On Saturday, March 7, 2009, Quinton Jackson scored a unanimous decision against Keith Jardine in the main event of UFC 96 in Columbus. That was back when the UFC coincided its Ohio visits with the Arnolds, and people like Jim Miller were just plain names, and Matt Brown — fresh off a stint on The Ultimate Fighter — was taking mercy on poor Pete Sell long before the referee did.
Walking around the Nationwide Arena that night was a familiar band of characters that fans of MMA long knew as the TapouT guys. There was Skyskrape, Punkass and the founding member, Charles “Mask” Lewis. Together they were kind of like MMA’s spirit animal come to life, these apparel mavens who represented the outcast nature of the sport. They were the sport. MMA looked like TapouT throughout the aughts. And that trio had been showing up to big (and small) MMA events for years, making Columbus just another gig.
But UFC 96 was distinctive in that it was the last time that would happen. Three days later, “Mask” was dead. Killed in a car accident in Newport Beach, Calif. He would be immortalized with his name in the UFC Octagon, but Charles Lewis — the one who wore the mask — became a ghostly cackle in the dancehall.
MMA’s history can be broken into episodes, from the earliest days of no holds barred tournament action, to the resultant “dark ages” when the sport was banned virtually everywhere, to the Zuffa purchase in 2001, to the timely Griffin-Bonnar fight in 2005 that saved the company, to the boom period that followed, to the FOX era, to the starch-collared era of Reebok and WME.
Bobby Razak’s documentary Mask — which releases nationally on April 3 — carries that timeline as an important subtext to Lewis’ raison d’être. The sidelines convey the old Wild West of MMA’s history, showing how the sport was carried on the faith of a few in the early days when it was still, for the most part, illegal. There are familiar people in it, the standards in the timeline. People like Big John McCarthy, Chuck Liddell, Quinton Jackson, Donald Cerrone, even Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta. There is the vintage feel of the times, which pounds home the point of just how far the thing has come.
It was in that early turmoil of growth that Lewis found his domain. When very few people believed in MMA, Lewis — who, along with Dan Caldwell (Punkass) worked as a cop in the Inland Empire — was dreaming big. He wanted to dress the sport, and give it an aura. He cared about fighters. That’s where Razak’s documentary picks up, giving a look at TapouT’s roots, leading into the hundred-million dollar boom period between 2007-09, while at the same time unmasking its visionary.
Spliced throughout is an interview in which Lewis talks about his drive, which Razak — as a longtime friend — filmed toward the end of his life.
“What I did was, every time I did a [TapouT] commercial, I’d always film him,” Razak says. “Around six months before he died, I had a feeling to interview him, and that’s when I did that interview — six months before he died.”
Razak, who had known Lewis since 1997, spent seven years putting the documentary together. At its best, the film captures Lewis’ ambition, his quirks, and his mania. At its darkest edges, there’s the lyrical figure of Mask touching on his troubled childhood, his never-quite sated quest to be loved surfacing time and again. Looking back on it, Razak says it was the toughest project of his life.
“It was brutal, Charles was very close to me,” he says. “I was actually the one that founded TapouT Films, and I pushed very hard just to finish ‘Mask.’ … It was a very brutal experience. It’s strange. I did over 300 commercials. I did over 12 documentaries in various aspects of action sports, movies. Every time I watch ‘Mask,’ it always kind of kills me inside. It’s one film that I can never get used to watching.
“Every time I watched it I felt that knife in my heart. I never got used to watching it, and that’s very bizarre because typically, when I’m doing a movie, I’m sick of it. This one was always like a jab, like a painful reminder.”
Painful because Lewis was killed on March 11, which the documentary covers in its second half. There are a great many highlights that give poignancy to Lewis’ contributions to MMA, before and after the tragic event. There’s the image of Mike “The Joker” Guymon crying at the shrine where Lewis’ Ferrari split in half against a power pole. There’s Josh Barnett talking about Lewis’ overcompensation for the pain he was feeling during a time when MMA was “punk rock as hell.” There’s the ornery footage of the TapouT guys sneaking a sticker onto Tito Ortiz’s SUV, and later on, Tim Katz (“Skyskrape”) fighting back tears while refusing to say goodbye to his longtime friend.
And there’s the early dreaming sessions between Lewis and Caldwell at the local Carl’s Jr. At one point Lewis breaks into tears talking about how his partner Caldwell gave him the power to believe in himself, and built his self-esteem.
“I can’t put into words how complicated he was,” Caldwell says later in the film.
“Maybe he had some bad traits, but the good traits made up for the bad traits. I can remember him asking me that, ‘what would you change about me, because I’m working on some certain things in my life,’ and this was a little ways into the future when we were already successful. I told him nothing. I love you the way you are.”
One of the more effective ways that Razak tells Lewis’ story is by getting out of the way. There is the buffoonery of a bunch of wild dudes wearing make-up and wigs trying to gain notoriety, just as there are moments when Lewis comes off as a little unhinged. “He’s crazy, but he’s crazy like a fox,” Caldwell says.
Yet Razak also uses a tape recorder confessional of Lewis’ to get at his back-story, which carries an uneasy vibe — like you’re hearing something you shouldn’t.
“Not to sound kooky, but I had a feeling Charles was going to die,” he says. “That’s why I really accelerated the filming with him, and did that commercial where he jumped off the building at the Montecito in Hollywood. I had a really strange feeling.”
Mask had a limited release a couple of years ago on Vimeo, but since then Razak has gone through another round of funding and edits. Now in its final form, it releases on April 3 on iTunes, Xbox, PS4, staggering all the way to Netflix. “It’s a 100 platform deal,” Razak says. “You can get it anywhere.”
Lewis was inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame in 2009, and today is remembered by many as the passionate force that got MMA through the darkest times. There isn’t a happy ending to the documentary, as the end result was that the company sold for “pennies on the dollar” after Lewis’ death. Today TapouT, which was headquartered in Grand Terrace at its height and is now based out of New York City, doesn’t even represent MMA.
But Razak made sure to present Lewis as the live flame that he was. “Mask” was part of MMA’s identity because — like MMA itself — he grew nobly from twisted roots. There was a taboo to him that worked through years of refinement, but there was never an apology to be who he was.
“Let me make this quote,” Lewis says at the end. “Touching people is the one way to live long after you live. To affect, to touch, to make someone believe … to help someone believe you’re capable of it. To succeed in touching and moving someone, and affecting their lives…if you do that for people, trust me. You’ll live long after you’ve died.”