Remembering Mark Dion of San Diego’s City Boxing

Mark Alan Dion of San Diego by way of New Hampshire.

RIP, Mark Alan Dion of San Diego, CA by way of Franklin, New Hampshire. The message on the right comes to us from Beatriz Gonzalez who recalled how Mark would set goals and come hell or high water make them come to pass.

Mark Alan Dion

For the past two and a half years, everyone has been wondering what happened to Mark, the high-octane, pull no punches owner of City Boxing Downtown. In early 2011, Mark fell victim to the dreaded disease Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The fact someone so young, with a zest for life, could be stricken with such a disease seemed farfetched. ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease is a cruel, debilitating illness that robs you of your ability to walk, talk, breathe or even blink. It traps its victim inside a body they can no longer control and is always fatal in an average of two to five years. ALS can affect anyone at any age and at any time. There is no known cause, treatment or cure. Each year, there are between one to two cases for every 100,000 people.

Mark’s final two plus years were progressively put on autopilot, a development which became the culprit for his cognitive decline. Without his regular exercise and then nutritious diet, he could no longer increase the blood flow to his brain. 

Early morning, January 31, 2014, at the age of 41, Mark passed away peacefully at his home in San Diego’s downtown surrounded by loved ones. He is survived by his mother Susan Dion; his father, David Dion and his companion Dolly Keyser; his brother Michael Dion and his wife Bianca, all of whom live in New Hampton, N. H.; plus he has a half-brother Chad Dion and half-sister Lisa Dion. Mark also leaves behind two nieces, Piper and Ella Dion

Mark grew up in your typical small town USA setting – Franklin, New Hampshire. He attended Paul Smith Elementary School and later graduated from Franklin High School in 1991. After high school and several prosperous years as a car salesman in the Boston, Massachusetts area, Mark pulled up stakes and moved west to San Francisco. Convinced the Northwest was an ideal place to live, he soon began training in the mixed martial art of Muaythai at the Fairtex Gym with the celebrated World Jr. Middleweight Champion Alex Gong. The two became very good friends.

Still adventurous, in 1998, Mark moved south to La Jolla, CA to check out what people were calling the ideal climate, an area known for their fabulous restaurants, and to live closer to the beach.

During this period, Gong told several people, including Mark, about how he was being harassed by the Yakuza, also known as gokudō, members of the transnational organized crime syndicate originating in Japan, who wanted him to give up his ownership of not only the gym but the visas which Gong held in his possession for the seven world renown fighters/instructors he had sponsored and had either working out or teaching at his gym.

Alexander "F-14" James Gong was an American Muay Thai kickboxing champion.

Alexander “F-14” James Gong was an American Muay Thai kickboxing champion from San Francisco, CA.

Then, on August 1, 2003, Gong was shot to death. It was reported that a hit and run driver crashed into his parked car in the Fairtex Gym parking lot and Gong pursued the suspect on foot. After catching up to the car at a nearby intersection, Gong confronted the suspect, who then rolled down his window and shot Gong at point blank range. The killer, thought to be on drugs, then fled in his vehicle back to his hotel room. Surrounded by the police, the hopped up killer hiding under his bed until he finally shot himself.

Reports came later that the whole thing had been a setup especially when the murderer cried out to the police, “I didn’t want to do it! They made me!” Connecting the dots, the police felt he was referring to the Yakuza, the gang threatening to take over Gong’s gym.

This catastrophe squashed any thoughts or yearnings of returning to San Francisco and in an attempt to blank out those memories, Mark made his move to San Diego, which is as far south as you can get from San Francisco, permanent.

In 2001, with the help of David Ventura, he had founded City Boxing in San Diego’s downtown and enjoyed great success as owner of San Diego’s premier gym and training center for Boxing, MMA and Muaythai. Following Gong’s lead, Mark started managing world class fighters in Boxing, Muaythai and MMA. He worked with mixed martial artist K. J. Noons from Hawaii, World Muaythai kickboxing champions Evgeniy Khil and Denis Grachev from Russia and Jiu Jitsu champion Carlos Baruch from Brazil. He hired well respected boxing trainers like Pepe Morales from Mexico and former straw-weight World Champion Manny Melchor from the Philippines. He even tried his luck, though unsuccessfully, at being a boxing promoter.

City Boxing Gym on 14th Street in downtown San Diego. Photo: Jim Wyatt

City Boxing Gym on 14th Street in downtown San Diego. Photo: Jim Wyatt

in the beginning collage 1the beginning 2Collage

(top) shows Mark Dion with four of the best Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighters in the world. (below, l to r) We have Mark Dion resting up with his two watchdogs. Then we have  Georges St-Pierre, the Mark Dion lookalike speaking with the media.

