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The 20 Best MMA Movies to Watch Now, According to An Expert

Martial arts movies and documentaries to help educate fight fans about MMA and its culture.

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The Vladar Company

As a lifelong student of martial arts and a fan of the sport of mixed martial arts since before it became known as “MMA”, I have watched my fair share of films that drove me to follow my own martial arts journey and that of other martial artists. Some are documentaries that helped me learn the history of the sport, others are films that Hollywood put a spin on that made martial arts seem more interesting.

 

There is a beauty in the time and training it takes to become a decent martial artist and to do it professionally, and competitively requires something special. I have a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and a brown belt in Isshin Ryu karate that took a little over 10 years apiece to earn. Yet it would still be hard to explain the "arts" part of martial arts to someone who does not want to train. Luckily, there are films that can do that.

 

In the 20 plus years MMA has been around, not enough is said about the films in the genre or ones that document the history of the sport. Especially now that the sport has grown so much, it seems there are a lot of new fans that have questions about the early days of MMA. So if you are one of the fans that are new and want to know more, in no particular order these are 20 films that I think can help you learn more about MMA or had a part in MMA’s growth.

1. 'Choke' (1999)

This film documents Rickson Gracie’s journey in the world of what was then called “no holds barred freestyle fighting,” the precursor to what became the sport of MMA. As a practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I know myself and many other jiu-jitsu players that this film serves as a form of motivation and the seed of what got many from my generation into MMA and the gentle art of jiu-jitsu. It also showed how big MMA is in Japan and that the talent pool for the sport is deeper than what you see from the UFC.

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2. ‘The Smashing Machine: The Life and Times of Extreme Fighter Mark Herr’

This film follows Mark Kerr and his life in combat sports after being a life-long competitor in wrestling. The reason I consider both Choke and this film required viewing is because they best represent competitive martial arts as a sport. The sport is not “UFC”, the UFC is a promotion within the sport. The sport is MMA and this film does a great job of showing the global potential MMA has to become as big as boxing.

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3. ‘Dawg Fight’ (2015)

Backyard brawls have served as a starting point in the path to becoming a martial artist. I’m also a fan of Billy Corben’s work who made this film. If you are a fan of Kimbo Slice or Jorge Masvidal, the world of backyard brawls in Florida is where they found their paths to success. Masvidal is the current Baddest Mother F**cker (BMF) in the UFC so it should not be a surprise he started his career fighting for little money in backyards in Florida. Be warned, it is not for the squeamish.

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4. ‘ROLL: Jiu-Jitsu in SoCal’

To me, ROLL  serves more as an update to the culture of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) from the seeds planted in Choke. The first UFC that featured Royce Gracie’s domination over other martial artists in a one-night tournament with no rules proved BJJ is a necessary ingredient for MMA, but the deeper side of the art and culture is well represented in this film. For those that do not know, to “roll” means to train live in the art of BJJ.

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5. ‘Jiu-Jitsu vs. the World’ (2016)

A deep look at the art that features not only a "who's who" in the BJJ community but for me, it was showing me that the art I prioritized over other arts has a community and culture that treat you as good as you treat it. A lot of interviews feature BJJ artists that were MMA competitors or ones that became future competitors.

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6. ‘The Hurt Business’ (2016)

This documentary came out at an interesting time for the sport, especially to me since I was in Las Vegas in July of the same year when the UFC sold for around 4 billion dollars. It was also when MMA was finally no longer banned in New York and UFC 205, the first big MMA event in Madison Square Garden was around the corner. It was like footnotes for new MMA fans but did a good job acknowledging it's past. Jon Jones and Ronda Rousey are featured in this film.

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7. ‘Warrior’ (2011)

This film had great actors, great performances, and a decent story but that's not why I like it. It features an MMA promotion that holds a tournament where fighters can make $5-million dollars. At the time, not only were MMA promotions not doing tournaments but no fighter was even close to making that amount of money. Oddly enough, now Bellator MMA has held tournaments that feature million-dollar prize money and The Professional Fighters League (PFL) runs a season format that does the same thing.

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8. ‘Redbelt’ (2008)

This film might need a rewatch but I don't mind putting it on this list because it is made by a fellow Jiu-Jitsu junkie, director David Mamet. Sometimes you can get into the art so much if you have a platform to bring it to the masses, why not? I thought it might have missed the mark when I first saw it but I was still glad it was made and featured MMA fighters and gurus from the world of BJJ. It was not a widely released film but when you start seeing more Hollywood level MMA films, it means more people are paying attention.

