My “American Fighter” Experience – The Connection of the California Wrestling Community by Al Fontes

Al Fontes, CA State Editor.

In life, it’s about living it to the fullest. Trying new things, going on adventures, enjoying family and friends, learning from one’s mistakes and thriving to constantly improve upon it…to give back to those that gave to you. That has always been my mindset since an early age. We only get one shot at it! Now, if anyone would have told me a year ago that I would be attending a movie premiere in Los Angeles with several A-list Hollywood actors among the cast, let alone participate as an extra for an up and coming film, I would have laughed it off. No way, not possible. Fast forward to today and I am not laughing it off, but reflecting about what to write about of my once in a lifetime experience. A life experience that I didn’t have on my bucket list, but was truly happy and honored to have had the opportunity to be a part of.

My experiences all began about four months ago when I attended my 30th annual CIF State Wrestling Championships, which was held at the Rabobank Arena in Bakersfield. During my travels in the arena, I came upon a display booth in the general entrance lobby area, which had on display the promotion of an upcoming movie called American Wrestler – The Wizard. The movie’s booth quickly caught one’s eye; a large movie banner hung prominently, posters were displayed clearly, and a large movie screen playing the movie trailer brought the curious crowd in to watch. While speaking with one of the attendants at the booth, I was approached by Actor/Producer Ali Afshar, whom the movie is based upon with true events of his and family’s lives. We spoke about the movie, wrestling, and drag racing, and unbeknownst to me at the time, we had a life experience connection. Ironically, on a few occasions, Ali had wrestled one of my former wrestlers, Marc Kavanagh of Livermore High School, back in 1991 (they were 1-1 with each other). I remember their matches vividly. It’s a small world to say the least. Unexpectedly during our conversation, Ali invited me and anyone in my family, as well as my circle of friends to attend the movie premiere of American Wrestler in Los Angeles, which was being held about a month after the state tournament. He also hinted that there were plans in the works to film a part two.

Socializing with many of the movie extras.

Not one to pass up this incredible offer I attended the movie premiere in LA. It was very exciting, filled with enthusiasm, and among other things a gathering of some of Hollywood’s elite such as Jon Voight and William Fichtner, each playing a starring role in the movie. Intertwined in the large crowd were many notable and accomplished wrestlers such as UFC Champion and actor Randy Couture, Adam Tirapelle (NCAA Champion), and a large contingent of former teammates, friends, and coaches of Ali Afshar, including those from Casa Grande High School and the North Coast Section area of California. In only a short period of time, I began to observe a positive pattern with Ali and his cast and crew; they were a very close knit group and were very good about interlinking their movie experiences with his family, friends, and hometown community, the wrestling community inclusive. Having met several of the actors that night, including lead actor George Kosturos (who played Ali) and his family was truly a welcoming and great experience of a lifetime.

A few months had gone by after attending the premiere in Los Angeles; I was barely coming off the buzz of this life experience and was reminded once again by Ali and a good friend of mine of an opportunity of a lifetime. As he had mentioned to me at the CIF State Championships, a part two was going to be filmed shortly after the viewing of American Wrestler and movie extras would be needed for several movie sequences. Myself, along with several former wrestlers from the California wrestling family, as well as members of the Petaluma and Santa Rosa area communities, were invited to participate as extras for American Fighter, the sequel of American Wrestler. Entering this great opportunity with no previous experience, I delved in with an open mind ready to learn and absorb what came my way.

Enjoying a great meal between movie takes with the cast, crew, and extras.

Amazed by this opportunity, after two long days, and I mean long days of working on the set, I came away with a greater understanding and appreciation of what it takes to produce a film. I recall a quote from an English Novelist and Philosopher, Addous Huxley, “There are things you know about, and things you don’t, the known and the unknown, and in between are the doors—that’s us.” As I had stated, I went into this experience unaware what to expect, only perceptions, but came out knowing that filming production is very demanding, paralleled by a vision of perfection. I draw several similarities with the sport of wrestling. Each requires a great deal of preparation, dedication, clear vision, and a desire to master one’s craft. For instance, the cast, crew and extras on average spent over ten hours of each day filming scene after scene in a multitude of different angles until the director was satisfied that it was a take. Similar, in the sport of wrestling, we spend long and painful hours training and refining our technique to perfection only for one to observe our product in a six minute match.

