POWERFUL DOCUMENTARY DETAILS PYFER’S HARROWING JOURNEY

By E. Spencer Kyte | Posted 10 months ago

(Trigger warnings: this story contains mentions of abuse and unedited language.)

 

Chandler Henry initially set out to shoot footage of his high school friend Joe Pyfer working out and competing on the regional mixed martial arts circuit, eager to start using the new camera his brother had gifted him in order to expand his burgeoning YouTube channel.

 

The two had met as teenagers, new kids at a new school that unconsciously gravitated toward each other, forging a bond that persisted beyond graduation and into early adulthood. In Pyfer, Henry saw an old friend chasing his dream to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship — the UFC, the premier mixed martial arts organization in the world — and believed that chronicling that journey could make for an engaging film.

 

When he sat down with Pyfer to pitch him the idea, the middleweight powerhouse began opening up to his friend about the abuse, trauma, and hardships that defined his life and served as the undistinguishable flame that burned inside of him.

 

“I knew some parts of his story from high school, but not in any sort of detail, and as Joe began to open up, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh — this is like a Hollywood movie,’” said Henry, the director behind the documentary Journey to the UFC, which was screened for a private audience for the first time by Disruptive Sports Group earlier this month at Dream Live at American Dream in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

 

That was the summer of 2018, and in the five years since, Pyfer’s story has continued to take dramatic turns, all of which are captured and chronicled in the engrossing film.

 

AN OPPORTUNITY. A STORY. A SETBACK.

 

Amassing seven victories in his first eight professional appearances, all but one of which came by way of finish, earned Pyfer an opportunity to appear on the fourth season of Dana White’s Contender Series, the UFC’s annual talent-search series where unsigned athletes step into the Octagon in front of the UFC President and matchmakers Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard, competing in hopes of impressing the brass, securing a victory, and earning a UFC contract.

 

The UFC production teams put together an introduction video on each fighter that runs before they step into the cage to compete, sharing details of their life and journey with the audience; a means of allowing the viewers to know more about the men and women poised to make the walk and give them a means to connect with them on a more human level.

 

In his video, Pyfer offered a glimpse into the toxic childhood and traumatic events of his life, explaining that he left home at 16 rather than remain in an abusive household. He was homeless, bouncing from temporary setup to temporary setup, eating what he could, when he could, all while trying to navigate high school and being a teenager.

 

“My parents put us down. My parents abused us. My parents beat the s--t out of us,” Pyfer said, explaining what he means when he refers to himself as a “Throwaway Kid.”

 

“My parents didn’t provide for us the best they could; they provided for their own emotional needs and didn’t give a s--t about their kids’ dreams and goals. They had kids to basically try to fix what they were broken from. My parents had their own tough life, but there’s five of us, and I think that should outweigh a parent’s needs.”

 

Pyfer was 23 at the time, matched up with an American named Dustin Stotlzfus, who grew up in Pennsylvania, but resided in Germany. He entered with a 12-1 record, riding a four-fight winning streak, and stood as the toughest test of Pyfer’s career to date.

 

They looked like opposites.

 

Pyfer was a physical specimen, looking like a free safety that grew too tall for the gridiron and switched to mixed martial arts instead. He was fluid in his movements, varied in early offensive attacks — the years spent working toward this opportunity evident in the way he worked inside the cage.

 

Stotlzfus, by comparison, looked almost bookish — hair swept to one side, with an athletic build, and stiff, almost rigid striking mechanics. He was a grappler at heart, and trading on the feet was always a means to getting inside, bringing the fight to the floor, and working on from there.

 

Pyfer did well in the early stages of the opening round, mixing his attacks, combining crisp striking with a well-timed level change that put Stoltzfus on the canvas in the center of the cage. As Stoltzfus worked to attack a heel hook, Pyfer pulled his leg free and circled into space, with Stoltzfus giving chase, grabbing onto his left leg and working up to a body lock, which he used to elevate Pyferinto the air.

 

If you watch fights every weekend, you see the sequence play out innumerable times: one competitor gets hoisted into the air, and as they’re getting deposited back to the ground, they reach out an arm, looking to brace the impact by getting a hand on the canvas.

 

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, nothing dramatic happens, but when Pyfer reached out, it turned into that one stomach-turning time something horrific occurs.

