The cult of Lloyd Irvin

A top UFC trainer built a house of champions, but allegations of abuse tore it down

The cult of Lloyd Irvin
Jesse Lenz

They'll tell you they weren't scared. They were just sick of the stories, sick of the escalating pressure, sick of the dark cloud that hung over the school and seemed to be growing by the day.

But calm and collected people don't abruptly pack their belongings and hitch rides to the airport in the middle of the night. Some say they feared violence. Others thought Master Lloyd would talk them out of leaving as easily as he talked them into other things.

They would listen. They always did. Lloyd Irvin was a martial arts guru who demanded absolute obedience. His training facility was a breeding ground for champions. If you wanted to belong, you didn't ask questions.

Lloyd Irvin after winning on the mat
Mike Calimbas
Lloyd Irvin after winning on the mat
Keenan Cornelius displays the “L.I.” hand sign
Mike Calimbas
Keenan Cornelius displays the “L.I.” hand sign

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They knew he wanted to film a YouTube video in an attempt to extinguish the public backlash. Things were fine, they were expected to say. Despite the exploitative marketing and the pending criminal case against two of their own for an alleged sexual attack on a female student, things would always be fine at the Lloyd Irvin Martial Arts Academy.

But none of them could manage those words. So they snuck out as a group, roughly a half-dozen students in all.

"We just wanted to get out as soon as we could," says Frank Camacho, who had traveled from Guam five years earlier to train with Irvin. "We had a meeting. People were freaking out. We were just not in a good place, so we left."

Keenan Cornelius hesitated. The 21-year-old had come to Irvin's Maryland institute to learn how to win. The school was everything to him. His closest friends were there, along with paid travel and free lodging. Those who remained behind — the ones unflinchingly loyal to Master Lloyd — tried to convince him to stay, telling him he'd be crazy to leave.

But interviews with more than two dozen former students, employees, and associates of Irvin's paint a different picture of the school. They describe an environment that prioritized winning at any cost, where Irvin dispensed psychological coercion and sexual harassment to control a stable that included at least four men criminally accused of sex offenses — Irvin himself among them.

Keenan's family wanted him out. They believed the school's atmosphere was toxic, and they anxiously awaited word of his exit. But that night, their calls went unanswered.

Finally, a sympathetic student texted Keenan's mother, Kathleen, in San Diego, providing her son's whereabouts: He was at one of Master Lloyd's properties, wavering.

She called for a cab and had the dispatcher connect her to the driver. She pleaded with him to rap on the door until Keenan answered, then begged him not to let Keenan shut it.

Kathleen stayed on the phone with the driver the entire time, getting a play-by-play. Keenan is coming out. Keenan is in the cab. We're taking off. It became progressively easier for her to breathe.

When the driver passed the phone to the back seat, Keenan told his mother a truth that would be inadmissible in the militant atmosphere of Lloyd Irvin's school — a place, former members claim, where fear, isolation, and reprisal hung over their heads like guillotines.

"Mom," Kathleen heard him say, "I've never been so scared in my life."

When the Gracie family of Brazil migrated to the United States in the early 1990s, their homegrown style of jiu-jitsu revolutionized martial arts. Time after time, smaller men would march into pay-per-view cage matches and subdue bodies built on steroids by dragging them to the ground and applying pressure to an arm, leg, or neck.

Traditional martial arts showcased in B-movies slowly gave way to real-world effectiveness, with students intoxicated by the ability to outwit someone in a human chess match.

Though today some graduate to the bigger purses of mixed martial arts, most ply their craft in jiu-jitsu meets across America, where top grapplers can expect to earn several thousand dollars for a main event. They aspire to open their own schools or charge for seminars, and they seek out instructors renowned for their ability to prepare athletes for competition — instructors like Lloyd Irvin.

Irvin, 44, his bald pate often shiny from exertion, is among the country's premier martial arts authorities. His school resides in a low-income area of Prince George's County, Maryland: 10,000 square feet of bodies interlaced like pretzels, fighting to stand out.

