Daniel Junge, the 2012 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary (Short Subject) with the film “Saving Face”, and Bryan Storkel, who directed another Christian-related documentary in 2011, titled “Holy Rollers: The True Story of Card Counting Christians”, teamed up with Eben Kostbar and Joseph McKelheer, the producers of the Matt Hamill movie, “The Hammer”, to make this riveting documentary whose title tells you everything you need to know about it.
“Fight Church” is the story of several (yes, there are many more than just one fight church in the US) preachers and pastors who utilize mixed-martial arts as a tool in their sermons, and as a way to engage more people in their ministries. Paul Burress of Rochester, NY, is a retired pro fighter and minister that wants to get back into the fight game, despite having 10 concussions during his time in the cage. We have Preston Hocker and his wife Lindsey, who describes her husband as a “theater geek” turned minister/fighter, nicknamed “The Pastor of Disaster”. There is John Renken, a former kickboxing and shootboxing champion with an 18-28 record in MMA that dates as far back as 1997, who is a minister that seeks to herd “lost people”, and he believes many of them are watching MMA. Finally, Nahshon Nicks, a Jacksonville, Flordia minister who found his freedom from an imprisoned father through God, and said fighting is “what I do, it’s not who I am”.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is Scott Sullivan, former pro fighter and then-owner of “Bam Bam Martial Arts”, a conflicted Christian that does not understand how he could stay involved in the fight game while heeding the word of God, as well as Father Duffell, a New York City based preacher who is vehemently opposed to the barbarism of cage-fighting who says that other churches that permit it are merely “pick-and-choose” bible readers. The doc also features appearances from TUF season 10 competitor Justin Wren, UFC veteran and soon to be WSOF middleweight Jared Hamman, former UFC lightweight champ Benson Henderson and UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones, who discusses the stigma of publicly linking Christianity to himself and being warned that it would make him “harder to market”.
The doc is an exploration of the conflicts in ideologies between fighting and believing in God. As Father Duffell states, how can someone say they love God while they are spreading violence by voluntarily stepping into a cage to hit someone? On the other hand, for Paul or Preston, it’s a way to give their religion to people that may otherwise would not be interested in the church. Pastors like Nahshon, who compare training to worshipping god, and believe that the “meekness” referred to in the bible means having the ability to destroy but choosing not to, much like King David, the undefeated warrior of the bible who was ready to deal with war when there was no other choice.
A surprising direction in the movie occurred when the story shifted to the legalization of MMA in NY, as both Paul and Father Duffell made their way over to the NY Assembly to explain their causes, two men of the same religion offering extremely different viewpoints on the sport. We even get to see Paul speak with Bob Reilly, the infamous Assemblyman who claims that “people do not want MMA legalized” and, a few sentences later, managed to connect the sport towards domestic violence. Reilly was not keen on doing too many interviews towards the end of his political career, so it was a huge thing to get him on camera and hear his thoughts, even if most of the people reading this review will disagree with everything he says (myself included).
The human element of this philosophical battle between Christianity and MMA is played out within the many stories told in the doc, including when two of the preachers in this very doc, Nahshon and Preston, agree to fight each other. Meanwhile, John Renken is getting ready to wage a war against a man that trash-talked his wife on Facebook, even though this other guy has not even agreed to fight him. This impromptu challenge match happens a few segments after the most uncomfortable scene in the film, where we see John with his two single-digit aged children shooting handguns on a target range as he explains that today’s culture has turned wimpy and needs more controlled aggression to make it stronger.
Nahshon never prays to win a fight, since the outcome is already pre-determined by his Lord, but prays instead for the strength to do his best. The concept of turning the other cheek, and many other familiar biblical sayings are put to the test in real situations, and let the viewer make their own decision as to who is doing the right thing, if there is one. Fighting is an inherently selfish task, and even that idea is challenged when guys like Nahshon, Paul, and Preston, are using it as their methods to spread the gospel to children, crowds in an arena, and to anyone that will listen.
“Fight Church” is never a preachy movie, even though it has preachers using their words just as much as they use their fists. It’s a provocative and no-holds-barred look at the contradictory nature of fighting and religion that does not try to sell one side as better than the other, but opens your eyes to a conflict that will most likely never have a definitive answer. It’s a great documentary for fight fans and viewers outside of our community and I highly recommend giving it a watch.
I also want to add that I became aware of an alleged sex scandal involving Paul Burress after I had watched the movie and was looking up info on the stars. I do not condone any of the actions that Paul did, if it is proved that he did anything, and I hope the truth comes out sometime soon about all of this. So, I want to make sure that my readers are informed of this as well in case that affects your interest in the film.
You can order “Fight Church” on DVD at this link here, and the movie is also available through iTunes and most other On Demand and Digital HD platforms For more info on the film, head to this link here for their official website.