While popular shows like “Hard Knocks” and “24/7” bring us sports documentary insight as it happens, Nuvo TV’s new MMA doc series “Fight Factory” takes a different, more reflective approach. The show chronicles the day-to-day life of Javier Mendez and his American Kickboxing Academy family, with their story beginning around November of 2011. It was an interesting time to begin the journey, as then-UFC champ Cain Velasquez was only two weeks away from his title fight with Junior Dos Santos. For hardcore fans, starting the show with Velasquez still holding the belt seems somewhat confusing, as it’s old news that Dos Santos is now the champion. But it’s this retrospective look that allows the filmmakers to give an honest, and more fluidly paced representation of the storylines.
The episode toggles between the contrasting stories of Velasquez, veteran Phil Baroni, and former champion wrestler/MMA newcomer Mark Ellis, with Ellis’ storyline taking the lead. Mendez has built his career on converting high-level wrestlers into MMA fighters, and in Ellis he sees great potential. So much so that he puts Ellis up as a guest in his own home. It’s here that we meet Mendez’ wife, who is also involved in the business side of AKA. As she shares breakfast with Ellis, the viewer is offered a chance to see the family-oriented culture of a fight team. This idea of family is a recurring theme throughout the episode.
Baroni provides the perfect juxtaposition to Ellis’ side of the story, as a grizzled veteran of a sport in which he’s struggling to remain relevant. Baroni returns to the AKA gym only three weeks after a shoulder surgery that should have him on the shelf for three months. Baroni’s history of attitude problems, along with his dwindling status within the sport, creates awkwardness in the gym that’s palpable even to the viewer. A very real emotional moment ensues when Baroni has a one-on-one sit down with his old friend Mendez to ask him bluntly if there is still a place for him at AKA. Mendez had expressed to the camera his feelings that Baroni should retire because his best years are behind him, but when asked point blank about his belief in Baroni, Mendez does not flinch. He offers his full support, telling Baroni that he will “always be a part of the family,” and then puts the onus on Baroni to train responsibly. The air of insecurity around Baroni is lifted, and he seems reinvigorated with self-belief, effectively showing the power of the interdependent support system that’s cultivated on a fight team.
In a one-on-one sport, it’s difficult for most fans to witness and experience these aspects of fighter development, as few casual followers think about cage fighters in a team-based context. When the world first watched Mark Ellis struggle in his second pro MMA fight, very few people would realize that he’d been sparring with the world heavyweight champion less than a week earlier. Even fewer people would know that Ellis had to be proverbially talked off the ledge by Mendez after being dominated in that sparring session and storming out of the gym in frustration. These types of genuine moments are what make Fight Factory so effective.
The show climaxes with Ellis being defeated in his fight, and a powerful emotional aftermath ensues. Ellis declares he is finished with mixed martial arts, at one point exclaiming “I just got beat by a guy who was in prison while I was off winning a national title.” This is where some of the show’s stronger visuals come into play as well, with the use of shadowing and silhouettes accenting a particularly moving moment between Ellis and Mendez. Ellis had wandered off to the shadows to cry, and Mendez is right there with him, building him up with words of encouragement. Humanity, emotion, effective storytelling, and technical execution are all married together in this sequence. All of that would not have been possible in a week-by-week show that is shot, cut and released within days of the actual events.
The nature of the mixed martial arts game provides so many amazing built-in storylines, which allows the makers of Fight Factory to showcase several self-contained narratives in a single episode. The downtime between when these stories took place and their release on the show means that filmmakers know exactly which direction the story naturally needs to be led. It gives the show a unique authenticity that’s missing from many of its contemporaries.
Unfortunately, Canadian viewers will be required to do some online digging to enjoy Fight Factory. Nuvo TV is currently only available to American Dish TV and Comcast subscribers, but for hardcore MMA fans, it’s worth digging for.