Any astute MMA fan who catches the trailer for The Equalizer 2, the upcoming Denzel Washington action fare set to release July 20, may notice the Hollywood flick doubles as a sneaky revival of Affliction’s infamous farewell card. It’s a random sliver of nostalgia for the hardcores. Thirty seconds in, there’s Andrei Arlovski, the stone-cold Belarusian suffering a grisly death at Washington’s hands nine years after getting smoked by Fedor Emelianenko in Affliction’s featured attraction. Allow another minute to pass and a second familiar face pops up in the literal rear-view mirror: Jay Hieron, the old Xtreme Couture standout who, like Arlovski, suffers a swift end by the film’s namesake nearly a decade after his ferocious right hand brought Affliction’s final co-main event to a close in just 64 seconds.
Filmwork is merely an occasional side gig for Arlovski, but the same cannot be said for Hieron. No, the once fearsome welterweight who went by the nickname “The Thoroughbred” is one of the lucky ones these days, the rare mixed martial artist who blossomed in the most unexpected of ways in his post-fighting life. Today, Hieron’s work on The Equalizer 2 is just one of nearly 100 film credits the 41-year-old has to his name, having turned acting and stuntwork into a full-time vocation since he walked away from the fight game in 2013 following a UFC loss to future welterweight champion Tyron Woodley.
“It was one of those things,” Hieron tells MMA Fighting. “I was like, you know what, the money isn’t adding up anymore to fight the best in the world for me, so I was like, you know what, let me try another avenue. I always fought off how I felt. Like, they would ask me, ‘How long are you gonna fight for?’ And I would say, ‘Listen, until that fire inside of me is not burning for fighting anymore, that’s when I’ll change lanes.’ So that just instantly kinda happened where, after that [Woodley] fight I was like, ‘You know what, this doesn’t add anymore with the money to fight.’”
It’s almost accidental in the most fortuitous of ways that Hieron ended up sharing the silver screen alongside iconic figures like Washington, because filmwork was never the dream.
A high school wrestling standout, Hieron was always a fighter from the time he was young, and boxing became his salvation. After a stint in Nassau County jail, a troubled Hieron turned to the sweet science to provide him some direction. He soon found MMA and embarked on a decade-long career that sent him across the country as a sort of human history book documenting MMA throughout the aughts. Name a notable North American promotion and Hieron fought for it — the UFC, WEC, IFL, Affliction, Strikeforce, Bellator, the list goes on. His first career loss came to Georges St-Pierre and his last career loss came to Woodley, tidy bookends of two different generations of welterweight greats.
And that was all Hieron ever expected of himself, a natural born fighter through and through, content to trade in blood rather than words.
It’s why his present day is so unexpected, because his first few forays into filmwork were more for kicks than anything else. They definitely were never meant to be the start of a brand new career. Around the time Hieron’s fighting life was beginning to wind down, his team captain — Randy Couture of Xtreme Couture — started making his own inroads into the world of Hollywood. Couture introduced Hieron to a few people in the industry. One thing led to another, and before long Hieron was auditioning — poorly, he notes — whenever there wasn’t a fight on his horizon. Eventually he worked out a few kinks to his approach and started landing an occasional gig. “I really wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this for my next career,’” Hieron says. “I was just going with the flow. I was still fighting at the time and I was kinda like, alright, look, if I’m not fighting, if there’s an audition, I’ll audition. Or if there’s like a fight role they can use me for, I’ll do that.”
Still, it wasn’t until after the Woodley fight that things truly changed.
By that time, Hieron was 36 years old and worn out from a decade in an unforgiving game. Whenever the question had popped up in interviews, he was an athlete who always said he’d compete until he felt the fire inside of him start to wane. Looking inward, he could finally admit to himself that fateful time may have come. So Hieron decided to take a year off just to see if that hunger would return ... but a funny thing happened along the way.
