Mickey Kelley, one of the first American black belts in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, gets pulled away from everything he loves and into an unsanctioned MMA tournament.
Real-life Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Sean Patrick Flanery (The Boondock Saints) stars as an aging fighter pulled into an underground Dubai tournament in Born a Champion, a new MMA drama that injects some real spirit into a familiar formula and comes out a winner.
Born a Champion opens with Flanery’s Mickey Kelley, a Gulf War vet and jiu-jitsu instructor, having a chance meeting with Layla (30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden) on a plane to Dubai; after coming to her aid without resorting to violence (in her presence, anyway), he knows he’s found his soulmate.
Though Born a Champion presents an entirely fictional lead character and storyline, it’s set during the real-life backdrop of the early days of MMA, when congressional meetings debated the inherent violence in the sport and unsanctioned fights were growing in popularity.
Dennis Quaid stars as Mason, executive of a UFC-like organization who testifies before congress, and real-life BJJ star Renzo Gracie briefly shows up as himself. Current UFC star Edson Barboza plays Marco Blaine, the film’s primary antagonist.
But while the 1990s MMA history provides some key insights into the world of the film, Born a Champion is all Mickey’s story. After starting a life with Layla in California, he’s offered the chance to take part in an underground Dubai tournament that offers $25,000 for entering, and triple that if he wins. Despite Layla’s resistance, it’s an offer the aging fighter can’t pass up.
But despite Mickey’s fighting competence, things don’t go as planned. The narrative of Born a Champion takes twists and turns that feel like they were taken from a true story, even though this is an entirely fictional tale. It most resembles The Natural, with Flanery’s Kelley in place of Robert Redford’s Roy Hobbs, and extra time away from the sport with Mickey mopping floors in a karate dojo.
Flanery hasn’t seen many leading roles in high-profile productions since the 1990s, but if his performance in Born a Champion is anything to go by, audiences have been missing out. Here, he exudes the world-weary charm of a young(er) Mickey Rourke, in a role not entirely dissimilar to Rourke’s comeback The Wrestler.
In solid support, Maurice Compte plays “Taco”, Kelly’s best friend who narrates the film; Reno Wilson is Terry Pittman, Mickey’s trainer, and Costas Mandylor is a confrontational fur trader who roots against Mickey in the film’s climactic fight.
Flanery co-wrote Born a Champion’s script with director Alex Ranarivelo, and calls the film his “love letter to jiu-jitsu” in an end-credits message, for "what it’s done for me; how it’s changed me; what it’s done for my perspective on life, love and happiness and family."
While a straightforward presentation and leisurely-paced narrative keep Born a Champion from truly soaring, the winning sports movie formula makes this one worth a watch for almost all audiences.
For fight fans in particular, the authentic portrayal of mixed martial arts makesBorn a Championan easy sell: this is one of the best MMA movies ever put to screen.
2021, Born a Champion, Alex Ranarivelo, Sean Patrick Flanery, Katrina Bowden, Dennis Quaid, Currie Graham, Maurice Compte, Reno Wilson, Costas Mandylor, Johnny Jay Lee, Chris Boudreaux, Ali Afshar, Christine Kilmer, Jonathan Kowalsky, Sheri Rayray, Renzo Gracie, Marshelle Fair, Paul J. Alessi, Edson Barboza, Charlie T Flanery, Steve Tanabe, Harrison Xu, Porter Louis Flanery, Nabeel Kort