Joined by other California wrestlers, friends and the local community on the movie set, I was not alone in my experience. As a result, I had the distinct opportunity to share this movie making experience with several former wrestlers from the California wrestling family, which included a former teammate, friends and several wrestlers I had the pleasure of coaching through the years. We all come from different walks of life, but were joined together by the common thread of wrestling to participate in the American Fighter filming experience. In the weeks since filming, I had the opportunity of interviewing several of these individuals.

On the set with Actor Tommy Flanagan and American Fighter Producer Ali Afshar.


 A CLOSER LOOK AT CALIFORNIA’S WRESTLING FAMILY – Q&A

 

JIMMY PERA – Army Green Beret/Ranger.

BIO: Jimmy Pera is a 1994 graduate from Casa Grande High School in Petaluma. While at Casa Grande, Jimmy earned an individual Sonoma County League wrestling Championship and competed at the North Coast Section Championships three times. After high school, he participated in the movie industry for a few years and in 1997 decided to join the US Army. Since joining the Army, Jimmy has established himself a very impressive military career. Serving in a multitude of special operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, Jimmy has been a member of several distinguished groups in the Army, which include the Bravo Company – 75th Ranger Regime, 3rd Battalion out of Ft. Benning, GA and was an elite member of the Green Berets with the Alpha Company – 19th Special Forces Group (Airborne). Currently a Weapons Sargent with the 18th Bravo-75th Ranger Regiment, Jimmy has earned numerous medals throughout his military career, which include the Army Commendation medal with the Rangers and the Bronze Star (recommend for Valor with the Special Forces). Along with serving our great nation, Jimmy is still active with the movie industry, more recently playing the rival coach to Ali’s villain opponent in the American Wrestler – The Wizard. Jimmy is married and has two children.

TCW: It’s my understanding that you and Producer Ali Afshar have been lifelong friends since childhood. When did you first meet Ali and has he influenced you in any way?

PERA: Ali and I met when I was a freshman at Casa Grande High School in 1990-91. We were at Petaluma HS’s scrimmage (Denny Plyler was Petaluma’s Head Coach). Ali was rolling around with some kid and I walked up and he said, “Who are you with…?” I said, “I go to Casa.” He said, “ Well, then we are on the same side.”

Since then he became my older brother and still is. No matter Wrestling or 9/11 or deployed around the world, we always kept each other in contact about our life and situations. Ali and I have always talked about life (peace and war), girls, and wrestling.

I moved to LA when I was 18. Ali was 21; his brother Johnny was the oldest living there at 27. We had great times. I grew up a lot in that time. Los Angeles really opened my eyes coming from Petaluma.

TCW: In the movie American Wrestler – The Wizard, you played the part of a coach for the rival high school of the character Ali. Can you describe what it is like to participate in a movie with so many people you know from the Petaluma and Santa Rosa areas?

PERA: It was an honor to be featured as one of the villain’s coaches (The other was Windsor’s real Head Coach Rich Carnation). The whole Redwood Empire wrestling community came together like a family. They are all great people from Ukiah to the Golden Gate. Ali asked me to be the advisor for Wrestling and Military, advisor for Decorations and Awards that fit the Post World War II and Vietnam Era, for both Jon Voight and William Fictner.

To participate in a movie was not new. I was a part of Scream, A Smile Like Yours, Sweet Valley High to mention a few (got fired on my birthday in LA in 1997 over the phone in my one bedroom apartment. That is where I decided to join the Army, on the spot, so acting took a back seat.

But the most recognizable movie was “Black Hawk Down.” As a Ranger in Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, we were sent to do the fast roping and military scenes for the movie in March of 2001. I was the rope master of the UH 60 Black Hawk by the Olympic Hotel, featured during the insertion scene. It was filmed in Morocco, North Africa.

Movies are like books, a living documentary of events.

On The American Wrestler, being a rival coach in the movie was a fun and a challenge to bring to life, a stage of Ali’s life, to the audience for which I personally knew.

Jimmy Pera with child actor Liam Xander Breen at the premiere for the movie Pray for Rain.

