Friday, March 11, 2011

Film: Walking to the Cage (MMA)

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is one of the most brutal sports I've seen. Very little padding on the gloves, some family jewels protection, a mouth guard, and often that's it. The fight lasts five rounds (or three for less experienced fighters) and ends when someone "taps out" or the ref stops it because one guy is not defending himself. I rarely see fights go the distance.

It's brutal, it's bloody, and it is one of the most popular sports in the country. Is this a natural part of the male psyche?

Walking to the Cage

(2009) 81 min

Walking to the Cage examines the emotional and spiritual aspects of mixed martial-arts

Mixed Martial Arts is an incredibly demanding and brutal sport. Jeff, Coby, and Josh are three decidedly different individuals who have different motivations for their pursuit of a career in this sport. Walking to the Cage examines the emotional and spiritual aspects of this sport, and the relationships and camaraderie that develop in the midst of endless rigorous unpaid training.

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Directed and Produced by Matthew Hickney; Original Music by Nigel Wiesehan; Cinematography by Matthew Hickney, Tyler Mann, Scott Ogle, Andrew Sikes; Film Editing by Austin Anderson, Matthew Hickney

Here is the review(from the Seattle Weekly) by when the film showed at the Seattle Independent Film Festival in 2009.

What drives someone to fight in mixed martial arts? With the fighters on TV, there's at least the explanation of money. But what's the story behind the guys who fight on the amateur circuit, who risk limb (and in one case, life) with no possibility of payoff.

That's the question behind Walking to the Cage, Seattleite Matt Hickney's documentary about three local amateur fighters. Combining fight and training footage with extensive commentary from the subjects (and splices of a Bruce Lee interview on fighting as self-expression, for good measure), the film indeed allows us to walk with them to the cage (or ring), even if we still can't fully comprehend what it's like to be inside it, or why they'd want to do it. We're with them as they put themselves through grueling training, as they relax with their families, as they sit tensely in anticipation of fights against opponents who want to hurt them.

Coby Parmenter probably shouldn't even be fighting; he sustained life-threatening head injuries in a bicycle accident when he was a kid, and the doctors told him he should never be hit in the head. He's just entering fighting at the age of 30, having previously competed in wrestling and judo. His description of his first fight? "I was trying to hit this guy in the face and he was trying to hit me in the face. Mid-swing, I was like, 'I don't like this.' The guy hit me and I was like, 'oh.' I forgot all about what I was thinking about and started thinking 'I'm gonna kill this motherfucker.'" In his second fight, he tears up his knee, and spends the rest of the film rehabbing.

19-year-old Josh Calvo is like a vessel for the hopes and dreams of the older men who train him. They recognize that he has more talent then they had and want to see him succeed. He listens, working hard and forgoing the usual pleasures of youth. Going into his first fight, he explains that he's confident because he's been training on weekend nights, rather than out drinking and partying.

But the real voice of the movie is 36-year-old Jeff Bourgeois, a charismatic ex-Marine who's simultaneously jovial, deferential, defiant, and masochistically hard-working. An introspective, extroverted guy, he's not shy about letting the viewer into his head. He's a family man who clearly loves spending time with his wife and three kids, but he spends six nights a week training and teaching fighting. (In one of his moments of self-doubt, we can see him seemingly wondering whether this is how his life should be ordered.)

He can't straighten one arm because it was injured when he refused to tap out of an arm bar--a hold that hyperextends the elbow--and then refused treatment for the injury. He's demanding of his trainees, but also kind; in a touching scene, he tells a fighter who got knocked out in his first fight, "I'm proud of you."

Hickney listed a desire to show the humanity of fighters as one of the motivations for the movie, and that humanity is certainly on display. There's kindness and generosity aplenty in these circles.

Fighting is clearly addictive--these guys keep doing it, even as it destroys their bodies and keeps them away from their families. Knowing that most viewers will never understand the appeal, Bourgeois pleads for respect. I don't enjoy ballet, he says, but I respect the dancers. They're athletes who work extremely hard to do incredible things with their bodies. The same, he adds, holds true for fighters. And he's right. These guys do work extraordinarily hard. They aren't bloodthirsty thugs. They can be really thoughtful and unselfish. After watching this, a viewer will respect them for it--and still likely think they're crazy for doing it.

Boxing used to hold this place in society - a world where men fight - just two guys going at it, strength against strength. Boxing is on the decline (too greedy, I think), but MMA gets good ratings on TV and it even attracts women to the fights.

When I learned to box as a kid, it was because of Mohammad Ali, and because my father taught me that there is a philosophy to it - it's not merely violence and hitting. Ali was the master of not getting hit, while never possessing the knock out punch that Joe Frazier or George Foreman had.

There is a voice in my head that says, "This is violence - it's just like men to always want to beat each other up." Those voices are mostly female.

There is another voice that says, "This is what men do, this is who we are. We no longer have beasts to do battle with, so we tests each other." That's my dad's voice, and maybe Joe's, my first boxing coach.

I don't know what the answer is, other than to make the sport as safe is it can be considering it's two guys trying to beat other unconscious. I enjoy watching it. If I were not now an old man, I'd want to try doing it (but then the voice telling me it's stupid would be Jami's).


Anonymous said...

thanks for watching bro!

you should get on the mat and try some jiu jitsu!


william harryman said...

My pleasure - great documentary!

I'd love to learn if I had more time - but I'm also a little old for MMA - although sparring could be fun.

On my to-do before age 50 list.