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From the MMA to Hollywood: UFC vet talks John Wick, stunt fighting, and more

SB Nation logo SB Nation 9/11/2019 Carolyn Lee Adams
Roman Mitichyan posing for the camera © Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

One word rises to the top in conversation with Roman Mitichyan—blessing. The Armenian-born former UFC fighter identifies many events in his life as a blessing, even those that others wouldn’t necessarily view so favorably. This optimistic outlook has seen him through the tough transition from fighter to stuntman to actor—with director soon to be added to the list.

For fans of The Ultimate Fighter, Mitichyan may be remembered for his dramatic bookends of season six. Already an actor and stuntman, as well as accomplished martial artist, Mitichyan had found in TUF a perfect vehicle for all he brought to the table. Unfortunately, the season opened with tough news for the welterweight—he had suffered a broken elbow. However, this devastating turn of events was softened by a promise from Dana White: if Mitichyan healed up by the finale White would bring him back. “And he kept that promise,” Mitichyan says.

a man holding a sign: The Ultimate Fighter 6 Finale © Photo by: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images The Ultimate Fighter 6 Finale

Defeating Dorian Price in 23 seconds by submission (ankle lock), Mitichyan scored a dramatic victory and a UFC contract. His next fight was a loss, and would spell the end of his UFC career. The fact he didn’t get another chance in the UFC remains a disappointment, but, speaking to Bloody Elbow, Mitichyan is quick to point out that the entire experience was a blessing.

Mitichyan’s perspective has no doubt been shaped by growing up in Armenia, a small nation shadowed by conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan. His childhood in the 80’s was marked by Soviet rule and then, beginning in 1991, within an independent Armenia now engaged in open warfare with its neighbor. Although Armenia would come away the victor in 1994, tough sanctions kept life difficult. In this conflict-ridden environment it was expected for all boys to take up martial arts at age six or seven. Mitichyan began in freestyle wrestling before moving to Sambo-Judo under coach Baxshik Saroyan. A natural, he soon became a national champion.

Gokor Chivichyan, Roman Mitichyan are posing for a picture © Provided by Vox Media, Inc.
Roman Mitichyan receiving his 2nd Dan Judo black belt from Gokor Chivichyan.

Like many Armenians, Mitichyan’s family left their home country and found their way to California. Unlike most everybody, he wound up being coached by the legendary Judoka Gene LeBell, a man he says he is proud to be associated with. While LeBell was the sensei, it was Gokor Chivichyan who worked closest with Mitichyan—coaching him to win a USJI National Championship and a bronze medal in Sambo at Worlds.

When asked how he got into MMA, he casually mentions, “There was an underground fighting ring in Long Beach. $100 and a medal.” After a pause, he clarifies needlessly, “It wasn’t legal.”

As he racked up the wins and experience in Long Beach, his association with Judo Gene also found him getting both acting and stunt work. However, his heart was set on MMA, and as he says, “I always want to go for the best. So in acting, I want to work with A list actors, A list directors. In MMA, that meant fighting in the UFC.” Putting aside all pursuits other than fighting, Mitichyan succeeded in his goal, and points out that the motivation must be love of fighting.

“When someone says they want to fight to make money, I tell them they’re in it for the wrong reason. You have to do it for the love of it. Whether you’re fighting for $100 or thousands and thousands of dollars, it doesn’t matter. It has to come from the heart.” His devotion to the sport remains intense. “When fans boo a competitor—I hate that with a passion, because they don’t know what it takes to be in there,” he says, defining the nature of fighting as, “You go into the cage and take your opponent’s heart out and then after that, go out and get a drink, no problem.”

His time with the UFC was cut short, but Mitichyan did not give up on a career in MMA— continuing on in his fight career, ultimately racking up a 15-3 pro record. He cites this relentless competitiveness as key to his success in life, as applicable to fighting in the Octagon as fighting on film. When asked about retiring from active competition, he doesn’t mince words.

“It’s like cutting off your own head. Am I even a man anymore?” He still trains multiple times a week, working on his grappling, sparring, and occasionally dreaming of returning to the octagon. However, his perfectionistic personality keeps him from competition—a return could only happen if everything was right, and as Mitichyan says, “it is a young man’s game.”

Instead, he had focused that relentless drive toward his acting roles. He worked on both the first John Wick and John Wick 3, and has high praise for the humility and professionalism of both Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stahelski, who was Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix films. Stahelski – himself a judo black belt – runs a safe, but driven, set. On John Wick, “Push kicks, leg sweeps, judo throws—those are real. You can’t fake that.”

Although invited to work on John Wick 2, Mitichyan passed on that film in order to take on the role of ‘Van’ in The Promise, starring Christian Bale and set just prior to the Armenian genocide. The opportunity to work with Oscar winner and twice-nominated writer and director Terry George on a story close to his heart was too good to pass up. It was yet another blessing for Mitichyan.

When asked about Hollywood egos – and whether those egos show some respect when they learn he is a fighter – he laughs and says, “It’s funny you ask that. I won’t name names, but I had a producer let me know (the lead actor was difficult). When he introduced me to him he said I was a UFC fighter and the actor was super nice, super cool to me. But I saw how he treated the others.”

Commanding respect isn’t the only advantage of having a fighting background on set. Although his initial foray into stunts took some adjustment (the art of fake fighting felt “cheesy” at first), Mitichyan found knowing how a fight should really look to be a bonus, and that a true fighting background made the work safer as well. “The big guys who are all jacked up from the gym and have never been in a fight, those are the ones you have to watch out for,” he says. Real fighters know “how to control their power.”

While stunt work gained him access to Hollywood, he has moved solidly into acting. The Russian and Spanish speaker finds himself typecast as the villain, frequently playing Russian gangsters and Cuban bad guys. But as he says, “being typecast is a blessing,” as it means steady work. However, he is still happy to say that in his new movie Trauma Center he plays a detective opposite Bruce Willis. “See?” he says, “I am not the villain! Moving up!” This is his third film with Willis. A huge fan of Die Hard, Mitichyan marvels at how his life has evolved, from competing in Sambo tournaments in Armenia to working with some of entertainment’s biggest stars.

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Mitichyan is proud to have been cast in several high profile films, such as Argo, Vice, Extraction, and Furious 7, working alongside actors such as Amy Adams, Steve Carell, and Sylvester Stallone (and the list goes on—he has racked up over 100 acting credits). He is about to take all of this experience behind the camera, with two directing jobs lined up. His first will be a horror/thriller called One Way.

When asked if there is anything else Bloody Elbow readers should know about the art of fighting on film, Roman Mitichyan says something unexpected. “That it’s not really about fighting. It’s about love. If there is more love in the world, the world will become a better place. This is the best country in the world and I am proud to be a US citizen. Our job is to take all this great stuff and give it to others.”

Although his impromptu speech may seem off topic, for Mitichyan it’s clearly apparent that his gratitude-first approach to life has been the secret to his success.

Readers can see Roman Mitichyan in several upcoming and ongoing projects, including The Morning Show on Apple TV with Jennifer Aniston, Cross 3 with Danny Trejo, Kidding with Jim Carrey, and 10 Minutes Gone, another Bruce Willis vehicle which comes out September 27th.

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