In just a few hours, an all-night film shoot held in a suburban L.A. movie studio, former NFL running back and now actor Thomas Q. Jones will be staring down perhaps the baddest opponent he’s ever taken on: legendary UFC light-heavyweight champion Chuck “Iceman” Liddell.
Tonight’s main event is the culmination of nearly a month of fight preparation for this summer’s indie MMA suspense thriller, Choke Hold, and, as any of us would be, Jones is anxious about his latest matchup.
“I’m, like, I play football, but I don’t do this fighting s—t,” says Jones, who plays Ty Matthews, a never-quite-made-it MMA fighter who gains notoriety after a YouTube recording that goes viral shows him forcing indomitable champion Marco Reign (Liddell) to tap out during a sparring session, which sets up tonight’s epic bout. “And he’s coming at me with an overhand right? Who knows if he’s gonna accidentally catch me with one of those?”
Choke Hold is Jones’ first leading role as an actor. After hanging up his cleats following the 2011 season, he added an initial—Q., for Quinn—to his IMDB résumé to prevent casting agents from using his NFL fame to fill only random jock roles.
“Some people brought me in just ’cause I was a football player,” says Jones, who describes Matthews as a flawed character who happens to also be an athlete. “I made my name Thomas Q. Jones so it would throw people off. It worked.”
Jones earned his acting break when he played Gabrielle Union’s often shirtless love interest in BET’s Being Mary Jane. He landed a small role in 2015’s blockbuster movie Straight Outta Compton and now can be seen as Comanche in Netflix’s Luke Cage.
“Before, I would get $50,000 bonus checks just for working out. That’s not an option now.”
“It was such a random thing,” Jones recalls. “I thought acting was cool, but I wasn’t committed. Then I started going on auditions and getting cast in things and realized I had a shot.”
Preparation for Choke Hold’s fight scene was a three-week course under the tutelage of another MMA legend, John Lewis. His objective wasn’t just for Jones to memorize Octagon choreography but to portray a seasoned, animalistic fighter onscreen. The process began with slow step-by-step walk-throughs that quickened session after session till a bang-bang, realtime fight sequence was established and Jones felt comfortable.
“It’s hard not to be a little intimidated with Chuck’s mug looking down the barrel at you,” says Lewis, who also has a supporting role in the film. “Thomas is a top-level athlete and wants to do everything great. And when you come in as the new guy, facing someone you’ve never met before, you don’t know if he’s going to be overzealous, cool, not cool—you don’t know what to expect. You’re thinking, ‘What if I hit him by accident? Or too hard? What’s he going to do?’ Once you get past those things, then all the comfort comes in, and the trust is there and everything’s good.”
Jones puts it a slightly different way: “Chuck is big and strong and can overpower you. It’s like getting attacked by a f—king animal. It’s crazy.”
To bring MMA-like realism to Choke Hold, Lewis avoided over-saturating the fight with traditional, cliché moves like armbars and triangles.
“We see movies where the movements that are being taught to the actors are generic, not specific to them, and interchangeable for anyone,” Lewis says. “A big part of why we like shows like the UFC is that we want to see how these fighters’ styles would hold up against another. The key is to keep that question alive until the outcome has been reached.”
Instead, Lewis sought to amp up the battle energy by having both fighters duke it out. Lewis already knew what he had with Liddell—“You just want Chuck to be Chuck”—but Jones was entering new territory, so finding his strengths was essential.
“He’s really good with his hands—he reminds me a lot of [deceased former UFC fighter] Kevin Randleman,” Lewis says. “He has very fast, quick muscles like you would think a football player would have. He’s very explosive.”
What Lewis didn’t want was for Jones to feel awkward.
“He hasn’t done a lot of kickboxing, so I didn’t ask him, to, like, throw a head kick,” Lewis says. “Why make him have to go through that? You don’t have to do that to be a good UFC fighter. You just have to be good at what you do. He’s good with his hands.”
Earlier that morning, with a round-the- clock shoot several hours away, there’s still time for Jones to take care of some unfinished business—it’s arms day. And it’s a good thing his gym is within walking distance: Jones no longer drives or even owns a car while living in L.A., despite earning more than $30 million over his football career. He instead relies on Uber, and his feet, to get him to auditions and acting class.
“I didn’t want to be a former NFL player who was getting into acting. I wanted to be an actor and start from scratch,” he says.
For 12 NFL seasons, Jones mastered the arts of rushing and reckless physicality. Taken seventh overall by the Arizona Cardinals in 2000, he finished his career in 2011 as the NFL’s 25th all-time leading rusher (10,591 yards), one of just 29 rushers to reach 10,000 career yards. His career highlights include an AFC rushing title, a Pro Bowl appearance, and five 1,000-yard seasons.
