John Lewis: Fighting, Film and the Fertittas

By Jacob Debets Feb 6, 2019
Few men have left a mark on the sport of MMA quite like John Lewis. A heralded jiu-jitsu practitioner who was just the fourth American to be awarded his black belt, Lewis became one of the first men to identify as a mixed martial artist when No Holds Barred fighting was still oriented around pitting single-discipline combatants against one another. He fought for Extreme Fighting, the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Vale Tudo Japan in between a solid 20 unsanctioned fights. In 1995, he took Carlson Gracie Jr. to a draw he would have won on the scorecards if judges existed and did the same opposite Rumina Sato a year later in Japan.

Lewis’ feats in the cage -- where he earned a deceptively underwhelming 3-4-3 professional record between 1995 and 2000 -- are far less important than his influence outside of it. It was, after all, Lewis who introduced UFC President Dana White, then a small-time MMA manager and boxercise instructor, to Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz, and the Fertitta brothers, Lorenzo and Frank, to the sport of jiu-jitsu -- a discipline they took to enthusiastically as they began doing their due diligence on the fledgling MMA industry.

Lewis played the role of intermediary between the Fertittas and a cadre of fighters -- Liddell, Ortiz, B.J. Penn and Frank Shamrock, among them -- and eventually, the Fertitta brothers purchased the ailing UFC company from the Semaphore Entertainment Group in 2001, installing White as its president. This ultimately set the promotion on a course of aggressive expansion and unprecedented economic success, which was bookended by the organization’s sale in 2016 for a record-setting $4.2 billion. Without Lewis, it may not have been so, but the 49-year old is hardly resting on his laurels.

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Speaking to, Lewis talked proudly of his contribution to MMA’s formative years, the adventures he had on both sides of the curtain and how much the sport has changed in the past two decades.

“One of most interesting parts of my story and others in my era was watching the progression of the sport, its rules, in real time,” he said. “Now people come into the sport and it is what it is, it will be what it will be. The rules are the rules; the gloves are the gloves. When we were in there, we’d be thinking we were going to be fighting for 30 minutes and then at 2 a.m. in the morning we get a call saying we have to fight two 15-minute rounds tomorrow. The next thing [we’re told] is that we’re fighting three five-minute rounds and we have to wear these little glove things. We didn’t train for that, but that’s the only way you can fight. At 3 a.m., we’re in the hotel and we get a call saying pack your bags, the police are coming to arrest everybody. We have to go to this [other] hotel and fight on a reservation to save the event.

“We were there through all of those changes to where it is now,” Lewis added. “Fight records are [also] different now. In those days, there were no judges, no 10-9 rounds. You could dominate somebody for an entire fight, and it gets scored a draw.”

Lewis has watched the evolution of the game fondly since his retirement from competition more than 18 years ago. However, with a burgeoning career in Hollywood as an actor, producer and fitness instructor to the stars, he admits that finding time to watch the UFC and Bellator MMA on a regular basis is difficult. From what he has seen, though, he still believes he could hold his own in the cage today, and when he talks about competing, his eyes light up.

“I feel like I would do great,” he said. “If you look back on my fights and remember what the time frame I was in, I think I was doing what they do now. I had black belts in multiple arts. I could punch and I could kick. I could grapple. I could do judo and wrestling. I used it all. I chose which [disciplines] I used based on my opponent and what they were good at. I could control fights, because I wasn’t stuck in one specific martial art. At that time, you were a boxer, a kickboxer. I was a mixed martial artist, when there was no mixed martial arts. I fought everything.

“A lot has changed now in terms of intensity,” Lewis added. “People are willing to go toe-to-toe and bang it out more. In those days, I was like, ‘Let me see how much I can get done and not take any damage.’ Nowadays people almost want to take damage so they can get a check for having ‘Fight of the Night’… Keep in mind, when I was fighting Carlson Gracie Jr [at Extreme Fighting 1], it was zero dollars to lose, four thousand to win. We got two thousand each because it was a draw, so it was never about money. All I had was winning the fight and bettering myself; there was no other motivation.”

