Mixed martial arts has made it. Forget about live attendance, pay-per-view buys or TV ratings. MMA is the focus of two feature fi lms this year: award winning playwright and fi lmmaker David Mamet’s Redbelt and The OC meets Bloodsport teen fi ght fl ick, Never Back Down.
Many fans see this as greedy opportunity, an unwanted incursion into our world by clueless movie directors and corny actors. But the entertainment industry isn’t late to the party; it helped plan this shindig and now it wants its turn at the keg.
The fi rst Ultimate Fighting Championship was a spectacle designed by Rorion Gracie to showcase the skills of his younger brother Royce. Produced in 1993, the UFC was a partnership between Gracie and Bob Meyrowitz, the owner of Semaphore Entertainment Group. Concert producer Semaphore was one of the leading producers of PPV content at the time.
The concept of a one-night tournament featuring masters of various fi ghting disciplines was dramatic, but it wasn’t too far from the challenges the Gracie family started issuing in Brazil in the 1920s. Then one of Rorion’s students offered a creative masterstroke that changed combat sports forever.
That student, John Milius, suggested that the UFC take place inside a steel octagonal cage. Milius, the director of Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn, and a screenwriter whose credits include Apocalypse Now and the HBO series Rome, was a passionate proponent of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu who pestered friends about coming down to Gracie’s school in Torrance, Calif. One of those friends was actor Ed O’Neill.
In 1995, O’Neill was nearing the end of a ten-year run as Al Bundy on the Fox sitcom Married…With Children. Milius kept asking him to check out Gracie’s school and O’Neill kept avoiding it. Finally he relented, but only on the condition that he would drive himself and leave when he wanted to, which ended up being almost immediately after he arrived.
“I had no interest in it and I had no respect for it,” says O’Neill. “It just looked like they were laying down and resting.”
Whatever they were doing, it didn’t look like fi ghting. He knew fi ghting. “If you came from Youngstown [Ohio] you had to be a scrappy kid,” the actor says. The rust belt town has produced champion boxers Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, and Kelly Pavlik, along with more than its fair share of collegiate and professional football players, O’Neill included. He played football at Ohio University and Youngstown State University and was good enough to get drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969, but not good enough to make it past training camp.
O’Neill politely sat through the class and was on his way out the door when Rorion introduced himself and offered the actor a free lesson. O’Neill resisted but fi nally gave in the way all of the Gracie’s victims did back then. Rorion took the mount and asked O’Neill if he could push him off if the actor’s life depended on it. O’Neill fought, but was unable to move Gracie from the dominant position. Grinning, Rorion let the Youngstown tough guy collect himself and took the guard, challenging O’Neill to hold him down. Again, O’Neill failed, and Rorion had a new high-profi le student.
Around the same time America’s favorite hapless sitcom dad began seriously studying martial arts, a young martial artist from New England was about to break into America’s living rooms.
Joe Rogan had no friends in Los Angeles when he moved there to take a role on the NBC sitcom NewsRadio. The East Coast transplant passed time by renting movies at a store down the block from his apartment and one day picked up an Ultimate Fighting Championship tape.
“I heard about some judo dude who was kicking everyone’s ass,” Rogan says, “I didn’t know what Jiu Jitsu was and I’d done martial arts my whole fucking life.”
Rogan isn’t exaggerating. He began studying Tae Kwon Do as a kid at an old-world style Korean-run school. “It wasn’t about [scoring] points, it was about knocking someone out with kicks,” Rogan says. He took the lessons to heart and won the lightweight U.S. Open Tae Kwon Do Championships at the age of 19. He took out the middleweight and heavyweight champions the same year and took home the Grand Championship trophy.
Rogan later realized that no matter how good his kicking was, his lack of effective hand strikes and defense was a major liability in a fi ght, so he started learning the sweet science under Joe Lake, UFC welterweight Marcus Davis’ former boxing coach. Then one of Rogan’s friends introduced the aspiring standup comedian to Muay Thai and he immersed himself in the combat sport before most Americans had an inkling what Thai boxing was.
So when Rogan sat in his apartment and watched Royce Gracie dismantle an array of fi ghters with Jiu Jitsu, he had to learn how to do it. He began studying seriously under Carlson Gracie in 1996 and became a cage-fi ghting afi cionado, amassing a serious collection of fi ght tapes in the process.