(top photo) shows Mark Dion with four of the best Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighters in the world. (below, l to r) We see Mark at rest under the protective eye of his two cunning, ravenous watchdogs. Finally, we have Georges St-Pierre, the Mark Dion lookalike, being interviewed by the doting media.

Mark known as a great motivator, knew how to get the best out of his fighters, employees, and friends and at times would work over the fight Promoter to make sure his fighters got what they deserved.

Mark, who traveled back and forth from the East Coast to the West Coast, also traveled abroad to places off the beaten track like the Philippines, South America, Greece, Jamaica and Israel.

Like any great coach, he knew the benefits derived from having a strong-willed and determined coach that is loyal but at the same time a great motivator to build a fighter’s confidence so they can succeed, reach their dreams. And often times, all he needed to do was to break away from the frown and give you a smug smile. “The finer things in life, fast cars, living by the beach, wonderful friends are all attainable after you bust your ass.”

Getting back to his career: some of the best MMA fighters in the world worked out at his downtown and Pacific Beach locations. To hold on to them, he’d offer them a salary and a free membership if they’d become instructors. Some of the most legendary fighters in the fighting sports gave classes – people like K. J. Noons, Dean Lister and Brandon Vera. From that point on, the student numbers grew and so did the number of classes.

On Thursday, February 6, 2014, six days after his passing, a group of his closest mates met for a Memorial Dinner at the Athens Market in San Diego’s Gas Lamp District, a restaurant that serves Award Winning Greek Food. At this function, it didn’t take long before the jokesters were sharing one or more of their favorite, sometimes classic Mark Dion stories.

Friends share their fondest memories of Mark

At Thursday evening’s Memorial dinner at the Athen’s Market in downtown San Diego, some of his friends shared their fondest memories of Mark.

Memorial dinner 1 CollageThomas McWilliams: “He’s the only guy I know that would walk into a restaurant at any time of the day or night, didn’t matter how many people were standing in line to get a seat, and the owner would come over and find him a table, immediately. 

“Going out to breakfast, lunch or dinner with Mark was always an adventure. He had the most extravagant needs when he ate. Butter on the side, blueberries on the side, maple syrup – “have the chef come out here and talk to me.” You never realize how much you will miss somebody until they’re gone. 

“Part of Mark’s legend is that he did everything his way! Just like that song by Frank Sinatra, “My Way” by songwriters Jacques Revaux, Gilles Thibaut and Claude Francois with English lyrics by Paul Anka. That song best describes how Mark led his life. With the quality of food he ate, he should have lived forever.” 

So says Suleika Ojeda: “What a great photo of my two favorite trouble makers, Mark Dion (r) and Thomas McWilliams (l).”

So says Suleika Ojeda: “What a great photo of my two favorite trouble makers, Mark Dion (r) and Thomas McWilliams (l).”

Suleika Ojeda: “In this picture we are having our favorite dessert at the Whaling Bar, Banana Fosters. Of course our favorite waiter had to make it for us.”

Suleika Ojeda: “In this photo we’re having our favorite dessert, Banana Fosters, at the Whaling Bar. Of course our favorite waiter had to make it for us.”

After much prodding, the reluctant K. J. Noons, the former EliteXC and Strikeforce Lightweight MMA Champion and now UFC fighter, told attendees about the time Mark and himself were walking down a deserted street in New York City when three thugs approached. Now mind you, at the time Noons was quite famous with his mug plastered all over TV and our three ambassadors of what’s unappealing about the Big Apple, recognized him right away. After blocking their path, the shortest belligerent says, “You know something, he doesn’t look that tough!” 

Truth be known, Noons wasn’t, because he had been drinking. The three thugs went right at Noons and started to put a real hurt on him. In the midst of this beat down, Mark is an observer. With his nose bleeding and eyes puffy, Noons looks up at Mark and pleads, “You’re not going to help?” 

Mark finally did help and reversed the momentum. In no time, the three hooligans were running off with their tails tucked between their legs. 

“As serious as a heart attack, Mark then says, “If you, on your own, were to beat up those clowns, what a front page story it would have made in the New York papers.” 

“I then asked, “You’re more interested in building my image, than my well being?”      

Noons continued with his story, “The problem was…”

“And still is!” added a mate.

“That when I’ve had a few drinks, I become…” At that point his mate replied, “a wus!” Noons finished, “No, relaxed, my reflexes seem to slow down and I can’t do anything.”

“Who remembers the time, this wise guy came in the gym and said he wanted to be a coach.” Mark said, “Sure, but you don’t mind showing us what you got?” He then had him get in the ring with Denis (Grachev) followed by myself. One after another we beat the crap out of the guy. After it was over, the guy goes up to Mark and asks, “Well, when do I start? And how much are you going to pay me?” Mark smiled, “Not so fast! Why don’t you come back tomorrow for a second interview?”

