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MMA: A Great Sport in Need of a Great Documentary

MMA: A Great Sport in Need of a Great Documentary

Mixed Martial Arts, in its current inception, is a sport. When it began 20 years ago, it wasn’t. Not because it was more violent, which it was, but because it wasn’t conceived or presented as a sport. It was designed, in equal parts, as an earnest attempt to pit one martial arts style against another and as a violent spectacle. The UFC was started, essentially, as a live-action martial arts infomercial by the Gracie family, the pioneers of Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, who were anxious to demonstrate their vastly superior style against all comers, as they had been doing in Brazil for half a century. Matches generally weren’t the brutal blood-sport people might expect. More often than not, they were simply ugly fights between frequently unskilled competitors.

In less than 20 years MMA, still known to most people as UFC fighting, has gone from being a nearly unknown fringe interest to a full-fledged sport with massive mass-market appeal. No one saw this coming. I know, I was there. Anyone who tells you they were watching MMA in 1995 and foresaw this kind of success is not being honest with you. Yet despite this meteoric rise replete with all the requisites for a great doc, (largely unknown subject-matter, engaging characters and an unbelievable history filled with fights in and out of the ring) The Great MMA Documentary has yet to be made.

Boxing evolved slowly, over more than a century. From the 1860’s, when the foundation of modern boxing was established with the Marquess of Queensberry rules, through the 1970’s, boxing underwent a drastic metamorphosis. The shift was not just in ring technique, although that was certainly dramatic, it was also one of perception. Boxing at the turn of the century and before was a rough game for rough men; a violent distraction, viewed and participated in by those deemed to be of a lower class, or worse, of a foreign ethnicity. However, over the next 70 years, boxing would gain massive acceptance as one of the most popular sports in the world. That evolution, although ponderous, has been presented in literally hundreds of documentaries.

Amazingly MMA, which underwent that same transformation in only two decades and did it in an era where everything is recorded, has yet to enjoy a comprehensive, well researched and smartly presented doc.

There have been, however, a few docs about MMA fighters. Some of which were quite good. Many of them, however, were less documentaries then self-promotional tools. Here are two of the best docs about Mixed Martial Artists, if not Mixed Martial Arts:

Fighting Politcs: The Story of Matt Lindland

Anyone who watched MMA at the dawn of the modern UFC will likely remember Matt “The Law” Lindland. In the earliest days of public acceptance and profit for the UFC, by far MMA’s biggest organization, Matt headlined cards with amazing fights against loudmouth Phil Baroni and Brazilian legend Murilo Bustamante, among others. However, anyone familiar with The Law would also be surprised to see him as the subject of a film.

As a fighter, Lindland was an icon. He is among the most decorated American Greco-Roman wrestlers of all time, winning a silver medal at 2000 summer Olympics.  He had an effective (if hideous) boxing game and he was a pioneer of the sport who came up with fellow legends Randy Couture and Dan Henderson.

The problem is that Matt Lindland is not, exactly, charismatic. That’s not an insult to the man, I doubt he’d describe himself that way either. However he is, in fact, so uncharismatic that there seems to have been very little usable or interesting footage taken of him for the film, or else he seems to have barely participated in it. We hear from friends, family, coaches and fighters, many of whom give great interviews and talk very candidly about Matt, but we get very little from Lindland himself.

The narrative follows several threads through Lindland’s life, some of which are more focused then others. There is the controversy about Matt being let go by UFC boss Dana White, who has become a celebrity himself. White fired Lindland on a pretext, despite him being one of the best middleweights in MMA at the time, largely because he was considered a boring fighter with a bad attitude. There is also a segment about Matt’s run for a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives, which he narrowly loses, and his fight with famous Russian Heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko, another competitive lose.

Aside from a lack of focus and an evasive subject, Fighting Politics, like Lindland himself, suffers most from the feud with Dana White and the UFC. As a result, the film is devoid of any UFC footage. In fact, the film suffers from a near total lack of big-show fight footage. Even Lindland’s fight against Quentin “Rampage” Jackson, his best fight outside the UFC, is absent. This essentially makes the documentary completely untenable for people unfamiliar with Matt, since they are show very little of him in the ring (or cage). How much could you appreciate Michael Jordan if you saw a doc about him without footage from his time on the Bulls?

