‘Kingdom’ Recap: The ties that bind the Kulinas 

Last week, the MMA drama zeroed in on Alvey and Jay Kulina.

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One of the bittersweet facts of life is that whether we like it or not, there are certain traits of our parents that can’t be deleted from our personality and can’t be hidden from our daily activities. The good things are promoted like an unbeaten championship fighter, but the bad parts are usually covered up and pushed into a corner, or at least we like to think it’s that easy.

We are our parents in so many ways that when the attempt is made to break out on our own, the past doesn’t let us go without mortgaging our future. The result can be an overbearing need to be as good, or better yet, try to be better than what came before us. Make them proud without sacrificing yourself.

This week on AT&T’s Kingdom, we were fed another brilliant hour of television, and my biggest takeaway from what fathers and sons do to each other in order to co-exist.

Example #1: Jay, Alvey, and a need to be involved

Jay Kulina (Jonathan Tucker) is trying so hard to NOT be like his father, Alvey (Frank Grillo), that he has stripped away everything that he is as person. He quit fighting, drugs, and doesn’t even hang out with his friends. He isn’t doing this to make a good life with Amy and his daughter; Jay is doing this to distance himself from a future painted in Alvey colors.

Since Kingdom debuted, there has been a seething tension between Jay and Alvey, like two similar beasts trying to figure out how to navigate their way down a highway in cars waiting to be wrecked.

When I interviewed Tucker last year, he broke down the Jay-Alvey divide. “He (Alvey) wasn’t a good father. There’s no love or compassion. He has an inability to see the wounds he has caused. Jay is an addict but he knows what he is. He is trying to seal the wounds that his father has torn apart,” Tucker explained.

Jay blames Alvey for the abuse done to his mother, the drugs and alcohol addiction that tore the Kulina family apart years before the show brought us into their lives. The love and compassion is something that Jay has all but stopped waiting for from his father.

Last season, when Jay won a title belt by cutting an extreme amount of weight, and the post-fight congratulatory moment from Alvey rang false to Jay, because Alvey seemed to make a bigger deal of the fact that his son won a belt, and not that he had done everything asked of him. Alvey was impressed by the belt instead of being proud of his son.

Jay elaborated on that moment: “You care about this trophy more than anything else. Jay wishes that Alvey would have put him in rehab or taken care of his mother. Now Jay has self worth because he has a belt. Alvey should have been proud of Jay when he came in under weight. It seems so false to Jay.”

Fast forward to Season 3, and Jay doesn’t invite Alvey to his daughter’s baptism. This was no accident. Jay didn’t want Alvey there. When he finds out from Nate (Nick Jonas) that everybody else including Lisa was invited but not him, it truly hurts Alvey. You can see it in the true grit expression on Grillo’s face near the end of “Ritual”. He has damaged something that can’t be healed, but he wants to try.

Think about this: one of the only reasons Jay went back to fighting was to try and make a last ditch effort to please his father. He saw how close Alvey was with Nate, and wanted some of that. When he made the comeback and won the belt, and saw the look on Alvey’s face of shock and awe after defeating Wheeler, something in Jay died. He did all of that to lock onto his dad’s good side, and it was for nothing.

Nate and the Ultimate Reveal

The other father-son dynamic on this show is between Alvey and Nate, with the ticking timebomb of a reveal of Nate’s sexuality. When Garo (Bryan Callen) tells Jay that the reason Dickson dropped out of the fight was due to rumors about Nate being gay, the pot starts to boil very quickly in several corners of this show.

Nate finds out from Jay as he is sitting down to dinner with his dad, and the acting from Jonas makes you tremble in nauseous anticipation at the reaction he will get from Alvey when the mystery is pulled away. How Alvey reacts could make or break his connection with Jay as well, so imagine losing both your sons in one reaction. That’s how fickle life can be to a flawed soul. You make one bad move, and it’s an uphill battle in muddy shoes.

Will a King Beast contract cost Ryan in the end?

Speaking of Garo and anticipation, he shows up at Ryan’s house with a brand new Dodger Charger, and wants to take him out for a night of cocaine, naked women, and perhaps some green paper. Garo offers Wheeler a three fight contract for 300,000 thousand dollars, and sprinkles 25K on top of the pot to get a signature at the strip club. One can only imagine this is how deals between fighters and promoters come to fruition in real life. Ryan signs the contract, much to Lisa’s dismay (she gets a text from Garo) and us as well. While I was happy Ryan is getting paid, I trust Callen’s suit as far as I can throw him.

Keith and his mad world

The new car and stack of cash can’t hide a tumbling down the rabbit hole of avocado despair Keith from interrupting phone calls and answering doors with a knife in his hand. Something is happening with Ryan’s “friend”, and the ending will be a troubling one. Creator/showrunner Byron Balasco’s writing is so good due to the fact that he has a restraining order from melodramatic tendencies in storytelling. His stories feel real and honest, and that shows in true fashion with Keith’s condition and the father-son trials and tribulations.

Dominick Ramos: A New Poison on Navy Street

Every season of Kingdom has a poison it seems like, with Mark Consuelos’ Chapas in Season 2A and Lisa Esco’s Ava in Season 2B. They drop in to poison the well, and test one of our main characters in ways that usually ends in their death, but not before cutting their victim off at the knees. You take Chappo away from Alvey, and maybe he doesn’t tumble so far down the drunken path. If Ava isn’t introduced to old habits with Jay, maybe the Kulina son doesn’t run away from fighting. Maybe not, but this season, the new “oh no” disturber is Kirk Acevedo’s Dominick Ramos.

