As long as there have been stories, there have been white people out to prove that they are better at doing whatever it is the people in those stories are doing. And as long as there have been white people that love martial arts, there have been white dudes hanging around the Asian dudes in martial arts stories. Sometimes they’re the hero. Sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re awesome at martial arts. Sometimes they’ve got no kung fu at all. And sometimes they’re white, but Hollywood wants you to think that they’re not because no one wanted to hire a Chinese guy for their Chinese guy story.
Here are the best, worst, and most memorable white dudes that the world of fictional martial arts has to offer.
Pro Wrestling has a long tradition of trying to pinpoint things that are cool in pop culture and incorporating them into the squared circle. Like when Robocop rescued Sting in WCW, or when the WWF pushed wearing leather fanny packs into the main event scene. In the late 90’s, WCW decided that the best way to keep winning the Monday Night Wars was to borrow heavily from the hit video game Mortal Kombat and debuted GLACIER, because nothing screams ‘future of the business’ like a guy in a Sub Zero costume doing sidekicks in the middle of Rupp Arena. WCW spent millions on this white ninja’s entrance, which included laser lights and and synthetic snow. Glacier makes the list because he is the ultimate worst example of white guy Martial Arts: a bunch of white southern guys with no real reference to what makes martial arts great outside of ‘my kid likes this immortal combat game’ trying to create a live action martial arts epic in Hulk Hogan’s backyard. It went GREAT.
Ninja Master Gordon (Cobra vs. Ninja)
The tale of actor Richard Harrison is an interesting one: he was known for his B movie spaghetti westerns when he signed on to do a ninja movie with director Godfrey Ho to cash in on the late 80’s ninja craze, AKA my defining years. Without his knowledge, his scenes were cut up and placed into more than a dozen terrible martial art movies like Cobra vs. Ninja and Ninja Avengers, all billing him as the star. In the IMDB age, I now know of the tragic scam that killed Harrison’s career. But when I was a kid, I only knew him as Ninja Master Gordon, the dude in the bad ass ninja costume that said ‘ninja’ on it that once visited a place called The Unicorn Village.
Billy and Jimmy Lee (Double Dragon)
Talk about handing everything kids in the late’s 80’s/early 90’s loved on a roundhouse kicking platter: punching dudes in the woods, sleeveless vests, and sweet double team moves. Double Dragon was total wish fulfillment for 10 year old boys: if a guy showed up with a weapon you didn’t own, you got to beat the crap out of him and steal it. If you beat the game in co-op mode, Billy and Jimmy fought each other to see who got to bang the chick they just rescued: just like most things involving ten year olds, the game devolves into an argument over who gets to play with the Turtle Blimp.
Also, if you can score 50,000 in Double Dragon, Fred Savage is going to think you’re a pretty big deal.
Roper (Enter the Dragon)
Unlike a lot of white dudes on this list, Roper got to pal around with Bruce Lee. He’s also a fun turncoat character, being tempted with a role in a massive drug trade, as opposed to just being a dude with no sleeves on his vest that’s like ‘you kidnapped my girlfriend! NUNCHUCKS!’ He chooses the Bruce Lee path and the two take an awesome stand in one of the best third act sequences in a martial arts film.
White guys can’t kick, but they can give the best damn thumbs up on the planet. MURICA!
Haggar (Final Fight)
I’ll let Wikipedia’s explanation speak for itself, because I can’t write anything nearly as good:
Chronologically set during the time of the original Street Fighter, Final Fight is set in the fictional American metropolis of Metro City, based on New York City. A former professional wrestler named Mike Haggar is elected as the new Mayor of the city, promising to handle the city’s criminal problem in his campaign. The Mad Gear gang, the dominant criminal organization of the city, plots to bring Haggar under their control by kidnapping his daughter Jessica and using her as leverage against him. Enlisting the help of Cody, Jessica’s boyfriend and an experienced brawler himself, as well as Cody’s sparring partner, a ninja named Guy, Haggar opts to fight the gang instead in order to save his daughter.