A fit and stoic six-foot-three, Irvin cuts an intimidating figure, his face rarely wearing anything but a stern expression. It can be hard to get his attention. "I was scared to talk to or even text him the first few months I was there," recalls Camacho.

"When he walks into a room, you know it," adds Mike Fowler, a former student who's won multiple jiu-jitsu championships. "He makes you want to listen."

Fowler and Camacho say students were expected to address him as "Master" Lloyd, a title normally reserved for a select few instructors.

Because of the results, most didn't mind the formalities. Irvin has manufactured dozens of top-notch fighters who compete in events all over the world. The elite are dubbed his Medal Chasers, for their academy-instilled desire to win as many championships as possible.

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Part 1

Marshall Thompson I was around before all but 3 people mentioned in this article & around longer than all but 2. For years I was right beside him for many of his moves and helped run one of his businesses for a time. I also lived in one of the fight houses for some time. I've worked at the gym. I've taught classes, I've had a van route picking kids up after school & I have been a sales consultant at the gym.All of the Guys in this article know that I'm a guy of integrity. Master Lloyd and I have had our ins & our outs. Yes I call him Master in terms of skills not for anything else. My Lord Jesus is my only master. He's rolled with top Brazilian guys & made them look bad. I've seen Brazilian black bets come into do class maybe expecting to show him up, but after class is over, come to the front of class & say you all have a great instructor.I've seen guys from the UFC train with him & get crushed, with him out of shape.. Also seen him wipe the mats daily with all the top medal chasers & others before there was a medal chaser name. I've said plenty of times over the years I wish he didnt have the injury & could fight for a UFC Title. Not only has he mastered the arts, but he has also mastered gun & knife defense. The night he was home invaded & took the guys gun, when Brandon Vera was there many don't know it but he didnt set the alarm after letting me out..He was sleep on the couch, early a.m. & I woke him up to let me out. A couple hours later I was contacted about what had happen. So the people that say they want to fight him have no clue. His skills , mind & mindset on many levels is amazing.This article is creating this man to be a monster, which isn't true. I don't know if the writer picked & chose what he wanted to paint him this way leaving out things that were important bc that's what they do or if some of them left out important things bc of personal reasons, bc that's what we as humans do when we feel offended.He and I have had some heated arguments over the yrs some in front of people & some behind the scene. At times, would go face to face at each other about something. He may have handle somethings different from the way I would have & vice versa. We are all humans.But, I can tell you this it was never during normal business hours. Everything done there was professional, even the lobby looks like a hotel lobby. I been to a lot!! of gyms & none compare.Yes it was strict training for the few that came to him & said they wanted to be great. He believes in systems & that if you follow & model certain principles that you will have the same results. He would basically say looking at statistics 97% of people in every field come up short bc they cut corners & make excuses. 3% ers follow instructions to the T & those instructions are programmed in. They can only perform to what has been programmed through correct repetition.I never witnessed him using the Android principle for ill will & if he did use it towards an adult woman as has been alleged it is not right, but that's an ethical issue. He has broken no law.. That's between him and his wife and is none of my business. I also wouldn't have to tell him he's wrong bc everyone knows my stances, but would anyways.

Rest of post in reply section


Eric Silva Brenneman
Eric Silva Brenneman

Is there a local connection? I doubt anyone is truly like this around here, but there are a few gyms I've been too where the testosterone is thick and physical or verbal craziness can ensue.

Fredlock Dobbs
Fredlock Dobbs

Oh I know you're savvy, but city pages going full cover on it ?!! Michael Ellefson


