Hector Echavarria is a former world-champion kickboxer who as a teen cut his teeth on street fights, sent opponents to the hospital and dodged death several times over. He's a star in Latin America for both his athletic prowess and entertainment credits, from roles in movies and television series to a comic book, and his very own action figure.
But on a recent morning in Los Angeles, he was tucked into a restaurant booth sporting cowboy boots, a crisp button-down, and carefully combed-back hair. He looked more like a mogul than a gladiator.
"This is like the last meal we'll ever have," he joked as we beheld our plates, laden with buffet breakfasts.
Known as the "Hispanic Tyler Perry" for his myriad endeavors, the Argentina native embraces being both artist and warrior, forging new ground on each front with the same confidence that brought him big wins on the mat. His latest film Chavez: Cage of Glory, which he wrote, directed and starred in, began a multi-city roll-out in Los Angeles September 13, and is poised to expose a bigger audience to his particular brand of drama, where morality has zero shades of gray. People are good, or people are bad. And the idea of doing bad as a means to an end, he said, is "insane."
With his new project, Echavarria set out "to tell a different story. I said, 'I'm going to write something show people that if you behave right, there is no gray area. Stop bullshitting yourself and do the right thing.'"
"To me, that's a hero," he said. "That's the heart of the movie."
Chavez is the story of a good man faced with bad things baiting him at every turn. Echavarria stars as Hector "The Mexican" Chavez, a mixed martial artist trying to support his wife, Gia (played by Sadie Katz) and their ailing son, Martin (Liam Finegan-Smith). As he strives to be a breadwinner with small-time bar brawls, movie-Hector is shouldering myriad pressures: money's tight, the local gang wants allegiance, and the promoters of his big, upcoming fight drag his name through the mud.
The film is just Echavarria's latest endeavor in a ever-growing list of credits, but it's perhaps his biggest so far in the United States. Born in Corrientes -- an Argentine border town known for fighting greats like Carlos Monzón -- as a child he suffered from severe asthma, and needed round-the-clock medical care. At age four, in a Karate Kid twist of fate, his Chinese acupuncturist offered to teach him martial arts -- soon, Echavarria went from sickly to Superman.
In Hollywood, Echavarria's first big break was in Michael Mann's iconic series Miami Vice after accidentally walking into the show's publicity office -- Mann happened to be a big fan of the young fighter. Just 19 years old when he arrived on set, meeting the director, Echavarria said, was no big deal.
"I would get invited [on TV] a lot, I was the youngest kickboxing champion, I'm fighting in front of 7,000 people ... screaming your name," he said. "So I remember that first day I met Michael Mann, he couldn't believe I was there. And I thought, 'Yeah, that's how he should be.'"
From Ecahavarria, such observations feel less like hubris than matter of fact. As a 13-year-old, while in jail for one of his skirmishes in Corrientes, the cop who booked him encouraged him to apply his tough-guy skills to healthier (and legal) endeavors. Echavarria announced he would host a martial arts exhibition and when the event arrived, he said, more than 5,000 people showed up to watch.
That vision is still going strong. In December, he'll host Hector Echavarria's World Martial Arts Championship and Expo at Luna Park in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Behind the scenes, through the amatuer-driven organization Total Fighting Alliance (TFA), he is supporting an effort to get MMA in the Olympics. And on the creative side, he has a five-picture deal to write, direct, produce, and distribute films through his own shingle, Destiny Entertainment.
Despite some stressful moments with Chavez -- including losing one of the film's stars for a week and writing a new character on the fly -- Echavarria is ready to do it all over again. His next film, Los Muertos, will focus on a fictional group of elite Latino soldiers, with a plot designed to both play on and subvert cultural stereotypes. "The first few years I went to castings, I always read for the drug dealer. I'd say, 'Can I be the sidekick?' And they were like, 'Absolutely no.'
"Sometimes [directors] would want me to exaggerate my accent like this," he added, in a familiar, TV-Latino accent, with long vowels. "I'm not even Mexican!"
Still, obstacles abound. Not all of Echavarria's work has been well-received among nascent MMA media, which can offer verbal beat-downs as brutal as those in the cage. In a genre known for cauliflower ears, broken limbs, and blood spatter, feel-good action films can be a tough sell. And despite years starring in the famous Argentine series Brigada Cola and a previous set of Lionsgate releases on Blu-Ray and DVD, there's still a formidable road ahead to domestic domination.
Don't call it a KO just yet. "If you know you're going to be a champion, in your mind you're a champion," Echavarria said. "So to me, it's not a transition" from fame in Latin America to success in the U.S. Audiences are "just not aware of what I can do, or what I'm doing, but I am. And as far as I am, then [the rest will follow]."
So, far, Echavarria isn't plastering his name in five different places across his film posters, in Tyler Perry-esque fashion. But with his rapidly growing list of credits he couldn't be blamed if uber-saturation comes next: featuring Hector Echavarria, starring Hector Echavarria, and inspired by Hector Echavarria.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Twitter:
Follow Public Spectacle on Facebook