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Where the Fight Starts

A new documentary weighs in with a sharp look at MMA on the minor league level

Fans of the Octagon know Dustin Poirier as the baby-faced featherweight who has gone from UFC rookie to main-eventer in 18 months. When filmmakers Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker began following him in 2009, though, Poirier was still wasting opponents in the rodeo arenas of southern Louisiana, on a low-level pro circuit. The resulting documentary Fightville, premiering Friday on cable on demand and opening this week in limited theatrical release, reveals a sport that despite its fast-growing profile is still trying to shake the "human cockfighting" epithet.

Poirier, who calls fighting his redemption from a misspent youth, is the film's success story. On the flip side is Albert Stainback (above), who says he learned violence from seeing his father beat his mother. While Poirier preps for bouts by praying for the well-being of his opponents, Stainback rehearses his stare downs and emerges dressed as the bloodthirsty Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Stainback represents many of those with UFC aspirations: drawn to the primal nature of the sport but thrown by the dedication required to succeed.

The film tracks both fighters as they train under Tim (Crazy) Credeur, a UFC vet who runs an MMA academy in Lafayette, La., that cranks out talent for such promotional outfits as USA-MMA, the closest thing to a UFC farm system. In its best moments, Fightville maintains a lightheartedness (watch the announcer practice his intros in the bathroom mirror before an event) while providing the human element that gives nonfans a reason to root.