MMA Is Changing the Fight Culture in Hollywood, One Armbar at a Time

Damon Martin@@DamonMartinContributor IAugust 19, 2013

There are a thousand different ways that conflict can be visualized and presented on film, but the ultimate resolution is the age-old art of hand-to-hand combat.

The art of a movie or television fight scene can be simple or complex, but it's always a dance that has to be executed perfectly to ensure maximum impact.

Fights take place in the most logical arenas, like big-budget, explosion-filled Hollywood franchises, and they also happen in the most unusual scenarios, like a comedy of errors or even inside courtrooms.

Movie fight scenes are sometimes outlandish and spectacular, but the influence of traditional martial arts, as well as the introduction of mixed martial arts, is starting to transform the culture of combat on the silver screen.

Now, it's easy to go back and see the martial-arts influence on films like those starring the godfather of cinematic MMA, Bruce Lee. He clearly made use of a few holds and chokes that fans of today would recognize in an instant.  Fast-forward to the 1987 action classic Lethal Weapon where star Mel Gibson applies a triangle choke to finish off Gary Busey in a fight scene actually choreographed by future UFC founder Rorion Gracie.

It's not necessarily that mixed martial arts hasn't influenced films or television shows in the past. But with the popularity of promotions like the UFC hitting an all-time high, the bleed over into the entertainment industry is happening more than ever now, and it's changing the Hollywood fight scene as we know it.

Call it a renaissance of fighting, where the best scenes are now grounded in reality more often than actors are tossed about on wires and cables to pull off logic-defying moves.

In the 1999 film The Matrix, martial arts was revitalized in Hollywood filmmaking with fight sequences that left viewers in disbelief. Lead actor Keanu Reeves could jump 20 feet in the air while landing speedy combinations like nothing ever seen before in a movie. The same could be said for the 2000 award-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which sacrificed adherence to the rules of gravity for high-flying acrobatics necessary to pull off the moves displayed on film.

Those kinds of sensational, over-the-top fight scenes were what Hollywood was all about. Movies rarely dabbled in realism, especially when any kind of combat took place between two fighters, no matter the type of movie being made.

Recently, however, films have started to display techniques very familiar to anyone who sits down on a Saturday night and turns on a UFC event.

Part of the changing culture can be explained by the fact that many actors and actresses are now learning MMA in their spare time and then bringing the knowledge in front of the camera when it's time to go to work.

Continuum actor Victor Webster offered some insight:

It's been invaluable for me. In 15 years of doing action movies, I've never used a stunt double. As far as confidence and dedication to something, discipline, all of that was bred into me from a very young age. I think I learned a lot of that from martial arts. I'm able to interject and in some projects completely choreograph my own fight scenes. It's nice to be able to actually do the things that I'm doing in the movies and know what I'm doing is actually real. I think the fans like seeing me do it as well.

Webster has been doing action and science fiction movies for years and is a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under Eddie Bravo. He's a regular sparring partner for UFC heavyweight Josh Barnett, and he knows the weight of a real punch and how to turn that into something Hollywood can use.

The realism of a fight scene can go right to the heart of any film's believability with the audience. The bone-crunching sound of a punch or the heart-stopping thud of a kick is made that much more authentic when it looks like something that could actually happen in real life.

No matter how far-fetched or inconceivable the plot might be in a film, watching a perfect fight sequence play out between two characters can bring a small element of reality to an otherwise unthinkable storyline.

Former UFC welterweight Jay Hieron has been working on films and television for the past seven years, either as an actor or stunt man on several high-profile projects. Most recently, Hieron spent two months working on The Amazing Spider-Man 2, along with filming parts for the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live-action movie.

During his time on set, Hieron is routinely consulted by actors and directors who are looking for his input on what a fight scene should really look like and how it should all unfold.

Hieron is able to give invaluable advice to stunt coordinators and fight choreographers because he knows what happens when a punch lands or how a particular combination, when landed correctly, can do maximum damage:

Every time I do a fight scene they ask my input. What looks more real with this kind of combination? Does this look real? Would this guy do this? How would this guy react? Hollywood is definitely taking notice of mixed martial arts, and they are trying to incorporate that kind of fighting into the more mainstream and the big-budget pictures. They know that's what works, the real fighting.

As each year passes, Hieron has seen more and more incorporation of MMA into Hollywood action scenes. The growth and exposure of the UFC to a wider audience has given viewers a much better idea of what a real fight looks like in every sense of the word.

MMA is fighting done by professionals who aren't bound to only standing and striking with an opponent. MMA fighters wrestle, kick, grapple and slam each other—just like what you might see in the next movie you attend in the theater.

Hieron discussed how studios are embracing this authenticity:

That's the direction they're going now with mixed martial arts really being popular, and people have a sense about fighting and what fighting styles work and what don’t because of organizations like the UFC. A lot of the actors want to do a lot of what is more real fighting. They definitely like my input.

UFC heavyweight Josh Barnett has lived and breathed both sides of the Hollywood fight story.

In his home gym in California, Barnett routinely rubs elbows with acting's elite as they come into his facility looking to learn some techniques and find out what MMA fighting is all about. Barnett has also started to explore film as another avenue for his own future, like a recent martial-arts flick starring Reeves, where he served as a fight choreographer for a scene:

I helped out with doing a fight scene for the latest Keanu Reeves film, not 47 Ronin, but Man of Tai Chi, which should be coming out at some point. Because the group that was doing the fight and stunt coordination, 8711 Action Team, the guy that created it is Erik Paulson's former sparring partner and a really good friend. So I went down there with Erik, and we played around a little bit, and they were putting together a scene, and I helped them with it. Those guys are more than well aware of MMA, the skills and techniques and thinking about how to apply them into movies.

