The Cult of Lloyd Irvin
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.
Irvin can also be seen at Ultimate Fighting Championship events, where pros like Brandon Vera and bantamweight champion Dominic Cruz have turned to him to sharpen their grappling. In one post-fight moment that went viral, Irvin awarded Cruz a jiu-jitsu belt promotion immediately following a title defense.
"Team Lloyd Irvin has helped me out so much," Cruz told Fist-A-Cuff Radio in 2011. "They're doing big things in mixed martial arts."
Phil Davis, a top-ranked contender in the 205-pound division, once called Irvin "an honest to goodness ninja." In an increasingly lucrative sport, Irvin is singled out as one of the top go-to trainers to help prepare for war.
"The guy could not only whip my butt, but he was beating the shit out of guys fighting in the UFC," says Camacho, who made the trek to Maryland after watching Fowler dominate in a tournament.
Irvin's coaching talent creates a devout brotherhood. Competitors often throw up three fingers after winning bouts in an "LI" formation; others get tattoos of the school's logo, a bulldog in military fatigues. Some wear "three-percenter" signs on the podium. According to Irvin's philosophy, it means being part of the elite: the remaining 97 percent are those who fail in competition, in business and in life.
The school's aggressive sales force welcomes everyone from 4-year-olds to casual enthusiasts paying $199 a month or more, but Irvin's focus is reserved for the competition team and the attention it brings. Training is arduous: two or three times a day, with tryouts that can last four to five hours and involve vomit, dehydration or liability waivers.
In a sport that demands a callused body, that's nothing unusual. But the closer a student got to Lloyd Irvin, the stronger the sensation that you were drowning.
"The people he had the most control over were females," says Jordon Schultz, a two-time world champion. "Any task at any time. They were extremely obedient."
Former student Miguel Escobar, who now works at a martial arts school for disadvantaged youth, saw female students shaving Irvin's face, clipping his fingernails and acquiescing to requests for massages. Ryan Hall, a black belt who left Irvin's in 2008 to start his own school, watched Irvin tickling, tackling or chasing them around.
Others were disturbed that he would share a hotel room with student Nyjah Easton while traveling, a habit witnessed by several of Irvin's students, including Schultz. (Easton did not respond to requests for comment.)
A woman didn't have to be enrolled in Irvin's school to catch his eye. Several students allege that Irvin made advances on wives or girlfriends, despite being married since 2003 to his wife, Vicki Irvin. Escobar recalls introducing Irvin to his girlfriend at a club, then leaving them to talk about a potential business opportunity. He looked back to see Irvin with his arm around her. She walked away, telling Escobar that Irvin had invited her to his hotel room.
"No disrespect, but were you hitting on my girlfriend?" Escobar asked him.
"Don't worry about her," he recalls Irvin saying. "She'll be all right."
Irvin's students felt a similar sense of sexual entitlement. One former girlfriend of Schultz, who asked not to be named, recalls that some of the men living in the fighter house asked him if she could "come around."
Knowing what that meant, he declined. According to Schultz and his ex-girlfriend, athletes would sometimes bring dates back to the fighter house, where weed or ecstasy would be passed around. So would the date. Pictures would be taken. It was, in the words of a source who asked to remain anonymous, "Vegas meets jiu-jitsu."
"These were just kids, 19, 20 years old," Escobar says. "You put them in certain situations and things will happen."
Some things were more serious than others. In 2008, one of Irvin's most promising pupils, De'Alonzio "DJ" Jackson, then 19, left Maryland to attend college in Iowa. According to police reports, Jackson invited a 16-year-old girl to the Double D bar for college night. When she and a friend picked him up, he gave her some Bacardi he produced from a backpack.
After spending some time in the Double D, they went outside to a car. The girl told police that Jackson penetrated her even as she repeatedly told him to stop.
The next morning, the 16-year-old awoke with a headache that she suspected might be drug-induced. She told her foster mother, who informed authorities. When questioned, Jackson denied giving her alcohol, drugs or forcing himself on her.
The day after the incident, police discovered he sent her a text: "I'm sorry I took ur virginity like that. Plz give me another chance."
