MMA Movie Review: Fight Church

A film about Christianity and MMA and the personal struggles of "fight pastors" to fit the two together.

Fight Church is a film directed by Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel, focusing on five seperate "fighting pastors" and their attempts to cultivate a relationship between MMA and their faith. The film follows Paul Burress, Nahshon Nicks, John Renken, Preston Hocker, and Scott Sullivan as they prepare for fights, talk about their history with the sport, and talk about the ways in which they have decided to bring their faith into MMA or MMA into their faith. The film is fairly unique among MMA documentaries in that it doesn't focus on a fight or a camp, or a fighter, or even a single event, but on a broad subculture and the clashes within that culture. It's also somewhat unique in that it doesn't exist to cheerlead a cause. Several sides to a relationship are presented, different people with different views on that relationship are given a chance to speak. Outlooks are explored without a drive to show any one as more valid than another. In that way, Fight Church stands far apart and above most other documentaries tackling MMA. There is no rooting interest, or at least not one I could find.

Apart from it's main thurst, the name Fight Church is something of an over simplification. The core of the film is most certainly about the growing relationship between religious congregations and grassroots MMA. However, there are strong secondary themes at play as well. Most notable among those themes is the focus on MMA as sport, and the acceptability of that sport to the broader public. It's something that plays out cinematically in the battle to legalize mixed martial arts in New York. That battle is one of the few nods to a larger audience, a theme that non-MMA fans can really catch a hold of, as much of the rest of the movie exists very much within the "MMA bubble."

And I don't say that to mean that this film is filled with dense terminology or boring training footage, but that much of the moral and ethical conundrums that the film presents feel most important if you have an active interest in the sport itself. It may be something that alienates a larger audience. The potential for a lack of investment in the sport to render some of the emotional resonance of the film's subjects a bit impotent could be a problem in bringing people in to see the film in the first place. However, speaking as someone deep in the MMA bubble, I was surprised by how well the film captured the sport of mixed martial arts and the voices of those involved in it. It definitely didn't suffer from an outsider's perspective, the way it's easy to imagine such a project might.

The other major subtext working in the film is one of manliness, and the need to express it. This is, if anything, almost an overwhelming subtext. One of the documentary subjects, John Renken, seems plucked from the pages of a survivalist magazine. He is shown shooting guns, preaching, and training to fight (under the pretense of defending his wife's honor no less) all by turns. A scene of him trying to rush himself back into fighting shape, and subsequently vomiting repeatedly and unapologetically really drives home his status as a man's man.

The theme of MMA as a way for Christianity to reach out to men, speak to men, and give men a place in the church looms large, almost to a fault. A fault, not because it doesn't fit with the film's core conflict, but because its ramifications are underexplored. It is made clear that these men's manliness is important to their relationship to MMA and to God, but not exactly how that is reflected in their church life. The relationship between the desire for manliness and the dynamic that desire creates between pastors, their families, and their congregations is a question that begs asking.

Coming back to the core, beyond subtexts and undercurrents, and most particularly toward MMA fans, Fight Church is a film worth watching. At its heart, it's a film about culture clash; to some extent, the clash between MMA and popular culture, but much more the potential for conflict within MMA itself. Appearances by Jon Jones and Benson Henderson (both as understated guest stars) bring home the struggle that more popular fighters face with being publicly outspoken in their religious belief. The film's main subjects focus largely on the ways in which they've accepted (or, in one case, denied) fighting as a part of their religious identity. It's that struggle for acceptance that drives the film. The ways in which it is at times endearing and at times ridiculous, and very often both together. Fight Church feels like a surprisingly complete picture of a growing sub-culture, one that MMA fans should be aware of and interested in. For a list of current screening dates, visit FightChurchFilm.com.

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