With Alvey going back to fighting and needing to train, the gym needs a helping hand on coaching, but this guy looks like trouble. Acevedo’s Ramos is an ex-fighter from the Bronx who talks like he’s pulling wisdom word for word from his stomach. The slow drawl style that he chooses every single word like a sniper chooses his ammunition is a warning sign that this guy has something else going on.

He interviews with Lisa (Kiele Sanchez) and Alvey, and when Prince offers him the job later, we see Ramos shoveling protein powder from a bag to a canister in his boxers. Apparently, there was some trouble back East with money and certain people, but something tells me this is tied to Alvey. Something during their interview-especially the phrase “the Kulinas cast a long shadow”-makes me think bad deeds are ahead.

Ramos may have gotten the job, but I don’t trust him for a second. He’s like a human can of gasoline being kicked over on the mats at Navy Street. Watch out.

Christina Kulina, California brothel captain

The episode opens up with Joanna Going’s Christina stuffing a grocery cart with pizzas, ramen, and other goods. Did she become a nanny? Did she move somewhere? What is she doing? It turns out she has opened a brothel with Mr. Sleaze with an a Bond accent, with at least 4-6 girls posting webcam videos and doing some jobs on the side. If Christina can’t make a clean break from the life that has wrecked her life, she can at least move to a coaching position, and make some money.

Going was too good on this show to be killed off in that near overdose sequence from Season 2, and this season looks like a fresh body moving around in a wise soul. She helps nurture a young girl from Miami who gets roughed up in her first “scene” on the town with Mr. Sleaze, and is doing well. She doesn’t like that Jay is distancing himself from the family, but can’t help but cuddle her new granddaughter. She is one of the few that knows about Nate, so that makes me sweat in waiting for Alvey’s reaction.

Final thoughts:

*We all know the real estate thing isn’t going to work out for Jay, but will he at least get to punch that mean tenant in the jaw? As a person currently looking at homes and selling his own, I understand the decency in vacating the premises for a showing. Poor Jay. Trying to make an honest living, but that beast is always raging. Glad he still has the bags in the backyard.

*Who is taking care of Lisa? After getting so close to Wheeler at the end of Season 2B, Lisa is now living by herself and she looks lonely. Which male character will win this woman’s heart in the end?

*Did I mention how having just eight episodes left now is extremely saddening? We will all need a heavy bag in August.

*I have a fever, and I need more MAC BRANDT! The brown leather drug pouch is also a nice touch.

The thing I miss most about Kingdom when it’s gone are the Frank Grillo monologues. The soliloquies of wisdom that usually come on a couch or with a drink in his hand. Early in the episode, Alveys tells his therapist that he is returning to the ring, and part of that great speech from the trailer arrives. “I need to feel my full range of emotions. I need to be who I was.” If that last line doesn’t awaken something in you, get your pulse checked.

Grillo knows how to properly disperse gravity in his line readings, and when he talks about getting reacquainted with the beast inside, I had to rewind and watch it a few times just to soak it up. You can tell that Balasco wrote this character for Grillo, because the actor will never play another role that exists so close to his true self or mirrors his own fight in life, and he invests everything into these scenes and Alvey’s trek.

The scenes I rewind the most are the Alvey Kulina speeches. The moral compass of a show about flawed and damaged fighters needs to have weight, and Grillo packs a punch.

See you next week.

‘Kingdom’ delivers soulful season finale 

“You ride like lightning and you’ll crash like thunder.”

Ding ding! Kingdom on Audience viewers and addicts, take your corners! The Season 2B finale packed a punch and left viewers floored at the physical entertainment and the drama that lingered afterwards.

It was never about the rematch in the first place. In a classic twist on a show about fighters that focuses on their battles outside the ring, the Season 2B finale was relentless in closing sub plots and reopening old wounds while opening entirely new threads.
The Rematch

Ryan Wheeler(Matt Lauria) and Jay Kulina(Jonathan Tucker) taking the ring in a rematch that looked like the world ender to every fan in the audience but inside it was a bittersweet tale that every Kingdom fan knew how it was going to end. Jay, unfit for any overly lit room much less an octagon with blazing bulbs flashing all over the place, taking the ring days after his girlfriend Ava was brutally murdered. Ryan, a King Beast seeking revenge and the alpha badge of Navy Street, trying to block out the fact that his best friend needs a true friend and that he has to hurt him. Two friends meeting again.

Pale imagery and the polar opposite of what took place in Episode 203, where Jay was on top of the world and Ryan was less than 100 percent and wrapped up in demons. It goes to show you that winning a fight and a title doesn’t make a fighter whole. It just pushes his destiny further and further away. When Jay won the title, he didn’t feel anything. He didn’t feel the long lost fever of a championship belt. He felt incomplete so he attached himself to Ava and the allure of drugs.

As the fight begins and all the odds are stacked against Jay, it’s almost as if you want the beating to be over so Jay can recover properly. As fans, we never know what is going through the mind of a fighter. If you ask them, they won’t tell you. In a similar fashion that Jay used Ryan’s physical injury against him, Ryan takes advantage of a distant and ill prepared Jay in the rematch. In a testament to Jay’s “heart of a lion”, he holds it together until the early moments of Round 4 before Ryan finishes him off.

