Kevin James speaks about the movie "Here Comes The Boom" during… (Hannah Foslien / Getty Images )
Actor Kevin James watched the first Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view bouts live in 1993.
The star of television's "The King of Queens" and films including "Zookeeper," "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" and "Grown Ups" co-produced and stars in the mixed-martial-arts-themed film, "Here Comes the Boom," released Friday.
James, 47, plays an apathetic biology teacher at an underperforming school that plans to ax music and its teacher, played by Henry Winkler.
James' character, Scott Voss, is a former collegiate wrestler who becomes inspired to raise the money it takes to keep his friend on staff by moonlighting as a professional MMA fighter.
I saw you at last year's Fox announcement that it would begin broadcasting UFC fights. Were you "embedded" in the sport then?
"I think I just stopped by to see what was going on. I've been a fan of the sport since it started, and I've [gotten] to know a lot of the fighters. What blew me away about these guys is that while the world might think of them as barbarians … animals fighting in an octagon, they're actually some of the nicest guys ever. Fighting to put food on the table for their kids. Supporting their families. Making a living. All good reasons to work, while doing something I could never do."
How deep was your study of the sport for this project? Who in the MMA world did you call upon as consultants?
"I've trained on and off for 15 years with [former UFC champion] Bas Rutten. For this movie, we had to get the blessing of the UFC. I'm friendly with President Dana White and the owners, the Fertitta brothers. I begged them to let us have the UFC in this film. They were hesitant. They didn't want it to be 'Paul Blart' or some schleppy guy stepping into the octagon and winning fights. I told them what dedication and inspiration it takes for this character to even have a chance in the UFC, how I'd be fighting on an undercard and be slipped in. Dana White is the one who asked me to make my character a decorated wrestler in the past. I did that for him. And we trained really hard for this, for 14 months, with the best UFC trainers while I changed my diet. Nothing but green shakes, fighting, cardio, sparring. Ryan Parsons set up my training. I was around fighters like Mark Munoz, Jason 'Mayhem' Miller, Randy Couture. It felt realistic and I was grateful for what they did for me. You can see the progression. It ups your game, getting banged around like I did. Although, obviously, it wasn't all-out, or I wouldn't be having this conversation now."
What got injured?
"My ego. I got knocked down, was close to getting knocked out. And you carry these injuries. That's what stuck with me about what these guys do. They go into these fights, and there's no way they're fully healthy. They don't talk about it, but there's no way they can make it through all that in camp and not be sore in a few places, like an ankle. So the fights become like a chess match, protecting where you're most hurting. The physical level these guys are at is impressive, but so is the chess match. It's a thinking man's game."
You have a deeper appreciation from even watching UFC fights in person?
"Yes, for the fighter, that human side that we try to play up in this movie. There's camaraderie there. They fight, yes. Some may hate each other. But it's civil, they hug at the end of the match because they respect what each other went through. That's the part I like the most."
Your attention to MMA realism goes from talking about a losing fighter's purse to getting knocked down by a fat-bellied guy like the UFC's Roy Nelson.
"You can be absolutely shredded — in ripped shape — and go against a guy who's not in the best shape but has the skill to take you out. This sport is not a tangible thing, like who can do the most push-ups. I didn't want to make a mockery of the sport. That's the challenge of selling what this guy's up against. How is he going to do that? I understood that. I lost 75 to 80 pounds, was living with fighters, hitting mitts in my hotel room. I know I'm 20 years older than these guys, but as I kept thinking of keeping this real, I thought of this great fight I remember: Mike Russow, this Chicago cop who wasn't the greatest, most ripped guy, fought Todd Duffee, and it made me say by their appearances, 'Boy, is this guy Russow going to get destroyed.' If you haven't seen that fight, watch it."
There's a social statement at play in this film about the impact of school budget cuts. What are your hopes for this film in the box office and beyond?
"Obviously, I want it to do well at the box office. But when people were asking what kind of film it was … it's not a goofy movie for families like 'Paul Blart.' Is it a goofy comedy, inspirational, or about school? I think it's an inspirational comedy that salutes the fantastic teachers in this country. I had some, and I still follow their principles to this day. Teachers have a chance to mold someone, inspire them. I hope all teachers realize that. I never played music, but it's an important thing … the studying, the inspiration. A song can take you to a special time in your life … it ties it all together. I'm thrilled with what audiences are saying. Mothers see it and say, 'I never knew about that sport.' Others say, 'I hate Kevin James, but I love this movie.' It's not all about fighting. The fighting is a metaphor. For the fight you need in life."