I love film, and I love combat sports, so it makes sense that I'd seek out films about fighting. The majority of fictive films about combat sports (I'm overlooking genres like wuxia/kung fu films for this article) are bland, not just because the stories are awful, but the fights just look fake. Surprisingly, quite a few documentaries about combat sports and martial arts exist. So after hunting down some of them, I compiled this post. Even if you don't find them informative, they are all entertaining. All films listed should be available on DVD, online, or through Netflix.
The Smashing Machine The ultimate MMA documentary, it chronicles the rise of Mark Kerr, the most feared fighter of his time until the original PRIDE Grand Prix in 2000. It shows in detail how he climbed to the top and how his drug problems made everything come down around him. Kerr is a soft-spoken, mild mannered guy who just happens to beat people up for a living, and seeing his demons best him is tragic (if not surprising). Also featuring Bas Rutten as his trainer and Mark Coleman as his friend, it's a haunting look at the unforgiving perils of the sport.
Choke: A Rickson Gracie Documentary Rickson is a legendary MMA fighter - he'd certainly want you to think that, at least. Still, he was a scary man in the ring, showing little emotion as he destroyed his opponents. This film shows Rickson preparing for Vale Tudo 1995, and we see his human side as he jokes with his family and training partners. There's still exciting fight footage, such Rickson throwing an opponent out the ring, or Yuki Nakai surviving an nasty eye gouge to win (the gouge would permanently blind his right eye). A great look at the early days of MMA. (Full film after the link)
Bigger, Faster, Stronger Steroid usage is one of the most divisive issues in not just MMA, but the whole of sports. Weightlifter Chris Bell doesn't necessarily approve of steroids (he quit them after feeling like a dirty cheater), but he also admits that the current ban against them doesn't make sense. For example, high-altitude training & chambers are legal, but EPO and blood doping aren't, but they have the same effects on the body. Tiger Woods had surgery to give him better than 20/20 vision - why is that legal? The supplement industry is essentially unregulated. These are all symptoms, Bell argues, of the drive to win & succeed by any means necessary. It’s a wonderfully morally gray film that should convince you to reexamine PEDs in sports.
Unreal Story of Pro Wrestling Much to the chagrin of many fans, pro wrestling has been extremely influential to MMA, but the influence goes farther than the theatrical. Our own nottheface has discussed turn-of-the-century fighting here and here, and this documentary is a fine compliment to them. It begins with early catch-as-catch-can, but as the pure sport of it lost appeal, the wrestlers began staging fights and adopting personas - the most famous was Gorgeous George, whose antics would inspire young Cassius Clay to become a raging braggart. While some of the discussion is overblown (one supporter smugly reminds the audience that Shakespeare's plays were dismissed as violent entertainment for the commoner), some time should be spent examining the bastard cousin of combat sports. (Full film after the link)
Fight Quest/Human Weapon This pair of similar shows both feature a pair of MMA fighters traveling around the world to study various indigenous martial arts and combat sports, and each episode concludes with a fight in that style. Some of the fighters should be familiar: Jimmy Smith is an announcer for Bellator, while Jason Chambers is COO of Shine Fights. Some are obvious styles (boxing, BJJ, karate, etc) but they also explore more exotic fare like kalarippayattu, pradal serey, and kali. We may never see these styles in the cage, and many of them are obviously more for show as their practical martial purposes waned, but they are part of the history of martial arts and deserve to be appreciated. If seeing different warrior cultures appeals to you, then you should also check out History Channel's Warriors.
Fight Science If you enjoy the Sports Science clips of athletes performing under observation, you'll enjoy this National Geographic series, where they attempt to describe and explain combat from a scientific standpoint. The pilot episode features all different styles of martial arts (including an appearance by Rickson Grace), but the second episode is all about MMA Sure, the "science" is questionable at times, but seeing them put numbers to what we see in the octagon is fascinating. Other episodes include stealth fighters, special ops training, and self-defense. (Full episodes from Hulu after the link).
When We Were Kings Muhammad Ali is one of the greatest boxers ever, and probably the best-known athlete across all sports. In today's sports world, with all the incredible scandals, it's too easy to forget how divisive and aggressive he was. When We Were Kings shows Ali at the height of his hype - the Rumble in the Jungle - the fight against George Foreman in Zaire for the Heavyweight World Champion. Ali's swagger was juxtaposed with the taciturn Foreman, a fearsome power puncher who many thought would crush the aging former champ. Ali then debuted his "Rope-a-Dope" technique to stun Foreman and win via TKO in the eighth round. Combine all this with the political controversy around Ali and a kick-ass music festival, this is possibly the best film made about a cultural whirlwind. Other great boxing documentaries include Facing Ali, Tyson, and Unforgivable Blackness
Budo: The Art of Killing A little cheesy at times, this film is about the traditional martial arts of Japan, such as judo, aikido, karate, sumo, and weapons training. It doesn't explore the martial arts too deeply, and it misses the chance to show how ingrained they are in Japanese history, but it's still a fun look at
Honorable Mention goes to Jens Pulver: Driven. It's been highly regarded by everyone who's seen it, but since I haven't, I can't comment on it too well. Also available are Once I Was a Champion, Such Great Heights, Renzo Gracie: Legacy, Fighting Politics (thanks, Beer Monster), and A Fighting Chance.