Interview: Director Billy Corben’s ‘Dawg Fight’ showcases West Perrine’s backyard fighting culture
It’s only 58 seconds into Dawg Fight, documentarian Billy Corben’s latest exploration into the more unglamorous realities of South Florida, and a man is dejectedly spitting out a bloody tooth directly at the camera. Just moments earlier, the event’s master of ceremonies and the central subject of the film, Dhafir “Dada 5000” Harris, explains the rules of engagement to the two men standing across from one another in a rudimentarily constructed 12”x12” ring and the throng of paying onlookers surrounding them in the backyard of one of Miami’s toughest neighborhoods, West Perrine.
“Alright, let me get y’all attention,” he barks. “This is a straight hands fight. This fight ends in one of three ways: by knockout, referee stoppage, or by you quitting. No hits to the back of the head. No groin strikes. What y’all seeing here is going worldwide. Any questions?”
And so it begins.
For mixed martial arts fans and those who frequented YouTube in the early to mid-2000s, the setting is likely a familiar one. After all, it was from that very neighborhood—from those same backyards—that one of MMA’s most magnetic figures, Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson, emerged on a wave created by a score of gory, unsanctioned bare-knuckle boxing matches caught on video and uploaded to the internet. For a time, Harris even worked as his bodyguard.
That the suburban arena Slice launched his lucrative multimedia brand from not only persisted, but by all evidence thrived, should be no surprise. What is surprising, however, is how gradually, as we’re introduced to the film’s compelling cast of characters—the fun-loving, sometimes vain, but seldom serious Treon “Tree”Johnson; the shy but charismatic military veteran “Knockout” Mike Trujillo; the soft-spoken but heavy-hitting Chaunce Abside—we begin to understand their motivations. This movie succeeds on a multitude of levels, but it perhaps excels in no area more than in taking what initially feels like an alien world to most viewers and, through deft, honest and unbiased storytelling, making it understandable and relatable.
Dawg Fight marks a shift in approach for Corben and producers Alfred Spellman, Evan Rosenfeld and David Cypkin’s production company, Rakontur. Where their previous films such as Cocaine Cowboys, Square Grouper, The Tanning of America, Broke and Limelight have felt somewhat static—relying largely on oral histories told by talking heads with accompanying cutaways to footage and photographs—Dawg Fight is their first film that feels truly kinetic. The cameras move dynamically, the pacing feels urgent and, with less reliance on narration to convey the story, the action takes center stage for the first time.
It’s all at once spellbinding, visceral and provocative, and it is simply impossible to not be affected by it.
I recently caught up with Corben during a pocket of free time he had while preparing for the film’s debut at this weekend’s Miami International Film Festival to talk about Dawg Fight, the ethics of documentary filmmaking, approaches to storytelling and how we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think a Third World exists in America, right under our noses.
MMA Owl: How are things going leading up to the film festival? Is everything in line and ready to go?
Billy Corben: No, but thanks for asking. We’re doing finishing touches as we speak and we’ll probably be doing that straight through the weekend.
I listened to your appearance on The Joe Rogan Experience. It was outstanding. A great interview, really great dialogue all throughout—he tends to get that out of his interview subjects—but one thing that stuck out at me was that even though the description of the interview was “Billy Corben, director of Dawg Fight,” you guys barely even talked about the film.
[Laughs] I know! It was so funny. We had been waiting for years to do that because he’s such a Cocaine Cowboys fan and I said at the top of the show that the feedback from his audience on Cocaine Cowboys has been tremendously important to the ongoing popularity of that doc, so I’m so grateful to him for that. I felt like, “Wow, we’ve got this MMA movie—this fighting movie—and where better to talk about it than on Joe Rogan’s podcast?” And if we spent three minutes talking about it, I would be shocked.
I don’t think you even spent three minutes talking about it. I’m not sure, but I think it might’ve only been mentioned by name once.
