It was mid-January in Park City, Utah, and filmmaker Allan Luebke was only minutes away from eating his last meal before facing the Slamdance Film Festival audience in attendance for the debut of his documentary film, Glena.

Slamdance, which just celebrated its 20th year, is a celebration of independent film, a place where those that were overlooked by the prestigious Sundance can have their artistic works displayed just the same. Luebke’s film was one of only eight documentaries selected out of a total of 5,000 entries. His participation in this event would see the culmination of the last three years of his life poured into getting to this point with his film—a feature doc about a year in the life of mixed martial artist Glena Avila’s journey to becoming a professional fighter.

“It’s been about well over three years,” Luebke told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview before his Slamdance premiere. “And we started in November of 2010 and we filmed with Glena from then til the summer of 2011. Kind of about this nine-month span where she was still an amateur fighter and she had this dream to turn pro—she wanted to see if she could do it.

Avila

Avila

“She’s decided that she was going to put everything on the line to give it a shot. So I stuck around her with a camera at that time and documented pretty much her whole life, from the relationship with her boyfriend, the relationship with her son, her career [and] obviously her journey from becoming a fighter. Then we spent about two years editing it off and on. I’d been doing video production in television for about six years at the time and I’d never made a feature film, so I really had to learn how. That’s how long it took me, about two years to figure it out.”

It was a chance meeting that led to Luebke’s introduction to Ms. Avila, or simply Glena, as she’ll likely be known for some time, like a contemporary kind of Rocky. Luebke was working for a local television station in Portland, Ore., that was looking to film some spots on interesting locals. Their initial meeting would become the beginning of a much bigger story.

“So I ended up on this local show, just doing this interview, and Allan had thought that my story was more interesting than most and he thought that I had a good camera presence, so he asked me how I felt about him following me to train for my next fight,” Avila told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview a few weeks after the film’s premiere. “Make a little short movie, maybe it might play on YouTube or something like that. I was like, ‘Sure, that sounds like fun. Let’s do that,’ and in the mix of that he realized there were so many other aspects of filming other things going on. We got through that fight and he was like, ‘Do you mind if I keep following you?’ And I was like, ‘Sure, sure, if you want to go ahead.’ And he just kept filming and things kept opening up—new adventures and things he wanted to catch on film—and it just kept going. And then he decided, ‘You know what, you’re so close to hitting your goal and going pro, can I just follow you to see what happens and see if you actually make it into the pros?’ And that’s basically how it went.”

There was an instinct within Luebke, whose work in film in college made him a National College Emmy winner. He knew that there was something more to Glena’s story than just a grown woman wanting to be a cage fighter. He wasn’t even an MMA fan per se, past renting a few of the original UFC VHS tapes at Blockbuster when he was a teenager, but he knew an intriguing story when he saw one. Watching and telling stories is his life’s passion, after all. He immediately latched on to the unique struggles of being a mixed martial artist, which evolved into their own themes and subplots of the film.

“I was not an MMA fan when I started making this movie, so, when we started this movie, my interest was never in the MMA part,” Luebke revealed. “It was about this woman who was at this position in her life where most people would settle in for the long haul. She had a house, she had two kids, she was a single mom, she had a good job, was living very comfortably and happily, and she very much had the American dream that most people strive for. And she decided, although she was happy with that, that she wanted her own dream that didn’t have to do with her family [or] career—was just something for her. She decided to risk it all for that.

“It appealed to me so much, someone who would take that kind of risk to take something that 99 out of 100 people would be happy with, and say, ‘No, I want something more.’ I always wanted that for my own life. I always liked movies where people followed their dreams and were crazy in that pursuit. So I met Glena, and I was like, this is happening in real life. This is what happens in movies, but she’s actually doing it.

“And it just so happens that the world of mixed martial arts is so exciting,” he concluded. “We’re doing a movie about taking risks, about family, about love, and it’s also a sports movie with these enormous, dramatic, epic moments as she goes around the country for these fights.”

Allan Luebke

Allan Luebke

Something that makes this pairing of a director and a fighter so unique is that they endeavor to represent the larger context of what they are doing. Hearing the story told directly by each of them is equal parts inspiring and simply about making the choices to work towards something more. Like any journey, it started from humble beginnings. You could say this whole thing began because Glena decided one day to do something different with her life—to follow through on a crazy whim.

