If it takes three examples to launch a proper trend, then we’re now on the verge of almost middle-aged men taking up fighting with little to no combat experience beyond the physical nature of their entertainment careers and then documenting their journey to their first professional fight becoming A Thing.
First there was Evolution of Punk, the documentary series that follows former pro wrestler CM Punk, now 37, through the final stages of his training for his long-promised (and long-hyped, anticipated, and derided) mixed martial arts debut at UFC 203. Now actor, DJ, and possibly the dreamiest man alive, Idris Elba, is getting in on the action with Idris Elba: Fighter.
“This is no act. There is no script. This fight is real as are the potential repercussions,” a press release for the show stated.
The three-part hour long infotainment series, which was announced last week, is produced by Discovery Networks International and will follow the 43-year-old star of The Wire and the future camp classic Obsessed as he trains for—and ultimately participates in—his first ever sanctioned kickboxing fight. (Side note: for purists worried about the terminology here, most of the press—and an earlier statement released by the actor—is referring to this as a professional fight, but Elba preferred to call it semi-professional in a recent chat about fitness with PEOPLE.)
“During training, Elba discovers what it really takes to be a professional fighter and will push himself to the limit to overcome pain and fear, master specialized techniques and skills, and ensure both his body and mind are fit,” Nancy Tartaglione writes of the premise for Deadline. “He will receive mentoring from former world champions, trainers and coaches, and travel the world to incorporate unorthodox training methods and regimens to increase his chances for the main event.”
Elba isn’t a complete stranger to the combat world. He took kickboxing to stay fit and channel aggression as a young man, having been introduced to the discipline by his friend and training partner, musician Shaun Escoffery. He’s also engaged in some moderate stunt work, and has frequently shown aptitude for messing up both bad guys and inanimate objects as the title character of the BBC’s excellent crime drama, Luther. He accidentally gave Chris Pine a black eye while filming a fight scene for Star Trek Beyond. He’s also shown off his fitness kickboxing skills at public events in the past:
But he’s never attempted anything of this magnitude before. “It has been a lifelong ambition of mine to fight professionally,” Elba said in a statement about the show. “Entering the ring to further test myself as a human being is a challenge I have been looking to take on for quite some time.”
If you’re inclined to take an uncharitable view of these proceedings, you could argue that this show—and also Punk’s—are little more than a very public flirtation with the early stages of mid-life crises facilitated by the fame of the men about to embark on them. And you could probably point to the premise of Elba’s previous work for Discovery International, in which he dabbled with racing for Idris Elba: No Limits, as evidence in your favor.
If you’re willing to give these two the benefit of the doubt, though, this burgeoning genre might actually have some intriguing potential. Both men are highly skilled and dedicated to a certain level of craftsmanship in their original fields, and both seem to be aware of the fact that it’s their fame, and not any innate talent on their parts, that has allowed them to test out another calling like this. The basic idea of famous dudes randomly being awarded pro or semi-pro fights might reek of dilettantism, but there’s very little whiff of it lingering around their actual execution of these opportunities.
And, at a time MMA and the various martial arts that go into that mix are still relatively new to the greater public consciousness, a look into how the sausage is made, from ground zero, could help to make people understand how demanding and serious a career in the cage or ring really is.
More established and older professional sports have built-in narratives by now, and people immediately understand the separation between pro and Joe. Weekend warriors and rec league heroes might like to imagine that they could have been contenders in football, baseball, basketball or hockey, but most really know that they’re playing on an entirely different level. That distinction is a little murkier in MMA, where dudes who rolled one time and suddenly think they could take on Demian Maia are still far too prevalent and where many uninitiated people still dismiss the entire sport as discipline-free human cockfighting.
The Ultimate Fighter has helped to combat those perceptions by offering a look into all of the blood, sweat, and tears that go into preparing for fights—and fighting for one’s place in the MMA world at all—but those stories start with fighters who already have at least some experience and accomplishments. The work that goes into getting to that place still remains a mystery to a large percentage of people who haven’t taken the journey for themselves.
Short-run series that follow people like CM Punk and Idris Elba as they start from the bottom in MMA and kickboxing, respectively, will give many viewers their first real glimpse at how hard these disciplines are and how much it takes to become a professional—even when the actual fight itself has been pretty much handed you for infotainment value and/or spectacle. Instead of the classic “Don’t try this at home” warning, it’s a “You can try this at home, but you’re probably going to get your ass kicked like these guys.” And even if the medium (stunt fights) is less than entirely admirable, that message is valuable.
At the very least, it’s a better campaign for the James Bond role than whatever the hell it is that Tom Hiddleston thinks he’s doing these days.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.