With a busy mind and a sudden influx of free time, he doubled down on his Hollywood deviations and quickly found that he had developed an unwitting but deep interest in the science of stuntwork and acting — a world that shared so many parallels to the one had grown up around, but was also shockingly dissimilar at the same time. “A lot of fight choreographers, they’re hesitant,” Hieron says. “Not anymore, they know me already. But at first, a fighter trying to do a fight scene with an actor or something, sometimes a fighter is still competing, because honestly, a fight scene in a movie is all the wrong techniques for a real fight.
“If you see a real fight in the UFC, sometimes you have to watch the replay. Like, how did he get caught? Because it’s maybe a short punch and the guy may be coming into him, and it’s like two trucks colliding; where, if you take that same punch and put it on film, the audience wouldn’t get that. They’re like, ‘What? That’s doesn’t look [real].’ You’ve got to make everything bigger on film so it looks like it’s just more dramatic. So that’s the thing, when a real fighter goes in, they might not get that right away.
“Even myself at first, I’m like, ‘This doesn’t [feel right].’ You’ve gotta kinda put it in your brain, ‘Okay, this isn’t for a real fight. It’s to make a movie look good.’ You’ve got to understand the difference, and it definitely even took myself a little time to, ‘Okay, yeah, let me learn art of the film fighting, why this looks better rather than this. In real life, this would work. But on film, this doesn’t work.’ That kind of thing. I had to let my ego down a long time ago to learn film fighting and how to be a better performer in film, just because I wanted to excel and I wanted to do well in it. It’s like if you’re doing a real fight, you have to have that mind frame going in, where I’ve got to learn what truly works in this arena.”
His wasn’t always an easy transition. There were plenty of months when auditions were going sour and film classes were vexing and the nuances of a bizarre industry were infuriating; when an opportunity seemed perfect for Hieron and a producer signed off then a director signed off but there was always the one executive up the food chain who simply wanted someone else, “and then it’s just totally out of your control,” Hieron says. But “The Thoroughbred” stuck to his goals, grinding and learning and even sometimes failing, but always standing back up again. And now Hieron’s IMBD page is exploding by the day.
From one volatile business to another, the UFC veteran made it work simply through hard work and sheer force of will. “You’ve gotta have tough skin, man,” Hieron says. “You’ve gotta just move forward if you don’t get something. One door closes, another one opens, and that’s just life, right? You’ve got to keep moving, one foot in front of the other and that’s it. It’s not for somebody who really catches feelings.
“[Work] is consistent now. I’m blessed, thankfully. … But it’s still always a grind. Even now, I’m waiting for auditions or meetings or whatever the case may be. You work a gig then you’re waiting for the next gig. I’m kinda in a place where I kinda know the phone will ring in time, so I’m not stressing it as much as when I first [started]. Like I said, after my last fight, it was a whole new wild path I had to go down and just kinda start from ground zero. I still had to go out and meet people and I did the whole thing, took classes, everything. I’m still working on everything, man. It never stops. The grind never stops in anything you do.”
Hieron still trains at Xtreme Couture these days, sweating away whenever he can alongside the likes of UFC contender Brad Tavares and PFL president Ray Sefo. That much hasn’t changed. Hieron says the gym life keeps him honest. Whenever his blood runs hot and he starts feeling those old pangs to give MMA one more good shot, he just jumps right into the sparring cage, “and I get it out of me real quick,” he says, laughing. “Then it’s, okay, yeah, back to the films.” But he’s proud of how things have turned out, even if he never really expected life to take this road.
After all, next month the lifelong fighter will have the chance to walk down to the theater and relive the very moment he tried to knife Denzel Washington to death from the backseat of a car, only for the Hollywood legend to turn the tables in the coldest of ways.
And really, what more could he ask for than that?
“He’s the Equalizer, bro. That’s it,” Hieron says of Washington, laughing again. “In every way. How he walks, how he talks, just his swag about him. I mean, he was straight Equalizer. He was in character. I loved it, man.
“I watch more than I talk, and I learned a lot, so it was an incredible experience.”