Review of ‘The Hurt Business’: an unfocused and dark look at MMA

“The Hurt Business” had a one-night theatrical run on Thursday, September 29th in about 400 theaters nationwide.  The production company does not specify its further plans for the film, but I assume it will soon be available on video-on-demand (VOD) or DVD/Blu-ray disc.

Given the list of fighters involved in the documentary, I had high hopes for “The Hurt Business.”  The film’s poster says that it stars Jon Jones, Ronda Rousey, Georges St-Pierre, Tito Ortiz, Rashad Evans, Michael Chandler, and Chuck Liddell.  True enough.  All of them, and many more fighters and MMA personalities, appear in the film.  Most had limited screen time, though, and a handful of fighters carried the majority of the film’s narrative.  

The key portions of the film centered on Jon Jones, Rashad Evans, Michael Guymon, Sara McMann, and Gary Goodridge. It seemed to me that each was chosen to represent a part of the story the director wanted to tell, serving as an example of a particular type of fighter.  As such, it was rare that I felt the film showed any real human depth in its stars.

Jones came across as a talented young champion. That is, until a segment later in the film covered his hit-and-run accident and subsequent suspension and loss of his title.  To me, the hit-and-run section felt tacked on.  My guess is that those events happened after filming was mostly complete. Rashad Evans represented a star athlete working to come back after an injury, McMann embodied the plucky woman overcoming adversity to succeed in a male-dominated industry, etc.  

Probably the most interesting stories were those of Michael Guymon and Gary Goodridge. Guymon, a mid-level fighter (he was 1-3 in the UFC and 1-1 in Bellator) suffers from depression and is having financial problems after retirement.  He provides some of the few truly emotional moments in “The Hurt Business” when talking about his suicide attempt, and again when we see him on the phone learning that Bellator doesn’t want to sign him for his planned comeback from retirement.  McMann’s discussion of her brother’s 1999 murder and her finance’s death in a 2004 car accident is the other emotional highlight of the film.  Gary Goodridge could provide enough material for an entire movie on his own, with all the damage in his too-long career leading to the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) he suffers from today.  His is an interesting cautionary tale in the sport of mixed martial arts, but here it is told in a perfunctory way.

To me it seemed like the writer/director, Vlad Yudin, had a lot of points to make, but as soon as they were mentioned he moved on to something else.  “The Hurt Business” tries to tell so many stories that it leaves itself no time to delve into them with any depth at all.  It felt like filmmaking with a cookie cutter.  It’s too bad, because the film touched on several key issues affecting the sport today: injuries, the short window of opportunity for fighters, CTE, fighter pay, legitimate sport vs. crowd-pleasing spectacle, performance enhancing drugs, and several others. Overall, the tone of the documentary is dark.  While there are certainly bits and pieces dealing with triumph, much more of the film portrays the pitfalls of the sport. The one thing that came across clearly was that MMA is a hard life, especially for those not among the very few at the top of the profession.  It is in no way a hit piece on the sport, but did seem to dwell more on the bad than the good.  There’s nothing wrong with discussing the dark side of MMA, but the lack of depth ultimately shed very little light on these important issues.

On the whole, the film lacks focus.  Along with jumping from topic to topic with very little insight given, a lot of the interview vignettes serve no real narrative purpose, instead just giving us bits of discussion from MMA stars like Rousey, Liddell, St-Pierre, and others that really don’t add much of value to the film beyond their names in the credits.  I have to say, though, that any time Don Frye is on screen, the film improves.

Maybe I’m being overly critical because the film didn’t give me much information that I didn’t already know.  Someone not familiar with the sport might get more out of it than I did.  Personally, I would rate it two stars out of five.  Add one more star if the viewer is a newcomer to mixed martial arts.  The bottom line for me was the film tried to do too many things and succeeded in almost none of them.

As I said, I had high expectations for “The Hurt Business.”  Maybe the definitive mixed martial arts documentary will be made one day, but this wasn’t it.  It might be worth a video rental if the price is low, but for most, I would suggest waiting until it is on Netflix or some other streaming service.