When Joseph Henle claims to be a jack of all trades, the man they call “Leonidas” isn’t joking.
A former walk-on defensive end and finance student at California Lutheran University, since graduating with an MBA in financial planning, Henle not only competes as a professional mixed martial artist—boasting a resume that includes four professional victories and a run on "The Ultimate Fighter: Team Liddell vs. Team Ortiz"—but also serves as a substitute teacher, coaches both high-school football and wrestling, and, on top of his own training, works as a mixed martial arts instructor.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Joseph Henle about everything from his days as an undersized Division III defensive lineman to his training under Chuck Liddell on "The Ultimate Fighter" to what the future holds for "Leonidas."
What inspired you to try your hand at mixed martial arts to begin with?
To be honest, when I was done playing football I had stopped it all and I had gotten a little fat—I was 265 pounds—and I didn’t really feel like lifting weights anymore; I was just kind of tired of the meat-head thing. I
walked into the gym one day and I saw some wrestling mats and I thought, “Hey, I wrestled in high-school—what are they doing there?” They said, “Jiu-Jitsu,” and I decided to try that
. I just started doing that a couple times a week and one day I went in and Karo Parisyan and Lodune Sincaid were in getting ready for fights and asking if I wanted to spar. I had no idea who they were—at the time—so I thought, “Sure. Why not?”
The next day my face was all black and blue and my friends and family were all looking at me in horror—because my face was busted—and I was telling them that I had the best time last-night. It was a blast and ever since then, I’ve been hooked.
You fell in love with the sport right off the bat?
You played college football?
I played at a Division III school called California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.
I didn’t really start playing ‘til I was a sophomore in high-school; it wasn’t something that I was in to. I played a couple of things but wasn’t really into football.
Were you passionate about it once you started?
My high-school wrestling coach, at the end of my freshman year, asked me to go play and I really, really liked that guy; I was really a “coach’s guy”—I wanted to impress him and do everything I could do to get on his good-side.
He told me to go play football and I said, “Yes, sir.” From the minute I got out there it was frustrating—because I didn’t know what I was doing—but I was having a lot of fun. I started right away and the varsity coaches were talking to me, telling me what they wanted out of me.
For me, once I really get going into something, I can’t quit; I just keep going until I get good [laughs].
Did you get a scholarship out of it?
No. Division III programs don’t usually have scholarships. Sometimes money will fall into your financial aid package, but I wasn’t one of those guys.
Coming out of high-school, I wasn’t very big; I was only ‘6’0” and, maybe, 215. I played defensive line, so I was kind of small.
Was the NFL ever a dream of yours?
That’s the dream for anybody playing ball, but I understood, realistically, it wasn’t going to happen.
I was under-sized, under-speed [laughs], and I didn’t really have the intangibles that I think God graces some of those kids with. I knew that that wasn’t going to happen, but I wanted to play for as long as I could.
You had a lot of fun in university?
I had a blast. I had a phenomenal coach for my first three years—he’s the defensive-line coach at Fresno State right now—and he really took on a mentorship role for me. He was one of those guys, where he didn’t have to say anything; he just looked at you and you knew exactly what he wanted, exactly what you had to do, and you went out and made damn-sure you went out and did it.
It was very positive; I take a lot of the things that he coached on the defensive-line, and they really translate well into how I fight and the way that I move—I owe a lot to him for the years that I spent there.
Was it difficult to walk away from football?
No. I had a couple rough years at the end; disagreeing with the coaches and things of that nature. On my part, wasn’t the smartest thing and on their part wasn’t really handled well. When it was over, it was good timing for it to be over.
Did you ever think that you would make a living fighting?
Never. Never even in the thought-process. Even when I was fighting amateur, to be honest; we just went out and, kind of, scrapped for fun.
Maybe one day we’d make some money, but it was one of those pipe-dreams; I never really thought anything would come out of it. If it did; cool, but I just went out there to have some fun and do what I do.
When did it hit you that you might be able to turn your passion into a career?
Still to this day it’s hard. I understand a lot more of it now, but I think at the time I was, like, seven and one as an amateur and I thought it was time to go pro.
I thought I could make a bit of money fighting—I don’t know if I actually ever thought I could make it a career, per se; I thought I could fight on the side, coach, do some financial planning.
