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I was abusing drugs while top MMA wrestler – now The Rock's making film about me

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WHEN Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson wanted to challenge himself as an actor by exploring the pain of a struggle, he looked no further than cage-fighting star Mark Kerr.

Few sportspeople have dished out as much agony as two-time mixed martial arts heavyweight champion Mark — and suffered as much in return.

Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson is almost unrecognisable as Mark Kerr in movie, The Smashing Machine

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Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson is almost unrecognisable as Mark Kerr in movie, The Smashing MachineCredit: BackGrid
Mark Kerr wins the heavyweight title at UFC 14 in Alabama, 1997

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Mark Kerr wins the heavyweight title at UFC 14 in Alabama, 1997Credit: Getty
In production now, the film also stars Emily Blunt, above with Johnson, as Mark’s ex-wife Dawn Staples

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In production now, the film also stars Emily Blunt, above with Johnson, as Mark’s ex-wife Dawn StaplesCredit: Getty

The 19-stone man mountain pummelled opponents with his bare fists, gouged their eyes and headbutted them.

The WWE ring tussles that made The Rock famous look tame in comparison.

Now the Hollywood heavyweight, more used to playing comic action characters, will take to the screen as the legendary fighter in his first serious role.

I’m at a point in my career where I want to push myself in ways that I’ve not pushed myself in the past. I want to make films that matter, that explore humanity and explore struggle pain

Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson

And the 52-year-old hopes his full head of hair in The Smashing Machine isn’t the only thing that will surprise fans as he transforms into the deeply troubled lead ­character.

The Rock said: “I’m at a point in my career where I want to push myself in ways that I’ve not pushed myself in the past. I want to make films that matter, that explore humanity and explore struggle pain.”

The movie will chart how Mark — who in the Nineties worked out in the same gym as Johnson — wrestled his way to glory.

But steroids, painkillers and methadone turned this giant of the ring into a tearful wreck — even leaving him gasping for his life following an overdose.

In production now, the film also stars Emily Blunt as Mark’s ex-wife Dawn Staples, while world heavyweight boxing champion Oleksandr Usyk makes his acting debut as a Mixed Martial Arts rival.

In an exclusive interview Mark, who retired from the ring in 2009 and became a car dealer, reveals the depths he plummeted to after reaching the heights of MMA.

‘Dirty secret’

Born in Toledo, Ohio, the youngest of six children, he would grapple with his brother Matt from an early age and took up wrestling at school.

Dwayne Johnson fans think the actor looks ‘unrecognizable’ in the first look for upcoming movie The Smashing Machine

Even though he describes his dad Tom as an alcoholic, he says he came from a “great family” where his mum Mary “pushed me extrem­ely hard to succeed at sports”.

His sporting career took off while attending Syracuse University in New York State, and in 1992, at the age of 24, he won the US National Collegiate Athletic Association.

That led him to the infamous Foxcatcher wrestling centre run by millionaire John du Pont where Mark hoped to fulfill his dreams of reaching the Olympic team.

But four years later everything went horribly wrong.

Mark recalls: “In January 1996 my friend Dave Shultz was murdered by John Du Pont, the owner of the Foxcatcher facility who I had ­wrestled for.”

Eccentric and controlling, du Pont shot wrestler Dave, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist who had been ­training and coaching at his Pennsylvania gym.

No motive was established and du Pont later died in jail while serving 13-30 years for the murder. The sorry tale played out in 2014 movie Foxcatcher, starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo.

Later that January, Mark’s beloved mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer — succumbing to it in September 1996.

Then an injury destroyed his hopes of making the squad for that year’s Atlanta Olympics.

In need of cash, Mark turned to MMA, which in 1997, was a far more brutal sport than it is today.

Back then, no gloves were used and pretty much anything was allowed on the blood-streaked canvas, including Mark thumping another fighter after they slipped beyond the ropes.

That animal instinct was captured in a 2002 documentary about Mark, also titled The Smashing Machine.

In it, he states his attitude was: “I’m going to hurt him before he hurts me”.

The bouts were so violent that Senator John McCain branded the sport “human cockfighting”.

Along with other US politicians, he effectively had the Ultimate Fighting Championship — an American MMA promo firm — banned from television in 1996.

Mark recalls: “I remember going to look for VHS tapes for fighting. UFC videotapes were at the back of the video store right next to the pornography. It was that much of a dirty secret.”

In 1997, Mark won two UFC heavyweight titles in a row, the second victory just one minute into the fight. But the restrictions on TV money in the US led Mark to chase the bigger fight fees in Japan.

At the height of his career, he was earning more than £150,000 per bout.

His biggest clash came in 1999, against Ukrainian heavyweight Igor Vovchanchyn.

