Be like Mike. No, the other Mike.

With not much to do on weekends or evenings while locked down–at least until the other day, when the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that Governor Tony Evers had overstepped his authority by extending “Safer at Home” to May 26–my wife and I have been doing what a lot of other Wisconsinites have been doing: watching way too much TV.

I should note here that Sue is a gardener, and a rather dedicated one at that, so since the last of our snow finally disappeared in mid-April, she has been spending a lot of time outdoors, tending to her nine gardens. In fact, you can see one right here, thanks to a video we shot Friday: Sue’s spring garden tour.

Like everybody, our TV watching is selective. Even when you think you’re just an aimless channel-surfer who will watch anything, you’re really not. Everybody has some standards. As for us, the vast majority of movies and series that are available hold no interest. For the record, we subscribe to DirecTV (the only way we could get TV out here when we moved in, back in the service’s very early days of 1994) and also two streaming services: Netflix and CBS All Access. We also have an account with Vudu, which I got just to see if it was true that I could watch episodes of the classic 1950s series Father Knows Best (it’s true). Once a year we will open an Amazon Prime account for a month, just to binge-watch the espionage series Jack Ryan. The CBS service comes and goes depending on when its new Star Trek series are available. We recently finished the excellent first season of Picard, and we’re waiting on Season 3 of Discovery. And, I’m planning another annual dip into the premium-channel waters, getting my usual June fix of the latest seasons of Outlander, Warrior and Strike Back with a short subscription to the Cinemax and Starz channels. And oh, did I mention that YouTube Premium will soon offer the third season of Cobra Kai?

Perhaps I misspoke, as the politicians always say when they’re caught in a fib, about not finding much of interest on TV. Anyway…

There have been some movies we’ve bailed out on, usually because they were so terribly bad that you had to wonder how anybody in their right mind would put up the money to pay for the production of such dreck. Then there was a well-made one, Aftermath starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, that was so depressing we couldn’t bear more than a half-hour of it. (Arnold plays a man who loses his wife and pregnant daughter in a plane crash; distraught and grieving to the point of revenge, he tracks down the air traffic controller whose error in the tower led to the mid-air collision.)

And then last weekend, after two months without live sporting events to watch other than Korean baseball at midnight, the UFC returned, with a card staged in an empty arena in Jacksonville, Florida.

 

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The UFC decided to stage a live event in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, and pulled it off.

 

We watched the prelims but passed on the main card, which was a pay-per-view event. My little brother Brian down in Arizona, who’s a big boxing fan, was so hungry for live sports that he bought it, and he wasn’t alone; the event logged over 700,000 buys, which was very good business indeed. (Not a record, though; that’s held by UFC 229 in 2018, which had a haul of 2.4 million buys.)

Sue and I like to watch MMA bouts, although we rarely buy a PPV event. I think the last one was a Ronda Rousey fight in 2014, when she was nearing the end of her undefeated run that for a time made her one of the best-known athletes in the world. But we enjoyed 249’s undercard, televised for free on ESPN and featuring some exciting bouts. We’d had our appetite whetted by an afternoon viewing of a martial-arts movie, which started a week’s worth of such fare on our TV.

 

From one Mike to another.

I’d also been watching the ESPN series The Last Stand, a ten-hour documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, focusing on the team’s quest for a third consecutive NBA title (and sixth in eight years) during the 1997-98 season. That would prove to be the final one in Bulls colors for Jordan and his fellow Hall of Fame-bound teammates Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, along with their coach, Phil Jackson. It’s sports television at its most riveting, reminding all of us today of that team’s greatness, most especially Jordan’s. He would retire from the Bulls after that championship, wrapping up the second phase of a career that would ultimately span all or part of 16 seasons in 19 years, from 1984-2003. His playing career included not only those six NBA titles but two Olympic gold medals and an NCAA championship with North Carolina in 1982, in which Jordan hit the title-winning shot. He won every award pro basketball can possibly bestow. Nowadays he’s the billionaire owner of the Charlotte Hornets.

