They gave him the nickname “Lightning Lee” for his knockout power during cage fights. Lee Murray was a strong contender feared by elite fighters the world over. But he was a gangster first and that lifestyle knocked out any hopes he had of becoming a UFC champion.
London, Great Britain, has produced a long line of strong leaders, infamous villains, and vicious fighters. Perhaps it stems from the middle ages when all that stood between the peasants and the evil invaders such as the Vikings was a strong King. A man who could guarantee the safety of his underlings. In the civilized world of today the use for such a strongman at the helm of the country has run out in some ways. If you’re a Britain looking for good ol’ strongmen and brutality you should look at the cities and its mean streets.
The British public has an enormous fascination with their villains. From the Kray brothers to Curtis “Cocky” Warren their stories sell millions of books and newspapers and are turned into movies and television series. But the story that truly became legendary was that of the Great Train Robbery in 1963 in which a gang of robbers got away with over £2.6 million (the equivalent of £46 million today). There was something about a well-executed heist that turned these criminals into public heroes. Especially among the youths growing up in poor and rough areas, among wannabe tough guys like Lee Murray.
Born in London in 1977, Murray grew up on the streets of Plumstead in South East London. Early on, fighting was the norm for the young Murray and his friends. A way of settling disputes, deciding who was the leader, and protecting the neighborhood from outsiders. Murray was fearless and quickly became the undisputed leader of the Buttmarsh Boys, named after the estate they resided on. Former fellow gang member Mark Epstein remembers Murray well, describing him as someone you do not “take lightly at all. I mean there was plenty of gun play you know, drugs and stuff. (…) He’s his own guy. When you start getting to a certain level it’s a dangerous game you play.”
For Murray it meant playing a dangerous game on two levels. As he started getting into drug dealing and other nefarious activities he also discovered he could fight at a professional level.
For fighters nothing tops the pay day that professional boxing offers. But it’s a slow and long way to the top and fighting is a game of politics. The answers to “who fights who?” and “which fighter gets a shot at the title?” are found not in the ring, but in an office somewhere, with men in suits deciding on the most profitable route. Some men don’t like that. Perhaps they also feel boxing lacks the true spirit of combat. Maybe some of these men would like to use more than just their hands during a fight. Lee Murray was one of them. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) offered him the outlet he was looking for.
On November 12, 1993, as Murray lay in his bed after celebrating his 16th birthday, across the ocean in the United States, the Ultimate Fighting championship organized its first tournament. It was unlike anything the world had ever witnessed. The tournament pitted fighters from all disciplines against each other to find out which technique worked best in a fight. Was it boxing? Kung Fu? Judo? Karate? Sumo? That night the answer was the exotic Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu of Royce Gracie. A skinny, unintimidating guy, Gracie defeated everyone put in front of him. His unknown techniques made bigger, more muscular guys tap out with their faces in agony as Gracie held their limbs in painful positions and choked the air from their lungs.
That day, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu proved to be the most effective fighting discipline on the planet. But it was even more effective when mixed with boxing. And karate. And Judo. And Muay Thai. Pretty soon cage fighters were training in all disciplines. Mixed Martial Arts was born.
Murray would train at two different gyms to hone his skills as a Mixed Martial Artist. One for his boxing and one for his wrestling. His first fight came on December 5th, 1999, at an event called “Millennium Brawl”. He knocked out his opponent in the first round living up to his nickname “Lightning Lee.”
His dreams of becoming a professional fighter were starting to become a reality.
Murray traveled to the United States to train at the gym of former UFC champ Pat Miletich. He was pouring his heart and soul in a career as an MMA fighter. After several fights, including three rounds against Anderson Silva, the best MMA fighter to ever walk the face of the earth, he earned a contract with the premier MMA organization in the world, the UFC.
January 31, 2004, it was now or never. At UFC 46 Murray made his debut. His opponent was Jorge Rivera, a tough street guy just like Lee. In the first round, the Londoner got Rivera in a triangle choke, leaving him helpless and earning Murray the win. He had hit the big time. A path of fame and untold riches lay before him if he continued to win.
Unfortunately, the code of the streets kept calling.
In June of 2004, he nearly beat to death a motorist who side swept his car. A regular citizen would just brush it off. Maybe let out a few curse words or flip the bird at the motorist. But on the streets that sort of “kind” behavior is seen as a weakness. And it can get you killed. If someone disrespects you in any way, you take back your respect any way you can. Having lived by the code of the streets all his life, unable to control his temper, this trained demolisher went to work. He was indicted and as a result was denied a work visa to the United States, seriously hindering his career in the UFC.
The charges were eventually dismissed, but by then it was already too late.