As Ryan screams for his belt, you get the idea it’s all a show. Ryan didn’t want to fight in the first place back in Season 1. He does it to please others and also to keep the demons inside his head quiet or to a dull roar. After the fight talking with Alvey, he gives him the belt as a way to show a hunger still exists. I think he wants to get rid of it so he doesn’t get close to it or the fact that, like Jay, he feels nothing for it. It’s a belt. Something you hang in the office or at the gym. It’s as meaningful as Chapas’ ashes sitting on Alvey’s desk. It is meant to embody that you won something but in the end, it hinders a fighter.

Ryan won and Jay goes to the hospital. Let’s take a few steps back to the beginning of the episode.

Jay Kulina: The Pale Rider

Jay standing outside his hotel looking at the clean up crew taking apart the crime scene is a great stand alone acting effort from Tucker and he has no dialogue. The pure strength of an actor isn’t a big speech. It’s what he can do with what isn’t spelled out or written for him or her. What can you do with your eyes, face and movement? Tucker excels at this often. In a 2-3 minute sequence, he shows the audience a pale rider. Someone who has had the life sucked right out of him.

Ava may have hindered him as well as Alicia(Natalie Martinez, absent from the finale) but it was more than that for Jay. A man who learns something new and painful every season. Tucker doesn’t hide a single bit of pain in his expression. Imagine a paper airplane hitting the ground and catching fire. That’s Jay Kulina. Only after defeat did the man recover and smile.

Alvey: A Man Apart

The season started with Alvey drinking himself into a stupor and the finale features him alone once again. That reunion with Lisa(Kiele Sanchez, burning her own candles elsewhere) never materialized. Roxanne(the lovely Wendy Moniz) broke it off with him early on because of the messy drama fires around him. His son Jay is in the hospital and his younger son Nate is in the midst of a comeback but still mixed up in personal anguish. Everything Alvey fought hard to push himself from while staying attached is going on without his effect. He’s a man apart and this gave Grillo the seeds for a performance that SHOULD HAVE GOTTEN Emmy consideration.

I love the way every seasonal break has ended with Alvey alone in the gym. A man ready to fight his demons yet unequipped for battle. Here’s a guy who trains harder than anyone in the gym, drinks his meals, and has enough rage to fight three guys at once. With Alvey’s torment and disconnect at the moment, all he has is the gym. All he has is what he is going after. 

Grillo is at his best when Alvey is at his worst. The emotional volcano spill that the elder Kulina causes allows the seasoned actor to go anywhere he wants with Balasco’s writing fueling his car like an engine with horsepower to spare. 

Nate and Jay: Brothers Looking Out

As he cleaned out Jay’s room, Nate found Will’s business card next to the bed. Instead of raging against his brother for intruding into his personal life, he just walks into the hospital room like a wounded puppy looking for a little protection. The relief that has to fall off his shoulders that some part of his family knows that he is gay has to be enormous. Jay has always been someone Nate could trust, and Jonas and Tucker are beautiful in this scene together.

Leave it to Tucker to sprinkle some true comedy on the room when he jokes about positions with Nate. After all the pain and anguish Jay has gone through, the internal trust he has with Nate gives him some resemblance of a win. Well done men. 

Christina(Joanna Going) also makes amends with Jay at the hospital but it reads more like an apology to her own identity as a mother. After pouring so much drama on the Kulina household this season, she writes him a letter that covers ground that fans didn’t even see. Here is a mother who has treated her oldest son unlike a son. Christina depends on Jay more than any mother should and seeing Tucker do the dialogue-less torture reaction locks horns perfectly with Going’s dialogue. These two have given television the most emotional mother/son pairing since Jax and Gemma Teller on FXX’s Sons of Anarchy. Bravo. It’s not an easy balance to maintain but Going and Tucker make it look easy.

After so much waiting and wondering, Ryan and Lisa finally share a warm moment and a kiss. It happened near the end of Season 1 but was more lust than passion. Lisa, needing something that isn’t broken in her life, finally sees something in Ryan that hasn’t been there for a long time. Protection and love. It was only a kiss but it surely turned into more.

This sets up another uncomfortable yet highly entertaining dynamic in Season 3. Alvey isn’t going to be pleased about this development. While he knows it can’t work with him and Lisa and there is history there, do you really think Alvey can train Ryan during the day and then watch him leave with Lisa at night? Fire, ladies and gents. Fire. The Ryan-Jay showdown was the driving force behind Season 2B and the Alvey/Ryan/Lisa tripod of doom will puncture Season 3. They may not fight in a sanctioned fight but they will come to blows.

Every television show should aim to get better each year. Instead of resting on your laurels and dishing out potent yet similar entertainment after acquiring people’s attention, a creator and his cast/crew should keep pushing. Balasco, Grillo, and company have done that with this latest batch of episodes. Every 52 minute episode felt like a brilliant edited film and something to dissect and wonder about for days. It didn’t feel like ordinary television. Kingdom ascended higher this season with pulse pounding drama and knockout worthy action. It’s something else. A signature blend that isn’t afraid to take bold risks in order to spin a story few have told.

For all the people who wanted a real dynamic show about fighters and their lives, look no further than AT&T’s Kingdom. It’s got everything. This blood drunk drama knows how to hit a person where it counts. Unlike most TV shows, Kingdom doesn’t aim to merely please. It aims to knock you out. Season 2B did just that. There are 30 episodes at your disposal folks. What are you prepared to do? Take the plunge.

The pilot featured a weary yet wise Alvey Kulina jogging through the streets with peace in his mind and hunger in his back pocket. He had everything. At the end of Season 2B, all he has is what he is going after. A bottle, a bag, and nothing else.

Great television challenges you every week. Thank you Kingdom. Please come back for Christmas.

