Contenders, by Aaron Pinkston
In Jack Fleischer’s review of Fightville, he noted how quickly the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has risen into the mainstream social consciousness. There is no other proof than the rush of films about the sport we’ve seen over the last year and will continue to see in the near future. From the recent docs Fightville and Like Water (on the greatest MMA fighter in the world, Anderson “The Spider” Silva) to fictionalized films Warrior and Kevin James’s upcoming Here Comes the Boom, mixed martial arts and films on the subject aren’t going away.
Such Great Heights, a chronicle of the American Kickboxing Academy and Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fighter Jon Fitch, is the newest release. Filmed in 2008 while Fitch was preparing to fight welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre (who is still champion… spoilers), it’s interesting to see how the sport and the films’ figures have changed since. Fightville’s Dustin Poirier went from local Louisiana circuit to a few steps away from a UFC world champion between the filming and release. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Fitch’s career has dropped since the filming of Such Great Heights — though he is still considered a top fighter in the world and gainfully employed by the UFC, he will probably never fight for a major title again. If you stroll any MMA discussion boards, you would quickly learn that Fitch is far from a popular fighter — mostly due to his style, a power wrestling game without exciting kickboxing or any semblance of jiu-jitsu. For most MMA fans it’s not enough to just win (something Fitch does quite well, with a record of 23-4), they also want to see fighters finishing fights, whether by knockout or submission, and Fitch has the perception of not finishing fights (and having not finished an opponent in his last 10 fights, the numbers back that up). You often see the term “lay and pray” in conjunction with Jon Fitch.
Filmmaker Jonah Tulis has made a film that will appeal to MMA fans of all levels, but in a fairly interesting way. MMA, especially the UFC, have branded themselves as being over-the-top exciting, with glitz and glamor, knockouts and violence. Such Great Heights manages to completely capture the sport without any of that. It’s a quiet film, the calm before the storm. The soundtrack isn’t filled the the nu metal and hardcore rock you’d associate with the sport, but calmer indie rock.
Such Great Heights is a pretty thorough representation of what it takes to be a professional mixed martial arts fighter and to prepare for the biggest fight of your life. Focusing on Fitch and his teammates at the American Kickboxing Academy, we see great training footage with tremendous athletes pushing themselves to the limits. Getting a complete looking inside of a top-level gym, it’s an interesting community. Being an MMA fan, I’ve noticed the constant link to the military — from UFC shows raising money for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, to the obligatory labeling of fighters as “warriors” — through seeing the camaraderie, the connection makes a bit of sense. The film also gives a good idea of a popular fighter’s life outside of the octagon, such as public appearance obligations, weight cutting 18 pounds in a day, and trivial things like finding sponsors for some extra income.
Though not completely missing, Such Great Heights doesn’t focus on the personal struggles of its subjects. Unlike Fightville, which focused on amateur fighters looking for their big break, we see the lives of professional fighters who can make a decent living and a great support system. Instead, it explains just what it’s like to do this for a living, showcasing the types of people equal parts dedicated and crazy. Perhaps the film could have gone deeper to study the psychology of these people, but that would have been a different film.
The film ends without seeing any of the championship fight (I imagine because of licensing issues), but tackles this problem with voice-overs, quotes from the media and footage from throughout Fitch’s career in a fast-paced montage. The fight ended in a thorough beating, St. Pierre winning every round convincingly, so the film has to spin the results a bit to how tough Fitch was, never quitting. The footage after the fight, of Fitch’s mangled face and damaged spirits are all you really need to see.