MMA was a very small world back then and soon enough Rogan was conducting post-fi ght interviews for the UFC, a gig that lasted through 1998. He began working for Zuffa in 2002, after the Fertitta brothers purchased the UFC and started bringing the sport out of the dark ages. By the time the fi ght league exploded all over Spike TV, Rogan was an integral part of the company’s television production package.
Now that mixed martial arts is attracting beaucoup bucks in the form of television deals, sponsorships and movies, young fi ghters want a piece of the action. The irony is that guys like Rogan, now a brown belt under Eddie Bravo and a purple belt under Jean Jacques Machado, and O’Neill, now a black belt under Gracie, use martial arts to keep their heads on straight in an industry that encourages detachment from reality.
“Hollywood actors lose touch in a big way,” Rogan says. By the time Rogan debuted as the host of NBC’s Fear Factor he had spent four years on NewsRadio and had acclimated to a certain level of notoriety. He credits his martial arts training with helping him stay centered even as he became a house-hold name.
“In martial arts training you learn so much about life and yourself, you learn about what is important,” Rogan says.
O’Neill similarly sees Jiu Jitsu as a very direct and honest escape from a world where you can be on top one day and no one returns your calls the next. “It’s a real relief to have a certain hobby that is not as nebulous as the entertainment industry,” the actor says.
Rolling with high-level Jiu Jitsu players keeps O’Neill humble and better able to deal with the vagaries of his chosen profession. “I assume I’ve changed quite a bit since the fi rst day I walked in there,” O’Neill says. “There’s a certain confi dence that comes from having a plan.”
Rogan describes that confi dence differently. Hollywood is fi lled with bad infl uences and manipulative shitheels, but the UFC commentator calls martial arts “a vehicle for developing human potential,” and says serious training “makes it much easier to say ‘fuck you’ to retards,” Rogan says.
While O’Neill and Rogan are two of the best-known off-screen martial artists in Tinseltown, they are not breaking new ground. Martial arts and the entertainment industry have been inspiring each other since before Elvis Presley executed his fi rst rhinestone-studded Kenpo kata.
Many American servicemen returned from Japan and Korea with black belts, but martial arts didn’t truly arrive in America until the day Bruce Lee arrived in San Francisco in 1958. The son of an actor, Lee was an acc
omplished student of Wing Chun Kung Fu and a Hong Kong boxing champion in search of an American college education.
Word of his skills spread quickly and Lee parlayed his martial arts skills into the role of Kato on The Green Hornet television show. The highly sought-after teacher turned former servicemen and black belts Chuck Norris and Joe Lewis into world champion ass-kicking machines before returning to Hong Kong, where he turned cheesy chop-socky fl icks into international blockbusters, collecting high-profi le students like the actor Steve McQueen and basketball star Kareem Abdul Jabbar along the way.
Norris’ cowboy-booted kicks Americanized the kung fu action hero starting in the 1970s and The Karate Kid ignited the Tae Kwon Do craze of the mid-1980s with the re-imagining of the traditional martial arts story of a fi erce but reluctant fi ghter. And within a few years of the fi rst UFC, Jiu Jitsu schools popped up around the country to take advantage of the new martial arts craze.
Now that the UFC’s tide is rising and lifting all MMA boats, the sport is ripe for the Hollywood treatment. No one should be surprised. From surfi ng to hip-hop to skateboarding, every American subculture has been used as fodder for feature fi lms. But rarely did the screenwriters, directors, and actors in these fi lms surf, rap or skate.
O’Neill says when he was working on The Spanish Prisoner in 1997 with David Mamet, he showed the fi lmmaker some Jiu Jitsu. Mamet’s interest was piqued and O’Neill introduced him to Renato Magno. The director has been an avid practitioner ever since, earning a purple belt from Magno. The lifelong boxing fan took to MMA quickly and has incorporated Magno and Randy Couture into episodes of The Unit, the military-themed television show Mamet co-created.
An American samurai tale, according to Mamet, Redbelt was covered intensively in the last issue of FIGHT! The movie is being greeted with cautious optimism. Never Back Down has inspired quite a bit more queasiness, but let’s face it, if hip-hop could survive Breakin’, MMA will be ok.
If past experience is any indicator, these movies will increase awareness and popularity of the sport, inspire a lot of cringe-inducing commentary from people who don’t know what they are talking about, and mark the moment when MMA really became a part of the pop culture landscape.
With knowledgeable enthusiasts straddling the line between showbiz and the fi ght game, the future is bright portraying combat inside the cage on screen. Let’s just hope we never have to sit through Never Back Down 2: Electric Boogaloo.