The Cage Fighter (2018)

NR Running Time: 80 mins



  • Fans of films featuring boxing, wrestling, or cage fighters, stripped away from their public persona and presented as real, will find a lot to dig into here.

  • Joe Carman is a journeyman character we want to see succeed, making for a compelling film.

  • Efficient, at 80 minutes, The Cage Fighter wastes no time in drawing us into Joe Carman's world and allowing us to live vicariously through him.


  • Leaves a lot of questions unanswered and Joe's stubbornness can become difficult to defend.

  • Those with a sensitivity to MMA or boxing may want to tap out and avoid this one.

  • Whether true or not, elements of this feel staged and that may call into question some of the credibility the movie strives to achieve.


Blurring the lines between docudrama and documentary at times, The Cage Fighter is a movie documenting Joe Carman, a 40-year-old mixed martial art brawler trying to make a success of himself in the world of underground cage fighting.

This simple premise becomes complicated quickly as we watch Carman in and out of his training regimen. At home, he has a loving wife, Norinda, who suffers from an unnamed chronic illness. Together, they have two daughters, and Joe has two daughters from a previous marriage. He works on ferry boats in Washington state. And his passion is MMA.

After battling in some underground fights, and with financial and physical hardships ailing him and his wife, Joe puts his MMA dreams on the shelf. The push and pull to fight, to take the pent up frustrations he feels on a daily basis and channel them in the cage, leads to his resuming training for an upcoming fight. Needless to say, he withholds these details and so when his family discovers he has taken up the trade once again, they are not at all amused.

Directed by Jeff Unay, The Cage Fighter is a fly-on-the-wall documentary that gives us a sympathetic figure to focus on and study. At 40 years of age, the opponents who stand across from Joe are in their early-to-mid 20’s. They are faster, stronger, more agile, and possess better striking ability. And yet, Joe persists. He knows that he can be great at this and he sets out to prove to himself, his family, and his parents, that he can succeed and prove his doubters wrong.

Unay’s directorial debut is missing some details, largely from the way it has been constructed. We have a lot of questions watching this which fail to get answered, but there are moments that are breathtaking to watch. Carman’s fight with 24-year-old Clayton Hoy takes place for a multitude of reasons; not the least of which is Carman trying to see if he can hang with the younger wave of fighters he will encounter if he starts amassing victories. We soon realize, perhaps before Carman does, that he seems to not be doing this for conventional victories; here, the Win-Loss record is not ultimately all that important.

Wins do matter of course in MMA fighting, but when we see Joe argue and deflect when his wife and daughters beg him to stop fighting, he see this means something to Joe they may never understand. As one daughter tearfully pleads with him, recognizing that Norinda is very ill and if Joe is unable to work they may lose everything. Joe tries to convince her (and himself) that all of this won’t happen. She has nothing to worry about, as she sobs and wipes away her tears.

A vicious, fiery exchange occurs between Joe and his alcoholic father, and we start to fill in some of the gaps. Joe is fighting a whole lot more than 20-something upstarts inside a steel cage.

At 80 minutes, The Cage Fighter is efficient filmmaking, almost too expedient in working through its footage. At times, the film feels as if a few scenes have been scripted or laid out ahead of time, blurring lines as stated above.

Joe is a character we can seemingly relate to.

We all fight for things, most of us just do it through self-advocacy at work, for a cause of some kind, for security within a family structure, or among our peers. For Joe, he simply fights to matter. And like so many before him, and many after him, his wife and children try to empower him to see he matters to them. Sadly, we have to wonder if Joe will ever find absolution from within the walls of the cage which keeps inviting him in and holding him down.


Starring: Joe Carman, Norinda Reed, Clayton Hoy, Vernon Beach, Callie Carman, Delanee Carman, Kira Carman, Mia Carman

Director: Jeff Unay
Release Date: February 2, 2018
IFC Films/Sundance Selects