There are many dynamic and groundbreaking MMA documentaries that have helped propel the sport further along, capturing such enigmatic stories as Rickson Gracie in Choke, Mark Kerr in The Smashing Machine and Renzo Gracie in Legacy. Top-shelf UFC welterweight Jon Fitch has gotten the star treatment in the documentary ‘Such Great Heights (www.imdb.com/title/tt1447482),’ released this month through Flying Penguin Pictures.
Jonah Tulis, the film’s director, explained the deep appreciation producer Philip Frank had for the sport of MMA, which led to discussion about doing a project.
“It wasn’t specifically an idea about Fitch,” says Tulis of the original seed for the movie, “Phil came up with the idea of following several MMA fighters, and pulling it all together. There was certainly no huge idea behind it.”
A chance encounter between Frank and Jon Fitch at an airport led to the discussion that would set the stage for what followed.
“Jon called in when he got the title shot, and was like ‘Hey, let’s do this!’”
Jonah relied on his industry experience to finance the film, but no amount of planning could predict or even influence the hectic shooting schedule.
“You don’t know what you’re getting into. It’s scary, it’s very scary, because you’re running on other people’s schedules. I’m used to knowing exactly what I’m going to do. We would end up going to Fresno for the day—and not even know, until that morning.”
The film’s trailer, which has notched over 100,000 views, is a heartwarming montage of scenes from the film. Not only does it include footage of the biggest and best stars from American Kickboxing Academy like Josh Koscheck, Cain Velasquez and Mike Swick, but there are many other fascinating stories from the myriad of smaller-name fighters at the gym.
“I think a movie like this is all about character. With ‘The Smashing Machine,’ it’s all about this character that is amazingly open about the negative things in his life,” says Tulis of ill-fated MMA fighter Mark Kerr, who reveals an addiction to painkillers, as well as the dysfunctional dynamic of his relationships in the 2002 film. “Getting beneath the surface of the character is the essential thing.”
To this end, Jon opened up quite a bit to the filmmaker about the difficult conditions that younger fighters face. From living on people’s floors to earning next to nothing for fights, Fitch worked his way up from the very bottom.
“You see these younger guys, and you see Fitch in them—because Fitch went through the same thing. These guys are fighting for $1000 every three months, and working in bars, and living in RV’s, just trying to scrape by.”
The story of Jon Fitch as a UFC fighter is well-known throughout the MMA community. After racking up eight straight wins, he was granted the biggest opportunity of his career through a title shot with Georges St-Pierre at UFC 87 in August of 2008.
In the first round of Fitch’s fight against St-Pierre, Fitch went for a leg kick and GSP countered with a straight right hand that dropped the challenger. That moment spelled disaster for the entire venture—Georges nearly finished the fight right there, but after five hard-fought rounds, Jon was still standing.
“He is battered, and bruised and crying,” says Tulis of the film’s dramatic conclusion, “but you still see hope. This is a guy who never quits.”
There is no fight footage from Fitch’s UFC fights—including his title shot versus St-Pierre—in this documentary, something that delayed the release of the film due to the necessity to re-edit the material. It’s a shame decision-makers at Zuffa didn’t see the value in promoting MMA to new audiences through this documentary, even if it was produced independently without Zuffa dictating creative control.
Losing isn’t the worst thing that can happen to someone. Often, it helps to differentiate between the people who were along for the ride, and the ones who actually care. When the fair-weather friends, fame-whores and assorted hangers-on have moved on, the fighter is left with the true people.
“In the end, he’s wearing sunglasses to cover up his bruises, smiling, and there with his friends,” says Tulis. “This AKA group is really like a band of brothers. And that’s sort of the essence of the movie.”
*According to a news article on MMAJunkie.com, Such Greats Heights is available On Demand through most major cable carriers, including AT&T, Cablevision, COX and Time Warner Cable in the U.S., as well as Rogers and Shaw in Canada. Broadband options include Amazon, Blockbuster and Zune, as well as the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 networks and Apple iTunes. A DVD version of the movie is also expected to become available for release soon.
Brian J. D’Souza is a Canadian writer who has covered Mixed Martial Arts for ESPN.com, FoxSports.com, Sportsnet magazine and FIGHT! magazine.