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Image: Warrior
Lionsgate Films
Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy play brothers who meet in the MMA ring in "Warrior."
TODAY contributor
updated 9/7/2011 5:49:44 PM ET 2011-09-07T21:49:44

Nearly every major sport has its defining movie.

Baseball has “Pride of the Yankees” and “Field of Dreams.” Basketball has “Hoosiers.” Hockey has “Slap Shot.” Boxing has “Rocky,” “Raging Bull” and a locker room full of other contendahs, like last year’s “The Fighter.” Even professional wrestling has “The Wrestler.”

Mixed martial arts may have found its Hollywood highlight reel.

“Warrior” debuts in theaters Sept. 9 like a kick in the teeth. It could be the movie that brings ultimate fighting out of the pay-per-view shadows and into the mainstream. That’s not just pre-fight hype, either.

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Video: Watch the 'Warrior' trailer (on this page)

Early reviews are strong. The film has 90 percent positive reviews on the film site Rotten Tomatoes.

Why is “Warrior” striking a chord? The cast certainly helps. Tom Hardy is a rising star, fresh off “Inception” and soon to be beating Batman silly as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Joel Edgerton is another sharp talent. The few people who caught him in “Animal Kingdom” last year know he delivers the acting goods. And there isn’t an actor alive better suited to play the role of the washed-up, alcoholic father than Nick Nolte.

Story: 'Warrior' packs a punch with brutal family drama

It also doesn’t hurt that director Gavin O’Connor has experience in the inspirational sports movie arena, having directed “Miracle.”

But for the movie to have staying power, it needs the four Cs that are the pillars of every great sports movie: Characters, Comeback, Conflict and Competition.

Slideshow: September movies: 'Moneyball,' 'Abduction,' more (on this page)

Tommy (Hardy) and Brendan (Edgerton) play two brothers who haven’t spoken in years, and wind up back in the fight game for different reasons. Tommy is a traumatized soldier chasing ghosts. Brendan is a teacher fighting for his family, and to keep the lights on.

In this day and age, how can you choose between a guy who gets his face kicked in nightly so he can pay the bills, and a military man haunted by his experiences?

Nolte’s character may be the most tragic in the film. Watching him fumble his attempts to mend fences with his sons is heartbreaking. He’s like Mickey from “Rocky,” if Martin Scorsese had directed that picture.

NBC Sports: Mixed martial arts news

A sports movie that doesn't show its stars overcoming adversity is like a ballgame without peanuts or beer.

Brendan is the ultimate Average Joe, the ham-and-egger who gets his shot at glory in a $5 million MMA tournament. It’s a story that ESPN would eat up if it happened in real life, and in the movie it’s no different.

Brendan is Jim Braddock in “Cinderella Man” to Tommy’s Max Baer, the dangerous knockout monster.

You want conflict? How about two estranged brothers who are both desperate to win the big money, and who carry around years of emotional baggage? Oh yeah, and about the only thing they have in common is the animosity they have for their father.

It’s positively Shakespearean, if The Bard watched UFC on pay-per-view.

“Hoosiers” isn’t great because it’s about basketball, any more than “Raging Bull” and “Rocky” are classics because of the great boxing scenes. But the scenes on the court, the field or the ring have to hold up, or you’ll lose the crowd.

“Warrior’s” in-ring sequences at times appear lifted scenes right out of an actual MMA event. And while we know Hardy and Edgerton didn’t intentionally land punches or kicks in their staged fights, it’s hard to tell the difference. The fights are brutal. None worse than the big finish, which we won’t spoil here.

It’s not a spoiler to say that you’ll know where the movie is headed as soon as Tommy and Brendan enter the tournament. So what?

Originality isn’t what makes a great sports movie. It’s the execution, the acting, the storytelling. It gets viewers invested in the competitors we’re watching. That’s what gets us to care, to stand up and cheer.

Which, when you think about it, is exactly why we like sports, too. And why “Warrior” could put mixed martial arts on the movie map.

Michael Avila lives in New York. Follow his pop culture musings on Twitter.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Watch the 'Warrior' trailer

Photos: September movies

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  1. 'Apollo 18'

    Stars: Lloyd Owen, Warren Christie

    Director: Gonzalo López-Gallego

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    Think there wasn't an "Apollo 18" lunar mission? Think again. Decades-old found footage from the supposed secret expedition reveals the reason the U.S. has never returned to the moon. Hint: Didja see "Alien"? (The Weinstein Company) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 'The Debt'

    Stars: Helen Mirren, Sam Worthington and Tom Wilkinson

    Director: John Madden

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    "The Debt" begins in 1997, as shocking news reaches retired Mossad secret agents Rachel (Mirren) and Stefan (Wilkinson) about their former colleague David. The group supposedly tracked down a Nazi war criminal in 1966 -- or did they? (Miramax Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 'Shark Night 3D'