These problems are unfortunate since the film is well edited, well researched and makes good use of iconic, knowledgeable interview subjects like Jeff Sherwood, Loretta Hunt, Randy Couture and Chael Sonnen. Fighting Politics could have been the film to tell MMA’s story; it makes an authentic attempt to use Matt as a lens to chart the growth of the sport. Matt was right there, not at the very start, but close enough. But there are too many parts missing, and besides, I don’t think he wants to tell it.

The Smashing Machine: The Life and Times of Extreme Fighter Mark Kerr

Ten years after its release, The Smashing Machine remains the best doc about MMA and a very good film in its own right. The story follows Mark Kerr and Mark Coleman, both highly decorated American collegiate wrestlers and among the very first legitimate stars in the dawn of MMA. Coleman and Kerr are both enormous, violent fighters who were know equally for their brutality in the ring and their shy, even depressed personalities in their personal lives. The film follows both men through roughly a year in their lives as they both attempt to become to become champions in the now defunct Japanese MMA organization PRIDE.

Kerr, the more congenial and accessible of the two subjects, is the primary focus of the film. He is extremely candid with film maker John Hyams, speaking openly about his depression, his volatile relationship with his girlfriend and most revealingly, his opiate addiction. We even see Kerr shooting up and follow him as he attempts to score opiates after a match.

Kerr presents as a very vulnerable, lonely man whose soft, high-pitched voice seem to mock his enormous frame and violent occupation. The film also catches Mark at a pivotal point in his career, one he would never truly recover from. This timing, combed with Mark’s candour makes him an excellent, engaging documentary subject.

The same can’t necessarily be said for Mark Coleman. Coleman is a true MMA legend and a man who fought from the very inception of the sport. He was the first to combine freestyle wrestling with effective striking on the ground, ushering in the now standard MMA tactic of “ground and pound” and was the first heavyweight star in the UFC. Mark started so early, in fact, that by the time Smashing Machine was made in 2002, he was already on what looked to be the downside of his career.

Coleman is a very sullen, shy individual who seems unmistakably depressed at all times. Long before this film was released, my brother and I would remark that Coleman always appeared to be on the verge of tears, which is an upsettingly unstable state to see an enormous man capable of incredible violence. Unlike Kerr, Coleman is a very guarded, stoic subject. He says very little and when he does offer a personal insight, it’s usually brooding and regretful.

While the film does not attempt to chronicle the evolution of MMA, or really examine it much at all, it doesn’t set out to. It is a true narrative doc, one that picks an interesting subject and follows them, looking to understand them better. The subjects here are the Marks, not MMA. That being said, the film is a treasure-trove for old MMA fans who remember the brilliance of PRIDE and Japanese MMA and new fans seeking a first-person view of MMA’s second golden age. This was the era that produced the first wave of Hall of Fame fighters in a sport that now looks like it will last long enough for that to mean something in the future. Kerr and Coleman are the Jack Dempseys and Gene Tunneys of their era. When Smashing Machine is watched 50 years from now, perhaps the perennial success of MMA will have made the film’s lack of context even less important and its intimate look at fighters, who will by then be legends, even more relevant.

There are many other documentaries about MMA fighters, but most if not all of them were made and produced by the subjects themselves or the organizations representing them. As such, while I have enjoyed many of them, I have always felt they were far closer to promotional vehicles then documentary films.

MMA has everything a documentarian could want. It emerged through a fascinating history that is easy to track and is based in a compelling outsider culture, filled with dozens if not hundreds of of amazing characters eager to tell their stories. Over the last few years, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has purchased most of their competition, including PRIDE and most recently #2 promotion STRIKEFORCE. By purchasing these organizations, they also became the sole owners of all previous fight footage. In effect, the UFC owns nearly every relevant fight in MMA history. As such, any documentary made about MMA in the future will have to negotiate with the UFC for footage. It seems we’re probably in for more promotional films and less documentaries.

– Mike Waldman