At the age of 12, Van Damme began his martial arts training at Centre National De Karate (National Center of Karate) under the guidance of Master Claude Goetz in Ixelles, Belgium. Van Damme trained for 4 years and earned a spot on the Belgium Karate Team.
In 1976 at the age of sixteen, Jean-Claude started his fight career as a 135-pound lightweight. He debuted under his birth name of Jean Claude Van Varenberg. In his first match, Jean-Claude was staggered by a round-house kick thrown by fellow countryman, Toon Van Oostrum in Brussels, Belgium. Van Damme was badly stunned, but came back to knockout Van Oostrum moments later. Jean-Claude finished the year with a first knockout win over Roland Vedani in a competition in Ingelmunster.
In 1977, at the WAKO Open International in Antwerp, Belgium, Jean-Claude won a decision over fellow team mate Patrick Teugels. Previous reports had Van Damme losing a decision, but a recent video shows Jean-Claude winning the match.At the same tournament, Van Damme knocked out Andre Lemaire in the opening round.
After six months of intense training and sparring, Master Goetz decided to unleash his prized pupil on the European Full-Contact scene. Jean-Claude won his first tournament by scoring 3 knockout victories in one evening. However, in a 1978 match for the Belgium Lightweight Title, he lost a decision to Patrick Teugels. A few months later at Iseghem, Belgium, Van Damme comeback and knocked out Emile Leibman in the first round.
In 1979, Jean-Claude was a member of the Belgium Karate Team when it won the European Team Championships. Next, in his first and only match against a United States opponent, Van Damme faced 'Sherman 'Big Train' Bergman', a kick-boxer from the Miami Beach, Florida. For the first and only time in his career, Jean-Claude was knocked to the canvas after absorbing a powerful left hook from Bergman. However, Jean-Claude climbed off the canvas and with a perfectly timed ax-kick, knocked Bergman out cold in 56 seconds of the first round. Next, Jean-Claude scored a 1st round stoppage of Spain's Gilberto Dias. Jean-Claude ended the year with a decision victory over Patrick Teugels.
In 1980, Jean-Claude Van Damme established himself as one of the best 160-pound, full-contact fighters in Europe. After two tune-up victories, Van Damme knocked out Great Britian and European Middleweight Karate Champion Micheal Heming, and France's Georges Verlugels in 2 rounds.
After these victories, Van Damme caught the attention of the European martial arts community. Professional Karate Magazine publisher and editor Mike Anders, and multiple European Champion Geet Lemmens tabbed Jean-Claude Van Damme as an upcoming prospect. However, Jean-Claude's ambitions now focused in the direction of movie acting.
Before he retired from active competition, Jean-Claude wanted to knockout the only man to defeat him, Patrick Teugels. In 1980, at the Forest Nationals in Brussels,Jean-Claude knocked Teugels down and scored a first round technical knockout victory. Teugels suffered a nose injury and was unable to continue.
Following the victory, Jean-Claude retired from martial arts competition, a year later he launched a comeback. In 1981, Jean-Claude knocked out Henk Besselman in one round, and in 1982, he knocked out Lenny Leikman in three rounds. Jean-Claude's full-contact fight record was 23-1 (22 knockouts).
After Jean-Claude's film career took off, controversy arose because none of his fights were found. Some experts blasted Van Damme as a fake, saying he only had one amateur fight which he lost. But research and the Internet have finally cleared things up. Jean-Claude Van Damme fought his entire fight career under his birth name of Van Varenberg; thus the mix-up.
In August, 2009, it was announced that Jean-Claude Van Damme would return to the ring after a 27 year retirement to fight Thailand's Somrak Khamsing in a match promoted by Japan's K-1. The comeback fight is scheduled for November 2011 in Russia.