The French Connection

Actor Gilles Marini and UFC fighter Cheick Kongo bring back the buddy system.

In 2007, just as Facebook was poised to make a billionaire out of a barely adolescent Mark Zuckerberg, Cheick Kongo and Gilles Marini began an email correspondence through MySpace. On the surface, it was an odd coupling: Kongo was in the middle of a successful stint in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a 6’4”, 230-lb heavyweight with devastating striking and the mental fortitude to get into a fistfight by appointment only; Marini was an actor with several TV guest spots under his belt and only months away from becoming a cult object of desire for his nearly nude appearance in the 2008 “Sex and the City” feature film.

The 37-year-old Marini, a former model who seems perennially ready to pose for a GQ shoot—inevitably, he became one of People’s Sexiest Men Alive in 2009—seems like he’d prefer to spend his downtime flipping through fashion magazines and ordering wines most people couldn’t pronounce. Really, really good-looking people, to call up the wisdom of Derek Zoolander, probably aren’t interested in ferocious combat.

But Marini was a martial artist. He took up Savate—a French striking art—at a young age, moved on to Muay Thai, and followed the UFC with a passion; seeing the 37-year-old Kongo compete was the equivalent of Matt Damon discovering the Boston Red Sox.

“I was one of the only Frenchmen competing in the Ultimate Fighting Championship,” Kongo recalls. “We started messaging each other words of encouragement until a fraternal relationship started to develop over time.”

Five years later, Kongo remains one of the UFC’s perennial heavyweight attractions, with a total 17 fights; Marini just finished his second stint on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” making him a household name to millions of network viewers. Success has found them both, and each credits the other with being a source of motivation, emotional support and inspiration.

“We grow as artists together,” says Marini. “Really, he’s a brother.”

 

Bonding Over Flying Leg Kicks

Marini’s love of Muay Thai had one significant drawback: casting directors aren’t fond of actors showing up looking like bruised fruit.

“That’s why I went into jiu-jitsu,” he says. “The probability to get hurt in jiu-jitsu is very little. It’s very simple: When you kick or punch something, the blows are painful all the time. But when you do jiu-jitsu, there is a level of strength you can apply. A good sparring session, you can come right back tomorrow.”

Marini became so invested in the art that he can be found as often as eight or nine times a week at Chris Lisciandro’s academy in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Immersed in the culture of jiu-jitsu, he had plenty to talk about when he finally met up with Internet pal Kongo in Los Angeles.

“This bond just formed,” Marini says. “I would like to say we are both good people. We don’t have negative things to say about anyone. We do things for others more than ourselves without needing anything in return. It’s good for karma, whether people believe it or not, to do good things. We don’t believe in doing crazy, controversial stuff.” (Later, in conversation, Marini will substitute “bleep bleep” for a profanity. Yes, he’s really that polite.)

Marini eventually followed Kongo into one of his training camps and wound up attending one of his fights overseas. “I think then is when I realized that our friendship had grown past our French heritage,” Kongo says. “It became more of a brotherly friendship. Beyond the love for martial arts, we also share close family ties, mutual support for each other and the love for our culture.

“We both share a spiritual desire to be better people for those around us and for ourselves, and that’s what really bonds our friendship.”

Despite Marini’s athletic background—he’s a proficient soccer player—and experience in grappling, taking even peripheral participation in one of Kongo’s training camps was an eye-opener. “When you’re in a small academy and you’re starting to feel like you’re doing well, a very good reality check is to go into the camp with a true professional,” he says. “It’s a different world. You realize this ability is given to very few people. It’s very motivating, but also humbling. If you thought you knew something, you have no idea.”

“He’s been a very important part of my training, always coming to my aid and supporting me like a brother,” Kongo says. “Being away from my home country where all of my friends and family are is hard, so having Gilles in my life as such a strong, supportive friend is wonderful.”

Marini is not always on the sidelines: To prepare for a “Dancing” stint or an acting role that requires him to cut a few pounds, Kongo materializes as both friend and sadist. “Sometimes I tell him, ‘Cheick, a week and a half from now, I have to take my shirt off.’ He will just drag me to the gym and kill me. It will take about two or three days to shave 8 or 9 lb.

“When you train with Cheick, sometimes you start at 6 a.m., and at 11 p.m. you’re still there. Your body is in shock. I know I’m going through a lot when I do ‘Dancing’ and whatnot, but when Cheick is in a training session, you better be ready.”

 

A Member of the Family

Of all the training and travel expenses that can dilute a prizefighter’s purse, one thing Kongo never has to worry about is accommodations. When he’s in Los Angeles, he stays with the Marinis: Gilles, his wife Carol, and their two children, Georges and Julianna.

“I do squat at their home, frequently,” laughs Kongo. “He would kill me if I stayed anywhere else.”

“He’s like a big uncle,” Carol Marini says. “The kids love him. My son always picks on Cheick, like play-fighting. He’s like a big teddy bear. He’s always bringing little presents for the kids. We always open the door for him. He has a room, has a key. It’s not like having a guest.”

Kongo’s generosity comes up often in conversation with the family. “It’s crazy,” Marini says. “He will come to the house and say, ‘Here, here’s a new iPad for you.’ I ask, ‘Why?’ ‘Just because.’ It’s like this all day long. It’s amazing. He just bought a motorcycle. When he leaves the country, he says, ‘Oh, use it. It’s like yours.’ He has a big heart.”

