(The Fighting in Plain Sight campaign video via IndieGoGo.)
By Jared Jones
Mixed martial arts was facing an identity crisis in the early aughts to say the least. The UFC had just been purchased by the Fertittas, who were slowly attempting to shed the “human cockfighting” label the sport had acquired in its early years. Although athletic commissions around the country were beginning to adopt the unified rules put into place by Jeff Blatnick, John McCarthy and Joe Silva, a large majority of fights on the local level were still contested in underground, unsanctioned events. There was no fame or fortune fueling these warriors of the early days; there was only passion.
At the center of all this was Rafiel Torre, a charismatic reporter, former undefeated fighter and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black Belt who covered all aspects of MMA for such prestigious publications as ADCC News and Submission Fighter. Considered one of the most notorious journalists of his day by those closest to the sport, Torre interviewed countless top fighters in an effort to promote and help showcase the human side of mixed martial arts during a time when most audiences viewed it as borderline criminal.
In February of 2001, Torre announced that he was coming out of retirement, supposedly to settle a vendetta with a former student of his, the 300+ pound Ioka Tianuu. The fight transpired at King of the Cage 7 and, aside from being one of the most obvious works in the sport’s history, would ultimately serve as the catalyst to Torre’s demise. Four years later, Torre would be convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Attempting to chronicle this unbelievable story is Edward Doty, a filmmaker and mixed martial arts enthusiast who has been documenting the sport for some 15 years. His first MMA documentary, Life in the Cage, is a must-see for “real” fans of the sport, but it was Doty’s close relationship with Torre that spawned the documentary he is currently attempting to crowdfund through IndieGoGo, Fighting in Plain Sight. We recently sat down with Doty to discuss his love of the sport, the facade that was Rafiel Torre, and what he is looking to accomplish with Fighting in Plain Sight.
CagePotato: As an amateur filmmaker early in his career, was it the spectacle inherent in MMA that drew you to the sport?
Edward Doty: I began training in Traditional Martial Arts (Yang style Tai Chi Chuan and Jing Mu Kung Fu) in 1993. In the September ’93 Issue of Black Belt Magazine, I saw an ad for “Tournament to Determine World’s Best Fighter!” I called the number, and Rorion Gracie picked up. It was the line to the Torrance Academy. Being the punk 15 year old that I was, I asked, “Yeah, do you guys have an under 18 division?” clearly not realizing what it was they were trying to do. After a pause, he said, “No….18 and over only” and hung up.
A couple years later I was doing Forms Competition at the Ed Parker tournament in Long Beach, and SEG had a booth set up, advertising UFC 3 and showing UFC 2 on a small TV. The fight? Pat Smith vs. Scott Morris. My life changed at that moment. There was just something so authentic about it. It was exhilirating, kinda scary, but most of all, honest. I still appreciated what I was doing, but it became clear over the next couple of years that Martial Arts was never going to be the same, and that was probably for the better. Two months after turning 18, I fought in the Team USA Shidokan in 1996 and promptly got my face caved in. Even so, I still loved training, and I began BJJ at Jean-Jacques Machado’s academy in 1997. I still train, albeit sporadically, and am a Purple Belt under Eddie Bravo.
My freshman year of college I realized I wanted to take my equally passionate love of Film and make that my career. In 1999 while attending a Neutral Grounds show promoted by my friend Bobby Razak, I realized that there were stories within MMA that needed to be told. That was the genesis of my first film, Life in the Cage.
CP: If you wouldn’t mind, could you give our readers a brief rundown of who Rafiel Torre was, or rather, who he claimed to be?
ED: The abridged version is that he owned a school outside of 29 Palms and coached some local fighters on the regional So Cal shows (Empire 1, Neutral Grounds, etc). His claim was that he and his father were from Brazil and were Black Belts in Jiu Jitsu. He worded it so you just assumed BJJ, and I do recall him saying his Dad trained with some of the Gracie’s first students. He also claimed a 17-0 record in unsanctioned Vale Tudo/NHB. Also, he was a Navy SEAL. Somehow, and I truly don’t know how, he competed in the first ADCC in 1998, and lost in the first round. He parlayed that into writing for the Abu Dhabi Combat Club News site, which raised his profile quite a bit. He was friendly, charismatic, articulate, and very passionate about the sport.