 

 

AT&T’s Kingdom rewind: “Take pills” recap

The greatest fear in life is being alone. Pure isolation. In the world of AT&T’s Kingdom, that’s the 24/7/365 fear.

The idea of being alone in the end with only your whispers and weathered body to spend the final hours with. Throughout Byron Balasco’s powerful and entertaining MMA series, each of his characters biggest foe is loneliness. You can win every fight in the world, but if you come home to nothing what have you really won? Not much. The quiet theme of Kingdom is how these people feud off loneliness and isolation.

Take Jonathan Tucker’s Jay Kulina. He fears being alone so he ties himself to several people, including his brother Nate(Nick Jones, brooding like a brown eyed panther) and the new woman in his life, Ava(Lina Esco). He is a product of his environment, getting equal parts misery and rage from his mother, Christina(Joanna Going), and father, Alvey(Frank Grillo). A man who has inherited a drug addiction problem from his mother and a need to tear himself apart from his father. He’s more like Alvey in every way except for the fact that he cares too much about his mother. Continue reading “AT&T’s Kingdom rewind: “Take pills” recap”

Kingdom On Audience: Episode 208 review-cap

This week on Direct TV’s Kingdom…

“Guys like me don’t get rich. They get by with bloody knuckles.”-Alvey Kulina

CQ_pxHnUsAASbySWhen episode 208 of Kingdom opens, Alvey Kulina(Frank Grillo) is talking to his shrink but he could just be talking to himself in a mirror. At some point in life, we figure out that we are who we are. Nothing is changing. A person can’t be rewired to act differently. Alvey is faced with these facts as Lisa has been gone for weeks, staying in her dad’s condo with the pregnancy entering its final stages. What is a fighter when everything outside the ring has been taken away. He has his fists and need to impose his will on whoever comes into his path. Luckily this week, Alvey has Alicia(Natalie Martinez) to train and prepare for her big exhibition fight.

Alicia’s big debut was just one of many big moments this week on Kingdom. With every hour that passes by, creator Byron Balasco seems to be loading up for the big punch and in this hour, he unleashes a deadly hook to viewers with the Jay Kulina(Jonathan Tucker)/Christina(Joanna Going) story line.

The Jay/Christina subplot has been simmering since late season 1 when the kid pulled his mom off the streets and cleaned her up. Their relationship is built on a foundation of trust but what happens when that trust is betrayed. Christina quit her job at Patty Palace weeks ago and hasn’t told Jay. She also hasn’t told him that she is working as an escort again. She also hasn’t let him in on the whopper of a revelation that she is using drugs again, shooting heroin into her foot. When Jay and Ryan Wheeler(Matt Lauria) are having their day off party, Mac(Mac Brandt) tells the wild Kulina to go get some food and why not grab some burgers from a place where your mom works.(Not that Jamal would have allowed free food to leave that joint). When Jay catches up with the audience and goes back to the house to find the hidden drugs Christina has stashed, the Jonathan Tucker show takes over. Allow me to explain…

TV shows with ensemble casts rarely find time to showcase each and every member of their cast. Kingdom executes this to perfection. Every actor feels lived in, real and breathing. There are no caricatures on Navy Street and this climatic moment proves it. Tucker is a live wire entertainer with more speeds than most actors. He can be a sinner, saint, and joker all inside one take. However, we’ve never seen him dig this deep. He starts the episode out giving a tense Alicia a massage, nearly hurts Ryan in the ring, and helps wrestle a depressed and philandering Nate(Nick Jonas, swollen emotionally and physically for perhaps the entire season) out of bed for a little party. He’s happy on the outside but quietly waging war on himself on the inside, trying to make weight for a big fight, stay out of trouble and enjoy himself while being lovestruck. However, the Christina betrayal sets something off inside him. An explosion. The look in Jay’s eyes as he desperately asks everyone to leave his house so he can deal with his mother is heartbreaking and brilliantly played.

The Scene of the Year! Tucker and Going are masterful in this scene. She comes home to a quiet house where Jay is waiting. Here, the audience thinks he will just bitch her out and take her to rehab. Like every other fucking show on television. He does her seven steps worse. He is going to shoot himself with drugs and flip the script. Instead of him cleaning up her mess, she will have to care for him as he is under the influence of one of the deadliest drugs on the market. You may see Jay and friends snort cocaine like its going out of style, but shooting drugs into your system is where the overdoses happen and serious damage occur. Jay knows this and punishes Christina by hurting himself. He is taking the beast that stalks his mom around and taking it for a ride. This is the scene of the year for me. So far.

Why Do You Fight? Elsewhere on Navy Street as the Kulina’s deal with internal infrastructure maintenance, Alicia is losing it before her big fight. After a training session with Alvey that reveals a back injury and a walk along Venice Beach that reveals the lack of drive Alicia has for stepping into the ring. In order to truly be great in MMA or Boxing, you have to want it and be able to pinpoint the exact reason why. You don’t get punched in the face in order to pay the bills. In the Grillo Greatness moment of the week, he tells Alicia he fights because he likes to hurt people, beating them up and stealing their identity. The only thing missing from Grillo’s speech as Daniel Day Lewis’ legendary milk shake line from There Will Be Blood. Alvey knows why. Jay and Ryan know why they fight. Nate and Alicia….they don’t. Not yet.

