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The 20 greatest martial arts stars of all time, ranked

Get a kick out of the best martial arts stars.

The 20 greatest martial arts stars of all time, ranked
08 June 2021

With Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings set to bring kung-fu back to the big screen and Cobra Kai doing a fantastic job of showcasing karate on the small screen, and all ready to go into its third season, we thought it was high time we rated the greatest martial arts stars of all time.

UPDATE: Currently fourth in our best martial arts stars list, Donnie Yen has signed on to John Wick 4. According to official reports, Yen - star of IP Man and some of the greatest martial arts movies - will be an old friend of Keanu Reeves, sharing many of the hitman's enemies. The movie is set to be released mid 2022.

These are the ones that have brought something new to the genre or are just simply fantastic at the job of beating people up.

We have rounded up 20 of the best but there are hundreds, heck, thousands that could be mentioned - all of which are far harder than we could ever be.

If we have failed to mention your favourite, then name drop them below and we will see if they are deserving of the list. And, no, your mate Paul who once managed to chop a bit of balsa wood in half with his bare hands does not count.

(Additional reporting Marc Chacksfield)

Greatest martial arts stars

The kung-fu king combined the cardiovascular capacity of an athlete with a bodybuilder’s musculature. He performed finger-and-thumbs press-ups, inflated his lats like a cobra, leapt 8ft in the air to kick out a lightbulb and unleashed the legendary 1in punch. Trained in wing chun, Wu-style Tai chi ch’uan, dancing and boxing, Lee developed a hybrid called Jeet Kune Do or ‘Way Of The Intercepting Fist’. He hit hard and fast, then danced out of the strike zone – efficient but lethal. Ahead of his time, he remains the benchmark against whom all others are measured.

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He helped bring Asian martial arts to the Hollywood mainstream with his acrobatics and slapstick humour, but is also an exponent of breakneck-paced kung fu. Chan fuses hapkido, judo, wing chun, taekwondo and hei long in his own tight, choppy style.

If we had to pick one movie, then Drunken Master is essential Chan and one of the greatest kung fu movies ever made.

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Acrobatic action stalwart Li Lianjie is a former wushu champion who became a national coach while still a schoolboy. The fighting prodigy was even asked by President Nixon to be his personal bodyguard. After conquering the Chinese market, Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) was Li’s stepping stone to Hollywood success. His flowing, kickboxing-influenced style is all about speed, power and control, hence the stage name.

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Hong Kong heart-throb and multi-talented mixed martial artist, Yen’s most influential and well-known work is 2008’s instant classic Ip Man, the biopic of Bruce Lee’s master. It popularised wing chun, the snake-meets-crane close-up combat style that’s all deflections, blocks and short-arm blows. All the more impressive when you consider that Yen learned the technique in a mere nine months.

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The heir to Bruce Lee’s throne forgoes wires and stunt doubles, giving his fight scenes a bruising ultra-realism. Raised in rural Thailand, Jaa watched martial arts movies, practised in his father’s rice paddy and eventually mastered taekwondo, muay thai, aikido, krabi krabong, judo and jiu-jitsu. The star of Ong-bak is also a gymnast, swordsman and high-jumper who still clears two metres. Jaa’s style is acrobatic, lightning fast, fluid and awe-inspiring. At 5ft 6in, he’s shorter than Lee but punches just as hard.

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The ascendant star took up his native Indonesian martial art pencak silat aged 10. Uwais was working as a truck driver in Jakarta when spotted by Welsh film director Gareth Evans and cast in 2009’s indie flick Merantau, which saw him master the ‘Sumatran tiger style’ of fighting. The Raid and The Raid 2 showcased more of his work and even landed him a small role in Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens

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Greatest martial arts stars

7. Chuck Norris

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Part-Cherokee, part-Irish tough nut Carlos Ray Norris wasn’t always so: he wasn’t an athletic child and only took up tang soo do while in the US Air Force. He went on to earn black belts in three disciplines, invented his own hybrid style called chun kuk do (‘The Universal Way’) and became a world karate champion in 1968. Encouraged by Steve McQueen, Norris moved into film the following year, although the hairy-chested hero’s screen career didn’t truly take off until the Eighties, with a run of cult action flicks plus cheesy TV vehicle Walker, Texas Ranger that ran between 1993 and 2001.

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Greatest martial arts stars

8. Chow Yun-Fat

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Perhaps more of an action man than a pure martial artist, the Hong Kong hero is one of the best at training for specific roles and pulling off fight choreography with aplomb. This is particularly evident in 2000’s soulful, Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – as Wudang warrior Li Mu Bai, his wire work and weapon control were breathtaking.

