Tony Reid – You competed in some of the earliest UFC Events in UFC 22 and 28. What were your thoughts and feelings at the time about entering the competition?
John Lewis – “It was fun at the time. I have had a long run in various prestigious organizations, but there was never anything quite like the UFC. The time was different, we were battling political powers with aspirations to use the banning of MMA as a stepping stone to their goals, such as senator John McCain was doing. But the fans were true and even in a time when MMA was not evident in mainstream media, it prevailed. It felt as if we were a part of an elite family.”
Tony Reid – Prior to the Fertitta Brothers and Dana White purchasing the company you worked with them as a trainer in MMA and BJJ. Can you walk us through how that relationship developed? How where they as students?
John Lewis – “Dana and I knew of each other prior to my knowing Lorenzo and Frank. Both of us ran successful training programs and had mutual friends as well. One night an evening out at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Vegas, Dana saw me and said he wanted me to meet two of his friends, Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta. He said that they were interested in knowing more about BJJ and MMA in general. So, I met them. They are two of the most amazing people you could ever know. They generously brought me into their tight circle and Dana, Lorenzo, and I became very close friends. They were very serious students of mine. They trained an average of three times per week for a couple years with me out of there gym in what is now known as the UFC main office. Frank was a strong as a fricken ox, Lorenzo was deep and calculated, and Dana was intelligent and very fun to roll with. As time passed I would bring in my friends and students for special classes with them like BJ Penn, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Frank Shamrock, and many more. I miss those days.”
Tony Reid – How was Dana as a manager?
John Lewis – “One day Dana asked if he could manage me. There was something entrepreneurial and ambitious about Dana that you couldn’t deny. He was hungry and if he wanted something, he would find a way to get it. We all see that success and strength in him now. Anyway, I was his first client from there I talked Tito and Chuck into leaving their managers and becoming a trio under Dana White’s management. Dana did great by all of us and as his friend I was always very proud of him.
By this time Lorenzo was considering stepping down from the Las Vegas Athletic Commission where he was the man, because through his love for the people around him and his education in the sport through me, combined with being a businessman that not many can stand beside, the boys were ready to make their move. As they say, the rest is history.””
Tony Reid – You are a legendary BJJ practitioner and coach and a pioneer in MMA. You have trained a long list of legends in the sport from Chuck Liddell to Tito Ortiz, from Randy Couture to BJ Penn, from Marc Laimon to the Inoue Brothers and everyone in between. What is your proudest moment as a coach, a teacher and a mentor?
John Lewis – “There have been many proud moments. Being the 4th American black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, being the first black belt from white to black under Gene LeBell, opening the first BJJ/MMA school in Las Vegas over 25 years ago that still stands…These are some of my personal favorites. As a teacher though, I have been blessed to grow alongside the sport from the very beginning. I have seen so many people in this business start from nothing, including being the first person to ever by a TapouT shirt. I have seen them all grow and flourish. Getting BJ Penn into the big show and seeing him become ‘The Prodigy’. Advising Chuck not to fight for a whole year when the previous owners were offering him $1,200.00. Being in Tito’s corner as his head coach when he won his first title in Japan against Wanderlei Silva. Watching my family at J-Sect Nova Uniao grow from new white belts to amazing black belts. Many of which teach in their own schools today. There is just so much.”
Tony Reid – Most MMA fans will remember you as you were 10 plus years ago. You are now an established event promoter and a major player in the nightlife/club scene in Las Vegas and all over the country. How did you get involved in that particular industry? In what capacity are you still involved in MMA?
