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‘Warrior’ Paris Photocall Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

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Fighting Fiction: The first (and last) great MMA film - ‘Warrior’

No other sport welcomes the impossible like mixed martial arts (MMA). It churns out Hollywood-worthy moments at an unmatchable pace. Indeed, the margin of error is so small, the mountain so inhumanely difficult to balance atop that what would be considered outlandish in baseball or football requires no suspension of disbelief in the cage.

Reality has already done what teams of writers would struggle to replicate. It is such uniquely fertile ground for drama and tragedy that it all but demands a major motion picture in the vein of “Raging Bull” or “Million Dollar Baby.”

One was made one. And it was great. But, it bombed.


Philadelphia’s Brendan Conlon (Joel Edgerton) — a high school physics teacher and former middling UFC competitor — finds himself in dire straits. Having spent most of his money on his daughter’s kidney operation, Brendan faces foreclosure, and his attempt to make some side income fighting in a smoker leaves him suspended from his job without pay. He enlists the aid of his former trainer to get him in shape for a grueling schedule of constant low-level fights.

In Pittsburgh, estranged brother Tommy (Tom Hardy) — a one-time wrestling prodigy and Marine Corps veteran — returns to his childhood home to confront abusive father and former trainer Paddy (Nick Nolte). After their encounter, Tommy makes his way to a local MMA gym, where he winds up knocking out a top contender in a sparring session. He soon enlists his newly sober and repentant father to train him while hammering home that the relationship is strictly professional.

Both men eye the same prize: Sparta, a two-night 16-man tournament with a $5 million winner-take-all pot. When Brendan’s training partner injures his leg in training and Tommy’s knockout goes viral, they find themselves on opposite sides of the bracket.

I’ll be the first to say that it’s far from a perfect movie — the first half struggles as it burdens Brendan with every underdog trope imaginable. Idyllic relationship with his cute children, hip-but-supportive students, wife tearfully telling him she can’t bear to see him get hurt again, etc. It also doesn’t help that despite Brendan’s and Tommy’s relationship being the most interesting and pivotal in the movie, they don’t interact until the tournament rolls around.

Once it does roll around, though, “Warrior” finds its feet. Its creators show a genuine knowledge of MMA, from Jon Anik on the TV to the actual UFC veterans filling out Sparta’s roster to the obvious Fedor analogue played by an appropriately stoic Kurt Angle. I’m a sucker for solid fight choreography, which the matches deliver, and Brendan’s ridiculous comebacks manage to generate actual tension despite their inevitability.

It’s Tom Hardy who turns the movie from solid to special, though. Edgerton is inoffensive enough and Nolte does excellent work as a repentant father trying desperately to re-enter his sons’ lives, but Hardy is genuinely spectacular. There’s a constant sense that Tommy is kept afloat by furious momentum, that his entire journey is a fit of self-destruction he’s terrified to slow down long enough to examine. When he and a finally-firing-on-all-cylinders Edgerton finally share the cage, it’s as compelling and emotional as any legendary sports drama.

Sure, putting The National’s music over a sad scene is basically a cheat code, but damn if I didn’t cry like a baby.

Nine years later and we’ve yet to see anyone attempt an MMA drama. Hell, I don’t think there have been any MMA movies besides Kevin James’ “Here Comes the Boom” that weren’t low-budget, straight-to-video garbage. “Warrior’s” underperformance at the box office may have killed an entire genre.

Burning half as long, twice as brightly, I suppose.

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