Court records show the state of Iowa charged Jackson with third-degree sexual assault and supplying alcohol to a minor. He pleaded down to serious assault and received a suspended sentence resulting in fines and 60 days in jail, which he was allowed to serve in Maryland.
Jackson returned to Irvin's to work and train. A YouTube video from November 2012 shows him performing one of his jobs: driving a van and picking up children aged 4 and up — including young girls — for Irvin's after-school program.
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.
On October 7, 1989, Irvin and seven to nine other men congregated in an apartment at River Park Tower, where one of them had led an unidentified female attending nearby Hampton University to the bedroom. She claimed she was punched and slapped, according to The Daily Press in Hampton, Virginia, and heard one man muse how easy it would be to throw her off the balcony.
The men allegedly ripped out her tampon and took turns raping her. A physician who later examined her indicated she suffered from vaginal spasms, indicative of forced intercourse.
In the morning, she was allowed to shower and was driven back to her dorm. Three of the men were quickly rounded up by Newport News police, a number that would grow to eight as the investigation continued.
In the spring of 1990, a 20-year-old Irvin and co-defendant Terrence Gatling were the first to be tried for rape. Both pleaded not guilty.
Irvin's defense: though he wanted to participate in what he believed was consensual sex, he was unable to achieve an erection.
Because the jury believed that the woman couldn't positively identify him as one of the men who penetrated her, he was acquitted. A less fortunate Gatling was found guilty of forcible sodomy.
"I feel the girl was raped," one juror told the Press. "But the room where this happened was dark, and with all that was going on, it was unclear who was doing what."
The victim, 17 years old and 98 pounds, told her story in court three times over 15 months. Of the eight charged, four men were convicted and sent to prison; one received a suspended sentence; and two cases were dropped due to insufficient evidence. Irvin exited the courthouse a free man.
He returned to school and graduated in 1992 with a business administration degree. There was no firm career path. He was athletic, strong and enjoyed martial arts, but none of those things could be monetized in a culture glutted with instructors teaching dubious self-defense techniques. Most fighters made poor businessmen, and their doors were frequently shuttered.
After watching an early UFC event in which Royce Gracie used jiu-jitsu to subdue much larger men, Irvin became intrigued by grappling. He studied for six months at a Washington, D.C. school, then opened his own dojo.
Irvin's move coincided with the emergence of Billy Blanks' Tae Bo cardio kickboxing fad. Within three months, 500 enrollees at his school were looking for a Blanks-style experience. Irvin accommodated them, but watched as retention ebbed.
"I went from 500 to zero women because of no contracts," he told Internet marketer Daegan Smith in a 2012 podcast. "I got in financial trouble, two months behind on my mortgage and rent on the school."
Irvin told Smith he began seeking out self-help and business advice, though little to none of it was written expressly for the struggling martial arts instructor. Then he came across the teachings of Dan Kennedy, an evangelical marketing guru who offered advice to small businesses on recruiting and keeping customers. Irvin paid $3,000 for a front row seat at a Kennedy seminar and was rhapsodized.
On the verge of bankruptcy, he soaked in Kennedy's lessons on the kind of hyperbole needed to draw attention to himself. He offered 30 days of free classes to new attendees, appealed to soccer moms and organized after-school programs. Business improved, with the weekend warriors supplemented by serious grapplers who could secure his reputation as a potent teacher.
"I didn't have enough money to pay the rent," Irvin testified in a 2011 Kennedy endorsement video. "Life now after Dan's influence has been amazing ... I've gone on to generate millions and millions of dollars in these different businesses ... we've got a 12,000-square-foot facility now. We have eight guys fighting in the current UFC."
His salesmanship leaned toward hyperbole. At one real estate investment seminar — another avenue of business he once plied — Irvin was introduced as a "Man of Greatness" who once appeared on the cover of Fortune. The latter wasn't true. Though he later claimed he was "featured" in Forbes, it turned out to be nothing more than a paid advertisement.
Irvin has repeatedly cited Kennedy as an influence. Kennedy has made no secret about how his approach toward marketing and the skills of thought reform are intertwined.
"What business are you in?" Kennedy asks rhetorically in one of his newsletters. "CULTS."
In mid-2012, an instructor from out of state pulled Irvin aside at an event.