Dude, we spent 30 minutes talking about nature versus nurture! I mean, I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. But I think that’s the charm of the show, you know? It’s just like this stream of consciousness between his ADD theatre and mine. The three hours was over and I was like Casper at the end of Kids, just like bolting up on the floor going, “What the hell just happened?” I was jetlagged, a little nervous and completely over-caffeinated and it was just like a blur, that three hours. But I do remember coming out the end going “Holy shit, I never talked about the movie I had to promote!” [Laughs]
It’s so funny because he’s so involved in the sport, you know? He’s such a good ambassador for the sport as well and there’s an interesting similarity with what’s going on now—or back when the movie was filmed—with the backyard fighting, where it’s been met with some opposition. Obviously the backyard fights weren’t being regulated; there weren’t any on-site doctors, though I did see some EMT guys at one point—
It’s funny, we never saw that guy. We were shooting and the fighter broke his wrist and this EMT guy is there all of a sudden and I was like, “Is this guy really a medic or is he just on his way home from a porn shoot that he did where he was the ambulance guy or something?” It was so weird because I don’t know if he came out to watch or what the story was, but all of a sudden for that one fight there was a medic dude there. [Laughs]
That kind of stuck out to me, because I remember maybe a few scenes before where they were receiving criticism by [Florida Boxing Commissioner Tom Molloy] about how it is unregulated, how it’s very dangerous and all that stuff. And of course it is unregulated—it’s very dangerous—but the way the fights were being held isn’t too dissimilar to what goes on in professional mixed martial arts. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
I’m just familiar with professional mixed martial arts, so I don’t know that I feel absolutely comfortable comparing the two. My entrée to this world was really via the backyard, which I think is kind of appropriate because I think this is how quite a few fighters kind of get their start. Professional fighters start somewhere, and this seems to be the origin story for not all of them, but quite a few of them.
Well, it’s interesting because I saw—and it wasn’t mentioned at all in the film—current UFC fighter Alex Caceres. There was a shot of him in there. The guy with the big afro—they call him “Bruce Leroy.” There were guys like Level, Kimbo and even one of the main characters in the story, Mike Trujillo—I actually saw him compete at [former AXS TV MMA affiliate] CFA 12. And of course you have the main character, Dada 5000, who’s fought professionally as well, so there does feel like there’s a kind of transference between those two cultures.
That’s why I feel like I don’t want to speak out of turn or force anybody’s story. I definitely feel like Dawg Fight is the origin of a lot of the guys who go on to fight professionally. They come from the streets.
Dawg Fight has been met with some very black and white reception. I’m looking at the webpage of Local 10 News’ coverage of the story and just some of the stuff people are saying: “no good,” “just animals,” “they should all be arrested”—
Welcome to ‘Murica in 2015. This is how we handle everything in America: we just arrest it. That’s what we do. We just arrest everything. We lock it up, that’s what we do. I mean it’s incredible. It’s dispiriting, but most of the people writing that don’t live in the world that these guys live in.
I noticed that there’s a marked switch in storytelling for this film and I guess this is more a function of the fact that, instead of a retrospective type of story where people are sitting and talking about things that happened from their particular viewpoints, you were actually there to film the things occurring. How did you approach the challenge of that change in narrative style and, now that you’re on the other end of it (even though it’s been several years since you finished filming it), now that it’s coming out, how has it affected your filmmaking since?
Let me put on my college professor hat for a moment here. There are two functions to a documentary: to record or to recreate. What we’ve always done in the past is recreate. We’ve done historic documentaries about events that have happened years or decades earlier and have tried to recapture and recreate those events and those times—Cocaine Cowboys, Limelight, Square Grouper, The U, The Tanning of America—we made them that way, all of them really, the whole filmography. Here we were recording. We were capturing the reality as it was unfolding and I feel as if it was a natural next step for us, to tell a contemporary and contemporaneous story in that style. It brought with it some unique challenges, because you don’t always have the story or know what direction the story is going in. You might have some idea of it, but it’s constantly evolving, obviously, as life does, and so your mind might change throughout the way.
Dada  was always kind of our way in, our eyes in, our central focus. You know, this guy who had organized street fighting, who had become the Don King of the backyards in West Perrine—and of course his Kimbo-related back story was very compelling. He and his family were always going to be kind of central, but then we didn’t know which fighters were going to emerge as compelling figures worth following or tracking throughout. So we were just along for the ride and we shot… oh my god, I think thousands of hours of footage. I don’t know what the number was but it was an incredible amount of footage—more than we’ve ever shot I think on almost any project before. Then taking that and telling a story with a beginning, middle and end is a real challenge in production and post-production—knowing where to be and who to follow in production and then knowing how to do the same in kind of chiseling away at it to shape something.
And for a while, we didn’t know what we had. Was it a doc miniseries? Was it a reality or documentary ongoing series? Was it a feature documentary?—which is what it ended up as. There were a lot of different versions of this that we started cutting. And remember: this was like four backyard fighting events that we attended over the course of the years. There were like five or six fights each day, so you’re only seeing a fraction of the fights and the fighters that we got. There were really hard decisions about whose story to include and not include to get it down to a reasonable running time.
