Part II: Champ: A Day in the Life of an Aspiring Fighter

Q&A with Holly Johnson
Holly Johnson filming Champ.

Boxing is a unique sport. Of all the traditional sports, boxing is the only sport which you don’t play per se. The brain damage and the ring fatalities over the years speak for that statement. The sport flourished over the decades and has become ingrained in our culture. And whenever a sport as brutal as boxing begins to become mainstream, there is an inherent tendency to sweep the “bad” under the rug in order to put the spotlight exclusively on the “good”. When we think about the “good”, we talk about fame, wealth and glory, titles, celebrity girlfriends and million-dollar sports cars. Yet the reality remains that very few reach that point, while the vast majority do not. In her movie Champ, up-and-coming movie director Holly Johnson tried to portray this less flattering aspect of the sport which we love no matter what. For this reason, I decided to trouble her for a couple minutes of her time in order to find out what her upcoming movie was all about. So without any further ado, I present to you: Holly Johnson.

Q: Holly, let’s just jump right into it. So first question: who are you for starters?

A: I’m a film student at Concordia University but I’m originally from British Colombia. Being both Canadian and hailing from the West Coast, I inadvertently grew up in a hockey family. I’m thus a Vancouver Canucks fan (and a Pavel Bure fan) even if the sport was indirectly forced upon me through my brother who played the sport.

Q: You’re thus very far away from home; what brought you all the way to Montreal?

A: I always wanted to do movies, so I ended being accepted in the film studies program at Concordia University, so here I am.

Q: Okay, so you’re hockey fan, but how did you end up becoming a fight fan as well?

My ex-boyfriend is an aspiring mixed martial artist. Therefore I got to be indirectly exposed to the sport the same way I had been previously exposed to hockey. I witnessed first-hand all the little instances, all the small things which you don’t necessarily see on camera. Over time, it grew on me and I simply came to love it.

Q: So you love MMA, but why then did you choose to shoot a movie on boxing; why didn’t you simply decide to shoot a movie on MMA?

A: Well, first of all, I didn’t like the idea of shooting a movie through a cage; so a ring was a better alternative by far. And then I lost my lead actor and I didn’t know if the replacement would be as convincing in regards to portraying a mixed martial artist. Moreover, Montreal is a big boxing city. All those factors combined made it simply more feasible in the end. As I mentioned before, I personally witnessed all the little details prior to a fight that the camera doesn’t always catch: the good and the bad. The preparation, the success, the thrill but also the emotional toll that fighting takes on a fighter, the blackouts and injuries, the stress, the isolation, the doubts. And I know that be it MMA or boxing, fighters from both sports go through the same ordeal. So in the end, I knew that by making it a boxing movie, I could still depict the same strife, struggle and hardships.

Q: Would you say then that this is what you want the viewer to take home with him after watching your movie?

A: Absolutely. The feeling of isolation is an important theme in my movie. But I wanted that feeling of isolation to resonate on both ends, not just from the fighter’s end. Thus, by both “ends” I also mean all the people close to him who ultimately wind up being shut out. Moreover, when you talk about prizefighting as a whole, money and earthly possessions (e.g. cars, houses, jewels, fancy clothes etc.) often comes to mind. Yet, I don’t like fighters who fight mainly, let alone exclusively, for economic gains. Therefore, I wanted to portray a fighter who was ready to put everything on the line just for the sake of succeeding in the sport that he loved more than anything and anyone else in the world. I’m saying this because the sad truth is that most fighters don’t make it big and are largely forgotten; in fact, many never get to be known in the first place and yet, they all start off with the same hopes and dreams as anybody else, including the few, select millionaire champions, past or present, who tasted the fruits of their hard labour.

Q: Would you be, hypothetically-speaking of course, interested in shooting a mixed martial arts movie sometime in the future?

A: Absolutely. After all, it’s the fastest growing sport and a sport that I love on top of that. I respect the chess-match aspect of boxing, but I always enjoyed the versatile, broader range of techniques in MMA.

Q: You’ve previously mentioned that other than a few than a few women’s kickboxing class, you’re quite “green” in terms of fighting experience; how did you prepare for this movie in order to make it as believable as possible?

A: I most certainly did my homework in the sense that I watched a lot of boxing movies. I literally watched everything I could get my hands on. I obviously had to watch something on the sport I was going to present, but also I had to watch from a cinematographic point of view. Raging Bull was a great inspiration; I loved the close-ups and the subjective view, I felt you really got the little emotions and the intimacy of the action. You’re right in there with the character so it’s almost as if you’re experiencing what he’s experiencing. I also watched Warrior, which is an MMA movie, but I still watched it to give me yet another sense of perspective and that movie was shot from the audience’s perspective so you’re outside the cage .The Fighter is shot as if you’re on TV way up here. But Raging Bull gave the vibe I was looking for my movie.

Q: Did you get to talk to any big names in the boxing community?

A: I spoke to Dickie Eklund! It was so great and that’s all thanks to Justin (Etheridge); during the shoot, we were just talking about everything and nothing and he mentioned at some point that he knew Dickie, portrayed by Christian Bale in the movie The Fighter. Next thing I know, he takes out his phone and dials his number. Dickie picks up, briefly introduces me and then passes me the phone. I ended up asking him just for kicks and giggles who would win if Bale and him fought for real (Christian Bale is widely known as being a fast learner and possessing photographic memory). He ended up just saying: “Christian Bale is just an actor.” He’s a real riot.

Q: Final question: you mentioned that you came to love mixed martial arts over time, what is your stance regarding boxing?

I like it but at the present time, I don’t enjoy it as much as watching the UFC for instance. Yet, I know that this is mainly due to the fact that I don’t understand it as well as mixed martial arts. Boxing is a chess match and I thus know for a fact that once I delve into it more seriously in order to understand all the intricacies and subtleties of the sport, I might very well end up enjoying it as much as I currently enjoy watching MMA fights.

So this concludes our interview with the very ambitious and insightful Holly Johnson. For those of you living in the Montreal area, you have the unique opportunity to watch the first screening of her upcoming short free of charge next month at Concordia University (see details below). And for all of you out there who wish to not only take up the “sweet science” but to compete as well, just remember that boxing is the real thing; although it is a sport, it is a sport that you don’t play.

Champ

April 15th at 7pm

Sir George Williams Alumni Auditorium

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