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MMA headed to mainstream with 'Warrior,' TV deals

Tom Hardy showed up on director Gavin O'Connor's porch at midnight a few years ago, brimming with excitement about playing a fighter in a bizarre, violent fringe sport called mixed martial arts.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tom Hardy showed up on director Gavin O'Connor's porch at midnight a few years ago, brimming with excitement about playing a fighter in a bizarre, violent fringe sport called mixed martial arts.

"I flew out and knocked on his door to tell him why he should hire me to be Chuck Norris," Hardy said with a grin. "At the time, when I read 'Warrior' the first time, I thought it was Chuck Norris he wanted."

Hardy and Joel Edgerton both acknowledge they knew almost nothing about MMA when they signed on to star in "Warrior," the biggest major-studio film to date featuring the fast-rising sports.

The two actors quickly figured out MMA isn't about blood, rage and Chuck Norris-style beatdowns. They're hoping audiences will enjoy getting a similar education about a niche pursuit that's about to go mainstream.

"Warrior" puts MMA in the nation's multiplexes Friday as the biggest major-studio film to date about the sport, and the critically acclaimed drama is leading a slew of MMA-related projects in various stages of production. The UFC also just signed a nine-figure broadcast deal with Fox, putting the sport's dominant promotion on network prime-time for the next seven years.

O'Connor knows why MMA is suddenly under Hollywood's spotlight. Storytellers have always loved a good fight — going all the way back to Theogenes, the mythical, undefeated Greek boxer referenced in "Warrior" — but the MMA cage is a fascinating, fresh visual locale for a scrap.

"You can't turn to anyone else, and there's something so primal about that," O'Connor said. "Two men entering a ring, and one guy walks out, one guy gets his hand raised. It's just primal, and when you can use MMA, we haven't seen it in cinema before. If we got it right, which we take great pains to try to do, it'll be something that's new and fresh."

O'Connor first became intrigued by MMA more than a decade ago when he financed the completion of "The Smashing Machine," director John Hyams' 2002 documentary about early MMA fighter Mark Kerr. O'Connor has followed the sport ever since.

"It's beautiful and athletic as hell, and the evolution of it has been like a freight train," O'Connor said.

A couple of years after O'Connor made "Miracle," his well-received 2004 retelling of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's gold-medal triumph, he conceived a story about two brothers coming to terms with their violent childhood and a once-domineering father, played by Nick Nolte.

As in any good sports film, the competition in "Warrior" is only a vehicle for telling a bigger story, this one about family bonds and redemption. Yet the fighting scenes are fierce and pivotal, with both brothers competing in a tournament that takes up the film's final act.

"The light bulb went off when I (realized) the backdrop of this sport has never been captured," O'Connor said. "Maybe there's a way to take this story and put it somewhere that some people haven't seen yet."

The actors' MMA training took nearly as long as the shoot. Hardy, who filmed "Warrior" before his mainstream breakthrough roles in "Inception" and the upcoming "The Dark Knight Rises," put 14 more pounds of muscle on his already bulging frame to play Tommy Conlon, the ex-Marine who wins most of his fights by brutal knockout.

"It's terrifying. Don't try it at home," Hardy said with a laugh. "It really is an athletic sport, but the guys aren't the way you might expect. The Brazilian jiujitsu guys, you could marry any of them. They're lovely gentlemen. It's the most humbling experience working with them. They're so kind, so serious, and you can't believe they take 25 minutes of an evening trying to smash each other in the face."

Edgerton tore a ligament in his knee while performing nearly every bit of his own fight action as Brendan Conlon, who returns to fighting to save his family from home foreclosure. Edgerton only gave way to a stunt double for a handful of dangerous body slams.

"It wasn't really as brutal a sport as I was first judging before I got involved," said Edgerton, an Australian and longtime karate student who starred in "Animal Kingdom."

"I had no idea. I just saw it as a bloody gladiator sport, and there's much more to it than meets the eye."

If "Warrior" lives up to its early critical acclaim while also finding acceptance with MMA fans, the film could become a benchmark in a new subgenre. Although Hong Kong superstar Donnie Yen has made MMA films, North American filmmakers are just starting to figure out how to exploit the sport's unique cinematic possibilities.

Chiwetel Ejiofor played a jiujitsu instructor turned MMA fighter in "Redbelt" in 2008, but director David Mamet's meditation on integrity is only tangentially about martial arts, with fights that don't really resemble modern MMA. "Never Back Down," a low-budget MMA film starring Djimon Hounsou, made $41 million at the box office in early 2008, but not much of a splash with critics or MMA fans.

What's more, dozens of low-budget MMA films have filled the DVD bargain bin in recent years, often starring UFC fighters acting their way through threadbare plots.

"It's not like the bar is very high on this stuff, but we still wanted to do it justice right away," O'Connor said.

Several MMA-related films are in various stages of production, some more serious than others. Next July, UFC superfan Kevin James will star with Salma Hayek in the comedy "Here Comes the Boom," playing a teacher who becomes an MMA fighter.

And back in the world of professional MMA, UFC President Dana White believes his TV deal with Fox will put the sport in front of an entirely new group of potential fans. MMA isn't mainstream yet, but White believes it can get there in two years.

"We won't be mainstream until we don't have to explain what we're doing — what the holds are, what the basic rules are," White said. "But people can learn about MMA in a lot of places now — on TV, in the movies, and with everything we do. We're getting there, and we're going to be there soon."


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