When Paul Burress was growing up as a kid and following his dad, who was a pastor, around the country doing karate demonstrations for Christians, he didn’t think there was anything at all strange about it.
In the early 1990s long before the UFC hit the main stream, Burress and his father were already using martial arts as a way to reach out to other people of faith, and spread the word of Jesus Christ to anybody who would listen and maybe wanted to break a few boards like something out of ‘The Karate Kid’.
"I grew up wrestling and doing martial arts with my dad, and my dad had a ministry called ‘Karate for Christ’ where he’d travel all over the country and do karate demonstrations," Burress told FOX Sports. "We would break bricks and bend nails and we’d play a game called ‘Kill the Preacher’ where we’d let someone put a knife to our throat and we’d take it out of their hands and stuff like that."
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Now more than 20 years later, Burress is still in the thick of the martial arts world while combining the aspects of training alongside his pastoral duties in a church he preaches at in Rochester, NY. It’s this seemingly odd combination of fighting in a cage mixed with teaching about Jesus that intrigued filmmakers enough to do a documentary set for release this year called "Fight Church" where the premise states: "can you love your neighbor as yourself and then at the same time knee him in the face as hard as you can?"
Faith in fighting is nothing new. Rarely will an MMA event go by where a competitor is handed a microphone after a win and the first thing out of their mouth is praise to God for the victory. For Burress, there was never a separation between his love of martial arts and his love for Jesus, so he found a way to bring the two together and now runs a fight camp out of his church, while routinely bringing aspects of MMA into his sermons on Sundays.
The way Burress sees it, putting MMA into his church duties and finding a way to preach the word of Christ in his fight training only seemed natural. Why be one person on Sunday, only to go out the rest of the week and pretend like his religion wasn’t supposed to be talked about during those days?
"Here’s my thing, I don’t think your life should be separate. I think you should be who you are," Burress explained. "I don’t think you should be ‘this is my Sunday me, and this is my Monday-Friday me’. Like God made you, you for a reason. If he made you a computer guy, you be the best computer guy for God and use it for him. If he made you a basketball player, or an artist or a musician, then you be the best basketball player, artist or musician you can be for Christ. He made me a fighter so I’ll fight for him.
"I’m good at fighting and I’m good at telling people about Jesus. So I don’t think God wants you to be this person on one day and another person on another day. He wants you to be the you he made you."
Burress first landed on the radar of filmmaker Eben Kostbar when he was filming the 2010 movie "The Hammer" about former UFC light heavyweight competitor Matt Hamill. Kostbar wrote the screenplay and produced the independent film, which shot in upstate New York, and with a small budget he had to reach out to local business people that might be interested in contributing to his movie.
One of those people was Burress. He had his gym called Victory MMA where he allowed the stars of the film to workout including former UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin. Burress also helped with some of the fight scenes and other aspects of the martial arts component, and through making the movie he became fast friends with Kostbar. It was there that the producer of the film found out that not only did Burress have a fight team, but he managed it out of the basement of his own church. At the time, the concept struck Kostbar as something unusual and very intriguing and immediately he put his mind to work on finding a way to explore this concept on film.
"Once I found about his full on fight team and it was kind of just an extension of him, and I asked him at first ‘this is really interesting, what’s the reasoning?’ and he said ‘I really love fighting and this is who I am and it’s a way to exercise and give people a way to do an introduction for the church.’ I totally understand why he does it, and my opinion, he’s doing it from a good place," Kostbar said when looking back on meeting Burress for the first time.
It didn’t take long for Kostbar to champion a documentary looking into the idea of combining faith with fighting, and soon enough the film landed on the table of 2012 Oscar winner Daniel Junge.
Director Daniel Junge with his Oscar in 2012
Junge was fresh of an Academy Award win for his part in the documentary called "Saving Face," about acid attacks on women in countries like Pakistan. So how did the Oscar winning director go from that to MMA fight teams growing out of church basements and pastors who preached about Jesus while punching each other in the face?
"It’s such a provocative subject and I thought then, and it proved to be true, there’s lots of deeper issues that resonates with a subject like this, although it’s provocative on the surface," Junge told FOX Sports.
