Ron Van Clief: Where Is He Now?

By Jason Probst Jul 29, 2009
Even by the standards of most mixed martial arts pioneers, Ron Van Clief’s life is one that stands out, for the sheer scope of what he’s done and who he’s worked with.

With a range of careers spanning from Hollywood stuntman to actor and advocate for the early days of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, “The Black Dragon” is best-known to early MMA fans for his single appearance in the Octagon at UFC 4, where he lost via submission to Royce Gracie in four minutes.

Fifty-one years young at the time, Van Clief sported the kind of musculature that would make men half his age envious. And today, living in the Virgin Islands, his daily regimen is testimony that preparation plays a big part in being ready for the challenges life brings.

Three days a week, Van Clief will pull a two-mile swim, and the other three days of the week he’ll do a routine of calisthenics that’d make most people puke. It includes 1500 reps of crunches, a couple hundred push-ups and chin-ups. And 250 squat thrusts.

“On weekends I teach my classes, and that’s outside, right on the beach,” said Van Clief, 65. “We’ve got some Gracie and Machado guys down here. It’s quite wonderful. We’re just starting up a Virgin Islands mixed martial arts association and having an event down here next year. I’m going to speak to Dana White at UFC 101 in Philly to let him know.”

Van Clief, who grew up in Brooklyn, began studying martial arts locally and then with grandmaster Peter Urban in 1959. This was just prior to joining the Marine Corps, where he served in Vietnam as an artillery man and grunt, carrying an M-60 prior to shipping back to the States in 1965.

Traveling to Hong Kong in 1966, Van Clief was introduced to an up-and-coming martial artist, Bruce Lee, whose disdain for centuries-old traditions of the arts, and emerging stardom in the states in “The Green Hornet” television series, marked him as a good man to know.

“Bruce called me ‘The Black Dragon.’ I didn’t realize ten years later I’d be making a movie named that. Lee was a very interesting man. He didn’t have the same ego that other guys had then, and today. There’s too many master and grandmasters. Bruce said ‘You’re only as good as your last workout.’ If you have a big fat belly… what kind of example is that for your students? I’ve always tried to stay fit,” recalled Van Clief. “He was into sizing down your arsenal into economical and tactical (parts), which was totally correct. Even dealing with herbal supplements, he was way ahead of his time."

While Lee is mainly known for his many martial arts films, he was also interested in grappling and had begun integrating it into his fighting philosophy, under judo legend Gene LeBell.

“He was a mixed martial artist, he was grappling back then,” Van Clief said.

And how would he rate the legendary Lee if given the opportunity to train and compete today?

Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

At 51, Ron van Clief took
on Royce Gracie at UFC 4.
“I think if he put his mind to do it, he would've been an excellent lightweight, as good as any of the lightweight MMA guys around. He was tough, he really was tough. Most people didn’t realize that, he could take it and dish it out. It’s kind of rare in any weight division.”

For Van Clief, the emergence of MMA’s popularity in the early 1990s offered an opportunity he couldn’t resist. Despite having competed in countless tournaments, winning the world karate championship five times, he was game to give it a try.

So he signed on to fight Royce Gracie at UFC 4 in December 1994. After years of fighting on the hard-rock circuits and in challenge matches, it was like an overdue proving ground, and on pay-per-view, to boot.

“I fought in the UFC when I was 51, and I saw it on TV and I had to. You understand? There was no way I could not do it. There was no way,” he said. “How could you be a serious marital artist and not try the Octagon? It was a beautiful thing. There’ve been guys who ragged on me ever since I went into the Octagon, guys like (karate legend) Joe Lewis who said ‘you’re gonna get your ass whipped.’ That’s not important.

“I trained really hard for three months, boxing, muay Thai, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, everything. One week before I went to Oklahoma, I broke my ankle against Leon Stevenson, a 6’4, 245-pound guy. He hit me with a suplex, my left ankle hit the frame of the mat. I broke my ankle one week before I fought in UFC 4. I could’ve quit. I couldn’t wear a shoe, it was unbelievable.”

Van Clief went into the Octagon anyways, unwilling to let the injury keep him from competing.

“My student was giving me a massage on the dressing room floor before the fight and couldn’t even touch it. But how could you not fight?” he said. “It was such a wonderful experience. A wonderful experience. Win, lose, draw, you step in, you hung in there for four minutes with Royce Gracie, thirty years younger? Really beautiful. What better way to end your career?”

Van Clief served as commissioner of the UFC from 1994-1995. At the time, Semaphore Entertainment Group owned the organization, and it was facing a decidedly uphill battle, between bans on events and the opposition from Senator John McCain (whose close ties to Budweiser, a major boxing sponsor, rarely, if ever, made it into stories playing up the “human cockfighting” angle).

“I was appointed by Rorion and Helio Gracie, they wanted someone that was a real statesman in the martial arts. It was great, I had the opportunity to set up a lot of the cards.

“I was a co-producer and production coordinator, getting the fight coordinators together, and restructuring the event and making it more comedic, more entertaining, telegenic. I brought in the bad guys like Tank Abbott, I started the ‘Superfight’ concept,” Van Clief said. “And then I left. I got tired of way it was going. One time, I saw Tank Abbott beat up Pat Smith in an elevator with his three bodyguard goons. It was horrible what they did to him. Of course, the UFC didn’t want any police involved. I got disheartened over that. I went to court, I faced McCain, and he called me a pit bull. I represented the UFC in all those cases to get events going.”

Van Clief had a lengthy career in the film and television industry as well.

“I’ve been in the business for almost forty years,” Van Clief said. “Worked on ‘Die Hard with a Vengeance.’ In the ‘Capital Conspiracy’ with Charlie Sheen, I drove a motorcycle down an escalator. I worked on 200 films and retired in 2008. I still get residuals from shows like ‘The Sopranos’. In ‘Oz,’ I was (series’ star) Said’s roommate; in the opening credits you can see me smacking him in the face. I was on at least 20 episodes of that show.”

Today’s fight game is what Van Clief had hoped it’d be when he excitedly answered the call to face Gracie –- a full sporting evolution that has cast aside long-revered techniques of little practical application.

“Cross-training is what we were missing before,” he said. “Today’s fighters are just so well trained now, and (there are) many different facets of MMA, the striking, the takedowns, locks, ground-and-pound, it’s become a global sport. It’s quite wonderful how point tournaments and tae kwon do are dead. They’re boring to watch and they’re not exciting. They do not represent fighting, or sparring, really. Maybe the sport, but not fighting.

Van Clief cites Gracie, Tito Ortiz, Matt Hughes and Chuck Liddell as some of his favorite fighters to watch over the years.

“It has to evolve, just like boxing and wrestling. And it will evolve into the most telegenic enterprise,” he said. “The UFC makes more money than any of the other boxing industries. They’ve figured out the formula: exciting fights, talented guys, and good endorsements. And keep going from there.”
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