Commentary

Athletes as actors (the Marino story)

Updated: September 25, 2009, 11:55 AM ET
By Jake Rossen | Sherdog.com

Roger HuertaJon Kopaloff/Getty ImagesWill Roger Huerta's body of work on the big screen compare to his credentials inside the cage?

Roger Huerta's final 15 minutes as a professional athlete could come Wednesday.

That's the date Huerta, only 26, fights Gray Maynard in the final bout of his current UFC contract. In 2008, the fighter and his management announced intentions to concentrate on acting. He's already performed in the video game adaptation "Tekken" and signed a three-picture developmental deal with film distributor Lionsgate.

According to Josh Gross of SI.com, Huerta isn't "opposed" to returning to the UFC one day. But his primary objective now appears to be making a living off of his looks. As opposed to mangling them.

Huerta's career choice can be traced to the day Wilt Chamberlain showed up on the set of 1984's "Conan the Destroyer." And if you have not seen "Conan the Destroyer," you have an extra 105 minutes of your life worth treasuring. Charmless where 1982's "Conan the Barbarian" was a concentrated bit of pulp, lazy where its predecessor had been ambitious, it's a weeping open sore of a film. At the heart of the mess was the casting of Chamberlain as Bombaata, Conan's stretched-out sidekick with all the charisma of a cabbage. Chamberlain could not act, could not emote and could not appear less comfortable if he were being given a prostate exam.

This was not the first time Hollywood figured they could draw an athlete's fan base to theaters: Jim Brown was a frequent "Blaxploitation" presence in the 1970s, while Joe Namath appeared in films (with titles like "The Chattanooga Choo Choo") that demanded its viewers suffer head injuries before purchasing a ticket. But "Destroyer" did mark one of the earliest instances of the industry's slotting a big-name sports star into a bloated, expensive action film not because he could act but because his presence would draw press and pique the curiosity of NBA followers.

They didn't care. Chamberlain drowned in the movie, never to act again, and "Destroyer" limped to $25 million or so in box office receipts. None of this did anything to dissuade producers from athlete stunt casting. Brian Bosworth played a biker in "Stone Cold," a film likely to play in Hell on a loop; Howie Long was given monosyllabic lines in "Broken Arrow"; the less said about Shaquille O'Neal in "Kazaam" or "Steel," the better for my health, should I ever run into O'Neal.

These are awful films starring awful actors that get financing because of a misguided notion that everything has to be pre-digested and "branded" in order to justify the expense. Virtually no film is made that isn't based on a book, a comic, a video game, a television show or an existing franchise. That fear of originality now extends to actors: Why cast an actual performer as B.A. Baracus when Quinton "Rampage" Jacksonhas been seen by millions of people on pay-per-view and on "The Ultimate Fighter"? Why not splurge on "Scorpion King 2" and exploit the fame of Randy Couture, no matter how uncomfortable he looks in his "World of Warcraft" costume? (This seemed to work, actually: That movie sold 70,000 copies in its first week of release.)

There are innumerable ways this practice winds up being painful for fans. Audiences unfamiliar with athletes are forced to examine their startling ineptitude on film; followers who enjoy seeing them ply their trade on a playing field are agog at their "acting." There's no proof it adds anything to a film's bottom line. Nobody will ever tell you they enjoyed a Dennis Rodman movie. (I know of at least one person who stopped watching films altogether, his faith shattered after "Double Team.")

Recruiting MMA athletes is especially criminal: While Chamberlain and O'Neal would hardly accept a role and skip the NBA playoffs, Jackson destroyed a contender's fight with Rashad Evans on Dec. 12 in order to -- allegedly -- film "The A-Team." There is no offseason in fighting. As a result, increasing opportunities in choreographed pugilism will begin to infect and damage promotional schedules. The sport's course is actually being altered by the enticement of horrible parts in horrible movies for non-actors. An MMA athlete in Hollywood is the new blonde off the bus.

Maybe Huerta can act. (Something tells me the grunting required for "Tekken" won't prove it one way or the other.) Maybe Jackson is the next Olivier. Maybe there's something to the idea that athletes need to monetize their fame while they can, even if that means marinating in hot garbage in a concession to their bank accounts: Look, guys, I know I'm in a horrible movie, but this is just what happens, OK?

But who is it really servicing? Did anyone rush out to see "Midnight Meat Train" because of Jackson's cameo? Do athletes derive satisfaction from awkward hamming in the service of a brain-dead script? And do producers realize that the absolute last thing an MMA fan wants to see is his favorite martial artist pretending to crack a head open? (This is the penance pop culture pays for MMA's popularity: Choreographed action sequences now appear childish, if not utterly ridiculous.)

There is a subclass of sports figures that defy most of these expectations: professional wrestlers, who seem to dominate the (small) list of athletes-turned-actors. Jesse Ventura was nicely ornery in "Predator," and Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson has something approaching charm onscreen. But their base sport is part-theater, meaning that it's no great stretch to play a part in front of a live audience and then move to playing for a camera. Other ex-athletes (Carl Weathers, Arnold Schwarzenegger) weren't necessarily being hired because audiences would recognize them from their sporting days. It was because they had something approaching a presence, which is not automatically granted to anyone who fights in front of an audience.

So it looks as though Huerta's 15 minutes run out midweek. His fans can decide whether to take that literally.

Jake Rossen is a contributor to Sherdog.com.

Jake Rossen is a contributor to ESPN.com. His byline has appeared in the New York Times, Wired.com, and numerous other outlets. He began covering mixed martial arts in 1998.