jitsu or anyone interested, I have some older mags with from either late 70′s or early 80s, with Ron Van Clief, Fred Williamson and others on covers, great stories. PM me

  • jiujitsu77

    victor forgive my ignorance, but how do i get to your profile?

    fred and ron? oh man i would love to see them.

  • http://ronvanclief.com RON VAN CLIEF

    THANK YOU FOR THE GRACIOUS WORDS. OVER THE LAST 52 YEARS OF MY MARTIAL ARTS JOURNEY I HAVE ENCOUNTERED MANY POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE PEOPLE AND SITUATIONS. I HAVE NEVER ALLOWED BULLSHIT TO CHANGE MY LIFE GRANDMASTER URBAN TOLD ME WHEN I WAS A TEENAGER THAT 90% OF THE PEOPLE IN THE MARTIAL ARTS ARE FULL OF SHIT…WHY IS THERE SO MUCH BULLSHIT IN THE MARTIAL ARTS COMMUNITY? IF MARTIAL ARTS IS FOR HUMAN DEVELOPMENT WHY ARE THEIR SO MANY WANNA BE’S.. THERE WAS ONLY ONE BRUCE LEE, ONE CHUCK NORRIS, ONE GM PETER URBAN, ONE RON VAN CLIEF… EVERYONE SHOULD BE TRUE TO THEMSELVES.. I HATE THE TERM THE BLACK BRUCE LEE…WE ARE WHAT WE ARE OR WHAT WE MAKE OURSELVES. MARTIAL ARTS IS ONE OF THE BEST TOOLS FOR HUMAN DEVELOPMENT…IT IS 90% AND 10% PHYSICAL(MOST PEOPLE HAVE THOSE PERCENTAGES REVERSED…THAT IS THE PROBLEM…THERE IS NO INVINCIBLE ART OR INVINCIBLE ARTIST. WE LOSE AND WE WIN AND THE RESULT IS THE SAME… WE GROW AND LEARN FROM OUR EXPERIENCES..IT IS TRUE THAT MMA WILL CHANGE THE WAY THE PUBLIC AND PRACTITIONERS VIEW AND PERCEIVE MARTIAL ARTS STUDIES. THE MARTIAL ARTS HAVE EVOLVED SINCE THE FIRST TIME TWO CAVEMEN FOUGHT OVER FOOD. IT WILL CONTINUE TO EVOLVE LONG AFTER WE ARE DRIED BONES..WHEN I WAS 21 AND IN MY PRIME I THOUGHT I WAS A SUPERMAN, ACTUALLY SENSEI URBAN CALLED IT SUPERNORMAL…SUPERNORMAL IS A MORE REALISTIC TERM TO DEFINE EXCELLENCE IN ANY ENDEAVOR..IT IS MY HOPE THAT THE GLOBAL MARTIAL ARTS COMMUNITY UNIFIES. HUMAN POTENTIAL IS THE MOST POWERFUL FORCE ON THE PLANET… LET US ALL USE THAT POTENTIAL FOR THE RIGHT REASONS….RON VAN CLIEF THE BLACK DRAGON

  • http://ronvanclief.com RON VAN CLIEF

    REGARDING THE BKF I HAVE BEEN SUPPORTIVE OF THE BKF SINCE I MET GM STEVE MUHAMMAD IN THE 1960′S. AWAITING THE APPLICATION FORM FROM GM STEVE…THE BKF IS THE FIRST ORGANIZATION THE AFRICAN AMERICAN MARTAIL ARTISTS COULD CALL THERE ON… KUDOS TO GM STEVE AND GM DONNIE WILLIAMS.. SORRY I DIDN’T STUDY WITH GM DONNIE WILLIAMS BUT I WAS MENTORED BY GM STEVE..BRUCE LEE TOLD ME HE HAD THE FASTEST HANDS HE HAD EVER SEEN RON VAN CLIEF ronvanclief@yahoo.com 347 417-3610 RON VAN CLIEF