Going into the movie, Junge admits he definitely had a strong opinion about the people he was about to film and what he expected to see once he met the pastor and his congregation. Like the churches that handle live, venomous snakes as a way to prove their faith in God, Junge thought was going to be just another sect of religious fanatics with the newest fad being passed off as teaching about the bible.
As an admitted Agnostic himself, Junge won’t deny that what he thought he was about to witness was going to be akin Pentecostal parishioners chanting and speaking in tongues except these guys would be punching and kicking each other into submission, all for the Lord. His opinion changed quite quickly once he sat down with Burress for the first time.
"First of all, it is very controversial and downright scandalous on the face of it, but not only do you have to be passionate as a documentary filmmaker, but you have to like your subjects. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with them and no one wants to watch a film where you’re just being pejorative of your subjects. I had profound misgivings not just about certain aspects of mixed martial arts, but about combining the two. I had some pretty strong misgivings, and it was spending time with Paul (Burress) that first trip that there are people involved in this that it was very easy to be empathetic towards them," Junge said. "They’re passionate about what they do, they’re loving guys and the argument that flies the most with me is they are consenting adults doing what they want to do."
The other co-director on the film, Bryan Storkel, is a devout Christian who loves to explore the odd side of his faith like he did in his own documentary called "Holy Rollers," about a group of Christians who are also card counters, wiping out large sums of money at casinos and gambling establishments. Going from that film to a story about Christians who preach with punching was almost too easy for Storkel to jump on board once he heard about the idea.
Much like Junge, however, Storkel was shocked to see just how normal it seemed for these God fearing men and women to pray one minute and then step in the cage and fight each other the next.
"I think for us as filmmakers we went into it thinking it was going to be a lot crazier than it ended up being," Storkel said. "We definitely were thinking these people were going to be way out there and a little wacky, but once we started working with them and you realize they really are genuine people that care about what they’re doing and helping other people. They’re doing it in a way I wouldn’t do it, but they’re using what they have. They’re doing what they can to reach the people that they want to reach. It’s definitely less crazy than we thought when we got into it.
"From a glance, Christianity and fighting don’t go together so let’s look at why they’re doing this thing that seems so crazy and let’s talk about it."
From a glance, Christianity and fighting don’t go together so let’s look at why they’re doing this thing that seems so crazy and let’s talk about it
— Bryan Sorkel, producer on Fight Church
Burress and his team of fighting faithful are only one part of the film because as it turns out once the director and producer started doing some research, there were more fight churches just like this one springing up across the United States.
In Virginia, they met a young man named Preston Hocker, who was a youth pastor and fighter, preaching and teaching both the Bible and mixed martial arts. Hocker grew up as a wrestler, but got involved in MMA after a friend of his was murdered by her boyfriend and it served as a wake up call in his own life.
Hocker was so frightened by the story that he started to question if he would be able to defend himself or defend his wife if somebody ever decided to attack them. So he started looking into MMA training as a form of self-defense just to make him feel better after the loss of a friend under such tragic circumstances.
Once he started getting pretty good at the fight stuff, Hocker wanted to bring MMA into his church as a form of fellowship with other Christians and people that might want to learn alongside him. Actually putting on and participating in fights was due to Hocker wanting to test his skills because to this day he’s never punched anyone outside of MMA.
"The reason why I fought the first time is because it’s the safest way for me to test my skills to see if I could win a fight. It’s the safest place because while there is minimal equipment, it’s still the safest place, it’s a controlled atmosphere, you can get out at any time," Hocker explained.
"We just started training together for fun and it grew from there by chance. Some people would call it chance or circumstance, but I think it was a God thing. He gave me some connections with some really good people. We do training at the church, and we do stuff for kids and women like self-defense training. It kind of happened over time, we grew and grew and it just started out with guys that had the same goal."
Preston’s father is the lead pastor at his church in Virginia and as shown in the trailer, when he suggested bringing the fight team inside God’s house, the easy answer was yes. So Hocker started building a place to train in their ministry center where they also house youth ministries and even a large stage where they put on puppet shows for the kids.
Hocker doesn’t think what he’s doing by combining MMA and Christianity is really all that odd, although he gets why some people might be taken back with the idea at first. His biggest argument is that MMA on the surface might seem violent and hurtful, but in reality he sees training for a fight as a way to build relationships with friends like teammates on a football team after an intense pre-season practice.
