In Conversation with UFC ‘Fight Island: Declassified’ Director Rory Karpf

Presented in partnership with ESPN+

Documentarian Rory Karpf has been known to go to extremes when filming subjects, but for his latest project, “Fight Island: Declassified” he went a step further, “willing to take some risk” to film in the middle of a global pandemic halfway around the world.

The director of such titles as “The Book of Manning,” “Nature Boy,” and “I Hate Christian Laettner,” Karpf pitched his latest project, which chronicles the UFC’s Fight Island COVID-free bubble on Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, in April, at the height of the pandemic. Less than three months later, he was on a plane to Las Vegas with his 12-person crew to begin work on what would eventually become a four-part documentary series that debuts on ESPN+ on October 2.

Right off the bat, things got dicey on set.

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“When we went to Vegas, one of my production crew tested positive for COVID, which was like really a nightmare,” offers Karpf. “It was one guy who’s kind of like my production coordinator. I was on pins and needles whether anyone else was gonna test positive.”

While no one else from Karpf’s First Row Films crew contracted the Coronavirus during the filming of “Fight Island: Declassified,” the team was on hand for a very pivotal moment before the fighters and UFC staff even boarded their chartered jumbo jets to Abu Dhabi. Following initial UFC 251 headliner Gilbert Burns, who was then set to challenge Kamaru Usman for the welterweight title on Pay Per View, the crew captured the positive test that would ultimately remove Burns from the card and send him back into quarantine.

”We literally filmed half a day with him and we got his COVID test,” offers Karpf, who recently returned from his second trip to Fight Island. “Someone was with him at the hotel in Vegas when he tested positive, but then it kind of became rather than following an individual for the Pay Per View, it was following Dana [White] and the whole group at how they were gonna pull this off … the event was more of a character than any of the fighters, just pulling off an event of this magnitude becomes a storyline.”

Using their “unprecedented access,” Karpf and his crew set out to tell the story of this historic event. But unlike other documentary projects, which follow strict outlines and daily call sheets, the production process on “Fight Island: Declassified” was more limber to meet the demands of filming during a pandemic.

On any given day, the crew never actually knew what they would encounter as the story was developing in real time. The circumstances required everyone on set to be more flexible than on their previous projects.

“I wanted to be cautious that this didn’t just become a fight preview show or a fight week recap show. We tried to pick people whose stories were unique to this time period … we chose all these people based on their relation to the Coronavirus. We tried to use that as a through line.” explains Karpf, who explains why lesser known fighters like Jared Gordon and Mounir Lassez feature heavily in the documentary.

“Did they have some sort of tie to it directly or indirectly? Was it a family member? Did they test positive at one one point? Various things happened to them during the pandemic.”

Throwing the standard call sheets out the door, Karpf and his crew were on hand for the first four Fight Island fight cards in July. And while the UFC recently returned to Yas Island for last week’s UFC 253 PPV, and four more events in October, including the upcoming UFC 254: Khabib vs. Gaethje title fight, he admits that the excitement of that very first trip can never be duplicated.

Witnessing plenty of chaos and tension in the lead up to the debut of Fight Island, Karpf understands how important it was to be the first crew on the ground.

“You definitely felt like you were part of something historic. You can only be first, once, so there’s only gonna be one first trip to Fight Island … the first time is really unique,” comments Karpf. “I went back last week and it is very different. You know what to expect and there’s not as much tension in the air. But the first time, no one knew what to expect and it was new for everyone so it was a really unique experience.”

What was also unique during the filming of “Fight Island: Declassified” was the absence of fans inside the arena, which brought Karpf and his crew even closer to the athletes than ever before.

“It’s really weird being in the arena because it’s almost like you’re not at a sporting event. It’s like you’re at a TV taping in a studio,” states Karpf. “That was really neat just to be that close to the action. It was pretty wild.”

Unlike big Pay Per View events in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or New York, there was no need for the crew to mind their space for the fans huddled around the Octagon. Instead, his crew was free to move around the cage, even filming some of the work in the corners between rounds.

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That level of access was paramount to the success of bringing viewers closer than ever. But it also left the crew to make some more difficult decisions while filming “Fight Island: Declassified.”

“You gotta be willing to be uncomfortable if you want to get something good,” comments Karpf. “You do things when you’re filming that maybe you wouldn’t be comfortable doing in real life, whatever it is, like asking about the death of the child or something like that because in day-to-day interactions, when you see someone starting to cry or getting emotional, you back off. But when you’re filming, you kind of have to probe a little bit because that’s where the real emotion is. It’s easy just to be on the surface, but just to really dig deep you have to be willing to get emotional.”

Recalling the UFC 251 Pay Per View card, Karpf explains that rather than follow former UFC fighter Paige VanZant and her husband onto the bus after a first round submission loss, his third camera team opted to stay behind, missing what could have been some compelling drama.

“That’s not their call to make. You get on the bus until they tell you ‘get out of here.’ So what if it’s uncomfortable. That’s where you get the best material.”

The crew didn’t make the same mistake a week later, when veteran flyweight Joseph Benavidez lost his title fight to new champ Deiveson Figueiredo.

“We got a great scene on the bus with Michael Bisping and Joe [Benavidez]. Then back at the hotel Joe broke down and started to cry … it’s easy to be around someone when they win. It’s tougher when they lose.”

Despite his extensive experience in documentary filmmaking, in particular with the UFC, Karpf looks back on this Fight Island project, fully aware that it required a different level of attention than previous films. The change in workflow is one of the many reasons he’s proud to share his newest project. He even picked up a few pointers from the UFC boss.

“For ‘Fight Island: [Declassified],’ you have to pivot, you can be telling one story but it’s just not going anywhere and something else pops up, so you deviate, and that’s what we did,” adds Karpf. “We kind of were following certain people and then we went and followed other people because something to me more interesting came along, and I think you gotta be willing to adapt, that’s so important. I learned that from Dana [White]. He’s really good at adapting to stuff that gets thrown his way. So much stuff comes at this guy on a daily basis. Just change. Constant change. He’s really good at not getting flustered, so I tried to learn that from him.”

The four-part “Fight Island: Declassified” documentary series premieres on October 2 on ESPN+.

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