It’s always fun as a fan to theorize about super-fights among superheroes and debate on who would win and who would lose. Iron Man vs. The Hulk? Captain America vs. Hawkeye? In the real world it’s unlikely any of them could hold a candle to S.H.I.E.L.D. director Phil Coulson or the actor who portrays him.
Clark Gregg — best known for his work in the Marvel universe of films as well as the starring lead in Marvel’s "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." — is a longtime martial artist with roots in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It all started more than a decade ago when Gregg was working on a film with a famous writer and director, who was also a huge fan of the grappling art.
"I was doing a movie probably 12 years ago called ‘Spartan’ being directed by a pal of mine, David Mamet, who later made ‘Redbelt’ and who had started rolling with this magnificent guy, Renato Magno, at a place called Street Sports in Santa Monica. And he said, ‘You’re playing a Secret Service, kind of special ops guy, you should really do this.’ I thought he was making some changes in the script where it was going to have some good grappling in it, but he wasn’t. He just thought I would like it," Gregg explained when speaking to FOX Sports.
"I really liked it right off. I found a lot really useful about it. Being able to relax and breathe when you’re under great pressure, it comes in handy all around your life. It’s been a really long road. Sometimes I work late and Renato will come in and beat me up in private when that happens."
Last year, Gregg was promoted to brown belt, and it was one of the proudest achievements of his life. With a busy work schedule and plenty of film commitments, it’s not easy for Gregg to find time to hit the mats, but over the course of the past 12 years he’s continued to grow and learn Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. And his passion for the sport only seems to get stronger.
It’s such a parallel to the things that happen the physical stuff happens on our show. The amount of dialogue you have to pull off, the pressure of shooting a small action movie in about eight days that would be at least two months on any film. I just started noticing myself going into similar breathing rhythms in life that I was doing in jiu-jitsu
— Clark Gregg
Beyond the physical attributes of a hard workout, Gregg also benefits in a massive way from the mental acuity Jiu-Jitsu adds to his everyday life. It’s particularly useful when he’s filming Marvel’s "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." because of the strenuous schedule the actors and actresses on the series have to keep while essentially filming a 22- or 23-hour action movie over the course of just a few months.
"In Jiu-Jitsu, every instinct you have wants to do everything but relax or breathe when someone’s attacking you, and learning that takes a long time. I think that’s why a lot of people stop at blue belt because it’s really hard to do. It’s hard to take that next step. It took me a long time," Gregg explained.
"It’s such a parallel to the things that happen … on our show. The amount of dialogue you have to pull off, the pressure of shooting a small action movie in about eight days that would be at least two months on any film. I just started noticing myself going into similar breathing rhythms in life that I was doing in Jiu-Jitsu."
While Gregg’s first love is always going to be Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, he’s started to see the benefits of mixed martial arts training as well with so much of the sport bleeding into the filming they do on "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." UFC welterweight Tyron Woodley did a guest spot on the show last season, and former champion Georges St-Pierre landed a featured role in the recent "Captain America" sequel.
Gregg couldn’t be happier to see real martial artists finding a home in the biggest action genre going today. He hopes to see more of it in the future as well.
"It’s great on the show because Matt Mullins, who does a lot of our fight choreography, is a big fan of MMA and specifically Jiu-Jitsu. Matt’s ended up training a lot of guys who know Renato, my coach, and he’s come on the show for a few stunts. They work very closely and they know that’s something I’ve got some years doing it, so they’re always looking for a way to use it," Gregg said.
"I loved so much seeing GSP (Georges St-Pierre) in ‘Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier.’ I’m hoping we get to bring in more jits practitioners or MMA guys to do some of those fights because they’re so well-trained for it."
In his role on the show, Gregg is seen behind his desk more often than in the field beating up bad guys and taking down the latest super-villain. There are those occasions, however, where Gregg gets to loosen his tie and show off some of Coulson’s fight skills.
As a matter of fact, there was a scene earlier this season in which Gregg engaged in a fight with an actress and because of his formal training in Jiu-Jitsu, he was able to execute a particular move that probably would have gone to a stunt man otherwise.
"Certainly I think Coulson imagines he would be running things in a much more Nick Fury-esque way, but there’s nothing left of S.H.I.E.L.D. So as the season has begun to progress — spoiler alert — he gets his hands a little bit bloodier than he might have imagined.
"We did a scene recently where Coulson ends up in a fight with a woman who looks like like Melinda May, which is Ming-Na Wen who does a lot of training in Muay Thai and kung-fu. And they had me do a really standard Judo flip with her, and it was close enough to the stuff we do in jiu-jitsu, and I was so mad because they cut out of it before you could really clearly see it was me who flipped her. There’s a lot of ego. We want to show off that we’re doing the work and doing the training."
Gregg’s passion for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has even started to trickle down to some of his co-stars. The physicality of doing "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." almost requires the actors and actresses get through some kind of fight training, but Gregg gets even more excited when one of his co-workers asks about trying out this grappling stuff.
"You’ve got people like Ming-Na, who was in ‘Mortal Kombat’ and a practitioner of martial arts for years’ and she gets a chance to broaden her game. All the stunt guys are belted in four or five disciplines, and so a lot of us are picking up other stuff, striking stuff, as we go along," Gregg said.
"It’s also fun to watch some of the younger people like Chloe Bennett, who plays Skye on the show. She started out as a computer hacker and we’ve kind of adopted her on our team, and she’s doing an awful lot of training. She’s moved into a combat role on the team, and I’m about to take her down to do a Jiu-Jitsu class. She’s been doing so much striking, she now wants to learn some grappling. Makes my heart proud."
If you happen to be a mixed martial arts fan or just a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu enthusiast, make sure to keep an eye on "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." because Gregg is determined to one day insert a certain move or two that will surely make the grappling community proud.
"Our show and the Marvel stuff tends to be a little more MMA with flying Superman punches and stuff, but they’re always looking for ways to throw in something like a flying armbar," Gregg said. "We’re going to find a damn way to throw in a flying triangle or flying armbar one of these days."