Herbert J. Cohen
Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Born a Champion

From time to time, I re-read parts of The One of Us, the first book I wrote. It is personal, and perusing it reminds me of the peaks and valleys of my life. Reading it enables me to revisit the past and reflect on what life lessons I learned along the way.

Some of the incidents about which I wrote had a cinematic appeal and I sometimes thought that sections of it could be made into a movie with a positive life-affirming message. I had a similar feeling when I watched Born a Champion, the story of a former Marine, Mickey Kelley, who prepares for a jiu-jitsu rematch with a former opponent who inflicted brutal injuries on him as a young man, causing him to end his career. Parts of it may be true, but in the end, it is truth refracted through a fictional lens.

The film opens as a documentary would. Taco, a close friend of Mickey, speaks to the viewer about Mickey’s career. The documentary style made me think that I was watching a true story, but in fact it is not. It is a narrative of a former Marine, Mickey Kelley, who is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu prodigy. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a self-defense martial art and full-contact combat sport that is based on grappling and submission holds and does not focus on kicks or punches.

Mickey is on a trajectory to become the best practitioner of his particular sport, but then things take a turn for the worse. His vicious opponent on one fateful night is Marco Blaine, a skilled fighter who peremptorily hits Mickey at the traditional handshake ritual that begins matches. He is so badly beaten that he retires from competitive fighting.

In the ensuing years, Mickey concentrates on his role as father and husband, supporting the family by teaching his brand of martial arts to others. Serendipitously, one day a video of his fight with Marco Blaine appears on the Internet, which shows clearly that Blaine cheated.

Motivated by a desire to provide income and a financial future for his family, Mickey accepts a rematch even though he now is older and a wounded warrior. The outcome of the match will bring him financial rewards and restore his reputation as a martial arts champion. What is notable is the fact that as Mickey moves through life’s ups and downs, he, from time to time, reflects on his life’s mission. What does it mean to be a father, to be a friend, and to be a role model for your children? He takes time to evaluate his goals, his relationships, and what he wants his legacy to be.

Judaism is a religion that encourages introspection and reflection about life. As I write this review, it is a week before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The month before the holiday is regarded as a time of self-reflection, of examining our behavior during the past year, and resolving to lead a more holy life in the coming year. Rabbi Avigdor Miller, a Jewish educator and ethicist, observes that, periodically, you should spend time thinking about how you have been conducting your life, especially in the lead-up days to the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Miller states: “You must have some time to think.  Unless you want to continue in your blindness until you fall over the precipice when it’s all over and then it’s too late. At the end you’ll realize that your life has been wasted for a lack of using your mind. The golden opportunity comes once in history – you won’t come back again. And that’s what penitential prayers are designed to do. They are meant to wake you up.”

Mickey Kelley lives a purposeful, thoughtful life. He reminds us that making mid-course corrections over the course of a lifetime will create a legacy of worth for our families.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at rabbihjco@msn.com.
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