The heyday for martial arts movies was from the 1970s to the early-1990s, a period that saw the rise of fighting stars such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Jet Li, Cynthia Rothrock, Don “The Dragon” Wilson and many more. I was fortunate enough to be right in the middle of all this. A black belt in Isshin-Ryu Karate, I grew up watching Hong Kong martial arts movies like Five Fingers of Death (1972), Fists of Fury (1972), The Chinese Connection (1972) and 36th Chamber of Shaolin(1978). I had developed a bit of a name writing for martial arts magazines and I thought I could easily write movies just as “bad” as those were.
My first movie was No Retreat, No Surrender (1986) with Van Damme and Kurt McKinney, made with Seasonal Films, the company that launched the career of Jackie Chan. I went on to make a total of 10 low-budget martial arts movies and, to my great pleasure, was lucky enough to become friends with many of the stars mentioned here. These guys were making movies and appearing on red carpets and on the party pages of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Chuck Norris, for example, was making big money (at the height of his career, he commanded one million dollars for a Right Guard deodorant commercial).
Both Van Damme and Seagal were big watch collectors, perhaps chasing the wave that caught Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Back when they were big box office draws, both Van Damme and Seagal were staples of late-night talk shows, celebrity events and movie premieres. They needed to sport serious wrist candy to keep up with their fellow luminaries. And they did.
Cynthia Rothrock, the First Lady of Martial Arts, also got into the game, combining her signature Kung Fu moves with fine timepieces. “I love watches… the bigger, the better,” Rothrock says. “I have traded all the smaller pieces I had for bigger, masculine-style watches – the one I am wearing most now is a Luminox Navy SEAL dive watch. They are easier to read and now I’m used to the weight on my wrist.” Rothrock starred in many memorable action films, like Martial Law (1991), Tiger Claws (1991), Lady Dragon (1992), Honor and Glory (1993), Undefeatable (1994) and many more.
“I loved every minute of making action movies in Hong Kong,” she says. “It was dangerous, exciting, full of challenges to do things I never thought possible, and living in a completely different culture was the experience of a lifetime.”
The actors tended to stay pretty mainstream with their watch choices, with Rolex, Cartier and TAG Heuer leading the way. “I had a black and gold TAG Heuer, and then after my big fight in Bangkok in 1983, I received a diamond-bezel Rolex President, which was fantastic,” remembers kickboxing champion and action movie star Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson, who starred in Bloodfist (1989), Say Anything… (1989), Batman Forever (1995) and more than 70 other films. “Nothing has really changed for me as I still work in independent films and support martial arts events around the world.”
Watches were often prizes at tournaments, as they are today in tennis, golf and motor racing. “Those days were heady times, and I received a bunch of watches as I won tournaments all over the world,” remembers Keith Vitali, named one of the “Top Ten Fighters of All Time” by Black Belt Magazine and a three-time world champion. “At the Diamond Nationals in Minnesota, in 1978, I even won a diamond ring. I got into movies after that, with Revenge of the Ninja (1983), American Kickboxer (1991), No Retreat No Surrender 3: Blood Brothers and so on. Wearing something cool on your wrist was important then, and still is today.”
“For most action stars, watches are the thing,” agrees actor Matthias Hues, who has been in more than 60 productions, including No Retreat, No Surrender 2 (1987), Dark Angel (1990) and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). “Not sure why, really, but it seems like all of us, especially fellow actors like Schwarzenegger and Stallone, were trying to outdo each other not only on screen or for box-office but also in the size and weight of our watches.
“The 1980s and 1990s were an incredible time, with the excitement of knowing there is a market out there that is so hungry to see your movies. I met media buyers at the film markets that were personally big fans and were so invested in the martial arts genre they couldn’t wait for another movie to come out so they could buy it. It was amazing to be part of this group of action guys who were entertaining the entire world. Everyone around the globe would eventually see those movies, either in the theatres, on VHS or on TV.”
The size of it
For many action stars, especially the muscular ones, small watches were not on the cards, so they opted for bigger timepieces to match their physiques. “I always wanted the Rolex Submariner and it was by far one of the most popular watches of the 1980s and 1990s, but for big guys like me it wasn’t a good fit as it was simply too small and so I unfortunately never bought one,” remembers Hues. “I wish they made a size for us big action guys. This is what set the market for the companies like Panerai and U-Boat.
“Unfortunately, I’ve misplaced or lost most of my watches,” Hues continues. “I now split my time between LA and Bali and, in Bali, my wife and I have a monkey, who steals everything that isn’t nailed down. He probably has my watches off in the jungle somewhere. But I will definitely purchase another dream watch soon and lock it into the safe when I’m not wearing it.”
Over the years, companies have tried to capitalise on the martial arts audience, like Richard Mille with Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh limited editions; Hublot with Jet Li, as well as a Bruce Lee Foundation timepiece; U-Boat and its Steven Seagal Classico U-72 limited edition; and Yvan Arpa’s Black Belt watch, which required you to prove that you had earned a black belt to buy one. Schwarzenegger famously sent an assistant to buy one of the Black Belt watches, only to be turned away.
The Golden Era of American martial arts films was a heady time, one that lasted until the beginning of the 1990s, when the industry was changed forever by cheap video rentals, a dearth of theatrical releases and inexpensive purchases of VHS and DVDs. As a result, the bottom fell out of the martial arts film market and that gilded age was officially over. Enjoy this glimpse of the stars from that era and the timepieces they favoured. We’ll never see their like again.
How the Movies Got Me into Watches
How did I go from writing and producing low-budget martial arts movies to writing about watches? Simple, really. After I finished a movie, I would buy what I then thought was a nice watch, usually from a retailer in Hong Kong.
As I started to learn more, I figured out that my watches were not actually so nice. I became more and more enamoured with the whole world of timepieces. I was already freelance writing between movies, specialising in the martial arts, policing, China and movie-making, so I started to dabble in watch writing as well. I worked for National Jeweler, American Time, Europa Star, InSync and others.
Then, when martial arts films died a slow death in the 1990s, I did more and more watch writing and, long story short, ended up here at Revolution. For those fans of No Retreat, No Surrender, which is my tenuous claim to fame, don’t give up hope. There will be more to come.
Additional research by Alan Seymour.