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Movie Review: “Mask” the inspiring, tragic story of TapouT founder Charles Lewis Jr.

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Mask
2015 | Street Made, Cloak, Razak Sports Films
76 minutes
Director: Bobby Razak
Producers: Dan Caldwell, Bobby Razak
Executive Producers: Shane Teater, Emily Krekorian

It isn’t until roughly 50 minutes into Mask, the tributary documentary by action sports directory Bobby Razak (Jackass, MMA Worldwide, Mexican Fighter), that the details of Charles Lewis Jr.’s tragic death are delved into, but the love and pain—expressed in that hierarchical order—still felt by those closest to him is palpable in every interview.

Movie Review: “Mask” the inspiring, tragic story of TapouT founder Charles Lewis Jr.

Better known by his promotional persona, “Mask,” Lewis is credited as one of the earliest fervent supporters of modern mixed martial arts. In the early 2000s—before The Ultimate Fighter snuck the sport once dismissed as “human cockfighting” into living rooms across America and made household names out of Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Forrest Griffin and Dana White—he, Dan “Punkass” Caldwell and Tim “Skyskrape” Katz were working with meager means to develop an apparel brand that Lewis founded which soon became synonymous with the sport: TapouT. Theirs was one of the first products to sponsor fighters and the universal esteem they garnered, which remains intact and arguably even stronger today, is a testament to the passion with which Lewis conducted himself and expected from those around him.

But like many transformative, infectious personalities, he was complex and troubled. He grew up in a broken home in San Bernardino, CA, the son of local educators. His mother was a principal a local public high school. His father, a former marine turned high school and college football coach. He grew up feeling different. Later, in a candid telephone interview Razak returns to repeatedly throughout the film, he reveals aspects of his upbringing which undoubtedly contributed to this. In a bit of foreshadowing, Razak chooses to open the film up with Lewis recalling the first time he saw the Jackson 5 on TV, stating it was at that precise moment, while watching a young Michael Jackson perform, that he decided on his own fame.

The picture, which runs at a lean 76 minutes, takes the audience through a theater of combined oral history and dramatic reenactment, from Lewis’ early adulthood practicing and teaching Brazilian jiu-jitsu as a juvenile detention center corrections officer under the San Bernardino County Deputy Sheriff’s Department in the mid ‘90s to the night of his tragic death in a car accident in 2009 and the fallout that followed among those around him. UFC president Dana White, UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta, Chuck Liddell, “Big John” McCarthy, Mike Guyman, King of the Cage founder Terry Terbilcock, Hitman Fight Gear founder Dan Diaz, Josh Barnett, referee Larry Landless, Affliction Entertainment VP Tom Atencio, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and several other sit for interviews. Numerous figures from MMA past and present cross the screen throughout. Yet despite the comparatively peripheral position historians of the sport may place him in once all is said and done, the only non-fighter inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame comes across as monolithic, his blood, sweat and passion absorbed into the foundational pillars underneath the caged arena in which fighters compete today.

“He had this aura about him, where he inspired you in a way,” executive producer Shane Teater said of Lewis’ unrelenting personality during an interview with Jeremy Brand on Sucka Radio earlier this week. “He kind of led the way in the selling-out-of-the-trunk-of-your-car mentality.”

Lewis’ inner conflicts manifest themselves repeatedly during interviews and are spoken of often by his friends. His candidness seems almost prescient—as if he knew that unless he told his story fully and without expurgation, the painful truths which he positively repurposed would lay untold, held only by the dust inside a therapist’s office. By the time TapouT cashed its first million-dollar check, he’d buried both of his parents. Neither lived to see their son’s success.

Similarly, Lewis himself did not live long enough to witness MMA grow into its current incarnation, although his deep belief in the future of the sport fueled his efforts to support it. He’d be the first to tell you this was where it was going all along.

The man named “Mask” may have left this mortal plane in a car crash on Jamboree Road in Orange County almost seven years ago, but his name and impact will live on through the endurance of his brand and in the hearts and minds of those he influenced. This respectful and well-deserved epitaph is a worthwhile watch for fans of the sport, sure, but it has equal value for those looking for inspiration and proof that finding balance and purpose is possible with one great idea, a generous heart and the conviction to follow your dreams.

Click HERE to rent the film on Vimeo.com. To listen to Jeremy Brand’s interview with producer Shane Teater and fighter Angela Lee, click HERE.

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A freelance MMA, entertainment and business journo born, raised and residing in Miami, FL, Jesse Scheckner is a former semi-serious musician, cinephile and recovering ne’er-do-well who still believes Mickey Rourke’s finest performance in film has yet to come. He isTuffGnarl.com's editor-in-chief and the 2014 MMA Media Correspondent winner at the Florida MMA Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner to talk about the stuff he writes about with him.

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