Though mixed martial arts has successfully peeled away fans from boxing (a sport that’s lost any compelling champions and much of its dignity) and WWE (a “sport” that’s always existed in quotation marks) it’s had trouble shaking its reputation as “human cockfighting.” And though Fightville, an MMA documentary from the directors of the fine Iraq War doc Gunner Palace, presents it more than fairly, the sight of a makeshift ring getting constructed on a Louisiana rodeo ground does little to shake the label. Nor do the shots of ringside assistants with spray bottles and rags, mopping up the blood between rounds. Yet long-shot aspirations persist in this arena, too, just as they do in more broadly accepted games, like basketball, and the filmmakers take a mostly effective Hoop Dreams approach in showing how young hopefuls test the limits of their abilities and their economic situation.
Fightville resembles a real-life Foot Fist Way, in that much of the action takes place within the cinder-block walls of a strip-mall gym, this one located next to a Piggly Wiggly in Lafayette, Louisiana. The gym’s proprietor, “Crazy” Tim Credeur, heads up the Gladiator Academy, which serves as a pipeline for amateur MMA fighters to move up the ranks, though few of them do. Epperlein and Tucker focus on two featherweight hopefuls: Dustin Poirier, a formidable contender who’s looking to parlay a history of schoolyard violence and street-fighting into a potential career, and Albert Stainback, a more thoughtful yet more erratic and undisciplined fighter whose chief gimmick is entering the ring wearing a hat like the one Malcolm McDowell wore in A Clockwork Orange. The film also spends time with Gil Guillory, a former fighter and MMA evangelist who runs MMA-USA, an organization that promotes and stages semi-pro bouts across the state. (Poirier and Stainback’s first contract with Guillory is written out in longhand.)
As with Gunner Palace, which followed the daily lives of soldiers holed up in one of Uday Hussein’s old pleasure domes in Baghdad, Epperlein and Tucker are more interested in collecting detail than judging the things they witness. It’s equally possible to come away from Fightville lamenting the sport’s raw brutality, $500 paydays, and dubious medical benefits—Guillory implores the wounded not to use an ambulance—or seeing the good in a tough, disadvantaged kid like Poirier finding some purpose in his life. In either case, the dramatic stakes are high in Fightville, and Epperlein and Tucker shine a little light on the margins of this marginalized sport.