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Monday, November 1, 2010


I was never interested in mixed martial arts, or "extreme fighting", because I always had the impression that it was simply an excuse for people to watch a couple of bozos in a cage beat each other to a bloody pulp.  Why should I be interested in that?  TAPOUT: THE COMPLETE SERIES (2007-2008) is an entertaining and informative answer to that question.

"Tapout" is what an opponent does when he's had enough and must submit by literally tapping the canvas.  It's also the name of the line of sports clothing and gear founded in 1997 by Charles Lewis, known as "Mask" because of his penchant for decorating his face with camo paint.  After a humble beginning that saw Mask selling his wares from the back of a car at local fighting events, the company grew to include his friends Dan "Punkass" Caldwell and Tim "SkySkrape" Katz and went on to make millions. 

The 20 episodes in this 5-disc set document the adventures of Mask, Punkass, and SkySkrape as they travel the country in their RV looking for up-and-coming fighters to sponsor in their first major MMA event.  Each episode follows his training and preparation as we and the Tapout crew get to know him and learn what makes him tick.  Then comes the climactic fight which rarely fails to be suspenseful and exciting.  With a mix of traditional boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and whatever else , the action is non-stop and the outcomes unpredictable.  And, contrary to my preconceptions, the violence hardly ever exceeds that of a regular boxing match (not by all that much, anyway).

That isn't to say that you won't find yourself getting a little squeamish on occasion.  Blood does flow, and there are times when a fighter is pummeled like a human punching bag.  You'll see guys getting elbow-bashed repeatedly in the face, and in the first episode one fighter's arm gets bent the wrong way, which had me cringing.  Aside from these instances, though, I found myself gradually appreciating the skills and strategy that each fighter brought into the ring--some specializing in the "stand up" (traditional boxing and kickboxing) and others concentrating on their "ground game" where wrestling and jiu-jitsu come into play.  Those who are equally adept at both usually come out on top.  (More often than not, surprisingly, the ground game is the deciding factor.)

The fighters are a diverse bunch of characters.  Some are troubled kids who would otherwise be headed down a path of gang violence and crime.  Others are struggling to better the lives of themselves and their families.  There's a SWAT cop, a cowboy from down on the farm, a guy who's getting back into the game after having his colon removed, and a mama's boy who wants to be a superhero. 

In one segment, the guys decide to sponsor their first female, Julie Kedzie, after being impressed by her workout in the gym.  In another, they must contend with a hostile young fighter who's at war with the world and everyone in it.  Little if any of the show seems staged, and there's none of the forced drama that infests most "reality" shows because none is needed--these characters and their stories are interesting enough as they are.

Speaking of characters, the Tapout boys are continually fun to watch as they travel the country and get into mischief at every turn.  Mask, whose hyena-like laugh is heard throughout each episode, is a loud, boisterous, and very likable bundle of energy with a childlike fascination with the world around him.  Highly outgoing, he uses his unorthodox social skills to make connections and help the fighters through any physical or emotional troubles they may have. 

At 6'7", SkySkrape is a strange sight in his big-hair wigs and novelty glasses, and serves as Tapout's main comedy relief.  In stark contrast is the diminutive Punkass, a strong, silent type who handles most of the company business and maintains a bemused deadpan during his companions' prankish antics.

It's fun watching these guys hang out at the various gyms and scout new fighters to sponsor, or simply take advantage of all the fun that can be had in each new location that they find themselves in.  This may include autograph-signing events, appearances on radio shows, or auditioning sexy bikini babes for their promotional photos.  On the flip side, we also see them staking a homeless fighter to three months' rent on an apartment (followed by three more if he keeps up his training), and generally going the extra mile for those less fortunate.  Behind all the clowning, they seem to be truly stand-up guys.

It all leads up to the big fight that usually takes up the last ten or fifteen minutes of each episode.  After each bout, Mask, SkySkrape, and Punkass offer their play-by-play analysis along with slow-motion highlights of the best moments.  The slam-bang action and the suspense of seeing if Tapout's chosen competitor is going to win each time are addictive, and I found myself watching all 20 episodes of this thoroughly entertaining series in just a few marathon sessions.  Needless to say, I now have a new appreciation for mixed martial arts and the athletes who participate in it.

The 5-disc collection from Image Entertainment is in full-screen with Dolby Digital stereo.  There are no subtitles and no extras.  The discs are stacked in a clamp-like device that I don't think I've encountered before, but after some careful thought I devised a clever method of getting the discs in and out without much trouble.

About halfway through viewing TAPOUT: THE COMPLETE SERIES, I discovered that Charles "Mask" Lewis was killed on March 11, 2009, in an auto accident involving a drunk driver.  In addition to being a major bringdown, the fact that I knew he didn't have long to live really forced me to watch the rest of the series in a whole new light.  Whether cutting up with SkySkrape in the back of their Tapout RV with the unflappable Punkass at the wheel, or mixing it up with old and new friends all along the way, Mask seemed to be having a ball living his life every minute of the day.  I guess this series is as good a way as any to remember him.

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