TCW: Considering the sport of wrestling is among the toughest sports in the world, how has it shaped the person you are today?

PERA: Wrestling by far shaped my future. I was just a League Champ, nothing special. I had many coaches in 4 years, from Tom Mikalson, Dave Cafiero and Rich Epperson (RIP), Geoff Jones, Smo Sokardi and Kevin O’Sullivan. What I learned was if I could stand alone on the mat, I could do anything in life.

Wrestling helped me become a champion, but also helped me become an Army Ranger (Class 2/99 Roster #284 29 January 1999) and an Army Green Beret (Class 03/03, 07 November 2003).

The sport got me through some of the worse situations while serving in training and war, life and death.

The lack of food and sleep in training was something I could adapt to. Why? For instance, as a teenage kid I did that to achieve getting to a championship match.

The funny thing was in 22 Tournaments in high school, I got twelve 2nds and only 2 (14 Title Matches) championships…the rest 3rds, 4ths and a 5th.  My coach Rich Epperson called me “Elway”. This was after John Elway not winning a Super Bowl at the time. I’d get so mad, but now think back and laugh. Dave Cafiero, my coach during my senior year said, “You just ran out of time.” I always wondered what if I had youth wrestling – 3rd grade through 8th. At the time Kenilworth Junior High School didn’t have wrestling. But woulda, coulda, shoulda doesn’t matter. It is what it is. It does fuel me for future challenges.

My matches against Piner’s Matt Dillon (NCS Champ and Placer) were good, especially at the old SCL/NBL Interlock in 1993 (1994 Season). We beat each other in the same day. I went 6-0 in the Duals, winning 7-5. I then lost to Dillon in the Ironman Championship 3-2. Dillon was tough and his coach Jon Jackson was tough as nails too. I can’t believe it’s been 24 years since then.

TCW: Participating in the filming of a movie is very demanding and requires a great deal of patience and stamina. For instance, it could take a majority of the day to perfect a one or two minute scene. With your experience as an extra on a movie set, what parallels do you draw with the sport of wrestling and film production?

PERA: It parallels drilling. Now the wrestling room by far is very demanding, nothing like it. But, the hours of take after take and cut after cut allowed me to appreciate what Ali, George and Alex (Director) and crew went through to make such a great film.


RICHARD DIAZ – Firefighter/Paramedic.

BIO: Richard Diaz “aka, Rich” is a 1996 graduate of Livermore High School in the North Coast Section. A team captain for a couple of seasons, Rich earned several trips to the section championships, represented Team California at the Western Regionals, and earned a medal at the Cadet Freestyle State Championships. Having the distinct privilege to coach Rich at the high school level, I always knew that his exceptional work ethic and leadership, both on and off the mat would pay off someday. After graduating from Livermore High School, Rich pursued a career in the Electrician field and worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as a State Certified Electrician for many years. More recently, Rich accomplished his childhood dream of becoming a Firefighter/Paramedic. After many years of training, education, and many attempts to make the final cut for employment, Rich’s perseverance and “NEVER QUIT ATTITUDE” finally paid off when he was hired to the Berkeley Fire Depart. Employed with Berkeley Fire Department for the last three years, Rich has been married to his high school sweetheart, Kara, for the last 17 years and has six children (5 girls and one boy).

TCW: It’s my understanding that this is the first time that you have participated on a movie set as an extra. Based on your preliminary perceptions, what are your thoughts post working on the set with the cast and crew?

DIAZ: I can honestly say that I came with a clear and open mind, but when I left my mind was opened to this craft and my respect for all parts of the process is enormous. I was truly impressed by the vision Director Shaun Piccinino and Producer Ali Afshar had for this project and the relentless pursuit of perfection. It is my understanding that Shaun Piccinino is himself a decorated martial artist and it showed during my one day of exposure to the process of making a motion picture. During filming there was a very important fight sequence and it was obvious that a flawless execution and performance was absolutely the only result that would be accepted.

TCW: Considering the sport of wrestling is among the toughest sports in the world, how has it shaped the person you are today?

Rich Diaz on the movie set of American Fighter with Director Shaun Piccinino.

