Cynthia Rothrock: The Queen of Martial Arts

Breaking boards and barriers.

Posted Feb 28, 2019

Cynthia Rothrock - used with permission
Source: Cynthia Rothrock - used with permission

I have been a martial artist for almost 50 years. I have written articles about positive psychology in martial arts, protecting those we love through martial arts, and about a few of my martial-arts friends like Dr. Robert GoldmanDr. Vincent Lyn, and Sifu Alan Goldberg, who hosts the premier martial arts event in the world.

When I began martial arts, it was widely considered a “man’s sport.” There was not a separate woman’s division in many tournaments and women were treated differently, as less proficient than men. The women’s movement had not reached the martial arts world.

Neil Farber - used with permission
Grandmaster Cynthia Rothrock with author
Source: Neil Farber - used with permission
Cynthia Rothrock - used with permission
Source: Cynthia Rothrock - used with permission

This post is about a martial artist I am honored to know who is single-handedly responsible for kicking down barriers – more than just gender-related. If you are a martial artist, the name Cynthia Rothrock will be familiar to you and you will have undoubtedly seen at least a few of her movies. The term “Dragon Lady” typically refers to powerful, strong, and mysterious women in Asian culture. If you Google “Lady Dragon,” you will find the name Cynthia Rothrock, the proverbial Lady Dragon. This is one of her nicknames, after one of her films by the same name.

The other term commonly associated with Rothrock is “The Queen of Martial Arts.” Indeed, Grandmaster Cynthia Rothrock has earned the title and position as “The Queen.” When she appears at any martial arts event as the guest of honor, she is treated as royalty, but she is one of the humblest individuals one could meet. 

So, who is Cynthia Ann Christine Rothrock? She is a 5’3” powerhouse. She was born in Delaware and grew up in Pennsylvania. She began her martial-arts career at age 13 and quickly realized it to be a life mission. Today, more than a few decades later, she maintains the same passion for training and teaching.

By the early 80s, Rothrock had made a name for herself competing on the national and international scene. Between 1981 and 1985, while she became respected for her skills and abilities as a fighter, she also became World Champion in both forms and weapons five years in a row. She was the undefeated forms champion for over 100 competitions, until she retired (to begin her film career) as Number One in the country. I have spoken to several Grandmaster martial artists who still reflect on watching her amazing competition skills in the 80s.

Cynthia Rothrock - used with permission
Source: Cynthia Rothrock - used with permission

Barrier: A young teenage girl training in and pursuing martial arts in the mid 1970s.

Barrier: Competing in and winning martial arts tournaments as there were no women’s divisions in weapons at that time. Try to imagine a woman today in any other professional sport, competing and winning in a man’s division. How about women competing in the NBA, NFL, NHL, or MLB against men? Don’t think so. This was how significant Rothrock’s skills, courage and impact was. In 1982, Rothrock became number one weapon champion in the country while competing in the men’s division. Rothrock earned the title of overall Grand Champion in many of those tournaments – competing against the winners of every division, men or women.

Not satisfied with just winning tournaments and competing against others, she continuously challenges herself to expand her repertoire of martial art styles. As such, she now holds seven black belts and sashes in various disciplines including Tang Soo Do – Moo Duk Kwan (Korean art form), in which she holds Grandmaster status as an 8th Dan Black Belt and one of the top-rated practitioners in the world!

The other disciplines in which she is proficient includes Northern Shaolin Kung Fu (classical Chinese), Eagle Claw (Ying Jow Pai), Pai Lum Tao Kung Fu, Wu Shu (contemporary Chinese) and Tae Kwon Do (Korean). She has also studied Chinese Kempo and Tai Chi.

Barrier: Being an expert in one style, Tang Soo Do and then humbly starting again in several new disciplines. This may not seem to be significant for the non-martial artist, however it is an amazing accomplishment as each of these disciplines have unique properties and require different skill sets and knowledge. Rothrock has mastered each of the styles that she has undertaken.

Barrier: In 1983, Rothrock was inducted into Black Belt Magazine Hall of Fame as Female Competitor of the Year. She was one of the first women in the world to be on the cover of a martial arts magazine in 1981. This was an amazing achievement as the editor was told by the owner of the magazine that women and minorities didn’t sell. Breaking this barrier, she became an inspiration and role model for many thousands of women who previously considered the world of combat to exist only for men. It also broke the barrier for women being placed on the cover of sports magazines.

Cynthia Rothrock - used with permission
Source: Cynthia Rothrock - used with permission

Barrier: Rothrock is one of very few individuals – man or woman — to be inducted into both the Black Belt Hall of Fame and Kung-Fu Hall of Fame. She has been inducted into every prestigious martial arts hall of fames in the world and been the recipient of hundreds of awards from dozens of organizations around the world. In 2014, she was honored with the Legacy Award at the Urban Action Showcase & Expo at HBO and this year will again receive an award from the Urban Action Showcase at HBO.

Rothrock was first discovered for her talent in the martial arts and contracted for a role in a national Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial because they were seeking the best of the best for five different sports. In 1985, director Cory Yuen came to America in search of finding the next Bruce Lee – a male action star. After auditioning Rothrock he was impressed by both her martial arts and acting skills and re-designed the role for Rothrock as the female lead. Golden Harvest Films brought her to Hong Kong where she made her first martial arts movie, Yes, Madam.

After becoming a box-office success, Rothrock signed a deal for more films and ended up staying in Hong Kong making seven movies there until 1992. 

Cynthia Rothrock - used with permission.
Cynthia w/ martial art expert Oso Tayari, Hall of Fame Bodybuilder Cory Everson, martial arts superstar Don (The Dragon) Wilson
Source: Cynthia Rothrock - used with permission.

