Friday, October 7, 2011

MMA and Pythagorean's Theorem Perverted

While visiting my father recently, I saw two films with him.

Warrior starring Joel Edgerton & Tom Hardy; with Nick Nolte; directed by Gavin O'Connor; (2011) - Official Website

Moneyball starring Brad Pitt; with Jonah Hill & Philip Seymour Hoffman; directed by Bennett Miller; (2011) - Official Website

My father wanted to see Warrior. Neither of us were keen on Moneyball but it fit our schedule.


Warrior was surprisingly enjoyable for me. The story is about two brothers from Pittsburgh, PA. Interestingly, Australian Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom) and Irishman Tom Hardy (didn't he write Tess of the d'Urbervilles?) are cast as Brendan and his younger brother Tommy, respectively.

The two brothers enter a $5 million, winner-take-all, MMA tournament. When I was chatting about this film at work, I mentioned MMA to two of my colleagues. They were not familiar with the term. MMA stands for Mixed Martial Arts. The most well known organization is UFC or Ultimate Fighting. I'm not sure if my familiarity with MMA puts me in a certain demographic or marketing category. Subsequent conversations with friends and coworkers lead me to believe I associate with people who don't appreciate (or are even aware of) MMA.

MMA combines boxing, wrestling and martial arts into a competition. The fighters compete in a boxing ring with some modifications - a chain link fence instead of ropes and the shape is closer to a circle than a square. As a result MMA fighters are sometimes called cage fighters or are said to compete in the octagon.

The tagline gives the impression that one fights for country and one fights for family. That's not entirely true. Brendan fights for money. He's a UFC fighter turned school teacher. His Philadelphia house mortgage is upside down. His wife works as a cocktail waitress in a sketchy club. Brendan moonlights as a bouncer; at least that's what he tells his wife. In reality, he competes in "smokers" which are basically unsanctioned MMA bouts in the parking lots of bars and strip clubs.

When his MMA activities are discovered by school administrators, he is suspended for the semester. That gives him the opportuniuty to train full time and travel around to smokers with larger prizes. The only problem is he promised his wife he would quit the fight game when he got into teaching. She's not too happy about the situation but their choices are limited. Brendan is quite adamant about not losing the house.

Back in Pittsburgh, Tommy returns from Iraq and looks up his father Paddy (Nolte). Paddy was a drunk and a terror during his sons' youth. Tommy's amazed to see the old man is on the wagon and listening to motivational tapes (with an old school Walkman too!). Tommy is the more interesting brother by far. Tommy & his mother ran away from Paddy and kept their location a secret. Brendan (the older brother) stayed in Pittsburgh with his father. By appearance, he stayed to be with his girlfriend (now wife) but he later admits he was jealous of Tommy because he thought Tommy was Paddy's favorite.

I'm not sure why Tommy looks up Paddy. He's still angry and resentful and has no desire for reconcilliation. Tommy makes no attempt to look up his brother in Philly as he is still angry towards him for not going with him and their mother. There's a lot of anger and resentment in this film. Both sons refuse to forgive their father; Brendan only allows telephone and letter contact between him and his father. Tommy is angry at Brendan although the feeling is not reciprocated.

Tommy begins to train at a gym when he gets into it with a top MMA contender who also trains there. Tommy knocks him out and the sparring session is caught on a cell phone camera. It goes viral and Tommy's KO becomes an internet sensation. Lured by Sparta, a $5 million, winner-take-all, MMA tournament, Tommy begins to train in earnest and solicits the help of his father who trained him as a champion wreslter as a boy. Paddy hopes that training his son will lead to a rapprochement between the two but Tommy is having none of it.

The top rated figher at the gym Brendan trains at goes down with an injury. He was scheduled to compete in Sparta. Brendan begs the trainer (who trained Brendan when he was in UFC) to get him into Sparta as the last minute replacment. He reluctantly agrees and the stage is set for brother vs. brother. No one knows their brothers because Tommy is using their mother's maiden name.

Tommy turns out to be a war hero. While in the Corps, he saved some drowning marines. Also, he keeps tabs on his best friend's widow (in my hometown of El Paso). If he wins, he pledges the $5 M prize to the widow. It appears he is fighting for altruistic reasons but in reality is fighting because it is the only release for his rage and guilt. He has rage towards his family for abandoning him. He has survivor's guilt because his brother-in-arms was killed. Not only that but Tommy's gone AWOL which is the real reason for using an alias.

Hardy's performance and appearance are striking. At one point, a fighter mocks him by asking "Yo! Where's Paulie and Mick?" Hardy looks a little like Stallone (more like Michael Paré in my opinion). Hardy must have lifted weights like a fiend for the role. He has massive trapezius muscles which give him this hunched over, no-neck thuggish look which matches his ring performance. Despite being a champion wrestler, Tommy is a one-punch, knockout artist. He channels his rage into his fists and the onslaught is terrifying.

