James Clark was walking on Atacames Beach on Ecuador's northern Pacific coast with his wife, Lady Augusta Montoya, young son Joshua and Clark's sister Bobbi.
Four bad guys emerged from nearby high grass with the intention to steal the backpacks being worn by the three adults. The weapons of choice for the criminals were the jagged edges of broken bottles.
As the leader of the pack approached, James avoided a swipe with the bottle and flipped the man into the surf. Another man approached as this was happening. He managed to cut James in the back before also winding up in the surf.
"Then, when I turned, the two other guys were holding bottles near the throats of Lady and Bobbi," Clark said. "And one of them said in Spanish, 'Tell the gringo to stop fighting.'
"I gave up the backpack. There was $40 and a camera in there. Losing that was never the point. I can't stomach seeing the bad guys win."
Clark was born on the South Side of Chicago, the son of a boxer billed as "Irish Johnny" Clark in his more than 100 club fights. Johnny was such a fightin' man that decades later, after moving to Minnesota and then buying a hobby farm in Rogers, he turned the barn into a gym and did more boxing as a 50-year-old.
Young James became somewhat psychotic about weightlifting, pushups, pullups, feats of strength that made his late father proud. Then throw in boxing, competitive wrestling, judo, jiu jitsu, kickboxing, MMA, Vale Tudo (anything goes) … name it, James Clark's been in a ring or a cage giving it a try.
And since moving back to Minnesota from Ecuador in 2005, the 57-year-old Clark has created three nonprofit gyms:
The Crystal Fight Club. Clark: "Shut down by city officials, mostly because they didn't like the name."
Valhalla Combat Sports No. 1. Clark: "We had a couple of 350-pounders working out every night and the other tenants in the mall complained about the walls shaking."
Today, Valhalla No. 2 is in the large basement of an old strip mall on University Avenue in Fridley. Walk down the steps and be rather amazed by what's available for fighters of all varieties to train.
"The first thing that comes to mind with James is that he gets things done,'' said David Peterson, boxing coach and dedicated co-worker. "This place was a garbage dump. Now look at it.
"When we cleaned out the back part of this space, I said, 'I think there might be room for another smaller ring back here.' Two days later, he called and said, 'I found a ring.' "
From 'Monster' to Minnesota
It was a winding road that took James Clark from Chicago's Irish neighborhoods to Elk River High School, to a long stay in his ancestral home in Ireland, to joining a wrestling team at a California junior college that he never actually attended, to starting four-year college at 27, attending St. Thomas, St. John's and St. Alcuin House Seminary and getting a Ph.D. in theology, to doing pushups for 45 minutes on "The Late Show with David Letterman," and then to being on that beach with his Ecuadoran wife, young son and sister.
Clark had seen it all in his then 40 years, and yet, even as a believer in Plato's theory "ultimate reality exists beyond our physical world," he could not let go of his anger over this mugging, over the threat to his family and the trauma it caused his 3-year-old son. He needed to take action against the criminals.
"We lived in the capital, Quito, near a large park everyone called 'La Y,' " Clark said. "There were muggings there every night. I told two of my friends, one a Brazilian jiu jitsu fighter, I was going to walk through the park, hope the muggers approached, and take care of a few of them.
"He reminded me that a gringo who had been on Ecuador TV a lot — live shows when I set world records for weight bench-pressed in an hour, et cetera, and also in ads — everyone would know it was me.
"So we came up with a disguise. A wild wig, face painted, white contacts, horrible teeth."
A hoodie shielded Clark's face, and he was quick to lure three potential robbers. When they got close enough, he pulled back the hoodie, snapped open an expandable baton and showed off his ghoulish countenance.
"The three guys started running and screaming, 'Es un monstruo!' — 'There's a monster' in the park," Clark said. "Those screams had more impact than knocking heads."
The Clark family, now including baby daughter Mary, left Ecuador and moved to Minnesota in 2005. James worked various jobs and taught school. Lady continues to be a Spanish teacher.
Mary now is a senior at Fridley High School, a varsity swimmer, but training hard in mixed martial arts and kickboxing. Joshua is 22 and just getting started as a pro boxer.
And years later, there still might be Quito residents wondering what became of the monster that used to prowl the big park in the dead of night.
"We were living in Minnesota and my friends called and said, 'James, you crazy gringo; the TV stations still are talking about the monstruo,' " Clark said. "The newspaper also had a story on 'Eslabon Perdido,' the 'Missing Link.'
"And the university commissioned forensics people to study hair and other particles found in the park to help determine what it was."
Just James Clark — and with more wild tales available in his autobiography, "Platonic Superman," with a movie possible if Zia Films acts on the script it commissioned.
"They sent the script to me," he said. "It's good, but there are some exaggerations."
I'd say the tale of the "Monstruo de La Y" doesn't need any of that.