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Fight Flicks Review: Fight Life Offers a Candid, If Well-Traveled Look Into the Mind of an MMA Fighter

There’s a moment early on in Fight Life in which Jake Shields laments (or comes as close to it as he can while retaining his trademark roboticness) the negative effects his career has had on his personal life.

“Everyone’s always like, ‘What are your hobbies?’ and unfortunately, I don’t really have any hobbies because MMA is my hobby, my job, my career. My whole life revolves around it at this point, you know?”

It’s a statement that both serves as the mission statement of the aptly named Fight Life and one that would perhaps support the idea that MMA fighters are not the most intriguing subjects around which to base a documentary. Fighters fight for their families, or to overcome demons from their past, or simply because it’s all they know. While these may be considered fresh revelations to the most casual of MMA fans, it’s nothing that a seasoned fan of the sport hasn’t been treated to a zillion times over in the lead-up to a UFC event or boxing match. As a result, Fight Life winds up feeling less like an intimate look into the personal lives of guys like Shields and Beerbohm and more like an 80-minute Countdown episode.

Chronicling the lives of Jake Shields and Lyle Beerbohm (among others) in the lead-up to their 2009 fights with Robbie Lawler and Duane Ludwig, respectively, the documentary from James Z. Feng is an equally inspiring and underwhelming look at the daily struggles and triumphs of the professional mixed martial artist. Part of the blame for the film’s shortcomings can be placed on its subjects — or at least Shields, who has never been a charismatic individual despite his accomplishments. But really, the biggest issue facing the film is its outdated perspective. MMA has undergone several huge changes in the time between when Fight Life was shot and its release, and neither Shields nor Beerbohm have exactly become the dominant forces that the documentary attempts to set them up as.

That’s not to say that Fight Life is absent of any compelling moments, however. Featuring interviews with everyone from veteran referee Big John McCarthy to NFL Hall of Famer-turned MMA fighter Herschel Walker, the documentary explores not only the mentality it takes for one to become a top-level MMA fighter, but the daily struggles of maintaining such excellence while balancing whatever semblance of a social life fighters are privy to. It also takes a look at the fire through which such a mentality is often forged, especially so in the case of Lyle “Fancy Pants” Beerbohm.

Learning how Beerbohm, a former meth addict, discovered his passion for mixed martial arts while watching The Ultimate Fighter from behind bars is a humanizing moment that many fighters (or at least, more than us MMA fans would care to admit to) could likely identify with. The same goes for the moments devoted to Beerbohm’s adorable (and slightly resentful) parents, who after serving as enablers to their son’s addiction for years, have rallied behind his newfound career and the more positive outlook on life it has given him. His mother even offers some insight into how Beerbohm came to be known as “Fancy Pants” thanks to a collection of old fabrics and her crack sewing skills.

Fight Life similarly resonates when (briefly) discussing the relationship between Shields and his daughter, who he raised on his own while working full time, training, and taking classes in college. At the time the documentary was being shot, we learn that Shield’s daughter was following in her father’s footsteps by enrolling in Jiu-Jitsu classes. She also packs an armbar capable of tapping out her old man despite being a white belt, which is pretty badass if you ask me.

In any case, it’s those moments between fighter and family that I’d prefer to see documentaries like Fight Life explore more of. Fighters on Jake Shields’ level are essentially PR robots that have been groomed into spitting out the same cliche responses for years now, which makes the average interview with them anything but interesting. I know that every MMA fighter wants to be a champion. I know that every MMA fighter wants to be “the best.” You want to offer some *real* perspective into what the life of a fighter is like? Talk to their families. Talk to their (non-fighting) friends. Talk to anyone but the fighters themselves, then use what you’ve learned to get the fighters to truly open up. Asking a fighter to describe their life with complete objectivity and honesty is like basing your opinion of someone solely on their Match.com profile.

Take the matter-of-factly way in which Shields’ daughter is introduced and just as quickly never discussed again, for instance. We learn that she is taking BJJ classes, and that Jake makes as much time for her when he can, but why not ask his daughter about her father’s busy lifestyle and the effect it has on their relationship? Why not ask Jake about the difficulty of being a single parent (which is never even touched on) or his lifelong vegetarianism? MMA fighters, like any of us, can be compelling figures if you ask the right questions, or really, any based around something other than their jobs.

If I am sounding critical of Fight Life, it’s only because the documentary presents several intriguing opportunities to cash in on these revealing moments before ultimately choosing to focus on the training and fights themselves. I can’t blame Feng for doing so, as a documentary about MMA fighters absent of fights would likely lead to riots in the streets from some of the sport’s more boisterous fans. Then again, The Smashing Machine opts for such an approach and is considered one of the, if not the greatest MMA documentary of them all (especially among the CagePotato staff).

But maybe that’s not the documentary that Fight Life is trying to be. Its thesis is, after all, that the life of a fighter is fighting, fighting, fighting, and also training. And that’s all well and good, but for the hardcore MMA fan perhaps hoping to get a little more perspective into the hows and whys of guys like Shields, Fight Life will only partially satisfy. The documentary would, conversely, serve as an excellent introduction to casual fans of the sport or even naysayers who still feel that MMA fighters are nothing more than blood-hungry savages seeking a cathartic release in the most legal fashion possible. What? You didn’t think those people simply went away, did you?

-J. Jones

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