My friend Charles “Mask” Lewis died last year just as I was preparing to go into production on my film “Warrior,” for which he was an indispensable help and supporter. Charles founded the famous Tapout clothing line that put the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) on the map. Late one night back in March of 2009, he was heading home from the gym when his car was struck by a drunk driver, sending it into a fatal spin. His light may have gone out that night but it’s very much alive in my film and in my heart.
Charles was an amazing guy who started selling T-shirts out of the back of his car. He wound up building a clothing empire on the strength of his charisma and vision while also elevating a once-obscure sport to the international prominence it deserves. Charles opened up the world of MMA to us and I owe him a great debt of gratitude for what he helped us achieve with this film. I dedicated “Warrior” to Charles and wanted to mark the occasion of its release by sharing the story of our brief but magnificent friendship.
I met Charles after writing the film. We’d set it up at Lionsgate for a commitment to make the movie and I began exploring the world of MMA as research for the production. We were introduced by a mutual friend and liked each other from the start. We shared a common philosophy in how we wanted to live our lives – fortune favors the daring – professionally, creatively and artistically. He’d bet everything he had on his company 10 years earlier, starting out selling T-shirts out of the back of his car. I’d also sold everything I owned to make my first movie that very same year (“Tumbleweeds,” 1999). We were risk takers who wanted creative/artistic fulfillment in life. He liked my script and immediately started opening doors for me. Suddenly I was meeting all the MMA greats, attending training sessions and big events, and hanging out in the locker rooms before big fights. We even started an apparel company together called Soul of a Lion, a name which I would discover later stood for Jesus, who was the absolute number one in Charles’s life.
We drove to Vegas together one weekend and I was surprised to see Bibles strewn all over the back of his car. The whole way over we listened to Joel Osteen, whom Charles loved and considered his spiritual mentor. He was on a path and it inspired me. He spoke about his Christian faith in a way that touched my heart and rekindled the embers of my own Christian upbringing. He was as alive in the faith as anyone I’d ever met and I wanted to be in his company because it felt so good to be around him.
But the teachings of scripture were not just ethereal principles to Charles; they translated into how he lived his life. He cared about others and went out of his way to help them succeed. He made it a rule to only speak well of people. He even wanted his competitors to do well. This big dude, this larger-than-life personality who often wore face paint, was brimming with the love of Christ and it was infectious. His motto was “Simply Believe.”
When he died it was a shock. I got on a plane and flew back to California for his funeral. He was cremated and I received a necklace with some of his ashes in it which I wore throughout the making of “Warrior.” But beyond that scant physical presence was the almost palpable sense of his spiritual presence. So many things came together during production which in my mind had no other explanation than his intervention. Anthony Tambakis and I had written him the part of the MMA impresario who sets up the tournament that provides the framework for the film, and I wound up playing that part myself in his honor.
Now the film is opening and he’s not around and I’m feeling some of the old grief. I came across his name in my phone recently and can’t bring myself to delete it. Having Charles come along in my life was a great blessing for which I’ll always be grateful. For some reason God tapped him out young, and that’s too bad. But just like I felt his spirit with me in production, I feel him with me now.
Gavin O’Connor is the director and co-writer of WARRIOR, which opened in theaters nationwide on Sept. 9. He lives in Malibu, California.