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From UFC stardom to ‘Bad Boys for Life,’ Rory Markham explains how he left fighting for good

Rory Markham/Facebook

As the production crew prepared a massive action scene in Bad Boys for Life, former UFC fighter Rory Markham got ready to shoot opposite Will Smith.

Markham was playing gunrunner Booker Grassie, who was involved in an arms deal gone bad. Smith’s character was determined to save him in the midst of a shootout.

It was hard for the 38-year-old fighter turned actor not to pinch himself. He was living above Pat Miletich’s gym in Bettendorf, Iowa, when he’d landed his first role thanks to a chance invitation from his former head coach.

At the time, Markham was on the IFL roster, training alongside a room of legends like Matt Hughes and Robbie Lawler. But the acting bug had already bit him years earlier when he took some classes in Chicago. That brief experience led to an offer from Miletich that gave Markham his start in front of the camera, or at least a role that didn’t necessarily involve punching people in the face for a living.

“Pat runs upstairs and goes ‘Rory, you used to go to acting school?’” Markham told MMA Fighting. “He says, ‘Come on down, I’ve got to shoot these action scenes for this director down in Mexico.’”

The movie was The Death and Life of Bobby Z, starring the late Paul Walker and Laurence Fishburne. Markham, flanked by Miletich and Lawler, flew to San Diego before driving south to the set. Lawler had also been offered an appearance.

Little did Markham know at the time, but after arriving on set, he was informed his action scene could morph into a larger role with a speaking part. But first, he had to audition. His competition was his head coach and one of the most vicious knockout artists in the history of the sport. Thankfully, there were no punches thrown that day.

“Me and Robbie landed at the same time, and there was one part left to read for,” Markham said. “It was me, Robbie and Pat, and the director John Herzfeld said you guys can read for it.

“Pat takes out his false teeth – I love you Pat so much – but this was terrible. It was so bad. He did this whole growl doing [the scene]. And then Rob comes up, and you know Rob, he’s like, ‘He’s heading south by southwest’ [in a monotone voice], and just not there. He was there for a check and a little vacation.

“Then I came up, and I’m into this whole scenario. I grab some sand, clinching in my hand like I’ve been tracking somebody, and I said, ‘He’s headed south by southwest, Mr. Johnson.’ Herzfeld is on a horse at this point when we’re on set, and he goes, ‘Congratulations kid, you just got your SAG (Screen Actors Guild) card.’ He hits a high hard one, like ‘yee-haw,’ and rides off into the sunset.”

As introductions to film go, it was pretty random and bizarre. But it was something Markham never forgot. The movie led to a relationship with Mike Gunther, a famed stunt coordinator, producer and director, who’s worked on dozens of films and television projects including The Avengers, A Quiet Place and two Fast & Furious movies.

Markham was still in the thick of his fight career, so he wasn’t necessarily focused on acting. With a successful run that eventually led to the UFC, he really didn’t have the time to try another career. But he never lost that itch, especially as he stayed in touch with Gunther. After he was released from the UFC following a particularly disastrous outing against Nate Diaz, he was ready for a change.

That eventually arrived with the 2011 film Setup, where Markham starred alongside rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson and stars Bruce Willis and Ryan Phillippe. The set was a much different experience than his previous movie. One of the actors threw him a huge curveball just before Gunther called action.

“Ryan Phillippe is like, ‘Let’s just improv this, the director’s cool, let’s just improve this [scene], and I’m like, ‘Oh my god.’ I had everything memorized front to back, so I’m like, ‘What am I going to say?’” Markham said with a laugh.

Thankfully the scene went off without a hitch, and he continued to work with Gunther on a number of projects, including a three-film role in a series of movies called Rogue Warfare. The finale, Rogue Warfare: Death of a Nation, ended up as one of the most-watched films on Netflix.

“I’ve really been privileged to have a brother in Mike,” Markham said. “He’s really trusted me with really big parts. That led to Rogue Warfare, and that’s three movies in 45 days on a small budget. That’s filming at a breakneck pace.

“I don’t think anyone else could have pulled it off. It was so intense. For it to have this much, all the accolades, knowing what we went through, it was really cool.”

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To put his full focus on acting, Markham had to put fighting behind him. But as much as he loved being on set and filming with A-list celebrities, it was still difficult to hang up the gloves and just walk away from MMA. That itch still gets at him from time to time, because a passion for fighting doesn’t just go away.

“The urge will always be there,” Markham said. “They say in the ring, the truth will find you. And you discover so much about yourself [in fighting]. You learn how far you can go. You know yourself as a human being.

