Fists and Starts: Nowlin is poised to launch his film career.
Fists and Starts: Nowlin is poised to launch his film career. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Derrick Nowlin is still working on the middle-finger pull-up. Ever since watching another man lift his entire body weight using only those two fingers—video on YouTube—Nowlin has been on a mission to equal the feat. “That’s my next task,” he says. “I can’t do it yet. I tried it, and I felt like someone was trying to saw my fingers off.”

It takes more than a torturous, amputation-level hurt to stop Nowlin. “I’ve never lost a fight in my life,” he says. “I’m not saying that to brag. I’m saying that because it’s a simple fact.” Though only 5-foot-8, Nowlin can front-kick a standard basketball net. He does push-ups on his thumbs. If he pulls his fist back one inch, he can send a man so hard into a wimpy plaster drywall that it necessitates a call to maintenance. “The next thing I know, I’m going to be floating,” says Nowlin.

The next thing has always been a troubling thing for Nowlin. A badass with a penchant for theatricality, Nowlin has been chasing martial arts stardom since childhood. The big time, it’s seemed, has forever been one sick trick away.

When Nowlin was a kid, he couldn’t do much of anything. “I was a little kid who was afraid of everyone,” says Nowlin. “I was scared of my own shadow.” In 1974, a vision of martial arts stardom came to the undersized 9-year-old in the form of Jim “Dragon” Kelly, star of the Blaxploitation kung fu flick Black Belt Jones. Nowlin began quietly honing his skills until a 1982 all-school talent show at Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High, when the shy little kid emerged as a contender. “I jumped onstage and kind of lost my mind,” says Nowlin. “All of a sudden, I was doing back flips and throwing fireballs and swinging weapons. I got some strobe lights.”

After the performance, Nowlin began assembling a group of classmates also eager to hit, kick, and break things. The crew, dubbing themselves “Momentum,” forged a mixed martial arts performance group that, according to Nowlin’s vision, would stay clear of drugs, alcohol, and schoolyard fist-fighting in order to do “crazier things” with their bodies. The group would travel to area schools, demonstrating how their physical acumen could be used for good, not evil. Besides, administering beatings was boring compared with Nowlin’s goal of total physical dominance. “I can punch through bricks. I don’t need to hit a human being,” says Nowlin. “Once you start breaking cement, you really have to stop punching people. It’s too easy.”

Each Momentum crew member established his own unique fighting personality. There was Nowlin’s cousin, Carl “Tony” Stanton, “the big guy”; Ryan Forte, the light-as-air “anti-gravity man”; Bobby Lee, the reluctant showman; David Miller, “the fall guy,” who attacked every injury with the phrase “I am impervious to pain!” Nowlin, a compact, theatrical fighter, was the performer, taking his cue from Jim Kelly, Bruce Lee, and Prince. “Derrick was a big-time Prince fan,” says Momentum member Elgin Harris. “He dressed like Prince. He looked just like Prince.…He had the posters, the albums, everything. I mean, wow. He was really into Prince.” Nowlin was also the group’s natural leader. “Ricky is different. He’s a different breed of human,” says Miller. “He’s always been that way. I can remember when everyone else wanted to drink sodas or hang out, but he was only interested in practicing constantly. He was like, ‘I’m not gonna touch soda.’ He’s very strange.”

Momentum’s performances, a theatrical mix of choreographed fight scenes, special effects, and Prince-centric soundtracks, pushed the boys toward sicker and sicker stunts. “I broke a brick for the first time in front of a live audience,” recalls Harris. “I had never tried it before. I said, ‘I want to break a brick. A concrete brick.’ Derrick was like, ‘No way. You haven’t practiced this.’ I said, ‘I think I can do it.’ And if I messed up, I was gonna tell the audience that I was just playing.” Failure meant compromising the no-nonsense role Harris had established within Momentum. “I was the strongest. I was the street fighter,” says Harris. “Oh yeah, I was the evil one. The one that didn’t play.” Fortunately, Harris was not playing. “I ended up shattering the brick and the cement that was holding it,” he says. “It’s been history ever since.”

But after graduation from T.C. Williams, Nowlin’s band of street fighters began to splinter. At a performance during Nowlin’s freshman’s year of college, he and Lee announced publicly that the group had disbanded, not bothering to tell the rest of the group. For most, dreams of stardom ended there. “By then, a lot of us had settled into family life. Normal life,” says Stanton. Stanton became a chef. Harris took a job as a mail carrier. Forte now works as an administrative officer in an STD clinic. Lee works as an interior designer and writes infomercials for weight-loss drugs.

Only Nowlin worked to keep the dream alive. In college, he adopted the nickname “Dragon Chyld.” In 1987, he dropped out of George Mason University with a few outstanding credits and traveled to Los Angeles with Stanton, where he spent a month shopping around a Momentum demo tape and expanding his mind. Each day, Nowlin watched a Venice Beach street performer collect glass bottles, smash them, and then twist his feet into the shards before walking away unharmed. When Nowlin approached the man to learn his technique, “He said to me, ‘What does broken glass do to you?’ and I said, ‘It cuts you.’ He said ‘No, it doesn’t. You cut yourself on broken glass.’” The man told Nowlin that he, too, could walk on glass. “He said, ‘When you close your eyes and see yourself on the glass, and you’re not bleeding, that’s when you’re ready.’” The experience inspired Nowlin to continue to conquer the impossible. Now, he practices push-ups on beds of broken glass. “I’ve had friends try it. They all cut themselves,” he says. “I’ve never cut myself.”

From there, Nowlin chased after any other martial arts stunt he could find, from one-handed pull-ups to advanced weaponry training in nunchucks, knives, and sticks. “After a time, [breaking] boards and cement blocks got a little boring because everyone does that,” says Nowlin. “So I started breaking rocks.”

So far, Nowlin’s physical talents have afforded him only brushes with the big-time. Nowlin’s first role after moving to Los Angeles was a bit part in 1991’s New Jack City, where he played a drug addict. “I was so thrilled that I called my parents and said, ‘I’m gonna be a crackhead!’” he recalls. But after scoring several other roles—including “Diablo Gang Member No. 1” in the 1994 movie Undefeatable—that pigeonholed him as a deadbeat, Nowlin returned to Virginia to rethink his career path. “Where are the movies that focus on the positive aspects of martial arts? Everyone goes home cheering that guy can kick really hard. What about films that have philosophy like The Karate Kid? I guess that’s the only one that really said anything.…the second and third, meh. But the first one is more like what I want to do in film.”

So far, that film has been elusive. In 1991, Nowlin appeared in an extended trailer for Cobalto Force, a movie that was never made. According to Alexandria director Carlos Roman, Cobalto Force was to follow a band of United Nations-assembled international rescue specialists on a mission to El Salvador to recapture a group of hostage nuns. Though the movie failed to catch Hollywood’s eye, Roman says Nowlin was a natural onscreen talent. “He was very impressive,” says Roman, who holds an eighth-degree black belt in karate. “I would compare him to maybe Chuck Norris, but when Chuck Norris learned how to act. Not early Chuck Norris. You watch Chuck Norris’ first movie, that will make you throw up.”

Now 43, Nowlin is living in Lorton, working as a personal trainer and strengthening his middle fingers. In his spare time, Nowlin dabbles in videos of his own—YouTube projects that declare him “The Real Man Of Steel!” and awaits the viewer who will recognize his skills. The moment could come at any time; just last year, Nowlin filmed several fight scenes for College Park, a film by Woodbridge director Angel Sepulveda. The release date is yet to be determined.

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