Published: Tuesday, 26 January 2021 | Written by SciFi Vision
Today, Lionsgate’s Born a Champion was released on DVD and Blu-ray. The inspirational martial arts film, written by star Sean Patrick Flanery and director Alex Ranarivelo, follows fighting legend Mickey Kelley (Flanery), who loses an unsanctioned fight in Dubai with Marco Blaine and is left with serious injuries that almost left him blind. Years later, a video is unearthed that proves Blaine cheated. Everyone wants a rematch, including Kelley, who never quite got over the loss, but can he get back into shape and win the match without destroying himself in the process?
Flanery recently talked to SciFi Vision in an exclusive video interview about his work on the film, how his life has been affected by MMA, working with his sons, and more.
Be sure to check out Born a Champion, available now on digital, on demand, and on DVD and Blu-ray. You can also check out the full transcript of the interview below the video.
Zoom Call Born a Champion Sean Patrick Flanery
December 16, 2020
SCIFI VISION: Hi, thanks for talking to me, Sean. I appreciate it.
SEAN PATRICK FLANERY:How are you doing?
I'm very good.
Okay. I was going to say, the last time I talked to you was a conference call for Mongolian Death Worm. [laughs]
I love that film.
Yeah, it was good. I just was thinking about it before I called, that I had talked to you that long ago.
That was like ten years ago.
You're exactly right.
So, how did you first become involved in Born a Champion and what attracted you to it?
Well, I wrote the story in 2007. You know, a lot of people don't know, but it's a story that I wrote. It's the first thing that I wrote that comes to the screen, so, obviously, I wrote it and I hoped to one day get to play the part myself, and it took that long to get the film made. So, from 2007 to 2019, twelve years it took to get the film made. But, I mean, it's a film about the the summation of all my passions in life: martial arts and family. Those are the two things that kind of keep me going on a daily basis, and it's my love letter to a martial art that's truly changed my life that I hope to one day leave as a legacy for my kids.
Was it based on a person though, or anything, or just all from your head? Because I kind of wondered watching it. I don't know much about MMA.
There are a lot of truisms that were in this martial arts world in the early ‘90s. It is a period piece. It's when the MMA didn't even have the name MMA; it was called NHB, No Holds Barred. Then with sanctioning bodies and regulations, they called it Mixed Martial Arts; it's a little more consumer friendly than No Holds Barred. So, it's very, very authentic, from top to bottom, but I wrote the character. Mickey Kelley is a completely fictitious character, although I wanted to portray this in a very documentary style, because there are a number of elements to this story that are incredibly true, and I certainly hope it's received that way.
Obviously, you fight yourself. Do you practice now, or did you have to still get in shape for the movie to get ready for it?
No, I mean, this is a big part of my life. Like for example, today, I teach a kids' class of 5:00 and an adults' class at 6:30. So, I'll be training until nine o'clock at night tonight. You can see I kind of have a little mouse on my cheek here from yesterday morning. It doesn't stop. I got into martial arts when I was nine years old, and that's a lot of years on the mats, but it's a passion of mine. I don't have to set an alarm to wake up in the morning to go train; it's as necessary as breakfast or lunch or dinner.
So, nothing changed. I didn't change my workout structure. I didn't change anything. I wanted this guy to look like the real guy that he is, and that's what a guy looks like when he does it every single day. You know, he's not a steroid riddled, chiseled person. He looks like somebody who trains every single day in a very realistic display of that.
So, I assume you did all your own movements and stunts and that kind of thing?
Yeah, I did everything. I designed the stunt choreography; I coordinated it all. I did all my own stunts, and I surrounded myself with a lot of amazing martial artists, so the trust there is without question. You can do high amplitude throws with somebody that knows exactly what they're doing, without a second thought. The people that I surround myself with are people that I trust implicitly: Edson Barboza, Mickey Gall, and Renzo Gracie, one of the godfathers of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He's a Michael Jordan of Jiu-Jitsu and was gracious enough to [be] in my film, and he's actually the legacy of the lineage of my black belt. So, it was an easy way to put this together, trying to recycle those kind of people.
Right. Now, I'm assuming, going by their last name, the kids that played your son in the movie - are those your kids?
I figured that, because it seemed very genuine, and I wondered when I was watching. I'm like, "I have go to look up who plays these kids." So, they did really good.
Yeah, at two different ages. Those are my youngest son and my oldest son.
What was it like, working with them, I guess, actually, and playing with them?
Man, it one of the joys of my life, to have them in the first story that I've written that saw the big screen, and it's a combination of three things that I love. You know, I love the film business, I love martial arts, and in first place, I love my family. I had all of the above combined, so I can't say enough about it, man. You know, it was a joy. It was a pleasure.
Do you have a favorite scene? Just in general, it doesn't have to be with them.
You know, there's a certain signature that I think the story goes from highs and lows. It's a bittersweet concerto of extreme love and extreme violence, and I love a lot of different moments of the film and scenes from the film for very, very different reasons. I'd be a little biased, because I wrote it, but yeah, as far as on the day shooting, certainly, the moments with my boys are - that's hard to top, man.
That's hard to top.
That's what I kind of figured.
Do you have a certain line that sticks out that you wrote that you can think of, a quote or...?
Again, without sounding incredibly biased, but the love letter to Jiu-Jitsu, where Mickey is talking to the sheik at the beginning of the story, when he talks about, you know, Jiu-Jitsu, when you clap hands, and you go and you spar, that mat is going confirm every truth and expose every lie. There are no bell curves on a martial art; you either earn a belt, or you don't. It's quite absolute. The truth is in behavior; it's not in words. That's my verbal homage to the martial art, because it's the one thing in my life that's truly been a very accurate measuring stick for a lot of elements of a person, and I've relied on that to measure character a lot of times.
