Boxing is a natural subject for a documentary—the sport provides so much drama, both in and out of the ring, that it provides plenty of fodder for filmmakers. The same is true of MMA, but as a relatively new sport it has not yet racked up the numbers of docs the way boxing has. Here are five documentaries that dive into the real life stories behind the headlines, and give fight fans a better understanding of what these athletes endure in order to succeed.
1. Tyson (2008) - The great thing about Mike Tyson is his ability to unflinchingly describe his own failings and heartbreak. Tyson makes good use of this, with gut wrenching interviews that detail the rise and fall of the boxing great. In particular, Tyson’s emotion-filled description of his relationship with trainer Cus D’Amato makes for devastating viewing. Directed by James Toback, the documentary views Tyson solely through Tyson’s own point of view, and therefore lacks a broader, critical understanding of the fighter. However, that laser focused viewpoint also provides the audience with a penetrating look into what makes the man tick, and feels exceedingly honest.
2. The Smashing Machine: The Life and Times of Extreme Fighter Mark Kerr (2002) - Back when the UFC was in its infancy, Mark Kerr came along for a brief but successful career in the fledgling promotion. From there the fighter moved on to Pride, and similarly dominated the competition. The documentary, however, is about much more than just Kerr’s fighting career. A dark and up close look at injuries, pain killer addiction, and the destruction wrought in his personal relationships, The Smashing Machine offers fans an intimate portrayal of MMA at its grittiest.
3. When We Were Kings - Muhammed Ali has been the subject of numerous documentaries, but When We Were Kings may be the best of them all. Following Ali and Foreman in the lead up to their famous “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974, this documentary is a revelation even for those who already know the outcome. Ali as underdog is a most compelling Ali, and the love for him from the people of Zaire is infectious. “Ali, boma ye!” will stick with you long after you last heard it. Even knowing how much of a quote machine Ali was it can still be surprising just how many great lines he generated. When We Were Kings won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
4. Fightville (2011) - Back when Dustin Poirier was fighting in Louisiana, he and a handful of other fighters, including Tim Credeur, Albert Stainback and Derrick Krantz, were the subject of a documentary following the aspiring MMA fighters. For anyone wanting a better understanding of what the beginning of a career looks like, Fightville is a worthwhile watch. Also examined are the mens’ backgrounds and motivations for getting into the sport. Directed by Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker, who has a resume of documenting war in the Middle East, Fightville came about when Tucker observed soldiers watching and practicing mixed martial arts.
5. Golden Girl (2016) - A lot goes into making a great documentary, but sometimes what pushes a good documentary into something out of the ordinary is a simple twist of fate. As it so happens, Swedish documentarian Susanna Edwards happened to be present when the subject of her “female Rocky” doc, Frida Wallberg, had a cerebral hemorrhage in the ring in 2013. The great champion, who had already provided Edwards with three years worth of footage, allowed the filmmaker to follow her as she recovered. Both before and after the tragic incident, Wallberg’s seemingly limitless determination is inspiring.