Thursday, February 21, 2008

Revisiting "The Smashing Machine"

Yesterday I rewatched the HBO documentary "The Smashing Machine," a part biopic, part exploration of MMA (mostly PRIDE) in the early 2000's. The ostensible subject of the film is Mark "The Smashing Machine" Kerr, a talented but flawed fighter trying to make a living fighting in Japan.

It's a stimulating film, but not exactly a flattering portrait of Kerr or MMA. While not necessarily designed to be unflattering, the director's choice of Kerr makes for dramatic viewing rather than a representative example of mixed martial artists. The result is a brutally honest look into the life of a guy barely holding it together while competing at the highest levels of his sport.

"The Smashing Machine" isn't a favorite of many MMA fans, and it's not hard to see why. Watch as Kerr head butts, gouges, and stomps his way through early vale tudo tournaments. Watch as he pumps himself full of an alphabet soup of painkillers every single day, his career slipping further and further away with each injection. Watch as he ODs on opiates, makes a heroic recovery, and then fails to learn from his mistakes inside and outside of the ring. Watch Kerr's face get stitched back together as Mark Coleman, Kerr's longtime friend, wins the 2000 PRIDE Grand Prix instead of Kerr. Not exactly upbeat stuff.

Kerr's life and career are true stories, but the film does nothing to correct the impression that all fighters exist in some state of desperation. Part of the fault for that can be laid on Coleman, who is constantly saying that he fights to put food on the table, often with his young children in the same shot (this is Coleman's standard line even now, many big purses later. Makes you wonder if the Coleman family is subsisting on a diet of nothing but truffles and caviar). Kerr also says he fights for the money, but it's harder to sympathize with his money problems when he's shown driving a $70,000 sports car. Either way, there's the distinct impression that fighters are driven to brutalize each other because they couldn't survive any other way--a vast oversimplification.

Kerr is more compelling when he talks about the unparalleled emotional high of fighting and winning, a high he seems to love more than his own body. There's a lot Kerr's fight footage in the film, and you can't help but root for the poor guy. But as Coleman humbly admits early in the film, the sport passed by guys like Kerr and Coleman, leaving them with nothing but their ground and pound game. Admittedly, it can be viciously effective in some cases, as the many close-ups of punches landing on prone heads can attest, but it's not enough to win consistently on the sport's biggest stage.

Kerr has tried to continue his MMA career, but the results have been underwhelming. He's 2-5 since the film was made, and he hasn't shown anything in the ring to indicate that he's improved much in the last seven years. He's obviously an intelligent, charismatic guy, but he's also a relic of the past, as is this film in many ways. There are certainly still drugs, brutality, and desperation in the sport, but the same can be said of football, among other sports.

The world is still waiting for a great MMA documentary, one that shows all the highs and lows of the sport as it is now contested. Until that time, "The Smashing Machine" will serve as a reminder of just how far the sport has come and how far it still has to go.

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