Below director Jonah Tulis shares a scene from his Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) documentary “Such Great Heights,” currenly available On Demand on via iTunes. The film follows welterweight MMA fighter Jon Fitch as he prepares for the fight of his life against perennial UFC Champ, Georges St. Pierre. While Fitch focuses on his training, the story weaves through the daily triumphs and challenges of the other fighters at the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA).
I come from a scripted comedy background, so “Such Great Heights” was quite a departure for me, both stylistically and creatively. But the more I worked on the film, the more I realized that whether you’re making a comedy, a drama, a narrative feature or a documentary, there is always one constant: it’s all about the characters. And in the making of this film, we certainly found some incredibly compelling and surprising characters; characters, who, despite their lives in the rough and tumble world of professional cagefighting, are easy for any viewer to relate to and connect with.
When my co-producers, Philip Frank and Jesse Osher, first discussed the idea of doing a film in the world of mixed martial arts, I was intrigued, despite my limited knowledge of the subject. At the time, the sport was on the brink of exploding into the mainstream. I could only imagine the interesting characters and stories we’d find along the way. But we needed access to the right subjects at the most interesting time in their lives. This was going to be the hard part…
When you’re shooting a documentary that is set in the present where events play out right in front of your eyes, it’s hard to know exactly what you’re going to get. Timing, after all, is everything. The characters and storylines are constantly changing, so it’s tough to prepare or find the right moments in time to document. But we stumbled upon the fighters and the coaches at the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA), one of the most prominent fight gyms in the world, and we found our guys. Couple this with the fact that Jon Fitch was two months away from the biggest fight of his life, and the biggest fight in the history of the gym, and we had our “moment.”
The more time I spent at AKA, the more I was fascinated with the team-oriented mentality of the fighters and the coaches. Fighting is an individual sport. But you’d never guess it if you saw how these guys trained. And what’s even more interesting is the fact that everyday, the greatest fighters in the world, who make hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in the sport, train alongside fighters scraping by on practically nothing. And it’s funny, these lesser-known fighters ended up a being critical part of the film. I truly believe that seeing things from their perspective helped you understand how Jon Fitch got to where he was, with the world’s eyes on him, fighting for a title.
Pat Minihan was one of these fighters. A veteran fighter who had recently returned to the sport after the tragic death of his close friend (and former AKA teammate), he was hoping for one more shot at glory. Despite not having any fights on the horizon, Pat worked tirelessly to help Fitch prepare for his title fight. But to train, to really train like these guys do, you can’t have a day job. It’s just impossible. The training is too rigorous. Training at AKA is a full-time job, so if you’re not in a major fight organization you’re living day-to-day. So Pat, like other fighters before him, had to get creative.
In this scene, Pat shows off his beat-up old RV that was his home. I am particularly fascinated with what makes these fighters tick, and their lives outside of the gym. At the gym, it’s all business, save some horsing around here and there. But when you see these guys outside that element, you can really get to know them.
He parked that RV right outside of AKA, trained, did his thing and then went back to that thing. He lived a simple life with his dog and just focused all his energy on fight training. The other fighters made fun of him from time to time, and visits to his RV were definitely feared. But this didn’t matter. Pat was proud. He was doing what he had to do to survive and keep up his training.
We got to know Pat really well during the filming of SGH. One thing that made Pat shine in the film is that he has an unexpected kindness and warmth. He is also one of the most generous people you’ll ever meet. In fact, at one point during the shoot, after Producer Phil Frank commented on a cool shirt Pat had on, Pat literally took off his shirt to offer it up to Phil. And he recently passed his RV on to another friend in need. If I recall, he didn’t ask for payment.
Every one of the fighters at AKA has stories like Pat’s. People slept on the floors of factories, with machinery going off all night and even at the gym, where they’d camp out under the ring or in a cramped makeshift bedroom upstairs. I love this scene because it tells you a lot about these guys and their priorities. It shows how these guys give up normal lives because they want to achieve something greater. I can relate to that. And I think viewers will too.