Fightworld is a solid and engaging documentary that only suffers from not quite being wide-ranging enough to do justice to the martial arts.
Frank Grillo makes an enthusiastic host in Netflix’s new original documentary series Fightworld. The 53-year-old actor is shredded, grizzled, and a lifelong fight fan; the perfect guide for a five-part tour through the world’s richest fighting cultures.
Fightworld, contrary to the title, puts the fighting last. Of more immediate concern are the fighters themselves and their diverse cultures – what compels them to fight in the first place, and what fighting means to people who are often disenfranchised and marginalized. In Mexico City, rife with substance abuse, major crimes and economic disparity, Grillo is introduced to a number of well-known Mexican boxers – including Julio César Chávez – and the inimitable Mexican style of willingly getting hit and having the heart to move forwards no matter what.
It’s the idea of committing yourself to the martial arts as a means of betterment and self-improvement that’s a constant theme in Fightworld, and it’s reiterated throughout. You see it in teenage Thai boxers, who’re being savagely berated by their coaches, and in giant Senegalese wrestlers. The compulsion is always the same; through hardship and sacrifice and learning comes success, but also a better life for yourself and your family, free of vices and temptations.
The fifth episode, which concerns the Israeli discipline of Krav Maga, doesn’t feel entirely of a piece with the others, as it mostly abandons these overarching themes in favour of a slightly flowery utopian ideal of the martial arts uniting people of all races, religions and creeds, and the focus on a purely utilitarian art like Krav Maga – which is practised by the Israeli military, and is designed to kill people as quickly and efficiently as possible – lacks some of the cultural insight that comes from, say, Muay Thai, or Myanmar’s native sport Lethwei (otherwise known as “Burmese bareknuckle boxing.”)
Nevertheless, Fightworld is a short, interesting series that helps to dispel some of the illusions that fighting – whether simply learning to or actually doing so – is purely the domain of thugs and bullies. There’s nobility and humility to the martial arts which Fightworld captures admirably, particularly through Grillo’s willingness to embrace the ideas presented to him. I’d like to see a second season. Something tells me he would too.