That actually moves pretty well into what I want to ask next. The evolving storyline that occurs while covering something ongoing like that… hadn’t you encountered that before in your debut film [Raw Deal: A Question of Consent] about the University of Florida rape case back in 1999? Am I correct in saying that new things came to light while filming that as well?
Yes, some did. But mostly… it was a year later. Most of it had played out in the media and otherwise, so there was kind of a resolution insomuch that a case like that with no resolution could have a resolution. It had a resolution and we were kind of recreating, examining and investigating an event that had happened a year earlier. And, of course, we had the footage that the fraternity men had already captured on the night in question. So that had an element, that had a vérité—that’s a fancy word for reality show, basically—component to the footage the fraternity men had shot.
That’s a very keen observation. There are not a lot of people I know that have seen that movie, so thank you for bringing it up! [Laughs] That’s my first and favorite of our work. But I think you’re right in saying that there was that contemporaneous, this-is-all-happening-in-real-time-before-my-eyes kind of immediacy that Dawg Fight certainly has.
You mentioned the thousands of hours of footage you all were sitting on…
I don’t even know if it’s possible to calculate it. I have to ask my editor or my co-producer. It’s an exceptional amount. I should at least have a ballpark figure, but it’s a “metric fuckton,” I think we can use that as the most appropriate way to describe it.
That in fact is the technical term, if I’m not mistaken.
What I wanted to ask in relation to that is right now, I’m interviewing you and I’m going to get a bunch of great quotes to work with. I can approach [turning the product into an article] in one of two formats: the narrative interview or through Q&A. Now, the Q&A format leaves very little for me to add as far as context is concerned—it’s my questions; it’s your answers—whereas with a narrative I have to create kind of a route through which the reader can go. Both have their own unique challenges—Q&A in the front end, in preparing questions suitable for print; and narrative in the back end, in creating a story from what I got from the interview. You spoke before about creating a narrative in your films from all that footage you got and having to pick and choose which aspects of the story to use. Is there a risk sometimes when you make a film like this—or like any of your documentaries, as it is—where you want to tell the absolute truth but you also need to tell a story. How do you maintain that balance?
Great question. For moment, I’ll put my douchey college professor hat back on [Laughs] and—
[Laughs] Sorry, man.
No, that’s alright. I was talking about me, not you. I will say that the definition I like to use for a documentary is “the creative interpretation of reality.” It’s never actual reality; it’s an interpretation of that reality. From the moment you’re filming the event, you make a decision—conscious or otherwise—about what you’re going to frame in the four corners of the shot that you’re composing. You’re making a creative decision, creatively interpreting that reality by what you include in that shot, what isn’t in that shot, how you frame up that shot… Is it a lower angle tilting up? Are you backlighting them? I mean there are creative decisions made immediately. And very often as you see in reality TV, even the mere presence of cameras alters reality. People behave differently sometimes in the presence of cameras. Of course, you brought up the editing process—the same process you go through deciding what stays and what goes. It’s no longer reality; it’s your interpretation of that reality. What we try to do is be as accurate as possible, as fair as possible. Obviously there’s a lot less footage than the footage that we shot—a lot less information than I hoped to give, because you have these real lives unfolding but you can’t possibly include every detail of their lives. You’ll never have the time for it. You’d never have room for it in the story. You’d have to write a book to include everything when you’re writing more detailed stories—long reads, as the kids call them.
[POSSIBLE SPOILERS BELOW]
I’ll ask that you use your discretion here… In [Dada 5000’s] last fight—you know, the final fight at the Hard Rock—there’s a very peculiar stand up that the ref does during the fight and I actually asked Tom Molloy, who was the Florida Boxing Commissioner at the time [about it]. He’s not [Florida Boxing Commissioner] anymore, but he was at the time. He’s the guy we interview in the movie. He’s the guy giving them the lecture during the weigh-ins about the street fighting. I asked him about the stand up and he said, “Listen, for a few seconds Cedric [James] was just squatting on top of Dada. He wasn’t moving. He wasn’t fighting. He was just kind of resting. You know, just sitting on top of him. You can’t do that and the refs have a split-second decision to make. If he had waited longer, people might have thought he waited too long. He made a split-second decision. You can second guess it, but that’s the way it went down.”
There wasn’t anything nefarious about it; it was just one of those things. It happened. A ref makes a split decision and we can all Monday morning quarterback, but that’s the bottom line. Anyway, we’re editing the movie and my editor was like, “It really interrupts the flow of the fight, the flow of our edits, the flow of our narrative here”—Dada kind of rocketing to a victory here in his pro MMA debut.
