Bright Lights Big City

There’s a school of thought that maintains fi ghters should live like monks. No sex, no booze, no contact with popular culture or anything that distracts them from their training. Stories of isolation from the world have become as proverbial as they are predictable: the high-altitude training sessions in Big Bear, the Spartan purity of Miletich’s camp in Bettendorf, the tales of fi ghters who slept on gym fl oors with cockroaches at their feet in sweltering Thailand. Somewhere along the line, piousness became a kind of street cred in the world of mixed martial arts. And then there’s the story of a gym located smack dab in the center of all that’s unholy: Legends Mixed Martial Arts Training Center in Hollywood, California.

Legends MMA sits on the corner of North La Brea and Hawthorne, and at 6:53 AM on this particular Wednesday morning in February, Tinseltown is a surreal place. Just down the block, Hollywood Boulevard is blocked off in preparation for the annual Academy Awards ceremony. A stone’s throw away, the noxious splatter of what is most likely vomit stains George Clooney’s spot on the Walk Of Stars. The dashboards of the cars parked overnight at the meters in front of the gym are covered with glossy fl yers hyping up the next party, maybe at Teddy’s in the nearby Roosevelt Hotel, where Paris Hilton was swarmed by paparazzi not fi ve hours earlier.

There’s a group of people gathered on this corner, a dozen of them, and they’re all waiting expectantly outside the gym’s darkened glass doors, eager, nervous, adrenaline pumping, waiting for admission to the kind of club that’s a world away from the countless US Weekly-approved hot spots that line these streets. The group is made up mainly of guys with two girls mixed in, some of them already wrapping their hands and trying to get warm for an early morning Muay Thai session. But their conversation isn’t your typical fi ght gym banter: it touches on the Los Angeles real estate market, the possibility of an actors’ strike in June, and various upcoming Oscar night parties. That’s because the professionals on the Legends MMA Fight Team don’t train until the afternoon. This early morning gang is a showbiz crowd: a television executive, an actor or two, a stand-up comedian, a screenwriter, and a fashion designer, among others. Above them, the stern visage of Mac Danzig looms over this stretch of La Brea, his face emblazoned on a huge banner hung on the side of the gym, congratulating him, a Legends instructor, on winning last season’s installment of The Ultimate Fighter competition on Spike TV.

Click click click… A young, wannabe starlet still wearing last night’s miniskirt is teetering precariously down the sidewalk in her high heels as she passes the gym, carefully weaving around the homeless guy passed out in her path, trying (and failing miserably) to conceal the fact that she’s doing the Walk of Shame. It’s the kind of sight these Legends members have seen all too often in this town, the Hollywood cycle in a nutshell: new dreams begin and old ones come crashing to a sudden halt on a daily basis, in plain view of each other. Come to think of it, as backdrops for fi ghting gyms go, it’s not half bad.

And then Victor Henry skateboards up La Brea to join that group waiting outside, baggy pants slightly sagging, his sweatshirt’s hood pulled over his boyish face, his slim, 135-pound frame cruising along with the easy grace of a natural athlete. He swerves around the slumbering homeless man in the middle of the sidewalk without even glancing down, paying no heed to that cautionary tale in his path. Which is somehow appropriate. Victor’s a 2nd Degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, holds a blue belt in jiu jitsu from Rorion Gracie, and has been training intensively in Muay Thai for the better part of a year. His fi rst smoker is three days away. Victor is 20-years-old and in the cycle of Hollywood, his dreams are just beginning.

At the stroke of 7:00, Jimmie Romero, one of the gym’s trainers, arrives with his keys to open the place up for the day. Jimmie’s got 34 different tattoos on his body (the most recent are large traditional Japanese style pieces on each shin, a dragon on one side and a tiger on the other) and he used to fi ght on the local Muay Thai and MMA circuits in the era before Zuffa acquired the UFC and revolutionized the sport. A natural storyteller, he’s full of tales from the old days… How he would shave the hair from his arms three days before a fi ght so the stubble would grow back razor sharp and scrape the skin of his opponent during grappling. How the fi ghters would party their asses off the night before a bout and enter the ring hung over, throwing wild head kicks over and over again, desperate to end the fi ght early, and the inevitable feeling of invincibility they’d get when it did.

Somehow, Jimmie emerged from those times with his face still intact, ageless and handsome, with a square fi ghter’s jaw and a thick head of black hair. This being Hollywood, he’s written and directed some short fi lms and is an actor who has trained private clients like Tobey Maguire, Shakira, and Nicole Richie. And therein lies a unique paradox of Legends gym: the producers, writers, and actors who are students dream of being fi ghters and the fi ghters dream of being producers, writers, and actors.

