From Hard Head To Iron Beast
(Editor’s note: This article has been expanded based on reader feedback to include interview material that was originally excluded due to space considerations.)
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of
one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way
Marcell Allen’s life seems to be the embodiment of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “If”. Through highs and lows; triumphs and unexpected loss, the co-owner of Iron Beast Barbell in Gainesville, GA has walked a sometimes dimly lit path to become a highly respected athlete and coach as well as the owner of the gym Powerlifting Watch calls, “The Premier Strength Facility in Georgia”.
At first his career path seemed obvious, a letter from United States Congressman Robert A. Holmes promised the former Jackson County wrestler a nomination to The Naval Academy at Annapolis in 2004, a year after graduation. After leaving the Navy because he was, in his words, a little hard headed, Allen went in search of a new career, eventually joining the staff at Iron Beast as a personal trainer in 2011.
Allen made an impression on the gym members. World Bench Press Champion Tim Moon calls Allen, “a confident and experienced lifter himself who is able to instill this in the people he trains and into others who train around him”.
But Allen wanted more. When the current owner decided to sell Iron Beast, the young trainer made a bold move along with his friend, Stephanie Williams, LMT to purchase the gym.
The former hardhead was now a business owner.
Allen’s standing in the community was such that most didn’t bat an eye when he took over the gym. According to Moon,
who helped set up the original Iron Beast, “Most of us were relieved to know the gym would continue to stay open.”
But Allen wasn’t content to just keep the doors open. He pursued sponsorships and attracted big names to train at the gym. Athletes from top powerlifters Pete Rubish to the legendary Louie Simmons have walked through its glass double doors; The Georgia IronDawgs powerlifting team calls it home.
Allen also tried to make exercise accessible to everyone. Angie Centeno says Allen gave her confidence to come out of her shell and start the journey that ended with her becoming a powerlifting champion in her late thirties. “He is always thinking about helping others. He pushes himself to make sure his athletes get the best training and nutrition. He doesn’t give up even if it means working all day and not sleeping,” Centeno said.
Recently, Allen cofounded the 1% Krew team with all-time bench press record holder Eric Head inviting Strongman competitors and Powerlifters to join. In 2014, he broke the Southern Powerlifting Federation 198lb American Push/Pull Total Record. In 2015 he became State Chair for the American Powerlifting Committee and relocated Iron Beast into a newer, larger facility days before hosting the 2015 Georgia Games.
I recently spoke to Allen about what he’s learned about life and business and the bumps and bruises he’s gotten along the way in his twelve years in the fitness industry.
Marcell, you’re a man who stays busy!
Yeah I’m ridiculously busy. But a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.
Okay, well tell me about your naval service. Did you enlist in the Navy?
In 2003, while I was still in high school, because of United States law, I had to sign up for the service, or at least put my name in for the service.
Selective Service, right?
Selective Service. So I did that and my brother kept encouraging me, “You need to get into the service, you need to do something with your life, don’t be just a statistic.
Your brother served in the military himself?
Yes. He served in the Marines and he’s now in the Navy himself. Basically I got a letter, after writing essays, doing these little fitness tests, I received a letter from one of the Congress people in 2003, that I had been nominated to go to the United States Naval Academy.
You gave me a letter from Congressman Robert A. Holmes nominating you for The Naval Academy in 2004. Tell me about that.
The class was supposed to start in July 2004, about a month after my graduation from high school. Well, that fell through, because I ended up getting a letter from The Naval Academy stating that, ‘Thank you for applying, thank you for your nomination but at this time, we have filled our spots. We will put you on a list for the next year; we will be in contact with you.
Okay. So what did you do after high school?
At first I worked at a furniture store, Farmer’s Furniture. I ended up getting a phone call from The Naval Supply Corps School in Athens, GA. The point of the school was to take the first six months of you being there and basically get you ship ready, after eight months, they dubbed you as a midshipman and along this time you are working towards a degree while you’re in school.
What was the degree in?
The degree was in Exercise Science and Physical Therapy Assistant.
So that would be an Associate’s Degree?
Yes. I took my exam at the year and a little over nine months mark for my degree. I ended up getting my certificates, stating that I had completed and I had a degree in Exercise Science and Physical Therapy Assistance. I ended up getting notice from my captain at the time, that he didn’t believe that me on my own with me being so involved in music, and that’s all he ever saw me do was play piano, play drums; he didn’t believe that I could by myself accomplish this task.”
So he thought you cheated?
He thought I cheated.
So then what happened?
About a week later he comes in while me and some of the guys are just hanging out and talking, he says “Where are those certificates they gave you? I handed him the certificates and he said “I told you before I don’t believe you did this and until you can prove this to me, these are mine”. So instead of arguing with him, I let him take them, I was going to deal with it a different way instead of continuing to argue with him about it. I watched him walk down the hallway and tear my certificates up. I contacted the chief and we ended up having a conversation between me, the captain and the chief; the chief sided with the captain and I didn’t agree with that.
Did you try to take it further up the chain?
No, because apparently I never should have contacted the chief in the first place.
So you didn’t Request Mast or anything? (note: Request Mast provides a member the opportunity to communicate not only with his or her immediate commanding officer, but also with any superior commander in the chain of command up to and including the member’s immediate commanding officer)
No. I was a little too upset to really think about things rationally.
