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 ArtistBlack 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.
Become a master of martial arts trivia with our FREE guide—Our Bruce Lee Movies List: Little-Known Trivia From Bruce Lee's Pictures.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 we became friends, he told me that he was in the French Foreign Legion. After he told me about it, I bought all these books and started reading up on it. I was not content with teaching because I was too young, and I wasn’t going to just sit in Belgium and waste my life. I told my father I wanted to join, and he said: “Don’t do that. They are all criminals and killers.” He was not going to give me the green light, so one night I just left for France. At night, I would go out and try to run into Legionnaires by frequenting the bars where they hung out. And one night I saw a guy dressed in a Legion suit, so I followed him outside. I said: “Excuse me, sir. Can I ask you a couple of questions about the Legion?” He just gave me this stare. I had never seen eyes with that kind of intensity. I didn’t think it was a good moment to ask this guy any questions. So I went back to the hotel thinking, “Is this what I want to do with my life?” The next day I went out for breakfast and saw this guy. I went over, and he shook my hand and said, “Sit down.” I said I wanted to join the Foreign Legion.