 

As Stoltzfus was in the process of slamming him to the canvas, Pyfer extended his right arm, aiming to cushion the blow, but the force of impact was too great. His elbow seemingly disintegrated under the weight of his own body and the inertia from being hurtled to the canvas.

 

As the rest of his body hit the deck, the middle section of his right arm looked like it was made of Silly Putty. He suffered a dislocated elbow, torn ligaments and tendons, and a broken radial head.

 

The fight was stopped, and Pyfer’s future as a professional fighter was in jeopardy.

 

“There are times — and I’ve talked with Joe about this many times — where I’m sitting there making this thing, and the filmmaker in me gets excited because the odds are stacked against him,” said Henry, acknowledging one side of his reality in capturing all the footage and putting this film together, which includes home video footage that offers a slight glimpse into the abuse and trauma Pyferdealt with at the hands of his father as a child.

 

“If I remember right, I think there are 36 total hours of home video, and I’ve watched every second of it. There is stuff in those home videos that I can’t put in the documentary, no matter what. I sit there watching it, editing this stuff, and I’m crying because I had no idea.

 

“It’s difficult at times because you want the easiest, you want the best for your friend,” continued Henry, who just continued rolling on the project after Pyfer’s horrific injury. “The filmmaker is excited when Joe has another thing to overcome, but the friend is heartbroken.”

 

A TRUE HOLLYWOOD ENDING

 

Nothing was going to deter Pyfer from continuing to pursue his dream of reaching the UFC and being a professional fighter, not even a catastrophic injury that left him facing months of rehab and eventually resulted in a second surgical procedure to give him full extension of his right arm again.

 

The kid that was resilient in the face of abuse and challenges at home remained every bit as resilient in the face of a long recovery process and no guarantees that his dream would ever come to fruition. He endured the second surgery and worked his way back to the point of being able to step back into the cage, returning 16 months after the injury to face Austin Trotman at CFFC 104 in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

 

Now working with a new team headed by coach John Marquez that included UFC standouts Sean Brady, Pat Sabatini, and Andre Petroski, Pyfer got back into the win column with a second-round finish.

 

“(The biggest thing) has been the security and being around like-minded people that want to do this s--t for a living,” Pyfer said of connecting with Marquez and company. “There is nothing more agitating than being in a room, knowing that you’re the best, but you’ve always got that dark cloud like, ‘Ah man — these motherf-----s aren’t the toughest in the world.’

 

“Now I’m around John Marquez; he does this for a living. I’m around Sean Brady; he does this for a living. I’m around Jeremiah (Wells), Pat Sabatini, Andre Petroski, and we’re all chasing the same thing and that’s to do this for a living without having to go and work another job.

 

“I’ve broken myself so many times in camp since becoming a part of this team — how do you not get better that way?” Pyfer asked rhetorically. “You know you’re tested. You know that if s--t goes bad, you can still come out on the other side. I never had that before and being able to be around people that want to do this s--t for a living — I couldn’t be happier; this is the right place for me to be.”

 

The proof of that showed when the middleweight got the opportunity to make his return to the UFC APEX and compete on Dana White’s Contender Series for a second time.

 

This time around, he was paired off with Ozzy Diaz, a 32-year-old from California and the reigning Legacy Fighting Alliance (LFA) middleweight champion. He entered on a five-fight winning streak, having earned finishes in each of those victories, including four wins in the opening round.

 

It was a tough assignment and a make-or-break moment for the middleweight hopeful.

 

“In that moment, I was scared to lose,” admitted Pyfer. “I was like, ‘If I lose a second time on Contender Series, that’s it; I’m not getting into the UFC.’

 

“There were people in my circle where I felt the doubt, I felt the questions, and I think it’s only natural. I had a shitty performance in my comeback fight — even though I got a knockout, it was s----y to me because I was a little rusty, I didn’t put any power behind my shots — and then I got all these nerves. I was telling them in the back, ‘My legs are gone!’

 

“But there is something about when I get in there that I’ve matured so much from the time my arm broke to the time I got back in there — I think there is a line you guys will hear of ‘If you want to beat him, you’ve got to kill him’ and that’s how I really feel when I go in there. If you want to beat me, you better knock me the f--k out or choke me unconscious because I’m going to be trying to take your head off.”

