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‘Born a Champion’ movie review: A love letter to jiu jitsu

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Actor Sean Patrick Flanery spent years getting this labor of love made

In interviews, Sean Patrick Flanery has made a big point of his desire to present an authentic picture of BJJ as it was executed in the 1990’s. He calls it, “ugly jiu jitsu,” and the fight sequences, choreographed by Flanery himself, are definitely a highlight of Born a Champion.

Framed within the conceit of a documentary and narrated by protagonist’s Mickey Kelley’s best friend, Taco, the movie is half love story, half fight film, but wholly devoted to praising jiu jitsu. Flanery, who is himself a black belt, offers the audience a title card after the final scene, calling his movie “a lover letter to jiu jitsu.” It is certainly that, as it details the rise of the martial arts practice within the burgeoning sport of MMA.

The story kicks off in the early 1990’s, with jiu jitsu coach Mickey Kelley traveling to Dubai to train a sheikh’s son. He meets a young woman, Layla, on the flight and is immediately smitten. He finds himself with the opportunity to rescue her from a bad situation thanks to his jiu jitsu skills, and later they reconnect back in the United States.

The love story dominates the first half of the film, and while unquestionably sweet, it can all feel just a bit too perfect. When Mickey gets an opportunity to fight for money thanks to his sheikh friend, Layla protests. She is opposed to him teaching jiu jitsu, let alone fighting in a MMA bout. Her worst are fears are realized when Mickey’s opponent, Marco Blaine, cheats, attacking him as he bows. Mickey’s eyes are severely damaged in a horrible beatdown.

When Marco Blaine’s MMA career takes off, video of the unsanctioned fight in the desert—and the champion’s cheating ways—goes viral, creating demand for a rematch.

As Mickey is pulled inevitably back toward the ring, the film takes a turn for the darker, and the more somber tone elevates Flanery’s performance. The actor took up screenwriting to get this story made, and it is easy to feel the love he has for the subject matter. It is a sweet movie with a lot of heart.

However, it is hard not to feel the disconnect between the backstories of these characters and who they seem to be. Flanery chose a very dark, very trauma-filled past for his protagonist, and yet the character appears to be not haunted at all. If the idea is that martial arts helped him heal those wounds, we are left to connect those dots all by ourselves.

It also sure would be nice to have a fight movie where the love interest isn’t defined by her fear of her man getting injured. No doubt that’s a real concern for the significant others of fighters, but it is a trope that has been used repeatedly. Katrina Bowden does a good job as Layla, and probably could have done an even better job had her character’s motivations been explored. At least she gets some character development, unlike poor Taco, who exists for no reason other than to give a voiceover narration.

On the plus side, the two boys who play Mickey Kelley’s son (the story spans several years), are naturals in front of the camera and with Flanery. As it turns out, they are Flanery’s real life sons who also practice martial arts. It was an excellent casting choice, as the scenes at home and in the gym feel fully authentic.

For MMA fans, it’s also fun to see Edson Barboza as villain Marco Blaine, Mickey Gall in a cameo, and Renzo Gracie as himself. It is also refreshing to see martial arts depicted realistically, particularly the training sequences, by someone who clearly lives the life himself. Flanery has said he fought hard to keep the jiu jitsu ugly, and fans will appreciate his efforts.

Born a Champion is currently available on Amazon Prime.