Once, Marini recalled to interviewer Karyn Bryant, the mammoth Cheick spotted a bug in his path. He kicked off his shoe and gently nudged the insect with his big toe before both went on their way.

“You see him as this giant man going into a cage, beating people for a living,” Marini says. “But he is so much more, such a dedicated, sweet man. We love him.”

“Cheick, when he’s here is far away from his family, so it feels good with Gilles because we never ask him anything,” Carol says. “We leave him to live his life the way he wants to. After a fight, whether he wins or loses, he knows he has a place to come and Gilles is here to support him. And with ‘Dancing,’ I see Cheick calling to check on Gilles after a performance.”

While “teddy bear” might apply to Kongo most of the time, Marini is quick to point out that his friend’s chosen profession necessitates a paradigm shift in personality as a fight approaches. “The last three days of his fight, Cheick is completely changing. He’s gearing up to go to war. I’ve never seen that in documentaries or movies, but this transformation is absolutely fascinating, scary. It reminds you what human beings have been doing since the beginning of time: fighting.”

It’s hard to imagine Kongo, who seems to be carved from granite, putting anyone on pins and needles over his bouts. But the UFC’s heavyweight division is unforgiving, and even though Kongo has won three of his last four fights, the idea of watching someone they consider family get into a cage is often too much for the Marinis to bear.

“When Cheick is at home, it’s like having another kid,” Carol says. “Watching him in a cage, my stomach is upside down.”

“I absolutely hate it,” Marini says. “When Cheick fights, the entire family is on hold. The last fight, I couldn’t even watch. I went away and shut my phone off. I get sick. It’s like my brother. He’s in a cage. He could definitely be hurt. Cheick is too close to my heart right now to have me see someone else try to punch him. But that’s his job.”

 

Grappling With the Future

As brutal as “DWTS” can be, Kongo will never experience the similar torture of watching his friend being punched in the face, but it doesn’t mean he’s completely off the hook: Marini has designs on ramping up his jiu-jitsu training and competing in a tournament this year.

“I was very close to doing one last year, but ‘Dancing’ came up,” Marini says. “When you compete, you can always get hurt, so my wife said, ‘Wait.’ I want to do it because it takes a kind of courage to go there and deal without the Gi, to go through the training and aspect of pushing yourself in a contact sport. I love to challenge myself.”

Of course, more acting opportunities could crop up. Marini is already a regular on “Switched at Birth,” an ABC Family comedy, with other offers in the pipeline thanks to “DWTS.” If he doesn’t compete, he says he can take satisfaction in the accomplishments of his son, Georges, who won a gold medal in the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation tournament last February.

“Having my son winning such a respected and international competition was a climax in my life,” he says.

Like most practitioners of the art, Marini is practically evangelical about its benefits. “There should be an hour or two of jiu-jitsu a week for girls and young boys at every school in America because it is very important to know how to defend yourself when someone is attacking you or pinning you down. It’s the only form of martial art that capitalizes on someone who is being aggressive with you on the ground.”

(His wife is slightly less enthused. “Gilles teaches me a lot of stuff. It’s difficult to train because it’s so intimate and personal, and it’s all guys, you know? I’d rather he show me.”)

Marini speaks with admiration of men in their 60s who still train—“who could break me in pieces,” he says—but the longevity for something as punishing as the UFC is considerably shorter. Kongo has the third-highest number of bouts in UFC heavyweight history; as he inches closer to age 40, he’s consulted with Marini about a second career. A fight gym? Personal training?

Not quite. “Cheick loves women’s fashion,” Marini says. “He just opened a clothing store in West Hollywood where we’ll see a lot of the European styles people don’t normally get to see in America. We’ll do everything he can to help him be successful at it.”

“I challenged myself to create a place where I could bring European style to California to people who enjoy high-quality designer brands,” Kongo says, already sounding like catalog copy. “People love to wear European products, and my goal was to bring those luxury names to Los Angeles for a fraction of the cost.”

An unlikely second act for a UFC fighter? Maybe. But Kongo is hardly the typical prizefighter, and Marini is far from the stereotype of the pampered actor. In the other they see what the rest of the world doesn’t: contradictions, and a connection.

“With Cheick, we don’t talk so much about sports,” Marini says. “We talk in general about life. It’s an honor to have him on my side.”

“Since Gilles and I have a close relationship, we always know what words are needed to encourage each other to be better, to motivate each other,” says Kongo, “especially when everything seems to be going wrong. And for that reason, we are both blessed to have each other.”

(Wardrobe Styling by Kristin Turner and Grooming by Barbara Guillaume)

Cheick and Gilles: The Annotated Bromance

Impress your friends and neighbors with these pithy bits of trivia about Gilles Marini and Cheick Kongo, both of whom could steal your girlfriend but are far too nice to even consider it.

• Kongo is actually a nickname: Cheick’s real last name is Ouedraogo. (Copyeditors everywhere say thank you.)

• Marini finished second on the 2009 edition of “Dancing with the Stars,” with less than 1% of the votes deciding first place.

• In 17 UFC bouts, Kongo has only been knocked out once (vs. Mark Hunt, in February 2012).

• Prior to modeling, Marini was a member of the French Army, where he was stationed as a fireman.

• Ironically, the duo’s shared passion of mixed martial arts remains illegal in France.