How Prize Fighting has Shaken-up Action Choreography

MMA, or mixed martial arts, has exploded into the mainstream. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the world’s largest MMA promotion,  sold for over 4.2 billion dollars and broke annual records by selling a total of 9 million pay-per-views in just 2016. With the UFC making headlines on ESPN and fighters attracting celebrity-like TMZ coverage, both B-list action movies and summer blockbusters have seen fighters-turned actors. Some highest profile cases include multiple-time The Ellen DeGeneres Show guest and former bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey in Entourage (2015) and Furious 7 (2015) , as well as former light-heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as B.A Baracus in the A-Team remake (2010). But MMA’s influence hasn’t been limited to the past few years – UFC co-founder Rorion Gracie worked with director Richard Donner to choreograph fight scenes for 1987’s Lethal Weapon, including the famous realistic triangle choke Riggs uses to kill Joshua, played by Mel Gibson and Gary Busey, respectively.

In an interview with Fightland.com, famed coordinator Jonathan Eusebio, whose body of work includes The Avengers (2012), the Bourne Trilogy, The Expendables (2010), and many others films, said, “I always like to root choreography to something that is real and applicable. The world audience is well versed on combat due to MMA and other combat sports.” To understand how MMA is lauded for its similarity to real combat, it’s important to understand the history of the sport. The UFC was founded in 1993, beginning as a tournament, with fighters representing their own unique disciplines to test which was the most effective. After several tournaments, fighters realized that the best style would have to be comprehensive, incorporating elements from many styles to have no clear weakness. This new unified style is what we now primarily see in MMA. Though fighters often specialize, they are all at least familiar with wrestling, striking, and submissions to avoid overt weaknesses. The Unified MMA Rules balance mixed martial arts’ sports side with it’s insistence on “real” combat. Fights are divided into rounds, judged, and refereed, but offer fighters multiple paths to victory. These include knockouts from punches, kicks, and knees, or submissions from chokes and joint manipulation. This creates tense fights where what’s practical wins out — leaving many fans to disapprove of some of Hollywood’s unrealistic high-flying, fights.

In the 90’s, martial arts was synonymous with Oriental styles like Okinawan Karate, popularized from 1984’s The Karate Kid and Kung Fu from Jackie Chan’s filmography. Though near the twilight of the decade, 1999’s The Matrix was the most influential martial arts film of the time. The film employed the talents of Yuen Woo-Ping, a famous Hong Kong action choreographer known for his wire-fu, shorthand for the cinema-exclusive fighting style that augments the action with pulleys and ropes to perform acrobatic stunts. Narratively explained through the ability to manipulate the Matrix, Neo engages in gravity-defying scraps with Morpheus and Agent Smith. Neo’s fight with Agent Smith was revered for its introduction of bullet time, when the passage of time is slowed to see the movement of bullets, and the two combatants’ fast but impactful kung fu strikes.

Fight coordinators have been at the forefront of the mixed martial arts invasion of fight scenes. Many like Eusebio and JJ Perry are life-long martial artists, incorporating new styles into their repertoire and subsequently their work. “Growing up I trained in Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido but it wasn’t until I trained under Dan Inosanto where I was exposed to a wide variety of martial arts. There I trained under Guro Dan in the Filipino martial arts and Jun Fan Gung Fu. I learned boxe francaise under Nicolas Saignac, Muay Thai under Chai Sirisute, Shooto under Sensei Yori Nakamura,” said Eusebio to Fightland in 2014. In anticipation for his newest project John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), Eusebio studied Sambo, Judo, and MMA competitions. His work is most apparent in Wick’s fight with fellow hitman Ms. Perkins, which incorporates techniques found in MMA like the Harai Goshi, or spinning hip throw, and a modified bow and arrow choke, except with Perkin’s leather jacket rather than a traditional uniform. In the film Wick and some of his adversaries mix weighty strikes and throws with their gunplay, displaying how MMA moves can be integrated into a film still primarily about shooting. Perry is an elite in Hollywood stunt choreography and fight coordination, known for Django Unchained (2012), Old Boy (2013), and Haywire (2011).  In a 2013 interview with Vice, Perry said, “Some of them [actors] have done private lessons in jiu-jitsu, and some of them have done Muay Thai. I really respect the actors that take the time to learn mixed martial arts–respect for improving his craft and becoming an action star.” A main takeaway from MMA is that it’s essential to incorporate grappling with striking, a sentiment that Perry lives by in his movies. Haywire, which stars former women’s bantamweight champion Gina Carano, mixes quick kung-fu with scrappy chokes. Carano uses her ex-MMA pedigree as Marine Mallory Kane, using a guillotine and triangle choke to subdue an MI6 Agent sent to kill her. The scene uses a steady camera and no music to create a tenacious fight. It’s a perfect example of Perry’s integration of MMA, to use some of the sport’s flashy techniques with fast but impactful combat.

In an article about MMA in movies, we have to consider the most glaring example of its influence on fight choreography—the MMA movie. Emerging in the late 2000’s, the three highest-grossing explicit MMA films are the Kevin James comedy Here Comes the Boom (2012), the Karate Kid-esque Never Back Down (2008, and the brother-comrade story Warrior (2011). Kevin James, synonymous for his slapstick comedy, plays on his obesity and clumsiness for laughs in Here Comes the Boom. The cast includes former champion Bas Ruten, and the action is surprisingly realistic. But like we’ll see in the other films, Here Comes the Boom suffers from non-stop action uncharacteristic of the sport. This reduces the tension that comes from the threat of a one-hit knockout or explosive takedown. The fights also suffer from flow killing cuts, resulting in combat that’s choppy and hard to follow.  Never Back Down and Warrior, though far more smooth in their action, both have incessant shaky-cam and lack of tension resulting from non-stop action, which can be attributed to the limitations of the format. It would be difficult to develop the story if fights ended too quickly, as there would be no hardship for the characters to develop from. Additionally, MMA fights can range between 15 and 25 minutes, taking up far too long of the movies’ run time, necessitating either cuts between scenes of high action or a sped-up pace. But ultimately both Never Back Down and Warrior are faithful to the sport, incorporating techniques rarely seen in film, like leg-locks and the thai clinch, and establish a realistic balance between grappling and action.

MMA and movies have developed an increasingly strong symbiotic bond. Just like the explosion of karate dojos that followed The Karate Kid, MMA exposure from film has been attributed to its surge in popularity. The national chain Tiger Schulmann’s had rebranded and switched from Tiger Schulmann’s Karate to Tiger Schulmann’s Mixed Martial Arts, a development of the public’s evolving perception of what fighting is. The UFC has made a conscious effort to break, or at this point cement themselves into the mainstream. The sport has attempted to shed its image of bloody, barbaric cage-fighting. The UFC has hired celebrities to help promote and legitimize the sport, like Snoop Dogg. Hollywood A-listers like Mark Wahlberg, Ben Affleck, and Sylvester Stallone are just some of the UFC’s many celebrity investors, whose money also puts their star-power behind the sport. As viewers, we can only expect to see more MMA-styled action and fighters in our films.