Story from Feb. 26, 2008
By Matt Hennie
Rod Llaneza doesn't shy away from a fight. In fact, he enjoys them, at least inside the ring.
Through physical challenges (including a broken hand, toes and foot) and personal ones (growing up gay but covering it up for years), Llaneza persevered and won a national amateur kickboxing championship in 2001, crowning his rise to the top of a physically brutal and hyper-masculine sport. Not bad for a scrappy guy who stands 6 feet tall and weighed about 170 pounds when he competed.
"The fight game is the most manliest, mano-a-mano, one-man sport you can do," says Llaneza, who's called Atlanta home for nearly 12 years. "Every time I fight, I win the award for the best fight of the night. But I am really a quiet person. Once that fight is over, I am a totally different person."
Llaneza's confidence showed at an early age when, at 10, he would watch boxers train across the street from the pizzeria where his family would dine on Friday evenings in Washington, D.C. After school, he would sneak away on his bike, sit outside and watch some more. After he laughed at a teen practicing in the ring, he was invited in and challenged to do better. Llaneza, now 36, never looked back.
"I thought it was the coolest thing. My parents were highly against it. They saw me as the baby and not as some fighter," he says. "It wasn't until I got out of high school that I started thinking about the science behind it."
As his interest grew in full contact kickboxing - the sport that combines martial-arts-style kicks and Western-boxing-style punches that must land above the belt - Llaneza also battled with his sexual orientation, knowing he was gay but arguing internally that he "wasn't supposed to be." Llaneza turned that struggle into the energy that fed his training and desire to excel in his new sport.
"I kept it to myself and became bitter. I came to terms that I would be a lonely person and wow, this sucks. I kept to myself and kept it to myself but directed all that bitterness into training. I love exerting myself. I train like a freak," he says.
Llaneza is passionate when conversation turns to kickboxing, no doubt rekindling the desire that helped him defend the USA Amateur Champion belt from the Professional Karate Commission, a sanctioning body for kickboxing and karate, for four years until he retired in 2004 with a 19-2 record. When talk is of kickboxing, Llaneza displays a confident, passionate and even cocky side that served him well in the ring for kickboxing or boxing, where he captured a Golden Gloves title for Georgia.
"I love to perform and go out into the ring. I don't really care about winning and losing. It's all about the performing. I pride myself on being sharp. You'll never be bored watching my fight," he says.
Different outside the ring
But Llaneza's tone changes when talk is of more personal matters, from his move into a Peachtree Street loft in Midtown to kick-start his gay life after retiring from kickboxing, his boyfriend of more than a year and his 4-year-old Blue Razor's Edge Pit Bull named Cassius Killer. His cadence slows, he sits instead of paces and he talks more softly.
"I don't normally come across as some jock or athlete or that I'm going to beat you up or something. My appearance would show that I am the opposite of everything I am," Llaneza says.
A desire to keep to himself meant Llaneza pursued the sport alone, often without the team and network of support that other fighters use to their advantage. It also kept him from developing a large fan base. It partly served his desire to perform on his own terms, Llaneza says, but it also helped forge his dual personality of a champion amateur kickboxer and gay man.
Llaneza moved to Atlanta in 1996 to expand the family's appliance business. Alone, he turned to a grueling schedule of working during the day and training late into the night at his home in the suburbs about 35 miles northeast of the city.
"I had a house in Snellville and would train at 3 in the morning. I would turn my house into a training facility. It's all about being a free spirit and being outside the norm," Llaneza says. "When I moved to Atlanta, I didn't know anybody and had to do something with my time. I'd run the business and after I'd run the business, I'd go train and after I'd train, I'd go home. That was my life."
But he was also struggling with being gay, facing a tug-of-war over his sexual orientation that had him doubting his abilities in the ring while also wanting to explore it, win a championship and come out to the kickboxing community. Llaneza thought the platform that came with a title would allow him to come out as gay and make an impact in the sport. He got a taste of living openly with the gay friends he slowly made and wanted more yet the pressures of competing and the anxiety it fed within Llaneza kept him quiet.
"I was concerned about losing a fight and people saying that he lost the fight because he is gay," Llaneza says. "But I wanted to be the one voice that makes a difference. I wanted to win a world title so I can have a platform to come out and say, ‘Y'all got beat by a sissy.' I would have the credentials to say, and have the platform to say, I am the best I am at the most manliest sport and be able to say I'm gay."
Kept sexuality private
So he trained, driven by an intensity seen in some of kickboxing memorabilia that decorates his loft. Like his climb to the national amateur title, his home is a study in contrasts. There's Cassius, the 85-pound Pit Bull with a fierce appearance but who happily plays with visitors like any other energetic puppy. Posters from the past promoting Llaneza's upcoming fights are framed and hanging on the walls, not far from the hydroponic pineapple plants on the window ledge. He's a bit of a secret gardener, too.
Then there's him. He weighs in just north of 150 pounds, not much for his 6-foot frame. He still bares an intricate tattoo on his upper right arm and another on his stomach. Photos of that artwork are scattered around the loft. There's also his computer setup, which is where he does the graphic design and marketing work that now supports him. Occasionally, he picks up a bartending gig at a nearby gay bar, something he did more of when he moved to Atlanta and was still competing.
"I trained like a beast, so passionately. It's a freak show when I am training. I get off on it by having people be impressed by my intensity in the ring," Llaneza says. "When you fight, it's like on your mark, get set, go. It's a sprint. When you have these crazy rednecks looking to take your head off, you've got to do it. When I train, I am serious. If I'm not about to puke, then I know I'm not training."
Llaneza says his chance at a title came as a fluke. He was slowly meeting people in the kickboxing industry, seeking out top fighters to train with and jockeying for a better position. But when opportunity came calling in 2001, he hadn't been training much. A few days before a scheduled title fight in South Carolina, he received a call from a panicked promoter who needed a fill-in. When Llaneza arrived at the arena, he was rushed inside with no chance to warm up and had to ask a friend to wrap his hands. With expectations set pretty low, he turned it on and scored an upset to take the title.
"I don't believe in violence and I don't believe people should put their hands on anyone. This is a sport. But I don't have a problem busting some dude in the face and knocking his lights out - in the ring. For me to get hit, it doesn't phase me. My nose doesn't break for some reason. I don't have a problem busting some dude in the face. I'm not afraid to hit them. I'm just weird like that," he says.
Now with a title, Llaneza thought he could reach even higher. Tempted to come out, he hesitated over concerns of being shunned by the sport and missing a shot at a world championship. For the years he held his kickboxing crown, Llaneza continued to keep his athletic and personal lives mostly separate.
"Eventually my aspirations were that I would win the title and I won the title. And then I kept going and contemplated if I could win the world title. But I didn't want to make [being gay] too public. I did want to keep it under wraps so I wouldn't be blackballed. It was hard enough to get fights as it was. I didn't want that extra liability," he says.
But after defending the kickboxing crown for four years, Llaneza says it was time to fully live the part of his life kept sheltered for so long, so he retired. But he often considers stepping back into the sport to resume the quest for a bigger title and to make good on the desire to tell the fight community that their champion is gay. For now, the "love-hate relationship" Llaneza says he has with the sport keeps that chapter of his life closed. Carrying the title for four years, though, brought him the confidence to say he's gay - at least outside the ring.
"I'd tell people I was a fighter, but I wondered if I was a fighter. But I'm gay. I wasn't pretending to be big and bad, I was big and bad. After I got over the self doubt, there was no stopping me," Llaneza says.