By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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 airports 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 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 persuade him to stay, that he'd be crazy to leave.
But interviews with more than two dozen former students, employees, and associates of Irvin paint a different picture. 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 among them.
Keenan's family wanted him out. They believed the school's atmosphere was toxic and 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, students intoxicated by the ability to outwit someone in a human chess match.
Though a few graduate to the bigger purses of mixed martial arts, most ply their craft in jiu-jitsu meets across America, where top grapplers can expect a few thousand dollars for a main event. They aspire to open their own schools or charge for seminars, so they seek out instructors renowned for their ability to prepare athletes for competition.
Instructors like Lloyd Irvin.
Irvin, 44, his bald pate often shiny with 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 6-foot-3, his face rarely wearing anything but a stern expression, it can be hard to capture his attention. Irvin cuts an intimidating figure. "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 select few instructors.
Because of the results, few minded the formalities. Irvin has manufactured dozens of top-notch competitors who compete in events all over the world. The elite are dubbed his "Medal Chasers" for their propensity to stand on top of a riser, necks weighed down by championships.