“Boondock Saints” star Sean Patrick Flanery holds Black Belts in both karate and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, so it’s no surprise he staged all the stunts in co-writer & director Alex Ranarivelo’s “Born A Champion,” (*** OUT OF ****), a sentimental, hard knocks, mixed martial arts tearjerker that borrows heavily from Sylvester Stallone’s boxing classic “Rocky” (1976).

Indeed, Flanery isn’t so much playing a fictional character as much as he is playing himself since he is a real-life Jiu Jitsu instructor with no aspirations to tangle in tournaments. He prefers to stop fights rather than start them. Like the film’s heroic protagonist Mickey Kelly, Flanery owns his own Jiu Jitsu gym and trains clients of all ages.

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Mickey Kelly’s most endearing trait is his sense of utter humility. Kelly contends with far greater adversity than Flanery will ever face. Meantime, Flanery infuses Mickey with an amiable charisma but without a shred of pugnacity.

Flanery dreamed up the origins story for this globe-trotting fight feature, and Ranarivelo and he have taken stereotypes and turned them into unforgettable characters. This R-rated, 102-minute, melodrama boasts a seasoned cast, co-starring Dennis Quaid as MMA fight promoter Dick Mason, Katrina Bowden as Mickey’s love interest, and Costas Mandylor as an unsavory Greek fur salesman. Flanery and Ranarivelo stick Mickey in a variety of suspenseful situations. T

he initial clash between Mickey and Dimitris spawns ill-feelings between the two men. Mickey is pretty saintly when he turns head over heels for his future wife, Layla, (Katrina Bowden of “Piranha 3DD”), a pretty North Carolina paralegal lured to Dubai under false pretenses to model furs for the unscrupulous Dimitris Kostopoulos.

Mickey’s best friend, a tattooed Hispanic auto mechanic named Taco (Maurice Compte of “Den of Thieves”) provides voice-over narration and shares his perspective about our hero’s enigmatic backstory. The layer of dramatic oversight Taco contributes with his running commentary throughout “Born A Champion” enhances what otherwise would have remained strictly a straightforward saga exploiting its tear-jerking twists and turns.

Mickey is flying to Dubai to teach the young son of affluent Sheikh Bin Khalid (Ali Afshar of “Three Kings”) the ABCs of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. During the flight, Mickey helps out an elderly woman, Mrs. Miller, who cannot bear to be separated from her husband in first-class.

The first-class passenger sitting beside Mr. Miller is Layla Boudreau, and she is delighted to give up her seat so the elderly married couple can sit together. Afterward, Mickey and Katrina enjoy the rest of the flight sitting beside each other. Mickey doesn’t believe in love at first sight, but he finds himself hopelessly attracted to Layla. Later, Layla finds herself in trouble with the arrogant Dimitris.

It seems Kostopoulos made improper advances, and Layla slapped him for his impudence. Mickey comes to her rescue and disposes of Dimitris’ overconfident bodyguard. Since she has defied Dimitris, the fur merchant has defunded her return flight to America, leaving her stranded in Dubai. At Mickey’s request, Sheikh Khalid intercedes and furnishes Layla with a ticket back to America.

Later, once each has returned stateside, they rekindle their passion during a whirlwind romance. Taco winds up officiating their marriage in a private ceremony at his auto repair garage. Later, Layla bears Mickey a son named Kyd. Mickey wants only the best for his family, and he jeopardizes his health when he enters an unsanctioned MMA competition in the Arabian desert.

Things are going swell for Mickey and Layla until adversity topples our hero. Mickey’s depraved opponent Marco Blaine (real-life Brazilian MMA fighter Edson Barboza) sucker punches our hero during the moment when each fighter shakes hands with each other before the competition commences. Marco batters Mickey unmercifully to the mat, and Marco’s savage blows break Mickey’s eye socket and partially detach his right eye.

Tragically, Mickey’s career as a championship contender is kaput! He had received a $25,000 payday as a down payment for a new home for Layla and his son. Mind you, Edson Barboza is one of those despicable villains who is conspicuously lacking a crumb of sympathy for his adversaries. Mickey serves as a lowly gym custodian when he isn’t giving private lessons on the side for peanuts.

Layla is terrified by Mickey’s other part-time job bouncing drunks at a grubby bar because he could lose his sight. Meantime, Marco ascends to the summit of his profession as one of MMA’s undefeated fighters, and fans worship him like a god. Abruptly, public opinion reverses itself when a VHS video of Marco sucker punching Mickey goes viral online. Marco’s fans are shocked by his sadism and talk of a rematch arises. Layla refuses to let Mickey climb back into the ring with Marco again.

“Born A Champion” rarely pulls its punches as Mickey and Layla quarrel about the rematch. As much as Layla abhors violence, she loves Mickey enough to make sacrifices, even though she dreads the worst may happen. “Born A Champion” doesn’t give Mickey a break, and his victory over Marco comes with terrible consequences.

Like Stallone’s Rocky, Mickey gets his rematch, but his life takes a turn for the worst before he challenges Marco again. Since he cannot land a professional rematch because his eye sight is impaired, Mickey settles for another unsanctioned competition.

By this time, fight promoter Dick Mason (Dennis Quaid of “Midway”) has entered the arena, and he is reluctant initially to give Mickey a rematch. Later, the tough-minded Mason learns to his surprise that Mickey served under him in the Gulf War as a valiant Marine sergeant who refused to abandon the body of a slain comrade shot by an enemy sniper when their Abrams tank struck an IED.

Ultimately, Mickey must endure blood, sweat, and tears with a couple of horrific reversals that prove as shattering as they are tragic. “Born A Champion” amounts to Flanery’s unabashed ‘love letter’ to jiu-jitsu, and director Alex Ranarivelo has fashioned one of the best jiu-jitsu movies ever.

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