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Sparring With Shadows: How Jeremy Williams' Death Devastated OC's First Pro Mixed-Martial-Arts Team

Richard and Susan Williams near Strands Beach in Dana Point, where a memorial will be held Monday
Jonathan Ho

Sparring With Shadows
How Jeremy Williams' suicide devastated OC's first professional mixed-martial-arts team

Under the bright camera lights and slick production values of a nationally televised mixed-martial-arts (MMA) fight, Laguna Beach's Adam Lynn stepped into the ring at Chicago's Sears Centre Arena on May 21, 2007. He stopped the tears that had been flowing for two weeks and shut out the world.

"I wasn't in the mood to put up with anybody's fucking shit," he says now. "It was like, 'Dude, point me toward the ring; I'm going to kick somebody's ass and get fucking paid for it. Leave me the fuck alone.'"

Lynn was member of the Southern California Condors, an Orange County-based professional MMA team in the International Fight League (IFL), whose bouts were televised weekly on FOX Sports. The team no longer exists; the IFL didn't renew the Condors after their first season. The league itself limped into its third season this April, its stock valued at just pennies amid rumors of its impending demise.

But Lynn didn't know then that his team was about to go belly-up. That wasn't why he had been crying.

Two weeks before the Chicago bouts, on May 5, Condors middleweight fighter Jeremy Williams, a mentor, friend and training partner for the better part of a decade to some teammates, pulled his car over to the side of Pacific Island Drive, just blocks from his parents' picturesque hilltop home in Laguna Niguel, and shot himself. The 27-year-old Williams, nicknamed "Spider" because of his ability to capture opponents in submission holds with his long limbs, was the owner of Apex Jiu-Jitsu in Lake Forest.

That night at the Sears Centre Arena, Williams' parents, Richard and Susan, sat ringside. "It's just good to be where Jeremy would have been," Susan said in an interview for the TV broadcast.

*     *     *

The opening bell rang. Lynn, wiry and covered in tattoos, was expressionless.

Williams and Lynn had been friends since 1998, when Lynn was stationed at Camp Pendleton and both of them trained with professional fighter Chris Brennan.

The 5-foot-9, 155-pound fighter seemed completely focused, oblivious to the pressure of fighting in front of TV cameras and a live audience of more than 5,000 people. Lynn picked the San Jose Razorclaws' Josh Odom apart, using any opening to pummel him. It was like therapy for Lynn, the smallest member of the Condors.

Odom took a heap of punishment and barely escaped a submission move. He lasted just long enough to lose by a unanimous decision.

Not everyone on the team was able to channel his emotions like Lynn. Alternate Justin Levens, who fought in Williams' place, couldn't complete a prefight interview.

"Jeremy was a great guy," Levens said. Then he froze. His eyes welled up, and he lowered his head. Under his breath, he said, "I can't fucking do this."

Levens was beaten badly in the first round by Brian Foster. Afterward, a television interviewer tried to speak to Levens again. He broke into tears and dodged the camera.

Looking back, assistant coach Debi Purcell, a pioneer of women's MMA who was born and raised in Huntington Beach, says fighting so soon after the tragedy might have been a mistake.

"I mean, come on, we had no business being in the ring," she says. "I knew exactly what was going to happen. I knew exactly, every fight in our last showing, who was going to win. If I could go back and say, 'You guys shouldn't fight,' I would have done that."

Next to fight after Levens was Marco Ruas, the Condors' head coach and, at 46, an MMA legend and a former UFC champion. It was his first fight in seven years. Although he retired years before to become a trainer and coach, he signed a fight contract with the IFL as a publicity boost for the Condors.

Lynn says Ruas was one of the most visibly distraught by the news of Williams' death.

"It devastated all of us, but Marco—he's a teddy bear inside that big huge Brazilian body, and it devastated him," he says. "He was having a hard time functioning."

Ruas (pronounced "hoo-as"), who has a thick accent and sometimes has to search for the right English words, occasionally gestures and acts with facial expressions what he's trying to communicate. Although he began training Williams in his garage several years ago, their roles were reversed leading up to the Chicago fight. Ruas' last memories of Williams are of his helping to motivate Ruas to train and prepare for his big comeback fight.

In the comeback bout, Ruas seemed to be in visibly better shape than his opponent, 45-year-old and fellow former UFC champion Maurice Smith. However, after controlling Smith for the first three rounds, Ruas became completely exhausted, unable to even lift his hands to defend himself. As he lay on his back, too tired to even get to his feet, his corner threw in the towel.

 

*     *     *

In late 2006, when Ruas was forming the Condors, he approached Williams about joining the team. Williams had quit fighting four years before to be a coach. "I told him, 'You're young; coaching is for old guys like me. You should fight,'" Ruas says.

In his first two fights of the season, Williams defeated his opponents by forcing them to submit in less than two minutes with a triangle choke.

