Boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: How "Aggro" Workouts Became the Rage in Hollywood

Boxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: -Aggro-Peter Berg-Photographed by Adam Amengual-H 2017
Photographed by Adam Amengual

Box-office bombs? Pummel away mounting industry anxiety as everyone from Rihanna to Peter Berg moves from Pilates to punching and kicking. Says one martial arts trainer: "I've never been so booked in my life."

Under the gaze of a caramel-mottled pit bull named Dempsey, Peter Berg is slugging his way — literally — through his morning ritual. After a warm-up of stretching and working the bags, the Patriot's Day director is sparring with Julian Chua, a former Golden Glove champion and taekwondo black belt. Chua works as a trainer at Berg's Wild Card West Boxing Club in Santa Monica, which counts some of the biggest names in Hollywood as regulars. Padded in protective gear, Berg, 53, ducks and crouches his way around the ring, throwing a pattern of jabs, hooks and crosses at the much younger Chua. It is a surprisingly friendly affair, considering that these two men are trying to make contact with each other's face.

It's been four years since Berg opened Wild Card West with the late Garry Shandling as his partner, and he currently finds himself with an enviable problem. After years of hemorrhaging money, the boxing gym is on a serious roll. "It's going great, it's going too great," Berg tells THR. "We don't have enough parking."

Despite Berg's best efforts to pay homage to old-school gyms and cultivate blue-collar authenticity (professional boxers use the facilities daily, as do firemen and LAPD officers), it's nearly impossible to ignore the role that local members like Liev Schreiber, Rihanna, Gina Rodriguez, director and CBS' Training Day executive producer Antoine Fuqua, David Duchovny, Mandy Moore and Viceland host Eddie Huang — to name but a few — have played in the popularity of his venture. And all across town, boxing gyms, Brazilian jiu-jitsu studios and classes in kickboxing and Krav Maga — the Israeli martial art — are likewise on the ascent. "I have never been so booked in my life. It's crazy," says Rigan Machado, who along with partner Martin Wheeler runs The Academy gym in Beverly Hills, where a variety of martial arts are taught. Machado, who is regarded as one of the top competitors in jiu-jitsu history, has built a reputation as the discipline's trainer to the stars. His clients include Ashton Kutcher, Charlie Hunnam and Joel Kinnaman.

Hollywood's love affair with the "aggro" workout spans studio executives, actors, directors and writers who are leaving the therapist's couch for the ring to work out stress, angst and ennui brought on by everything from stagnant movie theater attendance and dwindling cable subscriptions to POTUS' Twitter feed. If you listen closely enough along the Wilshire Corridor, you might hear the rhythmic pounding of fists and feet on punching bags from Echo Park to Pacific Palisades.

"Hollywood is a very stressed-out community, and we like to get out our aggression," says Ilaria Urbinati, No. 6 on THR's 2017 Power Stylists list, who has been working out daily at Hollywood's Fortune Gym since she picked up boxing a year ago. Urbinati says she has turned a number of her clients — including Tom Hiddleston, James Marsden, Armie Hammer and Lizzy Caplan — on to the sport. "This is a very stressful time for sure," she says, "and boxing is my therapy, 100 percent." Machado concurs: "The style of Brazilian jiu-jitsu gives these people an opportunity to train in a safe environment and to relax," he says, adding that he and his partners are considering opening more locations in the coming years. "Learning how to punch," notes Berg, "is incredibly relaxing and focusing. When someone is throwing a punch and trying to make contact with your face, you are very much in the moment."

Browse social media and you'll find any number of actors broadcasting their martial art bona fides. Scott Eastwood, Scott Caan and Kutcher are all avid jiu-jitsu devotees. Anthony Bourdain is an aco­lyte of the martial art's royal family, the Gracies, and has the competitive medals to prove it. Meanwhile, Demi Lovato's Instagram account reveals a pop star who moonlights as a Muay Thai whirling dervish.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when the aggro workout first took hold. Some say the seeds were planted in the late '80s by former CAA partner Michael Ovitz, who injected a warrior ethos into the business. Ovitz, a longtime martial arts enthusiast who famously relied on Sun Tzu's The Art of War to maneuver his way through deals, trained with Steven Seagal before helping to launch the actor's film career.

Then came the explosive growth of mixed martial arts in the early 2000s and the emergence of a new breed of battle-ready star — witness MMA actress Ronda Rousey; Anderson Silva, former Ultimate Fighting Championship's middleweight titleholder; and Irish boxer-UFC lightweight champ Conor McGregor. WME/IMG's $4 billion acquisition of UFC in 2016 not only further legitimized that sport but also brought it into the Hollywood fold. (Co-CEO Ari Emanuel's teenage son Leo is already making a name for himself as an up-and-coming MMA talent.)

Can the "Trump effect" really be credited with propelling high-impact-style workouts into the stratosphere? Anxiety and stress in the United States is indeed reaching record levels, according to the American Psychological Association. A report issued in January by the APA indicated "a statistically significant increase in stress for the first time since the survey was first conducted in 2007." The report noted that much of that had to do with the country's highly charged political climate.

But left-leaning wound licking is but one of multiple sources of stress pushing Hollywood through gym doors. Other existential threats to studios, networks and the industry's creative class include conquistadorial digital platforms and mobile technology. Tack on the recently thwarted writers strike, and there is plenty of angst to go around. "The strike was a big scary moment for all of us, and there were people who got that [stress] out here" at Wild Card West Boxing Club, says screenwriter Scott Burns, whose credits include Contagion and The Bourne Identity.

Burns came on as an investor with Berg several years ago and since then has seen how the sport helps him in his work. "[Writing is] a very solitary activity, and the fact that boxing is not a team sport is important. It is you and an adversary. A lot of days writing is like that, and I am sure that it is like that for actors as well. You are battling a lot of different demons," he says. "That kind of struggle resonates for people. I know it does for me."

As for Berg, who learned to box as a kid at a summer camp where the counselors organized Fight Club-like bouts for campers, the director-writer-producer-actor isn't deeply sympathetic toward Hollywood types wringing their hands about the state of the world. "We can't flatter ourselves and think that we have a monopoly on anxiety, frustration and stress just because we are in the entertainment business," he says. "Everyone has anxiety, frustration and stress. I have cops come in here all the time. Try being a cop right now."

This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.