    Stars: Sara Paxton, Dustin Milligan and Alyssa Diaz

    Director: David R. Ellis

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    The title, "Sharl Night 3D," says it all. But sharks in a freshwater lake? Hollywood will do anything to get the blood, bikinis and severed limbs flying in 3-D. (Relativity Media) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 'A Good Old Fashioned Orgy'

    Stars: Jason Sudeikis, Leslie Bibb and Tyler Labine

    Directors: Alex Gregory, Peter Huyck

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 2

    In "A Good Old Fashioned Orgy," Jason Sudeikis and pals have partied for years at his dad's beach house. But when dad (Don Johnson) announces he's selling the place, his son decides it's time for the ultimate party. (Samuel Goldwyn Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 'Contagion'

    Stars: Matt Damon, Kate Winslet and Jude Law

    Director: Steven Soderbergh

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 9

    Have your face masks ready -- you'll want one after seeing "Contagion." The action thriller follows people trying to survive a lethal virus. Big stars abound, and it sure looks like from promos that things don't go well for Gwyneth Paltrow. (Warner Bros) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 'Bucky Larson: Born to Be a Star'

    Stars: Nick Swardson, Don Johnson and Christina Ricci

    Director: Tom Brady

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 9

    "Bucky Larson" is a kid from the Midwest who moves out to Hollywood in order to follow in his parents footsteps -- which for him, means becoming a porn star. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 'Warrior'

    Stars: Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte and Joel Edgerton

    Director: Gavin O'Connor

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 9

    In "Warrior," two estranged brothers face the fight of a lifetime. Nick Nolte plays their alcoholic dad, who trains one to eventually land in the ring against the other in a mixed martial-arts tournament. (Chuck Zlotnick) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 'Straw Dogs'

    Stars: James Marsden, Kate Bosworth and Alexander Skarsgard

    Director: Rod Lurie

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 16

    "Straw Dogs" is a remake of the 1971 Dustin Hoffman thriller, infamous for its controversial rape scene. L.A. screenwriter David Sumner relocates with his wife to her hometown in the deep South. There, while tensions build between them, a brewing conflict with locals becomes a threat to them both. (Screen Gems) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 'I Don't Know How She Does It'

    Stars: Sarah Jessica Parker, Pierce Brosnan and Kelsey Grammer

    Director: Douglas McGrath

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 16

    "I Don't Know How She Does It" is a comedy centered on the life of Kate Reddy (Parker), a finance executive who is the breadwinner for her husband and two kids. Based on the best-selling novel. (The Weinstein Company) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 'Drive'

    Stars: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan and Bryan Cranston

    Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 16

    In "Drive," Gosling plays a Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a wheelman. After a heist goes wrong, he discovers that a contract has been put on his life. (Richard Foreman Jr Smpsp / FilmDistrict) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 'Moneyball'

    Stars: Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Robin Wright and Jonah Hill

    Director: Bennett Miller

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 23

    Brad Pitt stars as Oakland A's manager Billy Beane in "Moneyball," based on Michael Lewis' book. The focus is on Beane's attempt to create a competitive team despite Oakland's unfavorable financial situation. (Columbia Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 'Abduction'

    Stars: Taylor Lautner, Lily Collins and Alfred Molina

    Director: John Singleton

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 23

    In "Abduction," Taylor Lautner plays a young man who sets out to uncover the truth about his life after finding his baby photo on a missing persons website. (Lionsgate) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. 'Dolphin Tale'

    Stars: Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr.

    Director: Charles Martin Smith

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 23

    IThe 3-D film "Dolphin Tale" is is inspired by the true story of a bottlenose dolphin named Winter who lost her tail in a crab trap. Her human friends work frantically to create a prosthetic so she can still swim. (Warner Bros.) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. 'Dream House'

    Stars: Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts

    Director: Jim Sheridan

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    The beautiful home in "Dream House" is more of a nightmare. Soon after moving in, a family learns that a mother and her children were brutally murdered there. (Universal Pictures) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. '50/50'

    Stars: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick

    Director: Jonathan Levine

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    "50/50" is a comedic account of a 27-year-old man's cancer diagnosis, and his subsequent struggle to beat the disease. (Summit Entertainment) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. 'Killer Elite'

    Stars: Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert De Niro

    Director: Gary McKendry

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    Action film "Killer Elite" focuses on a retired member of Britain's Elite Special Air Service (Jason Statham) who is forced into action when his mentor (Robert De Niro) is taken hostage. His mission: kill three assassins dispatched by their cunning leader (Clive Owen). (Open Road Films) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 'What's Your Number?'

    Stars: Anna Faris, Chris Pratt and Chris Evans

    Director: Mark Mylod

    Scheduled release date: Sept. 30

    "What's Your Number?" refers to the number of men a woman has slept with. Anna Faris plays Ally, a woman whose number is 20, as she looks back at those men wondering if any of them are her true love. (20th Century Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
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