If anything, Hocker is actually surprised more churches haven’t followed suit and opened up similar programs to the one he started or like Burress did in New York.
"I think across the board even though there are a handful of us, there are still only a handful of us. I’m surprised there aren’t more churches with martial arts clubs because I think it’s a great idea," Hocker said. "I mean I understand (MMA) is still a fairly young sport, and I understand why people don’t like the idea and it’s just because most people aren’t educated on what mixed martial arts is. They see it for the blood and the beatings and those kinds of things, and there are a lot of other things that go into than that.
"It’s just an outside of the box way of the church meeting people’s needs where they’re at."
Hocker’s passion for fighting even helped him earn one of the more creative nicknames in the sport. It was given to him by one of his wrestling students, who he worked with in middle school and high school. The kid thought Hocker deserved to have a fight name just like the famous guys on TV who fought in the UFC.
If you actually read the history of Christians, whether it’s right or wrong whatever your opinion, you’ve got to admit there’s a whole lot of fighting involved in the history of Christianity.
— Benson Henderson
"He said ‘I have the perfect nickname for you’ and he said ‘the Pastor of Disaster’ and I kind of laughed and didn’t think anything of it. But my next fight came and I TKO’d my opponent and while the doctors were checking him out, the announcer asked me if I had a nickname and so I just kind of threw it out there to see how the crowd would react and they went wild and it just kind of stuck," Hocker said.
The documentary trailer also showcases UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones as well as former champion Benson Henderson, who participated in the movie when asked about their own personal journey with faith and fighting. Henderson is one of the most outspoken fighters when it comes to religion, and it’s not something he would ever try to hide.
Henderson admits even he was a little shocked at the concept of a fight team being built in the church, but much like Burress explained, there should be no separation between who you are in your faith versus who you are in your everyday life. He also sees a clear correlation between fighting and Christianity because reading the bible cover to cover will certainly enlighten anyone on how the two go hand in hand.
"It was definitely unique, it catches your ear, catches your attention very quickly. What it is? It’s pastor versus pastor? They do a good job of that, they do a good job of catching your attention. They do a good job of that and that’s what they want," Henderson told FOX Sports.
"I don’t have a problem with it I suppose. It is a new and interesting way to catch people’s attention. If you actually read the history of Christians, whether it’s right or wrong whatever your opinion, you’ve got to admit there’s a whole lot of fighting involved in the history of Christianity. Whether you believe it in or not believe in it, there’s a whole lot of fighting in the history of Christianity. I think it is a cool, modern take."
Junge looks at the subject matter in a much different way than just a surface issue of preachers who are fighting inside the church. He looks at this as a deeper investigation into faith, fighting and society as a whole.
"I think this is a much more complex issue than on the surface. It would be very easy to make a very simplistic film where you are bashing on these guys because it’s such an incongruent combination that it would just be a way to bash on these guys. The fact that there’s complexity and nuance, and it also brings up bigger questions of why is mixed martial arts so popular right now in our society? What is the relationship between Christianity and violence? Is this sport violent by definition? These are all kind of big questions that are not explored in a short piece with scandalous sound bites," Junge said.
"It points at two things right now — the increasing popularity of MMA as a sport, and there are some people in the film that even challenge the notion of MMA as a sport, but then there’s a like minded view in some Christians right now that we need more of a warrior ethos. The country is at war, and there is, some would say, a religious component to that war, and therefore Christians need to be more battle ready if you will."
Burress simplifies things with his outlook on the film and what he’s doing inside the church by teaching MMA alongside bible scripture. He sees MMA and Christian fellowship no different than any other activity that churches may use for outreach and a way to connect with patrons.
Don’t expect Burress to change any time soon either. He’s been doing martial arts and preaching for most of his adult life, and this is just the person he believes God intended him to be. It’s that message that Burress wants to get across more than anything else is that you are who you are, and that should always be expressed in your faith as well.
"I hope that people that watch this movie and come away with be who God made you," Burress said. "The only reason I’m doing it from day one is I want people to see that you can love Christ and still be exactly who you are. You don’t have to fit into some cookie cutter religiosity. I’m not going to reach lots of people, but the people who are like minded and similar interest and I’m going to be able to reach those people."