 

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The Last Dance shows more of Jordan than we might remember: the triumphs, the tragedies, and most especially the glorious talent of the greatest basketball player of all time, overcoming great odds through brutally hard work and sheer force of will.

 

Every kid growing up in the late ’80s and throughout the ’90s wanted to “Be like Mike” on the basketball court, as his Gatorade commercials instructed us. But nobody could be like Mike, although some came close. There were many of his peers–Reggie Miller, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Karl Malone, not to mention his teammate Pippen–who were great players, but not transcendent like Jordan. Even today, debates rage about whether modern greats like LeBron James, whose debut in the NBA came just a few months after Jordan’s final retirement in 2003, could beat Jordan one-on-one, or whether today’s best teams could top that ’98 Bulls squad. (A recent article in The Athletic described a computer simulation in which James’s 2013 Miami Heat team bested Jordan’s ’98 Bulls, four games to three, in a best-of-seven match-up. Traditionalists quickly noted that the Heat could only triumph thanks to modern rules which have made the NBA game much less physical than it was in Jordan’s day.)

But on that Saturday before the UFC prelims began, Sue and I found a Mike whose skills in another area of athletic competition are at least the equal of Jordan’s in his, and perhaps even greater.

Scrolling through the DirecTV channel guide that afternoon, looking for something to kill a little time before the fights, I came upon a listing for Blood and Bone on the Sony movie channel. Somewhat intrigued by the title, I saw it was a 2009 film starring Michael Jai White, whom I had read about in Black Belt magazine last fall. White, a Brooklyn native born in 1967, has amassed black belt (chodan) rank in eight martial arts disciplines, including at least four styles of karate. I knew he’d made some movies, but other than his bit part in the epic Batman film The Dark Knight, in which he plays a gangster who is taken out by the Joker, I couldn’t recall seeing any of his work.

 

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In this film, White plays Isaiah Bone, a man just released from prison who is determined to find, and punish, the men who set up the murder of his friend and cellmate.

 

White’s awesome martial arts skills, along with his equally-impressive physique (6’1″ tall and a very ripped 210 pounds), are on full display in the film, and unlike a disappointingly-large percentage of martial arts movies, this one is well-made. Bone determines that the drug dealer who set up his prison friend to begin with, and then orchestrated his murder, is involved in heavily-wagered street fighting. Bone finds a way in as a fighter, gradually eliminating all the competition until he is matched with the dealer’s champion. After Bone deals with that guy, he is able to worm his way into the dealer’s organization, just enough to not only set up the dealer for the inevitable final confrontation, but rescue his late cellmate’s widow from the villain’s clutches.

 

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Bodies like this don’t just happen; White has spent countless hours in the gym to build and maintain it, then countless more in the dojo, turning that body into a formidable weapon.

 

The next night, we searched Vudu for another White film and found several. We chose this one, which White also wrote and directed:

 

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The third in a series, White amps up the martial arts action, showing at age 49 that he can still fight with the best, at least on-screen.

 

In this one, White plays yet another ex-con, Case Walker, who had served time for beating up a squad of policemen who, as seen through flashbacks, arrested him without cause and then began roughing him up. Walker has been fighting in a minor-league MMA circuit in Texas when he meets up with an old friend from the fight game, Brody James, who is scheduled to compete in a multi-million-dollar fight in Thailand. James (played by former UFC heavyweight champ Josh Barnett) invites Walker to come with him as his personal trainer. Walker reluctantly agrees.

Things don’t go smoothly in Bangkok. James is more inclined to cavort with local women (in spite of having a wife and kids back home) than he is to train seriously. The promoter, Hugo Vega, who is banking on the fight bringing his own promotion up to the big leagues of MMA, becomes increasingly frustrated, especially when one of his fighters on the undercard, Cobra O’Connor, taunts Walker to spar with him and is then defeated so soundly that his injuries force his withdrawal from the card. Vega (well-played by NYPD Blue veteran Esai Morales) then tries to hire Walker to fill Cobra’s slot. He’s still mulling that over when James is injured by another fighter brought in to spar against him, and has to pull out of the main event. Thinking this is all a set-up, Walker agrees to the showdown with the reigning champion, a hulking 6’11”, 320-pounder named Caesar Braga, played by Australian power lifter and wrestler Nathan Jones.