And I said, “Yeah, but it happened.”
[Laughs] This is going to your question about what kind of decisions we make. “It happened,” I said. You know, the fight will be several years old, number one. Number two, it’ll be out there and many people can YouTube it by now. I said, “I’m not going to get accused of having sugarcoated how the fight actually went down. I’m like, “I get that it kind of interrupts our momentum or whatever, creatively, but that’s what happened. We have to leave it in.” And we did. So to answer your question, we try to be as fair, as objective and as accurate as possible, but we have to cut stuff down and out for time and structure.
That’s a very good example of how to do things ethically in terms of telling a story, or telling the story the right way.
Would the movie have been better, flowed better, had we [edited the stand up out]? Probably, but it didn’t feel right. It didn’t seem like the right thing and we’re kind of self-policing in that regard, but that gives you at least some perspective on where my standards are [in terms of] aesthetic versus accuracy. The bottom line is I’m willing to sacrifice aesthetic for accuracy where I believe it’s most fair.
[END OF POSSIBLE SPOILERS]
It was interesting watching the film, kind of noticing a complicity with the police involved. Obviously, it’s better to have these kinds of things in a controlled environment that produces and circulates money through the community rather than in the streets through crime. Would you say that—
I would disagree, respectfully, with your characterization. I wouldn’t call it complicit; I would call it community policing and I would call it one of the best examples of community policing I’ve ever personally witnessed. When you have a national dialogue going on right now about the relationship between police departments and the communities—you know, the people that they police, from Ferguson, Missouri to Miami Gardens, Florida—I think this is an example of where the Miami-Dade County Police Department’s South District Station 4, in my experience, had a profound respect for the people in this community that they were protecting and serving. When you consider the reality of these circumstances, what the police did and didn’t know, where they had probably cause to intervene… when you consider what was in the best interest of the safety of the community, I don’t think expilating that situation would have been good police work. I think what they did was good police work and, if nothing else, they know and everybody in the community knows is that all of the violence is right there in a 12×12 ring between consenting adults.
I agree completely with that. Last question: What do you want prospective viewers to know about this film? Is there anything specific you’d like to express about it?
I ultimately think that this is an American Dream story—perhaps a warped one. You know, they say that the Miami of today is the America of tomorrow and I think that people watch this footage and go, “This doesn’t look like America, this looks like the Third World.” And I say, “It is the Third World; it’s Miami-Dade.” In Miami-Dade, we have the second-highest income disparity in the country. We have the second-highest rate of food stamp use in the country. This is the real Miami to me, not the 15 blocks of South Beach everybody outside of Miami always thinks of. I always think about the Miami Dolphins games… here we are at Joe Robbie/Sun Life Stadium, on the field. They cross-fade to a blimp with the aerial and then they cross-fade to South Beach—to the fucking Colony Hotel on Ocean Drive—and you’d think it was right outside the stadium. You’d think the stadium was right there on Ocean Drive. It’s 18 miles away. Miami Gardens is one of the toughest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Miami-Dade—one of them, really—and you’d think it was right by South Beach. That’s just how people think about it.
You look at Miami International Airport. It’s my favorite thing. They have a graphic on the computer monitors, some CGI aerial map of Miami. There’s the airport and right next to the airport are the causeways and then South Beach. Everything else has disappeared from the map. I posted it on Instagram like a year or two ago. It’s hysterical, but that’s how people perceive Miami and that’s how Miami-Dade is perpetuating itself. It’s like, “Oh, there’s no Liberty City. There’s no Little Havana. There’s nothing but the airport, the causeways and South Beach.” That’s the map. And that’s not truth. That’s not the reality for the vast majority of Miami-Dade people and citizens and American citizens. A grey market or a black market or an underground economy is much more active and influential for 99% or so of America.
Dawg Fight premiers on Thursday, March 12 at O Cinema Miami Beach, 500 71st St. at 7 p.m. and will subsequently be shown at O Cinema Wynwood, 90 NW 29th St. March 13-19. Click HERE for tickets. For more information and to digitally download the film, click HERE.
(Slider and header image courtesy of MiamiFF-tickets.com and Dawg-Fight.com.)
- Alex Caceres
- AXS TV
- CFA 12
- Florida Boxing Commission
- Jesse Scheckner
- Joe Rogan
- Kevin Ferguson
- Kimbo Slice
- Mixed Martial Arts
- South Florida