“I was once told [by a casting agent] to lose weight in my arms. How do you lose weight in your arms?”
In 2007, Jones’ 123-yard performance in the NFC Championship game led the Chicago Bears to Super Bowl XLI. But despite his best efforts—rushing for 112 yards, including a 50-yard run in the first quarter— Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts would claim the Vince Lombardi Trophy after a 29–17 victory.
“That game still haunts me,” Jones remembers. “I had a chance to be a world champion. Every year, Brian Urlacher and I will text each other: ‘How did we lose that game?’ ”
Now at a chiseled and game-ready 205 pounds—nearly 25 pounds less than his playing weight—the 38-year-old physically looks capable of still handling 20 carries a game. But internal reminders, which include a rib injury he sustained during his rookie season that still requires twice-weekly visits to a chiropractor and at times leaves him with shortness of breath, numerous concussions, and chronic knee pain, convince him that acting is the safer profession these days.
“I’m glad I don’t have to play in minus-5° or 125° weather,” Jones says. “For the rest of my life I don’t have to worry about being hurt. You go in the shower and something stings or hurts. Your fingernails are no longer being cracked open. I’m still hurt and injured from football, but unless I fall down, there aren’t going to be new injuries.”
When he was waived by the Chiefs in 2011, essentially ending his NFL career and taking away his primary outlet, Jones had a momentary loss of motivation for training.
“I had a hard time figuring out why I should be working out,” he says. “You’re training for the season, you have Pro Bowls, new contracts, and Super Bowls as motivation to go every day to the gym. Before, I would get $50,000 bonus checks just for working out. That’s not an option now.”
In 2007–09 with the New York Jets, Jones would complete the morning team workout—cleans, squats, and other heavy compound exercises. Then, following two to three hours of practice, Jones would hit the weight room a second time for his own personal workout— heavy bench presses supersetted with pullups, incline presses with seated cable rows, topped off with straight-bar curl dropsets. This allowed game day to become the easiest part of the week.
“When Sunday came, I felt like I had armor on,” he says. “My body was ready to crash into anybody. Now I’m at a good size where I could do action stuff and regular stuff. I’m not too big.”
Training for the big screen has become minimalistic compared with his NFL days. Wearing a wifebeater and Nike sweat shorts this morning, Jones keeps it light, grabbing a set of 35s and banging out 10 to 15 reps of alternating curls while adding external rotations in between sets to keep his shoulders loose. From there he drops down to 30s, then 25s. With casting agents rarely seeking out the swole doctor or lawyer, light weights along with some cardio consisting of light runs, boxing, and basketball, these are all the weights Jones needs these days.
“I was once told [by a casting agent] to lose weight in my arms,” he recalls. “How do you lose weight in your arms?”
And when it comes to diet, his calories are a lot less now than at training camp.
“I was used to eating four to five times a day as an NFL player,” he says. “It was huge meals all day. I’d have two plates full; food was falling off the edges. I was happy.”
Today’s post-workout breakfast is one of just two meals Jones normally eats each day to control his weight. His daily diet usually consists of a limited variety of salads—chicken or turkey. While waiting for his order at the restaurant adjacent to his gym—today it’s a turkey club sandwich—Jones has time to check in on one of his other ventures—he’s also a tech entrepreneur. His app, Castar (castarapp.com), a social media platform built for creatives in the entertainment industry to connect, was recently listed as one of 12 startups named to Google’s inaugural Entrepreneurs Exchange Program for Black Founders.
“To see someone else’s dream come true through something that I created, that’s a rush,” he says.
If there were any uncertainty as to what was in store in the Octagon this evening, all you needed to do was look at both Jones’ and Liddell’s faces.
“I was like, ‘F—k you.’ He was like, ‘F—k you.’ Just like a coin toss in football.”
Moments later the bell rang and Jones quickly found himself on his back thanks to an elbow, a punch, and a body slam from Liddell.
“I went from not wanting to hit him to, ‘All right, f—k it.’ Next round, Pow! Pow! We’re catching each other. Yeah, it was a real fight.”
An overhand right rocked Jones, who countered with several uppercuts to Liddell’s stomach. Elbows and kicks were thrown and checked. Nearly 12 hours and a bruised shin, several body scratches, and a shellshocked cast later (“[actor] Bruce Davison kept coming around telling us to relax”), director Matt Berkowitz had recorded on film one of the most realistic fight scenes in recent cinema.
“They stayed the course and followed the choreography to the letter,” Lewis said. “We were all very excited of what we’d captured. I just think people were impressed not knowing what to expect when they started running the action.”
Jones’ analysis was more raw.
“If you’ve never been that close to the action it’s almost like you’re in the Serengeti watching two lions fighting. You hear the roars and see the savagery. It’s what this fight turned into.”