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Interview: Actor Stephen Dorff & UFC coach discuss new MMA movie ‘Embattled’

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Check out Bloody Elbow’s interview with acclaimed actor Stephen Dorff, and UFC coach Chris Conolley, about their upcoming MMA movie ‘Embattled.’

IFC Films has teamed up with acclaimed actor Stephen Dorff, and UFC coach Chris Conolley, to produce a new MMA movie entitled ‘Embattled.’ The new film, which features cameos from Kenny Florian, Tyron Woodley, and Eryk Anders, comes out November 20th in select theaters and on Video on Demand. Dorff, who recently worked on the hit show True Detective, portrays a boisterous and elite cage fighter, Cash Boykins. Conolley, who coaches UFC fighters Walt Harris and the aforementioned Anders in real life, plays a referee on-screen while also serving as a technical consultant off-screen. Both Dorff and Conolley recently sat down for an interview with Bloody Elbow to discuss their respective roles in the film. This entire chat can be seen in video form at the top of the page.

The film Embattled follows a fractured family as the son, Jett Boykins, (played by Darren Mann) looks to become a premiere cage fighter like his father, Cash. Although he is one of the world’s greatest and highest paid prize fighters, somehow Cash is quite the unsavory character. Imagine that. Think of an over the top mixture of Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather, with a dash of vulgarity that was often seen from a young Mike Tyson.

Dorff: “Cash is a hard part for me to play because there’s not much redeemable about him. Yeah, he’s funny at times. He has his charisma. He’s not a dumb guy. He’s very smart when it comes to the unions and looking out for the other fighters, and the health insurance, and the wages, and having ownership in the brand. He seems like a very good business man, but he is stuck in this old, very old school way... he’s just this f-cking maniac and you know to go into that, I just had to become someone else. And it was hard you know, to the point where I didn’t really like who I was when I was making the movie sometimes. But at the same time, I had to do that to commit fully.”

The apple falls far from the tree, though, as Jett is the antithesis of who his father is as a person. He’s a lot more grounded in morality, and even takes on the responsibility of helping his mother care for his special needs brother... since his father won’t. This isn’t something you would maybe expect to find in an MMA flick, but it adds an extra layer of character development to each member of the family. Tempers flare between father and son and that animosity boils over into the cage in a blood vs. blood showdown. A kin vs. kin matchup isn’t something unseen in MMA. Back in 2016, we saw a brother vs. brother bout in the now defunct World Series of Fighting in the form of Caros Fodor vs. Ben Fodor.

Having worked on such films like Felon and even the classic vampire flick Blade, Dorff is no stranger to fight scenes. He understood the importance of the technical side of things, but also dedicated himself to adding on a bit of muscle to better look the part.

Dorff: “Based on the other work I’ve done and over the years, know how to sell a punch. I know how to take a punch, I know how to give a movie-punch. But yeah, to create the way the footwork moves, the way the ground movement, I needed that training. But I also kind of put it to the side because I felt like if I could wait to the last minute, I know they’re going to be scared on the ground in Birmingham. Like Chris who I had never met, like Fernando our fight choreographer with Chris, like Don Lee our stunt coordinator. But I needed the four-weeks, or whatever I allowed myself with my physical trainer, just to put some size on. You know I was pretty skinny in True Detective.”

To get Dorff ready for the movie, Coach Conolley put him through a little fight camp of his own, and admitted that he was impressed with how quickly the actor took to grappling. Dorff had to pick up on a lot of tiny details being utilized in the fight scenes in Embattled, many of which can be easily overlooked. For example, head-fighting in the clinch. In one scene, Cash does an excellent job of shoving his head under his opponent’s jaw to maintain control against the fence, and that’s just a sound technique that wouldn’t necessarily be expected to show up on the big screen — yet there it is. A small detail that a non-fight fan wouldn’t even notice, but a real Easter Egg for true fight marks who are accustomed to being deprived of legit techniques in movie fight-scenes. Coach Conolley is to thank for that.

Conolley: “I didn’t know what to expect to be honest. You know what I’m saying, we had to hit the ground running. He [Dorff] just came off of True Detective, and straight to Birmingham. We were doing like a mini-fight camp. It was like eight-hour days. Started early in the morning, a little break in the afternoon, and went on throughout the evening trying to script these pretty highly technical moves for a guy who’s not like a regular grappler/Jiu-Jitsu practitioner. But the character he was playing has kind of a gritty gnarly kind of fight style anyways you know what I mean. Stephen picked it up pretty fast. It was pretty impressive dude, I’m not going to lie to you.”

Dorff: “I needed that work on the ground, though. I didn’t know some of those moves.”

From armbars to slams, the techniques showcased in Embattled are rooted in reality, but it’s hard for motion pictures to get away from a bunch of cuts and edits. When it comes to fight scenes, Embattled isn’t really an exception to that rule. However, there are specific moves that do get accentuated with an extra dose of cinematographic grace. One of those instances is a pretty epic spinning elbow courtesy of one Cash Boykins. From setting it up and executing the elbow to the reaction of the recipient, the film does a sound job of placing the audience right in the moment. Coach Conolley specifically made it point to put that one in there.

Conolley: “All the fight scenes, we talked about it, laid it out. It also helps that Fernando trains Jiu-Jitsu as well. He’s a martial artist, Fernando Chien. He had a lot to do about it as well. The thing that I thought was cool was the fact that we’re telling a story throughout the course of a fight, so the techniques and all the moves that we’re doing kind of have to help tell the story as well. But that spinning elbow was absolutely me, bro. That was my move. I love that one and Stephen nailed it. It was good. We tried to put real moves in the movie because we want it to look authentic. Like Stephen said, we don’t want to embarrass ourselves going out there, and I don’t want to be embarrassed at what I’m looking at. I think we pulled it off.”

The movie hits on the expected struggles that a fighter goes through while training, such as the emotional toll of a getting served in a hard sparring session, or what takes place in the corner in-between rounds. Somewhat unexpectedly, Embattled also touches on some touchy subjects that still plague the sport, like fighter pay, pensions, insurance, and the great big elephant in the room that is a fighters union. Coach Conolley had this to say about whether or not he was responsible for those topics making the movie.

Conolley: “Hell no, bro!”

Dorff: “That was the script. That was David McKenna. You know McKenna is such a great writer. He wrote Blow, American History X some of my favorite films. The [MMA] world was in the script and it just felt very real, and then by working with these guys they say how real it is.”