As Billy Corben wiped the errant splatters of blood from his hands and expensive camera, the violence before him finally gave him pause. Twitching as a horde of concerned women doused him with bottled water, the man who had collapsed under Corben looked like he might have met his end.
It was the first day of filming for Dawg Fight, a soon-to-be-released documentary by Rakontur Films, the production company Corben co-founded with partners Alfred Spellman and David Cypkin. The feature film follows a backyard, bare-knuckle fight ring in Perrine, Florida—a hardscrabble suburb 20 miles south of Miami—whose gory, practically unchecked violence shocked even a man used to documenting violence.
That first day, Corben and his cohorts were shooting a bout between two fighters nicknamed Sexual Chocolate and Knockout Mike—and the former clocked the latter with a hard right to the chin. “He just goes timber straight back on his heels. His head lands outside the ring, right at the feet of these ladies,” Corben recalls. “And I look in his face and see there’s blood on my camera, and my hands, and from the splatter from him, and I thought to myself, ‘There’s a really distinct possibility that this guy doesn’t get up ever.’”
Knockout Mike did eventually get back up, relatively unharmed. But Corben and his fellow filmmakers would soon find, in filming Dawg Fight, a level of brutal combat, unlike that in even their previous films. Dubbed “pop docs” by their creators, the films in the Rakontur oeuvre gleefully explore, in pulpy fashion, life’s seamier sides. Among the most popular? Square Grouper, in part about a weed-smoking fundamentalist cult, and, of course, Cocaine Cowboys, a series about kingpin drug runners with outsized bloodlust.
But early cuts of Dawg Fight gave even those films’ distributors pause. “The violence wasn’t just images of corpses, which is par for the course in our Cocaine Cowboys movies,” says Corben, “but real-life, extraordinarily brutal, live violence.”
To risk actual death while scrapping in a promoter’s backyard seems ridiculous—but Dawg Fight reveals why the stakes in this particular racket are so high. The film starts off where a feature in Miami’s alt-weekly newspaper, the Miami New Times, left off. That 2008 story by Francisco Alvarado chronicled the world from which Internet-turned-real-life fighting sensation Kimbo Slice appeared.
Corben and company showed up in the wake of both Slice’s professional turn and Alvarado’s article, arriving smack in the middle of a no-budget promotion run by one Dhafir “Dada 5000” Harris. Setting up a makeshift ring in his mother’s backyard, weighing in fighters on her bathroom scale, Dada had once felt poised to become the next Kimbo himself.
“Legend goes that he did a couple of backyard fight videos for Team Kimbo, and [Slice’s handlers] never released Dada’s footage,” Corben says. “Dada’s theory was that they didn’t want to overshadow Kimbo, who they were still trying to establish at that point. They didn’t want to introduce another young, black fighter from West Perrine who had a very similar story. So that’s when Dada left Team Kimbo and established himself as the Don King of the backyard.”
"Some are just bare knuckles and some are MMA. Dada would classify the different fights," Corben continues. "Some of it is tantamount to human cockfighting, or human dog fighting."
The fighters involved usually “don’t have resumes; they have rap sheets,” Corben explains, paraphrasing Harris, and the ramshackle ring represented a way to overcome a checkered past—no matter how far-fetched that possibility. Even Slice’s career post-Perrine probably hasn’t panned out exactly how he’d liked.
“Kimbo Slice, regardless of his success or lack thereof in MMA, he still is an international superstar. His story, more than anything else, is a Horatio Alger tale of this guy from the streets,” says Corben. “That still inspires anybody who comes from a neighborhood or situation akin to Kimbo’s.”
The added presence of a movie crew only seemed to heighten the frenzy around Harris’ fights. “This is the wonderful, post-modern reality show world that we live in. Everybody is looking for an opportunity to raise their profile,” says Corben. “That’s the spirit of the entire backyard fighting universe. They want to be seen by as many people as possible.”
Unfortunately, the spreading audience, plus buzz about the film project, also led to what could have ended it all—a crackdown by the Florida State Boxing Commission. That attempted crackdown—plus a redemptive third act to the story—fill out the rest of Dawg Fight’s narrative arc. Here’s a little bit of a spoiler: Over the course of the several years depicted in the film, a few of the fighters do, indeed, go pro, but not all of them live long past that.
There’s plenty of gusto and guts, both literal and figurative, through the whole thing. And, in fact, Corben and his filmmakers say they envision Dawg Fight following the form of a classic 1980s action movie along the lines of the Karate Kid and Rocky franchises.
“It’s got this endearing lead character—several, I should say—trying to fight out of the lifestyle they were born into, and the underserved community in which they were further antiquated by virtue of becoming criminalized, essentially,” Corben says. “[They’re] Breaking the law, being put into a system, then coming out and not having a lot of legitimate opportunities as a result of being felons.”
It’s also a story, of course, of modern technology and the new definition of fame, even in sports. “You used to have to hang out at the Fifth Street Gym to get discovered,” says Corben. “Now you can just upload your work.”
And now, some of that will lead to at least fleeting big-screen fame. Dawg Fight is due out in national release this winter. Check rakontur.com for updates.
Arielle Castillo is Fusion's culture editor, reporting on arts, music, culture, and subcultures from the streets on up. She's also a connoisseur of weird Florida, weightlifting, and cats.