Before it’s time to take the ring, Alicia is really losing it. She is crying. Exhibition or not, the nerves before a fight are unique. It’s not like getting into a fight on a street. That’s all instinct. Fighting for a living is like seeing the bully in the first class at school and telling them you will fight after school. For the next six hours, you boil inside and figure all the possible outcomes. That is Alicia. She has rage, talent and potential but once you climb into the ring, as Alvey said at the top of the hour, it’s you all alone in this world.

After a little Alvey pushing, Alicia climbs into the ring. I’ve said before Grillo says fuck better than any actor out there, including DeNiro. Well, watch the locker room scene between him and Martinez and you will get his best impression of DeNiro. When Alicia says she can’t do it, Grillo cocks his head, turns it and delivers the best Bobby D impression, intentional or not. It’s beautiful. Go watch it again and come back here to finish the cap.

Alicia doesn’t just win the fight. She destroys the other woman. Martinez’s authenticity, like Grillo’s. shines through here. A kickboxer in real life who moves like a ninja with swag and attitude, she survives a tough first round and is born inside the octagon. When she scores the takedown of a lifetime and pounds on her opponent before Joe Daddy calls it, everything changes. She has an endorsement deal, a future in fighting and apparently no need for Ryan Wheeler shenanigans any longer. After the fight, she tells a drunk drugged up yet alert Wheeler that it’s over.

The dudes on this show aren’t having a good season my friends.

What else happened?

~In the Keith moment of the week, he catches a pair of pool side kids playing TMZ hawks, recording Ryan have some fun with cocaine. He catches them and tosses the phone. He may not be put together like everybody else, but Keith is a useful guy when it comes to avocado farms, drinking, and paparazzi.

~Lisa’s pregnancy hits a wall when she has to go in for extra tests to see if there is a concern with the baby. She misses Alicia’s fight but leaves Alvey a message that it is a boy and that the Maker of Men has struck again. There’s hope for these two yet.

~Wheeler goes off about Alvey devoting a whole day to Alicia and while it may seem like nothing, this may come into play later with the result of Ryan’s fight. There’s a simmering boil inside Lauria during every episode that is set to explode but let me tell you it won’t be a gym mirror he damages this time.

~Every episode features a Grillo training session. Forget Billy Blanks and any other trainer you can find. Just watch Grillo work. He’s trained in gyms of all kinds and lives and breathes this environment like a second layer of skin. He’s a joy to watch.

There are two hours left ladies and gents. Fireworks have gone off but more await. Are you ready? With success comes a heightened state of desire. Will it burn down the Kulina bridge? December will reveal it all. There are no winter breaks on Kingdom. It is coming at you every week. If you are behind, catch up on Itunes, Amazon, Audience on demand or Uverse on demand. Do it. Think later. Just watch.

Every obsession with a TV show starts with a plunge. There are shows you watch and like, but do other stuff while it plays. There are shows that captivate you for the entire hour. I watched this hour of Kingdom in one prolonged death stare.  My phone, a dark room, an open window and a lack of fluids. After every hour, I work out. This show will make you want to work out, hit something or show passion. It connects. Try it out.

Come back next week for more Kingdom talk.

The Kick that ended Ronda Rousey’s reign in the UFC

Saturday night, Ronda Rousey fell and Holly Holm made a name for herself.

Ronda Rousey has fallen. After vanquishing her last three opponents inside 64 seconds, Rousey lost her first match in MMA and UFC inside six minutes. She didn’t just lose. She got knocked out. Cold. It was brutal to watch and mesmerizing at the same time. Shock, awe, and sadness all in one beautifully landed Holly Holm kick to Ronda’s neck that ended it. Watching it live, I tried to imagine what people thought when Mike Tyson was knocked out by Buster Douglas. UFC 193 was the home of the greatest upset of all time. Something nobody will forget. Where were you the night Ronda Rousey got knocked out?

I could see it coming. Small hints. I wrote hours before the fight that Rousey seemed rattled at the weigh in and overly tense. She is always an emotional battlefield of open wounds, but this was different. She sounded like somebody who wasn’t holding the crown. She sounded worried. Who was this tall, sweet talking and well natured challenger nicknamed the Preacher’s Daughter? Holm was unlike anything Rousey had faced before. A fighter with an excellent stand up strike game and a tall and muscular build to withstand attacks and make someone think twice about coming after her. Holm was a different specimen than Ronda’s usual opponents. With few threats or words, Holm was inside Ronda’s head before the fight night began.

Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm
Paul Crock/Getty Images

Once the opening bell sounded and 30 seconds passed, Ronda seemed off her game. She wanted to jump in quick and end it but she didn’t know how. Holm wasn’t backing up or giving an open lane inside. After a minute passed, Ronda seemed even more lost. Holm landed flush shot after flush shot straight to the face of the champ. Rousey’s defense was gone. She was desperate in the first round and Holm was taking advantage. Rousey took Holm down and tried to do an armbar hold and Holm broke out of it with ease. It was sloppy and easy to escape from. Holm took down Ronda but immediately got up, knowing the ground wasn’t her best chance to take the title. Ronda got back up and barely escaped the first round. She had no legs. No energy. No clue. Fight fans wondered who they were looking at. Who was this mortal person in the ring?

Rousey sat in her corner, looking as shocked as the rest of us. She didn’t know who was standing in front of her but her face suddenly recognized pain and how adversity felt. For the first time, Rousey was bleeding and her opponent was not.

