Hey guys, we are proud to bring you an exclusive interview with Fight Life director, James Z. Feng. This interview was conducted by our very best, Kevin Leong. Kevin, thanks for all the hard work in getting this interview together. Here’s the interview between James Z. Feng (J) and Kevin Leong (K):
James Z. Feng is an actor and director, having worked both in China and the United States. Currently living in the Bay Area, James has recently filmed Fight Life, a documentary about the often unheard lives and stories of Mixed Martial Arts fighters, to be released in the summer of 2010.
K: Did you have some previous background in MMA before you filmed fight life?
J: I’ve done some BJJ (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), but not much. I did come from a martial arts background though: jiu-jitsu (Japanese), kendo, and kung-fu (wushu). So I’ve always dabbled in martial arts and then I played sports.
K: Ah, I see.
J: So I’ve gotten the competitive stuff from sports and took martial arts as a hobby. I think that’s why I get along with everyone. I get where they are coming from, especially since MMA is more of a sport than an art nowadays.
K: In what ways?
J: When I was growing up, martial arts weren’t necessarily competitive; not everyone was the “Karate Kid.” We just did it for fun, and not to compete on weekends, you know? But MMA is a sport: BJJ tournaments, wrestling tournaments, kickboxing, Muay Thai; all these are competitive sports. I got an e-mail the other day. A 15-year-old aspiring MMA fighter who trained since he was 12, and now trains with Guy Metzger out in Texas, asked me to be in the film. I looked at his resume and it was pretty crazy. Only 15 years old and he’s already done a lot. It’s crazy.
K: And that wasn’t you when you were growing up, huh?
J: No. I trained hard, but I didn’t know about wushu tournaments and such. I was playing tennis competitively and was 30th in the state, so I had that going for me. I couldn’t take on two simultaneously, so martial arts was a hobby of mine. I’d train at home, hit the heavy bag, do some kicks, go to the dojo, train some, and it was fun.
K: So when did you make that transition from MMA as simply a hobby, to it being a serious passion?
J: I think when MMA came out I wasn’t sure what to think of it. To be honest, I didn’t really get passionate until right before I made this film when I met my neighbor who was a fighter. He was going to his first fight, and invited a bunch of family and friends to watch. It wound up being a small MMA fight in San Francisco in some rusty old gym with strippers everywhere. It was crazy.
J: And then after he lost one day I talked to him and he told me he made $3,000, and said they were going to give him $2,000 for his next fight. He was trying to debate whether or not it was really worth it. He had to lose thirty pounds for that last fight, trained like hell, and had to take daily supplements. And he was saying to me, “Dude, I paid more than $3,000 in the last 6 months.” That was when I started getting into MMA, and trying to understand what it took. I started my research reading all the books, the history of the sport, watching documentaries, and read all the autobiographies. I watched the fights and was very fascinated.
K: How did you begin building relationships with many of the fighters in your videos?
J: It’s been a trip. I did some research on fighters in the SF area and found Jake Shield’s website, so I asked some of my MMA friends if he was legit. They said he was good and so I hit up his dad, got past his dad, and then eventually got to him. I went and met him during training, along with Gil [Gilbert Melendez] and all the guys. We got lunch and eventually I just started showing up at their training sessions. We’re all good friends now. But I’d always be there at the gym filming and after they’re done training we’d go out and eat. It was like I was part of the crew. At Jake’s fight in St. Louis they didn’t have a car and I had a rental, so I had to drive those hobos around for three days, haha.
K: You got to make your bones somehow. Hah!
J: It was cool. That’s when I met Nick [Diaz] and his boxing coach Rich Perez, and got them involved in the film, too.
K: Well for those who haven’t watched your trailer on fightlife.tv, what is the main focus of your film?
J: It’s a documentary about the real lives of fighters. And when I say “real,” I mean how they live, train, prepare, and their stories. The main focus of my documentary is to educate people on the sport of MMA. Many don’t realize how difficult it is, and I want help legitimize it as a sport. I want to show people fighters’ struggling lifestyles, which is not as glamorous as people think. I surveyed a bunch of fighters and also interviewed experts within the sport: Big John (McCarthy), Sam Sheridan, and Frank Shamrock, just to name a few, to tell the story of the sport and the history of MMA in general.
K: What is one of the biggest challenges to these professional fighters?
J: Money. It’s a business of supply and demand. There are only so many fights, but too many fighters. Nowadays, everyone is a fighter, or wants to be one. Sure, the sport has boomed, but the promoters control the cards, not the fighters. Imagine there are one hundred Michael Jordans out there, all wanting to be THE Michael Jordan, and there is only one spot available. All these guys would be playing to prove they are the best; they would probably even do it for free. It’s the same in fighting. All fighters, in their own mind, believe they are the best fighter. Otherwise they wouldn’t do it. Even fighters with poor records; in their own mind they believe they are one fight away from being the best. That’s what keeps them going. But fighting and preparation for a fight can cost a lot of money.