Part 2

Also it was stated in the article that another adult woman was seen staying in his room. I've was right by his side for years and never seen him do anything sexual with anyone. No one in the article said that they did either, but if he did that's between him, his wife, her & God. If I cut people's heads off for that we would have a lot of headless people.I would bet that the majority of men reading this article have or are being unfaithful. I would also bet that 100% of you that haven't has a best friend that has. If it occurred I'm not condoning it at all. I think it's wrong. Fix it now! But again is an issue between them.Let me tell you what I have seen. I have seen adults try to do things for attention from him and he ignores them both female & male. Years ago I don't know how I myself would've handled it. A powerful man in the martial arts & marketing realm with money. I've seen how women stop the times I had to drive his Aston somewhere or his wife's convertible.I myself thought it was pathetic how people try to come to him to be yes people from no where expecting something. I've never been that guy.. The times we went back and forth face to face I never felt that he would harm me. It was weird when I read the article the other day & saw that It was said I think from Frank said he was afraid. Frank is a great guy & friend. I immediately thought that someone changed some words. I have never heard anyone say that they felt afraid of him. Many would come to me without me soliciting any at all about advice on different realms, religion, relationship, training ect. Because, they would say they saw my authenticity. The few things that people would come to me about would be more things of they want to fight but haven't been allowed to yet ect. A person came to me right before the guys left overnight & said you have been around a while & keep it real have you ever heard of anything like this happening & I said no you should go talk to him, because I hadn't & I don't do gossip.What I do know guys is that the atmosphere there is fun but disciplined. The youth there are taught respect. People coming up with these things making it a bad environment. In facts it's one of the best environments for "Youth" that it is. I've done a good bit of work with youth. I have volunteered for Young Life Youth Outreach for over a decade. It's the biggest youth outreach in the world.The funny thing is Master Donnie uses Master Lloyd's systems but he's always run the whole jiu jitsu program by himself & Ms. Rose is the backbone of everything. When the stuff escalated parents kept there kids there bc they know what goes on with them and Master Donnie is like another parent to those kids. He loves them & so does Ms. Rose.I moved backed to Jackson, MS about 3 months ago after being there for 7yrs. The crime & murders here are terrible. People have come to me asking me to run an MMA school here in the inner city. I've never wanted to have a school. After turning it down, someone blessed me with a school. I still tried to turn it down and then someone bought the equipment for me. Will be opening in days.I thought well Lord I have to do it. I thought well I've been right there with the number one youth team in America for years & they are disciplined and have excellent grades & it's right in the inner city. I've never heard of any of them getting into trouble and they all say yes & no Sir. Good happy kids. They also carry themselves with respect & bow into the mats & classes just like the adults.The two adult guys that were in the media for the rape going out on while out for last New Years that were recently found not guilty were new. I didn't know them very well had trained with them a few times. I did know the young lady & prayed for her recovery. I don't know what happened there.I can tell you what I do know and I hope it doesn't cause any problems for me saying this but I only answer to God. I'm just telling the truth & no one has asked me to, so I may be violating something but, if you know me you know I don't care when it comes to what I believe is right. Before I came home to MS for Christmas last year, while on the mats training one of those guys were put on the spot by Master Lloyd to go to bathroom and take a home marijuana drug test. He felled it while we were on the mat. This was a practice for the elite competition athletes. Master Lloyd gave one of his serious lectures. He told the guy to call his mom & tell him he's not coming home for Xmas.While in the locker room the guy was venting to me an a UFC fighter that this would be his first Xmas away from home. Lloyd is always trying to teach life lessons ect. Real martial artists. So when I decided I was going to go ahead & do the gym, while sitting with the planning committee I said, the model I'm going to use will come from my Lloyd, I would like to call him to let him know I'm going to use it & get his blessing. My thoughts were its the right thing to do.