The second round didn’t even get a minute old before Rousey was finished. She missed with a few shots and Holm landed a few flush shots to the face before Rousey tried to charge and fell in doing so. When she got back up, she missed with another shot, got tagged and stumbled to the ground. Before she could get up and turn around, Holm landed the perfect leg to the neck and face. The strike numbed Rousey’s moment and the rest of her night, all at once. Rousey fell to the ground like a lump of bricks. You know that limp nothing look to a fighter’s body when they get caught with the perfect shot? That was Rousey. She landed, and Holm got on top, landing two more sideway shots to the champ’s face, literally knocking the undefeated record from her body. With one fall, the monument that Rousey built was gone. The “And still” anthem was put on hold and a new sound was heard, “And NEWWWWW!!!”

Holm immediately jump up in and ran to the side of the ring, unleashing the biggest smile this world will see this weekend. She did it. She did the impossible. The unthinkable. After eight weeks of being told no way, Holm screamed back at the world, “WAY!!”. She didn’t just defeat Ronda Rousey. She defeated the hype machine and world conquering name and face of a legion of young women fighters. Now young girls can look up to two female fighters and not just one. The whole world will know the name Holly Holm by Monday morning. It will be in every punch line, water cooler conversation and phone screen. The image of her leg landing on Rousey’s neck will be as memorable as Juan Manuel Marquez sending Manny Pacquiao to the canvas with that thunderous right hook.

Will Ronda return? Sure she will. She is hungrier than ever now. Minutes after she was counted out, she sat on the canvas and realized what it was like to not win. That is all the motivation she will need to come back for a likely rematch against Holm. Every loss is only met by the sweet smell of revenge cooking around the corner. For now, celebrate Holm and her newfound fame. She earned every tweet, mention and headline that will involve her name over the holidays. She was a massive underdog coming into the fight and leaves Australia the champion of the world. As the great late St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Joaquin Andujar said, “You Never Know.”

In the world of sports, you never know what will happen. In the world of fighting, you never know what will happen when that bell dings and it’s time. There’s someone out there for everybody to lose to. It’s a matter of those two people meeting in a ring.

Saturday night, Ronda Rousey entered the ring as the undefeated champion and top name in the world of sports. Sunday morning, she will wake up defeated and without a belt with a chip on her shoulder. The larger than life star has fallen. What will she do when she wakes up? That is the beauty of sports. Every fall is followed by a reaction.

What are you prepared to do, Ronda?

While we are pondering that and the rematch is set up, take a moment and send some praise Holly Holm’s way. She shocked the world this weekend!

Talking with “Kingdom” creator Byron Balasco

Byron Balasco merges fists, family and MMA in his show Kingdom. Here’s my chat with the creator/executive producer.

Michael Buckner/Getty Images
Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Every TV show has to have a hook in order to get your attention.

There’s simply too much on the tube these days to simply be good on the surface and get people to reserve a room in their world of make believe. Well, Direct TV’s hit series, Kingdom, will get you in the door and make you want to stay for a long time with its balanced concoction of fists, heart, blood and the family ties that tie them together and tear them apart the next day. The creator and executive producer, Byron Balasco, has always been a fan of the MMA arena and its inhabitants, but he wanted to make something more than just a show about fighting. What do these guys go home to and how much fuel does a single fight give somebody?

I came onto Kingdom due to my “watch anything with Frank Grillo in it” natural law, so when he mentioned a little MMA show called Kingdom in a 2014 conversation, I had to give it a look. Without Direct TV, I had to wait a year to watch but quickly consumed the 10 episodes and I strongly suggest you do as well.

This past week, I talked to Balasco over the phone about the raw power of Season 1 and what to expect when Season 2 premieres on October 14th.

Dan Buffa-What made you want to get into the world of MMA?

Byron Balasco-I’ve been a fan of the sport for many years even before it became what it is now. It was so interesting to see people get in a cage and fight for a living. The more I knew these people, the more interesting it became. As a writer, you are always looking for great worlds to set your characters in. Finding the best places to tell these stories. MMA seemed to be rife with opportunity. It’s a subject matter that doesn’t get a lot of networks excited because they feel it’s a world they know little about. It’s marketed as this hyper aggressive meat headed sort of stuff, and while it’s got some of that, these are real people with real lives with families. Instead of pitching the idea, I just wrote it myself so I could show them what it could be in the best way possible. Its a character drama. Endemol got a hold of it and understood it and were passionate about it. Direct TV jumped in for 10 episodes and we were off.

Buffa-I feel like you really lay your stamp on it with these hardened, dirty, flawed characters that we don’t see much around television. These are honest, real and imperfect people. I really liked that. 

Balasco-That is the thing. What they are struggling with is what everybody deals with in their lives. However, I wanted to represent that world so sometimes they are a little more aggressive about it. They are more extreme. Writing them honestly and our cast is committed to playing it honestly makes it work. They give it that lived in feeling. You buy into these people.

Buffa-How important is Frank Grillo to this show? He seems to be the captain of that ship. 

Balasco-He was the first one I brought on. The first piece of casting. Part of getting the show going was finding our Alvey. Frank’s name kept popping up to me. He was the first person I thought of. He wasn’t sure he wanted to do television but he read the script and we did a skype and within 20 seconds, we knew this was going to happen. He knows the world so intimately and he’s been doing it for 25 years. He’s been boxing his whole life so we could speak that same language. The places where I wanted to take the character were in line with places he wanted to explore as an actor. We made a pact that if we were going to do this, let’s do this all out. 

Buffa-When I talked to Grillo the first time, he told me about people calling him up to have him train them after they saw the film, Warrior. He’s so authentic. You don’t meet Frank’s every day. 

Balasco-There’s never a false note when he’s on set. You don’t feel like it’s work. It just seems natural. 

