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Watches and the Action Movie Stars Who Love Them

I love this time of year, with warm days and cool nights, the wind with a slight edge to it telling us that winter is on the way and the NFL in full swing.

One thing I don’t love is “falling back.” Why in the world are we still switching time in the fall and then again in the spring? No one can even tell us why we are doing it—some people think it’s to help the farmers, others that it was a war time way of conserving energy—and none of the reasons apply today, if they ever did. It is estimated that switching times impacts at least one billion people around the world.

It’s time to stop doing this, as changing time leads to a reduction in productivity, a general “time hangover” and a frustration that we have to update all our clocks, watches and more. If you are a collector and you keep your watches wound, as I do, the day after daylight savings time reverts back, it takes quite a bit of precious time to make all the adjustments. Plus, trying to remember how to change the digital clock on my motorcycle is always a challenge. This year, I was proud that it only took me a month to set it right.

Now that I have gotten that off my chest, there is a story in this issue of Revolution USA that is worth mentioning here: a nostalgic look at the importance of watches to action movie stars.

Fighting Stars

The heyday for martial arts movies was in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s, a period that saw the rise and dominance of such fighting stars as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Matthias Hues, Cynthia Rothrock, Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Keith Vitali and many more.

 

Cynthia Rothrock
Cynthia Rothrock Hublot
Tag Link Lady
Cynthia Rothrock TAG Heuer Link Lady
Rolex Lady Datejust
Cynthia Rothrock Rolex

These stars were making movies and appearances on the red carpet and on the party pages of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Back when they were big box office, both Van Damme and Seagal were staples of late-night talk shows, celebrity events and movie premieres, and they needed to sport serious wrist candy to keep up with their fellow luminaries.

And they did. Even Cynthia Rothrock, the First Lady of the Martial Arts, got into the game, combining her signature kung fu moves with fine timepieces.

“I love watches… the bigger, the better,” Rothrock said. “I have traded all the smaller dainty watches I had for bigger, masculine-style watches.  The one I am wearing most now is a Luminox Navy SEAL dive watch. They are easier to read and now I’m used to the weight on my wrist.”

Rothrock starred in many iconic action films, like Lady Dragon, Honor and Glory, Undefeatable, Tiger Claws, No Retreat No Surrender 2 and many more. “I loved every minute of making action movies in Hong Kong,” she says. “It was dangerous, exciting, full of challenges to do things I never thought possible, and living in a completely different culture was the experience of a lifetime.”

These martial arts actors stayed pretty mainstream with their watch choices, with Rolex, Cartier and TAG Heuer leading the way.

“I had a black and gold TAG Heuer, and then after my big fight in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1983, I received a diamond bezel Rolex President, which was fantastic,” remembers kickboxing champion and action movie star Don “The Dragon” Wilson, who starred in Bloodfist, Say Anything…, Batman Forever and more than 70 other films. “Nothing has really changed for me as I still work in independent films and support martial arts events around the world.”

Watches were often prizes at tournaments, as they are today in tennis, golf and motor racing.

“Those days were incredible times, and I won a bunch of watches as I won tournaments all over the world,” remembers Keith Vitali, named one of the Top Ten Fighters of All Time by Black Belt Magazine and a three-time world champion. “At the Diamond Nationals in Minnesota, in 1978, I even won a diamond ring! I got into movies after that, with Revenge of the Ninja, American Kickboxer, No Retreat, No Surrender 3 and more. Wearing something cool on your wrist was important then and still today.”

“For most action stars, watches are the thing,” agrees actor Matthias Hues, who has been in more than 60 productions, including Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Dark Angel and No Retreat, No Surrender 2. “It seems like all of us, especially Schwarzenegger and Stallone, were trying to outdo each other not only on screen or for box-office but also in the size and weight of our watches.

Don the Dragon Wilson Six Gun Savior Premiere in Westwood
Don the Dragon Wilson Six Gun Savior Premiere in Westwood

“The ‘80s and ‘90s were an incredible time, with the excitement of knowing there is a market out there that is so hungry to see your movies,” he continues. “I met media buyers at the film markets that were personally big fans and were so invested in the martial art genre they couldn’t wait for another movie to come out so they could buy it. It was amazing to be part of this group of action guys who were entertaining the entire world. Everyone in the world would eventually see those movies, either in the theaters, on VHS or on TV.”

For many action stars, especially the muscular ones, small watches were not in the cards, so they opted for bigger timepieces to match their physiques.

“I always wanted the Rolex Submariner and it was by far one of the most popular watches in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but for big guys like me it wasn’t a fit as it was simply too small and so I unfortunately never ever bought one,” remembers Hues. “I now split my time between LA and Bali, and in Bali my wife and I have a monkey, who steals everything that isn’t nailed down. He probably has my watches off in the jungle somewhere. I will purchase another dream watch soon and lock it into the safe when I’m not wearing it.”

The Golden Age of American martial arts films was a heady time, one that lasted until the beginning of the 1990s, when the industry was changed forever by cheap video rentals, a dearth of theatrical releases and inexpensive purchases of VHS and DVDs. As a result, the bottom fell out of the martial arts film market and that Golden Age was officially over.

Sidebar: How the Movies Got Me into Watches

How did I go from writing and producing low-budget martial arts movies to writing about watches? Simple, really. After I finished a movie, I would buy what I then thought was a nice watch, usually from a retailer in Hong Kong.

Keith and Actor
Keith and Actor

As I started to learn more about watches and figured out that my watches were not so nice, I became more and more enamored with the whole world of timepieces. I was already freelance writing between movies, specializing in the martial arts, policing, China and movie making, so I started to dabble in watch writing as well. I worked for National Jeweler, American Time, Europa Star, InSync and more.

Then, when martial arts films died a slow death in the 1990s, I did more and more watch writing, and, long story short, ended up here at Revolution. For those fans of No Retreat, No Surrender, which is my tenuous claim to fame, don’t give up hope. There will be more to come.

About The Author: Keith Strandberg

Keith W. Strandberg (KeithStrandberg.com) has written about timepieces in many different publications for the past 25+ years. One of the few international journalists living in Switzerland, Strandberg is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolution USA (Revolution.Watch). He has written for the trade extensively as well as for mainstream publications like Variety, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, United Airlines’ Hemispheres, Men’s Vogue, USA Today, Tennis and many more.

Read more from Keith Strandberg

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