Friday January 6th, 2012

A new docuseries tracks the lives of three fighters from a small town outside of Shreveport, La. (Courtesy of MTV)

MMA is new.

The UFC was founded in 1993. MLB has roots in 1869. Dana White’s organization won’t be 20 years old until November of 2013. That gives fighters the rare opportunity to start the sport later in life and still work their way to the highest level.

“Everyone is just a few wins away from being relevant,” said Matt Schnell, an amateur fighter from a small town in Louisiana who goes by the nickname “Danger.”

Caged, a new docuseries that debuts Monday (10 p.m. ET, MTV), follows the path of amateur fighters like Schnell who fight in small towns and train in backyards.

Wes Branch is a fighter.

He started boxing at age 13, then kickboxing and finally MMA training four years ago, but he’s always been a fighter.

Growing up in a home where his parents weren’t around, Branch was always involved in fights in his small Louisiana town. A teacher encouraged him to take up boxing since he was starting so many fights as an eighth grader. MMA was a logical transition.

"I started thinking, 'Man, I might want to throw somebody on their head,'" said Branch, who trains in friends’ backyards when he isn’t working full time to support his son Jaxon and Jaxon’s mother Red.

He was never bothered by the cameras that followed him and his friends around to film Caged. Branch isn’t shy. He says losing a fight is like the apocalypse coming (it isn’t going to happen anytime soon) and is honest enough to tell you he’s going to miss the season premiere of Caged on Jan. 9 at 9 p.m. on MTV because he’ll be watching the BCS national title game between LSU and Alabama.

“You can ask me anything about my life and I’m going to tell you,” said Branch, who is almost certainly the first athlete from his town to be interviewed by Sports Illustrated.

He won’t use his childhood as an excuse. The young father wasn’t expected to graduate high school but he finished it with a GPA that ranked in the top 10. He wasn’t even supposed to go to college, but he worked to pay bills and buy books while he earned an associate degree in instrumentation technology. Branch hopes that viewers that grew up in similar situations can learn from his story.

He loves to fight, but doesn’t think a UFC career is a realistic goal for him. His first fight was at 135 pounds against Dustin Poirier, who is now a UFC featherweight (145 pounds). However, Branch still has to train in a backyard and work a full-time job and be a father. As he’s gotten older he’s started fighting at 170 pounds.

“I just can’t see me performing at the top of my game,” Branch said, when asked about his current training situation. While he dreams of being a rapper with a major record deal, he’s content with the life he’s fought for. When asked if the cameras changed his behavior he replied, “Naw man, it’s just plain old Wesley.” -- S.B.

The 10-episode series will follow the lives of three fighters from a small town outside of Shreveport, La. Schnell is a young promising fighter who has given up his job and moved back in with his parents to focus on MMA full-time. Daniel Payne, another main character, is a successful boxer nicknamed Golden Boy who struggles to succeed in MMA after his first love was killed in a car accident. Wes Branch, the final fighter followed by the show, has overcome a virtually parentless childhood to get a full-time job to support his son Jaxon and Jaxon’s mother Red.

The show's characters are its strongest feature. The wide variety of compelling backstories have to overlap in a town that makes Friday Night Lights’ fictional Dillon look big. Minden, La., the town featured in “Caged,” doesn’t even have a bar that shows UFC fights so Branch and his buddies watched them in Paynes’ garage during their high school days.

None of the shows characters are perfect protagonists. They’re all real characters that can be easily related to. Branch doesn’t have the time or the money to train at a gym. Instead he finds himself rolling around in backyards late at night after he gets off work. It’s easy to see why he’d throw back a couple Bud Lights while he breaks down his film.

Scenes of Branch training is his backyard or Payne talking to an on-again, off-again girlfriend in an empty parking lot after one of his fights are where the show is strongest. It provides a look into the lifestyle of fighters before they make it big. Donald Cerrone and Leonard Garcia shared a bunk bed in Greg Jackson’s gym before they won enough fight bonuses to buy their own ranch. When Branch tells you he doesn’t like fighters that lay and prey and grind out decision victories it’s hard to be surprised. His favorite fighter is Nate Diaz, not because he loves his style -- but because he knows Diaz is a real fighter. Branch started training MMA in 2006, but he’s been fighting since he was a kid. This show helps fans relate to UFC fighters’ roots and shows you a glimpse of the countless amateurs who won’t ever have professional fight contracts.

However, there’s a reason Caged airs on the same network as Jersey Shore. For every fight scene there’s a corresponding party in Paynes’ garage or a bar sequence. The scenes take away from the amateur fighting core that ties the show together and can sometimes focus too much on less developed characters like Schnell’s sister. The bar scene time lapses take this so-called docu-series well into the realm of reality TV and may deter some fight fans from watching -- although then again it’s not much different from seeing the cast of The Ultimate Fighter getting drunk at the house they’re all living in. It’s to be expected from both shows and Caged definitely doesn’t follow the obviously stale recipe of The Ultimate Fighter. Cut scenes of bars and BBQ restaurants replace the same repeated gym poster introductions of the UFC’s reality show. While The Ultimate Fighter searches for the next Forrest Griffin, Caged gives you a real-life Tim Riggins.

-- Stephen Boyle

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