Blame "The Karate Kid."
Matt Mullins remembers watching the Oscar-nominated 1984 movie as a youngster and being profoundly impressed by the way a young Ralph Macchio learned karate from Pat Morita's masterful Mr. Miyagi.
The next Avenger?He's into martial arts tournaments, movies, TV shows, video games, teaching and more. But Naperville native Matt Mullins is still just beginning. Next up for the five-time martial arts world titleholder will be "Metal Hurlant Chronicles," a science-fiction action series based on the comic book "Heavy Metal."
"I want to produce projects that will hopefully inspire the next generation of world champions," Mullins said. "And maybe somewhere in there I can hit a Matt Damon 'Bourne Identity' sort of thing, or be one of the Avengers. Captain America was already taken. That would have been awesome! We'll see what happens next."
So, at 13, Mullins started martial arts training at John Sharkey's Karate School in Naperville.
At 14, Mullins became an instructor.
At 16, he became a world karate titleholder in Dublin, Ireland.
Today, Mullins holds five world martial arts titles.
He has starred in the kids' show "Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight" and the TV series "Mortal Combat: Legacy."
He's been featured in commercials for Pepsi, Nike, Burger King and Motorola, starred in the Discovery Channel's "Xtreme Martial Arts" as well as the feature film "The Adventures of Johnny Tao," and created the flashy "Sideswipe," a martial arts showcase that won Fox TV's "30 Seconds to Fame" and placed eighth on NBC's "America's Got Talent."
And, as you read this, the 31-year-old Mullins is working on a movie in China.
"It's wild, you know? I've had an opportunity to go out and do things that a lot of people don't get a chance to do," he said with bemused understatement. "I've loved every opportunity I've had."
Matt Mullins' story isn't just about a kid who fell in love with martial arts and worked hard to achieve his dreams.
Like Macchio's Daniel-son, Mullins had a mentor and coach. He also had something Daniel-son didn't: A sponsor whose generosity gave his young protégé a mighty pair of wings.
"After my parents divorced, I moved to Naperville with my mom," Mullins said. "Mom had four kids to raise, and we couldn't afford martial arts training. John Sharkey sponsored me. He got me on to the national circuit. That's when I began to compete."
Not bad for a kid who went to Naperville's Hill Middle School and Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, although Mullins opted to be home-schooled during his senior year.
"I was home-schooled because I'd become so involved with martial arts tournaments around the world that I was hardly home," Mullins said.
See? Blame it on "The Karate Kid." Mullins saw it when he was 4 or 5 years old.
But we could also blame it on "Power Rangers" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," TV shows the young Mullins also devoured with an insatiable appetite.
How did these shows spur Mullins on at such a young age?
"That's a good question," he said. "I think I was extremely motivated to train. There were people I looked up to like Mike Chaturantabut, who did amazing things in competition. I wanted to do those things, too. Every part of my soul wanted to do that."
Then, Mullins made this stunning statement: "I'm not a naturally gifted athlete as far as martial arts go."
"At 13," he explained, "it's really late to be starting this type of sport at that level of competition."
Yet, he did it.
"It was something that I wanted so bad that nothing could stop me," he said. "It was my mindset and my determination to never give up. It paid off."
Mullins is finishing his work on a movie tentatively titled "King of Bujara," an adventure recounting how Japanese forces invaded China during World War II. Mullins plays an expedition soldier (and martial arts guy) who fights on the side of the Chinese military.
Don't be calling Mullins "the next Chuck Norris," the world-title karate champion who parlayed his athletic skills into an acting career, despite that his emotional expressions ranged from A to B.
Mullins has been acting for almost as long as he has been kicking and punching.
"I loved performing," he said. "I loved theater. I was always doing theater in school and in the community. I was taking acting classes in Chicago at the same time I was taking martial arts classes in Naperville. One or two days a week I would hop a train to Chicago and go to Act One at Second City. I interned at David O'Connor Casting for six months, just to learn the business."
Mullins said that even though acting and martial arts don't seem to be similar, they are.
"You have one shot to go in and do your best. There's an expectation in dealing with nerves and anxiety. You want to deliver the performance that will get you the job."
Then there's the Naperville connection, which plays a much bigger role in Mullins' success than you might imagine.
"There's such an amazing community of people there," Mullins said. "They take part in everybody's lives. If someone needed a ride, like if I couldn't get to a tournament, there would always be somebody to help. They would reach out. They didn't even have to know you very well. But they would help. It's such a giving area.
"My whole opportunity to train was due to one man in the Northwest suburbs who was so unselfish that he helped someone who needed help." he said of Sharkey. "He gave me an opportunity that changed my life.
"I don't know that you would find that in very many places in the world."