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Greatest martial arts stars

9. Jean Claude Van Damme

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Like Seagal, The Muscles From Brussels is now a kitsch figure, but his late Eighties/early Nineties films are indisputable classics. He studied kickboxing, muay thai, shotokan karate, taekwondo, and classical ballet from the age of 10, earning a black belt and Mr Belgium crown for body building. After a shaky start in film (bad breakdancing, being replaced as the alien in Predator), JCVD had a run of hits. Trademarks? The splits, babymaker punches and his helicopter kick.

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Greatest martial arts stars

10. Bolo Yeung

Rent on Prime Video

The Cantonese bodybuilder’s fearsomely muscular physique and downturned mouth invariably led to him being cast in villainous film roles, the most notable being opposite training partner Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon and later, Jean-Claude Van Damme. A man proficient in tai chi, wing chun and generally crushing bones, he always made for a particularly charismatic badass.

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Greatest martial arts stars

11. Sammo Hung

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One of the Hong Kong new wave who reinvigorated the genre in the Seventies and Eighties, cigar-puffing Hung is nick-named ‘dai goh dai’, or ‘biggest big brother’. He’s now a director, producer and widely respected fight choreographer for the likes of Jackie Chan and John Woo, but started his career as a child actor. Hung’s a hefty figure (starring in Enter The Fat Dragon, 1978), but is surprisingly agile. His circular facial scar was the result of being attacked with a broken bottle outside a Kowloon nightclub.

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Greatest martial arts stars

12. Toshiro Mifune

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With his genuinely imposing demeanour and gruff voice, war veteran Mifune was director Akira Kurosawa’s muse. The pair made 16 films together, most famously 1954’s Seven Samurai. Mifune’s fighting style was fittingly macho and ferocious; he was considered by George Lucas to play the part of Obi Wan Kenobi and almost got the part of Mr Miyagi in Karate Kid (1984), but was deemed too frightening.

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Greatest martial arts stars

13. Gordon Liu

Stream on Netflix

Hui Liu, nicknamed Gordon, shot to stardom in The 36th Chamber Of Shaolin – the 1978 classic that provides a backdrop for Wu-Tang Clan’s debut album. It’s the first Shaolin film to show the monastery’s training methods, as San Te goes from unskilled fighter to folk hero. Tarantino’s favourite, the ‘Master Killer’ played two roles in the Kill Bill films.

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Greatest martial arts stars

14. Stephen Chow

Rent now on Prime Video

Stephen Chow's acrobatic work in the likes of Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle may be enhanced with CGI but there's no denying the martial arts talents of Chow. As a boy he was inspired Bruce Lee and began training in the style of Wing Chun as result. And we're very thankful that he did

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Greatest martial arts stars

15. Cheng Pei-Pei

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The former ballet dancer became kung-fu’s first screen queen in 1966 classic Come Drink With Me. She played warrior swordswoman Golden Swallow who tries to free her kidnapped brother. The film was a major inspiration for 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, so director Ang Lee cast Cheng, by then aged 54, as the treacherous Jade Fox.

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Greatest martial arts stars

16. Sonny Chiba

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Raised the bar violence-wise during the post-Bruce Lee Seventies. He looked intimidatingly wolf-like and had a flashy, gruesome fight style to match, ferociously destroying opponents while keeping a thunderous grimace on his bushy-browed face. Quentin Tarantino’s a devotee, making Clarence a Chiba nerd in 1993’s True Romance and casting him as the sword-maker-turned-sushi restaurateur in 2003’s Kill Bill Vol 1.

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Greatest martial arts stars

17. Phillip Rhee

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Frequently be-mulleted Rhee took up martial arts when he was four years old and mastered taekwondo, hapkido and kendo. Frustrated by a lack of openings in the US film business, he decided to make his own. The brutal Best Of The Best (1989-1998) series went on to become cult classics. His big brother Simon is no slouch either, and has choreographed fights and overseen stunts for films including The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

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Greatest martial arts stars

18. Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace

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The pioneering kickboxer, who went undefeated in his pro career from 1974 to 1980, can only strike with one leg after an injury to his right. His left leg, though, became one of the most feared weapons in fighting, with a deadly accurate hook-kick clocked at 60mph, as seen in The Protector (1985), which also stars Jackie Chan.

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Greatest martial arts stars

19. Dragon Lee

Stream on Prime Video

The South Korean taekwondo and hapkido expert was often credited as Bruce Lei due to his resemblance to Bruce Lee. Starred in, yes, The Clones Of Bruce Lee (1981) and a documentary about the great man, called The Real Bruce Lee.

If you are to watch one of his movies, though, then make it The Dragon's Snake Fist.

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Greatest martial arts stars

20. Jeff Speakman

Rent on Prime Video

The square-jawed Chicago powerhouse was a springboard diver until, inspired by cult TV series Kung Fu (1972), he started fight-training. He eventually achieved black belts in both kenpo karate and goju-ryu. His debut starring role, 1991’s The Perfect Weapon, saw him single-handedly take on the Mafia – frequently set to the tune of The Power by Snap!

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