DIAZ: I am forever grateful to the many great coaches that I have been blessed with throughout my youth and the priceless life lessons they bestowed upon me. Wrestling has sparked a fire in me that I will take to the grave. I can still hear Coach Al in my head when times are tough, “Get Up…MOVE…don’t quit…having mental toughness and becoming comfortable being uncomfortable are the prerequisites to succeeding in wrestling and life.

TCW: What type of lessons did you learn growing up in the sport of wrestling that will forever be with you and carried on through life?

DIAZ: Some of the lessons that will forever be with me and in me are also being passed on to current wrestlers and future wrestlers in my children. Preparation truly begins while your opponent is resting; it is all about the extra laps, or extra pull-ups. You truly get out of the sport what you put into it. I use these lessons in my everyday life.

TCW: Participating in the filming of a movie is very demanding and requires a great deal of patience and stamina. For instance, it could take a majority of the day to perfect a one or two minute scene. Participating as an extra in the movie, what parallels do you draw with the sport of wrestling and film production?

DIAZ: It is a grind for sure, mentally and physically. I can truly say it is all about the preparation. Getting a good night sleep, which was almost impossible for me due to my excitement and anticipation. Remaining Hydrated is very important, as well as keeping yourself snacking throughout the day. Stretching and staying focused on what your tiny part of the big picture is. Crazy the similarities between the two!

TCW: After watching American Wrestler: The Wizard and now having the opportunity to be a part of American Fighter, what legacy or impact on the wrestling community do you think it’s already had and hope it will carry on for Generations?

DIAZ: Just like the great film Vision Quest that I had to use as motivation and refocusing American wrestler will now be the film to inspire young people and even encourage youth for generations. The storyline and execution of the film is amazing and I truly believe we have a new ambassador for the sport in Ali. As for the American fighter I can only speak about what I was privileged to be a part of and from what I saw this film will not disappoint. Many wrestlers take this very path to MMA for various reasons but the proof is in the pudding wrestling can fight in and out of the modern cage.


TIM LAJCIK – Actor/Stuntman/Poet/Writer

BIO: Tim Lajcik “aka, The Bohemian” is a 1983 graduate of Thousand Oaks High School in the Southern Section. His senior year, he placed at the prestigious CIF State Championships in the light-heavyweight class and then continued his wrestling career at the University of California at Davis, earning two NCAA Division II All-American honors and a National AAU title in Freestyle. In addition, he was an Academic All-American, as well as All-American defensive lineman with the football team. Moreover, Tim coached for a few years at his alma mater and then competed at the 1992 Olympic trials. He is a former mixed martial artists competing in the heavyweight division of the Ultimate Fighting Championships and the Pancrase. A member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Tim is a Professional Actor/Stuntman and has many credits to his name. Holding a B.A. degree in Sociology from the University of California at Davis, Tim is also a writer and poet.

TCW: It’s my understanding that you are a retired mixed martial artist, stuntman, actor, and writer.  How did you get involved in the movie industry?

LAJCIK: I was participating in an MMA match in New Jersey in 2004, I believe. One of the fight judges, a fellow named Douglas Crosby, also worked as a stunt coordinator in film and television. After the bout, he introduced himself to me and asked if I’d be interested in working as a stuntman. I was nearing the end of my MMA career, so I figured I’d give it a go. Over time, I began to get more acting roles in addition to performing stunts.

TCW: As a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), what are your future plans and goals?

LAJCIK: I’ve got a couple more years before I am vested in the guild’s pension plan, so I’ll likely keep at this racket at least until then. If I can continue to get character roles going forward, I suppose I will until they dry up. I’ve also worked as a writer over the years. I figure I’ve got another dozen short stories, maybe two novels, and a volume of poetry left in me that I’d like to get out.

Tim Lajcik on the set of American Fighter

TCW: Considering the sport of wrestling is among the toughest sports in the world, how has it shaped the person you are today?

LAJCIK: Wrestling has been a wonderful teacher for me over the years. When I started as a high school freshman I lost all my matches. Ten years later I was an AAU Freestyle National Champion. In the intervening years I kept plugging away, doing the hard work and continually testing myself. At each level – high school, college, Open, I struggled initially before the tables turned. To the extent that I have enjoyed success outside the wrestling arena, it’s because those difficult times in wrestling taught me humility, and the eventual successes taught me not to get discouraged.