For the most part, the gym exists neatly in the middle of those two very different worlds. But sometimes it doesn’t. On this particular morning, I’m stretching in the heavy bag area when I come across a business card with an actor’s head shot and phone number printed on it, standard paraphernalia in Los Angeles. But then I notice something on the back of the card and fi nd a handwritten note:

“Dear Joe Rogan, some friends and I have an MMA movie set up with people at ICM [a talent agency] and I was hoping you had time to read our script. Contact me for more info!”

Joe Rogan, the UFC’s color commentator and a highly accomplished martial artist in his own right, trains regularly at Legends with his close friend, the legendary no-gi jiu jitsu pioneer Eddie Bravo, who runs his 10th Planet school out of the gym. I glance around and see the same actor’s business card with the same message placed in strategic locations across the 5,000 square feet of Legends: inside the large cage area where the classes are held, near the water fountain, on the treadmill in back, on the lip of the regulation size boxing ring next to the spit buckets and Vaseline. Hollywood is fi lled with stories of desperate hopefuls tossing copies of their scripts over the gates of movie stars’ mansions, hoping to be discovered. I think I’ve just witnessed the MMA version.

The man responsible for bringing serious, pro level mixed martial arts training to Hollywood is Legends owner Chris Reilly. Since taking his fi rst competitive fi ght at age four (a karate match), Reilly eventually blossomed into one of the most successful Muay Thai fi ghters to ever come out of the United States. He reached the pinnacle in 2001, when he became the fi rst and only American to fi ght in Thailand on the traditional holiday known as the King’s Birthday and win, knocking out his Thai opponent in the fi rst round in front of 150,000 people. Born and raised in Los Angeles and now 36-years-old, Reilly has retired but he’s still got that classic alpha male presence, with confi dent ice blue eyes and a lean, wiry fi ghter’s build that makes you think he could still bring it on if he wanted.

Back in 2002, Reilly was training Muay Thai fi ghters out of a small, gritty space in West Hollywood called The Bomb Squad when he met Eddie Bravo and invited him to start teaching his unique, MMA-friendly brand of jiu jitsu there at a time when grappling and stand-up fi ghting were viewed as wildly contrasting and incompatible styles. But things were starting to change. Fortunately for Reilly, during his fi ghting days he was known to have a devastating Muay Thai clinch that would open opponents up for barrages of knees and elbows. It was a style that was particularly compatible with what would become the modern era of mixed martial arts.

Soon, he was being approached by world-class fi ghters who wanted to take their training to the next level. One of the fi rst was Jeremy “Half-Man, Half-Amazing” Williams, the former two-time WBC heavyweight champion and, currently at 3-0 in the ICON organization, arguably the most successful elite-level boxer to make the transition to MMA. Another was a man named Quentin “Rampage” Jackson, who would go on to knock out Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell and capture the UFC light heavyweight title. To this day, Reilly is still Jackson’s Muay Thai coach.

Along the way, Reilly became friendly with Rampage’s former manager, current Elite XC Head of Fighter Operations, Jeremy Lappen. In 2006, Lappen and Reilly began making plans to open the fi rst mixed martial arts gym in the city of Los Angeles. “It wasn’t that long ago,” remembers Reilly, “but the world of MMA was different. Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture were about to fi ght for the third time. The sport wasn’t in the mainstream like it is now. The money wasn’t what it is now.” Indeed, Lappen and Reilly had Couture and famed mixed martial artist Bas Rutten lined up as investors and they served as the public faces of the gym, hence the name Legends. The gym offi cially opened in late 2006. Not too long afterwards, Couture made history by coming out of retirement to regain the UFC heavyweight title (and engage in an epic legal battle with the organization) and started focusing on his Xtreme Couture gym in Las Vegas, while Rutten is currently jetting around the country as a television commentator for the International Fight League, but both still endorse the gym and teach seminars when they’re in town.

“What the hell’s going on up there?” bellows Jimmie, glaring at Victor Henry, who’s standing up in the boxing ring, gloves on, dripping in sweat. “He’s got a fi ght coming up, work him!” I’m holding Thai pads for Victor and we made the mistake of taking a few moments during the round to work a complex counter technique off a body shot from an opponent. Jimmie wants him pushed to the limit, he wants to simulate that feeling in a fi ght when you’re gassed out and want to puke but have to keep reacting with aggression, striking with what he calls “bad intentions.” So Victor turns it up, throwing crisp, rapid-fi re combos, hooks, jabs, and black belt quality kicks that feel like they’re coming from a heavyweight, not a 135-pounder. The ring timer goes off and he catches his breath, brushing the brown curls back from his forehead. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a newly thin Jack Osborne (Ozzy’s kid) stretching in the bag area not too far away from Chris Masterson, of Malcolm In The Middle fame (and a Legends investor). Like anyone else trying to make it in Hollywood, Victor’s got a day job: he works at Knott’s Berry Farm, an amusement park where he gets dressed up like a cowboy and operates a roller coaster called the Silver Bullet.

