After His MMA Dreams Crashed, James Heugh Learned to Soar as an Acrobat
Story by Matthew St. Amand
Photography by Trae Patton/NBC
As “blessings in disguise” go, this one was pretty harsh. Amherstburg native, James Heugh, had spent seven years training and competing in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) matches when he received one too many blows to the head—leaving him with a broken neck.
“The neck injury made it so that I couldn’t get hit anymore,” he says. “I had to drop fighting, which was pretty heartbreaking for me because it was my passion in life.”
As one door closes, another opens. James’ road to rehabilitation led him to a space that was also used by a local “acro” group.
“A group called Sky Society Aerial Acrobats were performing in Windsor,” James says, “and were using the gym where I was training in as a practice space. One day, they asked me if I wanted to try some stuff with them. I gave it a go and fell in love with it.”
Then, like Caine in the old TV show, Kung Fu, James “walked the earth”, traveling everywhere he could, seeking further instruction and training in his newfound artform. He strengthened his body, honed his skills and eventually landed a spot performing with the world famous Cirque du Soleil.
“I was with the show called Crystal,” James says, “which actually visited Windsor. I was with them for 16 months.”
Full disclosure: This writer attended a performance of Crystal at the WFCU. The show had a winter motif and was performed on ice. The spectacle mesmerized everyone in attendance.
“Crystal was interesting because you basically lived for that show,” James says. He explains how performers woke early, trained and ate and napped and rehabbed at the venue, all day, every day. “And when your day was done, you basically fell asleep only to wake up and go right back to the show.”
He acknowledges that the grueling schedule had its benefits.
“It was interesting because, one, I wasn’t expecting that amount of workload,” James says, “but, two, I’m very grateful for it because it actually taught me how to be a performer and really put myself in an uncomfortable space. I always learn the most when I’m uncomfortable.”
In 2015, he moved to Los Angeles.
“I moved to California because of this place called Original Muscle Beach,” James explains. “It’s where the fitness boom first happened back in the 1930s. I booked a 10-day solo trip there and went to this place and absolutely fell in love with it.”
He continues: “That’s where I’ve drawn the most inspiration and met some great people that I’ve looked up to, who lived the dream. That’s where I met Travis Brewer—the guy with the big beard—five years ago. Within 30 seconds of meeting each other he was standing on my head. We became instant best friends.”
Two years later, James and Travis met Andreas Alfaro. Then, in October 2020, they met Nathan Tsuji, who was in LA getting ready for a Cirque du Soleil contract, which was, unfortunately, shutdown due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Together they formed Positive Impact Movement (PIM). The name comes from Travis’ non-profit focused on building playgrounds around the world.
“One day, we all got together and realized we had something special and decided to pursue AGT because it’s the biggest stage in the world,” James says. “The most interesting part about all of us is that we come from very different backgrounds.”
Travis competed on the hit TV show, American Ninja Warrior, where he was a finalist. Nathan is a gymnast. And James describes Andreas as more of a “generalist”, working in many different physical disciplines—and was training for American Ninja Warrior until it was shutdown by the pandemic.
“We developed a routine that was completely unique to us,” James says. “We had a really different mindset. Nobody was afraid of getting injured. Nobody was afraid of trying something new. It was the perfect melting pot of talents to allow something like this to form.”
He goes on: “We said ‘no’ to every choreographer that was presented to us because we really wanted to keep our routine in line with our personality and our style. We didn’t want to go out there and ‘perform’, we wanted to go out there and play.”
“Play” involves a daily schedule of six hours of training—three hours in the morn-
ing, three in the afternoon. This includes warm-up, “prehab” (the use of exercises and techniques to increase overall mobility), physio, and rehearsal of the actual routine. James concedes that not every day is super intense, but one look at the PIM members’ physiques, each member looks as though he was minted by Muscle Beach.
When asked what special diet he adheres to maintain his buff and functional form, James laughs: “You know how most restaurants list the calorie content of their food? I just order whatever has the highest number of calories. I’m usually a skinny guy, but for the routine, I need to be heavy.” Indeed, the climactic pose of the PIM routine has James holding 565 lbs at once.
After creating an audition video in their practice space, PIM was invited to perform on AGT in June. So, how does performing before a panel of celebrity judges, an auditorium filled to capacity, and several million television viewers affect PIM’s mindset?
“The energy level of the group sky rockets,” James says. “It’s very positive. We’re performers. Doing what we do in front of so many people is one of the biggest highs.”
PIM spent the week leading up to their AGT appearance rehearsing once a day in front a group of friends, treating it just like the show.
“Our worst practice was the day of our AGT performance,” James says. “We were alone in the hallway, getting intense, and we thought, ‘Oh no!’”
When showtime arrived, PIM nailed it. The routine, itself, must be seen to be believed, and can be viewed on their Instagram. Suffice it to say, it’s definitely “Don’t try this at home!” The judges and audience were blown away.
“Right now, we’re waiting to hear from America’s Got Talent to see if we’ve made it through to the live round. Because this year is an Olympic year, they’re only doing judge’s auditions and a few live shows. There should be an episode coming up soon called ‘The Judge’s Deliberations’ episode, where they choose who goes to the live rounds.”
For all the excitement and training that fills nearly every moment of James’ day, he is very quick to credit his parents’ support as being a large part of his success.
“My parents have been the biggest supporters of every crazy decision I’ve ever made,” James says. “They supported my dreams of moving out to California. There were times I was sleeping on the street, going two or three days without eating. Through all of it, they have been so supportive. I would never be able to get where I am today without their support. Just knowing I always had somewhere to fall back to… They’re the best parents I could have ever hoped for.”