“I’m not even sure,” Glena laughed as she responded on her reasons for her sudden decision to start fighting. “I saw girls fighting on YouTube; I tried to look up a friend of mind that fought. And I saw these two girls fighting, and I was a fan of the sport, it was one of those things I followed all the time, not just UFC but Bellator and Strikeforce back then. I’m a huge fan and I watched these girls on YouTube who were local from Portland fighting, and I was like, ‘Oh, we can do this here?’ And I’m not even sure—I made the call, got a hold of a promoter and was like, ‘What if I want to try it? What do I have to do?’ And that’s kind of how it started.”

By the time Leubke caught up with her, Glena was in the midst of a successful amateur career. The single mother, in her mid-30s with a full-time job and training schedule, had captured three amateur titles at three different weight classes and was traveling and fighting across the country on the cusp of becoming a professional.

It was a brave undertaking against so many odds. It wasn’t easy, and at the time, it probably didn’t even make sense, especially to outsiders, for her to be doing this. But she had a goal to pursue and she decided it was time to move in a direction towards it. What’s more is that Glena’s decision to chase this notion begs a question within each of us: What’s stopping us from fighting for what is in our own hearts?

“There were definitely really hard times,” Avila explained. “Times when I was full of doubt, felt like I bit off more than I could chew. There were good days where I felt like everything was coming together and it was worth it. I would go to the gym, I would land everything I was trying to land and have great sparring rounds and come home happy and feel fully content. And then I’d have days where I felt like everything was falling apart, I couldn’t keep up, I was so tired trying to do my job at work, feeling overwhelmed there, feeling overwhelmed with my kids.

“It was one of those things I had to take…it was like breaking up into pieces. I had to take every piece, one thing at a time, and get through that before I could step into the next thing. And then the rewards would come by way of winning one belt after another and I’d just keep going. I didn’t know at the time if I was going to make it in the pros. I didn’t know if I was ever going to make it to that point, and that was the goal, that’s what I wanted to do.”

Luebke saw the greater struggle at play in Glena’s life and took to sharing those larger themes as he was witnessing them play out in real life.

“I think that a movie about a mixed martial artist is a uniquely American story,” Luebke explained. “In America, we have such a drive for individual accomplishment and there’s so many sports…very few people have remotely entertained the concept of being a fighter. We, as Americans, love to watch movies about fighters, because the next best thing to actually doing it ourselves is to watch someone else doing it. We get to live vicariously through their experience.

“It’s about that independent drive to do something that is so hard that you have no one to rely on but yourself. You can’t rely on your other 10 teammates on the football field. You have to get up in the morning, you have to keep your diet right, you have to go through the physical struggle of training. Once the competition comes, you have coaches, but it’s you in the ring. No other person can help you at that point. No other sport is like that. So, with a documentary, you see that end. It’s actually real life, so audiences relate to it on an even greater level.”

Hardcore MMA spectators are no strangers to the narratives Luebke and Glena are sharing. We faithfully soak up these larger than life tales that we take from individual athletes. We watch for the thrill we get to experience from witnessing their highest accomplishments, and we enjoy the safety of being able to criticize what we perceive from afar.

Back in 2009, Glena was at a point in her life where she was fed up with her dreams only existing as fantasies. She was “out of her league” and had “no time to mess around,” but she went for it. She captured the first-ever women’s MMA title in Oregon history for the Full Contact Fighting Federation, and that was her “changing point.” It’s what let her know that it was her time to see this fighting thing through.

Avila (L)

Avila (L)

“At the time, I didn’t realize it was as big as it was,” Glena said of her amateur beginnings. “At the time, it was like, ‘Yeah, I want to try this.’ And then I did it, and after I was winning fights, most people felt like I shouldn’t even be in the cage with the girls I was stepping in [against]. And I’d win one after another, and it just kind of spiraled into something that was bigger than me.