TCW: Participating in the filming of a movie is very demanding and requires a great deal of patience and stamina. For instance, it could take a majority of the day to perfect a one or two minute scene. Having a great deal of experience as an actor and stuntman on many movie sets, what parallels do you draw with the sport of wrestling and film production?

LAJCIK: Honestly, the parallels are minimal. Nobody who’s done sustained hard work in their lives, including wrestlers, thinks acting is hard. The hardest thing about acting is just being rejected so often. Still, losing out in an audition doesn’t compare to losing a wrestling match.

TCW: With your vast experience acting and performing stunts on movie sets, how would you rate your experience on this show compared to the others?

LAJCIK: While I can truthfully say I’ve never had a bad overall experience on a set, each cast and crew has a different chemistry and a greater or lesser degree of commitment to the project. The enthusiasm and camaraderie on American Fighter was strong. Hopefully that spirit will translate into a fine film. If nothing else, I’ve made a handful of good friends. 


TYLER RARDON – Cal Baptist Grad.

BIO: Tyler Rardon is a 2013 graduate of Livermore High School in the North Coast Section. While at Livermore, Rardon was a two-time East Bay Athletic League Champion and became the first Cowboy wrestler in the school’s history to win back-to-back NCS titles. Qualifying to the prestigious CIF State Championships twice, Rardon made it to the round of 12 his senior year, but came up short of placing in the top 8 when he received a concussion in his blood round match. Upon graduating from high school, Rardon continued his mat career at California Baptist University in Riverside and recently graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration, with a concentration in Management. Rardon is currently living in the Bay Area and seeking a position in sales in hopes of working for a software company in San Francisco or the Silicon Valley.

 

TCW: It’s my understanding that this is the first time that you have participated as an extra in the filming of a movie. Based on your preliminary perceptions, what are your thoughts post working on the set with the cast and crew?

RARDON: Working with the cast and crew was an awesome experience. They were really down to earth guys and worked hard at learning wrestling for the movie. It was surprising to me how long each shot took. A 30 second shot in the movie actually takes about an hour or two to film. All the different angles, wide lens, long lens, normal or zoom lens all contribute to it being a time intensive process. Also getting the right tones, walks, and lines just right takes some time. The amount of detail and work that goes into each scene was surprising.

TCW: Considering the sport of wrestling is among the toughest sports in the world, how has it shaped the person you are today?
RARDON: Wrestling is a sport that takes a lot of hard work. There hasn’t been a state champion or national champion that hasn’t put in the time and effort to reach the pinnacle of the sport. In wrestling you get out of it what you put into it. If you work hard you will find success, like a lot of things in life. In life we all face a lot of obstacles but it’s how you overcome that adversity’s that determines your success.

Tyler Rardon winning his 2nd NCS title in 2013.

TCW: Participating in the filming of a movie is very demanding and requires a great deal of patience and stamina. For instance, it could take a majority of the day to perfect a one or two minute scene. This being your first experience as an extra on a movie set, what parallels do you draw with the sport of wrestling and film production?
RARDON: “Perfect preparation prevents piss poor performances.” You have to be ready to work in wrestling and in acting. With that comes a lot of preparation. There is a lot that goes into the movie that people don’t see. Same with wrestling, people just watch the 6 or 7 minute match and see your hand being raised and say, “that was easy for him.” But really a lot of preparation went into that moment. Hours and hours of drilling the same move over and over again, the running, the weight lifting, and the extra workouts is what went into winning that match or tournament. With the movie, a lot of hard work went into it but most viewers don’t get to see all of that.

TCW: Just graduating from Cal Baptist University in Riverside, what is your career plans and do you plan to coach wrestling or give back to the sport in some shape or form.
RARDON: I moved back to the Bay Area to look for a sales position, hopefully for a software company in San Francisco or the Silicon Valley. I think that the work ethic and competitive drive I learned from wrestling will translate well in the business world. I currently have a temporary position working as a administrative assistant for Grand Rounds, which is a healthcare/tech company based in San Francisco.

I help put on a wrestling camp every summer, which I really enjoy doing. Pinnacle Wrestling Camps is a great opportunity for kids of all ages and experience levels to learn from some of the top coaches around. This year the camp’s technicians were Adam Tirapelle, head coach for Clovis High School, Gabe Flores, assistant coach for Buchanan High School, and myself.


