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 seems so 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, Mark pulled up stakes and moved west to San Francisco. Convinced the Northwest was an ideal place to live, he settled in and 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 close friends.
Still feeling adventurous, in 1998, Mark moved south to La Jolla, CA to check out what people were calling the ideal climate, the wonderful eateries in town and to live closer to the beach.
During this period, Gong told several people 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.
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 then 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 hid under the bed until he finally shot himself.
Reports came later that the whole thing was a setup and the murderer had 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 Japanese gang who threatened 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 the memories, Mark made his move to San Diego permanent.
In 2001, with the help of a friend, David Ventura, he 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 also hired well respected boxing trainers like Pepe Morales from Mexico and former straw-weight World Champion Manny Melchor from the Philippines.
Respected in the boxing community, he even tried his luck, though unsuccessfully, at being a promoter.
Mark advised, motivated, and mentored his fighters, employees, and friends and worked hard to represent them in their cutthroat dealings with promoters. He became well known for his strong leadership, personality, loyalty and most of all, his honesty.
Mark, who traveled extensively, also visited some far off the beaten track places like the Philippines, South America, Greece, Jamaica and Israel.
Strong-willed and determined, his loyalty and motivation enabled him to acquire many of his dreams. He had an infectious smile. His image of being this tough guy beamed confidence. He enjoyed the finer things of life, fast cars, living by the beach, and great friends.
Getting back to his career: some of the best MMA fighters in the world started working out at his downtown and Pacific Beach locations. Hoping to hold on to these great fighters, he offered them free memberships if they’d become instructors. Some of the most legendary fighters in the fighting sports gave clinics and 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 friends 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 Mark Dion stories.
Thomas 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.”
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 very 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!”
And in reality, he 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. Noons, with his nose bleeding and eyes puffy, 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 asked, “You were more interested in building my image, than my well being?”
Noons continued with his story, “The problem was... “And still is!” said a mate. “That when I’ve had a few drinks, I become...” At that point his mate added, “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. The 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 (a City Boxing competitor) 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. Because they all connect back to City Boxing, it’s 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 and real MMA/Jiu Jitsu fighters.
“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 are now at the Alliance Training Center; Juan Medina Jr. owns Bound Boxing; Dave Nielsen, owns American Boxing; you also have Jose Cital of Cital Boxing & Nutrition; and myself at Undisputed North Park and Downtown. I’m sure there’s more. He was a pioneer in blending all three of the fighting sports, Muaythai, MMA and Boxing.”
Back in New Hampshire, a Memorial Service was held Saturday, February 15, 2014, at 12 p.m. at the Thibault-Neun Funeral Home in Franklin, N. H. Franklin is a small town with under 8,500 residents. Following that ceremony, there was a celebration of life and luncheon at the Lochmere Country Club in Lochmere, N.H.
As you might imagine, tons of people responded with kind words on Mark’s passing. For the sake of brevity, we’re only going to mention a sampling from the over 300 messages.
UFC fighter/gym owner 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.”
Gym owner 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!
Boxer 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.”
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.