Al Iaquinta stars in MMA TV drama close to getting picked up for pilot
Al Iaquinta isn't a movie or television buff. He doesn’t look up to or idolize any particular Hollywood star. He's an MMA fighter and his focus is solely on winning a title.
Yet, if everything works out with this new project, Iaquinta might become known just as much for his acting as he is for being a UFC fighter. Maybe more.
The Long Island-based UFC lightweight is the lead character in a prospective television drama that could be soon picked up for a pilot. "Choke Artist" tells the tale of Judd Pulaski (played by Iaquinta), a fighter struggling to make it on New York City's underground MMA scene. Iaquinta might have found a new talent -- and a new gig, too.
"I'm all about just doing random things that seem fun," Iaquinta told FOX Sports. "Who gets the chance to do something like that? I had a great chance of getting casted because of my fighting credentials. It was an opportunity for me."
The "Choke Artist" creators have given FOX Sports readers an exclusive look at the show's sizzle reel, that was sent out recently to agencies. Two major organizations -- one on the television side and one digital -- have given the show a ringing endorsement and now creators and Iaquinta are waiting to see what network or streaming service picks them up.
"It's crazy," writer/creator Sean FitzGerald said. "I have to pinch myself once a week to stop and take it all in."
"Choke Artist" has been a labor of love for FitzGerald. A native of upstate New York, he moved to NYC to attend highly acclaimed The New School for film. While in Manhattan, FitzGerald began training in mixed martial arts. He fought in amateur boxing and MMA bouts in 2008 and 2009.
That is right around the time FitzGerald began writing the show. MMA meant a lot to him on a personal level, being a source of confidence when he moved from a small town to the big city. He was also interested in portraying MMA accurately, unlike most depictions on the big and small screen.
"Fans nowadays are such zealots for the sport that if you try to sell them something too stylized or too Hollywood, it'll really turn them off," FitzGerald said.
After years of writing and research, as well updating the state of MMA in New York (where the sport is still illegal professionally), FitzGerald moved to Los Angeles last August and started pitching it to studios there. When that didn’t work, he brought his script back home, to New York.
“Fans nowadays are such zealots for the sport that if you try to sell them something too stylized or too Hollywood, it'll really turn them off.”
One of FitzGerald's former trainers, Stephen Koepfer of New York Combat Sambo, had produced an excellent documentary about MMA in New York. Koepfer was one of FitzGerald's first calls and, with little expectations, agreed to help his friend out and go over the script.
"When I read it I was like, 'This is awesome -- holy s*** this is good,'" Koepfer said.
That's when the project really started to take off. Koepfer came on board as producer and started buzz on the New York mixed martial arts scene. Actor Jabari Gray, another one of Koepfer's students, also joined the team. He was a former recurring character on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" and has a role in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2."
Iaquinta, who used to train under Koepfer on Long Island, heard about the casting call for "Choke Artist" and gave his former coach a call. He thought it would be fun, but rather ironically, he choked initially.
"He kind of blew it in the auditions," Koepfer said. "He was nervous. He couldn’t remember basic lines and he was like stuttering and stuff."
Well, he got the part anyway. Having a UFC fighter in the lead role was too good to pass up and Iaquinta showed enough promise through the nerves that they didn’t feel like they were taking a complete risk. Since then, he has worked with Gray on his acting. In the sizzle reel, Iaquinta actually shines like a veteran.
"In [an actor's] mind, the way they wire themselves mentally is pretty crazy," Iaquinta said of actors. "It's a huge talent. The more I'm learning, the more I'm impressed by these guys on the big screen doing big-time movie parts."
Iaquinta, who fights against Mitch Clarke at UFC 173 on Saturday in Las Vegas, said he cringed a few times when he watched the sizzle reel, but thought they made him look better than he actually was. This might not necessarily be a career move, but he's enjoying it.
"I'm glad I did it," Iaquinta said. "It's something a lot of people don’t get the chance to do. I'm grateful I got the opportunity to learn and open my eyes up to something new."
Choreographed by Koepfer, the fight scene, with Iaquinta's real-life training partner Jonny Bonilla-Bowman, is one of the better MMA bouts you'll see depicted. When the sizzle reel was finished, FitzGerald knew there was serious potential.
"Once we saw the final edit, we realized we had something we're really proud of," FitzGerald said.
Now, they'll just play the waiting game. Navy St., a family MMA-based drama starring Nick Jonas, has been created by DirecTV. Koepfer joked that it looks like "the MMA version of Twilight." "Choke Artist" is primed to be way grittier.
"I just wanted to start telling the story of these inspirational fighters," FitzGerald said, "and the journey MMA has made from taboo underground sport to mainstream here in the states."