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From MMA champ to starring alongside Denzel Washington: Jay Hieron’s new role in ‘Equalizer 2’

The former welterweight fighter now has dozens of credits as an actor and stuntman

MMA fighter Jay Hieron’s most memorable bout was in 2006, when he became welterweight champion of the International Fight League. But his latest fight is pretty good too. He appears alongside Denzel Washington in the film Equalizer 2, which hits the big screen on Friday.

Hieron, whose real name is James Thomas Hieronymus, plays “harried man” in Equalizer 2. In a major scene, Hieron is involved in a back seat scuffle with the award-winning actor.

“Working alongside Denzel Washington was great,” said Hieron. “I couldn’t ask for a better experience. I’d like to say he’s the equalizer: how he carries himself, how he talks, how he walks. He was definitely in character. It was great working with him.”

Filming began in September 2017 in Boston and Istanbul. Washington plays a retired CIA agent named Robert McCall who learns a longtime friend has been murdered. He searches for those responsible for her murder and takes revenge on anyone in his path.

“I auditioned, I had a callback and I booked,” Hieron said. “It definitely wasn’t given to me. I had to go through the whole process just like everybody else, and I got the role. So that was great, definitely one of the greatest experiences I’ve had in my career.”

Hieron’s acting career started as stunt work. He’d gotten encouragement from friend and five-time UFC champion Randy Couture.

“Couture has been acting since around the time I met him,” Hieron said. “He introduced me to a few people. I kind of started doing it on the side while I was still competing and fighting.”

Hieron applied the same discipline he learned as a fighter to the world of acting. He has more than 52 stunt and acting credits in films and television, including Luke Cage, Power, Gotham, Deliver Us From Eva, The Get Down and Brooklyn’s Finest.

“The first I ever did was a Law & Order TV show and a movie, Brooklyn’s Finest,” he said. “It was interesting because I’d never seen films being made. It was pretty cool because right before the scene I remember Ethan Hawke doing jumping jacks, like, before they said, ‘Action.’ I’m like, what the heck is he doing over there? Then when I saw he was coming in the room out of breath, I put it together. He was getting himself out of breath and getting the heart rate up like he was chasing a bad guy.”

Hieron doesn’t miss fighting.

“I don’t really miss competing as much,” he said. “I still get in there and train. I still have the passion to train, just like me competing for a check, I just don’t have that drive anymore. I have something that filled that for me, which is acting and stunt stuff.”

The IFL, where Hieron won his welterweight championship, folded in 2008. He went on to have successful matches in Strikeforce and Bellator and ended his career with the UFC after losing to Tyron Woodley in February 2013.

“After my last fight with Tyron Woodley, I said you know what, let me try to see if I can make this work. I never looked back ever since. And now I’m in a scene with Denzel Washington.”

Jay Hieron (left) plays “harried man” in Equalizer 2, starring Denzel Washington (right).

Courtesy of Illumination PR

Hieron started wrestling in high school. He later turned to boxing and was encouraged by friends to become an MMA fighter. He left the sport with 23 wins in 30 professional fights and the welterweight title.

Hieron says it’s difficult for many athletes to develop a plan B or even think about transitioning out of their sport when they’re so immersed in it.

“It’s hard because you have to be so focused on what you’re doing to be the best in the world in whatever sport you play and have something else going on that you could build when you’re done,” he said. “Let’s be honest, competing in the top level of a sport, you have a small window. … Your body is not always going to be in that peak-type shape forever.”

Hieron feels blessed to have found acting and stunt work. But he puts in the work.

“I had to learn how to fight for camera,” he said. “I’m still working on it. Acting wasn’t natural for me.”

He realized that reaching his full potential before and after cage work would require dedication.

“Any transition is hard, I feel,” he said. “There was nothing easy about it. I kind of like doing something that’s not easy to do. For a fighter, we love that competition, so I take that in anything I do. I’m a fighter. I fight for what I believe in. I fight for what I feel I can make for myself.”

Growing up in Freeport, New York, Hieron says he developed a tough skin. Admittedly, he’s not the type of guy to receive pep talks. He listens to people and pays close attention to his surroundings before he leaps into any new endeavor.

“I’ve always been that way,” he said. “I just see how people are doing their thing and I kind of do it my way — trial and error. I’m not afraid of failure.”

The best piece of advice he ever received is that hard work pays off. To other fighters, he recommends that, even though it’s hard, they figure out a plan B and save money.

“From my personal experience, I went through a lot, I spent a lot more and I’m good now,” Hieron said. “Know when it’s time. Don’t leave this sport with any permanent damage. A lot of guys leave their heart and soul in that cage. In every fight, you know they leave a little tiny piece in there. Don’t wait until it’s too late. Know your body. Have good people around you. Try to have something else going on. You never know where those roads could lead.”

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.