Of all the fighters who appeared in the early UFC tournaments, none provokes a wider range of emotions than Ron “The Black Dragon” Van Clief.
On one hand, there he was, stepping into the octagon at age 51 — to this day, the oldest man ever to fight in the UFC — a renowned karate expert and martial arts film star who bravely put his reputation on the line against men half his age. On the other hand, watching him struggle on the mat under a much younger Royce Gracie still generates a profound sense of What were you thinking?
“I did it because I wanted to do it and I thought it was a beautiful event,” Van Clief said. “There was no safety equipment, time limits or weight divisions. It was pure. I don’t feel bad about losing to Royce. I was 51 and he was 27, and I hung in there for four minutes. I can’t think of ever having competed in anything I enjoyed more.”
Van Clief started martial arts in the late 1950s, learning jujitsu and then goju karate and kung fu. He became one of the East Coast’s most successful tournament competitors, racking up countless titles. Even when he was making films in Hong Kong during the 1970s and ’80s, he continued to compete. So it wasn’t as if at 51, he’d been retired for decades by the time he entered the UFC.
Yet although he had a bit of boxing experience, Van Clief had never competed in kickboxing as some of the more successful early UFC strikers had. And his grappling skills were almost nonexistent. He’d tried his hand in full contact more than a decade earlier in a “free fighting” tournament in Hong Kong. Nearly 40 at the time, he made it through two bouts before being knocked out by his third opponent.
Nonetheless, the UFC was a different animal, one Van Clief knew nothing about when he sat down to watch the inaugural event on television. “I was impressed,” he said. “I saw real fighting, and what’s better than that?”
It was an unusual attitude coming from a traditional martial artist at a time when many traditionalists were still insisting the fighters weren’t “real” martial artists and claiming the matches were fake.
But after watching the first two UFC tournaments, Van Clief viewed it as the only truly realistic fighting competition he’d ever witnessed. He knew he had to take part. “What person who considers himself a true martial artist wouldn’t want to?” he asked.
Initially turned down because of his age, Van Clief made his case to the promoters and secured a spot in UFC 4. Surprisingly, although many insisted those early events weren’t legitimate because they didn’t include any well-known masters, he received little support from the martial arts community.
“Everyone thought I’d lost my mind,” he said. “Even guys like Joe Lewis were calling me up, saying I was going to get my ass kicked. So what? I wanted to do it and nothing was going to change my mind.”
He trained for several months to prepare and wound up breaking his ankle while working with a wrestler just a week before the competition. But Van Clief didn’t let that stop him. He said that’s why he was taken down so fast — his ankle wasn’t stable enough to support him when he tried a kick moments into the bout.
That might sound like the typical fighter’s excuse, but Van Clief readily admitted that Gracie was just too good on the ground. Even if he was healthy at the time and had trained more in grappling, he said he’s not sure that would have enabled him to win.
“He was too far ahead of me in grappling,” Van Clief said. “I’d spent years working on stand-up, but this was something completely new. That’s why it was so magical to me. I got choked out in four minutes, but none of that mattered.”
Van Clief received a bit of flak from some traditional martial artists for his loss but paid it no heed, adding that instead of sitting at home and watching the UFC while trashing the fighters, his critics could have done what he’d done. “But none of them did,” he said pointedly.
He briefly maintained his association with the UFC after the Gracies approached him about becoming the organization’s first commissioner. Insisting it wasn’t a ceremonial appointment, Van Clief said he was intimately involved in recruiting fighters, developing concepts like the “superfight” and even appearing in court to speak for the company when it had trouble getting events sanctioned. But his tenure as the sport’s first commissioner was a brief one. He said that he didn’t like the direction the promotion was taking, which led him to step away from his role.
He went back to films and frequently found work as a stunt coordinator, but he never lost his passion for martial arts competition. At age 60, he won his division at the All-American Open karate tournament. Then he moved to the Virgin Islands and began training in no-gi grappling while promoting mixed martial arts there. Finally, after moving to Hawaii 10 years ago, he came full circle when he became a student of Relson Gracie, Royce’s brother. After nine and a half years, at age 78, he’s earned a purple belt, and he said he’s not through yet.
Van Clief is determined to make black belt, although he expects it will take him another four or five years, pushing him well into his 80s. And yes, he still competes.
“I don’t have any gold medals yet in jiu-jitsu, though I’ve won six silvers and three bronze,” he said. “But there’s never anybody in my age division, so I have to compete in a younger one. My goal is to get my black belt and compete one more time as a black belt. I will compete as a black belt.”
Away from the mats, though, Van Clief found that his most difficult opponent was often himself. After nearly being lynched by a racist mob in North Carolina while serving in the Marine Corps in the early 1960s and then undergoing the trauma of combat in Vietnam, he suffered for years from post-traumatic stress disorder. Following a brief hospitalization for it, he wrote The Hanged Man, a book about his life. He said the experience was cathartic.
The memoir was recently made into a documentary, one of the many projects that’s kept him continuously busy. In addition, he’s scheduled to do a movie with Michael Jai White, whom he anointed as the new “Black Dragon.” Van Clief has other projects in the works, including an animated Black Dragon movie that’s nearly finished.
“Every day, I wake up and have the opportunity to be better than I was the day before,” he said. “There’s no better challenge in life than that.”
Mark Jacobs’ most recent book is The Principles of Unarmed Combat. His website is writingfighting.wordpress.com.