Thomas Q Jones: Football, Fighting & ‘A Violent Man’

By Jacob Debets Feb 7, 2019
Matthew Berkowitz’s new MMA-centric movie, “A Violent Man,” isn’t your typical fighting film. Whilst the plot loosely adopts the traditional underdog narrative made famous by films like “Rocky,” and there is no shortage of cameos from people in the sports-entertainment world ala the “Never Back Down” franchise, it also attempts to tackle much more difficult themes -- including combat sports’ enduring corruptibility, domestic violence and institutional racism.

The film -- which comes out Feb. 8 in select theaters -- follows Ty Matthews (Thomas Q Jones), an anonymous journeyman who taps out the undefeated champion, Marco Reign (Chuck Liddell), in sparring, only to become embroiled in a murder investigation after the reporter looking to break story is found dead in her home. sat down with the film’s leading man, former NFL player and budding film actor to talk about the project, his experience working with MMA pioneers John Lewis and Chuck Liddell and the parallels he sees between football and professional fighting.

“I met the director and writer, Matthew Berkowitz, through an acquaintance, and we became really close friends,” Jones said of how he became involved with the film. “When I read the script initially, I liked it because it was MMA based -- I had never trained MMA before; I played in the NFL for 12 years, and did boxing in the off-season for cardio and hand-eye coordination. But I loved that this was set in the MMA world because it was something different. You see a lot of boxing films -- you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. The MMA space [by contrast] was really intriguing.”

The film is relatively low budget, principally orbiting Matthews’ attempts to navigate the sordid politics of the fight game, a murder investigation and his unravelling personal life. It’s that dexterity, Jones explained, that attracted him to role.

“The character [Ty Matthews] was so conflicted” he said. “This was my first lead role. I’ve worked on some really big projects, and for my first lead I wanted to take on a character that was very complex. A character that gave me a chance to show my range as an actor, and just everything I bring to the table: the physicality in the fighting and the vulnerability in the relationships. I was very intrigued. Matt had originally written the script a little bit different, and then we collab’d and tweaked the script a little bit, to make it fit more for my reality, the world that I live in as Ty Matthews. That’s how the whole process started.”

“We worked really hard on it,” he continued. “We tried to make something that was different. Obviously it’s not a typical film. We wanted to make it something that was a throwback to those noir films. And also add some real honest subtext to it.”

Working on the film, Jones relished the opportunity to develop his skills not just as an actor, but an executive producer as well. For both Jones and Berkowitz, it’s been a passion project two years in the making.

“We shot the film in 2017 in the Fall” he explained. “We didn’t have a distribution deal, we didn’t have a sales team attached. We just said ‘hey, we believe in the project, we believe in each other (Matt and I). We hired a casting director -- we really just used our relationships to cast all the other [parts]… we found the locations, the cameras, the post-house. We did everything A to Z. Everything.

“Then we connected with the distribution company last Summer. We went almost a year without distribution [before that], just trying to sell it [ourselves].”

As one of the top 25 leading rushers in NFL history, with stints at each the Arizona Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New York Jets, Chicago Bears and Kansas City Chiefs, Jones savoured the opportunity to showcase his athleticism. But with no MMA experience under his belt, he admits that the learning curve was steep.

“[The training] was very specific,” he said of the regimen he underwent to prepare for filming. “John Lewis [who also choreographed the fight scenes] is an incredible trainer. If I’m going to do fight choreography for MMA, John Lewis is the best person. There’s no one better than him.”

“I actually went to his jiu-jitsu class,” he elaborated, “And he just threw him in with students, who were way more advanced. He gave me a gi and threw me in the fire. My first day of class, I had to learn on the fly. Sometimes that’s the best way to learn. It’s a pretty scary world man. It’s like [being attacked by] a snake. When a snake coils itself around its prey; I don’t know what the guy’s trying to do [to me], but I know it’s not good. That experience just made me so much more aware when we did the fight choreography, of Chuck’s intentions when we did our fight [scenes] and what Stephen Dunlevy’s intentions were when we did our fight [scene]. That ultimately made it a lot more authentic, and made me a lot more comfortable.”

Jones wasn’t a big MMA fan before “A Violent Man,” but recognized the duality inherent in the sport -- of brutality and artistry -- from his football days. He also said that, had the opportunity presented itself to him in his athletic prime, he would have been interested in getting in the cage for real.

“I definitely follow MMA more,” he said. “I’m more of a fan. I have the utmost respect for the fighters and what they go through. It’s similar to football, physically. It’s kind of a barbaric, savage sport but it’s [also] beautiful, it’s artistic. From the outside looking in, you look at football and MMA and you think it’s brutal. It is, but it’s also art. It’s an artistic form of expression. You see the strategy, and just the discipline it takes to be a champion on that level. I admire anyone who gets in the Octagon. It’s different then getting into the ring. When you spar in the ring, you can just step through the ropes and you’re out. When you get in the octagon and they close the gate, it’s a different vibe. Getting in the cage with Chuck Lidell… it’s a totally different vibe. It’s more primal.”

“I definitely think I would have been interested in competing in MMA,” he declared. “MMA has all the principles that you need to have as a successful football player. Mental toughness, physical toughness, dedication, hard-work, discipline, a relentless mindset. I think that’s why me and John Lewis, and me and Chuck, connected so well. Just that understanding about what it takes in this kind of sport to thrive. The kind of person you need to be internally -- I definitely would have been interested in competing in the sport.”

Asked to expand on the parallels between fighting and football, Jones identified the normalization of violence and a lack of education about athletes’ day-to-day.

“What goes on the outside, what the athletes go through,” he said. “You’re competing in a very brutal sport, and that type of violence becomes normalized. Same thing with football -- you do this kind of stuff every day, and people only see us in our fights, or playing football on Sundays, and they forget that we’re doing this every single day. The games and the fights are easier than training. Training’s the hardest part. It becomes a part of you, and I don’t think people really try to dig into the lives and minds of these athletes that play these kind of sports.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to turn that switch off,” he continued. “When you’re not in the octagon or the field. Situation’s like this happen, and people say ‘how could you do something like that?’ as opposed to ‘why did you do something like that?’. I think what Matt was trying to do, he was artistically trying to create a film that was a throwback to the noir, art-house films. The Nicholas Ray films. We don’t see those films much today, definitely not in mainstream Hollywood.”

Asked for some parting words, Jones expressed gratitude to everyone that made the film possible, and suggested we might see him team up with director Berkowitz sooner rather than later.

“It’s a fun film” he said. “I love the mystery and the suspense. All the actors, we wanted to cast actors who could really perform. I’m so proud of them all, I’m proud of all the crew. Matthew Berkowitz is the next big director/writer in Hollywood. The guy’s brilliant. He’s got a brilliant mind, the way he thinks. Matt and I were in pre-production three months before we shot. We watched about 10 movies together, he showed me five movies I hadn’t seen, he showed me five that I hadn’t seen. We had reference points on set, we had like an unspoken language on set, which makes it easier in the actor/director relationship, to have that kind of connection. I’m very grateful I had a chance to work with him on this project. Hopefully we look forward to us cranking out way more films, and hopefully having more conversations like this.”

Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at


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