Dustin Poirier, star of Fightville, who took a break from working out to talk to Torontoist about being a winner.
If the mark of a good documentary is that it makes you care about something you weren’t interested in before watching it, then maybe a great documentary is one that makes you care about something that you previously found distasteful. Fightville, Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein’s exploration of MMA culture, is going to surprise those who think that the gladiatorial-style cage fighting is cultural dregs served up for plebes. Set against a muted heartland backdrop, the film offers articulate characters performing something artful, disciplined, and compelling. Though it doesn’t shy away from the bloody and the carnivalesque side of the high-octane, nearly no-holds-barred sport, Fightville also goes places you wouldn’t expect.
Director Michael Tucker was as surprised as anyone by what came from Fightville. Before shooting, Tucker says that he had no experience with MMA culture: “None at all. I thought what a lot of other people I know think: that it’s this kind of brutal, ugly, awful thing.”
He stumbled onto the world of Fightville more or less by accident. Tucker and his wife Petra Epperlein have made a string of documentaries about the war in Iraq over the last several years. Following one of the soldiers in their most recent Iraq film home after the war, Tucker found that the young man had taken up MMA fighting since his deployment, and he filmed some fights. “We showed that footage to our producers, and they said, ‘You know, there’s probably a film in that,'” he says.
Fightville is set around a low-budget, hole-in-the-wall MMA gym in Lafayette, Louisiana. “These smaller gyms represent the MMA dream,” he says. “Across America, across Canada, there are all these little tiny gyms with all the aspiring fighters, and all of them want to go to the big times.”
One of those aspiring fighters, Dustin Poirier, became the star of Tucker’s film. “The first time I saw Dustin fight was the first time I saw a fighter and was really in awe. I hadn’t seen fighting like that before,” Tucker says. “Dustin had a physicality, he had a presence, he had a lot of ring charisma. He felt right for the film. Whether we thought he would make it all the way, I don’t know, but we thought, ‘This guy is worth following no matter what happens.'”
Poirier says that seeing himself on film was “really cool” and that Fightville offers an accurate snapshot of his life: “I think it captured who I am. It shows that I just work hard and take the sport really serious. That’s what I do: I just wake up and try to be a better person, be a better fighter every day.” When we spoke to Poirier at 10:30 a.m., he had already been up for hours. “I got up at 5 o’clock this morning. I do strength and conditioning until 7:30, then come home and eat, and actually I’m about to leave to go back to the gym for my jiu-jitsu. Then kickboxing. Then I come home, eat again, and go back to the gym later for wrestling. I go to the gym four times a day—three times a day usually.”
It’s the understanding that the sport requires this level of discipline and top-of-the-game athleticism that is changing the way that people see MMA, Tucker says. “This new generation of fighters is moving MMA away from that sort of freak-show, gladiator thing and towards a serious athletic competition.” Coming up this weekend in Toronto is UFC 129, the first event that UFC—the most prominent MMA league in North America—has ever held in Ontario. It’s estimated there will be 55,000 people at the Rogers Centre. “These are urban fans, this is a very sophisticated audience. It’s the first chance for the world to see what the sport has to offer,” says Tucker.
“The more I’m around the sport, the more I see that it has less to do with violence and more to do with competition. It’s a combat sport, so the physical manifestation of that is going to be violent. There’s a violent consequence, but that doesn’t mean that the motivation is violence itself.” Tucker thinks this misconception about MMA is holding it back from mainstream acceptance.
He also sees a problem with how the sport promotes itself. “They really shoot themselves in the foot in some ways. Promoters will use expressions like ‘rage in the cage,’ but that doesn’t do the sport any good. When you look at it closely, what you’re seeing are martial arts at their best. I mean, pro football is violent. Hockey is violent. And there are sports that are not just violent but cruel: rodeo, for example, is cruel. With MMA, we have something that’s a lot purer than that. It doesn’t hide what it is. It’s combat. These are incredible athletes with incredible levels of training doing things that have never been done before.”
Still, MMA fighting isn’t exactly something Tucker is ready to try for himself. “Unfortunately, I’m 44 years old,” he says “I think it would hurt me. I’d end up in the emergency room or the chiropractor’s office saying, ‘Please don’t do this to me again.'”