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Every MMA fan must see Fightville

Fightville is a gritty and brilliantly gripping bruises-and-all documentary about small town fighters with UFC dreams, and it far surpasses my already high expectations. I’ve just come from a screening of the film, which focuses on UFC vet Tim Credeur and a couple of his proteges (notably, UFC newcomer Dustin Poirier), and I’ll be writing a full review a little closer to its premiere at the Hot Docs festival in Toronto on April 28. But I want to get a few impressions out there while they’re still fresh (and while you still have time to seek out tickets to one of its three Hot Docs screenings).

No hyperbole here, this is a sharply observed and richly told drama about what it means to be a fighter. Not the big-money contracts and sponsorship deals and pay-per-view bonuses, not the ring card girls and cage fighter groupies, not the glamour and the glory and spectacle of arena-filling action heroes like Anderson Silva or Georges St. Pierre. This isn’t some glorified Tapout commercial.

This is about the average guy, the average guy who also likes to throw down, who likes to hit and be hit, who finds a certain peace and centeredness once the cage door clangs shut behind him, who goes from mild-mannered Clark Kent to Superman-punching cage fighter, who does it because he doesn’t know how to do anything else, even if it means making 500 bucks a night to get his face punched in while working in a restaurant kitchen to make the mortgage payments.

Guys like Poirier can be found in almost every serious, legitimate MMA gym in the world. And filmmakers Mike “The Truth” Tucker and Petra Epperlein, who made the amazing Iraq War doc Gunner Palace, take us into that world in a way that is visceral and real and as intense as any documentary can be. After the screening several critics asked me if that’s what the MMA world is really like and the answer, plain and simple, is yes.

It’s obvious that the filmmakers were given unprecedented access to their subjects, notably Poirier and Gil Guillory, an always-hustling promoter for the barn-burning feeder organization USA MMA and a family man who’s earnest passion for keeping his business afloat is a sharp and refreshing contrast to the image of shady promoters with a used car salesmen sheen. In fact, it’s Guillory and his wife who help put the whole sport in perspective with their insights into the school of hard knocks.

The photography is vibrant and alive and in-your-face, especially during the training sessions and bouts, but without that amped-up and over-processed Tapout commercial gloss, which makes the stories being told all the more vivid and their impact all the sharper, like the snap of a four-ounce glove to your cerebral cortex. Oh yeah, and the soundtrack just plain rocks.

And not to take anything away from Tucker and Epperlein, but they struck cinematic gold with their cast. Credeur is a grizzled marine-drill-instructor-type character who reminded me of a slightly gentler, more philosophical (and definitely crazier) John Kreese whom young fighters willingly follow into battle, grinding it out day after day in a few hundred square feet of gym in Lafayette, Louisiana, all in the hopes of earning a spot on Guillory’s roster.

As I’d hoped, Fightville does what all great documentaries do – it burrows deep into its subject to unearth larger, more universal truths. Sure, the film will easily satisfy MMA fans (at least to the point that they’ll be tearing up the seats demanding more), but it should also excite casual viewers who perhaps aren’t interested in fighting or are even turned off by the thought of it. Because while the moral/political good-or-evil debate surrounding MMA is touched on, the film shies away from making any judgments and simply humanizes the people involved. It shows what it means to be a fighter, blood and broken bones and bad pay cheques and all, and it does it with respect for its subjects and for its audience. I couldn’t ask for more than than.

Addition: I’ll get into more of this at a later date, but I couldn’t not mention Albert Stainback, one of the young fighters profiled in the film whose cage entrance is an homage to A Clockwork Orange. Fucking brilliant. Jason “Mayhem” Miller must be kicking himself for not having thought of it first.

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