Barnett has worked with many actors and actresses over the years as a trainer. As MMA continues to grow, Barnett has seen an influx of thespians who want to know what fighting should look and feel like, and he's happy to teach them the ins and outs of how mixed martial arts really works:

The thing about acting and fighting in general is these actors and actresses are going to be expected to go out there and throw punches and kicks, and while they're not actually beating people up they have to give the illusion that they know what they're doing. That their kicks and their punches look real and the physical motions behind them match up what one would expect them to look like.

For Barnett's next fight at UFC 164, he will have one of his biggest fans sitting front and center. The big fan also just happens to be a former star of the popular Syfy series Battlestar Galactica and current leading lady of the A&E series Longmire.

Katee Sackhoff is no stranger to fight scenes and has been regarded as one of the foremost female action stars in Hollywood. She will co-star with Vin Diesel in the upcoming film Riddick and will also take part in a new female Expendables project, starring alongside former Strikeforce fighter Gina Carano.

Sackhoff isn't ready to switch places with an MMA fighter and step inside the cage, but having working knowledge of the craft is very useful whenever she's expected to step into a scene, throw a punch or get punched herself.

It's also important to have proper technique because knowing how to throw a punch can lead to a better-quality staged fight:

I do enjoy sparring. I do like it. It's really interesting. The fighters I train with now, I train at Tait Fletcher's gym in Santa Fe, and when I talk to them, the fighters are like, "Really punch me in the face, it's okay." It's a completely different world. To fight for a movie, it's not easy. The people that are good at it make it look easy, but it's not—because you can tend to hit people in the face because that's what you would do.

MMA sequences, especially submission fighting, have started to pop up more and more as the years move forward. Movies like Fast and Furious engage in full fight scenes and routinely use elements such as the armbar to showcase real fighting on film.

Fight choreographers have volumes of MMA fights for inspiration, and with more actors training in MMA, as well as fighters getting involved in the film business, the influence will likely only grow. And there's already evidence in several high-profile examples.

In the Showtime hit Dexter, the lead character mentions at one point that he trained in jiu-jitsu in college after applying a rear naked choke to an assailant.

As a matter of fact, current Dexter star Sean Patrick Flanery is a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He owns and operates his own gym out of Hollywood and has worked with several big-name fighters in the past, including former UFC title contender Jon Fitch.

Action hero Channing Tatum trains with UFC middleweight Cung Le, who has also done fight choreography for several films as well.

This new injection of MMA fight culture in Hollywood doesn't mean every clash on film is now going to look like an Anderson Silva highlight reel or involve a Ronda Rousey judo throw, but you're likely to see it more often now than ever before.

Webster said while explaining the influence of MMA in Hollywood:

I mean, there is a place for Matrix style martial arts. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there will always be that. But I feel like that Casino Royale—that dirty, gritty, "grab anything that's by you and smash them in the head" type fight scenes are the wave of the future. Those are my favorites. One of the great things is because I've been doing martial arts for so long and doing action movies and television shows I work on, it's a very collaborative effort.

Even actors who are just fans of MMA are now drawn to train in the sport because they know how useful a working knowledge of fighting can be when setting foot on the set.

For instance, Sons of Anarchy actor Theo Rossi might just be the biggest UFC fan who also doubles as an actor on one of the most popular shows on television. His Twitter timeline on fight night usually rivals that of any MMA reporter because Rossi is so consumed by the sport and has now even become friends with many of the fighters.

While his schedule rarely allows him more time than it takes to head to his local gym and get a few licks in on the punching bag, Rossi plans on further exploring MMA training because he knows the payoff for action scenes like ones he did on Sons of Anarchy would be tremendous:

It definitely helps. It's an extremely physical show. So you have to be in shape, you have to be ready. There's a lot of action sequences, there's a lot of stage fighting.

MMA training, more than anything, is helpful, which is why I'm so excited to do it. It's a huge asset for people that are on very physically active shows like Sons of Anarchy.

Former UFC champion and now full-time actor Randy Couture might just be the best expert on this subject. He's been around fighting his entire life, growing up on the wrestling mats before transitioning to MMA.

Couture began acting in the midst of his MMA career, and now that he's retired, his roles in front of the camera are even more frequent, such as his parts in all three of the The Expendables movies, which also star MMA fan Sylvester Stallone.

Over the years, Couture has noticed the incursion of MMA fundamentals in major Hollywood productions, and as a former fighter turned actor, he couldn't be more overjoyed.

Couture spoke to Bleacher Report just before leaving for Bulgaria to begin filming on The Expendables 3:

As we have all witnessed the evolution of hand-to-hand combat sports over the last decade—so too has the movie and TV industry.  As a result, this evolution has now begun to permeate what we see in the movies and on TV. Producers, directors, stunt coordinators and fight choreographers have all responded to the need for more realistic depictions of hand-to-hand combat. Its roots, in many ways, tied to early movies of Chuck Norris (middleweight karate champ), Bruce Lee and fight choreographer Pat Johnson (Karate Kid, TMNT, Mortal Kombat). The latest batch of MMA fighters to migrate to the movies/TV is merely a natural progression of the public's desire for more reality-based combat action scenes—and I couldn't be happier about it.

Recent films like Elysium have featured submissions by actors such as Matt Damon, while Kick-Ass 2 employed the services of former UFC champion Chuck Liddell to star as the MMA trainer of the villain in the movie.

The crossover of MMA into Hollywood will only continue as the sport's popularity expands with each passing year.

So the next time you turn on your favorite TV show or sit down with your popcorn in front of the big screen, don't be surprised if you witness Vin Diesel or Mark Wahlberg recreating an exact sequence from the UFC event you watched a few months earlier.

Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, and all quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.