“Are you nervous about your fi ght?” I ask him. “No,” he smiles. “Not really.” “You got family coming to watch?” “No way. My mom doesn’t want to see me doing this. I’m her baby.”

The bell rings. I can feel Jimmie’s eyes on us. I raise the Thai pads once again and Victor goes back to work, throwing knees that could split someone’s head open, his eyes focused, losing himself in his craft, a million miles away from that cowboy costume that’s waiting for him.

“I get a guy telling me they want to be a pro fi ghter at least once a day,” says Chris Reilly, “and maybe fi ve percent of them will end up making it.” He’s kicking back on the couch at the gym’s front desk area, where racks of t-shirts and board shorts bearing the Legends logo hang alongside copies of Eddie Bravo’s jiu jitsu textbooks. His cell phone rings steadily and he looks tired, the result of balancing his responsibilities at Legends with his regular commute to Las Vegas to serve as the Muay Thai coach for Rampage’s team in the new season of The Ultimate Fighter. He runs his fi ngers through the Mohawk he’s sporting; last week a bunch of the gym’s pro fi ghters followed teammate Dan “The Outlaw” Hardy’s lead and cut each other’s hair in the same punk rock style. Hardy is a highly decorated fi ghter out of Nottingham, England who is poised for stardom in the US. He was introduced to Reilly through fellow Brit and Elite XC star Paul “Semtex” Daley, another Legends regular.

As a general rule of thumb, Reilly wants aspiring fi ghters to have at least 10 Muay Thai smokers and 10 grappling tournaments under their belts before he allows them to take a pro MMA fi ght. “I lose guys because of that,” he admits. “But that’s how long it takes to get used to the pressure, for your body to adjust to the adrenaline dump. If you really want to fi ght that bad right here and now, go down the street to another gym and the owners there will toss you in a cage somewhere. But that’s not how we do things here.” At Legends, the guys on the pro fi ght team train free of charge and Reilly acts as their trainer and manager, handling contracts, helping them select opponents, dealing with promoters, and working them out on a daily basis. Most of the fi ghters have day jobs, many of them as instructors at Legends.

“The cost of living for a fi ghter is different in Hollywood,” Reilly explains. “The reason why you see these huge gym spaces in places like Las Vegas is because the rent, for the gyms and for housing, is much cheaper.” Indeed, this week he’s losing Mac Danzig, who’s relocating to Vegas to live and train. I ask him if he’s worried about prospective gym members being turned off because his highest profi le instructor is leaving. “The bread and butter of a gym like this are not the pro fi ghters, it’s the guys and girls that come in here to train and learn and have fun,” he says. “The vast majority of them don’t care about big names like Mac or [former Legends instructor] Karo Parisyan or Rampage. They come here to get in shape and learn more about the sport.”

The bright Los Angeles sun shines through the gym’s front windows and students walk in wearing designer sunglasses and limited edition Nikes, careful to shut off the ringers on their shiny new iPhones. It’s the afternoon now, almost time for the Legends Fight Team workout. Another one of the gym’s celebrity investors, Ethan Suplee, better known to the masses as Randy Hickey from My Name Is Earl, heads toward the mat area for his daily jiu jitsu private lesson. A few MMA fan boys decked out in Affl iction gear come in from off the street to ask some questions about joining the gym and they’re greeted by two girls working behind the front desk, Ciera and Caela. The girls are friendly, gracious with their answers, and with some piercings here and some tattoos there, totally hot and sexy, a fact that is clearly not lost on these dudes, one of whom actually seems to be drooling. Something tells me the front desk staff in Bettendorf, Iowa doesn’t look like this.

Jimmie sits down on the couch alongside Reilly, Peter Nylund and Jeremy Williams, both Legends instructors. The gossip starts fl owing fast: Scott Caan throws wicked body shots, Eric Balfour (of 24 fame, the recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, and also a Legends investor) was dotting guys up from a Southpaw stance, Laura Prepon dropped in for some private lessons, and what was Jonathan Rhys Meyers doing here the other day? Dave Callaham, an Eddie Bravo blue belt and the writer behind the big screen adaptation of Doom starring The Rock strolls past, chatting with Balfour, who just happens to be starring in Callaham’s next movie, a serial killer fl ick called Horsemen.

