Comedians have an attachment to mixed martial arts. Listen to even a few hours of Jay Mohr’s cosmically popular podcast Mohr Stories, and you’ll hear comedian after comedian talk about their affection for the world’s fastest growing sport. Opie and Anthony, Jim Norton, Bob Kelly, and preeminent comedic MMA nut Joe Rogan all share a fascination for the abuses and beauty in the cage. Maybe it’s the thought of being alone on stage, struggling, and having to soldier on. The cage and stage can seem eerily similar.
Fellow funnyman Rob Riggle shares the same fondness for MMA. Riggle made his climb to the stage via the United State Marine Corps, a setting that taught him hand-to-hand combat and the humble nature of a man who has seen war zones in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. It also taught him to respect the fighters who lock themselves in a cage to fight.
“I remember being a Marine in Corpus Christi, Texas, and turning on the first UFC and seeing Royce Gracie walk out there against guys who’d get progressively bigger and scarier,” says Riggle. “I’d be like, ‘This guy’s dead, what’s he doing?’ Then he would win, win, win. I was the biggest fan of him. I’d tell all my buddies about him.”
Riggle was a 2nd Lieutenant, a recently commissioned officer, who like many of today’s young fighters, saw that he could “get a job as a waiter…or do something unique in the Marines and see the world.” He had graduated from Kansas University with a film major and done well on his AQTFAR, a flight aptitude test that is essentially the “SAT for flight school.”
The Marine Corps wanted pilots and Riggle wanted to fly. It was a match, or so Riggle thought.
In addition to studying G-forces and hoping to one day keep up foreign relations after a stint at Top Gun (“You know, sir, flipping him the bird.”) Riggle, was sent to Quantico Marine Corps Base in Virginia, a base with the moniker “Crossroads of the Marine Corps,” because all office candidates are required to clear The Basic School (TBS) and Officer Candidate School (OCS). When Riggle went through the schools in the late 1980s, much of the hand-to-hand combat training was focused on how to “submit assailants with quick and lethal force.”
“The Marine Corps called it Line Training—it wasn’t Krav Maga in name, but it was a mix of martial arts. We focused a lot on getting opponents to the ground with judo moves and used a bunch of lethal and non-lethal holds,” says Riggle. “Combat training was really focused on wrist locks, elbow locks, grappling, and wrestling—things of that nature, like dealing with knife attacks and how to fight with the butt stock of your rifle.”
Riggle says that a few years after he completed TBS and OCS, the Marine Corps developed Marine Corps Martial Arts Program. The new system focused on Marines becoming thoroughly proficient with their techniques and earning belts of green, tan, and gray. “It’s nothing elaborate,” says Riggle. “The point was to get to neutralization as quickly as possible.”
For Riggle, the fighting was fun. However, it was only a few weeks before Riggle was supposed to get pinned with his wings that he started having second thoughts about his career plans. “I was a 24-year-old kid, and I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, I want to give the comedy thing a try. I want to try, I wanna know.” Days before committing to flight training and signing over the next eight years of his life to the Marine Corps, Riggle decided to become a ground officer. He’d serve his four-year contract, and, in the meantime, he’d practice his comedy.
Riggle joined the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City where he worked in the Office of Public Affairs, which was well-thought placement by a senior officer who knew of Riggle’s affable disposition. He worked during the day as a Marine, and in the evening, he’d dip into Chelsea and work on his comedy. The Marine Corps didn’t have a problem with his moonlighting. “As far as I know, it was allowed. They never said a word about it, and I never mentioned it.”
Riggle never went to Flight School, but he also decided against full retirement. Instead, he became a Marine Reservist—able to be called into service as needed. Staying on meant that he had to keep up with his drills (one weekend each month and two weeks each year) and that he’d be sent on occasion to combat zones to work as a Marine and to later entertain the troops. In late 2012, he made a full retirement after serving for 23 years and earning the rank of Lt. Colonel. “I would’ve liked to see if I could have made full-bird, but it was too much trouble keeping up with my drills.”
Riggle is still meddling in MMA. In addition to picking up poker games with former UFC Champion Randy Couture, his FOX pregame show invited UFC president Dana White to the set to promote the UFC on FOX. The skit included White dressing up as a homeless man, which some of the thin-skinned media types balked at for being crass. “I just heard about that and was dumfounded. I mean, get a sense of humor, Give it a break,” says Riggle. “Dana was a stud for coming out and playing with us. I appreciated it so much.”
Although Riggle had scene-stealing roles in some of the biggest comedies of the last five years, including The Hangover (“Ride the lightning!”), his career is still in rapid ascent. This year, he’ll be producing more episodes of his hit online series TK and shooting a pilot for FOX with a working title The Gabriels. Riggle also made a guest appearance in May on the number one show on television, Modern Family, which gave him a chance to work with Ed O’Neill.
“Ed is a black belt—a Gracie black belt!” says Riggle. “How cool is that? A comedian with a black belt who loves fighting.”