Part 3

I don't talk to him often, but when I called he said you don't need my blessing it seems like this is what God has called you to do. He said just make sure Jarrett "my best friend in MS that started me in MMA" doesn't have a problem with it even though you alls location will be far enough apart & won't affect each other I've seen people fall out over smaller things. I told him that I had already discussed it with him. After that, he said well if you want the blue print that I use I will give it to you, with your work ethic I know you will do it.I told him I will change martial arts principles with biblical ones. This was over a month ago and the last time we talked. I will open the gym in days focusing on high school males, guiding them to manhood through Christ while demonstrating real character. I will hold the business around that schedule and use the finances to rebuild the community.
I've learned how to run an academy by being & working there. Yes there is a winning mindset presented for the few who express they want to be champions. He never says that winning is everything but he always says that he expects us to do our best and do everything in preparing that we can, if not the loss is your fault. I moved from MS to MD to be the best the same as others. It's seems as if people are putting a negative on not training to lose.The mindset is things are either answered with a Yes or a No. There are no betweens & excuses.. I picked it up there right off and is imbedded in me. People complain about the athletes that move there get free room and board and training and have a job to make money. Some of these guys traveled all over the world and didn't pay a penny. There are many colleges that don't offer what he gives. Many of these guys wouldn't go to school anyways, unlike myself. I declined a full scholarship & stipend to a PHD program to move there and train.He didnt sell me, didn't use any mind tricks on me to get me there. In 2006 I went there to train on vacation it was 4th of July week the school was closed that day. Only Ryan Hall & Julius Parks were there. Lloyd spoke to Jarrett & I briefly & disappeared after he asked them if they had clothes to roll with us. He flew out that day didnt see him again until I moved back. The structure there was so was so great he didnt have to be there.After moving there I ran into financial problems. I told Jim Kelly about it and he got with Lloyd and offered me a job in a side business. I took what I learned from that job seriously and applied it. I remembered shortly after I had over 30k in my checking account & I eventually didnt work for years. Yes I worked hard!! Yes I picked people up from the airport here & there. There were also times when I couldn't and said no and someone else did it. I didn't mind.
I also have been presented with an opportunity in MS to use that skill as well. All of the skills everyone that I saw learn can make them money if they apply them. I learned so much! I don't know of a person making $4, after all the scholarship stuff, but I do know of some people not really doing much & making good money. I was never on scholarship. I never paid a dime to train there, not even when first visited for that week. Nor, did my friends pay that came to visit.
I know plenty of times we all would eat and the bill would be hundreds & Lloyd would pay for it. I also know that the best would come in to facilitate different things and we never paid a penny. I also know if he had supplements or meds that was needed he would give it. I know he helped out with gas ect.I also know a couple of years ago we were not speaking at all and had one of our biggest outs and I had a car accident and he texted me letting me know he would get me a rental car. I declined being prideful as usual. Months later Ron Stalling would fight on Strike forces & we weren't speaking and I received a call saying he knew that Ron would want me in his corner and that he would fly me out to Vegas for him.Also when I read the stoic face comment about Lloyd I figured that the writer put that in, bc it's what's perceived of him. I think it's intention, bc I have seen on many occasions before any of this stuff happened him getting racist & hate mail. People seemed to not want to accept him bc he's black when I have never seen anyone work as hard as him. I've literally seen him driving and typing on his computer, staying up for days, family rarely seeing him, making sure everything was right for the team and businesses.The reason why I said the writer had to write it because he is a big kid always playing. It's nothing for you to come out of the elevator or stair well and he has ran down to beat u there to scare you. We also watched him do this to others. To this day I still grab my neck when I look up from yrs of playing the chop game. I've chopped him so hard he's to just stop moving. We all played a game were we did pushups if u said the wrong word, he would pull over right then & do pushups where ever. I've watched all those guys play a never ending game with him where they were all acting like ninjas hiding behind stuff everyday.. There's nothing for you to walk up and he just grabs your hand and y'all start wrestling or he pretend he has a knife and you flow throw the transitions.. He's always trying to scare you or play, running to the bathroom before his wife. I've always thought he's done the stoic thing publicly to maintain respect.. He's the real deal but very playful & controlled.He's always giving life principles about thinking before you react. I remember driving and getting mad bc someone in front of me was driving slow yrs ago. He explained what if that guy has just caught his wife cheating ect & get out of the car & start shooting ect.


