As we earlier reported last week, former number one UFC welterweight contender Jon Fitch will be the focus of an upcoming documentary dubbed, "Such Great Heights."
The film follows the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) product during his training and preparation leading up to the Georges St. Pierre title fight at UFC 87: "Seek and Destroy" in August 2008. Viewers can expect to see Fitch’s life inside and outside of the cage, leading up to and in the aftermath of UFC 87.
Produced by Flying Penguin pictures, the film was conceived by Philip Frank, along with producer Jesse Osher and director Jonah Tulis. While no official release date has been set for "Such Great Heights," the producers are working to finalize the film in time for several film festivals this summer and ready for wider release by fall 2009.
During an exclusive conversation with MMAmania, we asked Philip Frank how the idea for the film came about and why they selected Fitch as their subject matter.
"At the time, we already had the topic and a premise for the movie, (but) we didn’t have a fighter yet. We were looking around. At the time I lived in the Bay area, before I relocated back to New York, and I had run into Jon Fitch at the San Jose airport — this was even before the idea (for the film) was around. And then (later), just as we were going through fighters as possible candidates, Jon came to mind. I said, ‘You know, he’s local to me, he seems like he’s on the up and up, he seems like a good character and a nice guy.’ So we contacted him."
As luck would have it, this was before Fitch’s fight with George St. Pierre was even scheduled, so the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. As the filmmakers came together to shoot in San Jose, Calif., Fitch was about to begin training for the biggest fight of his career, against arguably the most talented pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
Frank, who watched the early days of the UFC before taking a break from the sport during the late ‘90s and early 2000s as he was finishing school and starting his career, admits that hardcore fans might consider him a TUFfer. Regardless, his "passion project" quickly gained legs when they started shooting. The film picks up in mid-June, with Fitch early into his 12-week-long camp.
"We picked up right at a very intense time with him. We didn’t really know what to expect, we had never been in a training camp for a title fight. So we went there in mid-June, started shooting. In the meantime, just as a producer, there’s no script for something like this. We just kind of follow some different story leads that were developing with other fighters at AKA, and it ended up just being a perfect time to be there in San Jose."
While AKA is known for its big-name fighters like Josh Koscheck, Mike Swick, Cain Velasquez and Strikeforce lightweight champion Josh "The Punk" Thomson — all of which have a presence in the film — the filmmakers chose instead to focus more on the gym’s lesser-known faces to provide extra material for the film. These include Matt Major — most known for his 2007 episode of Tapout titled "Hot Head" — middleweight Nate Moore, welterweight Pat Minihan and middleweight Nate James.
The story follows Fitch to several publicity events in the lead up to the fight, as well as to other fight cards, including smaller shoes in Fresno and San Francisco, before eventually heading to the Target Center in Minneapolis for UFC 87.
Because the film aimed to catch Fitch’s experience throughout the lead-up to the fight, the filmmakers tried to be as non-invasive as possible with respect to their presence felt at the AKA gym in San Jose, as well as backstage at UFC 87. They utilized a crew of five with just one camera to provide the bulk of the footage. The filmmakers also carried an HD handheld camera for personal use, which ended up providing additional footage used in the film.
The film intensifies naturally as it progresses, as the date for the title fight draws closer. It builds until UFC 87 and includes the aftermath from the main event.
"I really love the intensity right before the fight and the emotion right after the fight. And I think a lot of people feel the same way, because it’s pretty rare footage. It’s a pretty rare subject matter that we’re capturing."
In the end, it’s Fitch’s strength of character that makes him such a captivating topic.
"That’s the interesting aspect of this film — you really see the human side. You develop this bond with Jon Fitch. A lot of MMA fans are going to know already what happened (at UFC 87), but because we’re appealing to such a broad audience with this film, when they see the fight and the aftermath, it’s a pretty emotional time in the movie."
With post-production nearing completion, the producers are hoping to have the film premier at a film festival this summer, followed by other festival appearances. With any luck, it will pick up enough steam to earn a theatrical release, even if only a regional one (documentaries — even larger-budget documentaries — traditionally don’t see much theater time). The producers are also hopeful they can secure a deal with a cable network, such as HBO, Sundance or IFC, before the film heads to DVD.
Frank said that when they initially started out on the project, they felt a bit "alone in our fanhood, especially in New York" and hoped to create a better understanding of the sport of mixed martial arts. I asked Frank if he felt the goal of the film when they initially started out had been achieved, or if, as filming progressed, they discovered the momentum of the film was steering them toward a different direction.
"That’s a good question. One of the major goals we had was to bring an awareness to people of what they actually see as a sport, and to see these (fighters) for who they are. We definitely reached that goal, and I think far beyond that. I think people are really going to appreciate and love Jon Fitch as a person after this, and not just as a great fighter. So (the film itself) is a great human interest piece, as well I think a great ambassador of the sport."
If reactions from test audiences are any indication, the film has tremendous promise for crossover appeal by opening up a lot of eyes and ears to the world of MMA. According to Frank, after several test screenings in New York, audiences — the good majority of which had never seen an MMA fight — "were blown away. They were blown away. It was a real eye-opener for them."
One thing Frank assured us of is that this isn’t your standard MMA documentary.
"With the coaches and with Jon, this was like a seven-year journey. It was only a couple of months for us, but it seemed like this was our best friend in there putting his heart out on the line. It was really hard to watch. It was like seeing your brother go in there and fight. Just the emotion of a title fight … You’ve been with this guy, you’ve been his shadow for two months straight. So it was definitely emotional for everybody … By the time it gets to that emotional climax, people know Jon Fitch and what he’s about and who he is. If you know him personally it’s even more touching, and if you don’t it’s still going to get to you a little bit. I think that’s good. I think that’s been missing a little bit in MMA — that side of it."
For MMA fans, it’s no secret that St. Pierre successfully defended his welterweight title by defeating Fitch via unanimous decision (the judges scored the bout 50-43, 50-44, 50-44). Despite the one-sided result, GSP called Fitch "his toughest opponent to date," and the performance was good enough for both fighters to earn the $60,000 "Fight of the Night" honors from the UFC over such other fights from that card as Kenny Florian vs. Roger Huerta and Brock Lesnar vs. Heath Herring.
While the Web site in conjunction with the film is still being finalized, we will keep you posted when it is up and running.
Fitch is currently in the midst of yet another camp, training to take on undefeated Brazilian Paulo Thiago at UFC 100 at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, on July 11. He has won nine of 10 fights inside the Octagon since his promotional debut in 2005.