The cult of Lloyd Irvin
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.
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.
Irvin can also be seen at Ultimate Fighting Championship events, where pros like Brandon Vera and bantamweight champion Dominic Cruz have turned to him to sharpen their grappling skills. In one post-fight moment that went viral, Irvin awarded Cruz a jiu-jitsu belt promotion immediately following a title defense.
"Team Lloyd Irvin has helped me out so much," Cruz told Fist-Ta-Cuff Radio in 2011. "They're doing big things in mixed martial arts."
Phil Davis, a top-ranked contender in the 205-pound division, once called Irvin "an honest-to-goodness ninja." In an increasingly lucrative sport, Irvin is singled out as one of the top go-to trainers to help prepare for war.
"The guy could not only whip my butt, but he was beating the shit out of guys fighting in the UFC," says Camacho, who made the trek to Maryland after watching Fowler dominate in a tournament.
Irvin's coaching talent creates a devout brotherhood. Competitors often throw up three fingers in an "LI" formation after winning bouts; others get tattoos of the school's logo, a bulldog in military fatigues. Some wear 3-percenter signs on the podium. According to Irvin's philosophy, it means being part of the elite: The remaining 97 percent are those who fail in competition, in business, and in life.
The school's aggressive sales force welcomes everyone from four-year-olds to casual enthusiasts paying $199 a month or more, but Irvin's focus is reserved for the competition team and the attention it brings. Training is arduous and takes place two or three times a day, with team tryouts that can last four to five hours and involve vomit, dehydration, and liability waivers.
In a sport that demands a callused body, that's nothing unusual. But the closer some students got to Lloyd Irvin, the stronger the sensation that they were drowning.
The people he had the most control over were females, according to Jordon Schultz, a two-time world champion. Any task at any time. They were extremely obedient.
Former student Miguel Escobar, who now works at a martial arts school for disadvantaged youth, saw female students shaving Irvin's face, clipping his fingernails, and acquiescing to requests for massages. Ryan Hall, a black belt who left Irvin's in 2008 to start his own school, observed Irvin tickling, tackling, or chasing the girls around.
Others were disturbed that he would share a hotel room with student Nyjah Easton while traveling, a habit witnessed by several of Irvin's students, including Schultz. (Easton did not respond to requests for comment.)
A woman didn't have to be enrolled in Irvin's school to catch his eye, either. Several students allege that Irvin made advances on wives and girlfriends, despite having been married since 2003 to his wife, Vicki. Escobar recalls introducing Irvin to his girlfriend at a club, then leaving them to discuss a potential business opportunity. He looked back to see Irvin with his arm around the girl. She walked away, telling Escobar that Irvin had invited her to his hotel room.
"No disrespect, but were you hitting on my girlfriend?" Escobar asked him.
"Don't worry about her," he remembers Irvin saying. "She'll be all right."
Irvin's students felt a similar sense of sexual entitlement. One former girlfriend of Schultz's, who asked not to be named, recalls that some of the men living in the fighter house asked him if she could come around.
Knowing what that meant, he declined. According to Schultz and his ex-girlfriend, athletes would sometimes bring dates back to the fighter house, where weed or ecstasy would be passed around along with the date. Pictures would be taken. It was, in the words of a source who asked to remain anonymous, Vegas meets jiu-jitsu.
"These were just kids 19, 20 years old," Escobar says. "You put them in certain situations, and things will happen."
Some things were more serious than others. In 2008, one of Irvin's most promising pupils, Delonzio Jackson, then 19, left Maryland to attend college in Iowa, where, according to police reports, he invited a 16-year-old girl to a local bar for College Night. When she and a friend picked him up, he gave her some Bacardi he produced from a backpack.
After spending some time in the bar, they went back outside to her friend's car. The girl told police that Jackson penetrated her, even though she repeatedly told him to stop.
The next morning, the 16-year-old woke with a headache that she suspected might be drug-induced. She told her foster mother, who informed authorities. When questioned, Jackson denied having given her alcohol or drugs or having forced himself on her.
