This article contains some minor spoilers for Kingdom and a potential mild casting spoiler for Captain America: Civil War.
There’s no doubting that MMA is big business these days. Rewind twenty years to the sport’s wild west era and it was almost universally derided, most famously by President Obama’s old foe, Senator John McCain, who notoriously branded it as ‘human cock-fighting’.
Here in 2016 though, things are very different. The last UFC event in Ireland sold out in sixty seconds. Last month’s UFC London was no slouch either, selling out the O2 Arena in less than half an hour. It featured a main event between perennial British contender Michael Bisping and Brazilian Anderson Silva, an ageing legend who is seen by many as the sport’s greatest ever fighter. The fight was grind versus glamour, purpose versus prowess across five epic rounds filled with spectacle, heart, technique and controversy. Rocky versus Apollo had nothing on these two and with legendary bouts like this one becoming ever more commonplace and seeping ever deeper into public consciousness, it’s easy to see why leading figures in the sport are confidently predicting that MMA will be an Olympic event within a decade.
Much like pro wrestling in the eighties, as mixed martial arts continues to explode in popularity, the meteoric superstars of the UFC have begun to cross over into the Hollywood mainstream. Ronda Rousey needs no introduction of course: a future Captain Marvel or perhaps Samus, she has the world firmly at her feet – or rather, locked in an armbar. Even losing the world title a few months ago hasn’t dented the Rousey hype train; instead she simply has now has a redemption narrative for fans to get behind as she looks to continue conquering both the Octagon and Hollywood. Her fellow Expendable and former UFC champion Randy Couture has been part of Stallone’s ever-increasing gang since the beginning, and who could forget long-time title-holder Georges St-Pierre’s physically impressive throw down with Chris Evans as Batroc in Captain America: The Winter Soldier?
Even Irish phenomenon Connor McGregor is getting in on the act too: word is that he’s signed on to feature alongside Vin Diesel in xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage. Never mind that the title of McGregor’s first movie reads like an injudicious mix of text message kisses and a bad episode of a 90s Action Man cartoon; don’t tell him that because he’ll put you down in thirteen seconds flat and take your belt… just like he did to a recent opponent – a guy who at the time was touted to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
With superstars like Rousey and McGregor continuing to shine a light on the sport of MMA and movies like the Tom Hardy-led Warrior continuing to push the sport into the mainstream space and develop public interest, it was only a matter of time before TV dusted off the gloves, whizzed through a training montage and got in on the action too. And so we have Kingdom, a US drama currently comprising two seasons with a planned third currently in the pipeline. The show sets up in California and centres around the day-to-day life of a Venice-based MMA gym. Fighting dynasties such as the legendary Gracie family have always been an absorbing element of combat sports, a needle that last year’s Creed threaded exceptionally well for the discipline of boxing. Kingdom follows suit for MMA, charting the fortunes of the Kulina family – two generations of fighters looking to leave their mark in a brutal business that takes no prisoners.
Frank Grillo heads up the cast, another Winter Soldier alumnus who will soon be featuring as Crossbones in this spring’s Captain America: Civil War. Whilst Grillo has indicated that we shouldn’t expect to see too much of the Crossbones amidst the packed roster of characters in Civil War, Kingdom finds him as the lead character in an ensemble-style show. Alvey Kulina is the patriarch of a fledgling fighting lineage, a retired MMA legend who is struggling to establish a team that can rival the sport’s big boys. Grillo has a knack for playing characters who are at once likeable and yet not, his snakish turn in The Winter Soldier being a good example of this. As Alvey, Grillo diligently works this angle once more: his character drinks too much and can behave abhorrently to those who depend on him, yet strangely you find part of yourself rooting for him anyway. Perhaps it’s Grillo’s inherent blue-collar likeability; maybe it’s the show’s determination to highlight the difficulties in building a life beyond the cage; either way, Alvey’s mid-life malaise is an absorbing element in developing the show’s success.
