The crowd surrounding the octagon ring on the west end of the Rainbow Ballroom erupts as the two fighters begin to trade a flurry of punches. Each time one of the mixed martial arts fighters slams the other to the mat, a booming sound bounces off the walls.
It all stops when Alan Autry shouts, "Cut."
The two fighters — local actor Brett Prieto and former Fresno State wrestler turned MMA fighter Casey Olson — tap gloves to compliment each other on how well the first round went as cameras rolled for the faith-based movie "Victory By Submission." It's the first day of filming on the low-budget movie written and directed by Autry, the former Fresno mayor, which is being made through his Dirt Road Productions.
Since leaving office in 2009, Autry's been repeatedly approached to return to politics, even a possible run for the state Senate. He says there's more important work to be done — work where he can use his 35 years of experience as an actor.
"When it comes to politics, 60 is the new 80. It really ages you," says Autry, who is 60. "As I'm nearing the last quarter of my life, I've been thinking more about what I will be leaving behind — what good have I done."
That's why Autry has concentrated more on making movies, the acting classes he teaches, the mentoring program for problem teens he started a year ago and his work with the "Arts for All" effort.
He's been able to bring the four together in this new production. Many of the actors in "Victory By Submission" are from his acting classes, plus he's using many of those in the mentoring program and arts program to work on the local filming.
And the project draws on Autry's experience as a pro athlete: He is a one-time NFL quarterback.
Last week, it was the first day of shooting the fight scenes for the movie, but it was not the first time the fight has been filmed. Autry had planned on the story of an MMA fighter who faces a life-changing moment in the ring to be part of a potential TV series he put together called "Choices." Each episode would deal with important Christian messages about life.
But a few days into filming what would have been episodes two and three of the series, Autry decided that the performances were so good that the script should be expanded and turned into a film.
He's not sure if the movie will get a theatrical release, go straight to DVD or be distributed directly to churches. All he cares about now is making a good movie that has a positive message.
"I was up late last night doing rewrites," Autry says. "I don't know which is harder — doing the rewrites on a movie or getting the State of the City speech ready."
Autry doesn't want the film to look like an indictment of MMA. He's using the sport as his focus, but his broader message comes from how upset he is with the state of sports these days and how they've become more about the passion for money than the love of competition.
"Victory By Submission," which is set in Fresno, is working on a tight budget — evident by the hand-drawn signs taped up to mark the make-up, wardrobe and art departments. Autry says that these days — because of improvement and reduced cost of digital cameras — a production doesn't have to look cheaply made.
It helps that he's using almost all local talent in front of and behind the cameras. His biggest surprise was finding Prieto, a Madera police officer, to play the movie's lead.
Prieto always had an interest in acting, but he never had the time because he played baseball at Buchanan High School and then in college. After college, he got a manager and agent and moved to Los Angeles, but he could only get small acting jobs. Once he moved back to Fresno, Prieto started getting cast in locally made movies, such as "Firefall" and "Showboys."
A few years ago, he started martial arts training and is studying the relatively new discipline of Seieido. The combination of his martial arts background and acting was what Autry needed for his lead role.
"Usually in sports films, you can find an athlete who knows the sport or an actor who can act. It's rare to find those who can do both. It took me days to teach Mac Davis how to throw a five-step dropback pass for 'North Dallas Forty.' When we auditioned Brett, I was happy we found him, but I didn't know how we would be able to get him here for the filming. That's when they told me he was a police officer in Madera."
Prieto normally works weekends, so there havebeen no conflicts with the shooting schedule. All of the fight scenes were scheduled for the first week of filming, and then there will be a short break. Production will resume in late August or early September. Prieto laughs, and says that means he will have to stay on the strict diet and exercise regimen he's been going through since he was cast.
"I am in pretty good shape anyway, but I knew there would be a lot of shots with my shirt off," Prieto says. "So I went to work."
Although Prieto can handle himself as an actor and athlete, Autry's made it easier by surrounding him with real MMA fighters like Olson.
A prayer is said before the first shot of the day, and it's delivered by Olson. As soon as Olson's done, Autry moves in and asks his actors, "You guys ready to rumble?"
Autry's keeping a close eye on every part of the production. He goes from delivering a pep talk to the extras playing the ringside fans to making sure his camera operator, Jon Hollis, is securely anchored to the top of the 16-foot-tall ladder on which he's standing.
At one point, Autry nixes the idea of adding a spritz of water to the fighters to make them look sweaty, and he worries about whether the "Raw Power" logo on the middle of the mat is a copyright logo for some small company.
It's nonstop action as cast and crew film the scene — one of the biggest moments in the movie. Autry is all smiles as he watches. He's content in the fact that he's doing something he loves — something that, when finished, will deliver an important message about sportsmanship, fatherhood and the strong need for faith.
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.