Barbarians attract other barbarians. When we get out of the house and do what we’re drawn to do, we find our tribe.
"We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding --'tribes.' This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival."
-- Sebastian Junger, Author of Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
Inside a warehouse gym just east of Compton and along the rusted southern edge of Los Angeles, Liz Freel towers above a 500-pound barbell. Wiping sweat from her tattooed scalp, she tightens her weight belt, chalks her callused hands, and stares down at the weight. She is ready to deadlift a quarter-ton of iron.
The aggressive cancer and chemo treatments take a momentary exit from Liz’s body. So too does the murder of her husband, the death of her parents, the anorexia that almost killed her, and the time she put a gun to her head – these grim memories all take their leave. Yet, the iron remains. The iron does not offer sympathy. The iron lays quiet. It is there for her.
As a powerlifting crowd gathers, Liz juts her head forward, pins her ears back and grasps her steel prey. On “Lift,” she pulls like her life depends on it. 500 pounds leaves the floor. Clinging to it with a vise-grip, Liz becomes a human crane pulling its max load. Her body shakes and blood vessels burst like gaskets as she tugs the iron inch by bloody inch. Through burning muscles and a glowing soul, Liz pulls, and she pulls, and by God, she pulls!
Dropping the weight, Liz blacks out.
Blinking beneath the warehouse lights and regaining consciousness, she turns to a cheering crowd. Amidst berserker screams and wild hugs, 300-pound goliaths begin to cry. Welcome home barbarians. Welcome to Fellowship at a hardcore gym.
Drawn to Iron
A few years ago, I hatched an idea to write a coffee table book entitled, Drawn to Iron: A Photographic Journey into America’s Most Hardcore Gyms. After writing the outline, I hired a photographer and visited one of the most hardcore gyms on earth: Metroflex Gym LBC (Long Beach City) in South Los Angeles – where the aforementioned Liz Freel deadlifted 500 pounds. After a two-day photo shoot and interviewing the gym’s passionate owner and a few inspiring members, I completed a book proposal featuring Metroflex as a sample chapter. One day I will publish Drawn to Iron. In the meantime, I’m dedicating this week’s post to the Fellowship inside that remarkable gym.
Metroflex LBC Gym
“Build it and they will come” --Field of Dreams
When I emailed the Metroflex LBC owner, Eddie Avakoff, and explained that I’d like to feature his gym in my book project, he immediately invited me down to Long Beach. (Eddie recently moved Metroflex to a Long Beach adjacent city: Hawaiian Gardens.) Heading south to Metroflex, I drove through the blue-collar guts of Los Angeles. Located just east of Compton along the southern edge of LA County, this self-declared “Hardcore Training Facility” had it all -- a steel cage for MMA, Olympic lifting platforms, 200-pound dumbbells, and pull-up bars fastened beneath giant garage doors big enough to drive a Mac truck through. Within its barbed wire perimeter, the gym’s rear parking lot resembled a gladiator academy of concrete and steel. Throwing spears protruded from hay bale targets while concrete orbs scattered out like 300-pound marbles across the cracked asphalt. Other weapons of war include sledgehammers to swing, monster truck tires to flip, and battered kegs of beer to heave. Art murals painted on the gym’s interior walls mix comic book violence with urban graffiti. Flags from states, countries, and military units – plus a giant middle finger on a black flag -- hang from the gym’s rafters. Peppered between the aggressive artwork are wall scribblings that include, “You Are Not Special” and “Squat Till You Puke.” When I first entered this thunder dome, I heard Pantera blasting from the speakers and saw a powerlifting coach [Liz Freel] screaming instructions to lifters through a megaphone. Inside Metroflex, I could feel the love. People shouting back and forth across the gym, lifters giving each other bro hugs, dogs walking by squat racks, and the same type of shit-talking and back-slapping you’ll find inside any infantry platoon. Then I met Eddie.
Eddie Avakoff – Owner of Metroflex Long Beach
After shaking Eddie’s hand, I asked, “How did you start this gym?”
He said he moved to LA from the San Francisco Bay Area in 2011. A lifelong fitness fanatic, former competitive triathlete, and current MMA fighter, he dreamed of one day owning a gym. “When I told my parents I’m moving to LA to open a gym,” he said, “they thought I was crazy.” When he did move, Eddie faced one big problem: money. “I couldn’t afford any property inside LA,” he told me. “So my realtor found this space on the industrial side of Long Beach. The second I walked in I knew I’d found my gym. The big warehouse, the neighborhood… it’s gritty as hell.” With little money, Eddie had no choice but to live in his gym. “I’d sleep on the gym floor and each morning, the few members I had would beat on the door to awaken me. Then I’d roll out of bed, let them in, and start squatting barefoot!” Through his intensity and commitment, Eddie was not only building a hardcore culture at his gym, he was building a tribe.
When I asked about his gym’s mission, he said, “I want a place for the freaks to train! When I built this gym, I had a vision to have a bodybuilding, powerlifting, Olympic lifting, and strong man gym all rolled into one. I wanted everyone to feel at home here.”
“Feel at home here.” That stuck with me. As we talked, I asked for stories evoking his gym’s “at home” culture. After sharing the remarkable story of Liz Freel deadlifting 500 pounds amidst thundering applause, Eddie told me another story from years before. This story epitomized the Fellowship at Metroflex Gym.
Desperate for more weights and equipment, Eddie heard about a gym in San Jose that was closing. Seeing an opportunity, he somehow gathered enough money and bought the gym’s remaining weights and equipment. Doing so presented another problem: the 400-miles of highway between Long Beach and San Jose.
“I had a semi-truck on loan for exactly 24 hours,” he explained. “So on Friday morning, I drove north to San Jose, loaded the weight, and then hurried back to LA.” With the clock ticking on his rental, Eddie had to offload all those plates, dumbbells, and equipment late Friday night. So before he left, Eddie asked a few Metroflex members if they’d meet him at the gym at 11pm to help offload the gear.
And then came another problem: Eddie did not arrive to Metroflex until 2am on Saturday morning. By the time he drove into the gym parking lot, he had been awake for almost 24 hours straight and expected few (if any) members to be waiting for him. What he saw next blew his mind.
“When I pulled up to the gym in the middle of the night, I saw at least thirty members waiting to help me. I couldn’t believe it! As we unloaded the weight, a plate even fell on one guy’s foot, shattering it. He was in a cast for six months, and all he said was, ’All good man, but my girlfriend won’t let me offload your weights anymore!’” With a full heart, Eddie took a breath and told me this: “Watching them all work for the love of their gym showed me that we’ve created something here that’s powerful.”
What Eddie created is something that’s often lost in our modern world and something we all desperately need: Fellowship. Barbarians attract barbarians, and Eddie attracted plenty.
Here are just a few of the barbarians I met a few years back at Metroflex LBC.
As we age and our adult responsibilities grow, we often just want to be left alone. Retreating into our homes, it’s always easier to stay in than go out. It’s always easier to watch the game than go hiking with a friend. It’s always easier to catch up on work emails than grab breakfast with an affable colleague. Sure, we need our alone time, but we also need Fellowship – and I encourage you to make time for both.
Get out there and find your tribe. And if you can’t find one, build one with a mission. When you do, they will come.
Eddie Avakoff did just that. Despite the naysayers, sleeping on his gym floor, and all the financial hurdles, Eddie built a tribe of barbarians who love to work out.
As we ended our conversation, he looked at me in the eye and said this: “I run the coolest weight-lifting fraternity on the planet. I will die before I let this gym close.”