  • http://ronvanclief.com RON VAN CLIEF

    THIS IS AN ABBREVIATED LISTING OF MY TEACHER, MENTORS, ROLE MODELS
    GM MOSES POWELL, GM RONALD DUNCAN,GM GEORGE COFIELD,GM TOM LAUPPET,GM FRANK RUIZ, GM PETER URBAN, GM RONALD TAGANASHI,GM REMY PRESAS,GM LEUNG TING,GM MASAFUMI SUZUKI, GM TATSUO SHIMABUKU, GM LATINO GONZALES, GM DUNCAN LEUNG, GM HARRY ROSENSTEIN, GM ED PARKER, GM BRUCE LEE,GM STEVE MUHAMMAD,SAMUEL JACKSON,MORGAN FREEMAN,DENZELWASHINGTON,MALCOM X,SPIKE LEE,ROYCE GRACIE,HELIO GRACIE,JOE MOREIRA,GM CARTER WONG,GM SHAN CHOU, SERAFIM KARALEXIS,MICHAEL SLCHULTZ, BERY GORDY,LEE WADE,RADU TEODORESCU, SIMINA VAN CLIEF(THE BOSS) AND OFCOURSE MY USMC DRILL INSTRUCTORS SGT’S STOVER,NORTON AND McCALL..my mother Doris and my father Allaire and ofcourse my children, RON JR. LISETTE,ESTEBAN AND KAI…THESE ARE THE PEOPLE THAT HAVE MADE ME WHAT I AM TODAY… THANK YOU ALL RON VAN CLIEF

  • http://ronvanclief.com RON VAN CLIEF

    mispelled corrections MICHAEL SCHULTZ AND BERRY GORDY.. GM JASON LAU,GM RON AUSTIN, GM FRED HAMILTON,GM LEO FONG,GM DANIEL PAI,GM DAN INOSANTO,GM JIMMY JONES,GM TAYARI CASEL,TAROO MASON,MASTER WILLIAM OLIVER,MASTER LUIS DELGADO,GM OWEN WATSON, DOUGLAS TURNER WARD,lex stevens and harry madsen PLEASE FORGIVE ME FOR LEAVING OUT ANYONE…RON VAN CLIEF

  • http://kungfucinema william hart

    It is really good to see Grand Master Ron Van Clief still going strong he has not faded into opscurity like some have. Master Ron is one of my heros next to Jim Brown, Jim Kelly and Richard Rounftre (Shaft) I rembemer the first time I saw Ron Van Clief on a clip that I saw on TV and me and my friends was saying who is this? and when I saw the movie The Black Dragon I was like WOW a black man doing things like Bruce Lee even he did’nt appeair until the end of the movie but when he was shown Ron Van Clief did his thing. I would have liked to have seen him in other films with the Shaw Brothes period flims that would have been cool to see him and Ti Lung or Gordin Lu eather team up or have a real crazy battle at the end of the movie just think to see Master Ron Van Clief in a period peace with the long pulled back hair (for him it will be dreads) in closing it is good to see that the Black Dragon is still alive and breathing fire!!!!!!!

  • noglorynorecognition

    WHILE MOST PAJAMA WEARING FOOLS WERE BUSSY BOWING AND SHOUTING THERE LUNGS OUT I WAS LEARNING BOXING AT SAINT MARY`S RECREATION CENTER BRONX..

    I GOT FOOT WORK ,DISTANCE ,,TIMEING ,,ANGLE STEPPING ..PIVIOTS.. THIS IS ALL THE RUDEMENTS OF BOXING AND KICKBOXING..

    YOU ALL HEAR ME I GOT BOXING ALMOST FREE AND TO BOWING TO THE MASTER!!!!!.
    THIS WAS 1964-66….I BOXED IN THE ARMY !!!!
    I FOUND MUAY THAI AND IT WAS A PERFECT FIT FOR ME NO NONSENCE..
    EVERY THING FROM MYBOXING WENT INTO THAI FIGHTING PLUS I HAD LOTS MORE TO LEARN. NECK FIGHTING AND THROWS PLUS KNEE AD ELBOWS.

    I SPENT MOST OF MY LIFE IN THEGYM ..

  • noglorynorecognition

    WHILE MOST PAJAMA WEARING FOOLS WERE BUSSY BOWING AND SHOUTING THERE LUNGS OUT I WAS LEARNING BOXING AT SAINT MARY`S RECREATION CENTER BRONX..

    I GOT FOOT WORK ,DISTANCE ,,TIMEING ,,ANGLE STEPPING ..PIVIOTS.. THIS IS ALL THE RUDEMENTS OF BOXING AND KICKBOXING..

    YOU ALL HEAR ME I GOT BOXING ALMOST FREE AND TO BOWING TO THE MASTER!!!!!.
    THIS WAS 1964-66….I BOXED IN THE ARMY !!!!
    I FOUND MUAY THAI AND IT WAS A PERFECT FIT FOR ME NO NONSENCE..
    EVERY THING FROM MYBOXING WENT INTO THAI FIGHTING PLUS I HAD LOTS MORE TO LEARN. NECK FIGHTING AND THROWS PLUS KNEE AD ELBOWS.

    I SPENT MOST OF MY LIFE IN THEGYM ..