Sports stories will always speak a universal language, because they touch on the primal instincts of the human condition. Competitive sports are one of the few arenas where physical endurance can be pushed to the breaking point and where survival instincts can be cultivated and put to good use safely contained in a controlled environment. Combative sports, like boxing, multiply the visceral quality by orders of magnitude. With mixed martial arts sweeping the nation, a documentary about the sport is an inevitable outcome. With Fightville, fans of MMA get an intimate look at the proving grounds for up and coming fighters. The scope, however, is limited, and newcomers to the sport aren’t catered to here.
Sports typically have minor leagues, and MMA follows suit with regional fighters who compete for a chance to get noticed by a national organization, like Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). USA-MMA is a regional league headquartered in Lafayette, La. Its founder, Gil Guillory, is the regional fight promoter who is always on the lookout for the next big fight sensation to sell tickets. Just outside Lafayette is the Gladiators Academy gymnasium, owned and operated by Tim Credeur, who is a seasoned UFC fighter. Fightville showcases two of his fighters, Albert Stainback and Dustin Poirier. Both young men are skilled and full of heart, but do they have what it takes to beat the competition and climb the ranks?
Fans of MMA will already know the fates of the two main subjects in the film, making it that much more interesting to see the fighters before they met their destinies. The young men are genuinely interesting, both coming from rough backgrounds punctuated by constant violence. Poirier took part in neighborhood fist fights as a child, leading to run-ins with the law, which finally landed him correctional boot camp. Stainback watched his father physically brutalize his mother before later killing himself. It’s obvious that when the men are in the ring that they’re fighting against inner demons as well as for hopeful futures.
The other two featured subjects, fight promoter Gil Guillory and trainer Tim Credeur, are also charming in their own rights. Guillory has the kind of breezy salesman personality that is both friendly and aggressively businesslike. There’s a moment when he discusses a big fight he’s setting up where he jokes that if Poirier really wants to make money he should plan on losing so that Guillory can sell the rematch. Guillory laughs away the idea with Poirier, but it’s unclear if Guillory is actually joking. Tim Credeur offers a nice contrast to every other subject in the film with his laidback persona. Even when he’s frustrated with one of his fighters and punishes them with blunt force trauma, his actions come from a good place, which shows during his interviews.
Fightville is very watchable and delivers a straightforward story full of the highs and lows that viewers will expect from a sports feature. On key elements, however, the presentation feels a little thin. For instance, the film does very little to discuss the history of MMA and why there is a lingering stigma of unmitigated brutality surrounding the sport. Additionally, while the interviews of the four main subjects are poignant, especially early on with Gil Guillory waxing poetic about human nature, there are very few external interviews that would help add context to the subject of the film at large. For example, a few words from UFC President Dana White would have gone a long way in adding more authority to the film. Also, not enough was done to allow viewers to live with the highlighted fighters to make audiences really care about their hopes and dreams. The fighters talk about their families and their pasts, and one fighter’s mom has some short interviews, but viewers will never really see how they live their lives. Finally, newcomers to MMA should probably watch this film with a fan of the sport to help explain the nuances of the fights. It isn’t mandatory, of course – everyone will understand what’s happening when someone takes a knee to the ribs or a fist to the face – but clarification might be needed for moments when fights are stopped due to an armbar.
Ultimately, Fightville offers a fascinating, but incomplete look at a little known aspect of a well known sport. Nevertheless, it’s sure to please fans of MMA fighting. It’s inspiring to see young guys training in a small gym located in a strip mall fight their way to the big leagues. It’s also gut-wrenching to watch the physical rigors the fighters have to endure, like cuts to the face, broken noses and shedding so much sweat during training that it pools on the floor. But despite this tremendous display of heart by the film’s subjects, Fightville comes up short on polish to really make this documentary a standout presentation.