After that it was about four or five months and any time we were on the line, any time we were asked to do anything. I didn’t engage in those. I basically without words told the captain that I’m not following any orders that you give me. I ended up getting kicked out of that for insubordination.
Did you get an Other Than Honorable discharge or an Administrative Discharge?
I got a dishonorable discharge for insubordination.
And that was at two years three months roughly?
Do you have a copy of that or did you fling it in a rage? I’ll show you, I’ll grow a beard!
Ha ha! I’m sure it’s somewhere. It’s probably in the same stack of papers where I found the original letter from.
So that’s the Naval Service. So you came back, what did you do then?
Well, actually, I started working at a gym in Buckhead, GA. I moved to Buckhead, started working at a gym for a little while. I ended up getting my certification in personal training while I was there.
Who’d you get certification through?
I got certified through ACE (American Council on Exercise) and a smaller company called Expert Rating. I got certified first through Expert Rating and then I took the ACE exam. I did have a certification in nutrition but I let it lapse about four years ago.”
Facebook shows that you attended The University of North Georgia. That has an accredited Physical Therapy and Physical Therapy Assistant program; did you do any work there?
No, I uh I was basically done with the whole service thing and I wasn’t going to contact them anymore because they kind of pissed me off, so I was going to try to go through another route and try to take the exams through, Gainesville State College is what it was at the time. After trying to take care of a sick and dying mother, my head wasn’t on straight, it was hard to pay attention and I just dropped out.
What year did you drop out?
Maybe 2009-2010 maybe.
What is the best business advice anyone has ever given you?
Always listen to your customers, without them, you have no business.
You took over Iron Beast after it had been named Bodybuilding.com Gym of the month and begun to make a name for itself. Did it intimidate you to take over Iron Beast, knowing its history?
Intimidation is a word that the scared use. The only thing that I was concerned about was continuing a legacy of greatness that was already in place. With anything, if you have the best, and be the best, then those who are the best will follow.
What caught you off guard about being a business owner and how did you adapt to handle it?
With owning a business, your name and face are what people associate that business with. And if anything goes wrong or someone isn’t happy, your face is the first thing that pops up in their
mind, whether you had anything to do with them being unhappy. So what I’ve learned is keeping a positive attitude through it all.
I talked to three different people about you and they had nothing but the highest praise for you. But obviously you don’t get to a certain point without making enemies at some point. I got some Facebook messages and an email regarding this article; can you think of anything that would cause people to contact my editor and me?
I will say this. I’m sure a lot of people won’t like me saying this but oh well. My entire life I was raised as a Christian, my entire life I was raised in the church. Me, just like everybody else that’s walked this earth; I’ve made some pretty dumb judgment calls in my life. I’ve never done anything to hurt anybody purposely. I’ve never sought after somebody’s livelihood; tried to take it from them or anything like that. But my mother and grandmother always told me that I was destined for good things because of how they prayed over me trying to get the Lord to bless me. That has become more evident in my life than it ever has been. And I understand that the closer you walk with God, the more the devil’s going to mess with you. The closer you walk with the devil, the devil’s not going to bother you, ‘cause he knows he’s got you.
How have you carved a niche for Iron Beast in the exercise and health business marketplace?
The thing that separates us from the infamous fitness centers is we stay true to our members. Stephanie does sports massage and brings a woman’s touch to the gym. Sometimes gyms can be a little too masculine and could make women not want to be a part of it. We keep our minds focused on getting results with what has been tried and battle tested for years.
Iron Beast attracts top athletes. World champion Tim Moon, your training partner, 132 lb. world record bench press champion Eric Head, Strongman Competitors Landon Jameson and Cody Thornton. I met figure competitor and powerlifting champion Leanna Carr there, who are some of the other lifters who train at Iron Beast?
Brenau University strength coach Gary Hatfield who is a Masters level champion lifter; Masters champions and record holders, R. Gary Glenn and Mike Kidd; American Powerlifting Committee National
Champions Angie Centeno, Charity Witt, Tyler Cummings and Zack Layfield and 308lb class National level lifter Dwon Johnson.
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome in your career or in life?
My mother and best friend passed away two years ago and it has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with.
Being there at the hospital and holding her hand as she drew her last breath was by far the most heartbreaking thing to have happened to me. She was a giver and lover of all. I don’t want to fill her shoes in the world but yet make my own steps beside hers.
What are you proudest of since taking over Iron Beast?
Gaining the respect and positive attention from the state of Georgia and from other well-known strength gyms across the United States. I’m also proud about touching hundreds of people through the athletes who train with us by way of Animal, Universal Nutrition, MusclePharm, Captain Jacked, Anderson Powerlifting and Rogue to name a few.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
The Iron Beast is a state of mind, the Champion’s anthem! We support those who put in work. And not just athletes, but the real workers as well, like the soldiers who comment on our videos and speak
to me daily about how we are an inspiration for them to keep going. The Iron Beast is for them. Many companies use the term on clothing and catch phrases to promote products but don’t be mistaken, there is and will be only one Beast!
About the Author
John Greaves III is a writer based in North Georgia. His articles have been published in the Chattanooga Times, Digital Trend and Mark Bell’s Power Magazine. He has written two works of young adult fiction, a novella, A Different Kind of Giant and a short story, A Little Lesson In Manners both available on Amazon Kindle. John is also a competitive powerlifter who mentors young people in his spare time. He blogs about life, powerlifting and spirituality at johngreavesiii.net.