How mainstream is MMA? ‘Warrior’ could tell

Dave Meltzer
It is clear from watching the movie "Warrior" that writer/director Gavin O'Connor is a fan of mixed martial arts

How mainstream has mixed martial arts become? That question could be answered in part on Friday with the opening of the movie "Warrior.”

The film, which has gotten strong critical reviews, has the brutal fight action one would expect from a movie about a cage-fighting tournament.

But it’s surprisingly touching at points and gripping throughout with strong character development in exploring the long journey and motives of two brothers who are fighting for the $5 million first prize in a 16-man middleweight tournament.

The crux of the movie is the brothers. School teacher Brendan Conlan (played by Joel Edgerton) and emotionally challenged younger brother, Tommy Riordan (played by Tom Hardy) – who uses his late mother’s maiden name because he’s in hiding after going AWOL from the Marines in Iraq – are unlikely entrants into the elite two-night tournament. But besides them and their alcoholic father (played by Nick Nolte), nobody is aware of their relationship until a news report breaks Riordan’s identity.

It’s clear watching the movie that writer/director Gavin O’Connor is a big MMA fan. A hardcore fan will see aspects of different real-life fighters in the characters. The Koba character, as the Russian who was the world’s greatest fighter, was obviously inspired by Fedor Emelianenko, the mysterious Russian who was considered by many an unbeatable fighting machine at the time the movie was penned.

Brendan, the popular high school teacher who becomes a fighter, seems modeled after UFC star Rich Franklin. Riordan was a mix of the war hero of Brian Stann with the Internet intrigue of Kimbo Slice.

"I was certainly inspired by the UFC," said O’Connor, who directed "Miracle," the movie about the U.S. Olympic hockey team's 1980 gold-medal performance. "That’s what we know in this country. But as a filmmaker, I was trying to make it something new. So I very consciously lit the arena differently. We didn’t use an Octagon [but used a different structure cage]. We had ring girls in gowns with beach balls. I used a Grand Prix single-elimination tournament which were very popular in Japan with K-1 and PRIDE. We certainly tipped our hat to UFC but I didn’t want to copy them in any way. We were trying to create our own world."

That world was based on the idea that a billionaire was holding a tournament called "Sparta," to attract the best middleweight fighters in the world. The tournament suddenly became the biggest thing in the sport when Koba (played by pro wrestler and former gold-medalist Olympic wrestler Kurt Angle) agreed to enter, fighting for the first time ever in the U.S.

A smaller theme of the movie was the different levels of acceptance of MMA as a sport. Conlan’s students heard about their teacher doing MMA fights and thought it was the coolest thing in the world. But the principal and superintendent, viewing it from the eyes of another generation, thought MMA fighters were barbaric.

But Conlan’s character was anything close to what one would stereotype a vicious cage fighter. In many ways, that follows the generational gap of MMA’s acceptance in the real world, where the younger generation views it as an exciting sport and the older generation sees it as an uncivilized spectacle.

O’Connor, however, said that was not the message he was going for.

"I never viewed it as [older people] hating it," he said. "What I was going for there was an avuncular kind of relationship between the principal and Brendan, but the powers that be above him, the superintendent, the school board, looked down on what Brendan was doing. He didn’t want Brendan to lose his job. He was pissed at him for doing it and forcing the decision. But he also liked the guy. In the end, his personal feelings for Brendan overrode his professional feelings for him."

As the tournament advanced, the students at the school approached the principal, noting everyone in school wanted to watch the tournament together. The principal was appalled by the idea. But then, after watching the early tournament fights at home and being caught up in the action, you see the scene where the principal and the students were all together in the gym cheering on Brendan in his final fights.

The irony of all this, is that the closing fight would lead you more in the direction of believing MMA at its core to be an uncivilized spectacle. The tournament fight scenes until the finals were filled with exciting one-punch knockouts, submissions and come-from behind dramatic wins, like any boxing movie. But the closing fight came across as more of a spectacle. While dramatic, it would make most who didn’t go into the movie as an MMA fan feel negative about whether MMA was really a sport.

O’Connor, 47, who grew up with "Rocky" as one of his inspirations, in some form produced it with a “Rocky” feel. But unlike most movies of this type, with a singular hero who you know will get salvation at the end, this followed two main characters that would meet at the climax.

MMA fans will notice a lot of familiar faces. Josh Rosenthal was the referee. Besides Angle and Apple, other fighters in the tournament were played by Anthony Johnson, Nate Marquardt, Roan Carneiro and Yves Edwards. Rashad Evans and Stephan Bonnar played themselves, as talking heads on the set of ESPN 2's "MMA Live" show. Most of the fighting scenes were put together by noted trainer Greg Jackson.

Getting the movie made wasn’t easy. O’Connor got a series of rejections until Lionsgate agreed to take it.

"Most studios passed on the movie," he said. "I got very fortunate. When we approached Lionsgate, they had been developing an MMA movie that I heard they ordered a script that had just been turned in. We approached them with "Warrior," that Anthony Tambakis and I had already written.

"They abandoned their movie and took ours. They had the courage to make this movie and saw the potential of it. Their fingers were on the pulse of UFC, MMA, and that this was probably the fastest growing sport in the world. If we can capture the sport, they saw the upside of that."

"It was a bunch of things," said Joe Drake, Lionsgate Motion Picture Group President. "It was really truly an extraordinary script. It was something very human and real, and took us on an emotional journey. We’re a company that has followed MMA. We’ve been a huge sponsor, promoting our movies to that audience. We know and love that audience. We started when it was really a niche sport but it had huge growth potential, and it looks like it’s becoming a major sport. Hopefully we timed it right."