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Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Jonathan Lipnicki on MMA and Tom Cruise

By Charles Curtis
ESPN The Magazine

Jonathan Lipnicki
The "Jerry Maguire" star is an avid martial-arts trainer with a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Want to feel old? Jonathan Lipnicki -- yes, the same adorable child actor in “Jerry Maguire” who you’ll always associate with the weight of the human head -- will turn 22 years old next week.

He’s also an MMA enthusiast and a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu who turned heads last year when photos emerged of his chiseled physique.

ESPN Playbook called Lipnicki to catch up with the actor -- who is currently starring in the YouTube series "MotherLover" -- and find out more about his passion for martial arts and if he still hangs with Tom Cruise.

How did you get started with jiu-jitsu?

I grew up in Westlake Villiage, a suburb of L.A. There was a guy there who was a fighter and was like, “I’ll teach you to box.” I started a little bit of boxing, then it crossed over into jiu-jitsu. I was into it for a little while, but then I started doing basketball, baseball, team sports. In high school, I ended up playing water polo and junior year, I really got into jiu-jitsu again. I quit water polo and did it competitively.

Do you train any athletes?

My family actually owns an MMA promotion company, so it’s kind of a family deal. It’s called Fight Sports Entertainment and they throw amateur fights in California. Because of that, I’ve given my mom a lot of the fighters to fight in a show. I’m actually training one of my friends right now, he’s fighting a jiu-jitsu guy. So I’m his sparring guy. If it’s someone way better, I won’t be a good sparring partner.

I really call myself a student who helps out when need be. If we have a fighter who’s getting ready for a fight, who’s around 155 and needs help on their ground game, I’ll help them out. I wouldn’t call myself an instructor by any means. I wouldn’t want to give myself that kind of credit because there are black belts out there who are phenomenal. But I do help out.

Does anyone ever recognize you?

Everyone at my gym knows me. They just know me as someone they train with and sometimes someone will make a joke.

Jonathan Lipnicki
Lipnicki circa 1996, at the "Jerry Maguire" premiere in NYC.
Is there a part of you that feels it’s good to expand your horizons and get away from the child actor who’s been in hit movies?

My focus is really acting right now, and jiu-jiitsu is a passion of mine. I feel like that is what keeps me very level and very concentrated. There’s a certain level of concentration that’s required that makes me a better actor.

We've seen some of your bouts on YouTube. What’s your record in competitions?

I don’t even know my record. I’ve competed mostly as a white belt, competed once as a purple belt and got a gold and bronze in the tournament. I got gold in my division because no one in my weight showed up and I got a bronze in “absolute,” which is all of the top competitors from their belt level at any weight class. Probably the biggest thing I did was Gracie Nationals in 2007 when I was a white belt.

How did your family get involved?

My mom has been a huge fan for a long time. She got a blue belt in jiu-jitsu and one of her ears is a cauliflower ear. She’s kind of a badass. My mom would do muay thai and come out with bruises and people would look at her weird, but it was from training. It was this passion of hers. Her boyfriend was a boxing promoter and they decided, ‘We both love this sport, why don’t we just do it?’ They saw a lot of the amateur organizations weren’t treating fighters right. They’re all about fighters first and treat their fighters so well. Their shows have been phenomenal, I do a lot of their play-by-play and a little announcing.

Have you kept in touch with any of the actors you’ve starred with?

I’ve seen Tom Cruise a few times this year and he’s always been super-supportive of me. When he saw me, he said, “Wow, you look bigger!” I told him about the jiu-jitsu and Tom is one of those people who thinks you need to be a person who learns several sets of skills as an actor. If you look at his films, for instance, there’s always a certain set of skills you need. So he was really stoked on the martial-arts part of that. With the growth of [MMA], there are a huge number of films being made about it and I would love to do one because honestly I think I could bring such truthful acting to it. I know what it’s like to train.

Would you do an actual MMA match?

It’s something that crosses my mind a lot and one of those things I think about doing, but I just don’t know. I’ve been pretty busy filming and I would need to put off a certain amount of time to really train for a fight and be in amazing cardio shape and really work on my striking more. I’m not saying no and I’m not saying yes.