My first impression after watching Fightville, which opened this past weekend in limited release and Video on Demand (VoD), is how this, above any other cinematic offering centering on the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), was the combat sports movie I had been waiting for.
Or perhaps, more importantly, it was the combat sports movie I didn't realize I had been waiting for.
Fightville does for MMA what Long Gone did for Major League Baseball (MLB). Specifically, it humanizes -- rather than glorifies -- the controlled violence that has been known to provide both meaning and purpose to the lives of oft-troubled youth. It should come as no surprise then, to learn that filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein have embraced the tagline, "We build better men."
They've also built a better movie.
Shot extensively in and around Louisiana's Gladiators Academy, ruled by the iron fist (and tremendous compassion) of former Ultimate Fighter (TUF) contestant "Crazy" Tim Credeur, Fightville documents the trials and tribulations of aspiring warriors, as well as their complicated but symbiotic relationship with Gil "The Thrill" Guillory, the small-time (and self-funded) promoter they compete for.
With the unprecedented growth and mainstream penetration of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the world's largest MMA promotion, a generation of new stars has begun to emerge. Gone are the days of officiated bar fights.
These are real athletes with real skills.
But lost in all the glitz and glamor of today's pay-per-view (PPV) stars, who garner big money contracts and six-figure sponsorships, are the tireless efforts of amateur fighters with a dollar (literally) and a dream. Like Dustin Poirier, who Tucker acknowledged as being lucky enough to make it to the ranks of the UFC -- and headline a major televised event -- just as his story (as well as the story of his "Gladiators" brethren) hit the big screen.
There is, however, more to his story than just coincidence.
True, there's always a certain amount of luck in any endeavor when it comes to timing and opportunity. But as you'll see in Fightville, the elevator of chance never stops on the top floor. An aspiring fighter will not earn an adequate payday. Nor will they have any semblance of a social life. They'll need a source of income and the ability to detach themselves from non-essential obligations. Above all else, they'll need a set of balls.
And "The Diamond" -- who eats punches as often as he eats breakfast -- has balls the size of Alpha Centauri.
That's the underlying message of Fightville. The act of actual fighting, which often starts as early as the elementary school playground, is unquestionably a part of our genetic makeup, leading to a false sense of familiarity with its intricacies.
To which there are plenty.
Sure, you can jump into a professional NBA game and make a few baskets just by throwing up the ball -- without any sort of skill or precision -- just as you can jump into the cage and land a few punches by letting your hands go. But it's only a matter of time before you're outmatched, overcome and eventually embarrassed by the pros.
Welcome to Gladiators Academy.
There's hazing within the small and bloodied walls of Credeur's school. There's also an unbreakable bond between "brothers," assuming one is willing to earn it. That comes from the kind of hard work and sacrifice that brings spoils to any dreamer, from the ball field to the board room.
Some have it, some don't.
Poirier has it, as evidenced by his ascension to the land of MMA giants. But why is his story so important? Because the UFC builds stars. Trainers like Tim Credeur build better men. Without them -- and the financial risk from struggling promoters like Guillory -- the sport of MMA would be just another guilty pleasure from the 90's, shelved in our collective memories alongside Pogs and Zubaz.
The term "unsung heroes" is used so often, it's lost a bit of its luster. Thankfully, we have a film like Fightville to bring it back.