The MMA empire that Alvey is struggling desperately to build consists largely of his two sons, both of whom are at different stages of their careers; Jay, played by Jonathan Tucker (last seen in Justified) is an off-the-rails fighter, a larger than life wild child struggling to reboot his career following a string of misdemeanours that have estranged him from his father. On the other hand, Nate, his younger brother is Alvey’s golden child, an introverted figure who is dealing with issues of his own. Played by Nick Jonas, the character of Nate is another good example of Kingdom’s fine casting; Jonas is given ample opportunities to both riff on and subvert his squeaky clean Jonas Brothers boy-band image. His resulting performance is impressive and acts as the perfect counterpoint to the wilder antics of his on-screen brother.
Of course, no self-respecting MMA stable can call themselves a success without titles and for that very reason, Alvey resorts to bringing in Ryan Wheeler, a former champion fresh out of prison and beginning the long road to redemption. As you’re no doubt picking up by now, none of the character archetypes present in Kingdom are especially fresh; they are well realised though, with Wheeler being a good example. As an ex-con with rage issues, imprisoned for putting his father in a wheelchair, Matt Lauria’s character has some serious self-destructive issues and much like Alvey is deserving of our disdain; this however is where Kingdom shines. Like a skilled striker standing in the pocket and trading blows, the show does a great job of finding space to operate, making the most of its various beats to create rounded characters capable of eliciting complex responses, a feat which is easier said than done in an ensemble-style show. In Wheeler’s case, it’s his developing relationship with the socially-challenged Keith, another released felon that by turns is both touching and hilarious.
Not all of the plot threads work and over the course of two seasons there are moments that could be considered to be just a little too ‘TV’ for the show to be considered truly great drama but nonetheless, it’s entertaining stuff. In many ways it’s reminiscent of a show like Sons Of Anarchy, a series which never quite possessed the dazzling bravura of a Breaking Bad or Mad Men perhaps, but was peerless in its commitment to the culture it was dramatising. Kingdom too works hard to establish its legitimacy as a show focused around the MMA community. In this sense, not trying to set the premise in the rarified reaches of the sport clearly works to its advantage; anyone who knows anything about mixed martial arts knows that the top echelons of the MMA world are controlled almost exclusively by the UFC.
Instead of trying to create an analogue of this iconic brand whilst avoiding trademarks and dodging lawsuits, Kingdom sets itself in the griminess of the MMA bush leagues, deep in the shadow of the all-conquering UFC. Whilst the corporate giant of the MMA world is never explicitly mentioned, their presence is clear and adds a layer of legitimacy to the show that helps to elevate it above average fare. Name drops of established figures within the UFC world such as Dana White or Greg Jackson may mean little to the uninitiated viewer but are as crucial to the sense of world-building for clued-up fans as Nick Fury’s reference to putting a team together was to the formation of The Avengers in 2008’s Iron Man.
And what of the fights? This is after all a show focused around professional combatants where the throwdowns are often the focal dramatic point for an episode or even a season. Thankfully, these too are legit; the cinematography is solid and the actors do a superb job, often bolstered by a host of cameos from the MMA world. With UFC veteran Joe ‘Daddy’ Stevenson overseeing the choreography and some Rocky-esque script beats duly included, the fights are generally well worth the wait, much like the show itself when it finally arrives on UK screens. Sadly, despite being exported to twelve other countries around the globe, Kingdom is only scheduled at present to air in the UK on Virgin Media On-Demand, beginning on April 1st, an odd decision given the voracious appetite for the MMA in this corner of the world. Still, fans who are committed enough to the sport to stay up all night to watch live US pay-per-views or travel halfway around the world to follow their favourite fighter will make the effort to see it regardless and like a dogged contender perennially hanging on at the top of the division, when its popularity becomes undeniable perhaps another British network somewhere will surely give it a shot at glory. Until then, to get our fictional MMA fix I guess we’ll have to go back and rewatch Here Comes The Boom again. Or perhaps on second thoughts, we’re better off just waiting until April…
Kingdom starts in the UK on Virgin Media on Friday April 1st.