When you set a show within the world of mixed martial arts, you have to be willing to take your drama inside the cage. At the center of every character’s life on Kingdom is fighting, whether they are in the cage, standing outside it, or battling their own inner demons.
EW took a deep dive into how the show works to create the most realistic fights possible. And it all starts with series creator Byron Balasco, who uses his deep knowledge of the MMA world to write detailed notes in the script of how he thinks the fight should look, even down to the specific moves.
“I want to convey the story that we’re telling with the fight in terms of how that resonates with the characters and what they’re going through,” Balasco says. “The brutality of the fight, the style of the fight, the duration of the fight all really serve the story. A fight is an active, moving thing, so I write it and it gets the emotion and the point across and the basic shape of how it’s supposed to go dramatically, but then I give it to Joe and Joe starts working it out with his fighters and coming up with other ideas that fit within the narrative, but they may not be exactly the move or the punch here or there.”
Balasco is referring to former lightweight UFC fighter Joe “Daddy” Stevenson, who takes what Balasco hands him and works with his own fighters to fully choreograph what fans will later see on screen. “When we choreograph the fight, it’s like I’m a translator,” Stevenson says. “I translate the feelings and the ideas that Byron has into actual moves, but honestly, I’m just trying to translate a feeling. Fighting is universal. When we do our job right, you watch it and you’ll understand what just happened.”
Once Stevenson gets the moves set, he sends tapes of each round to the director, and once approved, rehearsal begins with the actors. At that point, the only person left to weigh in is stunt coordinator Keith Campbell, who will be there on the day of filming to make any tweaks he feels are necessary so that the fight works on camera.
For the actors, however, the process has just begun. The show gives them as much rehearasal time as is possible, though when it came time to craft what’s arguably the show’s most emotional fight to date — Jay (Jonathan Tucker) and Ryan’s (Matt Lauria) rematch, following on the heels of Jay losing the woman he loved — the actors didn’t have more than an hour to work through the fight together, which is to say that they rehearsed it with fighters but not necessarily with each other.
“This fight oddly mirrored the storyline,” Lauria says. “Tucker shaves his head right before the fight, so they front-loaded all of Tucker’s work while he had hair, and he didn’t have a moment to breathe. He didn’t have any time to really practice; we might have had an hour’s worth of practice together. On the day, we had to be hyper-engaged with one another and it made it a very rewarding shared experience for me. But it was cool how it mirrored the fact that we were more disconnected than ever and so were Jay and Ryan.”
Shooting the fight over the two days — the longest shooting schedule for a fight scene yet — Tucker and Lauria lived inside the cage, channeling all of their characters’ emotions into their physical actions. “It’s a little bit of a different fight,” says Balasco, who also directed the episode. “On one level, Jay’s only halfway there in the cage with this fight just because of everything else that’s going on with him. Ryan wants his belt back, but at the same time, he does care about Jay and he’s got to put it out of his mind for a little bit and put a beating on him, which is hard.”
Tucker, having to play Jay at his lowest point emotionally, adds: “The question that is running through my head is, ‘What am I really here for and why do I even care enough to show up?'”
In Wednesdays’s finale, Jay gets into the cage five pounds underweight, and for Tucker, that number is the physical representation of Jay’s emotional state. “I allow my own weight to be the placeholder for the past two months: the return of the addiction, the feeling of not being alone, the feeling of being loved and to have that loss. The 150 pounds is everything that has happened in the past few months that was taken away,” he says.
And yet, for Ryan, this is his chance to prove that he’s the better fighter, that he’s the alpha male of Navy St. gym. As much as he doesn’t want to hurt his friend, he knows he has to get the job done.
“It’s all business,” Lauria says. “It’s a dangerous living and it’s a living that requires 150 percent commitment and what it all boils down to is looking Jay in the eye and saying, ‘Listen man, you don’t have to do this.’ That’s not what Ryan really wants but he’s willing to accept [the loss]. But then once it’s game time, there’s no turning back. Jay’s a dangerous fighter, regardless of what physical or emotional condition he’s in — you go into the cage and all it takes with a four-pound glove on your hand is a tap in the right position on the chin and you’re out. Jay is not someone to be taken lightly. In the cage, there’s only one thing to do, and that’s fight my heart out.”
In the end, the fight serves as a setting for Jay and Ryan to work through some of their inner trauma, no matter who comes out the victor. “The show puts these characters through these remarkable and deeply uncomfortable crucibles,” Tucker says. “That’s where we get to find out who these people really are. I think that’s very similar in real life too — when it gets challenging, it gets revelatory.”
Watch an exclusive clip of the fight below:
Kingdom airs its season 2B finale Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET on the AT&T Audience Network.