Though you can make a lot of money as an MMA fighter, you need to fight a lot and preferably win a belt to become truly wealthy. With his work visa denied, and a stabbing at a party nearly ending his life, Murray was unable to tap into that wealth. His fighting dreams hanging in the balance, realizing that perhaps they were never anything more than dreams, Murray fell back on his street dreams and started planning the biggest score of his criminal life.
Crime pays royally. £53,116,760 million in this particular case. It was the biggest cash robbery ever committed in the United Kingdom. For mastermind Lee Murray it must’ve felt like winning a UFC title belt.
The heist was meticulously planned and executed.
Robbery is all about control. If you are able to control as many factors and participants, and control them without question, you are more likely to be successful. The gang that executed the Securitas depot robbery on February 21, 2006, had taken into account all angles and areas when it came to controlling every aspect of this brazen heist.
The gang’s first moves had to be low-key, these were the most integral parts of the plan. Dressed up as policemen they pulled over the car of Colin Dixon, the manager of the Securitas depot, and asked him to take a seat in the back of what looked like an unmarked cop car. Dixon had no reason not to trust the police and got in. Inside he was handcuffed by other gang members and driven to a farm where he was reunited with his wife and 8-year-old son who had been taken hostage as well.
The heavily armed robbers had completed their first move and taken total control of the man who would lead them into the cash-filled depot. If he didn’t he would risk the lives of two of the most important people in his life.
Masked, wearing balaclavas, and carrying handguns, AK-47s, and shotguns the gang entered the depot around 1 a.m. Once inside they tied up fourteen members of the staff and started moving out the money into a waiting van.
At a quarter to three in the morning, they exited the depot and vanished with over £53 million pounds sterling. Lee Murray had just successfully executed the biggest robbery in British history.
The best part about it was that they had to leave £153 million inside because they couldn’t fit it into their lorry.
It had been quite the operation. It was planned to perfection and the robbery went smooth as silk. These were professionals. But as professional as the robbers had been leading up to and during the heist they showed none of that in the days following it.
Within two days, police had made its first arrests and was quickly closing in on Murray and his gang.
Feeling the heat, Murray and his right-hand man, Paul “The Enforcer” Allen, fled to Morocco. Since his father was Moroccan, Murray was granted immediate citizenship upon birth and would be safe from extradition to Britain since the countries had no extradition treaty.
In Morocco, the two men went on in a spending spree buying villas, drugs and jewelry, and spending thousands of pounds on plastic surgery for their partners. The sky was the limit as they felt untouchable and had millions to spend in their newfound paradise in the desert sun.
Inside his 1.5 million dollar mansion in the city of Rabat, Murray has a life-size mural of his one UFC fight hand painted on the living room wall (right). Despite having pulled off the biggest cash robbery ever, it’s that one fight that remains Murray’s greatest achievement in life. And, judging by the mural, he knows it.
His name is still frequently dropped by members of that organization. UFC color commentator Joe Rogan discussed Murray’s two careers with English UFC fighters Dan Hardy and James McSweeney on his podcast. UFC president Dana White once said, “He (Murray) is a scary son-of-a-bitch. And I don't mean fighter-wise.”
Former UFC champ Matt Hughes recently retold a story from his book about the time Murray knocked out then UFC Light Heavyweight champion Tito Ortiz in a street brawl to an audience at a UFC convention.
If Murray had no skills as a fighter these men would not bring him up. He’s a criminal after all. The black sheep of their sport. Still, there is a certain respect for what he had accomplished. Former UFC champion and Murray’s old trainer Pat Miletich told ESPN, “If all of this stuff is true, he’s the baddest of the bad. That’s a bad boy. Anybody who has got the guts to go into a money depository that has so much money in it that you can only leave with a certain amount of it cause you got no more room in the truck. You got some guts. You got big brass ones.”
British authorities asked Moroccan police to monitor Murray for illegal behavior. After months of surveillance they bust him for cocaine possession and resisting arrest. From prison, Murray fights his extradition to Britain. He is successful, but Moroccan authorities will now try him on the robbery charges instead. In the summer of 2010, he is found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison.
Murray appealed to have his sentence reduced, but in what must’ve felt like a knock out kick to the head his appeal was dismissed while prosecutors had their appeal against his sentence being too lenient upheld. As a result, the Moroccan judge added fifteen years to his sentence, which now totals twenty-five years.
Now, the 36-year-old gangster-turned-fighter only has the memories of a glorious past and the nagging thoughts of “What could have been?” combined with questions of “What if?”
If only he had managed to stay on the right path. He might’ve been able to turn his life around. Used his talents for good. Inspiring young street toughs to leave a life of crime for a disciplined regime in the gym and better their lives. He might have become a UFC champion even. Instead, he chose the dark side and wasted his talents for nothing.
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