Gokor Chivichyan's influence felt
North Hollywood gym, and its instructors, are the source of skilled Armenian fighters
NORTH HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- It's almost 11 p.m. on Monday and Gokor Chivichyan is lying on his back in the middle of his gym as rain begins to pound the windows of his brick-laced building. Chivichyan's neck is twisted one way and his legs are contorted another while Roman Mitichyan has his teacher in a triangle lock.
Chivichyan, 47, closes his eyes and breathes in and out before suddenly reversing the move and getting on top of Mitichyan, 32, who can only smile as Chivichyan taps his student on his stomach and tells him to take a lap.
"When I grapple Gokor it's always good," said Mitchyan, who has fought in the UFC and has been training with Chivichyan for the past 12 years. "He's one of the best grapplers and I learn a lot from him. I get my [butt] beat up but I learn each time I grapple Gokor. We've been grappling almost every day since I came to this country, so I've learned a lot."
“The influx of Armenian fighters on mixed martial arts bout cards around the world over the past decade -- most of them "fighting out of North Hollywood, Calif.," as they are routinely introduced by ring announcers -- can trace their beginnings in the sport to Chivichyan and his Hayastan Grappling Academy.
The Armenians are fighters. ... Many of them are athletes. I'm the first guy who started MMA within the Armenian community, and it started to spread. I guess you can say I'm the grandfather of MMA in the Armenian community.” -- Gokor Chivichyan
Chivichyan never thought he would train, by his estimation, more than 5,000 fighters when he founded his academy in 1991 with his old teacher, fighting legend Gene LeBell. He simply wanted to open a gym where he could take troubled Armenian kids off the streets in Hollywood and Glendale and show them how to control their aggression by taking it out on the mat and in the ring.
"I didn't want to teach, I wanted to fight, but I saw so many Armenian gangsters around hurting people and hurting each other so I tried to bring these kids together and teach them to do good things, not bad things," Chivichyan said. "That's how it started, and then good people wanted to learn too, so I opened up the academy and started doing this full time. But I never thought it would become this big."
Chivichyan doesn't remember his first fight but he remembers why he got involved. He was about 5 years old and he saw a couple older kids beating up a neighborhood friend. He stepped in front of his friend and began beating up the older kids until they eventually ran away.
"I was a very aggressive kid and all the kids in the neighborhood were scared of me," Chivichyan said. "I wasn't a bully. I was always protecting the weaker kids. I would bully the bullies. I was an opposite bully. Many of my friends were weaker than me, and I would see the suffering on the kids' faces and the crying and I didn't like seeing that."
The youngest of three brothers, Chivichyan grew up fighting on the streets of Yerevan, Armenia, as a child before a student at a top-tier studio invited him to train at the school. He was a natural wrestler who would soon begin training in sambo and later in judo, winning countless tournaments in the Soviet Union and Europe. He moved to Los Angeles with his family after the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow when he was 17. He couldn't speak a word of English but that didn't matter to "Judo" Gene LeBell.
LeBell was teaching a class on grappling at Los Angeles City College when Chivichyan and his cousin walked into the room. Chivichyan's cousin's broken English served as enough of an introduction for LeBell before he asked Chivichyan to show him what he could do. Chivichyan proceeded to take down everyone in the class, even far more experienced students who were twice his age.
"He was a natural," LeBell said. "He was a freak, he was so natural. The kicking, the striking, the grappling, the judo, he could do it all. I called him Gokor 'The Armenian Assassin.' "
It made sense that LeBell, who is now 78, would give Chivichyan a pro wrestling nickname. LeBell's mother was legendary boxing promoter Aileen Eaton, who staged more than 10,000 boxing and wrestling matches at the Los Angeles Olympic Auditorium before she died in 1987. LeBell, who was handpicked by Muhammad Ali to referee the infamous boxer-versus-wrestler match between Ali and Antonio Inoki in Tokyo in 1976, was involved in the first ever televised MMA fight in 1963 when he defeated boxer Milo Savage, choking him out in the fourth round.
LeBell's resume reads like a who's who in Hollywood. He trained with Bruce Lee on "The Green Hornet," taught Elvis Presley how to perform a judo throw in "Blue Hawaii" and has counted the likes of "Rowdy" Roddy Piper and Chuck Norris as students. Yet when it comes to passing on what they know as a teacher, the one person who has impressed him the most during his career is Chivichyan. "Gokor is the best teacher I have ever seen," LeBell said. "He is the most coordinated guy I've ever known and he still teaches a good percent of what I taught him. He does it better than anybody else. He does it better than me because of his enthusiasm. There isn't anyone any better in the world. He's in a class by himself."
There was no such thing as the UFC, the Octagon or Ultimate Fighter when Chivichyan first competed in mixed martial arts. It wasn't even called MMA back in the early 1980s when he would fight in backyards and underground clubs.