Brendan's matches are closer to Rocky. Brendan absorbs massive punishment but can take a punch and refuses to tapout. Eventually, he finds a way to win using a submission move such as getting an arm or leg in position to bend it in painful and injurious ways.

That synopsis wasn't very brief. I must have liked the film and action more than I initially thought. As I mentioed, Tom Hardy shines. Joel Edgerton's character is more well adjusted so he suffers in comparison. Nolte does well as the repentant father. Frank Grillo as Brendan's charismatic, Beethoven preaching trainer also captures attention. Kevin Dunn, one of the most prolific character actors today, shows up as Brendan's principal. Strong performances all around.

The acting was strong, the plot was somewhat predictable and lacking explanation as to what causes all this anger. The fight scenes were hyper-realized but not so much as to be distractng. Hardy, a serviceable plot and some well choreographed fight scenes make for a worthwhile film.


Moneyball was well reported in the Bay Area. Many of scenes were shot in Oakland. I recognized many of shots filmed at the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum (or whatever it's called now). Brad Pitt's comings and going were also reported. I'm a casual baseball fan to boot. My father doesn't like baseball and has never been to the Coliseum. He told me at after the film that he was quite bored by it.

I found the film a little more interesting although living in the Bay Area and enjoying baseball probably helped. The premise of Moneyball (based on a nonfiction book by Michael Lewis) is that the Oakland A's could not compete because their financial resources were so limited. They were being outbid for the best players. General Manager Billy Beane (Pitt) hires Paul DePodesta (Jonah Hill and his surname was changed to Brandt in the film) to revolutionize the way baseball players are evaluated. Paul has a degree in economics from Yale and use statistic analysis and computer modeling to evluate players in more sophisticated ways than traditional baseball scouts. One entertaining session involved A's scouts discussing a prospect. They agreed that the "ugly girlfriend method" was sound. If a prospect had an ugly girlfriend, it meant he lacked self-confidence.

I knew where the film ended - the A's win 20 in a row setting an American League, they lose in the playoffs and Beane's approach is copied by the Boston Red Sox who break an 86 year title drought. Putting aside the facts of the situation, Moneyball was a limp film. Brad Pitt tried to portray Beane as this driven man frustrated by the ignorance of his underlings. If Beane was so smart, why did he not put a manager in place to optimize the talent he assembled. Brandt's methods uncovered undervalued players which Oakland could sign but manager Art Howe looked to play traditional players who played traditional baseball.

From a purely logical perspective, the film was frustratingly inconsistent. Beane & Brandt were the smartest guys in the room but couldn't convince the manager and players of their method. Cinematically, drawing a walk is not that exciting even they did put a slow motion scene in where David Justice takes four balls.

The film also seemed to have severely edited. Beane has a wife (he wears a wedding band) but she is never seen or mentioned. The scenes with Beane's teenage daughter from his first marriage (whom he has joint custody or extended visitation rights). Her character seemed superfluous. The ballplayers only get cursory character development. Instead, we get a bit of buddy flick/mentor film between Pitt and Hill. The third most screen time goes to Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays Art Howe as dyspeptic foil for Beane. The real Art Howe has criticized the depiction of him in the film. I'm sure that liberties were taken but Hoffman's performance is about the best thing in the film. He wears a perpetual look of shock, disgust and disdain and he speaks in measured tones like a man who doesn't like his boss but figures it's more professional & better for his future employment in baseball to keep a lid on his frustrations.

Moneyball has a few smile inducing scenes but otherwise only A's fans or hardcore baseball/Brad Pitt fans should go see it.


Before it became a fad, I was a member of SABR (Society of American Baseball Research), which is the organization that pioneered the statistical analysis featured in Moneyball. Their periodic publications were like mathematical journals. There was a whole bunch of formulas and I always wondered if it was valid to divide by a number or add two numbers together. "Sabermetricians" are like alchemists adding a little of this and subtracting a little of that to come up with golden numbers.

Bill James who is lionized in Moneyball, invented the Pythagorean expectation or Pythagorean winning percentage. When compared to actual wins, the Pythagorean expectation measures how lucky or unlucky a team is. The formula is

Pythagorean expectation = (Runs Scored)^2/[((Runs Scored)^2)+({Runs Allowed)^2)]

Why square the runs scored or the runs allowed? It doesn't make sense. However, James basically backed into the formula. He analyzed the data and observed the relationship through statistical tools. If the numbers needed to be cubed to make the correlation higher, the formula would have been different.

Sabermetrics is kind of fun. I had a professor who would have called sabermetrics "mathematical masturbation" - you play with the numbers because it's fun, you keep playing with the numbers because it feels good and eventually you have to stop playing with the numbers because you have other things to do. I admit I like to play with numbers. Eventually, I had to move on because I got playing with baseball numbers; especially when the coefficients and exponents don't have real world meaning; when you're finished you haven't accomplished anything but you feel better. Now I watch films..

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