UFC 275: Chris Hemsworth, Jackie Chan and the rise of Josh Culibao

He’s worked with Chris Hemsworth and Jackie Chan but Igor Breakenback’s greatest action role will be at UFC 275 in the corner of one of our next generation of Aussie fighters.

Igor Breakenback, not so long ago, was hired to fly choppers for Chris Hemsworth.

Which is easier work than, say, all those times he was set on fire.

Or run over by a car.

Easier too than when tossed off buildings, down stairwells or hurled so continuously onto a concrete slab that, eventually, this unbreakable Sydney stuntman broke a little.

Like in Bangkok years ago, when Breakenback was forced to fall so many times for a scene — and via butterfly twist, to simulate a violent execution – he would wake next day unable to even lift his head.

“My neck just couldn’t support it,” he shrugs. “So I had to get about while looking at the ground”.

Which was simply another day on the job for this 46-year-old who has staged fight scenes for Marvel, acted alongside Angelina Jolie, even been a body double for Jackie Chan.

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Australian stuntman Igor Breakenback. Picture: Supplied
Australian stuntman Igor Breakenback. Picture: Supplied

Elsewhere, Breakenback has worked with Hemsworth, worked out with The Wire star Idris Elba and co-ordinated stunts for Superman Returns.

But his greatest action role?

That comes this Sunday in Singapore, at UFC 275.

When on the undercard of a hyped Asian showcase, Breakenback will walk out to corner, and coach, that rising Australian featherweight who considers him “like my dad”.

At 28, Josh Culibao sits among the Generation Next of Australian MMA.

A promising UFC striker, and former electrician, who first met Breakenback aged 19, and only days after losing his father, Rustico, to lung cancer.

“And dad, he was the one who encouraged all this,” Culibao explains now of what will be his fourth Octagon appearance Sunday, against South Korea’s Seung Woo Choi.

“I can still remember him telling me as a kid to go break the mould. To leave my electrical apprenticeship — no matter what anyone was saying — and fight.”

Igor Breakenback (r) with UFC fighter Josh Culibao
Igor Breakenback (r) with UFC fighter Josh Culibao

Yet only weeks after doing exactly that, Culibao was forced to bury his greatest supporter.

A tragedy then compounded by the fact his gym – that place where he was to go break the mould – only days later ran out of cash, and closed.

Which is when more than a little lost, and on a whim, the kid walked into a Bondi fight joint labelled Igor MMA.

“And immediately,” Culibao says, “we clicked”.

Born in Vienna, Austria, Breakenback – real name Igor Smiljevic – was raised on a diet of both martial arts and the Hollywood stylings of men like Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and Stallone.

By 15, he was working in children’s television and competing as a kickboxer. By 18, acting and travelling to Germany for underground MMA.

All up, the beginning of a global odyssey that would see this fighting actor eventually work in Hollywood, then Asia, fight in Europe, teach scuba diving, travel, box, learn sambo, and eventually earn a black belt under Japanese jiu jitsu master Takamasa Watanabe.

During three years living in Japan, Breakenback would not only build both his film and fight resumes, but meet the young Australian tourist, Louise, who is today his wife.

Josh Culibao doing UFC 275 media this week in Singapore
Josh Culibao doing UFC 275 media this week in Singapore

With the pair quickly settling in Australia and marrying, where the stunt man not only worked a host of local staples like All Saints, Underbelly and Home And Away, but opened his own fight gym in Sydney’s east.

The same joint, Culibao will tell you now, he stumbled into 10 years ago and while still mourning the old man.

“Which I think about often,” he concedes.

“Because had I not made that decision after losing dad, I don’t know if I’d be where I am now as a fighter or as a man.”

Pushed on the relationship with his coach, the featherweight continues: “It’s about a lot more than teaching me to punch and kick.

“In life, Igor has experienced so much.

“It’s like he’s lived four lives.

“So every time we speak, he’s giving me advice.

“That, and the tough love I definitely need from time to time.

“Because my father, he was a hard arse too.

“But now it’s Igor gives me that discipline.

“Gives me direction.

“You can call it fate, the universe, whatever, but he really has taken on the role of my dad.”

UFC featherweight Josh Culibao
UFC featherweight Josh Culibao

Asked about his own recollections of the sliding doors moment that brought them together, Breakenback speaks of a quiet, shy kid who never got anything he didn’t have to have to work harder than everyone else for.

“So I could relate,” he says

Better too, has been everything since.

“Because Josh does the right thing even when nobody is watching,” Breakenback says. “And that’s a rare trait today.”

Apart from teaching Culibao in all aspects of life, fighting, even helping chase sponsors – “which he still needs” — Breakenback is also preparing his charge for life after the Octagon.

Which could include film.

Especially given along with his training, acting and stunt work, this most eclectic of UFC coaches also boasts his own production company, Breakenback Films.

Quizzed on the quirky surname for which both he and his business is named, the stuntman cackles: “Yes, it did happen after hurting my back filming.

“It was years ago.

Idris Elba, pictured with Chris Hemsworth and Matt Damon, has trained at Igor MMA during stays in Sydney
Idris Elba, pictured with Chris Hemsworth and Matt Damon, has trained at Igor MMA during stays in Sydney

“There was another stunt man working with me, an Irishman, and he just started calling me Igor Breakenback.

“It was just so ridiculous, and I loved it.

“So the gag stuck.

“Even now hearing people say the name, it reminds me of my childhood and everyone to trying to pronounce Schwarzenegger”.

So Breakenback it is.

The name he has carried through over a hundred movies, TV shows and, late last year, onto the impending Sydney film set of Extraction 2.

Where cast into the role of chopper pilot, he was to work alongside Hollywood megastar Hemsworth in several big scenes.

UFC fighter Josh Culibao and coach Igor Breakenback
UFC fighter Josh Culibao and coach Igor Breakenback

“Which is a good story,” he grins.

Or was, until that second wave of Covid hit.

And the Extraction 2 film crew, they just couldn’t work things out with the NSW Government.

So the chance to be a chopper pilot for Thor?

“No, they moved filming to Europe,” Breakenback cackles, lamenting the loss of what would have been a fun role.

But still, not close to his most important.

Originally published as UFC 275: Chris Hemsworth, Jackie Chan and the rise of Josh Culibao