Steven Seagal is a great many things: Actor, blues musician, a reportedly difficult coworker, possibly useless in an actual fight. Today, Seagal’s “special envoy” position with Russia might be his main claim to fame — apart from the assorted Me Too allegations against him, as Vox reminds us. However, back in the days when his notoriety didn’t revolve largely around the letters “W,” “T,” and “F,” he had some fame as a martial artist. Although he has been known to spin the occasional tall tale about his abilities and role in training assorted famous fighters, his status as a dude who is very good at aikido is rarely disputed. Should his claims of aikido royalty be taken at face value, though? Does he have the black belt (or, better yet, belts) to prove his skills, or is he one of those martial arts actors who don’t even have a black belt?
Steven Seagal has surprisingly many black belts
Whatever your opinion of Steven Seagal may otherwise be, his black belts are very real. Yes, that’s “belts” in plural: Though Seagal is mainly known for his aikido wizardry, Biography tells us he’s also the proud owner of black belts in karate, kendo and judo. Seagal has been heavily into martial arts since he was a small child, and he moved in Japan when he was 17 to “study Zen” and hone his martial arts skills. He ended up spending around 15 years in Asia doing all sorts of Steven Seagal things, such as “studying Eastern philosophy” and working as a martial arts choreographer … all of which might actually explain a lot of his “dresses in weird pseudo-Asian costumes and acts like some sort of cowboy monk” vibe, come to think of it.
As chuckle-worthy and/or worrisome as Steven Seagal’s antics might be these days, if you ask his old aikido cohort Haruo Matsuoka, Seagal is, or at least used to be, the real deal when it comes to this particular art. According to Black Belt Mag, Matsuoka was one of Sensei Seagal’s favorite students in the 1970s, and Seagal even recruited him as his uke – the guy all those aikido moves are demonstrated on — when he set out to conquer Hollywood.
Matsuoka and the article both make Seagal’s brand of Aikido seem like a fairly ruthless, brutal and street-ready affair that drew heavy influence from Japanese swordmanship (which might explain his reported black belt in kendo), but also point out that the big man held great influence within aikido circles and was on great terms with at least some of the higher-ups. Matsuoka also points out that aikido had an extremely hard time in the west, until Seagal’s 1988 breakthrough movie Above The Law caused the art’s popularity to explode virtually overnight.
On the other hand, Matsuoka points out that Seagal’s newfangled famous-person ways ultimately estranged the two, and caused them to fall out in 1997. It would never occur to us to point out that moving away from his old compatriots and toward Hollywood navel-gazing might coincide with the era Seagal started moving from box office successes like Under Siege to direct-to-video fare like The Patriot. Fortunately, we don’t have to, because that’s what IMDb is for.
Aikido master as Steven Seagal may be, when it comes to his reported judo prowess one can’t help but dust off a certain story about him and a man whose very nickname is “Judo.” The man in question was Gene LeBell, a bona fide martial arts legend who Uproxx tells us was still at the ringside for fellow judoka and fighter of some note Ronda Rousey when he was 79 years old.
As the story goes, “Judo” Gene was a spry 58 when he served as the fight choreographer for Seagal vehicle Out For Justice. When Seagal boasted that he had the moves to ensure that he simply couldn’t be choked out, LeBell happily took up the challenge. As a result of this very brief altercation, Seagal passed out so hard that he … well, evacuated his bowels. In front of about thirty stuntmen and crew members, if you believe LeBell.
To be entirely fair, LeBell is perfectly cordial about the incident and says he respects Seagal as a martial artist, though he points out that the aikido master would do well if he abstained from speaking in potential foot-in-mouth (or, as it happens, poop-in-pants) situations. It should also be noted that LeBell has been known to tell a tale or two in his time, and Seagal himself vehemently denies this ever happened. Still, one would probably be forgiven for not betting on Seagal in a judo match.
Karate might not be the first martial art you associate with Steven Seagal, but it turns out he started his studies as a karate kid. That’s not clever wordplay, either: He actually studied under Fumio Demura, a man who also trained Pat Morita, who played Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid movies and brought a lot of Demura in the role. According to the Daily Beast, Demura has played a part inspiring legends such as Dolph Lundgren and Chuck Norris. He was even involved with Bruce Lee, who he briefly tutored on the use of nunchaku. Seagal is happy to sing his old master’s praises: “Demura sensei’s the real thing.”
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