Another documentary this week, one that popped up on Netflix the other day. I can’t say that I have ever been a fan of MMA, or a fan of fighting sports generally, bar glimpses at Olympic Boxing every four years. I have no inherent objection to this classification of sports, but suffice to say that, personally speaking, two men or two women wailing on each other and causing bodily harm just doesn’t do much for me. MMA especially, just sort of fills me with a certain queasiness.
But there’s no doubting the popularity and the potential for stories to be told there. We’ve had a few of the fictional variety, not least the really excellent Warrior from a couple of years back. But there are real-life tales begging to be told too, not least those involving MMA participants from the very bottom of the social ladder, fighting for not just fame, but for a better life. Billy Corben’s Dawg Fight is one such tale, but was it one worth telling, or would it prove to be just some fleshed out promotional material for MMA?
In the backyards of low-income Miami suburbs, Dhafir “Dada 5000” Harris, once a bodyguard to famed street fighter Kimbo Slice, organises unsanctioned (illegal) MMA fights between locals. They engage in bloody contests for the approval of a baying crowd, many dreaming of one day making it big in the world of professional fighting. For Dada himself, that dream might not be far off.
As a sports film, Dawg Fight can only really be called average. It successfully manages to be more than a film about a sport certainly, but there were moments when the effervescent glow cast upon street fighting and MMA in general smacked too much of propaganda for my taste. Billy Corben’s The U for 30 For 30 was another sports documentary that focused on larger than life personalities that came from a poor place, but managed to walk the line better between exploratory and selling. Here, the viewer is left in no doubts about how great MMA is for everyone, the only problems being the stuff that happens around it. I found that a little unpalatable, and the lip-service paid to the idea that these unsanctioned street fights are dangerous didn’t do enough for me.
In fact, the Florida commissioner for such sports, in his brief moments on camera, is portrayed almost like an antagonist, a privileged guy in a nice job telling Dada what he can and can’t do, threatening people with jail time and generally made to look as mean as possible. But the thing is, the guy has a point. Not only does he have a point actually, but I happen to think he’s right: what Dada is doing, regardless of issues like self-esteem and getting young men off the streets, is still illegal, dangerous and potentially fatal to the participants.
I can’t say then that Dawg Fight made me appreciate MMA or street fighting more than I already did (or don’t as the case may be). The sight of a man getting punched in the head and lying motionless as the crowd cheers loudly didn’t make me excited, it made me feel a little ill. It didn’t help that Dada’s own reaction to such things is to loudly proclaim how amazing it all is. If Dawg Fight could have reined back on the inherent glorification of the activity a bit, and not seemed like such an advertisement, it could have been better.
As an underdog story, it’s not up to all that much either. It hurts the film that Dada and his compatriots are clearly playing things up in front of the camera, speaking rehearsed lines and egging things whenever the red light is on and in their face. It’s painfully obvious that what we are seeing isn’t reality, from the opening Rocky-esque montage of Dada training, through to the dialogue during and after fights, and onto the sanctioned MMA finale. Dawg Fight feels like it is too much of a vehicle to give Dada 5000 a platform he was previously denied, with this central focus given the leeway to make himself look as awesome as possible as much as possible. A great fighter, a generous promoter, a fair referee, a loving son and father etc, etc. Dada isn’t a personality in this documentary, he’s a saint. Even as a fighter, the film is at pains to paint Dada as so powerful that he has been kept away from the spotlight by duplicitous higher ups. And that’s just sort of far-fetched and, ultimately, boring.
Where Dawg Fight actually works though, is as a tale about the varied personalities – minorities all – who voluntarily step into this makeshift ring to fight each other, and why they do it. It is very much a racial story, the inhabitants of this rundown suburb predominantly black or Hispanic, with what few white faces appearing in the film usually portrayed in a negative light, be they the aforementioned commissioner, or the mealy mouthed looking Democratic party stooge who shows up during an event to campaign. West Perrine is a place that has been left behind by America, with its inhabitants desperate to escape, some of them seeing the only way to do so inside the ring. For most of Dawg Fight’s running time we follow a series of these backyard events and the fights that take place.
In that ring, the culture of this area, between its predominantly black men and women, comes to life in a fascinating way. Matters of respect, character, courage and cowardice clash. If you have a problem with someone, settle it in the ring Dada urges. Local women cast doubts on the ability of certain competitors to perform, and it goes beyond criticism of fighting style. Girlfriends and wives get involved in intimate fashion. Weakness and fear are sprung upon and mocked, respect is granted even to those who lose, as long as they “looked good” doing so. The fighting meshes in with the social life and world of the area, following on from a Martin Luther King Day parade without any trouble, and informally allowed by the local police force, who see them, if nothing else, as a way of guaranteeing the peace for a day. Local women provide home grown analysis and “trash talk” in some of the more memorable moments, lined up in front of the camera like a satire of ESPN. Very young children are allowed, even encouraged, to get right up to the ropes to witness the sport. But while Dada and company are at pains to play up this aspect of what they do, an unlikely yet wholesome neighbourhood event meant to instil a sense of community, it all comes down to the swinging of fists between two men.