John Lewis – I now own multiple successful companies both nightlife based and non. The nightlife game began with my World Fighting Alliance show (WFA). ‘Where the fight club meets the nightclub’. Partner John Huntington (then a major nightclub promoter) was my way into that world. When Zuffa bought my show Huntington asked me to help him promote a night at Ghostbar at the Palms Casino. He said “Just put a guest list together and I will get you a table and a little money”. It sounded fun so I tried. I was surprised to see the following I had from my fight reputation. Lines were around the block, quickly Tuesday became the best night in Las Vegas. Eventually, Huntington and the Palms had a little falling out and the pulled the night. The next week the club was dead. A week or two later they called me and asked if I would be willing to take over the night. I asked John Huntington out of respect and he gave me his blessing. A week later, it was poppin’ as usual and I was the guy. Eventually a new club was opening called Pure at Caesars Palace. Owner Steve Davidovici had lunch with me and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse to be the promoter for Tuesdays at Pure and Wednesdays at a club called Tangerine. I took the gig and once again, the best nights in Vegas were my nights. It snowballed from there. Now my independent marketing company specialized in building brands, both nightlife and non and I own one of the largest celebrity booking agencies in the world, John Lewis Entertainment Group (www.johnlewisent.com) life is good, but I am not even close to done yet.”
Tony Reid – I am currently re-watching every UFC event starting with UFC 1 and moving forward. Being a part of that history, what would you want me or any fan to take away from the early days of the UFC?
John Lewis – “Everything that fans love about MMA today began with sweat and hard lessons learned from a very different time. We struggled, ran from cops before fights, had major rules changed on us the day before and event, fights with no gloves, no weight limits, sometimes no judges. You win or you had a draw. I held a fence because I was allowed to, that became the no fence rule. I elbowed the shit out of the back of a man’s neck because I was allowed, because of that, now no strikes to the neck or spine. Royce held Kimo’s hair because he was allowed to. I fought for a title on TV, 30 minutes, $0.00 if I lose and $4,000.00 if I win. Fought for 30 minutes hard. If there were judges I would have won that bout, but no judges meant a draw. The lesson is everything that you have now is because someone paid the price so you could.”
Tony Reid – What are your thoughts on the growth and expansion of MMA?
John Lewis – “Zuffa, LLC has taken the monster to a whole other level. They saved this sport, molded it into a financial beast. We owe them as much as we owe the legends.”
Tony Reid – Do you have favorite fighters that you enjoy watching today?
John Lewis – “I will miss what the style guys like Tito, Chuck, and Frank Shamrock brought to the table. Great fighters are a dime a dozen but stars are hard to come by these days. I would love to help them mold great fighters into stars. There is an art to that.”
Tony Reid – Do you still keep in touch with any of the guys you worked with back in the day (competitors, trainers, sponsors, etc.)?
John Lewis – “The fighters and I that were family still are and we are all very close. But I am very focused on business these days and the best thing that I ever achieved, my son Elias.”
Tony Reid – What is your fondest memory of your time spent in the UFC inside the cage or outside of it?
John Lewis – Jet setting and laughing with my pals Lorenzo, Frank, and Dana. Friends are all that mattered to me. The rest comes and goes, as does life itself.
Tony Reid – Can you share a behind-the-scenes story from your days in the sport that the average fan would not be aware of?
John Lewis – “Canada maybe 1998ish. We were fighting in Extreme Fighting / Battlecade. I don’t remember who I was fighting but it was illegal in most states back then. We were in our hotel in Montreal the day before our show. We were having the event on an Indian reservation because they set their own laws. John Peretti called us all up in the middle of the night and said “Grab your shit now, cops are on their way to arrest all of us, so we are moving to a different city until the fight”. So we pack up in 5 minutes and next thing you know we are sleeping on a bus to Ottawa. Check in, get up and sneak onto the reservation, whoop some ass and try and get out before the cops get us. I made it home. Some got arrested, a few others swam over. All in a day’s work.”
Tony Reid – You were right there in the mix during Chuck Liddell’s rise to superstardom and icon status. Can you share a chuck Liddell story with us?
John Lewis – “Nick Blomgren told me about a really great friend of his that was a kickboxer he thought could fight MMA because he also had a strong wresting background. He took me to see him in a kickboxing match at The Orleans. Chuck Liddell was the guy. He knocked his opponent out with a head kick that night. We met and hit it off and he joined my team then called John Lewis Vale Tudo Team. We trained constantly on his ground skills and he retained it all so quickly. He shortly became one of my best friends and we started his UFC career together. Only his first match was I not involved with but for 12 years after I was his ground coach, cornerman and friend along with his stand up Coach John Hackleman. You know the rest of the story.”