Athletes & Celebrities

No Holds Barred With Thomas Q Jones

Most NFL running backs hope to make it through their career to live a comfortable life, recovering from the hits. Thomas Q Jones is an exception.

No Holds Barred With Thomas Q Jones
Andy Lyons / Staff / Getty

In just a few hours, an all-night film shoot held in a suburban L.A. movie studio, former NFL running back and now actor Thomas Q. Jones will be staring down perhaps the baddest opponent he’s ever taken on: legendary UFC light-heavyweight champion Chuck “Iceman” Liddell.

Tonight’s main event is the culmination of nearly a month of fight preparation for this summer’s indie MMA suspense thriller, A Violent Man, and, as any of us would be, Jones is anxious about his latest matchup.

“I’m, like, I play football, but I don’t do this fighting s—t,” says Jones, who plays Ty Matthews, a never-quite-made-it MMA fighter who gains notoriety after a YouTube recording that goes viral shows him forcing indomitable champion Marco Reign (Liddell) to tap out during a sparring session, which sets up tonight’s epic bout. “And he’s coming at me with an overhand right? Who knows if he’s gonna accidentally catch me with one of those?”

A Violent Man is Jones’ first leading role as an actor. After hanging up his cleats following the 2011 season, he added an initial—Q., for Quinn—to his IMDB résumé to prevent casting agents from using his NFL fame to fill only random jock roles.

“Some people brought me in just ’cause I was a football player,” says Jones, who describes Matthews as a flawed character who happens to also be an athlete. “I made my name Thomas Q. Jones so it would throw people off. It worked.”

Jones earned his acting break when he played Gabrielle Union’s often shirtless love interest in BET’s Being Mary Jane. He landed a small role in 2015’s blockbuster movie Straight Outta Compton and now can be seen as Comanche in Netflix’s Luke Cage.

“Before, I would get $50,000 bonus checks just for working out. That’s not an option now.”

“It was such a random thing,” Jones recalls. “I thought acting was cool, but I wasn’t committed. Then I started going on auditions and getting cast in things and realized I had a shot.”

Preparation for A Violent Man’s fight scene was a three-week course under the tutelage of another MMA legend, John Lewis. His objective wasn’t just for Jones to memorize Octagon choreography but to portray a seasoned, animalistic fighter onscreen. The process began with slow step-by-step walk-throughs that quickened session after session till a bang-bang, realtime fight sequence was established and Jones felt comfortable.

“It’s hard not to be a little intimidated with Chuck’s mug looking down the barrel at you,” says Lewis, who also has a supporting role in the film. “Thomas is a top-level athlete and wants to do everything great. And when you come in as the new guy, facing someone you’ve never met before, you don’t know if he’s going to be overzealous, cool, not cool—you don’t know what to expect. You’re thinking, ‘What if I hit him by accident? Or too hard? What’s he going to do?’ Once you get past those things, then all the comfort comes in, and the trust is there and everything’s good.”

Jones puts it a slightly different way: “Chuck is big and strong and can overpower you. It’s like getting attacked by a f—king animal. It’s crazy.”

To bring MMA-like realism to A Violent Man, Lewis avoided over-saturating the fight with traditional, cliché moves like armbars and triangles.

“We see movies where the movements that are being taught to the actors are generic, not specific to them, and interchangeable for anyone,” Lewis says. “A big part of why we like shows like the UFC is that we want to see how these fighters’ styles would hold up against another. The key is to keep that question alive until the outcome has been reached.”

Instead, Lewis sought to amp up the battle energy by having both fighters duke it out. Lewis already knew what he had with Liddell—“You just want Chuck to be Chuck”—but Jones was entering new territory, so finding his strengths was essential.

“He’s really good with his hands—he reminds me a lot of [deceased former UFC fighter] Kevin Randleman,” Lewis says. “He has very fast, quick muscles like you would think a football player would have. He’s very explosive.”

What Lewis didn’t want was for Jones to feel awkward.

“He hasn’t done a lot of kickboxing, so I didn’t ask him, to, like, throw a head kick,” Lewis says. “Why make him have to go through that? You don’t have to do that to be a good UFC fighter. You just have to be good at what you do. He’s good with his hands.”