Carlos Baruch, City Boxing’s Manager/MMA & Jiu Jitsu instructor: “I’m sure several of you are familiar with Mark’s unique, negotiating style. That one phrase he always relied on, “Come on, that deal is Bull Sh__ and you know it!”

David Ventura, owner of the Undisputed Fitness Gyms, in North Park and Downtown (at this point a major competitor of City Boxing) spoke in glowing terms of Mark: “On his arrival in San Diego, Mark joined a workout gym and above the gym was the newly opened Boxing Club. That’s where we met. I was 19 and he wanted me to give him boxing lessons. 

“When I asked, which day of the week do you want to train. He said everyday. He was always in a hurry. I remember I was always hurting my hand on his hard head. Why? Because he always wanted to spar and he could never go easy. Always going full bore and he’d try to rip your head off. At the time, he was teaching a client weight lifting and we became really good friends.  

“When he decided to open his gym, he came to me and asked if I wanted to get involved. I remember the incredible people he had training there. At the time, Dean Lister was a major star in MMA. Together with Lister, they talked Brandon Vera into moving here from Chicago. The owner of the fight club in El Cajon started there. You had all these top guys, Lister, Vera, the Brazilian champion Carlos Baruch. Jhanix Alviz, Tony Palafox and Rudy Silva who later moved on to Victory MMA. Vera opened up the Alliance Training Center in Chula Vista. Since they all connect back to City Boxing, it is like one big family. City Boxing was the incubator for all of these gyms. That’s a connection they’ll always have. The idea was to open a gym with real boxers, real Muay Thai fighters, real MMA/Jiu Jitsu fighters and they did.

Fellow gym owners Brandon Vera (l) and David Ventura (r) had nothing but nice things to say about Mark Dion even though they were always caught up in a fierce battle for the same coaches and gym members.

Fellow gym owners Brandon Vera (l) of the Alliance Training Center in Chula Vista and David Ventura Jr. (r) of the Undisputed Fitness Gyms in North Park and Downtown had nothing but nice things to say about Mark Dion even though they were always caught up in a fierce battle for the same instructors and gym members.

“Fast forward: Mark owned a condo on Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood where he became a major player, a ladies man. And guts – boy did he have guts, especially when it involved the latest fashion. He was like the West Coast version of Joe Namath. He once wore these tight, black leather pants to go clubbing. I’ll never forget that. They cost $1,000. 

“Then he wore these bikini like swim trunks to the pool and all the ladies were staring. My jaw dropped. He certainly had this penchant for nice things. Cars – he’d always have the best – the black Mercedes replaced the Jeep Grand Cherokee and then it was back to the CLK Class Mercedes.” 

“Mark was like a brother to me. He had that one of kind personality. Always confident in everything he did. At the same time people would say he was hardcore, a tenacious business man. He could easily fill in as a guest on that reality show “Shark Tank.”

“You were never going to beat him. He never went to bed without his I’s dotted and T’s crossed. He not only schooled me, he schooled everybody. Forget the fighters, the list of managers who went on to become a success with either their own gym or someone else’s, is also a long one. I’ll never forget Mark. He made me a stronger man. I will always love him for that. 

“We loved Mark for that extra dimension he provided. He was so unique. The possibilities of a visit to his stomping grounds in Hollywood or a day at the beach could be boundless. In other words, get ready for the unexpected. I remember all the crazy times we had on the Sunset Strip. When we went clubbing, it was like going out on the town with Michael Jackson.

“When you think about it, almost every gym owner, every boxing instructor, every Muaythai and MMA instructor in town or around San Diego had their beginnings at City Boxing. I mentioned Lister and Alviz but left out Sergio Melendrez and his son Adrian plus Juan Miranda who’s now working at the Alliance Training Center; Juan Medina Jr. who owns Bound Boxing; Dave Nielsen, who owns American Boxing in Pacific Beach; you also have Jose Cital of Cital Boxing & Nutrition; and myself (Dave Ventura Jr,) at the Undisputed North Park and Downtown. I’m sure there’s more. He was a pioneer in blending all the fighting sports, Muaythai, MMA and Boxing.”      

Photo shows the Town Hall in Mark Dion's hometown of Hampton, New Hampshire. Another former resident of note was

Town Hall in Mark Dion’s hometown of Franklin, New Hampshire. Also born in Franklin: Daniel Webster one of the most famous and influential orators of his day who served both in the U. S. Congress and Senate.

Back in Franklin, New Hampshire, a Memorial Service was held Saturday, February 15, 2014, at 12 p.m. at the Thibault-Neun Funeral Home in Franklin. Franklin is a small town with a population that ranges from 8,500 to 8,700 residents. Following the Memorial Service, there was a celebration of life and luncheon at the Lochmere Country Club in Lochmere, Belknap County, New Hampshire.