"Back then it was called NHB, which means 'No Holds Barred' because there were no rules," Chivichyan said. "I was competing sometimes in people's backyards and we all just put money in and the winner took the money. Sometimes we didn't even fight for money. We just fight to fight."
It may seem odd to want to fight someone you don't know in a stranger's backyard for no other reason than wanting to fight, but that urge may best describe why so many have gravitated toward Chivichyan's academy since he started it nearly 20 years ago with LeBell.
"The Armenians are fighters," Chivichyan said. "Many of them are athletes. I'm the first guy who started MMA within the Armenian community, and it started to spread. I guess you can say I'm the grandfather of MMA in the Armenian community."
Chivichyan has trained Karo Parisyan, Manvel Gamburyan, Roman Mitichyan, Sako Chivitchian, Karen Darabedyan and Sevak Magakian, who have fought in the UFC, WEC and King of the Cage.
"A lot of great Armenian fighters have come out of this gym, like Manny, Roman, Sako and Karo," said Magakian, 25, who was on the most recent "Ultimate Fighter." "Gokor is one of the best trainers in the world, and we all learned from him."
Mitichyan, 32, remembers Chivichyan driving down to Tijuana, Mexico, with Parisyan and Gamburyan, who are cousins, when they were teenagers to fight in MMA cards because they were too young to fight in the States. They would fight against professionals bigger and older than them but would often come away with the win. "Growing up in our neighborhood we were always pretty violent," Mitichyan said. "When we played soccer it became rugby, when we played basketball it turned into wrestling, that's just the way it was."
On April 2, 2008, Mitichyan, Parisyan and Gamburyan were on a UFC Fight Night card aired live on Spike TV. Gamburyan was the only one of the trio to win his fight, but it was a night Mitichyan said proved Armenian MMA fighters had arrived. "Me and Manny were in the same room and Karo was in the next room and it was funny for us all to be on the same UFC card after everything we'd been through," Mitichyan said. "It was a big UFC fight night and all of us were there."
Parisyan first came to Chivichyan's gym when he was 9 years old and would often get into trouble for getting into fights. Parisyan's father had known Chivichyan and his brothers when they lived in Armenia, and Parisyan (along with his cousin Gamburyan) soon began learning under Chivichyan and LeBell.
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"If I'm your coach and your manager, you have to pay some percentage," Chivichyan said. "I'm not working for free, but because he grew up under me and I'm like a father to him, he thinks I have to do things for him without anything involved."
Said Parisyan: "The parting was very simple. Gokor is a businessman. There is only so far he can take you as a coach. He showed business toward me where I looked at him as family, and Gokor looked at me like business and I couldn't handle it."
Gamburyan and Mitichyan, who still train with Chivichyan as well as with Parisyan, have tried to mend the bridge between the two in the past to no avail. Parisyan, who hasn't fought in the UFC since a split decision win over Dong Hyun-kim last year was overturned after he tested positive for banned painkillers, will make his return to the Octagon next month at UFC 123 when he takes on Dennis Hallman.
Although both claim they have no plans for a reconciliation, both remain keenly aware of what each other is doing in a profession and a community as small as the one they're in. Chivichyan said he still watches all of Parisyan's fights and still wants his former student to do well whenever he competes. "These guys, I taught them since they were kids," he said. "They're like my kids. When they grow up sometimes they don't listen to you. They really love you, but they don't listen to you. It's the same way."
"Team Gokor," he says as he picks up the phone.
"How old are you? ... Sixteen? ... OK, come in tomorrow at 8 and I'll talk to you."
Karen Darabedyan, 23, one of Chivichyan's prized pupils and a WEC fighter, teaches a kid's MMA class at the academy for kids 8-17 years old and he shakes his head when he thinks of what the next generation of fighters coming out of Hayastan could look like.
"If the kids I'm teaching today continue to stick with the sport, they're going to be monsters," Darabedyan said. "It's going to be big. Good things will come in the sport and we're going to be a part of something new and bringing in a new generation of fighters."
On this night, however, the gym is filled with mostly experienced fighters, some of them working with LeBell, who they all refer to as "Sensei Gene," and others working with Chivichyan.
One of the students working with both is Arthur Chivichyan, Gokor's 20-year-old son, who is training in judo and wrestling, like his dad, and plans to get into MMA within the next couple years.
It's a sight that makes LeBell laugh as he thinks back to first meeting Gokor 30 years ago. Before LeBell leaves the gym, he takes a look at the 20 or so students still grappling on the mat behind him and tells Chivichyan he loves him before walking out into the pouring rain with a smile on his face.
"I will never die," LeBell said defiantly. "The reason Gene LeBell will never die is because I live on in my students. This gives me more of a thrill than anything I've ever done in my life. I've tried to teach these Armenian kids to be honest and to do things the right way, and they've given me more than I could ever ask for. When my last student dies then I am dead, but I just taught a bunch of kids so I have a long way to go."Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.