"I heard Nick Schultz is with you now," the instructor, who asked not to be identified, claims he told him. "You need to understand something. This kid will burn your school to the ground."
Irvin laughed it off. Had he listened to what his colleague had to say — that Schultz had a history of shoplifting, criminal trespass and erratic behavior — New Year's Day 2013 might have turned out differently.
Schultz, 20 and no relation to Jordon Schultz, had come to Irvin's school from San Diego, where his former instructor had booted him from his gym for theft. He had not broken the habit. "I observed him stealing on daily basis," Jordon Schultz says. "Small things, food items, DVDs. He was one of those guys."
Nick Schultz became friendly with fellow student Matthew "Matteo" Maldonado, who had been there only a month. On New Year's Day, an acquaintance of Maldonado's got a text. "Had a great time," he wrote. "Went out clubbing."
Earlier that morning, Schultz and Maldonado were in nearby Washington with a female student, Billie — not her real name — who had been at Irvin's roughly a year. According to a statement she later gave to police, all three were drinking. She said the two men then took her, inebriated and staggering, into a nearby church parking garage and raped her.
In their arrest warrant, investigators describe retrieving surveillance footage they alleged shows Maldonado holding up an inebriated Billie, then penetrating her from behind. After Maldonado departs, Schultz appears to force her into oral and vaginal sex. At various points, police asserted, she's dropped to the concrete, unable to support herself. Billie was left in the garage until a passerby heard her crying for help.
In an open letter that appeared on GracieMag.com, a jiu-jitsu news site, Irvin promised to see the victim through this difficult period and expressed disgust at the actions of his students, noting that both had only been there a short time.
Despite his statement, the martial arts media pounced on the story, charging Irvin with a corrosive environment that was likened to an island of misfit toys.
"Suddenly," Keenan's sister Chloe recalls, "it went from, 'Everyone makes mistakes' to, 'Lloyd is a monster.'"
Inundated by negative press relating to the New Year's Eve incident and the subsequent discovery of his own 1990 rape trial, Irvin took quick and — by his own admission — regrettable action. He purchased a URL, LloydIrvinRape.com, and used search engine optimization techniques so it would appear near the top of an Irvin-related web search, bumping his own rape-related clippings further down the page.
LloydIrvinRape.com advertised women's self-defense courses. "Lloyd Irvin's Martial Arts Academy is fully dedicated to empowering as many women as possible," read the copy. "Information is power and arming women with the ability to be smart, aware of their surroundings and defend against an attacker is top priority in the Ladies Kick Butt seminar and program."
Accompanying footage showed clips from a 2012 seminar, the women in attendance likely ignorant that the lead instructor was once on trial for sexual assault himself.
Irvin addressed the URL controversy after BloodyElbow.com reporter Brent Brookhouse exposed the sleight of hand. "The reason I purchased the URL was singular," Irvin wrote in the same open letter on GracieMag.com. "I didn't like the tone and tenor of things online but still felt I could not speak publicly about anything ... the execution and timing were awful."
Despite the mea culpa, he purchased at least one additional URL after his statement was released: LloydIrvinRape.us, which now directs visitors to a video by stand-up comedian Kat Williams on "haters."
Keenan's mother was horrified. She made another plea for her son to return home.
"Billie just got back from the salon and got highlights," she recalls Keenan saying. "She can't be that upset."
Last January, Irvin called an early morning meeting of his top male competitors. According to Camacho and Jordon Schultz, both present at the gathering, he wanted to clear the air regarding the negative publicity. Of the 1990 allegations, Irvin told them the victim had wanted it and claimed rape out of guilt. No one seemed to question why this seemingly consensual act had sent four men to prison.
"He told us she was down for it," Schultz recalls. "And that the next day, her boyfriend had found out and then she went to police."
Irvin also told students he was helping pay the legal bills for Nick Schultz and Maldonado, who — like most in his circle — had little financial means of their own.
"Most of the guys didn't seem to care," says Camacho. "You just want to go train. That was all we wanted. To train."
But the atmosphere of the school had changed. Every day seemed to bring more negative attention. Team Lloyd Irvin was quickly becoming a scarlet letter in martial arts circles.