"I was very proud that I asked him to join the team," Ruas says, "because Jeremy was able to show his potential to the world."

At Williams' memorial service in May 2007, an estimated 2,000 people crowded into the Coast Hills Community Church in Aliso Viejo. Apex Jiu-Jitsu had grown to more than 140 students in the two years since Williams opened it, Richard Williams says. But Williams' father was still surprised by the turnout, expecting friends, students and relatives to number only around 350 people.

Nearly one year later, Richard and Susan sit in their hilltop home in Laguna Niguel. The house has floor-to-ceiling windows, with an expansive view of the foothills all the way to the ocean. Susan points to a buoy in the distance. "That's where we scattered Jeremy's ashes," she says.

Richard pulls back his sleeve to reveal muscled forearms and a tattoo that says, "In Loving Memory of Jeremy Williams" with the Apex logo, an orange upside-down triangle.

Susan laughs and says he got the tattoo, his first, on his 60th birthday. With blond hair and a tan, she looks like a quintessential California mom. She says their other son, Jacob, 20 months older than Jeremy, looks more like her. Jeremy took after his father.

Susan is in good spirits, saying she feels like she has been floating on air since seeing Williams' daughters, Brooklyn, 3, and Jacklyn, 9 months, a few days earlier. Williams' wife, Lauren, was six months pregnant when he died. (Lauren, 23, was unavailable for comment for this story.)

Later, Susan reveals why it was such a big deal to visit her granddaughters: It was the first time she'd seen them since Williams' death.

Susan says she and Lauren had a very close relationship, talking almost every day before Williams died, but the two had a falling out shortly after Williams' death. Williams had moved into his parents' house two weeks before he died because of marital issues, and his wife, Lauren, became a target of blame.

But Susan recently met with Lauren after almost a year, hoping to re-establish their relationship. "I just really want to focus on healing now," Susan says. "We want Brooklyn and Jacklyn to have only positive things in their life because they're trying to live without Jeremy."

*     *     *

"After his passing, we started learning more positive things about our son than we knew," Richard says.

"Of course, we knew how awesome he was and how loving he was with us," Susan adds, "but he was very humble, and he never bragged about things he did for people."

One story told to Richard took place at a fight in a small venue in Los Angeles. Williams, coaching one of his female fighters, forgot the hitting pads in his vehicle. When he ran out to get them, the 6-foot-2 Williams startled a homeless man outside the building.

"The guy looked scared, and Jeremy tells him, 'It's okay; nobody's going to hurt you.' Then he says, 'Hold on—just wait right here,'" Richard recounts. "He ran to the car, got what he needed, came back and stopped. Nobody knows how much, but the person who told me the story was with Jeremy. They said it was probably around $100. He stuffed all of the money in the guy's hands, and he held his hands, and he wouldn't let go until the guy promised he would go get some food and a place to stay.

"And he made the guy promise he wouldn't get booze or drugs. Jeremy just stood there, holding the guy's hands, until finally the guy said, 'Okay,' and Jeremy said, 'Okay,' and he ran back in."

Williams, who became very religious about six years before he died, had a reputation for his small acts of kindness, Richard says.

In another story he was told, Williams, with a group of fighters, arrived at a restaurant drive-through at the exact same time as another vehicle. "I thought, 'Oh, no, this is the story that ends in a fight,'" Richard says with a laugh.

But instead of a fight, the two drivers tried to wave the other to go first, Richard continues. When the other car wouldn't budge, Williams finally went, rolled down his window and thanked the other driver.

 

"When the car behind him got to the window, they said, 'How much?' And the person at the window said, 'The guy in front of you already took care of it,'" Richard says.

On another occasion, when a group of fighters at his gym didn't have the money to take a trip to Mexico to fight, Williams drove them there; paid for the gas, hotel, dinner and entry fees; and when the fighters tried to pay him back with their winnings, Williams said, "No, that's your money, you won it," Richard recounts.

"It's just so heart-filling to hear about how generous he was," he says. "We're still hearing stories."

For nearly nine months, Susan says, she was in shock. She attributes the recurrence of her breast cancer to the stress from her son's death. (On April 22, Susan underwent surgery after her fourth diagnosis.) A year later, she's encouraged by the news that older son Jacob has a new baby boy on the way. She says it's a sign from Williams.

"We're keeping our eyes open for signs that we know Jeremy's up there wanting us to live again and to be happy, and we're trying," she says. "We have our really bad days; I think about him every hour of every day, but it's not always sad thoughts. We can laugh about things that he did now, and it feels so good to laugh."

*     *     *

After Williams' suicide, his parents were confronted with questions and rumors. People asked if it was because of Williams' marriage. Was he on drugs or steroids? Was it the pressure of fighting? Was he working too hard at his gym? Was he depressed?

