As it's human nature to cheer for the underdog and crusade for the rise of one man's American Dream, Ho-Ho-Kus resident Michael Gray knew he had a winner when he signed on to be the executive producer of the documentary film, "Fightville," opening in New York City and Los Angeles this Friday, April 20.
"This is a movie about life," Gray said. "In 'Fightville,' the protagonist is focusing and preparing and committing to his dream, which happens to be becoming a champion Mixed Martial Arts fighter. This is a guy who had a lot of obstacles and he focused and set out to conquer a goal and he's done so. People need to see this kind of story; it's inspirational."
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), a combat sport that combines wrestling, boxing and jiujutsu, has come a long way from its no-holds-barred roots and is now the fastest growing sport in the world, according to the Ultimate Fighting Championship website, even eclipsing boxing in popularity.
Gray's colleagues, the award-winning film production team of Mike Tucker and Petra Epperlein, fell into the project while filming "How to Fold A Flag," a documentary profiling the lives of several soldiers post-Iraq, including one who was participating in cage fighting in Louisiana to make money during a tough financial situation.
Tucker and Epperlein knew next to nothing about the world of MMA fighting, but felt they had come across a phenomenon itching to be documented. It was there that they met Dustin "The Diamond" Poirier, who would become the protagonist of "Fightville," and another young fighter, Albert Stainback, who would fall short in preparing for his goal in the film, despite having all the talent in the world.
"It's rare that you see this kind of character arc in a documentary film," Gray said. "You're really going on a journey with these guys, and by the end the audience is getting the tingles, standing and cheering."
In Poirier, viewers find a lost young man who finds redemption in the world of MMA, giving him a place to focus and something to go for in life. But, Gray said, there's inspiration to be found in others that are documented, such as fight promoter Gil Guillory, a family man who has built a life for his family doing something he is passionate about, all through a changing economy.
"I feel privileged and honored," Guillory said of being centric to what is being called the iconic MMA film. "I never knew that people would take an interest in my life in the way that they have. It's humbling."
Guillory knew he had a unique life and a strong work ethic, but said it's amazing to see himself perceived through the filmmakers' eyes as a hard worker who has created an atmosphere of determination and respect in the MMA world that goes beyond fighting, creating a support system that blurs the lines between family and opponent.
"This film is a window opening for the company," Guillory said. "They really caught lightening in a bottle."
Gray's personal experience with MMA fighting helped him relate to some of the key players in "Fightville." He learned to fight from Gracie Jiu-Jitsu black belts, and trains regularly at a gym in Westwood, called Training Grounds, and knows about the journey MMA can take a fighter on, and the passion it takes.
"You find yourself through your fight training," Gray said. "You learn from mistakes, and really, the fighting transcends fighting. It's a life situation and that's really what 'Fightville' is, and I find that in my own training, and the guys that I train with feel the same way."
It's these life metaphors that make a movie like "Fightville" so relatable, far beyond the tight-knit MMA community, Gray said.
"This film has been seen around the world and gotten critical acclaim. Audiences made up of fighters and non-fighters alike, all different kinds of people - can't help but be moved," he said.
Gray describes "Fightville" as a Rocky-esque story, but all the more rousing because Stainback and Poirier are real guys.
Gray has been involved in film production since 2005, and is proud to say that "Fightville" is the first film his name will be officially attached to as executive producer, though he has several films in the works under the Smiley Ball Films name, a production company he owns with his sister, Ann Gray.
He and his wife have four children, two that have begun their own journeys in MMA fighting alongside their proud father at Westwood's Training Grounds.
"Fightville" will premiere on Friday, April 20, at Cinema Village in New York, 22 E. 12th St. It will be available for rental on iTunes and cable's On Demand the same day, and DVD and iTunes purchase on July 11. It is expected to shown on Showtime in late 2012.