Buffa-One of the strong points of Kingdom is balancing the ring aspect and the family part of the story. Was that important to you?

Balasco-That was very important. You have to have some fighting because that’s the world they are in and the stakes they are facing, but if you do a fight every episode, it gets monotonous. If they want to watch a fight every episode, they’ll find a real fight to watch. I really wanted to tell a story about these people’s lives.

Buffa-Direct TV gave your show a two season(20 episode) pickup. Was that surprising and did that give you some freedom in mapping out your story?

Balasco-It was very exciting. I was in France at Cannes selling the show and got the call. As far as changing my approach, I can look a little ahead and lay things out differently. However, we do go season to season. We are not a big plot driven show. It’s about the characters, so each season is a chapter in their lives. This show lends itself to that kind of storytelling. Yes, its nice to know we have a little bit of time, but it doesn’t change the way we attack a season.

Buffa-This characters are intense with some very intense scenes. How do these actors get worked up? Is there red bull drinking challenge in a steam room or something?

Balasco-All of these guys train incredibly hard and consistently. They train with real fighters on our set keeping us real. We all are a family who loves each other so there is a camaraderie.  There is also a competition among them as well. They are brothers. You love them but you don’t want to be the weak link. Everybody, including Kiele and Joanna, shows up wanting to kill it. Everybody really cares and lives in these roles so it lends a sense of authenticity. We are also open to discover stuff on set and I will make a change on set if it makes the scene feel more natural.

Buffa-The great TV shows always feel like a family driven operation and not just a job. You guys are getting down in the trenches to create something special.

Balasco-That’s exactly right. This cast has a lot of chemistry together so it comes out.

Buffa-Season 1 left characters in a seemingly successful if jaded position. Fights in the ring were won but maybe lost on the homefront. Where does Season 2 open things up at?

Balasco-Some time has passed. There has been some success and they are in a new gym but still hanging by a thread. It’s like “you get ten extra bucks but you spend ten extra bucks.” That struggle is still real. There have been some changes. Alvey and Lisa are still trying to make it work. I don’t want to give too much away. The theme of this next season is the painful ascent. With success, it doesn’t always drag everybody at the same pace. It changes the dynamics and awakens new tensions among people. 

Buffa-Alvey was telling Lisa early on in Season 1 about the threat of expanding. When you have this little indie family gym, it’s hard but it is yours. With more money, you invite more snakes in the den. 

Balasco-You wonder why you are doing it? That’s a big part of the show. It was in the first season and will be in every season that comes after it. You fight so hard and chase something and nothing changes. You still have to deal with yourself and relate to the people in your life. 

Buffa-It’s like a drug. It’s satisfying but you are always left wanting more and feeling unsatisfied. As a writer, I have homework for life because it’s always about the next story I write. 

Balasco-Always. I’m telling you. Every time I finish a script, I feel good for half a day and then I start thinking about the next one and how it has to be better than the last. It never ends. 

Buffa-You’ve come onto something really special here and are the first show to truly tackle MMA. In the press notes, it says to go with the Ronda Rousey craze, in season 2, there is a female fighter joining the ring. 

Balasco-Honestly, that was a little less a Ronda Rousey thing and really from the fact I spend a lot of time in gyms and there’s female fighters in every gym. I go up to Albuquerque with Craig Jackson and hang out with him a lot. He trains some of the best fighters in the world and has women in his gym all the time. We want to be authentic and be real to the world. To not do that was a big glaring hole in our roster. The trick was finding the right actress. I worked with Natalie Martinez from a show I did called Detroit 187. She is a fighter in real life and can kick ass in real life. We have a great fight with her this season and she put everything into it. It pumped up the guys seeing her in it. 

People can watch and enjoy a TV show but if you want people to love your show and talk about it in the street, at the gym, in restaurants and around the bars, it has to be authentic. In order to be authentic, the creator, crew and everybody involved must care about what they are doing. It’s their faces, heart and souls out there. Balasco, directors Gary Fleder and Michael Morris among others, the writers along with Grillo, Jonathan Tucker, Matt Lauria, Kiele Sanchez, Joanna Going, Nick Jonas, Mac Brandt and anybody else getting punched all care about making this show perfect. They sink all they have into it. It starts and ends with Balasco, the guy who wanted to put a unique twist on television and the world of MMA. He’s done other shows like Without a Trace and Huff, but Kingdom is his domain and that is felt in every scene of this show.

The second season premieres on October 14th, so you have plenty of time to watch the 10 episodes from season 1, join a gym, start punching things and get pumped up about season 2. It’s not just television. It’s a slice of life that combines the brutality of the ring with the fierce battlefield of a home.

Wrap your hands and head to Itunes, ladies and gents! Come October 14th, watch this show. If you don’t have Direct TV, make friends with someone who does, even if their apartment sucks and they are annoying.

“Kingdom”: Muscles and Heart rolled into a fist

Kingdom isn’t just a show about MMA fighters. It’s a surprising bowl of muscles, heart, and wrecked souls.

“Every man will whisper to themselves at some point. Am I one of the weak or one of the strong?”-Alvey Kulina

In life, all men know and understand that they reside in a kingdom. They spend their entire life wondering where in that kingdom they belong. Down with the peasants. Cleaning up the streets. Defending with a sword in their hand. Hiding inside their home. Do they belong next to the throne or in the crowd watching the king? That follows all of us around every day.

