I first heard about mixed martial arts in 2002, during my Masters degree at Warwick. I had only just got into internet forums, where people were talking about something called the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Over the next few years I started buying DVDs of the old events from FightDVD, normally just asking on birthdays and at christmas, meaning my progress through the history was very slow. The Smashing Machine sounded fascinating: I'd already watched Choke, and this new DVD looked to be just as good. However, I wanted to make sure I'd seen all the events first, so I wouldn’t already know the results before watching the original fights. As The Smashing Machine takes the viewer up to the year 2000, I was in for a long wait.
Five years after it was released, I finally allowed myself to watch the DVD, having polished off the Pride Grand Prix 2000 and Pride 10 the week before. At last I'd reached 2000, so could enjoy the Mark Kerr documentary I'd heard so much about. It proved well worth the wait: this is easily the best documentary I've seen since Pumping Iron. However, unlike that seminal work, there was nothing staged about The Smashing Machine. Its most striking feature is the shocking honesty displayed by Mark Kerr, who seems completely at ease with a camera following his every move. As he lies in a hospital bed, two of his close friends give him a stark warning: get off the painkillers, or you are going to die. Kerr breaks down in tears, and the scene is powerfully affecting.
Moments like this recur throughout the film. That naked emotion is coupled with the business of fighting: Kerr's preparation, his sweat and grunts of effort, the smack of his fists against a punchbag laid on the floor between his legs. You also get to see significant chunks of the actual fights themselves, so if you’re like me and don’t want to spoil the results, be sure to first watch up until Pride 10, where The Smashing Machine finishes. I’m guessing most people aren’t like me. ;p
It is not just Mark Kerr who features in this documentary, though he is clearly the focus of The Smashing Machine. His friend and mentor Mark Coleman also gets significant coverage, presented as a counterpoint to Kerr. Both are big, powerful wrestlers who pound their opponents into submission, but whereas Kerr was on his way up at the time, Coleman’s career was heading in the opposite direction. The older wrestler shows a side of his personality which didn’t surface in his time as the UFC champion: Mark Coleman the dedicated family man. Older and wiser, his different perspective greatly enriches the documentary as a whole.
The third fighter covered by the documentary is Renzo Gracie. Or more accurately, he was the third, until cuts had to be made for the final version. However, thanks to the magic of DVD, all that footage didn’t go to waste, instead forming the basis of the ‘Fight Day’ extra, which is essentially an additional documentary. There are also the usual deleted scenes, some quite extended, such as the insight into Ricco Rodriguez and Kerr’s training with Bas Rutten.
Commentary is provided by the director, who had known Kerr before making the documentary (which no doubt is a large part of the reason Kerr is so natural despite the camera). Thankfully it is a well-executed commentary, in that it lasts the whole documentary and provides useful and interesting information, as opposed to the intermittent rambling that some directors offer up. He discusses the genesis of the documentary, how Kerr approved even the most private material, and the later reception upon release. It also covers historical events, and some of the personal relationships which crop up in the documentary, along with their context (you'll see what I mean after viewing, but there is one in particular that certainly needs that context).
To anyone interested in mixed martial arts history, or combative sport in general, this is essential viewing. Even if you’ve never heard of MMA, I would still recommend this DVD. Thought-provoking, unflinchingly honest and satisfyingly comprehensive, The Smashing Machine is right up there with Arnold’s breakthrough. Available to buy here.