The film applies the 'Rocky' formula to a new, fast-growing sport
It's an underdog story tailor-made for Hollywood: a scrappy fighter, plagued by doubters and naysayers, overcomes everything in its path to achieve victory. But in this case, the fighter isn't a person—it's a sport.
Mixed-martial arts, or MMA, has been called as "the world's fastest-growing sport," and on the whole, its TV ratings and attendance figures support that claim. Lionsgate is banking on that momentum with its latest release, the MMA-based sports drama Warrior, which debuts in theaters tomorrow.
There's something almost defiantly old-fashioned about "Warrior," which sits squarely in the "inspirational sports" film genre.
Warrior gives audiences two inspirational sports stories for the price of one. Joel Edgerton plays Brendan, a former UFC fighter who's struggling to make ends meet as a high-school physics teacher. Tom Hardy plays his estranged brother Tommy, a brutally powerful, pill-popping fighter and Iraq War veteran. When both brothers decide to enter the Sparta tournament—the "Super Bowl of MMA," which offers a $5 million prize for the last man standing—each seeks a goal that only one man will be able to achieve.
Warrior is being released at the best possible time for its two leads, who are each poised to break into Hollywood's A-List within the year: Joel Edgerton recently landed the coveted role of Tom Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann's upcoming adaptation of The Great Gatsby , and Tom Hardy will reteam with Inception director Christopher Nolan to play the villainous Bane in next summer's The Dark Knight Rises. Warrior is also an impressive showcase for writer-director Gavin O'Connor, who will deservedly draw praise for the film's naturalistic tone and meticulously choreographed fight scenes.
But the man who stands to benefit most from Warrior isn't listed in the film's credits. It's Dana White, president of Ultimate Fighting Championship, the world's largest mixed martial arts organization. In the past, even non-boxing fans have embraced films like Rocky or Million Dollar Baby—two films which went on to win the Academy Award for best picture. If Americans are ever going to embrace mixed martial arts on the same level as boxing, they need evidence that MMA can be just as universally compelling.
And Warrior is the most convincing evidence yet.
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As a professional sport, MMA is still in its salad days. Major League Baseball was founded in 1869. The National Football League was founded in 1920. And the National Boxing Association—arguably the closest contemporary analogue to mixed martial arts—was founded in 1921, before going global as the World Boxing Association in 1962. The Ultimate Fighting Championship was founded in November of 1993, which means that it was predated by Jurassic Park, Nirvana, and Super Nintendo. The UFC is just one year older than Justin Bieber.
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But even as a "new" sport, MMA is poised for greatness. The most successful night in UFC history came in May 2011 with the UFC 129 event, which sold out Toronto's 55,000-seat Rogers Centre and grossed more than $12 million in total. Video games like UFC Undisputed: 2010 have sales totaling in the millions. And—most tellingly—FOX signed a seven-year deal in August that will bring UFC matches to network television for the first time.