BRENT UGALDE – Financial Advisor

BIO: Brent Ugalde is a 1986 graduate of Oakdale High School in the Sac-Joaquin Section. While at Oakdale, Brent competed in the Valley Oak League and during his senior year won a Sac-Joaquin Sub-Section title. Upon graduating from Oakdale High School, he continued his mat career at Modesto Junior College and in 1988, he placed at the California Community College State Championship.  Brent then went on to compete at the NCAA Division II level for Humboldt State University. After his time on the mat, he continued to give back to the sport by being an assistant coach at Riverbank High School in the Sac-Joaquin Section from 2011 to 2013. Brent is married with two daughters, and has been a Financial Advisor in the Stanislaus County for over 10 years.

 

 

TCW: It’s my understanding that this is the first time that you have participated on a movie set as an extra. Based on your preliminary perceptions, what are your thoughts post working on the set with the cast and crew?

UGALDE: I always had the perception that actors and actresses had it easy, probably from what I saw on television growing up.  I can assure you it’s not that easy.  These performers work day and night long hours.  They’re not always indoors on a movie set.  Sometimes they have to work in extreme weather conditions.  Not only do they have to memorize lines, but also they have to portray a character and that characters profession even if they’ve had no previous experience whatsoever.  I was impressed with George Kosturos for learning wrestling moves and technique in such a short time frame. He did a great job.  I definitely have a new respect for actors and actresses and their crew.

TCW: Considering the sport of wrestling is among the toughest sports in the world, how has it shaped the person you are today?

UGALDE:  I contribute a lot of who I am to wrestling.  I know that with anything you do, the more you practice the better you become.   It has given me confidence that I can be successful in anything I do.  I’m more disciplined, passionate and dedicated to my family and job.

Brent Ugalde at Modesto JC – 1988 State Medalist.

TCW: What type of lessons did you learn growing up in the sport of wrestling that will forever be with you and carried on through life?

UGALDE: If you want something bad enough you can get it.  I think it starts with desire.  I learned how to be dedicated and passionate about achieving goals.  It helped me to push myself beyond what I thought I could do.  It’s more than just working hard on a job from 9am to 5pm. It’s more than just showing up to practice.  It means you don’t stop working until the job is done even if it means overtime.  It means you do whatever it takes relentlessly to reach your goal.

TCW: Participating in the filming of a movie is very demanding and requires a great deal of patience and stamina. For instance, it could take a majority of the day to perfect a one or two minute scene. Participating as an extra in the movie, what parallels do you draw with the sport of wrestling and film production?

UGALDE: Repetition. It’s like practicing a single leg take down over and over again until you get it right.  Since these actors have to look great, they eat a healthy diet and work out regularly.  George Kosturos was doing pushups in between scenes. The cast and crew work tirelessly until they get the shots they need.

TCW: After watching American Wrestler: The Wizard and now having the opportunity to be a part of American Fighter, what legacy or impact on the wrestling community do you think it’s already had and hope it will carry on for Generations?

UGALDE: Everyone loves a success story.  It was nice of Ali Afshar to come back to the community he’s from to make a movie about his life and the sport of wrestling.  I like how he incorporates the community to be in his films.  I think it’s important for people to know that it’s okay to accept people that are different from you.  America was built on immigration.  This is still the land of the free and the home of the brave.  I hope the next generation knows that anyone can be a winner if they put their mind to it.


HAI NGUYEN – Certified Public Accountant (J.D.)

BIO: Hai Nguyen is a 1986 graduate of Livermore High School in the North Coast Section (NCS). A three-year varsity letterman and NCS qualifier for the Cowboys, Nguyen had a successful high school career, winning several tournaments in the Northern California area during his senior year. A varsity teammate of mine at Livermore High School, I recall Hai being among the hardest working wrestlers in the room, always striving to perfect his technique and lead by example. After graduating from Livermore High School, Nguyen then attended Cal State University of Hayward and went on to earn a B.S. degree in Accounting. A licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in the San Jose area for several years, Nguyen recently earned his Juris Doctorate (J.D.) at Saint Francis School of Law. Hai is married and has three girls.