That same day, however, police discovered that Jackson had sent the girl a text: "sorry I took ur virginity like that. Plz give me another chance."
Court records show that the state of Iowa charged Jackson with third-degree sexual assault and supplying alcohol to a minor. He pleaded down to serious assault and received a suspended sentence resulting in fines and 60 days in jail, which he was allowed to serve in Maryland.
Afterward, Jackson returned to Irvin's to work and train. A YouTube video from November 2012 shows him performing one of his jobs: driving a van and picking up children ages four and up, including young girls, for Irvin's after-school program.
Keenan Cornelius had been at Irvin's for only a short time before he reported back to his parents. "Some people say you can get brainwashed here," his mother recalls him saying. "But not me." (Keenan declined comment for this story.)
Just 19, he was intelligent and analytical but had dismissed notions of college. Jiu-jitsu was all he wanted to do. A friend had raved about Irvin and his curriculum. Maryland seemed like the place to be: no distractions, just hard training.
"He explained he could live there for free and that this man will pay for him to compete," Kathleen says. "It sounded weird to me, but I didn't want to cause a fracture in our relationship. In the end, we let him go."
Soon, Keenan's phone calls grew less frequent. He began ignoring his parents' e-mails, telling his mother that he suspected that Irvin or his subordinates were monitoring his Facebook account.
"We're a close family," Kathleen says. "The conversations we used to have just stopped. He became private. He started changing."
When he did come home, his attitude was dour. His sister Chloe recalls him abruptly demanding that she prepare him food.
"It's a feminist household," Kathleen says. "That was just bizarre."
Stories began to orbit Keenan's family. His stepfather, Tom Callos, is also an instructor and knew people in the business. Irvin's was a cult-like atmosphere, some warned him. It was isolating, restrictive, manipulative.
The family made overtures to Keenan about coming home, which only drove him further away. "I can't win if I'm not here," they remember him saying. "All my friends are here." He would repeat both like a mantra.
Irvin had good reason to keep Keenan in the fold. He was the school's latest star, courted for tournament appearances and valuable to Irvin's reputation as a trainer. He had won jiu-jitsu's Grand Slam, earning two gold medals at each of the sport's four major tournaments.
By the time Keenan arrived in 2011, Irvin's fighter house, dubbed "The Jungle," was in full swing. "Little Mexico," the basement, was reserved for new recruits. Keenan and others were on the first floor — "The Suburbs." It was a glorified dormitory for martial artists. With paid rent and travel, it was likened by some to being on a scholarship.
"Everything in the house and everything we did was to win," says Camacho. Go downstairs and you see someone watching jiu-jitsu videos. Upstairs, someone is drilling in the middle of the floor. There were holes in the wall from tackling people.
Many worked long shifts at the school for low pay — as little as $4 an hour plus free training. Unless they were top-shelf athletes, it wasn't uncommon for four or more students to share a two-bedroom apartment. The best got free board subsidized by Irvin's primary income: consulting for other martial arts businesses, which could net him upwards of $57,000 a head per year, the fee quoted in his "MMA Millionaires" application packet.
But some say that Irvin's podium-ready charisma held a darker side. "He sought out and spent lots of money to improve his skill set at persuasion," says Schultz. "He knew he'd have more power that way."
Schultz recalls Irvin attending a seminar for neural-linguistic programming, which comprises techniques that can be used to manipulate the mind. One business associate who saw Irvin interact with students described them as "robots" — blank-faced, and relaxing their posture only after he had left the room.
Over and over again, Irvin pushed the idea that students were "androids" who should do whatever the "programmer" tells them without critical thinking.
An android does what it's told without hesitation, Irvin would say. If you want to be a world champion, you have to let the programmer program you.
"It was really a toe in the water to obey any command given," says Hall. "That started to become a point of contention with us. I wasn't compliant. I didn't buy into it. Others did."