He did commentary for a couple King of the Cage events before coming out of retirement and “fighting” in KotC 7 against a former student. In many ways, he was a minor celebrity in the scene. He actually cornered Mark Kerr for one of his Pride fights. So by the end of 2000, he had a mostly good reputation for being a journalist/fanboy/advocate of the sport. Within a year, most of that would come crashing down.
CP: You’ve mentioned that you’re attempting to tell “the untold story” of Rafiel Torre, which is typically a Hollywood cliche but spot-on in his case. Why do you think that so little information currently exists about who Rafiel Torre was, why he got into MMA in the first place, or his murder case?
ED: That era was right when the Fertitias were about to buy the UFC, so the main story of MMA became the struggle to gain mainstream acceptance. That’s a compelling enough story on its own and during the time, the idea that the UFC could become big was occupying most peoples mental real estate. Keep in mind that while the murder of Bryan Richardson was in December of 2001, Rafiel wasn’t arrested until 2004, and convicted until 2005.
The MMA scene in 2005 had much happier stories to focus on, and a huge influx of new fans. I think the growing fanbase of MMA at the time was more interested in speculating about Wanderlei vs. Chuck then they were about a journalist that most fans hadn’t heard of. Also, for all his fame during the time, shockingly little film footage of him existed. It wasn’t until I was moving and going through all my old Life in the Cage raw footage that it occurred to me that I probably owned more tape of Rafiel Torre than anyone else.
CP: Do you think that Torre was able to get away with making such audacious claims because of the general infancy of the sport at the time? When did you personally begin to question his skills in your time together, if at all?
ED: I think Rafiel’s story certainly had a shelf life. He was going to be caught because at the end of the day, you can’t claim Black Belt in BJJ and never roll. With that said, he had a skill for slowly bending his story to where it could change without raising too many red flags. He went from claiming his dad taught him Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, to saying his dad had his own style, Torre Jiu Jitsu. That changed to, Torre Jiu Jitsu is based off Japanese Jiu Jitsu, and he’s Brazilian, so he could see where YOU got confused with that. One of my best friends writes for Cracked and he did this article called “7 Fighters Who Lied Their Way to Legendary,” and he worded it perfectly, “The nice thing about Rafiel’s lies were that they were fluid enough to flow around most scrutiny.” I’m frankly surprised it lasted as long as it did.
As for me, and I talk about this in my film, I was hired by King of the Cage to film fighter packages for KotC 7. I shot a bunch of B-Roll of him hitting pads and rolling. When I got home and really LOOKED at the footage…it was clear his skills, even on the ground, were nowhere near where he said. I was, at best, a blue belt at the time in terms of skill, but I had trained with Jean Jacques, Eddie Bravo, John Will, etc. There was a night and day gulf in skill level between them and Rafiel.
CP: The fact that you talk about the much closer sense of camaraderie that existed between MMA fighters/personalities during its early days makes it seem all the more improbable that a fraud could get by for so long on just the power of tall talk. How was Torre able to accomplish this?
ED: Talking about it with people after the facts, I was the last to figure it out. In my interviews with people, everyone had it figured out much sooner. This kind of coincides with when he left ADCC to start his own site, Fight Fan News. I think the wording of that is important. I theorize that he wanted to transition his reputation from fighter to fan. But, as people were starting to figure out at the turn of the millennium, the internet is sort of forever, and it is without mercy. It’s also important to note that prior to Zuffa and athletic comission sanctioning, 90% of these events were held on tribal land. Meaning, that for most to attend fights or events, it was a several hour drive for just about everyone. So while I was friends with Rafiel, I only saw him at events. This kind of transient nature of these friendships made the deception all that much easier.