Lewis had his last fight at UFC 28 in November 2000, shortly before he made his foray into fight promotion with the World Fighting Alliance. Discussing that transition, he also revealed that Frank Fertitta III approached him about investing in the WFA -- a move that may have permanently altered the trajectory of the industry.

“I was approached my Frank Fertitta, a close friend, when I was trying to start the WFA,” Lewis said. “Frank asked me if he could be an investor and a partner and finance the show. Lorenzo was on the [Nevada State Athletic] Commission and Dana [White] was still a boxing coach. What I said at that time was that I’d love to do that with [Frank] but I could only do it with my partner. Frank said, ‘I only want to do it with you John,’ so I couldn’t do it. Looking at it in hindsight, if Frank Fertitta would have been my partner in the WFA, with no other brand being big [at the time], the UFC was done, right? Then Lorenzo would have been on the commission. He would have backed his brother’s company, the WFA, and who knows? That might have been today’s UFC; and my friend, my partner, five years later, I could have cut him a $5 million check and he would have been fine. Looking back, as I got older in business, I see how I could have played that better, but at the time, it was all about loyalty. I respect myself for doing that, but there was a smarter way I could have played it.”

Lewis was not surprised by the incredible success of the Zuffa era, noting that the Fertittas had the business savvy and financial backing that its competitors did not. He does, however, think that the industry has some way to evolve, predicting that the sport will ultimately depart from the “league model” popularized by the UFC and head in a more star-centric direction.

“My opinion on the final resting place of [MMA] is that it will [become] like boxing,” he said, “where it’s not based on the brand, UFC or Bellator, it’s really about the fighters. I mean that if you and I had a promoter’s license and we had the money, we would be able to go to [Manny] Pacquiao and say, ‘We want to promote your fight.’ They say, ‘It’ll cost you this much.’ We say ‘OK’ and we’re making the fight. It’s not called whatever the production company is called; it’s called ‘Pacquiao versus so and so.’ Anyone who can pay the fighters should be able to put on the show. When it comes to that, we’ll have a universal set of rankings, not show-specific rankings.”

“I think it will happen naturally,” Lewis added. “It just happened with Tito versus Chuck. Oscar De La Hoya could afford to pay both guys, and they had a national production.”

With success as a fighter, MMA and night-club promoter and now actor-film producer, Lewis has a pretty good idea of how fighters can build their personal brands, looking at pioneers from his era like Liddell and Ortiz, who wrote the playbook on putting themselves on fans’ radars. Authenticity is the key to selling a character, and when it comes to making a transition to the entertainment world, being prepared to hustle is the name of the game.

“Tito was always talking, digging the graves,” he said. “Tito popped from that: ‘The Huntington Beach Bad Boy.’ Conor [McGregor] just took that [approach] and took it to another level and showed how far you can go and what the path would be if you can build your brand that way. You see it now with the way [fighters are in] interviews. They’re applying a cookie cutter of what Conor does. I think it’s a mistake. It’s corny; it’s not real. They have to learn to find who they really are and find a way to make that interesting. It’s kind of like movie-making, taking a character and finding the true character, not trying to mimic somebody else’s success. Who are you and why are you interesting? Some will stand out, and some won’t be able to pull it off. Only some have the magic.

“The advice I would give to every fighter looking to get into acting is [they] don’t realize how lucky they are to get a phone call, offering them a role in a new series or big [TV] show,” Lewis added. “They think, ‘Oh, cool,’ but they don’t practice or go take classes and they do these shows and they don’t appreciate the opportunity. Outside of Gina Carano, I’m yet to see a show with an MMA star where the star was amazing. I see a lot of wasted opportunities from fighters. They get it too easy.”

Lewis is quick to mention that his own path, from the cage to the silver screen, was not as linear as that of Carano or Ronda Rousey. Having competed before MMA was on the mainstream radar and having made the jump to club promoting after the WFA was bought out by Zuffa in 2006, Lewis came upon acting almost by accident on the strength of his contact lists.

“When I was in Vegas, I made my money from my schools and a lot [more] in the night club industry,” Lewis said. “I was top of the food chain there in that game. One of things that I did in the business, marketing for nightlife venues and companies, was I brought celebrities and brands together to help build brands, which put me in contact with some very big agents in [Los Angeles].”