Barrier: Being one of very few Westerners performing and achieving stardom in the Hong Kong Film industry, before it was cool to do so. Indeed, Rothrock became one of the most famous westerners — man or woman — in Hong Kong action/martial arts cinema.

Rothrock moved back to America when offered a role in a movie with Chad McQueen in the film Martial Law. This was Cynthia’s first U.S. production. For the next few decades she would go on to have a successful career in B-grade action movies which were the rage at the time.

Barrier: Rothrock has gone on to make over 60 films. While most were not big cinema releases, she has developed a strong fan base with some even going as far as building shrines to her and mobbing her at events. It is here that she earned the undisputed title of “The Queen of Martial Arts.”

Cynthia Rothrock - used with permission
Source: Cynthia Rothrock - used with permission

Rothrock has been called “one of the more highly underrated female movie martial artists of the late 20th century.” Some notable Rothrock fight scenes and movies include: Top Squad, The Blond Fury, Yes Madam, Shanghai Express, Magic Crystal, Prince of the Sun, Above the Law, No Retreat No Surrender 2, China O’Brien, China O’Brien 2, Guardian Angel, Lady Dragon, Lady Dragon 2, Honor and Glory, Tiger Claws, Extreme Fighter, Santa’s Summer House and Mercenaries.

In 2016 co-starred with Don (The Dragon) Wilson in the film The Martial Arts Kid and in 2017 she appeared in Enter the Fist, written and starring Sean Stone (Oliver Stone’s son). Her next film, Diary of a Lunatic, is slated for July 2019.

From movies Rothrock made her way onto the TV screen. She appeared as Bertha Jo in the 1997 TV movie The Dukes of Hazzard: Reunion, and made an appearance in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, playing Hera's second Enforcer in the 1996 episode "Not Fade Away." She also appeared on Ken Reid’s TV Guidance Counselor podcast. Rothrock was the inspiration for the character of Sonya Blade from Mortal Kombat. She has appeared on the animated series Eek the Cat as herself.

Rothrock is also a highly sought-after martial arts instructor, teaching classes, seminars and workshops around the globe. In 1986 she co-authored a book with George Chung titled, Advanced Dynamic Kicks

Cynthia Rothrock -used with permission
Source: Cynthia Rothrock -used with permission

Barrier: Meeting the challenge of the need to reinvent herself. Rothrock has continued a successful career in the martial arts both teaching and performing while raising her daughter Skyler. As the action movie industry has evolved, so have her acting and martial arts skills. As such, she continues to be have hundreds of thousands of fans around the world.

Two personal stories: 

1. I was recently in a small town in Ecuador visiting a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu school. While there, Cynthia Rothrock called me. Her name appeared on my cell phone and when the instructors at the school saw her name, they immediately stopped class and wanted to FaceTime with her. They told me that they were huge fans, watched all of her movies and talking to her was one of the highlights of their lives. 

2. I take Salsa lessons in Phoenix. The owner of the dance school is from Eastern Europe. On mentioning to him that I am a martial artist, he told me that he always loved watching martial arts movies growing up in Bosnia. I asked him, “Who is your favorite martial arts actor?” He responded, “Cynthia Rothrock – The Lady Dragon!” 

Barrier: The International Sports Hall of Fame (ISHOF) is one of the most prestigious Hall of Fames in the world. It hosts a special event every year at the Arnold Sports Festival in Ohio. There are 200,000 attendees and about 20,000 competitive athletes. Five to six sports figures are inducted every year into this organization. Cynthia Rothrock was the first martial artist – man or woman — with the honor of being inducted (in 2014). Since then, a martial artist has been inducted every year. Dr. Robert Goldman (founder of the ISHOF) stated, “When you look for the ultimate combination of speed, flexibility, grace, class and world championship caliber skills in martial arts, Cynthia is the first to come to mind…With countless action motion pictures and five world championships under her belt, she is an ageless beauty and is truly the first lady of martial arts and the first female Martial Arts Master ever inducted into the ISHOF."

Cynthia Rothrock - used with permission
Cynthia - with the ISHOF
Source: Cynthia Rothrock - used with permission

Grandmaster Cynthia Rothrock is a positive source of energy. Her seminars and workshops are challenging, to say the least. She has not rested and settled on her laurels. She is resilient and has risen to all challenges – physical and otherwise (such as her martial arts school being destroyed in a fire) with an attitude of “giving up is not an option.”

In addition to maintaining her physical conditioning, she also focuses on what are known as the “internal arts." This is an awareness of the spirit, mind, and relaxed use of Chi (or energy). Cynthia has used these principles to achieve a winning spirit which, in turn has helped her develop confidence and self-esteem. When challenged, she exudes a fierce warrior mindset that leads to her accomplishing amazing feats such as climbing Mt. Fuji, trekking through jungles and deserts, hiking the “W” trek in Patagonia and the Inca trail in Peru, ascending to the Mt. Everest base camp, climbing ice mountains, and taking the polar-bear plunge in the middle of Antarctica — in January.

Rothrock’s adventure travels are the stories of legends, and to tens of thousands of followers on social media, she is the legend. She relates to me that Mt Kilimanjaro is her next goal.

The key to whether stress is bad (distress) or good (eustress) is one’s subjective interpretation of the stressor. Is it a debilitating, non-welcome problem or is it a healthy, growth-promoting challenge? Rothrock excels at being mindfully aware of the journey and is a Grandmaster at converting problems to challenges, to which she seems always ready to rise. Overcoming her fears and succeeding in martial arts have allowed her to overcome self-limiting beliefs and take on novel challenges enthusiastically.

Breaking barriers is something she continues to look forward to doing. A lesson for us all. 

Cynthia Rothrock - used with permission
Source: Cynthia Rothrock - used with permission