Meanwhile, International Fight League veteran Conor “Hurricane” Heun heads towards the ring in back for a day of sparring, passing up the chance to talk trash with the rest of the guys. He’s got an Elite XC bout in two weeks against a Chute Boxe fi ghter named Marlon Matias at 160 pounds, which is stunning because right now Heun looks huge, muscles bulging under his rash guard. But like many longtime wrestlers, he doesn’t fl inch at the thought of cutting impossible amounts of weight. In fact, his weight cutting prowess has become something of an urban myth around this place. A few months back, a promoter made a surprisingly lucrative offer to fi ght on that same day, just as he was gorging himself on Brazilian barbecue and secretly nursing a torn MCL. The catch? He had four hours to cut 14 pounds of excess weight. A few minutes later he was wearing a wet suit and several layers of wool clothing in the driver’s seat of his Pathfi nder, the heat cranked up as high as it would go, speeding towards weigh-ins in San Diego. He doing jumping jacks outside the car at stoplights as his manager sat in the truck wearing shorts and nothing else, sweating his tail off. After a brief stint in the sauna, Heun made weight. Unfortunately, the promoter reneged on that sweet offer and Heun decided the risk to his damaged knee wasn’t worth it. But, perhaps more importantly, now he knows how hard he can push his body in order to get to fi ghting weight.

The day’s Fight Team session is largely devoted to getting Heun ready. He’s doing consecutive fi ve minute rounds in the same ring that Victor worked earlier that morning, but this time around it’s full contact MMA sparring, each round with a different, freshly rested member of the team as Chris Reilly looks on, shouting out instructions and picking apart mistakes. Down in the cage, Jimmie takes the rest of the fi ghters through rounds of light standup sparring, carefully smoothing out the wrinkles as they present themselves: showing wrestlers how to properly throw strikes, demonstrating to jiu jitsu players how they should parry and slip, taking karate devotees through the right way to move their feet in an MMA fi ght. During a break in the action, I’m standing next to Jimmie when his BlackBerry goes off. He checks the message and grins. When I ask him what’s so amusing, he leans over and whispers in my ear, low, maybe so the tough guys around us don’t hear, then winks: “I just booked a role in the new Cuba Gooding Jr. movie.”

The fi rst thing you notice at a smoker is how hot and humid it gets inside this tiny, dingy gym somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. A couple hundred people are squeezed inside, pressed up against the ring, and there’s tension in the air, enough to cause even a bystander to get nervous and amped-up. The fi ghters fi nd space where they can, some shadowbox in a cramped bathroom, watching their form in the mirror, others sit against a wall, cross legged, headphones on, trying to get focused.

Victor bounces lightly on his feet as Jimmie holds pads for him, getting him warmed up for his fi ght. Legends MMA has a stellar 24-2 record in local smokers, so there’s a certain amount of pressure. If Victor wants to graduate and start training with Chris Reilly and the pros on the Legends Fight Team, his journey has to start here with a win. His opponent has already fought and won once before and by the looks of him, he outweighs Victor by a good 15 or 20 pounds. The ring announcer screws up Victor’s name, calling him “Victory” by accident. Victor shrugs. Jimmie tries to hide it, but he looks nervous.

The bell rings, and his opponent comes out swinging wildly, big overhand rights and left hooks, powerful but undisciplined, clearly not accustomed to the “adrenaline dump” that Chris Reilly mentioned earlier. The crowd “oohs” over the display of haymakers, but Victor calmly covers, counters with a series of jabs and connects with a big kick to the head, sending his adversary sprawling to the canvas. When he gets up, Victor attacks. He lands a liver shot. He lands a hard left hook followed by another hard kick to the head. His opponent looks at the referee, wobbly, shaking his head, waving off the fi ght halfway through the fi rst round.

Victor raises his arms. Jimmie jumps through the ring’s ropes and hugs him tight, lifting him up in the air. He’s smiling, whispering something into Victor’s ear that no one else can hear. When he sets Victor down, the rest of the guys from Legends swarm him, ecstatic and proud, but Victor slips away and starts rummaging through his bag until he fi nds what he’s looking for: his cell phone. He takes it and runs over to an empty section of the gym, holding it close, his taped-up hand still shaking slightly from the rush of battle.

Then Victor’s opponent walks past, his shoulders slumped, no doubt trying to fi gure out his next move, strategizing how he’s going to come back from this ugly loss. And there it is again, that uniquely Tinseltown juxtaposition: big dreams passing each other regularly, some managing to rise up, others crashing to the ground, all in plain view of each other.

“Mom, it’s me,” Victor says softly into his phone. “I didn’t get injured. I’m okay. The other guy, he’s gonna be okay, too. Yeah, I won! I won.”

For one more night at least, the guys at Legends MMA get their picture-perfect Hollywood ending.

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