CP: What went through your head while you were watching the Torre/Tiannu fight. Has Torre ever copped to the fight being a work?
ED: As far as I know, he’s never admitted it was a work. I know for certain that no one at King of the Cage thought it was going to be a work; they thought they were legitimately booking a grudge match. At this point, Torre still had his reputation mostly intact — he was still writing for ADCC, and I believe he had started to do some commentary for KotC. He had also just cornered Mark Kerr, so really he was at his peak.
I was backstage interviewing Yves Edwards when Rafiel’s fight started. I wasn’t supposed to be cageside, but I snuck out there anyway. I had seen some of the fight from the monitor, but I made it to cage side right when Rafiel got side control. He started throwing these big, Kerr-esque knees to the body from side control. Real big wind up, high elevation knees. The only problem was, they weren’t landing. He was connecting with his thigh to a very large man. Essentially, they were pro wrestling knees. However, this was the infamous King of the Cage where it rained, and nobody was landing anything. Guy Mezger slipped everytime he threw a punch and Alex Andrade looked like he was ice skating for the first time. So for Rafiel to whiff on a few knees wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. But then he STANDS UP to get his knee bar. The leg doesn’t even extend, and Joe starts to tap.
At this point, I was just happy my friend won, but on second review of the tape, everything just started to coalesce together. But the last thing I wanted to do was accuse someone of working a fight, because there is NO greater insult in my mind. Also…I was 22 at the time. I didn’t know shit about what humans were capable of.
CP: Shifting the focus to Fighting in Plain Sight, was this documentary initially supposed to focus around Torre’s murder case, and/or was his history of deception only exposed after he was convicted?
My whole premise is: What is the end result about completely fabricating your identity? What’s the end game? If you knew Rafiel in 2000 and someone asked you, “Is he capable of murder,” no one would have said yes. But if I said to you, here’s a random guy who legally changes his name, lies about his country of origin, lies about his profession, lies about his whole identity, would that guy eventually be capable of murder? The answer, I think, is yes. Because while that person may not be inherently evil, you can only manipulate the truth about your identity for so long before it starts eating away at your moral center. Bear in mind, Rafiel proclaims innocence to the charge of murder. But under oath, he did not deny that he lied to everyone about his identity or his skills.
For me, I learned of Rafiel’s lies and about the murder on the same day. I also heard a number of stories at the time that were NOT in the short version but will be a part of the feature length version. My hope is by shedding light on his story, it serves as almost a cautionary tale about the dangers of lying to yourself. In this age of “Catfishing,” it seems as relevant as ever.
CP: The 8-minute film you’re looking to expand into a full-length documentary upon was shot in just 5 days. How were you able to accomplish this?
ED: The short answer is 1) I am lucky to have some extremely talented friends, 2) We had great access, and 3) I know what I’m doing and we all busted our asses. It’s surprising what one can accomplish when you give a shit.
We competed in the 2013 International Documentary Challenge. The morning of the competition you’re emailed your genre and your theme. Ours was Biography and the theme was “Harmony or Disharmony.” Once we got that email, we knew it was going to be about Rafiel. The wrench in the works was that I had JUST gotten hired to work as an Editor on Bellator: Fight Master and I couldn’t take time off. So for those first two days, I was working a 12 hour day, then coming home and working on the film. My guest house turned into our headquarters where 12 of us holed up under shockingly stinky conditions.
Day 1, We shot an interview with a behavioral Psychologist, that we never ended up using, and then we shot my interview. Then we edited all night. My composer started working on the score, and my Visual Effects Team started creating the “look” we gave all my archival footage. It was shot originally in just standard DV NTSC, but I wanted a sharper visual contrast between the old footage and the newer stuff, which was shot on RED Scarlet and the Sony EX-3. So Michael Scott and Teague Chrystie design this custom filter that made it look like beat to shit VHS, with magnetic lines and tracking hits, because subconciously that kind of takes the viewer back to that late 90′s era. Day 2, we hauled gear down to Downtown LA and interviewed Josh Gross. Edit all night. Day 3, we drove to Rancho Cucamunga to Interview Eddy Milis, then drove further into the Inland Empire to interview PunkAss from Tapout.