With a growing network of Hollywood power brokers, Lewis was encouraged to make the jump into acting, shuttling back and forth between Las Vegas and Los Angeles to attend auditions while taking acting lessons on the side. His discipline paid off, and since 2011, Lewis has had 24 acting credits -- they include in the immensely popular “Sons of Anarchy” TV series and Gerard Butler’s action blockbuster “Den of Thieves” -- and another 12 as a producer.

Lewis credits his success to giving 100 percent to the game, making the move from Las Vegas to Hollywood and approaching each project with a service mentality.

“I started taking classes, doing post-production, learning what I was talking about,” he said. “I really made it in acting by transitioning from the club industry to Hollywood. Nothing from fighting gave me any benefit to my career as an actor. There wasn’t even Twitter in those days. None of that existed. It was really me coming here as an actor and going to auditions but also talking to people, making friends, asking, ‘How can I help you?’

“If there was anything I was smart with,” Lewis added, “[it was] that I always knew when to leave. I left when I still had time [in that space]. People were telling me I should fight again, but I always knew better. I never got stuck in the situation when I was fighting past my prime. I was never holding onto something that was bankrupting me. I always left early and started again and snowballed off of good situations. It was important to know when to hold them and when to fold them.”

Since embarking on his career in film, Lewis has typically played the villain in the projects he has booked, including his role as the sociopathic outlaw Reb in the 2017 Western film “Justice.” While he admits playing the bad guy is more fun as an experience, Lewis’ designs are set on the leading-man spot.

“Being a co-lead as the villain, it’s fun” he said. “It’s a great role. Playing the bad guy is way more fun than the good guy. The good guys are straightforward; you can play yourself. The bad guy, you get to create the character, you can be twisted. It’s more fun, but career-wise, I prefer to play the leading man. I have a couple of films coming out in the next year. They’re back-to-back scheduled. They’re all big films with big stars. It’s going the right direction. That’s part of the hustle. You have to climb to become that guy.”

One of Lewis’ latest films, Matthew Berkowitz’s “A Violent Man,” may already be on MMA fans’ radars. Starring Liddell and former NFL player Thomas Q Jones, the movie follows a struggling MMA fighter, Ty, as he navigates the sordid politics of the industry and a police investigation into the death of a female MMA journalist with whom he had a one-night stand. Lewis plays Jameson, Ty’s close friend and confidant, and spoke enthusiastically about the experience as an actor, producer and fight choreographer for the film.

“I knew the film producers from ‘Gutshot Straight’ [released in 2014],” he said. “The editor and producer from that called me and asked if I wanted to produce this new film with them. He asked if I could bring some talent to the film, and I [obliged]. I brought Chuck Liddell [and] Felisha Terrell to the cast. He also offered me a great role [as Jameson]. I became a producer because they needed someone to patch it together, to put on some finishing touches on it and get it made. I also choreographed the fight scenes.

“It was really fun,” Lewis added. “Thomas was a tough guy. He can scrap as an athlete, but he wanted to learn MMA all around. We choreographed some really fun stuff. I had him and Chuck get together for weeks and weeks, just getting them to move together, roll together, get used to each other. I also worked with Thomas privately. Then I choreographed the fights, and we went through many weeks of rehearsals and doing the actual movie. Chuck’s a really fun guy to work with. He’s such a good, sweet person. He’s very generous with his body for Thomas. Thomas loved getting to know Chuck that way. It was a really fun experience getting people ready for the film.”

With a number of films set to be released 2019 and more to come, courtesy of a first-look deal with WonderFilm Media, Lewis is enjoying some free time before things get crazy in the months ahead. When asked if he would ever consider getting back into the MMA industry in some capacity in the future, Lewis smiled.

“I wouldn’t leave what I’m doing,” he said, “but I see those two roles working together. I could get back into a promotional role with a company, but I wouldn’t be the one who wanted to start a company. I would rather jump into something and play a role in the puzzle and make things happen. I’m making major progression in a very short amount of time with what I’m doing now. Sky is the limit in the direction that I’m going now.”


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