I always thought about it as a second career...I do a little substitute teaching still, I’m a varsity football and wrestling coach at Thousand Oaks High-School, I teach private lessons in boxing, kick-boxing, Jiu-Jitsu—all that kind of stuff. I think I followed the path that a lot of fighters follow; I’m a jack of all trades.
Where do you think you would be had you not taken up the sport?
[Laughs] I’d be sitting in a math class somewhere. I fell in deep love coaching football—I spent a year as a grad assistant defensive ends coach at my alma mater and loved it. If the fighting really didn’t take a hold of me and I really didn’t think I could make money with it, I would’ve probably went back to school, gotten my credential, and been a teacher.
Why is it that you enjoy teaching so much?
I like to help kids. My mom and my grandma worked their tails off to make sure that I had everything that I needed, that I was always on top of my studies.
It was just assumed that I would go to college; it was never, like, “Oh, I don’t know about college.” It was, “Hey, you’re going.” I’ve had a lot of good people in my life that have helped me, because I’ve looked up to them and thought, “Wow, they did that,” and they were doing the right things and I wanted to do the right things.
I’ve seen how much a good influence can really steer a kid in the right direction. From the first time that I coached—I really wear my heart on my sleeve and get down in the trenches—and they feed off that; they really like that energy, and they like the way that I interact with them.
They listen very well and they take direction and they learn how to approach things properly, you know what I mean? I’m always trying to throw in life-lessons and make sure that they understand more than the game of football or wrestling.
What does it mean for you to be able to be in a mentorship role now?
To me it means the world. After "The Ultimate Fighter"—I didn’t coach football that season and I was only sparsely helping out with the wrestling team because I was training so much—it seemed like there was a hole in my life; there was something that wasn’t right and it was the coaching.
I signed on to be the varsity defensive coach and right now I’m writing up my defensive line manual, I’m having meetings with my players and coaches, and it just, literally, makes my day that much better to know that I’m helping kids.
When I get texts from my guys, “Coach, my weight is up,” or “Coach, I lost 10 pounds”—things like that really just make my day.
What inspired you to try out for ‘The Ultimate Fighter’?
Literally, the only reason that I did it was because it was 30, 45 minutes away. Had it not been that close, I would’ve never went to the tryouts. I had only been a pro for six months and I had only had three fights.
To be honest, my girlfriend was the one that pushed me out the door, she was like, “It’s your weight-class. Go try it. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s a great experience.” I’ve always listened to her—she’s been a really good motivating force when I was an amateur and I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do and I had stopped fighting. “Big” John McCarthy’s team was having tryouts.
I wasn’t sure if I should go, and she was the one that, kind of, kicked me out the door and got me to the tryouts. It was the same thing when "The Ultimate Fighter" came around; she was the one pushing me, “Just go; just go, check it out, and have some fun.”
I knew a couple other guys going to the tryout and since it was close, I thought, “Why not? Take a step. What’s the worst that could happen?”
When you were driving there, did you think that you would make it onto the show?
No; never ever. I didn’t think that there was a chance in hell.
You must’ve been surprised when you got the call.
To be honest, I threw my hands up in the air and I was running around the parking lot. I was kind of freaked out when I passed the grappling-session; I, kind of, expected to get past that, but at the same time, the UFC isn’t looking for BJJ black-belts, they’re not looking for K-1 kick-boxers.
If they wanted those guys then they would go out and find those guys, so everybody kind of understood that they had no idea what they were looking for. There were guys that subbed their guy six times and didn’t make it, you know?
When they called my name, I thought, “This is ridiculous. You guys are crazy. Okay, what are we doing now? We’re striking.” I didn’t even have my striking coach there; I had to call him and say, “Hey, I actually passed the grappling test. Can you come down here?” Let’s be honest; if you don’t know how to catch mitts or if you don’t know how to work with a southpaw, then they can make you look real stupid.
It’s funny; we didn’t even get a chance to warm up. We thought they were going to do light-heavies first and then middleweights. I just finished wrapping up and my coach told me to go get my gloves and then when I come back we’ll work on combinations and we’ll really "wow" them.