Igor broke the rules by kneeing Mark in the head while he was on the ground and it was ruled a “no contest”, effectively a draw.

You get to a point where you’re not taking in enough oxygen and your blood becomes like acid.

Mark Kerr

Even though gloves were introduced in 1997 and bans on hitting the spine, throat and back followed in 2001, the sport was still bone-crunching.

Rather than give his broken body the recovery time it needed, Mark chose a quicker route.

He reveals: “Instead of doing rehabilitation the shortcut for me was just take narcotics, steroids and take painkillers and train. I didn’t know what chemical dependency was to the point that if I didn’t consume on a daily basis I would get violently ill.

“Once I became a drug addict, which included taking opioids, I can’t go back and say, oh, I’m just going to use them casually — it doesn’t work like that.”

In the documentary he openly uses syringes to inject himself with painkillers. He was also taking steroids to bulk up his bulging muscles.

Mark says: “I really didn’t know what I was getting into and the real dangers of using performance-enhancing drugs.”

Matters worsened when he added heroin-substitute methadone to the cocktail of substances swirling around his body.

He recalls: “I had no idea how awful of a narcotic that is.”

It almost killed him.

Mark explains: “It shut down my respiration and shut down my heart rate. You get to a point where you’re not taking in enough oxygen and your blood becomes like acid.”

In October 1999 he suffered an overdose and faced a battle for survival in hospital.

He continues: “You either pull yourself out of it or you fall further into it. It was one of those scary experiences.”

Mentally scarred

Mark pulled through, but the episode scarred him mentally and physically.

It’s like if you’re standing on a 1,000ft building and all of a sudden you think gravity doesn’t apply, and you step off the edge. Gravity applies to everybody.

Mark Kerr

He says: “A year after that, I would hop out of sleep trying to catch my breath like I was drowning. It was absolutely horrific.”

The wrestler also endured a long-standing battle with alcohol, which he often overused when he was off the other substances. Friends convinced Mark to go into a rehab clinic and he is now free of drink and drugs.

He says: “I’ve been sober for a while now and completely off everything but it’s been a long process.

“Part of my downfall as an athlete is I feel rules sometimes don’t apply to me.

“It’s like if you’re standing on a 1,000ft building and all of a sudden you think gravity doesn’t apply, and you step off the edge. Gravity applies to everybody.”

However his chaotic lifestyle had been too much of a strain on his relationship with his wife Dawn.

He and the former Playboy model — who have a 19-year-old son Bryce — divorced in 2006 following a six-year marriage.

He admits: “There were physical altercations between me and Dawn. We would get into physical fights and verbally fighting each other.

“Tumultuous isn’t probably the right word. It was really a toxic, crazy unhealthy relationship.”

The couple are good friends now and Mark recently remarried, getting hitched to fitness consultant Franci Alberding.

Mark struggled to get back to his best and feels audiences in England didn’t get to witness the real Smashing Machine when he lost to Mustapha Al-Turk in London’s Cage Rage tournament in 2007.

He admits: “For my fight in Cage Rage I really wish I was in a better place emotionally, mentally and physically.”

Five defeats at the end of his career persuaded him to retire in 2009 and he joined a Toyota car dealership.

These days he runs a company that provides fitness equipment.

Seeing The Rock bring his life story to the big screen is a quirky turn of events considering the pair first met back in 1999 when they worked out in the same gym in Venice Beach, Los Angeles.

Of their first meeting all those years ago, he recalls: “Dwayne Johnson literally comes and tracks me down at the gym, and he says, ‘Hey, you wanna’ grab lunch?’ He’s asking me all the questions about what it’s like to fight in Japan.”

Twenty years later, Johnson made contact again and told Mark “Hey, we’re going to do this film about your life. This is a passion of mine.”

Of facing Usyk, who plays Igor, on set, Johnson joked, “don’t break my jaw, champ”

Ahead of filming, The Rock told Mark: “This is the biggest honour of my life to do this role.”

Mark believes the actor will do his life story justice, concluding: “It gives me goosebumps because when he says it you know he means it.”

Oleksandr Usyk makes his acting debut as a Mixed Martial Arts rival

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Oleksandr Usyk makes his acting debut as a Mixed Martial Arts rivalCredit: Getty
Mark and former Playboy model Dawn Staples — who have a 19-year-old son Bryce — divorced in 2006 following a six-year marriage

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Mark and former Playboy model Dawn Staples — who have a 19-year-old son Bryce — divorced in 2006 following a six-year marriageCredit: instagram/Dawn Staples Kerr
Former champ Mark as he is today

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Former champ Mark as he is todayCredit: instagram/markkerrtsm
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