According to Fowler, Hall, and others, Irvin would roust students from their beds at any hour, demanding that they run errands or do chores — anything from going for cheeseburgers at 3 a.m. to raking leaves or picking up dog waste at his home.
"It was about calling me at 1 a.m. saying that he needed some video," Camacho says. "Or that someone is coming in from the airport, and you'll pick him up at 3 a.m., no questions asked. We were in Lloyd Irvin's world."
"There was a lot of control," adds Shultz. "Some people trying out for the team would pass out. It was kind of an initiation, like hazing. Looking back, I think he was trying to relive his fraternity days in school. He wanted absolute obedience."
Lloyd Emory Irvin Jr. was born in 1969 to Rosalee and Lloyd Irvin Sr. In a 2006 interview with marketing consultant Ken McCarthy, Irvin said that when he was young, doctors deemed him to be hyperactive and suggested that he be put on medication. Instead, his parents enrolled him in martial arts classes. He was boxing by age eight and took up wrestling in school before attending Bowie State University in Maryland. There he pledged to the Que Dogs, an unofficial offshoot of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, and one that prized hyper-masculine behavior.
On October 7, 1989, Irvin and a handful of other men congregated in an apartment at River Park Tower in Newport News, Virginia, where one of them had led an unidentified Hampton University coed to the bedroom. According to the Hampton Daily Press, she claimed that she was punched and slapped, and that she heard one man muse how easy it would be to throw her off the balcony.
The men allegedly ripped out her tampon and took turns raping her. A physician who later examined her noted that she was suffering from vaginal spasms, indicative of forced intercourse.
In the morning, the girl was allowed to shower and was driven back to her dorm. Three of the men were quickly rounded up by the Newport News police; that number would grow to eight as the investigation continued.
In the spring of 1990, 20-year-old Lloyd Irvin and co-defendant Terrence Gatling were the first to be tried for rape. Both pleaded not guilty.
Irvin's defense: Although he'd wanted to participate in what he believed was consensual sex, he was unable to achieve an erection.
Because the jury believed that the victim couldn't positively identify him as one of the men who penetrated her, he was acquitted. Gatling was found guilty of forcible sodomy.
"I feel the girl was raped," one juror told the Press. "But the room where this happened was dark, and with all that was going on, it was unclear who was doing what."
The victim, 17 years old and 98 pounds, told her story in court three times over a period of 15 months. Of the eight charged, four men were convicted and sent to prison, one received a suspended sentence, and two cases were dropped due to insufficient evidence. Irvin exited the courthouse a free man.
He returned to school and graduated in 1992 with a degree in business administration, but with no firm career path. He was athletic and strong, and he enjoyed martial arts, but none of those things could be monetized in a culture glutted with instructors teaching dubious self-defense techniques. Most fighters made poor businessmen, and their doors were frequently shuttered.
After watching an early UFC event in which Royce Gracie used jiu-jitsu to subdue much larger men, Irvin became intrigued by grappling. He studied for six months at a Washington, D.C., school, then opened his own dojo.
Irvin's move coincided with the emergence of Billy Blanks's tae bo cardio-kickboxing fad. Within three months, he had 500 enrollees at his school, looking for a Blanks-style experience. Irvin accommodated them, but his ability to retain students ebbed.
"I went from 500 to zero ... because of no contracts," he told internet marketer Daegan Smith in a 2012 podcast. "I got in financial trouble — two months behind on my mortgage and rent on the school."
Irvin told Smith he began seeking self-help and business advice, though little to none of it was written expressly for the struggling martial arts instructor. Then he came across the teachings of Dan Kennedy, an evangelical marketing guru who offered advice to small businesses on recruiting and keeping customers. Irvin paid $3,000 for a front-row seat at a Kennedy seminar and was rhapsodized.
On the verge of bankruptcy, he soaked in Kennedy's lessons on the kind of hyperbole needed to draw attention to himself. He offered 30 days of free classes to new attendees, appealed to soccer moms, and organized after-school programs. Business improved, with the weekend warriors supplemented by serious grapplers who could secure his reputation as a potent teacher.
