By Melissa Segura
April 04, 2013
Michelle Waterson will fight Jessica Penne for the Invicta atomweight title on April 5.
Esther Lin/Courtesy of Invicta FC

ALBUQUERQUE -- The corner created by the practice cage meeting the wall at Jackson/Winkeljohn's MMA couldn't be more unglamorous. It's where some of the 60 or so fighters who train at the gym ditch their duffel bags full of sweaty workout clothes, leave their water jugs or temporarily toss their spools of medical tape and half-empty tubs of Vaseline. But it's also in this corner where Hollywood occasionally gains some its glitz.

It's where Jackson/Winkeljohn fighter Tommy Truex sat and delivered a monologue from the character Rorschach in the 2009 movie, The Watchmen, as his then-teammate, Heather Clark, played the role for Roger Ebert, offering polite critiques as Truex prepared for his next audition.

Truex, 28, isn't hoping to follow the well-worn path of other MMA veterans like Randy Couture, Rampage Jackson or Keith Jardine from the cage to the silver screen. He's quite the opposite.

Truex, along with fighters like Michelle Waterson -- who battles for the Invicta atomweight crown on Friday -- represent a breed of fighters who pursue Hollywood bit parts and stunt work not so that they can transition out of the sport, but so that they can fund their dreams to stay in it. Thus, the likes of Truex and Waterson often are credited as Thug #2 or Vampire #3.

Despite the anonymity of the fighters' work, the Screen Actors Guild mandates that stunt doubles earn a daily rate of $809 for up to eight hours of work. That's a princely sum for fighters appearing in smaller promotions, where the fight purses are practically empty, with appearance fees ranging from $500 to $5,000 in exchange for months of training.

"Fighting doesn't pay anything until you're in the UFC," says Truex, a military veteran who has fought in small promotions and whose movie credits include work on films like Felon and TV shows like In Plain Sight.

"So if you can get any acting or stunt work, you have to take it," he says.

The generous day rate, however, serves as hazard pay. While the fighters-turned-stunt doubles often appear on screen for seconds at a time, it's not exactly a desk job where the biggest risk is a paper cut.

"With stunting, what's so dangerous about it is that you have to do [a scene] over and over and over and over and over again," says Waterson. "That takes a toll on your body."

While working of the 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, Waterson played an office worker whose building was attacked by the Hulk. Stunt coordinators warned Waterson and her fellow stunt actors to make sure they covered their heads because real metal chairs and desks would soon be hurled around by a big, green machine, imitating the Hulk's punch. On the set of The Lone Ranger, the fighter was sent running in front of a pack of scared horses. "The directors sent stunt people out there because they knew we'd be smart enough to get out of the way," she says.

Truex showed up on the set of the forthcoming Steven Seagal movie, Force of Execution, expecting to do a fight scene. Instead, the stunt coordinator pointed to a 25-foot ladder and told him to front flip off of it and into a pool full of fake blood. Truex had broken one of his hands two days before the movie shoot. He jumped anyway.

"It was miserable because everything I did hurt," he said. "I ran out of painkillers."

Waterson and Truex say they don't worry too much about how an injury on the set might affect their fighting futures. Both say they are careful to schedule their stunts far from fight dates and that the Screen Actors Guild ensures medics are on set. For them, it's worth the risk -- and not only because of the big paychecks that enable them to keep training fulltime.

There are the occasional fringe benefits, like when actor Stephen Dorff, whom Truex doubled in a prison fight scene in the movie Felon, flew Truex to Los Angeles to attend the movie's premiere. Seated next to the lightweight? None other than Charlize Theron.

Waterson had her own brush with fame when she sat on top of a train on the set of The Lone Ranger and A-lister Johnny Depp waved. Turns out, he was actually waiving to Waterson's stunt buddy in the car below. But still. It's Johnny Depp. And he waved.

But the secret to good stunting? Truex says he learned it right away.

"If you're a good stunt guy, they're not supposed to see your face."

Waterson and Truex are little more than the backs of heads throwing punches and taking falls and fake bullets in place of Hollywood's elite. That's just fine by them. They'd trade their faces on the big screen for belts around their waists any day.

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