Filmmaker and fight fan Micah Brown wanted to make his next project about the world of MMA. After the success of the director’s 2017 Muay Thai documentary, Prison Fighters: Five Rounds to Freedom he was well suited to take on more martial arts subject matter, and fortunately found his way to ESPN reporter Brett Okamoto.
“I spoke with Jose Morales who is a friend of mine and a producer at ESPN, he runs their features unit, and told him that I’d been dreaming of doing a long-form project, that I’d love to do a UFC documentary,” Brown tells Elias Cepeda. “We wondered if the 30 for 30 series might be interested, so I spoke with my brother in law Phil Murphy who is a news anchor at ESPN and does a bunch of MMA stuff and he said, ‘hell yeah. You’ve got to reach out to Brett.’ I didn’t know Brett at that point but I spoke with him and he was supportive and so I asked if he’d produce for me and be the reporter for the documentary. He was awesome and was a great help.”
The idea was to do a documentary on one of the sport’s greatest rivalries – that between Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz. After settling on an angle, Brown was pleasantly surprised by how receptive ESPN was to the concept.
“We reached out to Chuck and Tito’s managers, they got on board and we pitched it and it was greenlit after one meeting," Brown recalls. "Normally there’s a two-year waiting list."
The resulting documentary, Chuck & Tito, premieres on ESPN Tuesday, October 15 and then will be made available in the 30 for 30 digital library on ESPN + October 18. For Brown, it was important to make the subject matter of the MMA documentary about pioneering superstars.
“The biggest thing for me was telling a story that would show the origins of the UFC and also how it would come to be what it is today, but I didn’t want to do a boring historical documentary just on the founding of the UFC,” he explains. “I wanted to talk about who the Godfathers of this are, and Chuck and Tito are two of them, and it just happened that they were going to do a third fight. So there was this pretty significant final chapter with these guys who are Godfathers of this thing and it seemed like a no-brainer.
“We had this beautiful third chapter and we also now have this first group of guys in MMA that we’ve seen age. We’d seen what it looks like when Foreman and Ali age, but this is the class of guys we’re going to see from MMA in that regard. So, there’s thematic elements to it. Why do guys continue to fight? Why do guys even step into the ring? Was it worth it? It cost them a lot. It cost them friendship, health in some ways, and they gained a lot in some ways. But we want to look at the cost of being a fighter.”
Brown hopes that both long-time hardcore fans of MMA as well as those new to the sport will get something out of Chuck & Tito, and highlights at least one thing piece of the documentary that might serve as an illuminating surprise for all viewers.
“The most surprising thing for me was Chuck Lidell’s personal story,” he details. “It’s been documented before that he had a close relationship with his grandfather, but he’d never really opened up on his relationship with his father, on why his grandfather had to raise him and how those events made him into who he is.
“People are used to seeing Tito wear his emotions on his sleeve but Chuck Liddell is ‘The Iceman’ and you didn’t see him get too emotional in the past. When he got teary-eyed and cried within the first ten minutes of filming, I knew we had something special.”
Brown anticipates that there will be more MMA-themed 30 for 30 documentary films in store for ESPN in the future, in large part because of the rich soil the sport provides storytellers.
“Oh for sure,” he ends. “I think there’s going to be a lot more MMA-themed 30 for 30s. For one, fighting is a soap opera in and of itself. There are so many thematic elements in it that it’s a natural breeding ground for drama. There’s one man fighting another man in a test of wills and that’s the low-hanging fruit, that immediate challenge of a fight with a person in front of me. But there’s also greater meaning in other themes you find, whether it’s forgiveness, identity, or friendship.”