"I didn't have enough money to pay the rent," Irvin testified in a 2011 Kennedy endorsement video. "Life now, after Dan's influence, has been amazing.... I've gone on to generate millions and millions of dollars in these different businesses.... We've got a 12,000-square-foot facility now. We have eight guys fighting in the current UFC."
Irvin has repeatedly cited Kennedy as an influence. Kennedy has made no secret about how his approach toward marketing and the practice of thought reform are intertwined.
In mid-2012, an instructor from out of state pulled Irvin aside at an event.
"I heard Nick Schultz is with you now," the instructor, who asked not to be identified, claims he told him. "You need to understand something. This kid will burn your school to the ground."
Irvin laughed it off. Had he listened to what his colleague had to say — that Schultz had a history of shoplifting, criminal trespass, and erratic behavior — New Year's Day 2013 might have turned out differently.
Schultz, 20 years old and no relation to Jordon Schultz, had come to Irvin's school from San Diego, where his former instructor had booted him from his gym for theft. He had not broken the habit. "I observed him stealing on a daily basis," Jordon Schultz says. "Small things — food items, DVDs. He was one of those guys."
Nick Schultz became friendly with fellow student Matthew "Matteo" Maldonado, who had been there only a month. On New Year's Day, Maldonado sent a text to an acquaintance. "Had a great time," he wrote. "Went out clubbing."
Earlier that morning, Schultz and Maldonado had been in D.C. with a female student, Billie (not her real name), who'd been at Irvin's for roughly a year. According to a statement she later gave to police, the three had been drinking. She said that the two men then took her, inebriated and staggering, into a nearby church parking garage and raped her. In their arrest warrant, investigators described surveillance footage that they alleged showed Maldonado holding up an inebriated Billie and penetrating her from behind. They further stated that Maldonado then departed and Schultz appeared to force the girl into oral and vaginal sex. At various points, they asserted, Billie was dropped to the concrete, unable to support herself. She was left in the garage until a passerby heard her crying for help.
In an open letter that appeared on GracieMag.com, a jiu-jitsu news site, Irvin promised to see the victim through this difficult period and expressed disgust at the actions of his students, noting that both had been at the school only a short time.
Despite his statement, the martial arts media pounced on the story, charging Irvin with a corrosive environment that was likened to an island of misfit toys.
Suddenly, says Chloe Cornelius, it went from "everyone makes mistakes" to "Lloyd is a monster."
Inundated by negative press relating to the New Year's incident and the subsequent discovery of his own 1990 rape trial, Irvin took quick and, by his own admission, regrettable action. He purchased a URL, LloydIrvinRape.com, and used search-engine-optimization techniques so it would appear near the top of an Irvin-related web search, bumping his own rape-related clippings farther down the page.
LloydIrvinRape.com advertised women's self-defense courses. "Lloyd Irvin's Martial Arts Academy is fully dedicated to empowering as many women as possible," read the copy. "Information is power, and arming women with the ability to be smart, aware of their surroundings and defend against an attacker is top priority in the Ladies Kick Butt seminar and program."
Accompanying footage showed clips from a 2012 seminar, the women in attendance likely ignorant that the lead instructor himself was once on trial for sexual assault.
Irvin addressed the URL controversy after BloodyElbow.com reporter Brent Brookhouse exposed the sleight of hand. "The reason I purchased the URL was singular," Irvin wrote in the same open letter on GracieMag.com. "I didn't like the tone and tenor of things online but still felt I could not speak publicly about anything.... The execution and timing were awful."
Despite the mea culpa, he purchased at least one additional URL after his statement was released: LloydIrvinRape.us, which now directs visitors to a video by standup comedian Katt Williams on "haters."
Keenan Cornelius's mother was horrified. She made another plea for her son to return home.
"Billie just got back from the salon and got highlights," she recalls Keenan saying. "She can't be that upset."