The fights in this film are really something. To fully appreciate a well-made martial arts film, I think you have to be a martial artist. You can quickly tell if the fighting has a high level of authenticity or not, and this film delivers. A nice touch was having White showcase his karate talent by showing him training solo with various kata, which karate practitioners call the intricate forms and patterns we practice. In this film, White displays forms from the karate style known as Goju-ryu. In the cage against Cobra (played by Irish actor and martial artist Eoin O’Brien), the director, who is White himself, of course, cleverly juxtaposes shots of Walker’s kata and how he applies them in the fight: Walker vs Cobra.

 

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Real martial artists can spot a movie fake immediately, which is why White’s use of authentic karate, like this renoji dachi stance, makes his films all the more enjoyable.

 

This weekend, it was time for more White. Our choice was another offering from Vudu, Triple Threat, the actor’s latest film. In this one, he plays one of the bad guys, the leader of a squad of mercenaries who dupe a pair of Asian mercs to help them free their leader from a remote black site in the jungle of the fictional Indochinese nation of Maha Jaya. The double-crossed Asians manage to escape and find their way to the capital city, where they become involved with a visiting Chinese heiress, there to talk about her initiative to donate millions of dollars in the fight against the crime syndicates that control the country. But the head of the most powerful syndicate has hired White’s team to eliminate the heiress along with the two Asians, who’ve been joined by a third man who was in the camp and lost his wife in the mercenaries’ assault. The plot is a little convoluted, but the location cinematography and outstanding fight scenes save the day.

 

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Triple Threat features an all-star cast, with seven of today’s top martial-arts action stars.

 

We hit the jackpot with this one. The cast is a virtual Who’s Who of international martial-arts movie stars. Besides White, three more are in the ranks of the mercenaries: English taekwondo stylist and kickboxer Scott Adkins, who plays the leader of the group and is the one freed in the raid; Michael Bisping, another Englishman who is a former UFC middleweight champion; and Jeeja Yanin, a taekwondo black belt who also is well-versed in the muay thai fighting style of her native Thailand. Yanin also makes a memorable appearance in Never Back Down: No Surrender. On the good guy side, the two Asians who are duped by the mercs and then become their enemies are another Thai, Tony Jaa, who practices a derivative form of muay thai, and Chinese kung fu expert Tiger Chen, who won a national wushu competition as a youngster. The third Asian, who loses his wife in the jungle raid and then plays a dangerous game of moving between the two sides as he seeks to take down the merc leaders, is played by Indonesian star Iko Uwais, who fights in his native style of silat. Uwais is the producer and star of the Netflix series Wu Assassins, whose debut season we saw last year.

Although all of these actors range in age from their mid-thirties to late forties, they have moved to the forefront of martial-arts movie stardom, succeeding an earlier generation of stars like Donnie Yen, Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Jean-Claude Van Damme, who can still crank out pretty good films themselves. Yen just appeared in the outstanding Ip Man 4, the final entry in a series about Bruce Lee’s original kung fu instructor; Chan showed he can still hold his own in 2017’s The Foreigner; Li has been featured in The Expendables franchise; and Van Damme still releases one or two direct-to-video films every year, including a remake of his 1989 film, Kickboxer. The 2016 reboot, Kickboxer: Vengeance, casts Van Damme as the blind instructor of the young hero, played by another good one from today’s stable of martial artist/actors, Frenchman Alain Moussi.

And speaking of JCVD, the famed “Muscles from Brussels” were on full display last night, when one of the cable channels showed (for probably the fiftieth time) his 1988 breakout film, Bloodsport. Loosely based on the (alleged) experiences of American martial artist and ex-Marine Frank Dux, the film has Van Damme going to Hong Kong to compete in the mysterious international tournament known as the kumite. But, as good as the fighting in that movie was for its time, it has now been eclipsed by the action in White’s films, not to mention those of the other actors we’ve cited. (At one point, watching Van Damme easily dispatch another helpless fighter, I said to Sue, “I could hang in there with any of these guys.” I might have been a little hyperbolic with that declaration.)