I joke that Rockstar XDurance became an unofficial sponsor during the shoot, larger keeping me alive. While I’m interviewing Dan, my Assistant Editor is transcoding and logging the Milis footage. Meanwhile, my Co-Editor Jeffrey Harrel was editing what we had existing. Saturday night, I got in the editors chair and cut the first 5 minutes, of our maximum 7 minutes of run time (plus 1 minute of credits). Narratively, that was the largest hurdle, establishing this world of Underground MMA, then extablishing Rafiel, then revealing the true story, and oh by the way…murder.
Day 4, we edited on three systems for 15 hours straight, VFX was working on titles. Our composer was finishing the score (I was cueing scenes to The Social Network Soundtrack and Bat For Lashes, and he was using that as inspiration). Sometime around 3 a.m. I locked picture. Then Day 5 I was back to work at Bellator, while color correction and audio mix was happening. I made a couple tweaks, and we mailed it off that night.
CP: I imagine you’ve attempted to contact Rafiel since his conviction, but have you spoken to (or plan on speaking to) some of the outside players in his murder case, like Gerald Strebendt? Did you ever get to speak to/meet any of Torre’s family prior to his conviction?
ED: I just sent a letter off [to Torre] and it’s a long process to get in contact with an inmate. Gerald I consider a friend, and we’re former teammates at 10th Planet. He is going to be central to the feature documentary. In fact, part of our budget from our IndieGoGo campaign is so we can spend some time in Oregon and get a lot of film of Gerald. Also, and I have to be real careful here with what I reveal, Gerald has a LOT more to share and to say than what he testified to. I intend to let him.
Conversely, I want to give Rafiel all the time in the world to give his side of it. I have zero intention in making a 90 minute hit piece about Rafiel. That’s way too easy, and frankly not what I’m interested in. I’m interested not in the what, but in the how. Part of understanding the how, is to let Rafiel present his side. I don’t think prisoners at Corchoran have internet access, but I know that Rafiel is remarried, and that his loved ones are probably reading this. My appeal to him is that he was a part of the sport at a very crucial time, and he, as Dan Caldwell says in my short, helped build the sport. I’d like to hear about those times as well, from his perspective. Likewise, there is a man who is dead, and his family will never know peace. They too deserve to have their voices heard, and my hope is in the next couple of days that I’ll be speaking to them as well.
CP: In your interview with Carson’s Corner, you talk about wanting to flip the filmmaking trope of “telling a story through the eyes of a certain character” with your film, opting rather to tell the story “through the eyes of the era.” Do you worry that by continuing down the rabbit hole of early MMA, you could expose a lot about the sport that could be detrimental to its already shaky reputation amongst casual fans? Or is the focus of your film more on Torre’s tepid connection with the sport, rather than the sport itself?
ED: This sport has survived so much at this point, it’s not going to be hurt by one story. The time period of 1998-2005 (roughly the length of Rafiel’s involvement with the sport) is a wholly unique era of that will never exist again. If you treat that time period like a character, then it’s the ultimate coming of age story. For a lot of people, coming of age means having to say goodbye to people who were once dear to you, but are going to do nothing but bring you down if you stick around them. In many ways, that was Rafiel’s relation to MMA.
Rafiel thrived when the sport lacked mainstream credibility, when it was insular and largely unnoticed. Had the pond remained small, Rafiel would have been a big fish. But I don’t think it’s coincidence either that just as the sport started to grow is exactly when his identity unraveled. That is what fascinates me about this story, and it’s certainly a theme I want to explore in the feature.
For more information about Torre’s story or how you can help make Doty’s documentary a reality, visit the Fighting in Plain Sight IndieGogo page here. To check out the Fighting in Plain Sight 8-minute short film, go here.