Darkness Before Dawn: A Fighter’s Road to Recovery
All photos by Stefan Kocev


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Darkness Before Dawn: A Fighter’s Road to Recovery

Wrestling champion Ryan Lang talks about addiction, cheating NCAA drug tests, and using martial arts on the road to recovery.
May 5, 2014, 5:00pm

Ryan Lang graduated from Northwestern University as a highly decorated Big 10 champion, and was ranked second in the country. In the six years since, after moving to California, his life as an Olympic hopeful quickly fell into addiction and homelessness. He found Brazilian jiu jitsu somewhere in between, and is now the House Manager of Bodhi Casa, a sober living facility in Hermosa Beach. There, Ryan and a young all-male team of recovering patients are using mixed martial arts as a bearing to cope with mental health, drug addiction, and depression.


I met Ryan and Stefan Kocev—a black belt under Kron Gracie, a photographer, and owner of the sober house—on the Westside of Los Angeles to show me the places where he found his way back above water, and became a better fighter in the process.

"I grew up in Cleveland as an athlete. My dad put me in all kinds of sports—baseball wrestling, soccer, swimming, and running. I had to be the best on the team, in the city, in the state, in the country. I went to all of the extra practices. It was a discipline just to be training for something at all times. I learned sacrifice really early on, but there's a sense of being antisocial that plays into that. My rewards and consequences were based on my performance. For baseball, we had a batting cage in the basement. When I was just a little kid, my dad would make me bat for an hour for every strike I had during the games.

Going into high school I choose to wrestle full time. I wanted to be an Olympic Champion. I went to St. Edward in Lakewood, Ohio, which was the number one ranked school for wrestling at the time. It was a Jesuit, all guy, shirt-and-tie kind of school. It was really hard. I used wrestling to channel everything that was frustrating me. But wrestling produced results in my life and I grew my whole identity around it. I became the best. I won four state championships in high school, I was junior national champ in Freestyle, and was the number one recruit going into college. Back then I was only drinking. It was just celebrating."


My family influenced me to go to an Ivy League school. I wanted to go to Cornell, but my dad told me that if I did I would have to pay for it, since it was a more of an academically focused college, and they didn't have wrestling scholarships—only grants you have to pay back. So, I went to Northwestern. My parents wanted me be a dentist, or a doctor, or a lawyer."

"College is where I started smoking a lot of weed and partying. I remember making calls on road trips with some of the other guys, one of whom is on the Olympic team now. You know those Sports Illustratedadvertisements that say… Hey, if you know someone who has a problem with marijuana, please call this helpline? Well, we would call and mimic parents while we were smoking weed, and be like…Hey, my son is having problems smoking weed, but I don't know how to get through to him because he's the best kid in the country right now in sports, he has an academic scholarship, and he's getting straight A's. We don't know what to do! The people on the other line would get so frustrated.

After college, I was traveling to the Olympic training centers in the summer and competing all over the place. Within all of that there's a lot of partying, like that annoying Instagram meme says… work hard, play hard.

I started to become a lot more irresponsible, and the effects of partying started to catch up with me. I was coping emotionally with drugs; every loss became more and more traumatic. There wasn't a resolution to things I was going through anymore. I didn't know this at the time because I didn't have anything in place to identify it. It was just a struggle."

"One day during training, I met someone at the club who told me there were some MMA fighters from Chicago who wanted to learn wrestling in exchange for jiu jitsu lessons. I didn't know anything about MMA at the time. Sure, I had watched the first UFC, I had seen Rickson's brother tap out all those huge guys. My dad had brought the VHS tapes home, but wrestling was in the forefront. Wrestling ruled all.

The last couple years in college I was smoking tons of weed everyday. I was using drugs on training days and not using them on competition days. That was my rationalization and it was working. I was number one in the country, and undefeated.


I had all sorts of ways of cheating the drug tests. They had only given me urine analysis. One time, I even brought my girlfriends miniature Doberman Pinscher in a dog carrying case and hid someone's clean urine in it.

The first time I failed a drug test, I had initially passed the pee test. It was in the summer and I was taking summer class. It was strange because [the administration] called me in the next day to take a hair sample test. I failed for marijuana, MDMA, and cocaine. This was in 2005. My consequence was (and I wasn't the only one) suspension for 20 percent of the season, and a week or two off from practice. It was only for the first couple of tournaments. I never failed a drug test again. How did I never fail again? Because I wasn't drug tested again. I never changed my habits."

Ryan has since apologized and thanked the Northwestern staff for their generosity, forgiveness, and kindness to him.

"I was driven to compete in MMA. You can break even financially wrestling, and if you are an Olympic champion of course you are taken care of, however, it seemed like MMA offered a shot at a little more… and I wanted more. It's a grand idea and it was selfishly generated and so brand new. Addiction is like that too—wanting more and only thinking of yourself.

I started traveling all over the country doing wrestling camps, seminars, and teaching kids. I had a blast. I was smoking weed everyday at the bare minimum. I was doing coke, sometimes by myself, and sometimes with Olympic champions and superstar athletes.


I had visited Santa Barbara and loved it out there. My options were to accept a grad position and teach wrestling at a college, or move to California. Los Angeles seemed awesome. I had gotten a taste of jiu jitsu and boxing, and California seemed like a good place to start learning. I was also enticed by the possibility of meeting beautiful women, by the money, and every possible imaginative thing about L.A.—coming from someone who grew up in Cleveland.

