This interview was originally published during SnagFilms’ second annual SummerFest, where Taskashi Doscher and Alex Shofner’s “A Fighting Chance” had its world premiere. “A Fighting Chance” plays tonight at 7pm on ESPN2.
[Editor’s Note: SnagFilms is the parent company of indieWIRE.]
“A Fighting Chance” profiles the charismatic and inspiring athlete Kyle Maynard, a former high school and college award-winning wrestler who also happens to have been born without forearms or lower legs. The film follows Kyle as he attempts to make history by becoming the first differently abled fighter to compete against able-bodied opponents in mixed martial arts (MMA), facing unexpected controversy from vocal fans and athletes who believe such a goal is dangerous or makes the sport a “freakshow.”
indieWIRE spoke to the film’s directors, Takashi Doscher and Alex Shofner, last week about why Kyle’s such a great documentary subject, what motivates him, and why he’s generated controversy.
iW: How did you meet Kyle, and how did the idea for the film come about?
Takashi Doscher: We were friends growing up – we went to the same high school, and knew each other for years. After college, we were hanging out as old buddies do and Kyle asked me to update the intro video he uses for his motivational speaking engagements. After we talked about what he wanted to include in it, and he told me about his aspirations to compete in MMA, it snowballed and I told him that I thought we had something bigger than a 3-4 video. I called up Alex, who was my roommate in college and we got right into it.
iW: What do you think makes Kyle such an engaging, and, in many ways, such a polarizing figure?
Alex Shofner: Coming from a slightly more outsider perspective – since Takashi grew up with him, and I met him as an adult – Kyle has a magical quality. With his condition, it’s very apparent immediately that he’s missing his arms and legs, and you are blown away by how much he can do. But the most amazing thing is that, within 15 – 20 minutes of meeting him, you completely forget about his disability because he is so engaging and confident and has such a magnetic personality.
TD: As for the naysayers, I think that people in general have certain expectations when they see someone like Kyle, and Kyle time and time again has proven able to separate himself from those expectations. More so, Kyle hasn’t been participating in other disabled competitions against other disabled athletes – he’s been competing against able-bodied athletes head-to-head. I think people tend to dismiss disabled athletes in the latter situation, but when they’re confronted with someone like Kyle who not only competes against able-bodied athletes but also physically bests them – that’s like a quantum leap of perception – it’s striking and difficult to come to terms with.
iW: Kyle clearly is a very good athlete, as he’s proven in his wrestling career. What is it about MMA that motivated him to try to prove himself there?
AS: Kyle is the type of guy who sees a peak and wants to climb it. After wrestling, MMA is the next logical step – there’s no real other option. We all know “professional wrestling” isn’t real. MMA allows Kyle the chance to face able-bodied people on an even playing field, and that feeds into his incredibly competitive drive.
TD: The thing to understand about Kyle is that he doesn’t view himself as “disabled,” or, to a great extent, he views everyone as “disabled” in a different way – maybe someone is emotionally disabled, or lacking in self-confidence, or is learning disabled. It just so happens that his disability is more visible. So competing in MAA is not out of the realm of possibility, and the sport plays to his strengths as a wrestler. He wouldn’t attempt to compete in a sport in which he has no experience
iW: While the film is clearly about Kyle and his MMA goal, it also speaks to a much larger issue – self-determination for people with disabilities – why shouldn’t he compete if he feels able to? Can you talk about this aspect of the film, and balancing that with telling Kyle’s specific story?
TD: This is one of the first things made on him that is personal, and we were careful to establish him as a person first – without knowing who Kyle is, you can’t get to the larger outside message.
AS: When he started wrestling in middle school, Kyle lost his first 34 matches, but working with his dad, they invented a new way for him to wrestle since he couldn’t use some of the basic grips that are part of the sport. This is his message, not just to disabled people but to everyone: the only barriers people have are the ones they put in front of themselves.
iW: What do you hope audiences will take away from Kyle’s story, especially those people who may have been negative or skeptical about his MMA aspirations?
TD: I hope that audiences will be inspired to attempt to do something that they’ve always wanted to do but never thought they could. Regarding his critics, we definitely don’t shy away from presenting their views in the film – their voices are reflected in the film.
AS: Kyle has always proven to have a startling impact on people. I hope that this film helps him reach a wider audience than ever before to spread his message. I am curious to see how his critics will respond after they’ve seen it and have gotten to know him through the film.
iW: In addition to the SnagFilms SummerFest premiere, a version of the film is scheduled to air on ESPN on Veterans Day – November 11. Can you talk about the significance of the film screening on this specific day?
AS: Well, it’s an unbelievable opportunity, and we’re completely thrilled. Kyle has wanted to join the military from an early age – his dad was part of the military police – and he was born at Walter Reed [hospital] in DC. From a very young age, he has been involved with speaking with and training our wounded warriors coming back from various conflicts. He’s been a real inspiration to them.
TD: For some reason, soldiers can easily relate to him. They’re coming back with debilitating injuries and loss of limbs, and Kyle and his MMA story are incredibly inspiring to them. A lot of soldiers love the sport, so they have this added connection. Because of his condition, Kyle’s able to connect with soldiers on a personal level, help them at Walter Reed in rehab and training, showing them how he does things. So we’re extremely excited to show the film on Veterans Day – several vets are featured in the film as well. We can’t wait for the reaction.