Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro ‘Grudge Match’ puts UFC in historical spotlight

Grudge Match makes one thing clear, MMA has arrived in the mainstream.

There is an intriguing, and indeed subtle, message delivered with the UFC cameo in the new movie ‘Grudge Match’, featuring Sylvester Stallone and Robert De Niro. The pair play parodies of the fictional ‘Rocky’ and the real-life Jake LaMotta from the two legendary boxing films which captured public imagination.

The reasons for this from the movie’s director Peter Segal are compelling and worth noting. It really does give the UFC a leg up.  

The two award-winning actors star as old boxing rivals who come out of retirement in Pittsburgh for one final match. Thirty years on, they are out of touch, and indeed, out of shape until they step up the into the ring for a third encounter.

In all but name, De Niro returns as LaMotta from ‘Raging Bull’ and Rocky rumbles again, in the light-hearted movie which crosses fight film genres.

But as they hype their fight, and the rivalry goes viral on the internet in much the same way that events escalate today in the mixed martial arts world, they are invited Octagonside at a UFC event, interviewed by play-by-play commentator Mike Goldberg. Who pops up out of the crowd but Chael Sonnen, in a skit in which he suggests the two old boys would be better off with pipe and slippers rather than trading blows. Sonnen, playing himself, gets a fistic retort from one of the two protagonists.    

In a sense, it’s a fascinating moment of realism. The UFC event has a packed arena, a baying passionate crowd, and has a modern-day feel, while the two old boys look around in wonderment, dazed and confused, at how the world has shifted on its axis while their gloves have gathered a covering of dust.  

While some might see the depiction of the UFC event in the film being a sideswipe from the boxing world, the film’s director Peter Segal revealed to me, after a press screening in London, that it was meant as anything but that.

It was, he explained, a genuine moment in which time, and change, was being reflected. Firstly, we know that Stallone cast Ronda Rousey in Expendables 3, which tells us all we need to know about what he thinks of the brightest star of women’s MMA.

I asked Segal if the skit was to show the two old guys were out of touch with society and sport ? If they were caught in another age ? Was the skit there to ‘advertise’ the movie to the legions of MMA fans ? Segal told me that it was there because of the historical significance the UFC has in today’s sports landscape, 38 years after ‘Rocky’ first hit the screens, and 34 years after ‘Raging Bull’ came out to great critical acclaim.

Gareth Davies and Peter Segal discuss ‘Grudge Match’.

“I grew up with boxing and now UFC is really popular and perhaps boxing is not as popular as it once was. We were showing that not only that these two great fighters were ageing but that the sport is ageing, but it still has a lot of dignity. Holding that dignity, was, I guess, the subtext of that scene.”

Segal sees UFC as the new frontier. “It’s a brutal sport, it’s very different. As a matter of fact I talked to a couple of boxers and they said it’s hard for them to even watch UFC. It’s hard to watch, it’s brutal, but it’s the new sport and you have to take it seriously.” So he did.

Having seen the film, it is unlikely to feature in any Oscar ceremony, but it is a feel-good movie in which De Niro and Stallone play Billy “The Kid” McDonnen and Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp, two local Pittsburgh fighters whose rivalry puts them in the national spotlight for a trilogy fight, three decades after they stand at 1-1 after two encounters. The inclusion of the UFC, alongside two icons from much-loved boxing movies, serves as a compliment and an affirmation of the spreading influence of mixed martial arts.