Al "Stankie" Stankiewicz calls himself a motivator. If you've seen him in his role as Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira's boxing coach on The Ultimate Fighter, odds are you know what he means.
He's the eccentric grandfather you never had. He's the wiry, white-haired man holding the focus mitts aloft and shouting, "Fight, fight, kill, kill!" to an aspiring UFC fighter. When he gets excited -- which is often -- it's sometimes hard to make out what he's saying. But whatever it is, it's always enthusiastic. Motivating, even.
The stories about Stankie come from all sides: He's an ex-LAPD officer, he has a penchant for slapping people in bars who cheer against the Lakers and he forced Team Nogueira fighter Efrain Escudero to box him in a faux-'Fight Night' atmosphere, complete with introductions and cornermen.
They're all true, but the good stuff has yet to be told: how the heck this aged, lovable "motivator" landed a spot among the fight game's best.
"I saw Mando Ramos fight at the Olympic Auditorium in 1967 and I was mesmerized," said the 68-year-old Stankiewicz. "I thought, 'I can do that! Mando Ramos was the greatest fighter I had ever seen in my life. At 18, he won the world championship. So I started training just to learn, and six months later I turned pro."
A vice cop in the LAPD at the time, Stankiewicz had come out to Los Angeles from Eerie, Penn., just to "see the girls and learn to surf." He had found that he liked the action and excitement of the vice squad. He worked undercover in some of L.A.'s toughest neighborhoods, and in 1965 found himself in the center of the Watts Riots, which soured him on police work.
Seeing Ramos fight ignited a new passion in him -- one he decided was worth leaving the force to pursue. But things didn't quite go as he'd planned.
"I was 27," he said. "I had never really boxed but I knew I could do it. Then I tried it and I kept getting beat up and beat up. There's an old saying: Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. I believe that. I liked it, and I like helping people, so that's what I did."
Stankiewicz went back to the police force, this time to work in the juvenile division. Initially he had no interest in being a "kiddie cop," he said, but soon he discovered that the only way to break the cycle of poverty and crime in the L.A. barrio was to reach out to kids early on and redirect their focus toward something positive.
"We had a boxing ring in the basement of the Hollenbeck police station and I would find these kids in the projects, the Mexican projects where I was working, and they'd be fighting in the park and I'd say, 'Come on, let me teach you how to fight right and put it to some good use.' I love helping kids learn and helping them make something of themselves," he said. "I got Paul Gonzales when he was 8 years old. He was fighting in a park in Hollenbeck. I took him down to the gym and started training him and he swallowed up everything I taught him. He ate it up. Eleven years later, when he was 19, he won the gold medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics."
Stankiewicz was hooked. He worked with hundreds of amateurs over the years, and even trained Oscar De La Hoya for his gold-medal performance at the 1992 Olympics -- the same year his son, Andy Stankiewicz, signed with the New York Yankees.
"Stankie the Yankee," he said with a wistful laugh. "It was a good year for me."
But for every De La Hoya, there are dozens more who don't reach the top. Even worse, many of them resort to crime and drugs, falling back into the same familiar traps.
"I had kids who went to prison for armed robbery or murder, Stankiewicz said. "My captain told me, 'Stankie, if you're going to claim the glory for the champions, you also have to claim the guys who didn't make it.' And I did. I still feel bad about those kids and it makes me want to cry. They don't all make it."
His career as a boxing trainer hit a wall after a falling out with De La Hoya's father. The experience left him feeling cheated and wondering whether his time working with fighters was finished.
But in 1995, Hollywood movie producer Jon Peters asked him to help a young fighter competing in a brand new sport: mixed martial arts. Though Stankiewicz knew nothing about the sport, he did know fighting. So he agreed to have a look. The 18-year-old fighter Peters took him to see was a Brazilian by the name of Vitor Belfort.
"I worked with him, and I thought, 'This kid has some of the fastest hands I've ever seen,'' Stankiewicz said. "This kid was super fast, he hit hard, he was great. So I said I'd work with him and Jon looked over at one of his assistants and said, 'Cut Al a check for $10,000 to get him started."'I looked up at the Lord and said, 'Thank you, Lord. Thank you.' Because I was broke."
Watching Belfort, who would later earn the nickname "The Phenom" for his dominating performances in the UFC at such a young age, marked Stankiewicz's introduction to MMA. The sport struck Stankie as too complex, too hardcore for mainstream American sports fans to pick up on. He thought it a passing curiosity.
His wife insisted otherwise.
"She said, 'Al, this going somewhere.' She said women would love it. She told me to stay with it. So I did, and now I love it. It's great. These guys are real fighters. You get knocked down, and -- boom! -- the other guy is on you. There's no time to recover. You got to be tough to do this sport, and these guys are."
While in Brazil working with Belfort, Stankie met another up-and-coming fighter in Nogueira, who is now the UFC's interim heavyweight champ. The two would find themselves working together years later as Nogueira sought to sharpen his boxing skills to complement his dangerous submissions game. What makes Nogueira a great fighter, said Stankie, is that he possesses "the five 'D's and the two 'A's: desire, determination, dedication, drive, and discipline. And the a's: ability and attitude."
"He's got the attitude to be No. 1. The Brazilians, they know what it's like to have to fight and scratch and claw for their money. There's no welfare there. If you can't feed your babies, the government doesn't help you. You're out on the street. You got to fight your way up and fight to stay there."
It's the same message Stankie has tried to impart on Nogueira's team this season on The Ultimate Fighter. And if reality TV mirrors actual reality, a few will get that message, while the rest fade into the background.
Despite his some 41-year tenure in the fight game, Stankie said he still hasn't gotten used to seeing some of his fighters resort to negative habits. He's not sure he ever wants to.