"The truth is, for us, for several months afterward, that's what we got bombarded with a lot," Richard says. "I understand people want to know, but nobody has those answers.

"We know in our hearts it was a split-second decision," he continues. "For whatever reason, at that time and that place, there was something in his head that was bothering him, and he just couldn't get it out. Everybody wonders why, and to be honest with you, our answers will just be speculation."

One thing they want to make absolutely clear is that Williams was not on drugs, not on steroids, which was proven by the coroner's report, Susan says. (The OC sheriff-coroner's office confirms this to the Weekly.)

Since the 6-foot-2, 185-pound Williams was a professional fighter, steroid rumors are among the first to surface. "Jeremy didn't do steroids; he was against steroids," Richard says. "You could look at how lean he was; you don't look like that when you're on steroids."

Susan says she doesn't think her son's fighting in the IFL contributed to his death, either.

"I was always against [his fighting]. I never liked it when he fought because it just seemed like such a violent sport," she says. "But for the first time, I knew it was right. We knew it was going to be good for his school."

Richard wonders whether he could have done something to change things.

"[Suicide is] the worst way you can lose somebody. There's nothing worse," he says. "It almost would have been easier if your child were involved in an accident. But under these circumstances, you wonder, 'Could I have changed things if I would have said something, if I would have done something?'"

"When [Williams] left [that morning], he said, 'Hey, I'm going to go train Marco [Ruas]'—because Marco was doing his superfight. And me, then, I second-guess, and think I should have said, 'Let me go with you; I'll go watch the training.' You start second-guessing yourself, and it will drive you up a wall," he says.

*     *     *

Almost a year after Williams' death, Adam Lynn sits on a sunny Aliso Viejo café patio with Chris "Dino" Dinicola, one of Williams' best friends since grade school.

Dinicola has a five-o'-clock shadow, a black pompadour, sleeve tattoos and sunglasses. "With [the one-year anniversary of Williams' death] coming up, you know, everything starts to come back. This whole year has been like a fucking roller coaster," he says.

Lynn, his head shaved bald and dark shades covering his eyes, leans back in his chair. He recalls his emotions on that May night in Chicago. Fighting two weeks after his friend's death wasn't his choice. The team had a contract, he says, but Williams would have wanted him to give his best.

"That night, I'd never been more on for a fight," he says. "I don't want to say [Williams] was channeling through me, but that's what it felt like. You could have put 10 guys in there, and I would have beat every one of them. Especially with Jeremy's parents sitting in the front row."

 

Chris Dinicola taps his finger heavily, nervously, on the café's steel table. "All [Williams] cared about was if the people around him were happy. If I was going through a hard time, the guy would, seriously, at 1 in the morning, leave his house and come hang out. Keep in mind he would have to do a private lesson at 5 the same morning," he says. "The guy was just unreal—his work ethic, his whole theory on life was really good.

"When you hear that classic line—'Oh, that's the last person I would expect would do that'—well, [Williams] was the last person I would expect to ever do that," Dinicola continues.

"He was always the type of guy who was like, 'Don't worry about me, man; I'm more worried about how you're doing.'"

Dinicola says a lot of people really resented Williams for taking his life, an act that was seen as selfish by some who cared for him. "Every one of us felt angry," he says. "For some of us, it's still like that."

Most of Williams' best friends were aware of the problems he was having in his marriage, Dinicola says, but thought of him as too stable of a person to worry about Williams hurting himself. "I talked to the guy, like, three days before," he says. "I knew he was going through a hard time. It was just one of those things—I don't know."

Lynn says Williams should have opened up to his friends instead of trying to be everyone's role model. "It never seemed he let his guard down too much with the guys. He really saw himself as a mentor and as a coach," he says. "I really wish that he would have come to one of us, anybody, and just talked it through—a lot. Not just once or twice, but really talked it through. At the drop of the hat, there would have been a thousand people who would have helped that guy. To me, that's not fair—that's not fair at all."

Dinicola and Lynn—along with Russ Miura and Rick Estrada—co-own the Subfighter gym in Lake Forest. The four were coaches at Apex and decided to start their own gym after Williams' suicide and the subsequent closure of his gym. Subfighter is dedicated to carrying on Williams' memory and philosophy, they say.

"Jeremy created a community that was Apex, and it was kind of our duty as some of the top guys to just carry on," Lynn says. "The first time we had a meeting, probably two days after he passed, everybody wanted to still train together. Everybody still wanted to be together in some way.

"What we have now is different. What Jeremy had will always be special, but it will never be the same," he adds.

Losing his best friend made him more aware of how fragile life can be, Dinicola says. "For me, now, I really value my friends," he says. "Something major like this happens, and it puts things in perspective. You value your life a little bit more; you value your friends a little bit more. If someone's going through a hard time, it's like . . . what if?"

dolson@ocweekly.com


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