I sit in a darkened room, lights blazing across my face, blinding me from everything except for the bully sitting across from me—the same blinding lights, piercing his retinas from behind me. I scramble to remember the name of this poor, delusional idiot, who thinks he can beat up a professional fighter, by looking at my clipboard—a mish-mash of my own serial-killer-like scrawl written across computer printed questions and bored doodles I make when I’m pretending to make notes on what each miscreant is saying. This is the third contestant in my twisted reality game show today, and the day has been a long, warm, and funny one.
Before I begin to speak, the director of photography, Peter Wery says in his native tongue, Dutch, “Uppen lippen.” Which I know from the context clues of doing this show for three seasons, probably means “Upper Lip,” and that means my upper lip is sweaty. I rush to wipe it off, but it is too late—I can already see her rising from her lovely perch in the quiet dark of Black House gym in West Compton. I hear her shout out, “Stepping in!” My heart sinks, because I know what comes next. The super sweet makeup lady strides into frame, cameras rolling, and begins to rub my upper lip with some special type of towel, smearing the sweat away, then applying makeup, then working my forehead, as I sit on a corner stool, giving me an eerily similar feeling to getting Vaseline put on my face in between rounds. Just when it can’t get any more familiar,she shoves a bottle of water in my face, which I take a pull from. She steps out, and I’m ready for the next round.
My life, believe it or not, was planned this way. At the age of 17, I knew I could fight and loved the raw competition that it offered me. In my head, I knew back then that it would open the doors to Hollywood for me—and when that door opened, I knew that I’d walk right through it. However, I thought I would also get my dad’s meat head-body builder look, something like a Schwarzenegger with gnarled up ears—not realizing that the time I was spending kickboxing and wrestling would equate to the time I’d spend weightlifting and eating to get pretty like that Twilight Werewolf kid. And I could forget about fighting at 185.
But all the time I spent working on my MMA career had an interesting effect. All the trials and tribulations, the pain and heartache, the homelessness, the legal trouble I’d gotten myself into over the years, and just the pain of having devoted my life to a hellish endeavor pushed me more and more into another outlet. Comedy. Over the years I found myself drawn more and more to funnier and funnier people, and my competitive nature pushed me to attempt to be funnier than the people I was around. As my MMA career flourished, suddenly I was hanging out with real comedians, and picking up “moves” from them, the same way I was learning moves from my coaches and training partners in the gym.
So back to the dark room, lights blazing, cameras rolling. I speak.
“If you could describe yourself as a just one Care Bear, which one would it be?”
I almost laugh at my own question. The bully doesn’t. He doesn’t say anything, I move on. “It says here that you are a death metal singer. Would you have a death metal growl-off with me?”
Without missing a beat, he goes into a low guttural growl, which I immediately try to replicate. He stops and says, “No, like this!” and growls even harder. When he stops, I growl again. Then he. Then me. Then he. Then me. Then he. Then me, and I give a look right into Peter’s lens as if to say, “Can you believe that he’s still doing it?” and I can see the outline of Peter’s shoulders shaking up and down, a sure sign that I made some funny.
If I’m not sure at that point, I am when the two executive producers (EP) come out of the control booth where they have been hiding, watching the entire debacle from small video screens in what normally is used as a kitchen at the Black House. I do my “Goodbye, see you in the cage” to the bully and exit the frame, giggling at my own handiwork, and as he’s ushered out, I approach the brains of the Beatdown, who seem pleased. James Rowley, a stout, solemn-faced man who is walking up with short steps, hands together, smiling, nearly neck and neck with the original EP, Eric Van Wagenen, who is sporting a shit-eating grin and simply says, “That was good, man,” followed by Rowley, who peers down his glasses in his matter of-fact manner, “Growl thing … Great.”
These are my day-to-day sparring partners in verbal battles, and in between “making funny” for the TV show, we make funny at each other—every ‘contestant’ having their own particular form and style. Rowley’s jokes come with stinging creativity, Eric’s, with biting wit, and with mine … increased volume. We make fun of Eric for having a massive, frankenstein-ian cranium, me for my goon-like socially unacceptable behavior, and Rowley gets shit for surviving cancer, but losing a ball. Yeah, not a punch is pulled in these mental matches.