"As a team, we were hated on," Camacho says. "It was over the top even before all of this. People making fun of us at tourneys, throwing up the hand sign. Meanwhile, we're wrecking and winning titles. But when that stuff happened, it was hate times one hundred."
Uncomfortable and fearing any continued association with Irvin would have a negative impact on their careers, several Medal Chasers and other students decided to leave at night rather than navigate Irvin's expected protests. Brookhouse, who tried in vain to get Irvin to comment, soon became a target of his ire.
"I reached out to him and he said the 1989 rape was old news, that it shouldn't be made public," Brookhouse recalls. Irvin later wrote on Facebook that he might "put an investigator" on Brookhouse for his reporting, which Irvin dubbed "harassment."
Matters were made worse when a YouTube resurfaced that depicted Irvin driving away from a Mercedes dealership and brandishing stacks of money. Memorabilia from the movie Scarface is shown; so is a mural depicting Irvin in his fraternity colors of purple and gold, two men bowing to him on either side.
But off-camera, Irvin's financial state wasn't so bountiful. He and his wife have been jointly hit with three separate IRS liens in 2011 and 2013 totaling $1,563,276. All remain outstanding as interest continues to accrue.
Billie returned to the school after the New Year's incident, feeling that Irvin supported her. But once she discovered that he was paying for her alleged attackers' legal bills, she left, according to friends.
Schultz and Maldonado finally went to trial in October. But the surveillance video was blurry. Despite viewing the footage more than 100 times, jurors couldn't say beyond a reasonable doubt that the three intoxicated students were involved in forcible sex. Schultz and Maldonado were found not guilty.
Irvin declined to be interviewed for this story. "A wise man once told me, 'Don't waste your time with explanations,'" he wrote in response to an interview request. "'People will hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe.'" He claimed a "lynch mob" had formed and that former student Ryan Hall, who has been outspoken about Irvin's practices, was "guiding the story."
In his open letter, however, Irvin addressed the night in River Park. "The facts are the facts and glossing over the fact that I did NOT rape nor have sex with ANYONE involved in the 1989 incident cannot and should not be brushed under the carpet ... I am 100% against rape, attempted rape or any other form of violence against women. I don't support it, don't condone it and don't enable an environment that would ever have anything to do with it."
On one message board, Maryland instructor Phil Proctor questioned the motives of the woman who brought the 1989 rape charges: "It sounds like a 'train was run' on a dirty whore that got to feeling guilty," he wrote. Proctor did not respond to interview requests.
Several former students and associates of Irvin's contacted for this story also declined comment, citing fear of retaliation by Irvin in the form of character attacks or the potential for confrontations during jiu-jitsu tournaments, where Irvin remains a presence.
Others believe men like Hall have ulterior motives for criticizing their former instructor. "I've never seen Irvin do or say anything bad," says Ken McCarthy, a marketing consultant endorsed by Kennedy. "I just saw a really hard working, focused guy taking care of business. The people speaking against him also run schools. There's incentive. Those [exiting] students are worth money."
UFC bantamweight champion Dominic Cruz and Brandon Vera have cut ties with Irvin. Irvin also disbanded his affiliate program, which allowed schools to use Irvin's reputation to bolster enrollment. In return, winning students would be considered "Team Lloyd Irvin" branded athletes, a label that now appears unwelcome.
Disappointed his family's art was being dragged into the negative press, Rener Gracie released a YouTube video condemning schools that prioritize the win-at-all-costs mentality. "There's no regulating body for running an academy," he says. "The risk is, you take someone with a rough upbringing without education or values or influence and teach them jiu-jitsu.
"Once they make it, they'll feel like they have the right to abuse those below them."
Irvin's school remains open for business in Camp Springs, with plans to add a women's only fitness training center in the near future.
His website summarizes the academy's philosophy for young enrollees. Under the watchful eye of Lloyd Irvin, parents are assured of one thing: "Morals are number one."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.
- That's It Then: The Cowboys 2015 Season Gets Put Out of Its Misery
Fri., Dec. 4, 7:30pm
Fri., Dec. 4, 8:00pm
Sat., Dec. 5, 12:00am
Sat., Dec. 5, 12:30pm
- The Cowboys' 5 Biggest Thanksgiving Turkeys
- Live From London: Your Holiday Weekend Weather Apocaforecast