Born a Champion: Brutal Grace

The Jiu-Jitsu I created was designed to give the weak ones a chance to face the heavy and strong. —Hélio Gracie

The first films of the Asian martial-arts legend Bruce Lee to reach my home town of Painesville, Ohio, were The Big Boss (1971) and Fist of Fury (1972). It’s clear from the release dates that I must have seen these films in the early 1970s, although I recall myself being much younger. All I clearly remember is this small Chinese guy standing up against much larger opponents and even gangs of thugs and defeating them in street fights. These films filled me with tremendous physical confidence and energy. I would come out of our little movie theatre kicking everything I passed, including mailboxes, garbage bins and parking meters.

When I moved to Australia in 1979, I briefly attended karate classes but decided that discipline wasn’t for me. I had come to Australia to succeed in a music career and I didn’t want another massive time commitment, which the serious study of any martial arts turns out to be. But I do remember my Japanese instructor refusing to accept anyone into his class if they planned to work as a bouncer.

I hadn’t felt that kind of emotional inspiration from any other martial arts film until I watched Born a Champion (2021) directed by Alex Ranarivelo and starring Sean Patrick Flanery, Dennis Quaid and Katrina Bowden. I have seen the film at least a dozen times and it always brings me to tears. It is one of the finest fighting films ever made. Not only does it look deeply and unflinchingly into the worlds of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the early history of MMA (mixed martial arts) fighting, it is also a moving love story with a bitter-sweet ending, almost a Greek tragedy. It has been ignored or unfairly reviewed by the critics but has become one of my favourite films.

Joe Dolce writes about film in every Quadrant.
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The film opens with “Taco”, a Mexican-American, describing how he first met Mickey Kelley (played by Sean Patrick Flanery). Taco had been a valet, parking cars. Kelley was in the queue to pick up his car when an aggressive customer and a couple of his tough friends cut in front of him and started abusing the valet. Kelley stepped in and physically handled the situation without throwing a punch. He and Taco became best friends.

Kelley is on a flight to Dubai to teach a wealthy sheikh’s son Brazilian jiu-jitsu. On the plane he meets Layla (Katrina Bowden), who is travelling to Dubai on a modelling assignment. Kelley throughout is a well-mannered Southern gentleman and ex-Desert Storm marine veteran who addresses every­one as “sir” or “ma’am”.

Later he runs into Layla in a restaurant where he is having dinner with his employer, Sheikh Bin Khalid. She is distressed. The man who hired her, a wealthy Greek fur merchant, has misled her into thinking she was there to do modelling but in fact he brings young beautiful women to Dubai for “extras”. She refuses and is being heavied by the Greek and his formidable bodyguard Alva—“he has killed eight men with his bare hands”—who disparages Kelley’s jiu-jitsu as being for “faggots”. Kelley slips discreetly into the toilet when Alva is in there and dispatches him to hospital.

The sheikh is impressed by this quiet and decisive demonstration of force and asks Kelley to stay an extra week to teach him Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Kelley requests a favour in return: to put Layla on the first flight home.

Layla and Kelley reunite in the States, fall in love, and marry. They have a son.

Years later, Kelley is working in a karate “McDojo”, a franchised martial arts studio, teaching a few students and acting as a bouncer in a bar on the side. His young son asks him to show him jiu-jitsu but, knowing his wife disapproves, he says no.

Kelley receives a call from an associate in Dubai inviting him to participate in an unsanctioned highly secret martial arts tournament in the desert. The money being offered just to “show up” is enough to buy them a house so he accepts. Although Layla is against Kelley fighting in this kind of dangerous tournament, she reluctantly agrees.

Kelley effortlessly wins his first two bouts. But in the third bout, in a display of outrageous unsportsmanlike behaviour, Brazilian Marco Blaine sucker-punches him while he is still bowing. Kelley gets a vicious beating and left with a detached retina in one eye.

Five years pass. Kelley has pretty much given up fighting, choosing to work as a maintenance man in a dojo. No one outside of a small circle of friends has heard of his skill. Blaine has become a celebrity, with his picture on the covers of martial arts magazines. Layla is killed in an automobile accident and Kelley is devastated, barely able to take care of his young son.

