Dominique Vandenberg’s Martial Arts Adventure: From Burmese Jungles to Hollywood Film Studios

The martial arts exist in a universe polluted by promises of the ability to punch through walls or defeat 10 thugs after a lesson or two. Equally off-kilter is the premise that the style makes the fighter and competitions can prove which style is best. “Reality” has been packaged and served up so many times that it eventually contains everything but reality. One man who has the courage to rise above the strife is Belgium born Dominique Vandenberg. Soft-spoken and polite, he has lived through events that would make your hair stand on end. He’s faced life-and-death battles that few Americans have even dreamt about. Now he’s making a name for himself in the motion-picture industry.

Becoming a Martial Artist

Black Belt: Your original style was judo. When did you start your judo training?
Dominique Vandenberg: When I was 4 or 5. My parents worked, so my brother would pick me up from pre-school and take me to judo with him. He had already been in judo for a few years. For him it was just a hobby, but I was serious about it. I kept doing it even when I later got into wrestling and karate. I still train in judo today with my friends.

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Black Belt: Which martial art came next?
Dominique Vandenberg: Greco-Roman wrestling and catch-as-catch-can wrestling, then karate and muay Thai.

Black Belt: When did you start training in kyokushin karate?
Dominique Vandenberg: When I was 12. Then I got into muay Thai. Then later on, skyleko-kundokan karate, which basically combines judo throws with kyokushin.

Black Belt: Where did you train in muay Thai?
Dominique Vandenberg: I went to Holland, where I trained under a bunch of people. And when I was about 13, my trainer, Frank Merkens, took me to Chakuriki Gym [the famous muay Thai gym in Amsterdam that produced K-1 legend Peter Aerts, among others]. We used to go on weekends for small seminars and train with the whole school.

Black Belt: You commuted to Holland?
Dominique Vandenberg: By train, it was about two and a half hours. We would go on Friday and stay in Holland until Sunday night or Monday morning.

Black Belt: Did that affect your schoolwork?
Dominique Vandenberg: It did. That’s why I stopped going to school. My parents wanted me to go to college like my brother, but I had martial arts on the brain. When I was in school, I wouldn’t listen to what was being said; I would read karate magazines. It was so bad that the local priest came to our house and said to my parents, “Dominique should stop doing martial arts because it puts evil in his heart and he’s never going to amount to anything.” And that’s when my mom made me pull out of martial arts for about four to five months. After that, I stopped speaking to my parents. I would just sit there like a mute until one night my dad came back from work and just cracked. He said: “Pack your bag. I’m taking you back to the martial arts class.”

Black Belt: What events led up to your winning a title in muay Thai?
Dominique Vandenberg: Frank Merkens took me to a bunch of events in Belgium, Germany, Italy and France. It didn’t matter whether it was kyokushin, regular karate, wrestling or judo. When the European Junior Muay Thai Championship was being held in Antwerpen, the guy who was supposed to fight got ill. So Frank Merkens said, “Do you want to fight instead?” I said, “Yeah, why not?” I took the fight and won. That’s how I got into it. It was back in 1985 or ’86.

Black Belt: How many bare-knuckle karate matches have you had?
Dominique Vandenberg: About 45. I lost two matches on points and one muay Thai match by TKO.

Black Belt: Did you compete in muay Thai until you went into the Foreign Legion?
Dominique Vandenberg: I competed in all these styles; as an amateur I must have had over 100 matches. I ended up in the Foreign Legion because I broke my leg. I got hit by a car, and my hip got shattered. The doctors told me as I was recuperating that I couldn’t do martial arts anymore because if I got kicked low, it could break my leg again. I was devastated. Can you imagine the thing you love most in your life being taken away from you? I thought, What am I going to do now? When I started feeling better, I began training the cops and military guys. One of the military guys seemed different because of the look in his eyes. As …

9 Martial Arts Training Tips From Kung Fu Expert Mark Cheng

People tell me I tend to sound like an old-timer. I tell them to shut up and get off my lawn! Then I explain that a lot can be learned from comparing the way we did things in the past with the way people do them now. Case in point: martial arts training.

