I re-watched Warrior this weekend after I saw that it popped up on Amazon Prime. I caught it in the theater back when it came out in 2011 and I remembered loving it and thinking of it as an excellent MMA version of ‘Rocky I’, but with brothers.
Gritty training scenes.
Great fight scenes.
Kick ass finale.
Warrior has everything you’d want in a great sports movie, but most importantly it has two clearly-defined main characters who are after the same exact prize (the $5 million Sparta Tournament winnings) but go about it entirely different ways.
Tommy Conlon, played by Tom Hardy, is an ex-Marine, ex-elite high school wrestler who earned his way into the Sparta tournament by viciously beating the crap out of a highly-ranked MMA fighter, Pete “Mad Dog” Grimes, during a sparring session in his hometown gym. One of the spectators in the gym posted the video online, it went viral, and the media took care of the rest.
His older brother, Brendan Conlon, is an ex-UFC fighter, now-suspended high school physics teacher, who is about to lose his house because he spent all his money on his daughter’s heart surgery. He’s been fighting at strip clubs and bars to make ends meet (he got suspended from teaching because of the fighting) and when his trainer’s top prospect for the tournament gets hurt, Brendan pleads with him to let him enter.
The Conlon Brothers both show up at the tourney in Atlantic City having not seen each other for 15 years.
The Conlon Brothers’ dad, played by Nick Nolte in an Academy Award-nominated performance, is an alcoholic and used to beat on the kids and his wife so badly that the younger Conlon brother, Tommy, fled with his mom when he was only thirteen.
Brendan stayed because of his girlfriend (who he is currently married to), but the two brothers hadn’t spoken since.
Also, they both hate their dad for how he treated them and how he beat on their mom.
Suffice to say, the dad-Brendan-Tommy relationship triangle is a blend of anger, resentment, fury, confusion, longing and abandonment with a dash of remorse.
As the tournament begins, Tommy is fueled by an otherworldly rage that manifests itself like a volcanic inferno. As his fights begin, his veins are popping, his ridiculous traps are flared like cables holding up a bridge and his eyes are dead black like a great white shark’s. In short order, he beats the shit out of three dudes who are all used to beating the shit out of other dudes.
Brendan is driven by a desire to save his house for his wife and two daughters. He was a .500 fighter when he was in the UFC but now he’s north of 30. He’s got smarts and skills, but it’s clear he’s not a superior athlete and he’s the lowest ranked of the 16 guys in the tournament. He’s the longest shot there is.
Brendan isn’t there to prove he’s the toughest guy on the planet. He’s not there because of ego or fame. He’s there because he has to be. He’s there because if he doesn’t win, he’s out of a job and his family is out of a home.
He’s not fighting with hate.
He’s fighting with heart.
Unlike Tommy’s fights, Brendan’s match-ups are all excruciating battles where he gets his ass handed to him for much of the fight and takes beatings that the announcers and fans aren’t sure he can come back from.
But he’ll never tap out.
He’ll never give up.
Because he can’t.
Each of his fights goes a slightly different way, but in the end, his heart and his courage allow him to snatch victory from the jaws of a severe concussion and a long hospital stay.
Of course, the film’s final scene is a showdown between the brothers and as happens in all of Brendan’s fights, Tommy mauls him and brutalizes him for the first few rounds. Brendan has no answer for his brother’s physical onslaught.
At certain moments, the fight looks like a mini-Hulk throwing around a corpse.
But in the middle of Tommy’s tornado of violence, Tommy makes a tactical error that Brendon notices mid-pummeling and capitalizes on by reversing the momentum and getting Tommy in an arm-lock.
Tommy is incapable of giving in and it leads to a stomach-churning dislocation of his shoulder and the end of the round.
With no corner man to call the fight, Tommy won’t throw in his own towel, and for the next two rounds, Brendan alternates between showing forgiveness, unloading kicks and punches on his brother, feeling regret, round housing him, pleading with him to quit – and then he ultimately gets Tommy to tap out.
Heart wins over rage.
The final fifteen minutes are an intense whirlwind hooks, jabs, heel kicks, submissions, sweat and raw emotion.
But it got me thinking:
Which internal motivation style is better?
Realistically, Tommy’s rage allowed him to have a much easier path to the finals than Brendon. He was a wrecking ball and he was efficient.
Had he been able to go ‘rage’ for three brackets of the tourney and then ‘heart’ for the last, maybe he could have won.
Conversely, if Brendon could have gone with a little more rage in his fights, there’s a shot he wouldn’t have been laid out, nearly tapped out, battered and bruised during his run to the finals.
Heart or Rage? How should the true warrior motivate himself? What is a balanced warrior spirit?
It seems like the only middle ground is what I’d call a ‘controlled rage’, like how Bill Russell or Kevin Garnett psyched themselves up for games by working themselves into a lather and convincing themselves that they hated their opponents and that they were going to win at all costs. Russell famously puked before games. Garnett head butted the padding on the goal post (very warrior like).
Or maybe there’s a strategy called something like ‘Raging Heart’ (or Burning Heart for all my fellow ‘Rocky IV’ fans). Raging Heart would be a dialed up version of the way Brendon fought, tapping into the courage and desperation at the outset of a task rather than waiting until the dire moments.
Burning Heart or Controlled Rage???
An age old warrior question.
Which one you got?
While you’re contemplating your strategy, here are three smart things I learned from publishing legend Joe Weider, who mentored Arnold Schwarzenegger.
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Jon Finkel is the award-winning author of The Life of Dad, Jocks In Chief, The Athlete, Heart Over Height, “Mean” Joe Greene , The ‘Greatest Stars of the NBA’ Series and other books about sports, fatherhood, fitness and more. His work has been endorsed by Spike Lee, Tony Dungy, Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban and Chef Robert Irvine. He is the co-host of the Life of Dad Show podcast and Lunch Break Facebook Live Show, and he’s written for GQ, Men’s Health, Yahoo! Sports, The New York Times and dozens of other national publications.