A few weeks ago, in anticipation of Guardians of the Galaxy's theatrical release, I wrote about the Curse of Tor Johnson, named after the old-school wrestler (and Ed Wood muse) who may have also been responsible for 50 years of terrible performances from professional wrestlers.
Since I wrote for WWE's Monday Night RAW for about six months, I wondered if the presence of Dave Bautista, a former champion, would jinx Guardians' box-office mojo. Three weeks into its theatrical run (and more than $175 million in receipts later), it's safe to say the Curse has been broken.
But Bautista's success also had me wondering: Since wrestlers are essentially actors (athletic ones), does that give them a leg up on other tough guys trying to break into the industry? Sure, some UFC fighters have already made headway – Gina Carano in Haywire, Georges St-Pierre in Captain America: The Winter Soldier – but for each small breakthrough, there's an Oleg Taktarov or Jason Miller to remind us that MMA might actually stand for More Mediocre Actors.
And speaking of mediocre, The Expendables 3 hits theaters this weekend, marking the big-screen debut of UFC fighter Ronda Rousey. So what better time to look back at the brief (yet intriguing) history of MMA fighters in movies, a tradition slowly picking up steam, and low Rotten Tomatoes scores.
I'm purposely avoiding films like Warrior, since, A) it's actually good, and B) although it features cameos from fighters like Anthony Johnson and Roan Carneiro, it's carried by Tom Hardy, Joel Edgerton and Nick Nolte, three guys who undoubtedly can kick my ass, but don't do so for a living. Also, I'm not counting Bloodsport or Enter The Dragon or really anything pre-UFC I, because that's like Cheers before Woody Harrelson, I just don't know a ton about it.
So here we go…quick warning: there will be blood.
Tito Ortiz, Cradle 2 The Grave
One of UFC's early stars, Tito Ortiz found himself trading fists with martial arts superstar Jet Li – and starring alongside hip-hop car wreck DMX – in his forgettable first flick. He's listed as "Ultimate Fighter" in the credits, which differentiates him as a larger role than Fighter #8, played by fellow UFC champ Randy Couture, who got his SAG card by appearing in every movie that needed a guy who appears to have taken growth hormone. In this scene, Li uses a little person as a weapon (because why should DMX be most ridiculous thing in the film?) battles a dozen MMA fighters and then takes on that year's most-feared man in the sport, Ortiz. Li attempts to punch him in the stomach and head, yet Ortiz immediately shakes it off, or just has trouble acting hurt, which I tend to believe is the case after seeing him in later movies like Zombie Strippers or The Crow: Wicked Prayer. In an exchange of moves that would give Joe Rogan an aneurism, Li is tossed around the octagon until he punches Ortiz in the balls, which is kind of symbolic, since this whole "film" is basically one long ball-punch.
Chuck Liddell, Drillbit Taylor
My original goal was to make fun of Chuck Liddell's cameo in the mediocre Owen Wilson film, but while researching I discovered that The Iceman was also a child actor who can be seen in the 1981 David Mamet film The Postman Always Rings Twice. Yes, I'm talking about the movie starring Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange written by the Glengarry Glen Ross dude. Sure, he's uncredited and is basically a glorified extra (he plays a Cub Scout), but keep in mind he grew up to bash peoples' skulls in for a living. He was the reverse Jonathan Lipnicki. He's also the only MMA fighter to be in a movie that played at the Cannes Film Festival and most likely will hold that title longer than he held any for fighting. Mr. Liddell, I'm sorry for ever doubting you. Much like Tara Reid in The Big Lebowski, you have that one role on your resume that will give you a pass for every stinking piece of shit you've made since. Congrats!
Rampage Jackson, The A-Team
We can at least all agree on this one, right? This 2010 reboot was a disaster before it was even pitched, but casting Quinton "Rampage" Jackson to fill the shoes of Mr. T as B.A. Baracus was perhaps the largest hole in a sinking ship. Before The A-Team, Jackson had only starred in movies with names like The Midnight Meat Train, so catapulting him into a starring role alongside Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper seemed almost like the work of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. I admit he didn't have much to work with, but his acting skills made Mr. T look like Sidney Poitier. The most entertaining thing Jackson has ever done onscreen remains the high-speed chase he lead cops on in 2008. Now that was some B.A. Baracus shit.
Kimbo Slice, The Scorpion King 3: Battle For Redemption
Reading like a guest list for a Playboy Mansion party, this 2012 trilogy-capper stars Billy Zane, Ron Perlman and the guy who played Jango Fett in the Star Wars movies. Dave Bautista shows up too, well before his star making turn in Guardians, but it's Internet sensation and MMA professional Kimbo Slice who sucks the most. Kimbo first entered America's hearts as the knockout king of YouTube illegal street fight videos that were more lopsided than Wilson Phillips on a see-saw. The so-called "King of Web Brawlers" made stops in UFC and EliteXC as a fighter – and on Nickelodeon's Drake & Josh as an actor – but this turn as Zulu Kondo in the third Scorpion King is what I remember most. For a guy known for quick knockouts, it's odd to watch how slow he moves in the fight scenes. But either way, IMDb does list Kimbo's next project as a short called The Motherfucker, where he plays the main character. So yeah, in the end, it does appear he's stealing roles from Denzel Washington.
Gina Carano, Haywire
Muay Thai fighter Gina Carano is my pick for the most successful MMA fighter in film (Expendable Randy Couture is a close second). She debuted in the crapfest Blood and Bone with Michael Jai White, but was soon discovered by Steven Soderbergh for Haywire, an action movie co-starring Michael Fassbender and Ewan McGregor. And ever since that role, her stock has risen amongst the Hollywood elite. She played a major part in Fast & Furious 6 and is rumored to be in the next Adi Shankar movie with other tough women like Linda Hamilton and Pam Grier. Similarly to how Soderbergh cast porn star Sasha Grey for his movie The Girlfriend Experience, he found his unlikely starlet, and Carano's career gives hope to men and women who want to escape the octagon to attend premieres in fancy clothes. Ronda, take note.