I thought, “Cool.” I went to get my gloves and Dana White was starting to talk and he said—and he had called me “Hairy” in the grappling session because my air was all crazy—and he said, “Hairy—you’re up. On the mat.” I said, “Ah, okay.” And I was running over, yelling for my coach to get over there.
I literally throw eight punches and Dana said that I was “good.” I was the first one on and off the mat and I didn’t know what was going on; I was like, “Sure.” I thought I was done—eight punches and I didn’t even get to kick the mitts—but I had no idea what they were looking for and my coach said, “Don’t worry about that; you’ve got that.” I’m like, “Alright.”
Sure enough, they call my name and we get an interview. I got tips from “Big” John; he said, “If you get an interview or you’re talking to anybody, be you but be loud; make sure they know what you’re saying and make sure that you are the focus.” I went into my interview and I must’ve knocked it out of the park.
Sure enough, a few months later they called me up and said that they want to get me to Vegas to do my medicals. When I had gotten that call, I literally lost it. I was doing an interview with the local newspaper—just about fighting in general and teaching—and I got the call and I put the phone on mute and I was sprinting around the parking lot with my hands in the air, I’m jumping up and down—I was like a kid that just got the greatest news ever.
I went back and looked at the interviewer and he was like, “You can’t tell me anything, can you?” And I looked at him, “No.” [Laughs]. It was crazy.
Were you at all apprehensive before you went onto the show?
No. There was just nothing bad that could happen. I was three and “0”, I had only been a pro for six months—what’s the worst that could happen? I lose? It’s not even a recorded fight.
So, yeah, it was a big opportunity and something that I really wanted, but at the same time, I wasn’t going to allow the added pressure of, “I’ve got to this; I’ve got to do that.” I was just going to go out and fight and hopefully win. I just went out there and had some fun.
Did anything catch you off-guard during your time on the show?
The training; the training caught me off-guard. I put in a six-week camp before the first fight, so when I was there, I felt like I was already in great shape. The first thing that we did was cardio and then it was sparring every morning. It wasn’t crazy-hard, but I sparred once a week at “Big“ John’s; it wasn’t a constant grind.
Being on there with guys that you would eventually have to fight and doing striking—when my striking isn’t that great—I think that was something that zapped a lot out of me. By the time I fought—you can kind of see it—I had no legs; it looks like I’m out of shape. Everybody’s first comment, “Oh, you have to work on your cardio and you have to work on your hands!” I’m like, “Really? You guys don’t think that I do any of that? You guys think that I just sit on the couch and drink beer all day [laughs]?”
It was kind of funny; I realize that people don’t fully understand what happens behind the scenes and they don’t see everything, but that was the one thing that really caught me off-guard; I didn’t think we would be going as hard as we did. I’m one of those guys, that, you tell me to do something and I’m going to do it—whether I feel like it or not.
I’ve learnt now that I have to listen to my body, but it’s Chuck Liddell and John Hackleman; what are you going to tell them? No? “Hey coach, my shoulder hurts today; I don’t think I want to spar.” In retrospect, I really should’ve—because there were days when I could hardly crawl out of bed—but, you know, what are you doing to do? I’m a young guy who’s really inexperienced—I was going to do what they told me to do.
Was it difficult to be separated from your life for that amount of time?
Yes and no. There were times when you would be sitting in the kitchen and you’d almost be crying, like, “Wow!” There were times when that would catch me off-guard, but for the most part, we knew what we were there for and we knew what we had to do. There wasn’t going to be any, “Oh, I don’t know.”
Out of our 14 guys, nobody was going home if they didn’t have to. There was no quit in any of the guys that were there. It was what it was and it was fun. We knew what we were there for and we knew what we signed up for.
How would you describe your time on the show?
Amazing. A learning experience; I learned so much about myself, about how I want to fight, the things that I’m capable of doing, things that I need to do with my body. There was so much learning that went on.
To be honest, it’s really the opportunities that opened up after the show. I split time between Knuckleheadz Boxing in Ventura and with the Reign Training Center—Mark Munoz’s gym—and we also split time with Kings MMA with Rafael Cordeiro, so right now, I’m constantly training with the elite 185-pounders, 205’ers, heavyweights.