There are the quiet ones, the family men, the boisterous show-offs, the scared, the egos, the finessed and the brutes. Unlike Dada, these men seem more real, even the boyish “Tree” and his childish cavorting before matches. Some fight for fame, others for money, others for the thrill. Some will find tragic ends outside the ring. There is little hatred between them at all. In the ring, when the fights devolve into flurries of punches being thrown, “slobberknockers” that come down largely to who can withstand the most punishment for the longer time, it is clear that we are watching less a sporting activity and more a basic instinct. Little “sweet science” here, and the lack of rounds or breaks make the competition all the more brutal. And always the crowd is screaming them on.
For these men, varied in personality but bound by a common purpose, what takes place in the ring is a very unique way of demonstrating masculinity and self-esteem. Carrying around guns and robbing places is another way that they frequently find themselves doing, but Dawg Fight is unequivocal in its condemnation of such practices, holding up backyard MMA as a glorious alternative, though the monetary awards still seem rather paltry for those risking life and limb. There is a certain callout to the American Dream within Dawg Fight, an ideal that is so far away from the reality of West Perrine that it is almost impossible. But the basic tenants still exists, in a warped way: work hard, pay your dues and fight for whatever you want, and you will find success. Or, more likely, a concussion.
While these sections of Dawg Fight are enjoyable for the portrayal they give to a few members of this community, Dada remains the main focus of everything, as he is slowly “coerced” into making a go of it in legitimate MMA. I use the quotes because it all seems very convenient for the camera, and into its final act Dawg Fight returns once again to very cliché training montages and build-up to a serious fight. Still, there is some entertainment to be had in the way that Dada has to approach serious competition, and the way that training is different for a sanctioned MMA fight in comparison to a backyard brawl. The resulting fight is, very deliberately I feel, film-like in its narrative and framing, with Dada meant to look as underdog as possible. But considering his size and muscle mass, that’s a little hard to pull off. I suppose it’s spoilers to talk about that ending, but it shouldn’t really surprise anyone.
Corben’s mostly handheld style for Dawg Fight, broken only occasionally for some snippets of interviews, works well enough, allowing for that very personal and intimate sense to be created, important for something as primal and visceral as bare knuckle fighting in a backyard. Corben allows West Perrine, hardly what one thinks of when they hear the word “Miami”, to become part and parcel of the story, from its ramshackle homes to its sunburnt backyards. Beyond that Corben stays silent, and Dada is allowed to frame things as we progress. I wasn’t a fan of that approach by the end: Dawg Fight could have done with a less aggrandising hand on the tiller, to ask tough questions and to truly investigate whether Dada’s backyard fighting is really making West Perrine a better place or not. Nothing too spectacular from the direction then, and the musical accompaniment, which takes its inspiration and cues straight from the documentary itself, does sometimes make you think that Dawg Fight is more of an advertisement than it should be, overly focused on spectacle and style over actual documenting.
The unsaid postscript for Dawg Fight – why it was left out is not something I can comment on, but the obvious conclusions are self-evident – is that Dada’s backyard fights, which took place in 2009, have since been shut down by a newly exuberant Miami police force, largely because of the attention Dada and Corben drew to them. Dada had to turn legit and has been trying to organise sanctioned MMA in the area. Whether West Perrine is a better or worse place because of all that remains up in the air. One seriously wonders why Corben couldn’t have covered all of this, since it seemed to directly sync with his main argument.
Dawg Fight struggles at times with a certain glorification of fight sports and MMA in general, but where it succeeds is in its depictions of how things like Dada’s backyard fighting are part and parcel of creating a viable masculine identity for poor African Americans and other minorities, who struggle to escape from a system where they are practically doomed to a life of crime and under-privilege. Dada’s own journey to the world of sanctioned MMA can sometimes be rather trite, but Dawg Fight hits some satisfying emotional beats at other moments, and is a better film when it focuses purely on its central thesis. While it’s unlikely to insert itself into the canon of well remembered sports films or documentaries, it’s still a fine effort from a decent filmmaker, and certainly the kind of Netflix provided film that one can enjoy on some otherwise free evening. A partial recommendation.
(All images are copyright of Netflix).