K: I saw a stat in your trailer saying 68% of fighters don’t have any insurance.
J: Yep, it’s true.
K: How does that affect them in their daily routines/training?
J: It doesn’t. I surveyed fighters at all the Strikeforce fights, teams like Quest and AKA, big gyms and small, and they don’t care. They told me “it’s a fighter’s thing.” They’re used to it, but to most people like us it’s a big shock. It’s always been that way. Insurance is expensive, $200 a month, and they don’t have that kind of money.
K: How do a lot of these fighters support themselves and the cost of their training?
J: Bartending, personal training, night jobs, security, and other odd jobs. Most professional fighters can’t afford to work full time, but some do. Also, a lot live off support from family or even girlfriends.
K: I know it was widely publicized Brett Rogers was working at Home Depot up until his Fedor fight. Is that the norm within the fighting community?
J: Yes. Go to almost any gym and the fighters all do something to get by. Maybe not the top teams like AKA. Those are the exceptions. But in general fighters can only fight so many times. At a local level the money is horrible. You know at Strikeforce fights, some of the undercards only get $1,000-$3,000? The un-televised fights, a lot of those are local fighters. Most people don’t even realize there’s an undercard.
K: So what is the bigger motivator for many of these guys? The recognition (proving they’re the best) or the money?
J: Recognition. They are definitely not doing it for the money. It’s a pipe dream. But MMA is not like basketball or football. Physical talents play a part, but MMA is less talent-based in many areas due to all the elements you have to master.
K: Yeah. Fighting isn’t simply about proving you were “born the best,” but that you worked harder than anyone else, trained longer, and have experienced more.
MMA isn’t like many other sports. In football you can win the Super Bowl, and though a new season begins the next year, you’re still an NFL champion with a ring to prove it. But in MMA, you can have the belt for one fight and lose it in the next.
J: Yeah, it’s true. And with MMA if you perform poorly on a big night you could be done for. Say you take two guys with undefeated records on the borders of the “big-leagues” and you pit them against each other. One dude may win and get a contract. But what about the other guy? What does he do? He goes back to his hometown and fights more small fights.
K: So for guys who have already been accomplished in the sport, for guys like Jake, or Frank, or even Nick Diaz, at what point will they feel like they’ve accomplished their goals? Is it really when they get the belt? Or is it if never lose a fight from here on out? When can these guys really be satisfied with the course of their careers?
J: Never. Everybody wants to be the champ, and once they get the belt, they want to keep it.
K: That’s a rough life.
J: Yep. That’s why I’m documenting it. It isn’t easy, and there’s no glory until you get there.
K: Your video depicts a very bleak outlook on the lives of these fighters that would probably depress the general public. How do you find most of the guys coping with their situations? Do you find a lot of fighters depressed?
J: Well, again, to these guys it’s nothing. It’s their life.
K: What role does family play in a lot of these guys’ lives? Do most of them come from nuclear, intact families? Broken families? Or both?
J: A lot come from broken families, people like Jens Pulver. This is actually a subject that Sam Sheridan brought up. He said most of these guys come in with something to prove, and are searching for a place where they belong and to be accepted by their peers. A lot of guys without dads have dominance issues and use the cage as an outlet to prove to the world, and most importantly to themselves, that they are worthy, and can’t be dominated by anyone else. That’s the fighter’s biggest fear: being dominated. Because when you’re dominated it kills you mentally.
K: Back to your documentary, what was your greatest obstacle in the making of this video?
J: Also money. Hahaha. Did I ever tell you my life is just like the fighter’s? That’s another reason I did this documentary. As a filmmaker, I live the same lifestyle. I put everything on the line with my own money and talent. It’s tough.
K: How did you wind up raising enough for the project?
J: I don’t live too comfortably myself. Still living with my folks, saving up money, not driving a fancy car or anything. This is my investment, and the project’s still not finished. We’re in the editing stage, still more money needed that I’m trying to pull together. I had some savings from when I was acting in China so I pulled some of those out from overseas, plus my day-job. I could’ve bought a Benz already with the money I spent on Fight Life, but what fun would that be?
K: So what does the future hold for James Z. Feng?
J: Hahaha. We’ll see. I always hope for the best but prepare for the worst. I like to be optimistic but I don’t believe in hype. I believe in hard work paying off and luck coming around to those who work hard to earn it. So I’m prepared for the worst, but I have a feeling we won’t have to worry about that.
K: I don’t think so. Your video looks amazing from the trailer.
J: Now I have to follow it up. More clips are coming, stories of the fighters are next.
K: Any last words to the readers?
J: Life’s a hustle. Go get it.
Find more information about Fight Life at http://www.fightlife.tv.
You can also see more James’ work at http://www.jamesfeng.com.