I’ll get to spar with Fabricio Werdum one day and then do Jiu-Jitsu with [Satoshi Ishi]—who’s an Olympic Judo gold-medalist—and those kinds of opportunities aren’t available for everyone. I just feel blessed that I was in a position where people knew my name enough to want me to train.
How does it feel when a gym demands you like that?
It’s everything. I feel like I’m a humble guy; I’m not trying to smash everyone in training. Some gyms are like that and some aren’t. Reign is a place like that; the environment is very conducive to learning, you know? Every time I spar with Jay Silva, he’s teaching me something. If he’s catching me with something, then he’s teaching me something.
With Ishi, if he throws me, when I get back up he tries to give me advice, in broken English, and we learn from each other. The teamwork at that gym is amazing; I couldn’t be surrounded with better people—I just don’t see how that could be possible.
Do you think your experience would’ve been any different had you been drafted to "Team Ortiz?"
It could’ve been very different [laughs]. I talked to some of those guys and some guys really liked it and some didn’t. With the whole coaching change—getting to change with [Rich Franklin] and [Forrest Griffin] and [Gray Maynard] and [Tyson Griffin]—I feel like they had a different experience.
We had a more close-knit team; all seven of us were cool with each other, everyone liked each other, nobody was hating on each other—it wasn’t a problem. We were more than happy and it was a good deal for everybody.
How would you describe Chuck as a coach?
To be honest, he was pretty awesome. He was one of those guys that was really calm but he worked really hard to drive you; he wanted you to work very hard. He’s a great guy, he’s very relaxed—I loved his attitude—and you could feed off of his energy; it’s a great feeling. They worked us hard, but they were a great group of guys to be around.
Was it strange to see Chuck and Tito—two guys that were, probably, pretty influential on you—coaching?
You know, I was pretty amped. When they told me that they were going to be the coaches, I knew that it was going to be a lot of fun. To Chuck’s credit, Chuck fights and he’s a coach, but he also has coaches and he brought the best group of guys he possibly could have.
He put the people around us to make us the best and I think that’s very smart of him. It was pretty exciting; I was pretty amped.
Do you speak with Chuck these days?
Not really. For me, I appreciate him being there and I even stayed at his house when he was training for the Rich fight—I spent a week out there—and I’ll send him a text message every now and then just to say "hi."
But I realize that he wasn’t my best friend; you won’t see me running out, yelling, “Hey, I know Chuck Liddell—me and that guy are tight!” You know? It’s cool and I appreciate everything he did for me and I totally give that man all the respect in the world, but if he sees me and remembers me then cool, but we’re not best-friends.
How do you feel about your performance on the show?
I was disappointed. I definitely think that I can do better; I definitely think that there wasn’t a guy there that I couldn’t have beaten, you know? I think inexperience played the biggest role for me.
With the training that we were doing and the things that were going on, I was so exhausted that I didn’t know how to listen to my body and say, “Hey, I need a day.” because there were days when I literally needed the day off but I just couldn’t say anything, you know what I mean?
For me, in the first-round of my fight, I remember thinking, “Where the hell did my legs go?” I pulled it out for the second one and the third one just didn’t go my way. I think that I could’ve done better had I listened to my body a bit better.
Were you surprised that you weren’t given an opportunity to compete on the finale?
I was a little surprised, but I kind of expected it. On the show, all they did was bash how I fought, so it’s not like it was any big surprise.
To be honest, I didn’t expect to get one; you watch the show and Dana had nothing but disdain for my fights—even after I put in a great fight against [Seth Baczynski], and even then, everybody says, “Oh, he should’ve knocked him out; he should’ve thrown his hands.” I’m like, “That was the game-plan.” When I talked to Hackleman about the game-plan, Hackleman was like, “Take him down and submit him.” Okay, you know? [Laughs] That was the game-plan.
I think it’s stupid to go in there and fight without a game-plan. That was the way that we thought gave us our best chances to win and Dana didn’t like that; of course they want to see you swing, you know? That wasn’t what the plan was. I was kind of hoping that they would let me fight [James Hammortree], but it was what it was.
How much do you think you’ve improved since your time on the show?
Leaps and bounds. I’m nowhere near the same guy; nowhere near the same guy. Not even close, man. I feel right now—just from a mental state—100 times improved.