Creator Byron Balasco(Without A Trace, Huff) didn’t just bring us a show about MMA and its fighters. This show is special because it stretches outside the octagon and into an uglier harder to depict fight in our life. The dysfunctional aspect of family. Nobody hits harder than your own family and the way they look at you. A stranger can punch you in the face 10 times but if a brother looks at you like something lesser than a man, the effect is shattering. The training, fight scenes and testosterone ballet in Direct TV’s Kingdom is fine seasoning and will keep you away, but the powerful hard knock portrayal of inner demons, family rust and the dangers that await these characters outside the ring is what will spin in my head for weeks until the second season premiere on October 16th.

What’s so good about this show? Everything, but let me be more detailed and articulate for those of you who need more a brochure for your next TV show binge.

Frank Grillo, a man with Atlantic City going on inside the high arches of that Italian hair, was born to play Alvey Kulina, the patriarch of a family of MMA fighters. Grillo is a 50 year renegade hitting his stride after years of hard work stealing scenes from stars like Liam Neeson, Tom Hardy and Jason Statham. Grillo sinks every ounce of himself into Alvey, a former fighter who is hanging on to life by investing his time as a trainer and mentor to his sons. Everything about Grillo is authentic and Balasco hangs the show on his shoulders, and the man doesn’t disappoint. You may feel like you know Alvey after a few episodes but by the 9th hour, every picture you have drawn will be tossed because he’s unpredictable and vulnerable in ways most tough guys are not on television.

If Grillo helps shape the soul of the show, Kiele Sanchez(who co-starred with Grillo in The Purge: Anarchy) is the heart of the show as Lisa Prince, Alvey’s woman and Achilles heel. Sanchez isn’t a name you will know before the show, but after you watch episode 10, she will be an actress to remember. Sanchez isn’t intimidated by the male dominated cast. She’s the Queen that nobody wants to push aside. In the same vein as Alvey, viewers will think they have seen Lisa and her arc before as the show opens up innocently, but things soon spiral out of control and that allows Sanchez to have some fun with Lisa.

Matt Lauria is a cracked glass of rage as Ryan Wheeler, a former champion who gets released from prison and has to deal with all his demons like they are residents in a house he can’t sell. He reconnects with Alvey, a man he respects but also a man who is with the woman he loves in Lisa. Kingdom does “messy” like no other show. Lauria never lets you get too close to Ryan, a violent man with enough rage to fill six rings of sorrow. This show balances itself on the tripod of lust with Alvey, Ryan and Lisa trading blows hour by hour.

Let me say something. I love Jonathan Tucker. Everything about the actor appeals to me. He has so many speeds the man is like a human treadmill. Comedy. Action. Romance. Wildness. Wacky. Heartfelt. Tragic. Tucker can play them all. I’ve loved Tucker since his work in the short run of NBC’s Black Donnelly’s. He squared off with Timothy Olyphant’s Raylan Givens on Justified earlier this year but his work as Jay Kulina will demolish everything he has stepped foot in before. Tucker unfolds here as a man who has snorted every drug and burned every bridge but seems like the most well adjusted “right where I need to be” person on the show. Tucker is a live firecracker as Jay, a fighter on the comeback trail.

What do you think of Nick Jonas? He sing and girls love him. Well, toss that out the window. Whatever the answer is, prepare to rethink it as he tackles the role of Alvey’s youngest son, Nate. This kid was the last person on my list of “I hope to see him in a physical fighting role sometime soon” but as the moral of the show pertains, forget about pre-conceived notions. Jonas is a quiet ball of fury here as a kid who doesn’t know what he wants but knows that breathing keeps all options open. Nate Kulina is the youngest but he is also the most responsible person on the show. Nick Jonas is going to blow you away and it looks effortless.

Mac Brandt does great work here as the fighter and drug pharmacy to the Kulina family. The “Freckled Dart Board” doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as the majority of the cast but puts it all to good use. He makes you want to see more of him. The wolf has some juice here. Also putting in fine work is Joanna Going, the “wife” and mother of the Kulina boys. You won’t know whether you should love or hate Going’s Christina, but the ride doesn’t stop hitting bumps until the final moments of the Season 1 finale. The trademark of this cast is deception. Right when you measure them for an overhand right located for your forehead, you don’t see the uppercut smashing you in the ribs.

Balasco has crafted a show that looks simple on the surface but breathes like a stoked fire with intensity. The Kulina’s gym, Navy Street, is on the fringe with bills and staying open. Jay and Nate are trying to establish themselves in the fight world and Ryan is reestablishing his ring persona while fighting all the urges outside of it. All the while, Alvey and Lisa seem to fighting the ugliest part of life. Cutting strings with the past and trusting the future. The actors may look gorgeous but their characters are all broken piles of glass. Speaking of glass, Lauria’s rage filled moment at the gym is so harrowing and out of control that I felt like smashing a mirror just to see if I got the same rush. Kingdom makes you want to hit a bag until your knuckles bleed. It’s workout video, graphic novel and poetic speech about identity that you won’t see coming.

Grillo is the bottle cap that’s ready to pop. You watch him and you see an actor who pulls pages of dialogue and looks from his bones. He’s the most authentic fighter you will see on any sized screen in 2015 and beyond. A man who has finally found a role fit for his amount of rage, charisma and stature as a true tough guy with a poker deck full of secrets.

What makes Kingdom different? The visceral punch that it hits you with and the way it defies normal TV family drama. This show is a pit bull with teeth, heart, and soul to make your time spent with it seem justified but required.

As Mac Brandt would say, “show some self respect” and watch Kingdom. Season 2 starts in a week.