To call Gary Stretch a renaissance man would be an understatement. He’s been a professional boxer, retiring with a record of 29-1, worked as a model, and transitioned into acting, making appearances alongside Anthony Hopkins in 2004’s “Alexander” and Vinnie Jones in 2010’s “The Heavy”.
More recently, he’s made the leap to filmmaker, and his documentary “Through my Father’s Eyes” takes viewers on a sweeping journey through the life of one of MMA‘s greatest champions, Ronda Rousey. From a childbirth that she almost didn’t survive and the hardships and tragedies she overcame as a child to her career in the Olympics and the UFC, “Through My Father’s Eyes” is an emotional roller-coaster that MMA fans will surely want to watch closely.
Today, Gary sits down with us to share a peek at his career as a professional boxer, along with giving a behind-the-scenes look at the making of “Through My Father’s Eyes” and the real-time, seven-year journey to the film’s completion.
Hi Gary, thank you so much for your time today. Hope you’re going well?
Hi Brad, I’m doing great, thanks. Happy to speak with KFK today!
Fantastic! Just to get your first impressions, what do you think of the name Kung Fu Kingdom (KFK)?
I like it, it’s an optimistic name I would say.
We certainly aim for that! Now let’s kick this off with how you first got into boxing and martial arts; how old were you? As a former boxing champion yourself, have you also studied and trained in different combat arts?
Well, it was around when my parents divorced when I was a child, I started getting into fights with other kids a lot. I guess I was kind of screaming for attention. After one particular fight at school, the headmaster had my father put me into a local boxing gym. I was pretty stubborn about it at first, but after a while, I kind of found my own little identity learning to box in the gym. I was able to make a career out of boxing from there, and I retired 29-1. I also did Judo in my teens for three or four years, as well but boxing was always my main passion.
Do you still train? How does a typical training week go for you these days, what are some of your favourite exercises?
I do a lot of running, it’s good for clearing your mind, I find that’s one of the most satisfying exercises you can do. I’m not a big gym guy these days – there’s a local gym that I have a key to that I can go and hit the bag at, but I’ve always been a bit of a loner when it comes to gyms, weight rooms, that kind of thing.
So, who would you credit as having most influenced you in the martial arts and who would you consider your heroes or inspirational figures?
Mr. Freeman was a big one for me, he was an ex-pro and I first met him in the boxing gym. I think you have to be a great fighter to be a great a trainer, and he definitely was.
Interesting background. Moving ahead, how did the documentary “Through my Father’s Eyes”, which covers Ronda Rousey’s life story, come about? What attracted you to making a documentary about her and what was it like meeting Ronda for the first time?
I had actually been doing another film on professional fighters when I met Gene LeBell, who’s known Ronda since she was a little girl. She was just starting at the beginning of her MMA career and was about 22 or 23 years-old at the time, and he said to me, “After you interview me, can you teach Ronda some boxing?” So I helped Ronda with her boxing for a while, and I got to hear a lot from her about her life story, that she had a pretty rough childhood. She almost didn’t survive her birth, had a speech disorder, and didn’t even really speak until she was about eight. On top of that, her father had a terminal blood disease that was slowly killing him, and he took his own life when she was eight. So, I went to my friend Scott Conrad, who was the editor of “Rocky”, and I said, “You know, Scott, Ronda’s a real-life Rocky story”. This was back when the UFC wasn’t even entertaining having women compete, and I thought she made a very empowering figure for women fighters. So we began developing the film from there.
The thing that I really think stands out about Ronda’s story as we show it in the film is that it’s more than just about fighting, it’s about family, perseverance, and overcoming the odds. Ronda’s family were always really worried about her as a child, because of the circumstances of her birth, and that she didn’t speak until she was eight. But her father, before he died, used to tell her “Don’t worry about Ronda, she’s going to be an Olympic athlete someday”, and when he died, she had an incredible drive to prove him right. So, the fighting aspect is almost secondary in the film to Ronda having so much determination to prove her father right.
Indeed, Ronda’s drive is compelling. So, what was it like meeting Ronda’s trainer and fellow legend of MMA, Gokor ‘The Armenian Assassin’ Chivichyan, for the film?
Gokor’s an incredible fighter with a great work ethic instilling that in all of his students, and I really feel that that’s what made Ronda into the fighter that she is now. Gokor is one of the best grappling masters you could ever encounter, and you can see that reflected in Ronda’s fights; as soon as she got her opponent on the ground, that was the end of it.
Gokor certainly knows his stuff when it comes to grappling! On that note, Randy “The Natural” Couture also appears in the film. How did he become involved and what can you share about meeting him for the first time?
Well, we really wanted to interview a lot of people who were experienced and deep into the MMA world, so guys like Randy Couture and Big John McCarthy were perfect. He’s so well-versed and knowledgeable about MMA, and he was able to really use a lot of his own experiences to provide a good narrative supplement to Ronda’s story.
Indeed! So, what were a couple of memorable and interesting stories you can relate about making “Through My Father’s Eyes”?
Well, we made the film over the course of seven years, so it really opened my eyes to the world of MMA and made me a much bigger fan of the sport than I was. If you look at how the sport has evolved since the beginning, the fighters are better than ever before, but it’s still a young sport, so making the film gave me a kind of bird’s eye view of how it’s evolved, and where it’s going as far as what the fighters are bringing into the cage. And, of course, it was also great to get to meet so many of the great fighters in MMA while we were making the film, too.
No doubt! So, what other projects do you have in the pipeline following “Through my Father’s Eyes”?
Right now, I’m getting ready to direct a biopic of former World Welterweight Boxing Champion Carlos Palomino. Something a lot of people don’t know is that he was raised as a girl until he was eight years-old; his mother had experienced several miscarriages before he was born, and she took him to a church after he was born, and prayed to the Virgin Mary that she’d raise him in her likeness if she would keep him alive. It wasn’t until his uncle visited the family when he was eight that he found out he was a boy, so that’s a part of his life that it’ll be touching upon. I also have another movie about professional fighters called “Faith” that we’re finishing up.
Definitely looking forward to those! Speaking of which, what are some of Gary’s personal favourite martial arts or action movies?
Great choices all round! Well, as we get ready to wrap, what special message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers about the Ronda Rousey documentary, and what’s one piece of warrior wisdom or quote you’d like to share?
I hope that, by the end of the film, people feel as uplifted by Ronda’s story as we were when we made it. We screened in London recently and I had women come up to me and say it was a really moving experience for their daughters to see how Ronda climbed up – that’s the kind of experience I’m hoping the audience will have with it.
As far as words of wisdom, I remember meeting Muhammed Ali for the first time in 1988 and asking him what his secret to becoming such a great boxer was, and he said, “I run, and I run, and I run, and I run, and I never look back”. I think those words really exemplified his drive and his work ethic, and I think they’re good words to live by.
An elementary way to end for sure! Thanks so much for your time Gary. It’s been a pleasure to speak with you, good luck with “Through My Father’s Eyes”.
Thanks Brad, glad to share the story of making the film with Kung Fu Kingdom!
What are your impressions of “Through My Father’s Eyes” – are you excited to see it? Which other MMA fighters would you like to see a candid documentary about? Let us know in the comments below, join in the conversation, share this on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter & Instagram. (Want more? Then simply S-T-R-E-T-C-H a little and click to enter our FUniverse of interviews!)