Lights, Camera, Action!


Training for American Fighter movie instilled a ‘total new respect’ for MMA in George Kosturos

'More action, a little grittier, a little darker, a little more grown up'

Actor George Kosturos can relate to the life of a fighter more than most.

After enduring the high school wrestling grind in the 2016 film American Wrestler: The Wizard, Kosturos embraced entering the MMA world in the 2019 sequel American Fighter, which was officially released digitally on May 21.

Kosturos reprised his role of wrestler Ali Jahani, who is now in college. Armed with MMA skills now, he enters the underground fight world desperate for money to treat his deathly ill mother.

American Fighter
Ali (George Kosturos) and McClellen (Tommy Flanagan). Courtesy Lionsgate.

“This movie is MMA before MMA existed,” Kosturos said to MMA Crossfire from his home in Los Angeles. “All the people who are fighting now, know of this (underground) fighting world.”

Based on a true story, the film also stars Sean Patrick Flanery (Born a Champion, The Boondock Saints), Tommy Flanagan (Sons of Anarchy), and Allison Paige (The Flash).

The training challenge for Kosturos this time was to adapt more of a fighter physique. Like before, it wasn’t easy, but the work and nutritional guidance did pay off once again.

“For American Wrestler, I lost 15 pounds in two weeks for that one because they wanted me to play a high school wrestler,” Kosturos explained. “That was a totally different training process than this one. In this one, they came back and said they needed me to gain 20 twenty pounds and look like a fighter. I was like, ‘How is this going to work?’ I had this trainer that put on this plant-based diet, which I thought was counter-intuitive, but I ate a lot of broccoli, spinach, beans and was lifting and training MMA everyday. I was still doing cardio, which I also thought was counter-intuitive, but all of it together worked.

“I gained 20 pounds, I was like 167 for the movie,” Kosturos added. “Lots of MMA. It was like three a days. Lifting in the morning, cardio in the afternoon, and then MMA training at night for about two months and then we were shooting.”

Kosturos feels that while the film will obviously appeal to fighters, anyone who has faced life adversity can enjoy the story of Ali.

“One of the fighters that they had me model my moves off of was Wonderboy (Stephen Thompson),” Kosturos explained. “They wanted me to be wispy and jumpy like him. Also Enzo Gracie, who is also a friend of Sean Patrick Flanery. The Gracie guys will like this movie and enjoy it.”

Other fight and stunt co-ordinators have told The Crossfire in the past that a good co-operative team is critical for the choreography fans demand.

Director Shaun Paul Piccinino made sure to supply the film with seasoned action mentors like Flanery and Flanagan to help ease the learning process of MMA for Kosturos and strengthen the fight choreography.

“Shaun is a stuntman and great fight choreographer so he was instrumental in figuring out the fight choreography,” Kosturos detailed. “Our fight choreographer was Alan Noel Vega and my stunt double who ended up … instead of being my stunt double because I did of my own stunts, he ended up being my personal choreography trainer and he helped me learn all of the fights and his name was Shayan Safar. They all trained in real life, they don’t compete in MMA, but they’re all fighters in their own right and they all brought their own spin.”

Both Kosturos and Flanery worked together previously on Flanery’s film Born a Champion. 

“Having Sean Patrick Flanery on set was great,” Kosturos said. “He was like our jiu-jitsu coach for the scenes. We had a lot of people chiming in because I had not done MMA before, so we had a lot people helping and making me look good.”

Flanagan is known for his work on Sons of Anarchy, while Kosturos knew Paige previously. Both co-stars made significant contributions.

“Tommy was a pleasure to work with,” Kosturos recalled. “He’s a very intimidating looking guy. All the characters he plays are very villainous and scary but in real life, he’s jolly, fun, making jokes on set. He’s always kind of keeping you on your toes. Each scene, me, the director, the whole production team didn’t know what he was going to do next, so he kind of kept the whole set on its toes. That spontaneity brought a cool energy to every scene, so he was awesome to work with. A total pro, a total vet.”

American Fighter
Ali (George Kosturos) and Heidi (Allison Paige). Courtesy Lionsgate.

“Allison was in The Flash,” Kosturos continued. “I had known her before, so we were friends. She had a cute fun vibe, and brought a great flavour to the film.”

So then, what makes a good fight scene for Kosturos?

“Two partners that kind of vibe together,” Kosturos said thoughtfully. “So we had different stunt guys coming in for each fight scene. All of them were great, but some of them you kind of had a better flow with.

It’s basically having a dance partner for fight choreography. That’s how they kind of described it to me, it’s more of a dance than a fight.

“So, fighting someone you connect with and make them feel your move and you can feel them. It just feels more natural and flows better. The best fight scenes are just two great partners.”

Now that all the work is done, Kosturos is enthusiastically curious about the ongoing reaction to the film.

“I’ve been waiting so long for this one to come out,” Kosturos said. “I’m so excited. Friday (May 21) was finally the day. My family, they all came down to watch in the theatre here in Los Angeles. I can’t wait for the world to see this one.”

“We had such a great response to the first one that I think this one is the continuation, with more action, a little grittier, a little darker, a little more grown up and I think everyone is going to love it.”

The experience has fostered a healthy appreciation in Kosturos for combat sports.

“I was a fan of the sport but not in the way I am now,” Kosturos said. “I have a total new respect for fighters. Before, you could have a stereotype of what you think about MMA, UFC, and things like that. But after going all of this training and seeing how much dedication it takes, I really believe MMA athletes are the baddest, toughest athletes out there. So, I have a total new respect for UFC fighters and MMA.”

American Fighter was officially released to DVD, Blu-Ray, digital and Online Demand on May 21.


Kenai is a former Postmedia Network online news and sports editor. He is the Editor-in-Chief for MMA Crossfire.

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