It’s quite the dizzying time to be a sports fan at the moment with all four major men’s leagues in North America having significant action taking place alongside the global passion that is soccer. Yet, even with all of the hoops, goals and horrific replay decisions, it was a new docuseries on Netflix that lit up this Scribe’s living room late last week. The streamer recently dropped Fightworld, a five-part series that looks into the culture of combat sports through the lenses of several nations.
The docuseries is hosted by actor and fight enthusiast Frank Grillo (Captain America, Wheelman, The Purge film series), who also serves as an executive producer. As someone whose fandom is much more than sitting front row for big fights in Las Vegas, Grillo travels the earth and explores the reasons “why fighters fight” while also training in their respective disciplines. The trailer provides a glimpse of where the adventure takes him – Mexico, Thailand, Myanmar, Senegal and Israel – as both he and the viewer learn about wildly different combat forms.
Not long ago when I spoke with Andre Ward about the revival of The Contender, I had the chance to speak with a couple of emerging pro boxers about why they choose to get punched in the face for a living. That seems like a glib statement, but most people with a pulse and working limbs tend to see fighting as both poor conflict management and primal forms of entertainment. What Fightworld aims to do is show that willing combatants view their sports as a mix of physical challenges, mental training and even spiritual callings.
There are many fascinating angles to this program, not including Grillo’s own fanboyism when he speaks with boxing royalty such as Julio César Chávez. The show also touches upon central themes, but the most common thread through four of the regions he visits is that many who take part in these sports believe their successes would raise them out of poverty.
The show moves beyond exploring personal motives and even the usual stories of sport as regional or national unifier. One example comes from the second episode, focused on Muay Thai (also known as Thai boxing), where Grillo explores how deeply ingrained gambling is in the sport despite its illegal status in Thailand. In the third episode where an unfathomable tragedy took place on the eve of a highly anticipated Senegalese wrestling match, Grillo’s discussions with both wrestlers are about how strong religious convictions propel everyone forward.
There’s certainly a Parts Unknown vibe to the show, which is by design. Grillo greatly admired Anthony Bourdain, as he reflected on The Rich Eisen Show, and hoped that Fightworld could be to combat sports what the late restauranteur’s show was to food culture.
As we are all trying to keep up with the insanity of the current sports schedule here in the North America, Fightworld provides a tremendous opportunity to take a step back and immerse fans into the complete culture of some of the most dangerous, but compelling sports in the world. You probably aren’t going to sign up for lethwei, but you’re certainly going to walk away with a deeper understanding of why fighters fight.
Jason is the editor-in-chief here at TSFJ. In addition to a past life as a research analyst in advertising, television and online media, he spent seven seasons as the New York Beacon's beat writer for the New York Giants. Jason has written for Yardbarker, Dime Magazine, Decider, Awful Announcing and The Week. He is also a member of his high school's 4th period gym class floor hockey champions.