How exciting is that?
Very. Working with the guys that I’m working with; knowing that the guys that I’m striking with are top-strikers and hitting the ground with guys that are phenomenal on the ground is very exciting. The more that I train and the more that I learn, the better I feel. I’m not even close to the same guy.
You told me earlier that you have three potential bouts in the next two months—do you have anything lined up at this point?
No. The closest thing to solid that I have would be June 25th for the California Fight Syndicate. I fought for them once or twice and they’re a great little organization out here in California. I think I’ll be fighting for a 185-pound title with them—it will be fun. I like fighting for those guys.
Do you know who you’ll be fighting—if it happens?
I have no idea.
Three fights in two months—do you generally like to keep that busy?
For me, I’m one of those guys that if I’m not busy, I’m fat [laughs]. I need to do something. For me to get to 185 pounds usually takes quite a lot—I usually walk around at 220, 215. I don’t mind staying active.
To be honest, I should win these lower-level fights, you know? I should win and I should win fast. I shouldn’t even have to question what I have to do—I should already be ready to go. To me, I’ve had a lot of fights where I could fight the next week no problem—I felt fine. Other than injuries, why not stay busy?
Is it safe to say that the UFC is where you want to be right now?
Of course; that’s the end-goal. That’s where the greatest in the world are and I would like my name to be amongst them eventually. When they’re ready for me—or when I’m ready for them—they’ll make the call and we’ll make it happen.
Do you feel that you would be ready to make the jump right now?
I think I could compete. I don’t think I’m ready for [Anderson Silva] or [Nate Marquardt] or the guys that are at the top of the heap, but I do think that I can compete with just about anybody in the UFC. I’m not in a rush.
That’s one thing; a lot of guys rush to get in the UFC and, if you look at it, how fast do the people that rush in usually rush right out? It’s not necessarily a longevity thing—the moment that you get in there, if you lose, they don’t want you.
It’s weird; they keep around some guys forever and for some guys they don’t. What are you going to do? When the time is right, I will be there.
Realistically, how far do you think you can go in this sport?
To be honest, as far as I want.
How are do you want to go?
To the top. I feel that I can be a champion one day—for sure. I don’t see any problem with that. I’m learning every day; every day I’m doing things that people aren’t doing. I feel that I’m working harder than 99 percent of the guys out there; guys are doing two-a-days, I’m getting in three, but, I’m also listening to my body.
What does the future hold for you?
If I could tell you that, I’d be making a lot of people telling people a lot of things [laughs]. For me, I just hope that it holds happiness. Regardless of how the fighting goes or how anything goes, I just want to be happy and enjoy my life—that’s the most important thing for me.
Are you enjoying your life now?
I am thoroughly enjoying my life right now. I’m broke as can be and I’m paying bills and all that, but I couldn’t be any happier.
Is there anything that you’d like to say to your fans while you have this opportunity?
I just want to say, “Thank you.” I’ve got nothing but support from everybody. Everybody that has seen me on the show has had nothing but positive things to say. I love it when people come up and say “hi” and tell me what they thought about me on the show—anything—I just appreciate it so much.
When you’ve got someone running up to you, “I saw you; you were in the house.” To me, that means the world and it makes my day every time it happens and I just love it. If anybody out there sees me, come say “hi”—I feel like I’m an approachable dude and it’s one of the things that I love. I also have a Facebook page and a Twitter—LeonidasMMA. Get at me.
What do the fans mean to you?
To be honest, they’re kind of why we do it. I like being out in the spotlight and I want people to come to my fights and I want people to say, “You’ve got to see this guy fight!” Or “Oh, ‘Leonidas’ is fighting—let’s go!” I feed off their energy, so the more energetic they are about going to fights and seeing me fight; the more amped I am to do it for them. It means a lot.
I also want to thank the guys at Gracie Morumbi—Professor Fabio is so instrumental in my Jiu-Jitsu game—and I’m getting better every day that I train with them; Professor Eric, Professor Ryan. It means the world to me and working with those guys is phenomenal, everyone down at Reign—everybody down there helps me so much and my family at KnuckleHeadz Boxing—all those guys. I’ve got an awesome team.