 

 

TCW: It’s my understanding that this is the first time that you have participated on a movie set as an extra. Based on your preliminary perceptions, what are your thoughts post working on the set with the cast and crew?

NGUYEN: I love watching great and timeless classic movies and being able to participate as an extra in one was truly a blessing.  My first impression was the excitement and positive energy exhibited by the cast and crew: everyone was friendly and professional in light of the heat and long demanding hours of filming. Facially, a Hollywood movie production sounds sexy but producing one takes genuine work from behind the scene from my first-hand observation.  It made me much more appreciative of the final product knowing the significant amount of resources invested to simply produce a two minutes scene.

TCW: Considering the sport of wrestling is among the toughest sports in the world, how has it shaped the person you are today?

NGUYEN: The sport of wrestling is without a doubt the most difficult sport in High School. Successful wrestlers from all walks of life know the sport is physically and psychologically demanding.  Your success is purely a product of your abilities to overcome adversities.  In the sport of wrestling, the beauty is having the insight that your opponent is as capable as you are and as hungry as you are:  both with a sole objective of winning.  Success in wrestling is only achieved through long hours of training, dedication, and personal sacrifice.  To this very day, the experience from the sport still resonate positive and profound impact in my personal and professional life.  Wrestling mirror life in many respects; like a tough opponent on the mat, you must find ways to overcome your opponent, and infirmities.

The sport of wrestling gave me the fortitude knowing that I can overcome any obstacle, and failure is simply a product of eventual success.

TCW: What type of lessons did you learn growing up in the sport of wrestling that will forever be with you and carried on through life?

Hai Nguyen – Livermore Wrestling ’86.

NGUYEN: There are many lessons I’ve learned from the beautiful and graceful sport of wrestling; the first important lesson I’ve learned is whether you are a true competitor or simply a participant.  A competitor is a person that strive to win every match, whereas, a participant is simply happy to participate in the sport.  You find quickly the nature of your being once you are soundly defeated – whether you are a competitor or merely a participant.

I am sure like most wrestlers, we don’t remember our wins but we vividly remember our losses.  The losses are painful and leave a deep cut in your soul when you are a true competitor.  I’ve learned that to be successful in wrestling as in life, you must be prepared to confront your opponents.  I’ve learned success is a product of hard work and sacrifice:  The issue is whether you have properly prepared for your opponent.    Wrestling is a great vehicle, which teaches you on how to properly plan, assess, and navigate successfully to overcome whatever obstacle you may face.

TCW: Participating in the filming of a movie is very demanding and requires a great deal of patience and stamina. For instance, it could take a majority of the day to perfect a one or two minute scene. Participating as an extra in the movie, what parallels do you draw with the sport of wrestling and film production?

NGUYEN: The one parallel that I observed is that “great actors materially contribute to a successful film similar to a wrestler contributing to a team’s overall performance” even though both are individual performances.  Great individual performances requires countless hours of training and rehearsal; successful actors similar to wrestlers require countless hours of training to sharpen their skills:  like a tip of a spear, it can only be forged though an arduous and demanding process.

TCW: From your experiences in the sport of Wrestling, what advise would you give a young athlete considering the sport?
NGUYEN: I would advise them to take up the sport only if they are serious about competing.  I would ask them if they are willing to make the necessary sacrifices to become successful in the sport.  If they are, it will become the cornerstone to a successful and fulfill life because of the skillsets wrestling will teach them: the discipline and dedication which the sport demands and the confident they will build. In short, the sport of wrestling builds a positive spirit of competition, courage, and self-confidence.

Wrestling has a rich history, which goes back to 374 BC, and its majestic history is “beyond the mat” for those that had the bravery to take up the challenge.


