At a rock-hard 185 pounds, there’s nothing Joe Henle likes more than grabbing hold of your throat and choking you until you gasp for breath.
For the Thousand Oaks resident and professional mixed martial arts fighter, earning a name for himself in the rough and tumble world of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) reality TV series, submitting people is not only fun; it’s almost an art form.
“I enjoy choking people. I know that sounds horrible, but I love to choke people,” says Henle. “I can choke people in so many different ways. It’s a fun thing to make people feel helpless in a safe environment.”
Savage, yes, but Henle is equally poignant, affable and educated. He is one of 14 MMA fighters starring in season 11 of TUF. TUF pits the most intriguing and promising MMA fighters against one another during a six-week filming in Las Vegas where the fighters live with one another, secluded from the real world.
“No phones, no books, no magazines, no Internet,” says Henle, 26, who fights under the moniker of Leonidas. “You couldn’t leave the house unless you’re going to the van to go train.”
And so they trained. They quarreled. They ripped into each other with fists, knees and feet. They bloodied one another’s faces and flung each other across the caged octagon with hopes of being crowned the next Ultimate Fighter and signed to a six-figure contract.
It has been a fortunate but grueling road for Henle. He has brawled his way from unlicensed Indian reservation cage fights to the limelight of primetime network television.
Though Henle lost his fight during episode 7 and likely won’t be fighting in the season finale on June 19, the exposure has given the former Conejo Valley Unified School District substitute teacher newfound notoriety, and the drive to begin a new career as a fighter.
“Being on the show puts a target on your back. Everybody wants to beat you,” said Henle. “Even when you’re sparring, people are trying to knock you out. But I want to make this a living. I want to fight until I am 35 or 40.”
What gives Henle an edge in promoting and propelling his career is his education. Henle holds an MBA in Financial Planning from California Lutheran University. And though he had only three professional fights under his belt when he was accepted on TUF, his knowledge of business has proven invaluable to the acceleration of his career.
“The thing about some fighters, is they don’t realize how much of a business it is. Fighting is a business,” says Henle. “I know guys who are really jealous right now that I am on the show. They’ve been fighting for over three years, fought this many fights, done this and done that, but they’re not getting the opportunities I’m getting. But I see the things they do outside the gym, and I’m like, ‘you’re not treating it to get to the next level.’ ”
Adds Henle, “A lot of guys don’t understand. They don’t have the education to understand how you treat and approach things. They don’t understand how you need to interact with everyone.”
Most importantly, Henle knows how to maintain positive interactions within his community, which ultimately leads to a larger fan base. Since the premiere of TUF season 11 in early May, Henle and JJ Brewsky’s Restaurant and Bar in Camarillo have been hosting viewing parties. Each week, Henle sits with his fans, comments on the show, signs autographs and gives out souvenirs.
“He’s a great guy and very approachable,” says Brian Donnly, owner of JJ Brewsky’s. “It was a lot of fun. A lot of people came in to support him.”
Regardless of his will to fight and submit his opponents breathless, Henle’s reputation as a ‘nice guy’ carried over during the filming of TUF.
“I get that from a lot of people and I got that in the house, that I was too nice. Not a lot of people had ever seen me angry. They were telling me ‘Joe, you are too nice,’” says Henle, and then pointing to his coarse beard and long hair, “They called me Jesus the whole time I was there.”
The road to primetime began when Henle was “bored.” In 2006, with his college football career over and master’s degree completed, he casually walked into a jiu jitsu gym. Because of his then 6-foot-2-inch, 265-pound frame, a couple of fighters asked him to spar. It happened to be legendary MMA fighters Karo Parisyan and Lodune Sincaid.
Henle left the gym with a black eye and scratches along his face.
“I had so much fun,”he recalls.
For the next three years, Henle trained sparsely, cutting weight, taking occasional amateur fights and coaching high school football and wrestling at Thousand Oaks High School. Then one day he got the call to fight his first professional bout on a day’s notice.
“It was totally shady. On an Indian reservation. No medicals, no licenses, but a place to fight. I was amped. To me that was the jump-off point,” says Henle. “I took the fight and choked him out in a minute and a half.”
For his next two professional fights, Henle dropped from 205 pounds to 185, and was victorious each time — but the decision to cut weight would prove fateful to his career. While training for an upcoming fight, TUF announced that tryouts were being held in Los Angeles for middleweight fighters.
The tryouts began with grappling for two minutes, then cuts.
“I tool the guy I’m grappling with, submit him, sweep him — passed,” recalls Henle.
Henle breezed through the next rounds of striking and interviews, and in November of 2009 he was flown out to Las Vegas for medicals and additional interviews. Henle continued training, and in January he won his preliminary fight to earn his way onto the show.
Henle couldn’t speak about upcoming fights because of contract stipulations, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t thinking big.
“My UFC clock has started,” says Henle. “I don’t want to do anything but fighting. I love training, I love the way I feel, I love to compete. I feel I have the skills to take that step to make this a profession. Anybody can go pro, but they’ll be a punching bag. I want to fight in Vegas in front of ten to twenty thousand people. It’s so fun. I love doing it.”