I visited some of the MMA academies in the area, but I picked Rickson Gracie's. I had watched Choke and I liked the message he seemed to carry with his skill set. He was sociable, he had that mysticism around him, and he seemed like he connected emotionally with his students. What's cooler than Rickson in a white robe with no logos, walking toward the ring at PRIDE? Nothing. He is jiu jitsu. That image stuck out in my mind."

"I showed up at the academy on Wilshire. It felt so challenging, but the guys were so encouraging and happy that I was there that I felt a sense of brotherhood. It felt like a tribal place. And I felt really vulnerable physically for the first time in a long time. It was all with the gi, so it brought a new found sense of learning how to train. It was more complicated than wrestling.

I never got a job coaching. I was teaching practices and seminars here and there. My family didn't want me to fight, still don't. I was getting very numb and vacant. I was still a good person, I felt like I could connect with others, but I felt empty. I was living in LA, and falling in love with jiu jitsu, but things started to go bad."


One night while blacked out drunk, Ryan was injured in the Radisson hotel by LAX. A piece of metal hit his eye while he walked through a dark construction zone in a parking lot. He doesn't remember what happened exactly, but he had to go to the hospital. The doctors said he could never train again. It was a life changing experience for him.

"I was bed ridden, lost, and isolated. I just wanted to feel better, so I increased my drug use. And that's when coping with emotional instability, and my lack of resources, started to take me down," he explained.

"Everything in my life dissipated. I spent all my money on drugs. All of my decisions were catered to how I was going to get the next bag of weed, or what bars I was going to go to. I was cutting myself, standing outside the railing of balconies [thinking of suicide]. It got so bad I showed up to the academy one day with mascara on," Ryan said in a lighthearted tone.

Ryan's downward slip reached its low point one night while leaving a bar.

"I was a passenger in my own car. The driver was my drug dealer. A cop drove past us going the opposite direction. I was high on cocaine, smoking weed, and drunk. I didn't think it was a big deal, but then I saw the cop turn around. My dealer took off and all of a sudden it became a car chase. I believe my car was full of marijuana, cocaine, and weapons.

My dealer eventually stopped on Venice Blvd, a couple blocks from the 405. He took off and got away, and I was just sitting in my car with my hands up. There were four police officers with guns drawn and a helicopter shining a light on my car. I was arrested immediately. My parents got me out of jail the next day, and I was put on probation.


After I got out, I went back into the same life. I had an apartment in Hollywood and an apartment in Santa Monica, but I was living in a truck. I would go to a place and start to pay rent, then follow the drugs to another area and stop paying rent. I wasn't dealing the drugs, but I was doing them all. I was also manipulating doctors into giving me Adderall, Oxycodone, and Xanax prescriptions.

A few years later, I started living in a Chevy single cab truck that one of Rickson's students owned. Basically, I would be awake for a couple days and then crash in the truck for a couple days. I was afraid to go anywhere else. I became zoned in on really dark and safe places where I could continue to do drugs.

But, I was still hanging out at the academy. In retrospect, those guys completely saved my life, like angels holding me up. In saying that, I feel that it's part of my self-expression to live with enthusiasm and gratitude for that. It makes training jiu jitsu very enjoyable."

"I met Stefan at the academy. I remember being stoned and training with him thinking that he smelled like weed, when it was actually me. He had a really cool sober house to live in, and train out of, in Hermosa Beach. People would keep mentioning it to me, but it wasn't resonating. I kept going deeper and deeper into my addiction.

The owner of the truck I was crashing in finally reached out to Stefan and told me he was going to kick me out. So, he called me. Besides just feeling sick all the time, I was emotionally depressed and in despair. I didn't know what help would look like at the time, but I had faith, or a small amount of hope that there was something different out there. I wanted it, and Stefan had it all along. He asked me to be sober the next day and if I was, he would pick me up. I was sitting on the roof of this apartment building that I had put a futon on, watching the sunset. It was a beautiful moment. He picked me up the next morning. It was a Friday. I have been living there ever since."

Nowadays, Ryan and the gang are incorporating mixed martial arts into the recovery experience and treatment program of Bodhi Casa. It's a unique environment for young males fighting for a better life. Ryan and Stefan make everyone go to the gym, to the beach to surf, and encourage everyone to practice jiu jitsu and Muay Thai in the garage.

The goal is to not only treat addiction, and to help people get better, but also to provide exposure to other things and move towards goals in every area, not just ones dealing with addiction and recovery. The platform for this idea are the mats at the house.

"My cousin overdosed on heroin and died a few years ago. I was in the house for a couple months and was asked to be with a newer guy. He had just relapsed on heroin and we were sitting in the hot tub. I was holding his head up so he wouldn't drown. I looked down at my phone, and noticed that the date was the anniversary of my cousin's death. I'm like…Wow. For a long time, I had been wondering what it would have been like to be able to be there for my cousin, and if I could have done anything about it. In that moment, I felt like the whole thing was bigger than me."

Jiu jitsu forces you to live in the now. It clears your mind and focuses you on what is happening in that exact moment. Mixed martial arts are an extraordinary coping mechanism for the racing mind of the addict. It's an outlet to stress and fear. It clears the slate. "Addiction is a life and death situation, but I learned how to be totally calm in dangerous situations, and find a way to think as opposed to react. It's all about how you deal with that drowning feeling. Now, as a martial artist, realizing that I can be at the verge of that and be totally calm and think my way out of it, gives me the strength to stay sober," Ryan explains as we arrive at the Zen-inspired Hermosa Beach sober (and healthy) house.