Mariano ‘BigDawg’ Mendoza’s extraordinary life is an inspiration to millions around the world. He escaped the trauma of a nightmarish childhood and moved toward sports. Today he is the world’s strongest Latino, a world champion fighter, video game character and a Hollywood legend who has featured in over 160 movies and TV shows. He discusses the rocky path to success and talks about what you need to survive and succeed.
Bodybuilder, champion fighter, the world’s strongest Latino… where did all this start?
It all started with a traumatic childhood in Norwalk, California. I grew up in dangerous neighbourhoods with gangs, troubled kids and bad families. My stepfather was an alcoholic who beat me all the time. He had three biological children by my mother. I was the oldest and the only child that wasn’t his, maybe that is why I got the brunt of his mental and physical abuse. In any case, by age nine my home situation was unbearable so I was sent to boys homes and foster homes. I was moved from city to city – 9 cities and 4 different high schools – until I finally settled in with my step parents. Even though I’ve gotten professional help since my childhood, I still have nightmares and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder – note by B.W.G).
In the chaos of my life sports became a lifesaver. It was my way to control rage and anger.
In school I had perfect attendance and I got involved in all the school sports clubs. I was a good runner – I ran track and field and the 400m race – then I joined the ROTC at college and a university based officer training program. My stepdad, who was a soldier, inspired me to do that. He would show me pictures of him on the battlefield and I would think “Wow, I want to be like that!”. He told me that I can do anything I want, I just have to focus and work hard.
So I did well in school and in sports. I was actually invited to go back home to my mom’s house but I didn’t want to. I was still scared that her partner would kill me… instead of going back home I decided to join the Navy where I served 3 years.
Why did you leave the Navy?
In the Navy I had serious problems, I was abused and I didn’t sleep for years… they made us work 20 hours a day. Now I have compensation for the troubles caused for the rest of my life but when I left the Navy I was destroyed and lost. I actually was homeless for a while and I lived in Echo Park in Los Angeles. Let me please make an important note here. Not every homeless person is a drug addict or an alcoholic. Sometimes life just puts you in situations that are really hard to recover from! I got lucky. I found my way out when I went to my church. They gave me shelter and I spent a couple of years in their home until I found my way back to life. But it wasn’t easy to stay in a place like that where you live with many people who may not be mentally stable or are recovering from substance abuse. You have to follow strict rules, wake up early, participate in the community… not everyone can or wants to put up with it but if you stick it out it can actually help to get you back on track.
Meeting my wife in those years was another thing that helped me and changed my life. They say that behind every strong man there’s a strong woman and I truly believe in that. It is challenging to maintain a relationship. You need something bigger than yourself. But if you have someone to love, you have something to work with.
How did your bodybuilding and fighter career start?
I was a bony kid and after being abused as a child and teen, I was abused in the Navy. I had had enough of being bullied and beaten all the time. I wanted to get bigger and stronger. I also needed something to help me cope with my anger and stress. That’s why I started bodybuilding in the late 80s. I joined a gym called the American Eagle and the motivation was right there! I got the best mentors I could imagine – CT Ali Fletcher was my role model. He is a 3-time World Champion Bench Press Champion and a 3-time World Strict Curl Champion. I also looked to Sherry Houston who was the owner of the gym.
I trained with strongest people in the world. I do believe that in order to be the best, you have to train with the best. I started to compete in power lifting and I competed in strict curl as well. It is so hard. You have to lift a barbell with your head, back, and glutes positioned against the wall so it’s impossible to use momentum to lift any significant weight. My record was 215 pounds next to CT’s record of 225 pounds. It is a big deal!
I did many bodybuilding shows too. I participated in over 30 NPC (1) shows (that is an incredible amount of shows! – note by B.W.G). I also competed at Muscle Beach in Venice. I won in 1999 and 2000 as a novice heavy weight bodybuilder.
But there is no money in bodybuilding. It takes so much time, discipline and extraordinary effort to be a bodybuilder. Additionally, at a certain level it is unlikely that you’ll succeed without using steroids. Steroids help to build muscle but you have to put the time and effort in, you have to be dedicated. I tried everything but then I wanted to clean my body, be healthy, and I wanted to make money. So I stopped competitive bodybuilding and started to focus on professional fighting. It made a difference – in my very first fight I made $3K
How did you get into martial arts?
I discovered a karate studio close to our home and I was hooked. That was the first martial art I learned.
I have long legs which helped me in karate, as I naturally had good kicks. I just needed to learn to use my upper body. I did my first karate competition at The Long Beach International Karate Championships. It is a world famous tournament that featured fighters like Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee in the 60s. I got second place which is pretty good for my first competition.
Then I started to learn Muay Thai, “Thai boxing”, which is a very different martial art from karate. You can use your fists, elbows, knees, and shins… it is by far the most brutal martial art.
One day a big promoter came up to me and said “I have an opportunity for you”. And that’s how my professional fighting career started. I started to get paid for being in the ring/cage. One of my biggest fights was in Brazil. They flew me there and everything was paid for but it was a serious game – people can actually die in the cage there. It was not only sweat but blood and pieces of flesh on the floor. The fight had no rules – only the eyes were off limits but everything else was allowed. Now the sport is safer and focuses more on technique – and of course because MMA has become so popular there is also more money in it. Now it is harder to get into the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship – note by BWG). I didn’t even know that people knew about me in Brazil. I was famous, I was the biggest heavy weight fighter. I was big like a bodybuilder but I could move fast and kick high. It worked out well as I was in the right place at the right time. Now I hold 2 world champion titles and I became a UFC video game character.
Everything is possible…
Usually fighters come from poor backgrounds. They have something to fight for. They want to prove themselves and when they start they have no money. You just have to join your local gym and start to work on yourself. Try all the martial arts. Jiu-jitsu is the most expensive, boxing is the cheapest. Wrestling is affordable. Just pay for the classes you can afford and find your mentors. If you focus and work hard then yes, everything is possible.
Fighting has lead you to acting… tell me more about that!
The promoter I worked with was also a producer. I didn’t want to be an actor but it came to me. I started to get parts in film. My first was a speaking role and the rest is history. I will never forget once when Oliver Stone came up to me on set and said “You will get far in this business”. That motivated me a lot. I kept going to auditions, sometimes 5 or 6 of them a day and I didn’t get anything. But I stuck to it and when least expected, I got the callback I needed and I started to get busy. Now I have over 160 credits on IMDb. It is a tough business, you have to love what you do otherwise you will give up. You have to see and believe in your goal. I don’t want to be an actor, I want to be a working actor.
You had all these ups and downs in your life. What did you learn and what would you teach others from your life story?
I hope my story will change lives, give hope to the hopeless and to people who were told they won’t make it. All things are possible. Never quit! Don’t take no for an answer! Don’t listen to the haters, find people you can look up to! No matter where you come from, just keep on fighting, move forward, don’t be discouraged and don’t make excuses! As a world champion fighter I can assure you that if you give 110 percent and keep working on your craft, you will see some success.
And one more important thing: you cannot do it alone. You get help but you also have to give help. If you help others you’ll be blessed.
Last but not least what are your plans for the future?
Covid killed the film industry for a long time but now things are getting better. Also, my life has slowed down in the last 4-5 months due to my knee infection. I’m paying the price now for the mistakes I made during my bodybuilding, power lifting and fighting years. I’m working on getting my strength back after all the operations.
I will keep working on my acting, going back to classes and focusing on future movie projects. I’ve tried directing and I am a professional prop master with a gun safety certification but I will continue to pursue more education and advancement.
I volunteer at my church, show gratitude and offer help when I can to those who need it the most.
Photo credit: Google