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9. ‘Bloodsport’ (1988)

The legend of Frank Dux as portrayed by Jean Claude Van Damme. Yes it made Van Damme famous but as someone that was always drawn to martial arts films, this one featured a lot of different disciplines facing off in an underground tournament. That just screams MMA and you would probably find a lot of fighters citing it as a source of motivation to train. Dux’s story may have been a little exaggerated as a film but if you look at the betting and promotion aspects of it, it’s not too far from MMA.

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10. ‘Lionheart’ (1990)

Yes, it's another Van Damme film about underground fights but apparently, that's what was selling and I was all in. So was everyone else if you look at Van Damme’s early successful films and their plots. It should be no surprise that the first UFC was only a couple of years later. It is almost like the fictionalized version of Dawg Fight if Hollywood was to ever try to make a movie based on it.

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11. ‘Jens Pulver: Driven’ (2011)

Jens Pulver was the first lightweight champion of the UFC as we know it today. His name, followed by "driven" in the title is deserving to me because it's one of the best looks at a fighter's life next to Choke and The Smashing Machine. Pulver’s boxing and kickboxing background was of interest to me because of his longevity and success in a sport dominated by grapplers. Now, Pulver can be seen on Twitch streaming fights and educating fans about the sport.

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12. ‘Here Comes the Boom’ (2012)

I saw this film on a flight. I knew Kevin James was a big fan of MMA and got his friend and trainer, Bas Rutten in the film. Rutten is a former UFC heavyweight champion and three-time King of Pancrase champ. He's also featured in Smashing Machine but the character he plays is not too far from the real guy. The film is funny and features Joe Rogan and Chael Sonnen as themselves.

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13. ‘Best of the Best’ (1989)

This film was funny to me because the competition in the film doesn't exist. But I was a kid when I saw it so I thought it did on some level. In MMA you will hear the terms "camp" and "team" even though combat sports is generally an individual sport. If anything, this movie does a good job of explaining the mentality and culture of where the terms come from, even if it is a fictional competition.

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14. ‘No Retreat, No Surrender’ (1986)

Another appearance by Van Damme on this list but worth noting because he was not well-known at the time since it's before Bloodsport. The reason I like it is that the protagonist is a big Bruce Lee fan and so am I. If you ask any martial artist from generation X what their initial motivation was to train, a lot will likely say Lee.

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15. ‘The Karate Kid’ (1984)

While the story is about standing up against bullies, for me the relationship between student and teacher as it pertains to martial arts is what makes this film memorable. A line from Mr. Miyagi played by Pat Morita that stuck with me was, "there's no such thing as a bad student, only bad teacher." William Zabka’s character, Johnny was the villain with a villainous instructor that both learned that lesson. That's real-life advice, especially in martial arts.

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16. 'Conor McGregor: Notorious’ (2017)

I watched this film thinking it wasn't worth it at the time for me because I already knew about McGregor's rise of fame in MMA. In retrospect, it's still worth a watch because it shows how he and anyone that chooses to dedicate their lives to competition can do what they set their minds out to do. McGregor was poor before he started training and now he is probably the most well-paid fighter to ever exist in the sport. Some might say everyone’s pay went up when his pay went up.

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17. ‘Never Back Down’ (2008)

I actually don't like this movie but it is on this list because it seems like the MMA version of The Karate Kid. It was also symbolic of how popular MMA was becoming that a wide release Hollywood film was being heavily marketed. It was liked well enough to spawn a few straight to video sequels so maybe it’s worth another shot. Djimon Hounsou and Amber Heard were the only names I recognized at the time so, to me, it meant MMA was growing.

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18. ‘Kickboxer’ (1989)

Yes, Van Damme again but before Bloodsport the only form of kickboxing I knew was the Karate based style shown in No Retreat, No Surrender. Kickboxer brought me into Thailand and the art of Muay Thai, one of the striking arts that seem required for MMA. The kickboxing I was familiar with required kicks above the belt, Muay Thai showed that kicking out the legs was a more than viable way to win a match.

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19. ‘Kurt Osiander Documentary’ (2014)

I'm giving away a lot here by adding this but Osiander, who has fought in MMA has a YouTube instructional series called "move of the week." In my BJJ journey, I've added a lot of those moves to my own toolbox so when the documentary was made, it was immediately required viewing for me. It also shows that the lesson about teachers and students in The Karate Kid resonates with Osiander when he tells those watching that he prefers to help people be good, not just good at jiu-jitsu.

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20. ‘Enter the Dragon’ (1973)

At the start of this list I did say "no particular order", but I did save the best for last. The opening scene has Bruce Lee face an opponent wearing modified gloves, in a competition where they're just wearing shorts that he wins by submission (tap out). Not to mention the UFC is currently working on moving operations for international fighters to an island much like Han's island in this film that holds a martial arts tournament. This one will never get old but let’s hope the UFC is just using it for competition and not for anything nefarious like Mr. Han was.

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