Last January, Irvin called an early-morning meeting of his top male competitors. According to Camacho and Jordon Schultz, both present at the gathering, he wanted to clear the air regarding the negative publicity. Of the 1990 allegations, Irvin told them the victim had wanted it and claimed rape out of guilt. No one seemed to question why this seemingly consensual act had sent four men to prison.
"He told us she was down for it," Schultz recalls, "and that the next day, her boyfriend had found out and then she went to police."
Irvin also told students he was helping pay the legal bills for Nick Schultz and Maldonado, who, like most in his circle, had little financial means of their own.
"Most of the guys didn't seem to care," says Camacho. "You just want to go train. That was all we wanted. To train."
But the atmosphere of the school had changed. Every day seemed to bring more negative attention. Team Lloyd Irvin was quickly becoming a scarlet letter in martial arts circles.
"As a team, we were hated on," Camacho says. "It was over the top even before all of this. People making fun of us at tourneys, throwing up the hand sign. Meanwhile, we're wrecking and winning titles. But when that stuff happened, it was hate times one hundred."
Uncomfortable and fearing that any continued association with Irvin would have a negative impact on their careers, several Medal Chasers and other students decided to leave at night rather than navigate Irvin's expected protests.
Billie returned to the school after the New Year's incident, believing that she had Irvin's support. But friends say that she left once she discovered that he was paying for her alleged attackers' legal bills.
Schultz and Maldonado finally went to trial in October. But the surveillance video was blurry. Despite having viewed the footage more than 100 times, jurors couldn't say beyond a reasonable doubt that the three intoxicated students were involved in forcible sex. Schultz and Maldonado were found not guilty. (The jury was unable to arrive at verdicts on two misdemeanor sexual abuse charges against Schultz and declared themselves deadlocked. Those close to the victim indicate a civil suit is under consideration.)
Irvin declined to be interviewed for this story. "A wise man once told me, don't waste your time with explanations," he wrote in response to an interview request. "People will hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe." He claimed that a lynch mob had formed, and that former student Ryan Hall, who has been outspoken about Irvin's practices, was guiding the story.
In his open letter, however, Irvin addressed the night at River Park Tower. "The facts are the facts, and glossing over the fact that I did NOT rape nor have sex with ANYONE involved in the 1989 incident cannot and should not be brushed under the carpet.... I am 100% against rape, attempted rape or any other form of violence against women. I don't support it, don't condone it and don't enable an environment that would ever have anything to do with it."
On one message board, Maryland instructor Phil Proctor questioned the motives of the woman who brought the rape charges against Irvin: "It sounds like a train was run on a dirty whore that got to feeling guilty," he wrote. Proctor did not respond to interview requests.
Several former students and associates of Irvin's contacted for this story also declined comment, citing fear of retaliation by Irvin in the form of character attacks or the potential for confrontations during jiu-jitsu tournaments, where Irvin remains a presence.
Others believe men like Hall have ulterior motives for criticizing their former instructor. "I've never seen Irvin do or say anything bad," says Ken McCarthy, who's been endorsed by Dan Kennedy. "I just saw a really hardworking, focused guy taking care of business. The people speaking against him also run schools. There's incentive. Those [exiting] students are worth money."
UFC bantamweight champion Dominic Cruz and Brandon Vera have cut ties with Irvin. Irvin also disbanded his affiliate program, which had allowed schools to use his name to bolster enrollment. In return, winning students would be considered Team Lloyd Irvin-branded athletes, a label that now appears unwelcome.
Disappointed that his family's art was being dragged into the negative press, Rener Gracie released a YouTube video condemning schools that prioritize the win-at-all-costs mentality. "There's no regulating body for running an academy," he says. "The risk is, you take someone with a rough upbringing, without education or values or influence, and teach them jiu-jitsu, once they make it, they'll feel like they have the right to abuse those below them."
Irvin's school remains open for business in Camp Springs, with plans to add a women-only fitness training center in the near future.
His website summarizes the academy's philosophy for young enrollees. Under the watchful eye of Lloyd Irvin, parents are assured of one thing: "Morals are number one."
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