Part 4

I also see that they were talking about the charge DJ had and no one knew about that. That happened before DJ was training there 19 and in college. I was there working with DJ when he came, I even coached him in a bbj tournament & Thai Fight early on. I wouldn't have guesses it either but kids do dumb stuff & again Lloyd didn't know he even existed when that happened.
As far as Lloyd's not guilty verdict from when he was 19yrs old over twenty yrs ago I don't understand what so hard to understand or why he should have to bring that up. I sure he was humiliated enough then, & he was tried. I wasn't there & I don't know what happened & it was posted that he said it was a group event. I myself have been invited on many occasions well before I knew Lloyd existed to join friends in a train. I always declined & they knew I wasn't having sex. I then was waiting til marriage. My boys called them Flippers.. Many of these girls I know of have families now and their husbands have no clue that this happened. I also know of situations where the girl got embarrassed when the word got out of what had happened and she called rape. So, this isn't uncommon.
Also, they mentioned a meeting that was held where he supposedly said he would help the guys with their attorney's. I was invited to come to it but was at work.. I don't think he even helped them with it, but from what I heard it was said that he was taking the side of not knowing what happened & that in his situation the two guys that plead guilty was pressured, young and families couldn't pay for defense. I'm typing this as I go, I'm not certain but I believe those few who pled guilty later were released. So, yes I can understand him trying to aid both sides. Especially, knowing both parties involved. I know it wasnt his intent but that is really a biblical thing to do. Do the best you can to help both sides.Again he is not a saint nor am I or any of the people in this article. I also have never seen anyone forced to party or do anything in the gym or out side of the gym. He's the type of person that wipes his hands of you or just walks off. Only few people were allowed to go out with him or hang around him. For years I was right there closer than most at some times the closest. Was it because I had my own mind and not trying to be a yes man, I don't know.
I said that to say yes us adults went out to party after fights from time to time or Birthdays and no one was forced to have a drink. I drank and took shots but my best friend Ron Stallings never did over the yrs. He doesn't drink. He just said no and no one forced him. The times I said no, other friends might joke me bc I joked them, that's what guys do. It was all in fun & we were all over 21.Again the environment was always positive for youth at all costs. I remember yrs ago I lost a no gi advanced match against a good WEC fighter. I remember walking off & kicking the chair. Master Lloyd came to me & told me I had to apologize to the youth because they saw me and I needed to apologize to them, bc that's not how we carry ourselves.
There are many families that have benefited greatly from being there. I've also never known any of his students to want open their own gym or do something with marketing that he wouldn't help. I have also never known him to charge any of them.
I also know how I started back training there was him saying I talked to the other guys & they said that you should be allowed to train there. I have love for you and you moved here to train to be the best. I believe you have the ability and there are no other gyms around that can help you like you need. You can come here and train if you like, but not be apart of the team. That took a lot for him bc we both are prideful. I also know of other guys leaving over the yrs and him saying it really hurt him and he meant it. He felt that people just used him and left. He spent hrs on hrs and money training these guys, breaking down technique to the finest details.We all have personal things we need to work on and we should ASAP and I'm not letting anyone off of the hook for that. I just question people's real motives and it's really a waste of time and it's affecting kids in the area and others that have nothing to do with any extra stuff. Some want to train and can't move. Many know the training is good and know the environment and have no desire to move. He has a child and family they don't deserve to be smeared with this year after year. President Clinton and other were actually caught in acts and forgotten about.
Even if this article did tell his full character and paint a pictures of him, which it doesn't. I would say the same thing he who hasn't sinned cast the 1st stone. Not even if you haven't been accused but if you haven't done anything wrong that someone can keep bringing up on you. If you do have something why do you keep trying to drag him down.. But if you, him or I have wronged someone go to them and make it right the best you can. Ask God for forgiveness allow him to work in you and use your gifts and abilities to help others. Change your life. If you felt you were wronged contact that person, forgive them and release them and yourself..The people trying to bring him down won't be able to, he knows his stuff and follows biblical principles whether he knows it or not and will succeed. Gods gifts have no respect of persons. He's lost a great deal of students and starting over almost from scratch on many levels. If he beats you take the beating like a man and look at what you can do better. Attacking him this way will only make him work harder.
Don't waste your time coming at me with hate and other things because I won't even respond. The truth doesn't need to be defended, all I did was give the truth about my experience for 7yrs.. I can honestly say I'm thankful that I've learned the things I have from him and that I'm now able to use to help build my community and that I also honestly enjoyed hanging out with him. Fun, real guy & if I had to go to war he would definitely get a call whether we were on good terms or not.