EXCLUSIVE: Documentary maker Billy Corben has been mining Miami for tough-minded material for nearly two decades, including notable projects such as Cocaine Cowboys and ESPN’s two The U docs about the University of Miami’s rogue athletic program. He also produced and directed Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, which had a spot at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001. But he’s never had a film like Dawg Fight, nor a more complicated response from would-be distributors.

Dawg Fight brawler“Of all the responses, my favorites were three: Too urban, too violent, too real,” Corben said. Oddly, those critiques by potential distributors “seem to describe everything popular in American culture as well.”

With producing partner Alfred Spellman, Corben tracked the rise of backyard mixed-martial-arts fights in a tough corner of South Florida known as West Perrine. They self-financed the project, filming for more than two years, and spent two to three more in post production and editing while working on several other paying gigs. But when it came time to find distributors for Dawg Fight, well, that got a lot more complicated.

“I think we had envisioned a more traditional path, shooting footage, cutting a reel together and showing it to people,” Corben said. “That was not in the cards. They weren’t put off by the quality. Everyone seemed very passionate and effusive about the story and the subject matter, and very effusive about it, but nobody wanted to do it.”

So instead, Corben and Spellman’s company, Rakontur, has posted the trailer above on Vimeo. Next week, on March 13, after a screening at the Miami Film Festival, Rakontur will begin selling Dawg Fight for $5 through dawg-fight.com, using technology from VHX to provide the billing and fulfillment.

Dawg Fight Dhafir Harris Dada 5000The film tracks Dhafir “Dada 5000” Harris, a former bodyguard for one-time MMA sensation Kimbo Slice. The hulking, charismatic Dada began organizing, promoting and even refereeing the backyard, bare-knuckle fights at the heart of the film’s narrative. Later, after state authorities cracked down on the increasingly popular but unregulated matches, Harris had to decide whether to step into the ring himself, in more legitimate settings, to continue to fight his way out of West Perrine’s extreme poverty.

In somewhat similar fashion, the film itself has had to scuffle and fight to get seen. But Corben said one advantage was that he and Spellman had no partners on the film, and no debt, because they owned the cameras and post-production equipment. That allowed them the freedom to try a different approach for distribution.

And given the shifting opportunities for VOD online releases before, during or after theatrical releases for smaller films, Corben said, “I don’t think it prevents us from doing anything. We’re not precious about our distribution or awards or anything but finding an audience for the work. Our goals are not much loftier than that.”

To help promote the film, Rakontur will tap its own substantial presence on social media, and will begin posting 15-second trailers and excerpts from the film, as will Dada 5000, who has a substantial following too. Corben also appeared on Joe Rogan‘s popular podcast. Rogan, of course, is also the between-match commentator on the UFC pay-per-view matches.

Now they’re hoping the film can fight its way to success, just as those captured on tape were trying to do.

“The tragic thing about it is, the goal of these guys is to make a better life,” Corben said. “They videotaped themselves and they hope to get discovered, then go pro. We saw at least five guys go pro, but two other guys didn’t live that long. (They died) from other circumstances” out on the streets of West Perrine.