Ultimate Fighting for the troops now on film
A.M. READ: Documentary takes young filmmaker to Iraq where he learns about fighting for sport. And for real.
HUNTINGTON BEACH Three years ago, he didn't even own a camera.
Now he's filmed a documentary in Iraq.
All it took was Craigslist, a viral video and an invitation to the first mixed martial arts (or MMA) fight ever held in a war zone.
"I'm so lucky," says Rick Lee, 26, of Westminster, who still DJs at local nightclubs to pay the bills.
His 3-minute trailer for "A Fight for the Troops," has attracted 10,000 views in just a few weeks.
The buzz is even louder.
The Pentagon requested a private screening of the film. Sports-apparel giant "Tapout" posted the trailer on its Web site. And the Ultimate Fighting community – which is huge – appears hungry to watch active duty soldiers fighting in the ring before marching off to fight for real in Mosul.
"I get e-mails every day, asking, 'When's it coming out,' " says Lee, who's also filmed two commericals that air during the hit show "The Ultimate Fighter."
Now he's part of a three-man production team at the center of one of the world's fastest-growing sports.
And to think he almost turned down the job.
BOUND FOR IRAQ
Want to go to Iraq?
Rick had to think about it.
"I knew terrorists liked to take journalists and people with cameras as hostage."
But he'd come so far, so fast. Just three years earlier, he was a club DJ asking himself: "Why not pick up a camera?"
He enrolled in a small film school. Borrowed $6,000 for a nice camera. And soon was looking for work on Craigslist, TVJobs.com and ProductionHub.
"My first gig was some guy pitching an Internet talk show," he says.
It didn't pay.
Neither did his own Internet project. His first steady gig was filming a Vietnamese-language reality-TV show. That led to a Cypress reality-TV show, which was about to hit it big.
It was his lucky break for a couple reasons.
First, because "MMA Worldwide" got picked up by satellite and cable TV. Also, because it teamed him with producer James Hergott, of Newport Beach, and host Aaron Tru, of Seal Beach. The three gained viral-video fame in June when an MMA fighter put Tru in a chokehold that knocked him out – during an interview!
A month later, they were invited to film an MMA fight – in Iraq.
"I was nervous," says Rick, who took a week to decide. "I thought, 'What if I don't come back?' "
That was still on his mind in September when he stepped off a cargo plane in Mosul.
"Where are we," he wondered, "in hell?"
He was about to find out.
IN THE CAGE
It's one thing to talk tough and say you're going into a war zone, says Hergott, 33, the film's director and producer.
"It's another thing when someone hands you a bulletproof vest and you hear gunshots in the background."
That and 120-degree heat greeted the crew when they landed in country with a team that included, among others, MMA refs, judges, pro fighters and ring girls. The scene was surreal.
And it intensified when 3,000 warriors from the Army's Grey Wolf Brigade encircled a boxing ring dropped onto the desert for 17 bouts – three pro and 14 amateur, featuring troops from throughout Iraq.
"I got the chills," says Rick, who had to capture the knockouts, the camaraderie, the officers screaming for their men and the men screaming for the ring girls – all with a single camera.
One fighter was carried off in a stretcher. One broke his arm. Others – including female soldiers who fought – got bloodied in the high-intensity sport that combines boxing, wrestling and several martial arts.
"It was the best crowd and best reception I ever got," says Marine Staff Sgt. Jonathan Walsh, 29 of Camp Pendleton, a 6-year MMA pro.
"They were pumped. They were loud. They cheered everything."
After the fights, Rick trained his camera on event coordinator Monica Sanford, the wife of a Marine: "I'm happy and proud," she says, her voice breaking on camera, "and embarrassed almost that I get to leave and these guys don't."
It was what happened next that got to Rick.
LIVE FOR THIS
They emerged from the dark.
After the cheering, after the postgame interviews, after the crowd dispersed, four of the night's Ultimate Fighters emerged in full combat gear.
"Time to go do the real job," one tells the camera.
"They were going out on a patrol," says Rick. "They might die or have to kill someone. But they kept saying, 'Thank-you so much. Thank-you for everything.' "
"I can usually keep my emotions together," he adds. "But they risk their lives for our freedom. I had to give them a hug."
The trip changed him. He thinks about it every day. The fun times. The stressful times. The scary times.
"It makes you appreciate everything you have," he says. "Your fiance, your cousin, your neighbor, your dog."
And for him, something else – a documentary he almost never made.