From the outside, at first glance, it looks like a horror show: young men inside a small ring pummeling each other in the backyard of a private home in the Miami suburb of West Perrine, bare-knuckled and often bleeding, with no protective gear other than a mouth guard. The rules, as laid out by the master of ceremonies, the towering Dhafir “Dada 5000” Harris, are simple: The fights end with a knockout, if the referee calls it or if one of the fighters quits. No hits to the back of the head and no groin strikes. Outside of that, anything goes. Once you step into the ring, you can’t step out.
One of the best things about “ Dawg Fight,” the first true narrative documentary by director Billy Corben (“Cocaine Cowboys,” “The U,” “Broke”), is how the movie gradually introduces you to a world that initially seems repellent, then gradually becomes fascinating. There’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye. Yes, the fighters are risking broken bones and other injuries. But those are preferable to bullet wounds and prison stints, and win or lose, they get paid for their efforts (the winner, of course, gets more)
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Under the watchful eyes of members of the Perrine police department, who tolerate the fights because they serve as neighborhood boosters and keep young kids busy, the matches draw large crowds –mothers and children too, not just men. Without intending to, Harris has brought a community together. Everyone knows each fighter’s ranking and his win-loss record. Grudges that might have been settled with real violence are worked out in the ring. Young black males faced with unemployment and with no sense of purpose or direction suddenly have something to aim for, a venue for their energy, a goal to be accomplished.
Corben’s previous pictures had been historical documentaries, built primarily on talking-head interviews and vintage footage. They were essentially works of journalism. But “Dawg Fight,” which was filmed over two years and is being self-distributed online, proves he has an eye for storytelling, too. Harris is the film’s undeniable star, the man everyone else looks up to and the one with the best shot at going professional in the sport of mixed martial-arts. Funny, charismatic and a natural-born showman, Harris loves the camera and the camera loves him back.
But he’s also a shrewd businessman and promoter who knows putting on a fun show isn’t enough. There are behind-the-scenes moments in “Dawg Fight” in which Harris talks to the men who participate in his backyard fight club as if he were their professional manager, consulting with them and encouraging them to persevere, keeping their inner fires burning. He knows how to keep the lights on, but he cares about these men, too.
Gradually, several of them begin to stand out and develop narratives of their own. Some of them have happy endings. Others, like the magnetic fighter Treon Johnson, face heartbreakingly tragic fates. But the main reason you become attached to these hopeful, aspiring men is that the film puts you inside the ring with them, conveying the fury and violence and athleticism of their sport. Corben’s cameras get in so close, capturing so much of the brutal action in such detail, you wonder if the director didn’t get bashed in the face a time or two. You come to understand the courage and confidence it takes to do what they do. The matches in “Dawg Fight” might make you wince and groan, but what the movie makes you remember the most are the men who are willing to risk a beating – but hopefully dole out one of their own – and, in the process, discover their lives have real meaning after all. This one’s a knockout.