Review: Fightworld an absorbing if flawed exposition of fight culture

“Everyone who fights has to have a reason why. I think that, in the end, most reasons are the same.”

When you strip sport of all its frills, you are left with fighting, perhaps the most original and authentic sporting phenomenon. Man’s desire to prove their superiority in physical combat is one that stretches back for millennia, and one that still holds as much significance today. Be it street fighting in Thailand, or Anthony Joshua’s sold-out bout at Wembley, combat sports boast a unique appeal that very few things can match.

Fightworld is a five-part Netflix documentary series which explores fighting cultures in five different countries: Mexico, Thailand, Myanmar, Senegal, and Israel. Actor and martial arts enthusiast Frank Grillo, best known for roles in Liam Neeson’s The Grey, and Marvel’s Captain America franchise, guides us on this journey through the underworld of combat sports.

We discover the art of boxing in Mexico, where Grillo explores the city of Tepito, described by one coach as “the rough neighbourhood of champions.”

We learn about Muay Thai in Thailand — the art of eight limbs as it’s known — and indeed the sport of Lethwei in Myanmar, the art of nine limbs whereby the head-butt completes one’s personal arsenal.

We’re thrust into the colourful and atmospheric world of Laamb wrestling in Senegal, and discover in brutal, graphic terms the reality of hand-to-hand combat in Israel. It’s a twisting and turning journey through the eye-opening actualities of fighting styles around the globe, and of the values held by their purveyors.

Grillo pad

While Fightworld offers a breathtaking exposition of a wide variety of fighting styles and subcultures, it must be said that Grillo’s presence begins to grate very quickly. You can understand the idea behind having him as the show’s navigator — the privileged American with a sharp haircut and designer stubble having his eyes opened to the stark and often grim world of these fierce sports.

However, it often feels as though Grillo is simply in the way as far as the viewer’s experience goes. His ham-fisted, clumsy attempts to communicate with the documentary’s subjects only serve to paint him as a brash, headstrong tourist. To see him buckle and whimper during his tutorial with an Israeli combat instructor in the final episode is somewhat satisfying.

While this type of programme certainly warrants the need for a central personality to link each episode together, perhaps the role would have been better served by a former boxer, someone who can truly appreciate the struggles and successes of those he meets. While Grillo’s intentions are good and genuine, the divide between him and the fighters means there is little common ground between them.

Whatever gravitas is lost through his presence, though, is made up for in the documentary’s stunning visuals. Each shot finely reflects the struggles and mood of its subject, each close-up a glimpse into the fighter’s inner thoughts. The different settings are beautifully portrayed, from the harsh streets of Tepito to the humid grasslands of Myanmar.

Life and death

Fightworld offers stunning cinematography

The real stars of Fightworld are its subjects. They offer a unique insight into the ins and outs of their varying sports. The harshness and brutality of some of these sports are laid bare, like the outdoor Muay Thai bouts or the sheer physical aptitude of the Senegalese wrestlers.

Each fighter featured paints a picture of why they believe in fighting, be it the pursuit of fame and stardom, or simply to support their impoverished families.

The most absorbing part of the series is the final episode in a besieged Israel, which is in many ways a departure from the theme of the previous four. Here, we see the kind of fighting that goes beyond mere sport, and becomes a matter of life and death.

The intensity and passion of the Israeli combat specalists are striking, not least Eitan Cohen, an armed forces instructor of Krav Maga, a unique form of hand-to-hand combat. His presence is captivating, his motives worn proudly upon his sleeve. The combat skills he possesses are as terrifying as they are mesmerising. The nine minutes for which he is on screen are unforgettable.

Scratching the surface

Perhaps the area where Fightworld most misses the mark is in its undying glorification of every aspect of these different combat sports. The various downsides for many of these fighters — and there are undoubtedly many — are swept beneath the carpet, deemed insignificant against the riches and spoils, tangible or otherwise, of fighting.

‘In the end, perhaps the main reason we fight is simply because we like it’

The potential for injury, or for lasting damage mentally and physically to those who practice these sports with little protection, are largely ignored. One of the lasting images of the documentary is of a young Burmese fighter, no more than a young teenager, staring down the lens of the camera. His face is bloodied and bruised, a look of sad defiance just discernible beneath the puffs and scrapes.

It’s a shocking image, but one that represents the juxtaposition between the pride of physical combat, and its devastating affects. Perhaps a more thorough exploration into such themes would have made Fightworld a more rounded project. After finishing the series, there is a sense that the documentary, while rich and enjoyable, has only scratched the surface.

The overarching question throughout Fightworld is why do we fight? The words of Artur Saladiak, a Lethwei boxer originally from Poland, are stark: “people like violence.”

While it’s a crude and simplistic reduction of the myriad reasons for which people fight, in many ways Saladiak touches on a key truth, and one that perhaps transcends the motivations the documentary seeks to promote — those of survival, of bettering oneself, of pride in one’s family and heritage.

In the end, perhaps the main reason we fight is simply because we like it.

Rating: 7/10