The International Fight League (IFL) never made it as a competitor to the UFC for a variety of reasons, but it did openly advocate a novel premise: mixed martial arts was not a competition between two individuals, but rather, a team sport. Among other errors, the IFL took this premise too far, believing fans wanted to think of and see fighters compete as teammates based on semi-geographic location and mutual interest. Naturally, MMA fans only have interest in fighter outcomes and could never be concerned with the teams' well-being. All they care about is the eventual fighter product. The IFL eventually went under.
If the new MMA documentary 'Such Great Heights', a film about the run up in Jon Fitch's life to his title fight with Georges St. Pierre at UFC 87, proves anything, it's that the IFL may have been onto something.
Consumers of MMA don't care about the welfare of American Top Team (ATT) or American Kickboxing Academy (AKA). They only care that said teams produce the kind of world-class talent they're accustomed to enjoying watch compete on Saturday evenings. Fighters, on the other hand, are deeply invested in their team, needing each member to buoy their own career and self-esteem. From fulfilling prosaic training responsibilities to assuaging personal insecurity, fighters live and die as a function of their team's health.
'Such Great Heights', therefore, is not about Jon Fitch (the welterweight offers almost no testimonial insight). His 2008 fight with GSP serves as the central focus of the team's time and resources, but the real takeaways of the movie are two-fold. First, as fighters live it (particularly in the early stages of their career), the team's importance in MMA is utterly paramount. Second, a fighter's life is often an irrational sacrifice, a pursuit in trying to convert imagined greatness into real life.
The movie is set in San Jose, California. The chapters of the film are demarcated timestamps - 8 weeks to go, one month to go - on the road to Fitch's title fight. Fitch - the described unimpressive talent who never stopped showing up - is held as the great hope of AKA, the up from the bootstraps talent who would be the first fighter who started with the team and struggled his way to a UFC title. But the team doesn't start and stop with him. On concurrent journeys with Fitch are the myriad other fighters around him. Most of them are mired in extreme poverty, borderline delusion and professional as well as personal struggles too significant in number to enumerate. Keeping them going is the support system of the team and tantalizing prospect of athletic glory.
'Such Great Heights' is a success when it juxtaposes the ascetic misery of a fighter's life with their desperate search for a trace of validation. At every stage of the professional game, viewers get to see fighters rely on one another, their coaches, what family they have and their own grit to push them the unimaginably grueling gauntlet of training and competition. Through personal doubt, moments of candid self-reflection and scary uncertainty - not to mention the tax on mental stability caused by their life choices - this documentary gives you a window into the lives of life's true gamblers.
Those outside of the sport often cover it and its inner workings far better than indigenous MMA media. This documentary is no exception, telling Fitch's and AKA's story without hagiography. 'Such Great Heights is not a recitation of a fighter's selfish perspective in their pre-fight lives. When fighters are ready to quit, you see it. When they're living in converted RV's in a strip mall parking lot, you can almost smell the stale air circling the sleeping compartment. When an elite UFC welterweight devotes his early adult life to a cause and falls badly short, the viewer is there for his back stage tears trying to squeeze their way through swollen eye sockets and bruised egos.
The movie also does an excellent job of letting the unique personalities of the team tell their story and others' stories as they see it. Nowhere is this truer than in the mouth of Dave Camarillo, whose Yoda-ish thoughtfulness and articulation of fighter's apprehensions and desires adds an air of gravitas to the entire enterprise.
There are, however, a few shortcomings to the film.
In short, we've seen this story before. By 'we' I mean the dedicated MMA fan and by 'this story' I mean the rags to riches archetype so common in professional MMA. It's hard to imagine hardcore fans are the intended audience, but they're also likely the first ones to consume this movie. The film is new insofar as we haven't seen this particular story. Not like this, anyway. Yet, the filmmakers intended to portray the shared struggles of fighters across all points of the professional gamut as representative of their universal struggle. AKA has its own cross to bear, but it's not so dissimilar to weight carried by fighters of similar size and stature. The portrayal in this movie is important, but it's by no means groundbreaking.
The film also misrepresents Fitch's performance against St. Pierre. That's a fairly egregious error given how central the fight is to both the narrative and architecture of the film. Partly the filmmakers were hamstrung by not being able to obtain footage rights, something the UFC is notoriously stingy about sharing. But their solution to problem is no solution at all.
In absence of fight footage, the movie displays quotes and headlines from media members that make it seem as if Fitch's struggle with GSP was something approximating 'close but not cigar'. In reality, it stil stands as one of the greatest beatings in UFC title history. Fitch lost every round (several of them arguably 10-8) and while GSP couldn't put him away, he beat the AKA-product handily in every dimension of the game. Viewers do get to see Fitch's mauled face and post-fight weeping, but without properly explaining the context of his sadness the movie ends up changing it.
Still, Fitch returned to AKA soon after his loss to lick his wounds among the safe judgement-free companionship of his teammates. After walking into the gym, each one takes the time to congratulate him on all the work he put in. They all do their best to console him without allowing Fitch to feel sorry for himself. The movie states Fitch even returned to training a week after the loss. No one talks about what wasn't achieved either for Fitch or the team itself, although it hardly needs articulation.
That is the life of the professional MMA team laid naked before the world: endless work, sacrifice and loss given in the pursuit of something that likely will never come. But there's no time for worry and it's not anything one's teammates can't talk a fighter out of. For now, the only focus that matters and the only they'll allow themselves to have is their lofty goals. The achievement, the recognition this has all been worth it. That they are who they think they are and how right they were to covet something so dearly.
Such great heights, indeed.