“You spend the first half of the show allowing the person to make himself look like a complete and utter douchebag, you spend the second half of the show beating the shit out of him,” says James Rowley, a girthy man, with an impressive beard and calm gentle eyes, that give him a teddy bear like appearance. He has a very tranquil, almost shy demeanor, but you can almost feel his brain power bubbling from behind his stylish, squared, no-rim glasses. Speaking to him about normal everyday subjects, you would think to yourself, “Where in the hell is his lab coat?” due to his powerful command of the English language. He gestures with his hands in a way that would lead you to believe that he is a magician, only to find out that he is, in fact, a magician. It’s not a skill he especially advertises, to my dismay, but in the proper atmosphere (bar, party, me screaming at him) he can be coaxed into a card trick or sleight of hand with a coin. He is partially to blame for the current cultural shift of reality-fueled television, as he was an executive producer on The Surreal Life, a show on VH1 that ushered in this era of reality shows. If you hate this, you should look into punching him in the face. But don’t do it while I’m around, I will murder you, because after the first season, he came in and brought a fresh and intelligent edge to the show beyond mine and Eric’s locker room ball-breaking, including that high-brow Care Bear question.
“It didn’t really get funny until Rowley came on,” says Eric Van Wagenen, who is as previously stated, a man with an impressive head. His face is exposed from a hairline that says, Yes, I have a wife. Yes, I have some kids. Yeah, I know it goes far back, I’m unconcerned about it. He often looks to be floating in thought until his wiley-motioning eyes start darting back and forth—down when he’s thinking what he has to do, up and to the left when he’s visualizing something, and with a focused intensity when finishing a story. His eyes are the center of his expression until he bursts into laughter, his head wrinkling at the top and neck bulging in the jawline, cheeks pulling up and out, flashing all teeth—inexplicable, except that his face may be attempting to escape from his skull. He speaks in fun burst of storyteller banter, rapidly getting you through beginning, middle, and end of every story, tale and parable that he shares—eyes popping to you, then him, then up—and he will end his story with a face and hand gesture that accompanies his verbiage. Did I mention that I have to spend all day with these guys?
The idea for a show like Bully Beatdown had been floating around Hollywood for awhile, but in this humongous dome is where it came to fruition. Mormon by birth, so also a wrestler by indoctrination, he’s given up both of those pastimes to delight the masses by making entertaining television. A rabid fan of Lakers basketball, mixed martial arts, and the sweet science of boxing. He has an impressive résumé working with Mark Burnett Productions, the company that makes Bully, his credits include the first five seasons of The Amazing Race, Survivor, and The Apprentice, but you probably know his work best by The Contender series, which he was an EP on for many seasons. When asked what it is he’s most proud of in his television career, his answer is surprising, even to me. “In a weird sort of way, and I don’t know if I should be proud of it, this show makes me laugh the hardest. I had the most to do with the creation of it. On any of those big shows, you can’t be a writer and producer AND a field producer. I mean, I can go in and edit this show. You can’t do that on those massive shows.”
Standing in the dark of the Black House gym, the same place that I’ve had the honor of learning techniques and sparring with world champions like Antonio Noguiera and Anderson Silva, I now stand with two champions of television—learning their techniques, trading moves, and sparring back and forth— in a strange twist of fate that wouldn’t seem connected but, to me, seems seamless. Yes, the rewards aren’t exactly the same—the live events are much smaller, there’s no Pay-Per-View, and no title belts are handed out for this type of competition (Emmy’s, listen up), but the end result is the same. We get paid, the masses are entertained, and someone gets beat up. These guys spent the same number of years honing the craft of television that I’ve spent honing my skills in mixed martial arts, and we are ALL (at the risk of sounding arrogant) great at our jobs. Yes, I realize that having a show on basic cable filled with juvenile humor and the occasional vomitus is not the pinnacle of the entertainment industry, but I did interview the producers like a normal journalist, and perhaps Eric’s quote sums it up best: “Those are the people that succeed in life, those who have zero self awareness.” Wait, no, that was about the bully’s- here’s a better one… “Some people make filet mignon,we’re making hot dogs, but it’s the best goddamn hotdog out there.”