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.
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.
Warrior deftly draws on the rising popularity of mixed martial arts. The Sparta tournament merits a red carpet and sells out a crowded Atlantic City arena on the fourth of July. Two ESPN commentators repeatedly appear throughout the film to break "huge" MMA news. And an amateur video that depicts Tommy pummeling big-name UFC fighter "Mad Dog" Grimes becomes, according to one character, "one of the most-viewed YouTube videos." Warrior isn't too far off the mark; it's not difficult to find UFC clips that have as many as3 million YouTube hits—no sneezing panda, perhaps, but nothing to sneeze at either.
Warrior convincingly makes the case that MMA is here to stay. But perhaps even more deftly, Warrior deflects the controversy that has plagued the UFC since its creation. In an early scene, Brendan's boss refers to MMA as a kind of human "cockfighting," echoing a comparison famously made by Senator John McCain, who led an unsuccessful campaign to ban ultimate fighting in 1996. In the context of the film, that comparison is ludicrous: Warrior is a PG-13 flick—and a tame one, at that—and MMA doesn't look any more violent than boxing or wrestling. MMA skeptics will be hard-pressed to find anything objectionable about the film's well-organized, closely-refereed bouts, and non-fans will leave with a cursory education on tapouts and Octagons.
But there's also something almost defiantly old-fashioned about Warrior, which sits squarely in the tradition of the "inspirational sports" film genre. It's easy to imagine a script supervisor standing off-camera and running down the sports-movie checklist, from the gruff trainer recovering from alcoholism to the unsupportive loved one who just barely changes her mind in time to get to the arena. Warrior even employs the hoariest of all sports movie clichés: the training montage (though Warrior's is set to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy," not Bill Conti's "Gonna Fly Now" or Joe Esposito's "You're The Best"). Though Warrior employs its sports movie clichés with verve and skill, it can't completely disguise the fact that they're clichés.
In the end, Warrior is a kitchen-sink drama first and an MMA movie second. But the dirty secret behind "sports movies" is that they're never just about sports. Brian's Song is about friendship. Remember the Titans is about racism. Million Dollar Baby is about euthanasia. And Warrior—echoing genre luminaries like Field of Dreams and Rudy—is about family. In fact, with its domestic drama and gritty, blue-collar aesthetic, the movie that Warrior most resembles is last year's much-lauded The Fighter. And it's at least as impressive.
Warrior isn't quite good enough to be the Rocky of MMA, but it sets a high bar for future MMA films. And as UFC continues to grow—both exponentially and internationally—its timing couldn't be better.