“You do get this super human sense of empathy from fighting. You are out there humbling yourself. You’re either going to win, or you’re going to lose, in your underwear, in front of millions of people sometimes.”

While he did eventually return for a fight in 2016, in large part because he didn’t want his career to end on that loss to Diaz, Markham is comfortable now in his retirement from MMA. He admits fighting could easily draw him back into the cage or ring again if not for his new career in acting, which gave him a living he could rely on.

“I have a second thought that maybe I could fight again,” Markham explained. “Maybe I have something else to prove. I don’t know if that feeling will ever go away, but it has helped to see there is my pension [from acting]. There is my retirement. If you stick with this and give it your all — and I will put my all into it — and I want to grow. I want to see the artistic side of this and use my mind instead of my physical capabilities.

“Seeing those residual checks and that residual income is there, and now the next thing is always there. That really subdues the urge to have the high of the fight and the low after. This money quells that money by a long shot. It’s something I trust and I can’t wait to experience hearing people say, ‘I can’t wait to see Rory play this guy.’ I believe in myself. I believe in my destiny. Fighting has been a part of my destiny to get where I’m at today.”

Much like recently retired former two-division UFC champion Daniel Cormier has found with a career in broadcasting, Markham said discovering something that could fill the void of fighting made a huge difference in the ability to walk away from the sport for good.

After Markham initially stopped fighting, he faced plenty of personal demons, including a battle with alcohol that eventually led him to rehab in 2013. Coming out on the other side of that turmoil with a renewed purpose helped lead him to where he is today.

If there’s one piece of advice he could offer to athletes who’ve called it a career or are contemplating the same move, Markham believes discovering something you love as much as fighting is really the only roadblock to a retirement that doesn’t stick.

“The other guys that need to retire or should retire, I sympathize with that,” Markham said. “I was in that spot. I did get jammed up. You lose your sense of who you are because you’re this one thing that so many people also vicariously lived through. You feel so much importance as a fighter, and that drops off. Who am I now? That struggle was tough for me. My struggle has been well-documented.

“These feelings drive us, but they also haunt us. After fighting, you do lose yourself. All of these guys that are going to retire, they need to have [plans after fighting].”

Markham has also found a way to use what he learned from an extensive career in martial arts to apply to his acting career.

“It takes balls to get in the cage, especially when that cage door shuts,” he said. “Like, I don’t get to go home until I do this thing right here. It’s crazy. I’ve got a fight in a couple seconds. I put in my head that I’ve done this great thing that people admire me for so with that courage and with the utmost humility, I give [the actors] the same respect they deserve.

“Like Will Smith, the kindest dude. A consummate professional, but kind, and we worked side by side for nine days. So it’s every day. He was so cool.”

The coronavirus pandemic has largely shut down Hollywood productions, though filming is starting to pick up again in different locations around the globe. Markham anxiously awaits the start of his next project, though he can’t reveal details just yet. But it appears to be another major step forward in his career.

“I know for a fact I’ll be a main character in something,” Markham said. “I can’t really reveal yet what it is, but there are projects lined up, ready to go. My whole life, I planned for this. I always said I want to be an actor. I don’t necessarily want to be a movie star, but I want to be an actor. I just really like the little things that make up the skill set that actors have. That’s why you can see how people get so passionate about doing a movie for like nine months.”

Even though he’s no longer fighting, Markham still stays in touch with former teammates and coaches, including Miletich, who played a significant role in the acting career he has now.

Markham specifically points to Miletich, not only for that original role he landed in The Death and Life of Bobby Z, but also to his pursuit of acting when fighting was still trying to draw him back in again.

“That’s what Miletich told me – ‘I can’t act, but you can, so why don’t you go ahead and act? You’ve got the respect, so just go after it like you did with fighting.’” Markham said. “I asked him if I should stick with fighting, and he said, ‘I don’t want to see you get hit in the head any more. You’ve got a great thing with acting.’”

After filming four movies in the past year alone, Markham is more than happy with the choices he made.

“I don’t know yet if I’m good or great, but I know I can do it and I’m going to keep doing it until I know I’m good,” Markham said. “Just like fighting. I’m going to keep doing it. I wasn’t one of these super athletes who could dunk a basketball. I trained so much in MMA, for so many hours, that’s how I got good. This is the same way I’m approaching acting.

“I’m going to absolutely explore what’s going to make me great. I’m going to explore with those people who are going to help me get there. You just have to believe in yourself.”

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