Look at this guy’s resume. Haggar may not be the most popular guy on the list but he’s the most accomplished. A pro wrestling champion turned POTUS turned shirtless vigilante? He’s Brock Lesner, Barack Obama, and Batman rolled into one guy. You kids work as hard as Haggar and you can eat all the hamhocks you can find.
Kwai Chang Kaine (Kung Fu)
White people love kung fu but they haven’t always loved Chinese people. The solution? Get David Carradine to kind of squint a little. Carradine was able to spin an entire career out of being the white guy in Martial Arts films. It’s not because he’s particularly good at kung fu. It’s because part of what white people love about martial arts is the mysticism, and what Dave lacked in being Chinese he more than made up for with beads, feathers, and fringy handmade jackets with dream catchers sewn into the collars. Also, a mysterious ninja death cult staged his death to look like he had died jerking off while strangling himself. MYSTICISM.
Joe Armstrong (American Ninja)
Does anyone even remember the origin story for Joe Armstrong? I sure as hell don’t. I know he’s a ninja and he’s in the army and do we really need to know anything else? Joe Armstrong makes the list for single handedly carrying video rental chains through the 80’s. A ninja concerned with the success of small business? HOW AMERICAN.
Ken Masters (Street Fighter)
The ultimate white guy in martial arts video games: Ken Masters is the standard bearer. He’s a white guy that grew up with and trained in martial arts with a Japanese guy and they were like brothers and then the white guy became a Hollywood star but he never forgot his roots and when his Japanese brother needed him he tore the sleeves right off his gi and brought his hadukens to the party. Johnny Cage fan? GTFO.
Remember the Chun Li shower scene in this movie? Remember your buddy that was convinced you could buy an x rated version at the flea market?
Danny Rand (Invincible Iron Fist)
Danny Rand is amazing. He’s like Batman, but he’s not an unlikable prick. And instead of all that crap about needing a symbol, he was just like ‘eh, the kung fu is enough.’ Also, whereas Batman was like ‘ughhh my parents are deeeeead’ Iron Fist punched an ancient and powerful dragon in the heart.
I love Iron Fist. He’s my favorite Marvel super hero. If you haven’t read Brubaker and Fraction’s run of Iron Fist with David Aja, you should, because it’s pretty much perfect. It’s a fantastic mix of martial arts, Kung Fu mysticism, steampunk, Shaft, and dragons. In fact, it should be #1 on this list. #1 only has a few edges over it, and the big one is this: at the end of the day, Iron Fist is a prime example of ‘the white guy is best at it.’ It’s a testament to how good a read Invincible Iron First was that you can ignore it, but it’s kind of hard to ignore when comparing him to…
Jack Burton (Big Trouble in Little China)
Big Trouble in Little China is the perfect ‘white guy involved with Asian stuff’ movie. Jack is cocky, arrogant, handsome, occasionally lucky, and otherwise worthless. He’s a truck driver. He’s got no connection to the mystic Chinese martial arts underworld: he just wants to help his Chinese buddy Wang out and hopefully get his truck back. Plus, let Wang die? Not when the guy owes him nothing or double.
Jack doesn’t suddenly become better at the Chinese at what they do. Aside from one amazingly lucky moment (it’s all in the reflexes), he’s completely worthless. And yet, he manages to be a hero out of sheer awesomeness and bravery, or stubbornness and being an idiot, if you’d prefer. Like Iron Fist, Big Trouble is a ridiculous tale of Chinese mysticism in the Western World, but instead of the heir of a billion dollar corporation trained since birth to be King of the Chinese Guys, it’s a story that spotlights a typical blue collar American with a mullet that suddenly has to deal with the implications of an ancient Chinese gang war. He is as awed by his good friend Wang Chi’s martial prowess and of Egg Chen’s sorcery as we are, and instead of a sudden mastery of another culture’s skill, only three things get him out alive: luck, crackerjack timing, and a six demon bag. It’s by doing his best to help the martial arts masters, not becoming one, that he and Wang Chi are able to beat the bad guys, and really shake the pillars of heaven.