A videotape surfaces that was secretly made of the bout between Kelley and Blaine in Dubai and it begins to circulate, acquiring hundreds of thousands of hits on the internet. Blaine’s promoter, Mason (Dennis Quaid), realises that this viral video exposes his star fighter as a cheater. People call for a rematch.

Although Kelley is much older now and out of shape, he agrees to the match and undergoes intense training. When he arrives in Dubai to fight Blaine, Mason discovers that Kelley had been the unknown Marine who had stayed by his son’s side when he was killed during Desert Storm in Iraq. Kelley watched over the body at great risk to himself until reinforcements could arrive and airlift the dead soldier home.

During most of the brutal rematch, Kelley is behind and losing, taking blows to his eyes which render him practically blind. But he is coached from the sidelines by Taco and manages to grab Blaine’s leg, flipping him onto the ground. Applying a chokehold and pinning his hands, Kelley renders Blaine unconscious in the final minutes of the match and is declared the winner.

The blows to his face have now destroyed his sight completely. Back in the US, he has gained enormous respect from this match and, despite being blind, works teaching jiu-jitsu in a friend’s highly respected dojo. In the final scenes, his young son comes in and Kelley finally agrees to train him.

Alex Ranarivelo, who co-wrote Born a Champion with Sean Patrick Flanery, is a French director from a French-Malagasy family. He is known for sports films such as The Ride (2018), about a seven-year-old boy from a neo-Nazi family who is sent to a juvenile detention centre for stabbing his father with a kitchen knife to protect his mother. The boy is adopted by an inter-racial couple. The movie is based on the true story of Scottish BMX rider John Buultjens, who played his own abusive father in the film.

Flanery appeared in The Boondock Saints (1999) and three popular sci-fi series, The Outer Limits (2000), The Dead Zone (2002–2007) and The Twilight Zone (2003). His acting style is somewhere between younger versions of Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis. He is a fourth-degree black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu so he brings informed personal experience to the role of Kelley. Flanery said, “Martial arts came into my life [at nine years old] because I was following a girl in some funny white pants … She was pushing a bicycle with a flat tyre. And I followed her all the way to a business right next to a Piggly Wiggly grocery store, and she walked into a karate academy.”

Flanery says his novel, Jane Two, inspired the movie, but after reading the first three chapters of the book and speed reading the rest, I could find nothing in this poorly written young-adult coming-of-age story that even vaguely resembled the movie. Perhaps he is referring to the crush he had when he was a child, which may have influenced Kelley and Layla’s “love at first sight”. One would have thought he would have been more influenced by his love for his first wife, assistant producer Sacha Grierson Flanery, with whom he has a daughter (they divorced soon after she was born) or his present wife, Playboy model Lauren Michelle Hill, with whom he has two sons.

Dennis Quaid appeared in The Right Stuff (1983), Frequency (2000) and Far from Heaven (2002) for which he received a Golden Globe nomination. He portrayed President Bill Clinton in The Special Relationship (2010) and is in the Taylor Sheridan series Lawman: Bass Reeves (2023). Quaid brought gravitas to Born a Champion. Flanery said, “He was sort of the conscience of the piece. I don’t think the film would’ve worked nearly as well without him.”

Renzo Gracie, the grandson of Gracie family patriarch Carlos Gracie (left), appears as himself in Born a Champion as Kelley’s sensei. In real life, he is a championship competitive fighter and has been the personal jiu-jitsu teacher and trainer of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates, and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, since 1993.

In an interview with James Barber of, Flanery said:

Those types of fights in Abu Dhabi really happened. Sheikh Tahnoun Bin Zayed Al Nahyan was a dear friend of Rickson’s brother [Renzo], and I met him in San Diego. He’s the one that started ADCC, the Abu Dhabi Combat Club, which is now the … Olympics of grappling. Just to give you perspective, the sheikh took it back home to Dubai, and now it’s required learning in every high school.

The Gracie family is a Brazilian dynasty that has been prominent in mixed martial arts for eighty years over four generations. Brothers Carlos and Hélio, in the early twentieth century, modified the judo techniques of Mitsuyo Maeda to compensate for lack of strength against a stronger opponent by using leverage, joint-locks and choke-holds. Some accounts say Hélio had been frail as a child and often fainted during normal physical work. Others contradict this story, claiming that Hélio was a competitive athlete in rowing and swimming from childhood. He certainly looks dashing and fit in early photographs of him as a teenager. In any case, Gracie jiu-jitsu developed, as Hélio (right in 1952) has said, as a “personal efficiency to protect the weaker, which anyone can do. It is the force of leverage against brute force.”

Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee who lost to Barack Obama in the 2008 US Presidential election, took a strong public stand against MMA in 1996, calling it “human cockfighting”. McCain had been a wrestler in school and a boxer at the Naval Academy and was not timid about fighting. But he opposed the choke-holds and kicking in what he considered “barbaric” MMA contests and said to hit a man when he was down was un-American. He influenced the American Medical Association and the Nevada Athletic Commission which refused to sanction competitions. His opposition forced the sport to clean itself up over the years until it has now been widely accepted. McCain was asked by an MMA reporter in 2014 if he would have tried mixed martial arts if it had been around in his youth. He replied, “Absolutely. Absolutely.”

The clichéd title of Born a Champion doesn’t accurately represent the depth of the film. It’s not about being born as anything. It’s about training, commitment and love. Hélio Gracie intended his particular jiu-jitsu style to allow the weak, or those born a weakling, so to speak, to protect themselves, using lateral thinking, unusual fighting techniques and dedicated training, against stronger opponents. Flanery told Angela Dawson of Forbes Magazine:

I wanted to stay very true to the elements of Brazilian jiu-jitsu … [where] somebody … [doesn’t] look like a chiselled, steroid-riddled superhuman. They look like an age-appropriate guy who trains every single day and tries to eat healthy. That’s what a dad-bod who trains every day looks like … I didn’t want to go to the gym and try to get a 12-pack, as opposed to a “dad 8-pack”.

There is a hint of deception in the philosophy of Mickey Kelley’s character. He assures his wife that he doesn’t train to start fights, only to finish them. Which sounds noble, except that this has absolutely nothing to do with the brutal fighting in bloodsport competitions. He also tells a group of students who are concerned that choking someone could possibly lead to brain damage. Kelley says, “Oh no, only if you hold the choke well after your training partner goes to sleep, but we’re gentlemen. We don’t act like that.” In fact, in the final match with Blaine, Kelley prevents his opponent from tapping out his submission by hiding his hands under his body.

A paradox that does ring true is that Flanery calls the film his “love letter to jiu-jitsu” while also showing “ugly jiu-jitsu”. He said:

Studios have a tendency to want to put flash moves in their movies that you’d never see in a street fight on YouTube. This fighting is ugly. It’s slow, it’s dirty, it’s methodical. And it’s very rarely graceful. So I really wanted to pay homage to old school, ugly jiu-jitsu, the type that’s at my core. That type of jiu-jitsu was taught to me by Rickson Gracie.

Rickson Gracie is the third son of Hélio Gracie, and a ninth-degree red belt, the second-highest ranking in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. In the mid-1980s he was considered to be the toughest fighter of the Gracie family.

Flanery took up screenwriting to get the film made. The two boys who play Kelley’s son at different ages are Flanery’s real children.

Jason Pirodsky of the Prague Reporter wrote of Born a Champion: “One of the best MMA movies ever put to screen.”

The greatest female Brazilian jiu-jitsu athlete of all time is also a Gracie—Kyra Gracie, the great-granddaughter of Carlos Gracie, born in 1985 in Rio de Janeiro. She is a four-time world jiu-jitsu champion who has extensively trained in boxing, judo and wrestling. The Gracie baton continues to be passed on.

In an interview for We Are Movie Geeks, Flanery told Tom Stickman:

I started in martial arts when I was nine years old. A lot of people talk about being inspired by Bruce Lee for getting into martial arts. My inspiration was actually Elvis Presley. I saw him singing “Suspicious Minds” on the Vegas stage and he was wearing a jumpsuit that looked like a kimono and was doing these karate kicks. I asked my dad if he was doing karate. My dad, who had been a Golden Gloves boxer, said that yes, Elvis had trained with Senior Grand Master Ed Parker in American Kenpō Karate.

One thought on “Born a Champion: Brutal Grace

  • john mac says:

    Stopped reading this piece , early , as now I’d like to see the film. Quaid I think has become conservative in recent years ( not that he was a rabid leftist) which is an endorsement.

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