Billy Corben's "Dawg Fight" looks at DIY pugilism in West Perrine, Florida, one-time home of Kimbo Slice aka "King of the Web Brawlers," in 2008. A viral sensation from videos of mutual combat street fights, Slice made it out of the ghetto into a stable mixed martial arts career. For the most part, "Dawg Fight" is the story of those who don't. Perrine, a predominantly black neighborhood (with whites in East Perrine, having developed in segregated fashion) is plagued by poverty, unemployment, and high crime rates, with a sizable portion of its males ending up incarcerated or not even making it past 30. Corben is less interested in the voyeuristic miserablism this would suggest than in communal bonds built around potential escape, here offered by former Kimbo-apprentice-turned-stentorian-backyard-organizer Dhafir "Dada 5000" Harris and his family. Dada refers to Perrine as "the dark side" of Miami no one knows about, with hopes of changing that for the better.
The fights offer a mediated outlet for frustration and a way to avoid recidivism, given the structural barriers to steady, legal employment for ex-cons—about half the fighters have served time and are trying to provide for their families and avoid further imprisonment. Corben approaches the political implications through genre, allowing the stakes of the fights (prosper in the MMA or perish in Perrine) to illuminate turmoil, where the toil of labor is sped up and condensed into a bloody visage. Occasionally, he peppers the periphery with pointed juxtapositions: The first third of the movie is set around the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, and there's a lingering shot of parade banners that show they're sponsored by the department of solid waste management; a white, adenoidal Obama campaigner shows up to a fight offering a narrow, weirdly opportunistic definition of post-election communal support; there's talk of booking the Miami Beach Convention Center, selling out American Airlines Arena, making it on South Beach, where migratory aspirations put into stark relief just how much Perrine's ghetto is walled off from the rest of Dade-County. Later, hypocrisy looms in how the backyards are both crowdsourced for and criminalized by MMA organizations.
Corben's approach is raw and on the fly, as if the entire thing was shot for a fighter's YouTube channel, or a Vine on Worldstar, while also providing the intimacy of home video. Instead of working within the one-take confines of similar caught-on-videophone content, Corben continues his maximal hyperedited approach, bridging the gap between his professional stints on ESPN's "30 For 30" and, say, a Jonathan Caouette movie. Split-screened fighter intros zoom in to human interest-style mini-bios before the fights themselves swirl and smash-cut with Bourne-style rumble cam, while candid moments between spectators and interviews with loved ones provide a greek chorus, in particular Dada's mother and a crew of older women. One of the latter sums up the film and society's dichotomous relationship with fighting, saying, "I'm against violence, I work for the children's home society so I have to say that but . . . that fight was off the chain!"
Side note: "Dawg Fight" was made in 2009 with intention to distribute in 2012, so it's hard to hold it accountable for not dwelling on the brief mentions of domestic abuse and fatal tasering that appear in the film, given the recent Floyd Mayweather controversy and the national pandemic of police violence, though both may have amplified the already potent themes on display here.