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 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.
Becoming a Foreign Legion Officer
Black Belt: What happened then?
Dominique Vandenberg: I blasted him with questions, and he said, “Even being in the Legion, I cannot explain to you what the Legion is. But if you really are interested in joining, I will bring you up to the gate.” So the guy took me there and said, “Good luck.” I knocked on the door, and this huge dude asked, “What do you want, kid?” I told him I wanted to join. He asked how old I was, and I told him I was 18. He said, “Are you sure you want to waste your life and be an 18-year-old man?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Where’s all your stuff?”
Black Belt: That’s all there was to it?
Dominique Vandenberg: I walked back to my hotel, called my parents and went back to the fort. I stayed in this old nasty room. The others there—some smelled of alcohol—were out of money and out of luck. When Monday came, a lieutenant asked us why we wanted to join, if we had a criminal past and stuff like that. Then they shipped us off to Olbane, where we would stay for a month and be tested. Then they sent us to a place in the north of France, where everyone trained from four to six months. They send you there with 80 people, but they only keep 25. And then out of those, five people are sent to a commando unit.
Black Belt: After undergoing the training, how would you describe the Foreign Legion?
Dominique Vandenberg: It’s like a brotherhood. It’s like being a modern-day samurai. It’s a place with a code of honor you don’t find anywhere else. It’s a place where men who don’t fit in normal society can be warriors.
Black Belt: In your five years in the Legion, where did you see active duty?
Dominique Vandenberg: My first time on active duty was in Rwanda, where genocide was going on. There were a lot of Canadian, French and other European people working there in embassies, classrooms and other places. They called us in. We were on standby for a week until a French schoolteacher got killed in front of the class. Then we intervened. We took over the French embassy and the international school where the rebels were holding the kids and a bunch of others. We cleaned that whole act up and evacuated all the people.
Black Belt: Did you ever have to use your hand-to-hand skills in combat?
Dominique Vandenberg: Once we were in Chad “clearing” houses. In one of those sweeps, I kicked a door open, and two guys inside the house dropped their weapons and waved their arms in the air. But the young Legionnaire behind me was so pumped with adrenaline that he shot one of the guys. So I grabbed the Legionnaire’s gun, and the other guy thought we were going to shoot him, too, so he went for his gun. I just booted him in the face and took the gun away from him. Then we got the medics to take care of the guy who got shot.
Black Belt: Any other incidents?
Dominique Vandenberg: Once we were assigned to train a [military unit] in Central Africa. Because we took away the jobs of the [former] instructors, it was a dishonor in their eyes. One night, I was out with some guys having a drink. One of the officers who had trained the men started challenging me. Stinking of whisky, he said I was no good, that white people had ruined everything, that everything was fine without us, etc. I blew it off as politely as I could while still preserving the respect of the guys who were with me. I acted like I forgot about the whole thing, but I really didn’t because my mind-set always forces me to think ahead. Later, I got a pocket knife from one of the guys who was with me, opened it, put it in my pocket and walked outside. The former instructor came out of nowhere and stuck me in the chest and arm. I just blanked. All the martial arts techniques I learned for years just went out the window. Rage and fury took over. The guy cut me, and I locked up his arm and cut him. He fell to the floor, and out of nowhere we were getting hit by stones. We couldn’t see the people who were throwing them. One of my guys lit a hut on fire to divert their attention, and we got out. That incident changed my whole view of knife fighting. All the technical, cool-looking things seen in films aren’t used in real combat. Once you’re in the danger zone, you’ve got to move and stick the other person.
Black Belt: Did you have any similarly enlightening experiences in Asia?
Dominique Vandenberg: When my first leave came up, I wasn’t ready to be around civilization. Some buddies who were mercenaries in Burma said I should go there to do some Burmese-boxing fights. Before I knew it, I was standing in a ring doing Burmese boxing. That was my first comeback into the martial arts after a layoff of a couple years.
Into the Ring with Burmese Boxing
Black Belt: Describe Burmese boxing.
Dominique Vandenberg: It’s a lot like muay Thai, but you don’t wear boxing gloves. In Burma, I also learned another martial art called nabam, which is a tribal form of submission fighting. Burmese boxing and nabam come from a style of fighting called bando, which has stick fighting and gurkha knife fighting. It’s a complete style. For close combat, it’s the style of fighting I prefer, although Krav Maga is very good, too. But bando is basic, realistic and straightforward—no fancy stuff.
Black Belt: How many Burmese-boxing matches did you have?
Dominique Vandenberg: Ten. I won all of them by knockout. In Burmese boxing, the guys aren’t trained like the boxers in Thailand. The Burmese are like semi-pros. They don’t train full time. I was super fit—being in the Legion helped—and my right hand and my kick didn’t disappear. I could keep the pressure on, and most of the guys didn’t have the wind to keep up with it.
Black Belt: What happened after your stint in Burma?
Dominique Vandenberg: It was back to the Legion. But every time I had leave, I went back to Burma. And after my contract with the Legion was finished, I went back to Burma again—not for Burmese boxing, but to train Burmese soldiers. And when one of my friends disappeared, I went to northern Thailand [to look for him]. There I met up with a French guy who promoted matches that pitted foreigners against Thais. They introduced me to the Samafit Gym, where Superleg and Ramdamun and all those guys trained. And the first day I got there, they wanted to test me. I sparred with three guys back-to-back, and by the time I faced the third one, I was just surviving. All I could think about was standing. I was thinking they probably wouldn’t accept me because unlike gyms in Bangkok where you pay a few hundred dollars to train with a couple of touristy martial arts guys, the camps in the north aren’t the same. But the guys picked me, and I ended up staying there for years, eventually competing in professional Thai boxing. At the beginning, it was like basic training all over again.
