How Andrew "the Fighting Philanthropist" McGregor founded the Los Angeles Chessboxing Club is "kind of this magical story," he says.
In 2009, the photojournalist/filmmaker emailed heavyweight champ George Foreman, asking for advice on boxing.
"[Foreman] told me, 'Give it all you got. If I can do it, so can you.' He wrote me three paragraphs about how to become a boxer," McGregor recalls. "And I literally did what he told me to do." Within a year, the L.A. Chessboxing Club was on its way to becoming a "fucking force of philanthropy," in the words of its founder.
In the sport, imported from Berlin, opponents engage in three minutes of chess followed by three minutes of boxing, with a half-dozen rounds until someone wins by checkmate or knockout. It's the perfect sport for anyone who's ever sat through a game of chess wishing he could punch his opponent in the face for a good cause: Proceeds go to the charity of the winner's choice.
The Colorado-born McGregor, 34, says chessboxing helped him cope after he returned from the Congo, where he taught journalism to refugees. The work was part of the Tiziano Project, which he founded in 2007 to help people in conflict-heavy regions tell their stories.
"I was around atrocity and constant savagery," he says. He's co-authoring a book with photographer Jean Luc Dushime, whom he mentored in the Congo, about Dushime's experience surviving two genocides. "I came back to L.A. and was like, 'Fuck it, I'm gonna chessbox.'?"
He says, "Through the course of boxing, I was able to feel again. It's a bit extreme, but I remember this guy hit me in the ribs and I felt pain again."
At 6 feet 10 inches and 290 pounds, it's difficult to imagine anyone capable of hurting McGregor (or locating his ribs). He barely fits into his small, beachside apartment in Santa Monica.
The apartment holds a small gallery of oil paintings by Chantelle Dinkel. In one, McGregor is dressed as a gorilla with a bowtie; in another, he's Alice in Wonderland. He owns both ensembles, which he wears to both black-tie events and the occasional flesh-hook suspension ceremony.
His trademark, though, is a crown. Ever since a haberdasher insisted on making one for McGregor, he has become addicted to receiving curtsies by the produce aisle. He owns 17 handmade man-tiaras, sent to him by artists all over the world. "The crowns all mean something from the artists, which I dig," he says.
McGregor is a distinctly 21st-century kind of Renaissance man: He's been around the world freelancing as a photojournalist for wire services, spreading the gospel of social justice at TEDx Talks and wearing neon Spandex on behalf of his comic book company, Graphation. Recently he teamed with Wu Tang's chess prodigy, Rza, to translate chessboxing into chess jujitsu, which could supplement the curriculum of public schools with low graduation rates, especially in South Central.
He also has taken on the problem of landmines, arguing that, instead of dogs and humans, these deadly devices could be detected by robots and rats who are too light to set them off.
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In classic McGregor fashion, he's made a short film to sell the idea. "Where the Robot Things Are" is a love story between a rat and Piper, the robot; he insists it "is not a romantic comedy."
This fall, Palisades Charter High School's advanced robotics class will be working on building a multipurpose humanitarian robot developed by McGregor's company, Symbiobotics.
"My solution is to start companies that fund charity work," he says. "Kind of like an extreme Richard Branson."