“A lot of the struggles were people just not agreeing with a regular mom, who should be working and taking care of the household and doing all this stuff, doing something different than society maybe thinks I should be doing. There were times when I’d get overwhelmed and think, ‘Okay, this is just too much and I shouldn’t do this anymore. I should just go back to a normal life.’ And then I would get this random email or Facebook message from somebody that’s like, ‘Your story really inspires me, and because of you I started writing again, or I forgot that I liked doing this and just became a housewife and now because of you I’m doing this. And I realized that what I was doing was greater than myself or being a fighter or any of those kind of things. I was actually fighting for a lot of people and fighting for people who maybe lost something along the way. And not only was I finding myself, I was helping other people find themselves as well.”

In some ways, Luebke was entering into prolonged training for his own larger-than-life struggle when his time filming Glena ended. He had to turn all the hours of footage he captured into a great movie. With the help of a supportive wife, Luebke was able to be a stay-at-home filmmaker, spending the next two years crafting this story into a solid feature-length film. He’d pull the greats off the shelf, like Rocky or The Wrestler, and break down each shot, scene and character “to understand what made a great movie.” All the great directors of film served as his guides.

He independently raised capital for the film through sites like Indiegogo to cover media publicity and travel expenses. He put it all right back into the project, never into his own pockets. Now, with the film’s premiere, the next step is acquiring distribution, whether it be a major theatrical release, video-on-demand service or eventually home media. The hardest part of making the film is over.

The final product is the kind of film that will transcend the sport the same way Rocky did for boxing. The difference is that everything about this story is real. It exists to show a larger audience that mixed martial artists can represent the greater fight in a modern way that no other sport can. The characters and plots can touch us, inspire us, perhaps even goad us into taking that wild, illogical step towards something we haven’t decided to do for ourselves.

“That’s what it’s about. You take all those things going on, which are enough to break most people down, and then you’re still chasing this impossible dream,” Luebke concluded. “You put it all on top of each other and it hits to about as impossible of a dream as you can get. But Glena chases this thing—and I can’t give [away] the ending—but it really is such a crowd-pleasing movie. No one is disappointed in this movie, that’s for sure.”

Glena is now a professional fighter and holds a record of 2-2. She experienced a setback due to injury, but is fully rehabbed and back to training full-time. She is waiting for her next fight to be booked and is eyeing a possible spot in The Ultimate Fighter house for the next season that will include 115-pound women. There’s also the possibility that Invicta, or maybe a regional promotion, will give her a call and offer her a fight.

The progress of her career in 2014 is yet to unfold, but the impact of her story and the film behind her brings a certain satisfaction that the sport of MMA and its fighters can represent that we are more than any of the barriers that we think stand in our way.

“The film, to me, is just a huge opportunity to let people know that a lot of the points of view [towards] women who do this sport, a lot of times what they’re thinking is wrong,” Glena spoke softly about what she hopes audiences will receive from the film. “We’re people. We’re full of heart. We’re mothers. We have all these things that are going on in our life, and we compete. People who think that women who fight in this sport are brutal and man-like, we’re not very feminine, and none of that’s true. We all have stories, and I’m lucky enough to tell mine. You can probably talk to any fighter and they’ll tell you that they have this whole other aspect of their life going on. Fighting is one aspect, so a lot of the assumptions about the female fighters is not true. This gives an opportunity for people to have a glimpse of what we really are.

“I feel like this is a huge opportunity for me to put it out there and maybe inspire other people to pursue something. And I don’t care what it is—it doesn’t have to be fighting. Maybe it is fighting. If it is fighting, great. If it’s not, maybe it’s being an artist or writing or whatever it is. If I inspire people, I feel like my mission is accomplished.”

Allan would like to thank the city of Portland. You can pre-buy a copy of the Glena film and make donations at Indiegogo. Follow Luebke on Twitter: @allanluebke

Glena would like to thank Steven Valentine and Jason House from Iridium Sports Agency, Tussle Fight Gear, Ranger Up, Central Oregon Trikke, Fight Chix and Rose City SC. Follow Avila on Twitter: @MMAHeartless

For updates on the film, follow the documentary’s Twitter account: @glenathemovie

About The Author

David Massey
Staff Writer

David Massey studied Humanities and Art History at the University of Central Oklahoma. He first found interest in MMA from the first TUF show and has been hooked ever since. He began posting on mmajunkie then submitting Sunday Junkie entries and that began his interest in writing about MMA. Through twitter David found other MMA enthusiasts and began contributing articles to marqueemma.com. He looks forward to growing as a writer and being a part of the sport he loves.