Black Belt: Did they just try to kick your butt?
Dominique Vandenberg: When I got there, I sparred five rounds with Ramdamun, who was one of their champions. When I started taking off my gloves, they said, “No, no, no, stay.”
They sent in another guy, who sparred another five rounds with me, and then another. I couldn’t walk the next day. Plus, they talked down to me because there was no money involved. But after four months of taking my beatings, I was one of the boys. I ate with them, and I slept in the same room they did. And when I fought in competitions, I gave 30 percent of my purse to the camp.
Black Belt: What was your record?
Dominique Vandenberg: Between 1992 and 1994, I had 35 professional muay Thai fights with zero losses.
Black Belt: How many knockouts?
Dominique Vandenberg: Twenty-seven wins from knockouts, two fights that were stopped because of injuries, and one that was stopped because the guy’s face was bleeding too much. In Thailand, if you’re a foreigner, you don’t win on points too often.
Black Belt: Did you compete in other forms of fighting?
Dominique Vandenberg: I competed in freestyle bando. There were four rounds, and it was anything-goes.
Black Belt: What about biting, eye gouging and groin strikes?
Dominique Vandenberg: I fought in some illegal fights like that, but those fighters were not of the same caliber as professional muay Thai fighters. They were with people who needed a quick fix or mercenaries who needed a quick buck between jobs.
Black Belt: Who organized those fights?
Dominique Vandenberg: The same promoter that had foreigners come to Thailand to fight muay Thai; he had these fights on the side. It was a business that promoted fights in which foreigners would fight in illegal matches. There was lots of money to be made because of the betting.
Black Belt: How many illegal fights did you take part in?
Dominique Vandenberg: Just a handful.
Black Belt: How was fighting in those matches different from fighting in professional bouts?
Dominique Vandenberg: You knew that if you won the fight, someone might come up and shoot you in the back of the head as you walked through a crowd of drunken lunatics. There was no medical care. One time I got bit on the arm, and it got infected.
Black Belt: What made you stop fighting in those matches?
Dominique Vandenberg: I guess I became sane. I knew if I kept going down that road, I wasn’t coming back. I stopped right before I came to the U.S. at the beginning of ’95 or so.
Black Belt: Why did you come here?
Dominique Vandenberg: I had to move on. I didn’t want to live by the sword and die by the sword. And I knew I had so much creativity that I had to get away from it all. Now I look back and can’t believe I did all that stuff.
A Martial Artist in Hollywood
Black Belt: When you first came to the States, what did you do?
Dominique Vandenberg: I did a couple jobs as a bounty hunter for some friends, and I was in club security—a bouncer. And I even got into personal security.
Black Belt: Did you work for any famous people?
Dominique Vandenberg: I worked mainly for musicians. When Tupac shot a video at a club called The Gate, I worked security for that.
Black Belt: Have many people forced you to use your combat skills?
Dominique Vandenberg: Being a bouncer in Los Angeles is different from being a bouncer in Europe. In Europe, you don’t talk to a person for 10 minutes before you kick him out. In LA, you let the guy rant and rave for a while and you ask him to leave. If he doesn’t, four or five bouncers help you gently escort him out because the owner is afraid of being sued.
But when I worked at The Gate, it was a different story. When people told me to [get lost], I would kick them in the head or head-butt them in the nose. And other bouncers liked me for that. I didn’t slap people around just to bully them. I’m a nice guy, but when I was a bouncer and someone got in my face, I did the job and threw him out.
Black Belt: What are you up to now?
Dominique Vandenberg: I’m working in film. I started off with parts in Mortal Kombat and Barbed Wire. Then I did a short film, Dead Road, that won at the Paris Short Film Festival. And we did our first feature film, The Doorman, which I produced with Jesse Johnson, co-wrote and starred in. After that, I was hired to train Leonardo DiCaprio in knife fighting for the Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York. Scorsese brought me on as a technical advisor, and when they saw how quick I was with the fights, they hired me as a fight coordinator. I also play the character of Tommy in the movie.
Black Belt: What was it like to work with Martin Scorsese, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Lena Olin and Daniel Day-Lewis in the film?
Dominique Vandenberg: Fantastic. I liked Scorsese a lot. He kept everything the way I showed it to him—which was really cool. Now people will see what I’ve created. And DiCaprio was great. I trained him mainly in period fighting styles because back then, the street fighting was different from what it is now. I taught him catch [wrestling], oldstyle savate, gurkha knife fighting and bando stick fighting. I also trained Daniel Day-Lewis a bit and became pals with Cameron Diaz.
Black Belt: How are the fight scenes different from the ones we see in Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies?
Dominique Vandenberg: They are more realistic. More like what would happen in a real street fight—biting, eye gouging, fish-hooking and things like that.
Black Belt: Any last words for the readers of Black Belt?
Dominique Vandenberg: When I was a kid, I really enjoyed Black Belt. Sometimes I would take a 40-minute bus ride to buy it in the city. I missed lots of school time reading Black Belt instead of listening to the teacher. It’s the best martial arts magazine out there. It discovered Bruce Lee, and now it’s discovering me.
(About the author: Stephen Quadros is an actor, commentator and kickboxing/no-holds-barred-fighting trainer based in Los Angeles.)