Martial arts

‘Bloodsport’ 30 years on: how a Jean-Claude Van Damme punch helped a Hong Kong actor pay his university fees in one of Donald Trump’s top-10 movies

Bernard Mariano is proud of his cameo role as Sadiq Hossein in the cult classic film that launched the ‘Muscles from Brussels’ Hollywood career

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2018, 2:50pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 December, 2018, 10:12pm

They had choreographed the scene several times and were ready to shoot. The misogynistic Syrian fighter, Sadiq Hossein, was to rise angrily from where Frank Dux – played by Jean-Claude Van Damme – had flattened him and challenge the movie’s hero a second time.

Dux would let fly and Hossein would go down again. This time, though, he wasn’t acting. Van Damme had actually caught him with a pearler on the lip and Bernard Mariano, who played Hossein in the cult classic Bloodsport, was out cold on the mat.

Last week was the 30th anniversary of the release of Bloodsport – the movie with a Hong Kong backdrop that would launch Belgium’s “Muscles from Brussels” Van Damme’s career as a major Hollywood star – and is seen as the inspiration for modern mixed martial arts.

Born in Hong Kong of Filipino descent, Mariano was picked for the role of Hossein after being spotted working out in a gym in Wan Chai. At the time, all he was thinking about was earning extra cash.

“I actually needed the money to pay my way through university. I was paid HK$1,000 a day in 1987 and the movie was released in 1988,” said Mariano, who graduated with a degree in English Literature and History at the University of Hong Kong. “That was a lot of money. I was earning HK$3,000 a month at Clark Hatch Fitness Centre and this was a chance to earn HK$1,000 a day for a 10-day shoot.”

As it turned out, Mariano earned more thanks to Van Damme’s lightning-fast speed.

“I was supposed to play dead and get up and try to attack Jean-Claude again,” said Mariano, who is an English teacher and a part-time magician – a skill that helped him in one of the scenes in Bloodsport.

“When we choreographed it, I tapped him on the shoulder and he would hit me with an elbow and I would fall back. We practised it and it worked.

“But when we rolled the first take, he moved too fast. My hand was resting on his shoulder and at that moment, he was already moving back and caught me full on the jaw and split my lip.

“I passed out and was taken to hospital and stitched up,” said Mariano, who received seven stitches. “I was paid HK$1,000 for each stitch. I said ‘hit me on the other side so I can go on holiday’.

“There was a lot of blood. The blood that you see in the movie is actually my blood.”

Although injured, Mariano was still needed. Part of the scene involved Hossein being dragged away from the fighting mat.

“So after the hospital, I had to go back and finish my scene. Actually, a lot of the bit-part actors got injured. Not a lot of them were professional fighters and [Van Damme] was just too fast for us.”

Although panned, Bloodsport went on to enjoy cult status and spawned two sequels, neither of which featured former world karate champion Van Damme. It is also one of the favourite movies of US president Donald Trump, who described it as an “incredible, fantastic movie”.

For Mariano, it was merely a means to pay tuition fees but he is still proud to have been involved in the movie with his character – Sadiq Hossein – a fan favourite.

“People came to this gym in Wan Chai looking for someone with Middle Eastern looks. They offered me a chance to go for casting and I passed,” said Mariano, who went to earn a Masters degree in English at City University. “It should have been just a cameo role and it was actually very minor but it struck a chord with people. Who is this weird person Sadiq Hossein?

“The popularity of Bloodsport somehow endured. God knows for what reason. Somehow it connected with people. It was corny but I just wanted to make some money. I show the film to my students and most are really amazed that their teacher was in it.”

Though he had only a minor role in the film, he is sometimes approached on the street by diehard Bloodsport fans who recognise him. Mariano says one of the most memorable incidents was when he was watching the movie in Hong Kong soon after it was released.

“There were two guys in front of me and when I got hit they said that ‘these guys are faking it’. I tapped him on the shoulder and said ‘that was real blood’,” said Mariano, who speaks fluent Cantonese.

“They panicked at first but then they wanted me to autograph their movie tickets.

“Once I was on holiday sightseeing in Paris when some people come up to me and ask if I was the guy in Bloodsport. When Facebook came along, people started to connect with me.

“There was one Russian guy who comes to Hong Kong once a year. He came to see me and brought a DVD for me to sign and asked me to take him to places in Hong Kong where Bloodsport was shot.

“This was in 2007 but it was very different to 1987 and the studio where we shot it in Clearwater Bay was derelict by then.”

Mariano attended King George V School and, since his teens, has been performing magic shows for children. And his sleight of hand skill was called upon for the scene in Bloodsport when Van Damme’s character, trying to protect a woman from Hossein, said he could remove a coin from Hossein’s hand before he could close his fingers.

“He was supposed to switch a 50-cent piece with a dollar,” said Mariano. “The original idea was to put the dollar in my hand, cut away and when I opened my hand the 50 cent would be there. I told them that I could do the switch and they don’t have to cut away. We tried it and it worked.”

Mariano, now in his 50s, continues to work out and perform magic shows – both of which provide solace in his life after a recent divorce. His small role in Bloodsport, while not life-changing, makes him part of martial arts folklore for the diehard fans who have made T-shirts and memes out of his character.

“It was just a cameo, it was my 15 minutes of fame and I’m happy for it.”

As for Bloodsport being among Trump’s favourite movies, he says: “Not proud of that. But I can understand his mentality.”