Back at the tail end of the 1970s when I started, we were told we could get everything we needed from one art and one master. Want to get strong? Eat lots of rice, like your master does. Need to build up your arms? Do more punches. Want to boost your endurance? Spar and do more kata. Worried about taking on an armed assailant or multiple attackers? Spar and do more kata—what’s wrong with you, I just said it!

Things are different now. We have access to so much more information thanks to martial arts books, DVDs and the Internet. We can train under people whose job it is to specialize in the various aspects of the martial arts. We no longer believe one sensei has the answer to every question in the universe. Overall, I think it’s a good thing.

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We’ve also benefited with respect to the big picture. How? It’s led to the creation of a concept I call the 21st century martial artist. It’s epitomized more and more by people like Dr. Mark Cheng. Here are some of his martial arts training tips.

Martial Arts Training Tip #1: Stand-Up Skills

Sil lum fut ga is a unique combination of savagery and artistry; you’ll be hard-pressed to find a style of southern Chinese martial arts with more of a mean streak with such control of movement. Combat shuai chiao is China’s best throwing art. Once I got the opportunity to study under Bruce Lee’s highest-ranked student, Dan Inosanto, it was a no-brainer.”

Martial Arts Training Tip #2: Stand-Up Recommendations

“If you want to develop combat skill, any system that puts you in the ring as often as possible and gives you tons of contact will get you to develop quickly. However, if you want to not only develop combat skill but also avoid making Advil your chief dietary supplement, you need to look at a holistic system that gives you training in fundamental movements. Bando, shuai chiao, northern Shaolin kung fu and silat teach warm-ups that are essentially sophisticated yogic routines that prepare your body to perform at a higher level instead of compensate at a deeper level.”

Martial Arts Training Tip #3: Ground Skills

“Combat shuai chiao allows you to deal with someone from either a striking platform or a grappling framework. To throw him into the ground is the essence of control and situational mastery. On the ground, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is unparalleled. Sambo and old-school judo also have great ground-fighting repertoires.”

Martial Arts Training Tip #4: Impact/Edged Weapons

“Every individual I consider gifted as an empty-hand fighter has always said that if he had the option to use a weapon when the odds were stacked against him, he’d use it. I carry a knife—it’s an insurance policy.”

Martial Arts Training Tip #5: Weapon Arts

“If you’re a policeman doing riot control or a member of the armed forces who has to deal with close-quarters combat, krabi krabong might be your best choice. If you’re a civilian who wants to become familiar with different weapons that you might have to improvise with, the Inosanto blend of kali is superb.”

Martial Arts Training Tip #6: Firearms

“I own firearms and practice with them whenever I get the chance. If you have access to a self-defense tool that greatly stacks the odds of survival in your favor, you’d have to be supremely confident or stupid not to make use of it.”

Martial Arts Training Tip #7: Kettlebells

“Kettlebells are my main form of weight training. I was privileged to train directly under Russian Kettlebell Certified founder and former Spetsnaz operator Pavel Tsatsouline. His methods have revolutionized my views on training. I also use the Century Ripcord to practice throw setups. It’s a grossly underutilized piece of equipment that has high yields.”

Martial Arts Training Tip #8: Conditioning

“At this point in my life, conditioning is secondary to correction. Making sure my body is functionally symmetrical and pain free is what improves my performance under stress.”

Martial Arts Training Tip #9: Shaolin and Shotokan Exercises

“The more I investigate sports science and human performance, the more I realize that the fundamentals I was taught in Shaolin kung fu, shotokan karate and almost every old-school system are where the real gold is. Many of those traditional warm-ups are very sophisticated yogic practices. They build a strong foundation of …