By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Keenan Cornelius had been at Irvin's for only a short time before he reported back to his parents. "Some people say you can get brainwashed here," his mother recalls him saying. "But not me." (Keenan declined comment for this story.)
Just 19, he was intelligent and analytical but had dismissed notions of college. Jiu-jitsu was all he wanted to do. A friend had raved about Irvin and his curriculum. Maryland seemed like the place to be: no distractions, just hard training.
"He explained he could live there for free, and that this man will pay for him to compete," Kathleen recalls. "It sounded weird to me, but I didn't want to cause a fracture in our relationship. In the end, we let him go."
Shortly, Keenan's phone calls grew less frequent. He began ignoring their emails, telling his mother that he suspected Irvin or his subordinates were monitoring his Facebook account.
"We're a close family," Kathleen says. "The conversations we used to have just stopped. He became private. He started changing."
When he did come home, his attitude was dour. His sister Chloe recalls him abruptly demanding she prepare him food.
"It's a feminist household," Kathleen says. "That was just bizarre."
Stories began to orbit Keenan's family. His stepfather, Tom Callos, is also an instructor and knew people in the business. Irvin's was a cult-like atmosphere, some warned him. It was isolating, restrictive, manipulative.
The family made overtures to Keenan about coming home, which only drove him further away. "I can't win if I'm not here," they recall him saying. "All my friends are here." He would repeat both like a mantra.
Irvin had good reason to keep Keenan in the fold. He was the school's latest star, courted for tournament appearances and valuable to Irvin's reputation as a trainer. He had won jiu-jitsu's Grand Slam, earning two gold medals at each of the sport's four major tournaments.
By the time Keenan had arrived in 2011, Irvin's fighter house, dubbed "the Jungle," was in full swing. "Little Mexico," the basement, was reserved for new recruits. Keenan and others were on the first floor, dubbed "The Suburbs." It was a glorified dormitory for martial artists. With paid rent and travel, some likened it to being on scholarship.
"Everything in the house and everything we did was to win," says Camacho. "Go downstairs and you see someone watching jiu-jitsu videos. Upstairs, someone is drilling in the middle of the floor. There were holes in the wall from tackling people."
Many worked long shifts at the school for low pay — as little as $4 an hour plus free training. If you weren't a top-shelf athlete, it wasn't uncommon for four or more students to share a two-bedroom apartment. The best got free board subsidized by Irvin's primary income: consulting for other martial arts businesses, which could net him upwards of $57,000 a head per year, the fee quoted in his "MMA Millionaires" application packet.
But according to some, Irvin's podium-ready charisma held a darker side. "He sought out and spent lots of money to improve his skill-set at persuasion," says Schultz. "He knew he'd have more power that way."
Schultz recalls Irvin attending a seminar for neural linguistic programming, techniques which can be used to manipulate the mind. One business associate who saw Irvin interact with students described them as "robots," blank-faced and relaxing their posture only after he had left the room.
Over and over again, Irvin pushed the idea that students were "Androids" who should do whatever the "Programmer" tells them without critical thinking.
An Android does what they're told without hesitation, Irvin would say. If you want to be a world champion, you have to let the Programmer program you.
"It was really a toe in the water to obey any command given," says Hall. "That started to become a point of contention with us. I wasn't compliant. I didn't buy into it. Others did."
According to Fowler, Hall and others, Irvin would rouse students out of bed at any hour, demanding they run errands – anything from 3 a.m. calls for cheeseburgers to raking leaves or picking up dog waste at his home.
"It was about calling me at 1 a.m. saying that he needed some video," Camacho says. "Or that someone is coming in from airport, and you'd pick him up at 3 a.m. No questions asked. We were in Lloyd Irvin's world."
"There was a lot of control," adds Shultz. "Some people trying out for the team would pass out. It was kind of an initiation, like hazing. Looking back, I think he was trying to relive his fraternity days in the school. He wanted absolute obedience."
Lloyd Emory Irvin Jr. was born in 1969 to Rosalee and Lloyd Irvin Sr. Dubbed "hyperactive" by doctors, he claimed in a 2006 interview that medication was suggested. Instead, his parents enrolled him in martial arts classes. He was boxing by 8 and took up wrestling in junior high before attending Bowie State University in Maryland. There, he pledged to the "Que Dogs," an unofficial offshoot of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity and one that prized hyper-masculine behavior. Irvin's Facebook page recently showed the Dogs in a reunion, throwing up "hooks," the group's signature gesture.