Judge Bill Gibron really does enjoy the "UFC"—Ultimate FOOD Championships.
Smother and Dominate
Ever wonder how the sport of Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, or UFC, or Ultimate Fighting (any of those far more violent boxing surrogates) came into being? Or how it became so amazingly popular? Well, look no further than the intriguing and entertaining documentary which (in combination with a product package loaded with famous bouts) highlights the role played by Royce Gracie and his family in turning a fledgling concept into an athletic phenomenon. Utilizing a Brazilian style of jiu-jitsu (invented by his dad) which manipulated leverage and position domination more than kicks and punches to undermine an opponent, Royce became the face of the up-and-coming competition, teaching the old school sluggers that there was more to being manhandled than bravado and brute force. Gracie gave MMA a new angle, one that would come to completely redefine how a fighter acts in the fabled octagon.
Facts of the Case
Over the course of an hour and twenty minutes, we are introduced to the Gracie clan, the various disciplines practiced by the family, and how Royce's father Hélio came up with the variation on the traditional Japanese discipline. Soon, Gracie jiu-jitsu was sweeping South America, utilizing a style that suggested physical acumen was not all a competitor needed to defeat an opponent. Eventually, the brood moved to the U.S., where they were teaching their techniques to all comers. When a Round-Robin-like contest was set up to determine who was the World's Best Fighter, the Gracie conceit was added into the mix. Along with standard martial arts, a couple of additional permutations of same, boxing, Sumo, and other fighting forms, Royce was entered. When he won using a style that was less showy but extremely successful, it stunned the crowd and led to a whole new approach to the sport. Today, Gracie jiu-jitsu is seen as the catalyst for MMA's worldwide popularity—with Royce as its leading light and Hall of Fame face.
Sometimes, a title sneaks up on you. Even without a lick of interest in the subject or approach, a concept can catch you off guard and teach you something you didn't know. In the realm of MMA and/or UFC (it doesn't matter—neither really appeals to yours truly), the question of sudden, skyrocketing popularity has always remained a mystery. Indeed, how could something that seemingly didn't exist two decades ago abruptly become a worldwide sports spectacular, rivaling and then completely destroying what many consider to be the sweet science? The answer is…Royce Gracie. Watch any number of fights contained on this two disc collection and you'll immediately understand. In fact, you will probably react the same way shocked fans did during the first appearance of this soon-to-be-legendary competitor. Gracie didn't use punches or fancy moves. Instead, he grabbed onto his opponent, put him in a claustrophobic, full body lock and then slowly worked at the man's resolve. Some would give in quickly, unable to comprehend their complete helpessness. Others would struggle on, only to end up in a choke hold or other manipulated means of domination.
It was the lack of aggression that bewildered those who first saw Gracie in action. All he seemed to do was "smother" an opponent until the inevitable tap out. Sure, there was some initial back and forth, a bit of grappling and the occasionally kick. But for the most part, Gracie's style was about subtlety and complexity, not a flailing lack of finesse. It's the missing mayhem that turned what looked to be nothing more than a televised street fight into something much, much more, and the documentary part of UFC: Ultimate Royce Gracie does a fantastic job of making the case. Watching those original customers sit back, astonished, at how many of their "favorites" were losing is worth the price of admission alone. The novelty of his style, in combination with the overall newness of the sport, took a talent and technique and grew it into something epic.
Over the 80-minute running time, we get history and family tradition, the interviews mixed with stock footage, photographs, anecdotes, and more than a couple of rear-view mirror complaints. Royce Gracie left a lot of amazed opponents in his wake, and a number show up to sing his praises, backhandedly. Yet there is no denying his impact, especially when you add in all the bonus features (read: actual fights) the Blu-ray set includes. The first disc contains approximately 12, including a stoic lockdown with champion Ken Shamrock that lasts a total of 35 minutes! Here we see the foundation being laid, the reaction to the Gracie style, the attempts to overcome and the influence these victories had. The second disc adds a Hall of Fame induction, a series of "comeback" fights in 2000 and 2003, and an overview of Royce's "retirement" and mentorship. All the while, the collection keeps making the point that without Gracie jiu-jitsu and its inversion of position over power, the UFC would be nothing. This is one of the rare cases when such a statement couldn't be more true.
A final word about the tech specs. The actual documentary looks tremendous—flashy and bright, making full use of the Blu-ray HD format. Especially when viewing the talking head material, we see find details, excellent contrasts, and accurate color controls. Where the 1.78:1 1080i encode falls apart is in the material from nearly two decades ago. The fights themselves are full screen, blurry, lacking focus and sharpness, and often falling into analog issues (ghosting, stuttering). The later material is better, since it is built on better technology and more advanced visual recording techniques. The same can be said for the sound situation. The documentary has a nice mix of narrative and F/X. The fights themselves are flat and tinny. While the audio facet of the Blu-ray player suggests we have a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, the use of the channels is still limited and sometimes lifeless. Perhaps it comes with the archival territory.
In a clear case of being able to walk the walk and talk the talk, UFC: Ultimate Royce Gracie does a brilliant job of explaining how a humble man from Brazil and his family of fighters totally changed the face of MMA and create a whole new subsection of a now-serious sport. We get lots of facts, anecdotal proof, visual representations and illustrations, and the undeniable sensation of watching something reach a turning point—and then pass on into myth. Any amount of aggrandizement is worth questioning, especially when you consider that sometimes the truth is as potent as the legend. In the case of Royce Gracie, we have a man instrumental in making his discipline what it is today. Luckily, this Blu-ray release makes the point with vivid, valid proof.
Not guilty. An engaging lesson in how UFC became the UFC.
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