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By Lemar Morgan  |  9 December 2018   

Inspired by the Roman Empire's Gladiators and what they ate at the time, James 'Lighting' Wilks, a seasoned martial artist and former UFC champion, was astonished by what he discovered. What had initially started out as just intrigue soon became a journey of revelation, which would eventually pave the way to the release of an acclaimed documentary.

It All Started in England with Taekwondo

Wilks was born in Leicestershire, England in 1978, and like many top athletes, he began his career by joining his local martial arts’ gym. He first started practising Taekwondo, and then added cross-training to his regime.

His influences at this stage came predominantly from Jeet Kune Do, a fighting system founded by Bruce Lee. Over the next few years, Wilks continued his desire to progress as a martial artist, and by the time he moved to the US at the age of 22, he held a black belt in Taekwondo and a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Competitive Fighting in the USA

The move across the pond was primarily driven by Wilks’ desire to improve his proficiency in Jiu-Jitsu and his ground skills. It was during this particular period of his journey toward becoming an all round fighter that his MMA skills were developed. Having acquired the grappling techniques necessary for professional fighting, Wilks was now ready to compete. Three years after his arrival in the US, he competed in his first professional fight, taking on UFC competitor, Roman Mitichyan. Wilks won the fight in the second round, overpowering Mitichyan with an arm bar submission.

The move across the pond was primarily driven by Wilks’ desire to improve his proficiency in Jiu-Jitsu and his ground skills. It was during this particular period of his journey toward becoming an all round fighter that his MMA skills were developed. Having acquired the grappling techniques necessary for professional fighting, Wilks was now ready to compete. Three years after his arrival in the US, he competed in his first professional fight, taking on UFC competitor, Roman Mitichyan. Wilks won the fight in the second round, overpowering Mitichyan with an arm bar submission.

The Rise of a Champion

Wilks had already caught the attention of the Dana White, president of the UFC, and in 2009, he was selected to compete in season 9 of the series, 'The Ultimate Fighter: United States vs United Kingdom'. The season pitted the US fighters against those from the UK, featuring both lightweight and welterweight competitors.

Source: UFC.com

Wilks competed in the welter-weight division and stormed through the  the rounds to reach the final. In the final, he fought against DaMarques Johnson, but the battle was over in the first round. Johnson’s submission came as the result of a rear-naked choke, and Wilks was officially declared the UFC welterweight champion.

Injury Initiates a Change of Lifestyle

Just two years later, Wilks suffered serious injuries, including a fractured vertebra. Doctors warned him that he would be facing certain paralysis should he choose to continue competitive fighting, and so in 2012, he made the decision to retire.

For six months, Wilks was unable to train, and while he was recuperating, he began to evaluate his lifestyle. Whilst he had been totally committed to his physical training, he realised that he’d never given much consideration to his diet. He began to research nutrition, primarily searching for the best way to facilitate speedy recovery from injury.

The Roman Gladiator Diet

Dedicating himself to the necessary research to uncover the facts, Wilks came across an obscure study about the diet of the Roman Gladiators. The study revealed that the Gladiators had barely eaten any meat –a fact that Wilks initially found incomprehensible.

The information completely conflicted with his long-held belief that animal protein was an essential factor in nutrition. His curiosity took him to Austria, where he met with the researchers of the study and explored the validity of the claims.

By the time he left Austria, he’d been persuaded that the study was authentic; the Gladiators really had trained and fought on a vegan diet. For Wilks, the discovery was life-changing. His five-year investigation into the benefits of a plant-based diet had begun.

A Martial Artist’s Awakening to Plant-based Diets

Wilks found that the nutritional research reinforced the argument for a vegan diet in several key ways:

  • Plant-based foods are full of protein and antioxidant, both of which are essential ingredients for enhanced athletic performance
  • On average, vegans get around 70% more proteiniiithan they actually need
England Vegan Diet | Fighting Arts Health Lab
  • A plant-based diet can increase testosterone levels as much as 20% in around 20 days
  • A vegan lifestyle improves the endothelial function, which allows more blood to flow around the body

Wilks’ own experience supported the scientists. Almost immediately, he noticed that the switch to a plant-based diet improved his health and fitness levels. Within just two weeks, he had increased his bench-press weights by twenty pounds.

He also experienced a considerable difference in his stamina. He found that he could train longer and run further, and he noted that his recovery levels were faster.

For Wilks, the evidence was irrefutable and a vegan lifestyle was the way to go.

The Idea for a Documentary

Now fully committed to a plant-based diet, Wilks was on a mission to spread the word, and making a documentary seemed the best way to do this.

The concept was simple –the film would evidence the fact that, contrary to popular opinion, a vegan diet could enhance athletic performance. The title of the documentary would be ‘The Game Changers’, and it would feature testimonials from sportspeople who have experienced the benefit of switching to a plant-based diet.

In order to make the film, Wilks recruited some big names. James Cameron and Pamela Anderson came on board as executive producers, and Louie Psihoyos took on the role of director. During the making of the documentary, Wilks travelled the world, speaking to top performing athletes and leading nutritionists who are all committed to the vegan cause. 

He also studied the lifestyles of renowned sportspeople, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kendrick Farris and Dotsie Bausch, and spoke to geneticists, physicians and cardiologists.

The Response to ‘The Game Changers’

The documentary was first shown at the illustrious Sundance Film Festival in January 2018, and attracted an enormous amount of interest. Whilst nutritionists and scientists alike are in search of the optimal diet, martial artist Wilks and his thought provoking film have brought a new dimension to the debate. 

The unthinkable truth that Wilks could be right will undoubtedly stir fierce opposition, but can we afford to dismiss it out of hand?

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About the author

Lemar was born in Hampstead, North London, and he is currently living and working in New Zealand. He loves life, harmony in all things, writing, and kickboxing. He is passionate about reading, learning, and living healthily. As an English language teacher and kickboxing instructor, he hopes to share news and views by telling the real stories.

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