ANDREW KOPONEN – Police Officer/Actor

BIO: Andrew Koponen “aka, Kope” is a 1989 graduate of Livermore High School in the North Coast Section. While at Livermore, he was a Team Captain, section medalist, and earned two All-American honors at the Espoir Nationals in Greco-Roman while wrestling for Humboldt State University. In addition, he earned a Bronze medal at the 1990 Olympic Festival, as well as competed in the 1992 Olympic trials. He also has a long coaching tenure dating back to the early 1990s, coaching at his alma mater Livermore HS, Liberty HS, Livermore Charter HS, and Christianson Middle School. A veteran of the US Army, Andrew was a Mortarman and Machine Gunner and served with B Company, 184th Infantry Air Assault in Kuwait shortly after 9/11. A retired officer with the Oakland Police Department, Andrew is currently a counselor for officers with PTSD. Academically, Andrew holds a BA degree in Political Science from Humboldt State and earned a Masters in Education at the University of Phoenix. Currently, Andrew is a Professional Actor and a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). He is married with one child and is a member of the Livermore Mosaic Lodge #218.

TCW: Being a member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), how many movies or television programs have you participated in over the years?

KOPONEN:  In the last 7 years, I have been in 6 feature films and 6 TV shows with the last big three being Steve Jobs, Ant-Man, and San Andreas. My favorite role was when I played a cop in the TV show, “I Almost Got Away With It” because I had quite a few good lines, though, I suppose my best role was playing a VA Patient in the movie, “The Master” as I was lucky enough to get in the credits.

TCW: It’s my understanding that you were a wrestling advisor for a few scenes in American Fighter. Considering that wrestling is a difficult sport to master, what was your experience teaching and advising the actors on the movie set?

KOPONEN:  Wrestling is much like Ballet. It takes many years to learn, and normally it is painfully obvious who is new because you just can’t fake looking like an expert wrestler when you are not. I was amazed of the actors in American Fighter as they were able to pass off as college-level wrestlers without a hitch, and that is not an easy task.

Andrew Koponen hanging out with Actor George Kosturos at the movie premiere of Pray for Rain.

TCW: Considering the sport of wrestling is among the toughest sports in the world, how has it shaped the person you are today?

KOPONEN:  In high school, I was heading in the wrong direction. Wrestling helped me steer clear of that. Wrestling taught me many valuable lessons in life but I think the most important ones were 1) No matter what job you are doing, always do your utmost best, and 2) The capability to endure any hardship, no matter how bad, and keep your head and spirit up. When I used to be a policeman in Oakland, CA, wrestling saved my life quite a few times.

TCW: With your vast experience playing an extra on many movie sets, how would you rate your experience on this set compared to the others?

KOPONEN:  Working on set with American Fighter has been a wonderful experience.  From the producers, directors, cast, and crew, all were extremely professional, considerate, and they made it a pleasure to be on set. A 10 out of 10 to ESX Productions!

TCW: What are your future goals in the movie industry? What would you like to accomplish?

KOPONEN:  I just finished writing a 110-page screenplay, so I’d like to see that someday come to light. It is a serious subject, dealing with PTSD and the Police Officer, but I do also include a lot of fun and exciting police stories too. It took me two years to write, and now I’m currently working on finding a production company that might be interested.

Andrew Koponen (bottom right) along with several former California wrestlers that were extras in a few wrestling scenes.

 

Q&A with Producer Ali Afshar

In conclusion, I am still feeling the buzz from my great experience. More importantly, sharing this experience with many from the California wrestling community, my friends, as well as meeting and making new friends on set is priceless. Many people from outside our wrestling fraternity have asked me, “Why did you take up the sport of wrestling…why not football, basketball…there’s greater potential for monetary gain in other sports?” Despite my lifetime experience participating in many other sports, the answer is very simple – I quote from what a good friend and teammate of mine who shared this with me and I truly agree, “Wrestling is a selfless sacrifice with little financial rewards, but a lifetime of self-satisfaction.” From my personal experiences, no other mainstream sport has provided this level of teaching, as did the sport of wrestling. I believe a majority of wrestlers can relate to the comparison of wrestling to acting and the movie industry. No other mainstream sporting population has survived the rigors of our great sport to make a comparison on this level and it has given me a far greater appreciation of movie making and the finished product we see in the theater.

On a final note, I want to thank Ali Afshar for bringing our two communities together to share this great experience. Kudos goes out to Ali, Director Shaun Piccinino and his cast and crew, as well as George Kosturos and his father Paul for making me feel welcome on set. I look forward to the future when this movie comes out; I expect it to be as great as American Wrestler-The Wizard, which is now out and can be purchased on DVD (purchase at Wal-Mart and Amazon online). More to follow…