Well, knowing that you obviously don't have trouble with the stunt part of it, since you do it all the time, what was the most challenging?
When people ask me that, you know, I've had so many real jobs in my life. I mean, I moved furniture when I was in college. I worked at Church's Fried Chicken. I had a paper route when I was eight, and you had to be thirteen to have a paper route. I lied and got a buddy to sign up and threw the papers anyway. So, I've had so many jobs.
Man, the most difficult part of this industry still pales in comparison. I used to dig ditches. When I say that, I put culverts under driveways and actually dug ditches. It's crazy. In this industry, people can tell you ten years later, they can say, "Hey, man, amazing job in that film that you did ten years ago." Never once did somebody come through the drive-thru of Church's Fried Chicken and say, "Hey, I just wanted to say, solid golden brown on that wing last week." That never happened. Not once. Not once did somebody come and go, "Hey, man, you put that drainage culvert under my driveway ten years ago? Still draining like a charm. Thank you for that." That never happened.
So, I don't sleep on the benefits of this industry. There're certainly trials and tribulations, but they pale by comparison to what I consider a real job. What I consider a real job is something that you would not do unless they pay you to do it. In this industry, you have people that drive three thousand miles away from home, find a roommate on Craigslist, and then they do this job for free, in hopes that somebody will see them do it and eventually start to pay them to do it. I don't know any surgeon that said, "You know what? I'm gonna do open heart surgery and slice open your aorta, and maybe, if enough people live after I do this, they'll start paying." It's the one industry that people would do for free, and I'm very grateful to be a part of that. So, there's not a lot that's so difficult that it warrants even pointing out, you know?
Right, I get that.
So, when you wrote the script, is there anything that really changed from your original vision to the end?
Not a lot. I wrote it in 2007, and it stayed incredibly accurate to the story. It took so long to make it. The character was going to be early forties, then ten years later, we made him forty-seven, which is still very accurate for the time. These lifelong martial artists back in the ‘90s were the ones that were viable fighters, only because kids didn't start learning true fighting, true Mixed Martial Arts until they were, you know, twenty. So, the mat time alone would put you at least thirty to have the skill set to enter in an MMA ring. So, the only thing that we changed was really the age, and that's it. It stayed pretty true, and I'm grateful for that. A, big product of that, is it's not a big studio film with one thousand executives' opinions on it, and in that respect, I feel like we stay true to the auteur concept. From idea, inception to the pen, to final draft, to the casting, to the execution, it stayed very true to the original story.
Well, it was really good; I enjoyed it. I had a lot of heart; I definitely teared up a couple times.
Well, I'm sorry about that, but I appreciate it.
[laughs] That means it's a good movie!
So, do you have any other projects in the works or that's coming out or anything like that you can talk about a little bit?
You know, shortly after this, I have Assault on VA-33 coming out in 2021. That's another Lionsgate film. I'm also going to be on season three of a pretty cool TV show that's on Amazon Prime that they haven't made an announcement yet, so I'm supposed to seal the lips, but I'm pretty excited about that, because it's a show that a lot of people watch. So, hopefully, 2021 will allow us to get out more in the sunshine and put the confines of 2020 behind us.
So, other than the fighting and everything that you still do, what have you been doing during this [quarantine] - well, I guess now it's not - well, actually, here, they locked it back down, but it's not quite what it was before, but what have you been doing to keep busy?
Well, out here in Texas - I'm in Harris County, so I'm outside of the city. I don't even live in a city, like we're not incorporated. So, I'm outside of Houston, the Northwest area, and on my property, I have a training facility. So, even on lockdown, because we were already training with people that live outside of the city, we were all a family that was all together. The vast majority of my students, they kept training.
For example, I have a class today at five o'clock; I have another class at 6:30, but they're all people that were training together prior. For example, we don't open the door. We don't have any new people coming in, but for these people that don't do any traveling; we were kind of sequestered on our own. We've kept training; we've never stopped. You know, it's a part of the soul that kind of keeps you going. I think it's unhealthy to stop that. At the same time, we've haven't allowed any people of dubious provenance to come into the fold unchecked. So, it's been a time of isolation, but reflection, but we haven't really changed anything. We've just kind of done it all on a much more compressed formula.
Well, that makes it at least, I guess, a little bit easier if you're not too thrown out of sorts.
You've been, obviously, in a lot of different projects, but is there anything you still want to do, like a certain dream role or something? Obviously, this you wrote, so I guess this was kind of a dream role, but is there anything else that sticks out to you that you still want to do?
Yeah, I had a book that I wrote in 2016, called Jane Two. So, the next thing on my big plate, as far as writing and producing, would be that I want to put that story on the screen. If people watch Born a Champion, and they like that, I think they're going to feel the same way about Jane Two.
So, I did have a question from a fan, who wanted to ask, "What do you want to be remembered for as a fighter?"
An amazing husband and dad - and I know you said fighter, but an amazing husband and dad; I want to be known as staying true to those. As far as, you know, there's a big discrepancy between a martial artist and a fighter. A fighter is anybody that is willing to go to blows. A martial artist knows every aspect of fighting, from conflict avoidance all the way to extreme violence, and I want to be known as somebody that can let their kids contain more than just hope but have the compassion and empathy to compartmentalize that and sidestep violence if at all possible. Amazing husband and dad - if I'm even ten percent of that, I'll be happy. At the end of the day, my family is more important than anything else in my life.