 

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The movie’s climactic battle pits JCVD against Korean star Bolo Yeung, who 15 years earlier had squared off with Bruce Lee in the classic Enter the Dragon.

 

 

So, what are we watching tonight? We’ll find something with White in it. We’re on a roll.

 

What makes combat sports so intriguing to watch?

Spectators have been flocking to wrestling and boxing matches since time immemorial, of course, and in the last seventy years or so, millions more have been tuning in on television. Boxing movies have been a staple of Hollywood since the days of silent pictures. The first boxing match to ever be filmed dates back to 1894, and just three years later came a ground-breaking documentary about the 1897 heavyweight title fight between James J. Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons.

 

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The bout between Fitzsimmons (L) and the champion Corbett was immortalized in what became the first feature film (100 minutes) and the first to use widescreen technology. Only fragments of it remain; one of the segments that hasn’t survived featured a pre-fight appearance by John L. Sullivan, considered the very first world heavyweight champ, who’d lost his title to Corbett five years earlier.

 

There are people who can’t abide fight films, of course, whether they’re classic boxing movies like Raging Bull (1980) or the Rocky series, or martial-arts films that hearken back to the first one that really made an impact outside Asia, Bruce Lee’s immortal Enter the Dragon (1973). In the real world, mixed martial arts has pretty much eclipsed boxing as the number-one combat sport, both in terms of live audience and TV viewership. As is always the case for sports, the main draw is often a charismatic athlete. In boxing, it was the late, great Muhammad Ali, and the sport really hasn’t been nearly as popular since his retirement. In MMA, stars like Ronda Rousey boosted the sport into the stratosphere, and fighters like Conor McGregor and Amanda Nunes are trying to keep it there.

Martial artists love a good fight film because we’ve all been in the cage or the ring, or at least on the mat, at one time or another. I’ve always contended that when you first set foot onto the mat in a fighting competition, you find out what you’re made of, and you find out fast. I well remember my first competitive bout, at the Northwoods Conquest event in Cumberland back in early 2002. I’d been studying taekwondo for nearly a year by that point and sparred dozens of rounds in practice, but my first true bout was an eye-opener. I quickly had to realize that my opponent–a woman, in this case–would gladly try to take my head off with a kick if she could. Therefore, my first order of business was to not lot that happen. It worked then, and in every one of the bouts I fought in the next several years on the tournament circuit. I didn’t win every time, but I won enough to know that winning beats losing every time, and not getting hit certainly is better than getting hit. And so, on the very few occasions where I’ve had a real-life confrontation that might have devolved into violence, I knew enough about fighting to understand that I wanted to avoid it, if at all possible, and so I was able to successfully defuse those situations. At the same time, though, I was confident enough that if push had really come to shove, I would’ve prevailed…hopefully without getting hit too much.

Sue hasn’t fought in competition since taking up martial arts back in 2010, but she’s sparred enough rounds with me and other students to understand how it works. And so when we watch a fight film, or real-life MMA or boxing matches, we actually analyze the fights, paying close attention to the replays (or, in the case of movies, occasionally rewinding a scene to see it again). I’m sure not very many husbands and wives do that, but for us it adds an element of interest to the show, and a real appreciation of what it takes to achieve the level of expertise displayed by the fighters, whether they’re real or make-believe.

There’s something elemental about it. You don’t get to the level of the UFC, or into the movies, without long hours of training and intense dedication. Anyone who studies martial arts knows all about that. Those who make it into the cage or onto the screen have taken it to the next level. In a real way, it’s like a guy who played high school basketball tuning in an NBA game, or a woman who played volleyball watching the NCAA final. For the viewer who’s never done that, it’s exciting enough as it is, but for those of us who’ve had a little taste, it’s even better.

Could I ever really compete with Michael Jai White? Of course not; his skills are far beyond what I’ve been able to achieve, and props to him for getting there. But when I get onto the mat at the dojo tomorrow night for my arnis class, I’ll be putting a little extra energy into the training. You never know; if White ever comes around here to shoot a picture and needs an extra, I want to be ready.

 

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