 

Paired off with Diaz in the final bout on the first episode of Season 6, Pyfer marched confidently to the cage, having some success in the opening stanza, but failing to really distance himself from the LFA titleholder. Early in the second, Pyfer started to stick his jab, which prompted Diaz to press forward and look to crowd him.

 

As he did, Pyfer fired off a check left hook as he angled out and Diaz dropped to the canvas. The follow-up blows were academic; the fight was done, and Pyfer instantly went to the side of the fence to have a conversation with Dana White and the UFC brass watching intently, with White answering Pyfer’s request for them to help each other by telling him, “You already helped yourself.”

 

Standing in the center of the cage after the official result was announced, the emotions started to pour out of Pyfer. They came out of White as well when the UFC President met with DWCS analysts and post-fight interviewer Laura Sanko to announce which competitors had earned a contract that evening.

 

Unimpressed by the efforts of the fighters in the first three contests, White’s message for those set to appear on the remaining episodes of Season 6 was simple, “Be Joe Pyfer!”

 

For someone that was battered and cast aside as a child, and never saw positivity attached to his name, the message from White was powerful, and a piece of what has the now UFC middleweight looking to give others that have been through what he’s dealt with reason to want to “Be Joe Pyfer” as well.

 

MAKING AN IMPACT

 

“My name has never stood for anything good,” Pyfer said. “They’ve all been abusive; they’ve all be alcoholics, drug addicts; they’ve never gone to college and been successful. When I tell you this name has stood for nothing good, I’m changing that.

 

“I want to help the kids that are struggling just like me — that didn’t have a voice, that didn’t speak up; that were afraid to speak up because they thought it was wrong. I used to think that for a long time, like, ‘Man, if I speak out, these people are going to make fun of me, or tell me I’m a loser, I’m scared, I’m just crying.’

 

“My biggest message through all of this is self-belief,” continued the 26-year-old middleweight, whose record now stands at 11-2. “I thought about things differently, viewed things differently, and I don’t want kids that are out there that believe so much in something to be discouraged because everybody else tells them it’s wrong.”

 

The film, which was picked up by Disruptive Sports Group, who are working to bring the project to a larger audience in the near future, is equal parts harrowing and heartwarming, even if you’re a fan of the sport and have followed Pyfer’s journey through the pieces that were shared during his two appearances on Dana White’s Contender Series and subsequent forays into the UFC Octagon.

 

“When Joe and I made this, it was just Joe and I — there was no buyer, there was no streaming service that was like, ‘Make it for us!’” explained Henry. “We both bet on Joe’s story. I bet that someone would love this and someone would pick it up because I knew how good it was and that I could make something that was that level now.

 

“Disruptive Sports Group — Alex Davis, there whole crew there — they were able to pick up this film, and they’re some of the best in the world when it comes to media distribution and things like that. They have the reins now and they’ve been telling me some pretty exciting things about the film, but none that I can share.

 

“People will be able to watch it publicly soon.”

 

While Pyfer is onto the next chapter of his career as a member of the UFC middleweight division, having the opportunity to share his story in this fashion has been a difficult, but worthwhile challenge.

 

“To be able to have a story that is basically expressed better than I can say it, it’s amazing,” he said of the finished film. “It brings back the real emotion of what some of the things felt like. To watch it is hard for me, but it’s also motivating for me, and I hope it does the same thing for someone else.

 

“This documentary could have been as great as it is, but it’s going to be even better now that we have (Alex Davis and Disruptive Sports Group working with us). They’re going above and beyond what me and Chandler could have ever expected for this with having the premiere, having my close people there and really stepping up, using their resources to go and tap into things that will make this life-changing for me to where I’ll be able to fight because I love fighting, not because I have to fight.

 

“I have high expectations for it, I know Alex Davis does as well, and I’m super-thankful because I don’t believe any of this would have been on this level and come to fruition without their team.”

 

What started as a team-up between high school friends looking to work together and create something cool has turned into a potentially life-changing film, one that is guaranteed to find an audience and resonate with anyone that sits down to watch it.

 

And for its featured subject, there one message that is most important of all.

 

“It doesn’t matter how many times that you have to re-start,” said Pyfer. “The one true message is that I will make it at some point. That’s the real message — not quitting on yourself.”

 

You can follow Joe Pyfer (@joepfyer) and Chandler Henry (@therealchandlerhenry) on Instagram


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