As you might imagine, a great many people responded with earnest, heart felt words on Mark Dion’s passing. For the sake of brevity, we’re only going to mention a sampling of the over 350 messages.

Dani Treiger Ferreira (Friday, January 31, 2013, on the day Mark Dion passed away): “Today is a very sad and painful day. I lost my good friend who was struggling to live each day. He kept fighting until he could fight no longer. He was a warrior!

“He has been inspiring me every single day. His passing makes me think about life and what really matters. Why have so much pride? Why not say I LOVE YOU, I CARE ABOUT YOU, I MISS YOU? What’s the real value of things and our priorities? 

“You know what life is and you know it’s too short to waste. Love and take care of those who are dear to you, no matter what! Because you never know what happens tomorrow.

“Mark, I LOVE YOU SO MUCH! Thanks for everything you did for me and my family. It is hard to find a human being like you! We are going meet you one day! God bless you forever! You will never been forgotten!”

Brandon Vera: “Rest In Peace Mr. Mark Dion…..

“No Negative comments, like Rudeboy has said. Love him or hate him, MMA in So Cal would be nothing where it is today without the dream and visions of this man.

“I would love for it to be known around the world that This Man is remembered as the God Father of MMA here in San Diego….!!!! There were others trying before him, but, no one did it like him. Rest in Peace Mr. Dion thank you for causing all of this!!!!!!!! Thank you.”

Ted Johnson, former owner of the Undisputed Gym at 16th and K Streets: “I remember the day he walked into my first gym. I always liked him. He was a good guy. RIP!”

Tony Taitague: “Mark Dion became a big part of my life. He will always be loved and missed.”

Branson Cyphers: “I loved him like a brother and I wish I could have spent more time with him.”

Paul Costella: “Mark Dion is THE MAN! Bro’s for life. Heart of a lion, and a man among men… One love.”

Kevin Fronczek: “Rest in peace Mark, you changed many lives and I will forever be thankful for all that you did for me. You will be missed.”

Jaclyn Angel Smith: “Thank you for your kind words and guidance when I was struggling to find my direction. And for pushing me when I needed it with my training. You will not be forgotten. You are an amazing soul.”

Carolyn Yeh: “Thanks for the gloves you gave me when I was a broke college student. I still have them.”

Peter Harris: “You’re in good company. Say Hi! to Alex Gomez for us. Rest in peace my friend.”

清水喬之: “Rest in peace, Mark. I will never forget the wonderful times at City Boxing.

Wolf Man: “Thank you for everything you created. You definitely left your mark on this world.”

Justin Smith: “I am thankful that our lives crossed paths!”

Andres Rodriguez: “All your wise lectures will always be remembered.”

Jessica Lee Gonzales: “You did good, you accomplished much, now its time to rest in paradise…. AMEN.”

Dennie Sirard: “My brother, my family, my friend! Best friends forever!! Always in my heart.”

Theresa Doucett Lefevre: “Near Franklin, NH. Rest in peace Mark Dion. You no longer have to suffer from such a horrible disease. I know you’re probably raising hell up there in Heaven. (lol) Rest easy, my friend. Till we meet again.”

Beatrice Womack: “I’m a nurse and when I have a patient with ALS that whole disease process is really heart-breaking as they pretty much stay in their right mind but become totally dependent and need a lot of care!”

Two of Mark Dion's most famous warriors have to be light heavyweight Denis Grachev (l) and super welterweight Chris Chatman (r). Photo: Jim Wyatt

Two of Mark Dion’s most famous warriors light heavyweight Denis Grachev (l) and super welterweight Chris Chatman (r). Photo: Jim Wyatt

Chris “Last Chapter” Chatman: “Right up until the final week, Mark was working trying to get me a fight. You can’t get any more dedicated than that! If you knew Mark Dion or were a member of one of his City Boxing gyms, put his logo up on your Facebook account for a week to honor him. He was a good friend and will be missed dearly. Rest in peace Mark. You were loved.”

Joe Delgadillo: “He was the first guy that I ever talked to, 13 years ago, when I got into training. R.I.P. Mark.”

Robert Grigg: “Wow! He brings up a lot of emotions for me. Rest in peace.”

Karen Doucett Ulrich: “It was great to see everyone at Mark Dion’s funeral (February 15, 2014) near Franklin, New Hampshire), he had SO many friends! Rest In Peace, Mark.”

Rick & Tracy Dion: “Thank you all. This is great. I don’t think anyone back home here in New Hampshire had any idea how amazing Mark was. Thank you for this.”

Other notable people who had Lou Gehrig’s disease include: Boxing Champions Ezzard Charles and Scott Le Doux, MLB Hall of Fame pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter, actor David Niven, Senator Jacob Javits of New York, and the Chairman of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong.

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