Director Danny Simmons’ documentary Suffer for Good is about Seb Zewdie, who is all but impossible not to root for. During his youth in his native Ethiopia, while “most people became addicted by drug, by alcohol, by cigarettes, and different habits,” Zewdie’s addiction was boxing. The unassuming, earnest, and perpetually optimistic young man trained and honed his boxing skills patiently, anticipating his emergence as an Olympian at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. After the Games, Zewdie’s goal was to remain in the USA and turn pro.
But for Zewdie and hundreds of others like him, things didn’t quite turn out the way he had envisioned. Due to some Cold War bullshit, the Soviet Union (which held sway over Ethiopia at the time) boycotted the 1984 Olympics in retaliation for the United States refusing to attend the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Zewdie’s dream was cruelly and devastatingly crushed due to circumstances outside of his control.
True to his constitution, Zewdie soldiered on and eventually opened up a boxing studio in Culver City, California. Here, the boxer continues to indulge his passion and train fighters in the sport to which his life is inextricably entwined.
But now, after thirty years of retirement and despite having undergone surgery for a heart defect, 52–year-old Zewdie is putting on his sparring gloves for one more venture into the boxing ring for no other reason than to prove to himself that he can. I mean, in terms of entertainment value, no one can resist such an underdog story. This is why we love other similarly themed sports films, documentary or not, such as Rocky (an obvious comparison), Rudy, and The Karate Kid.
“Zewdie’s dream was cruelly and devastatingly crushed…”
Suffer for Good is about as inspiring as movies get. Seb Zewdie’s heartbreak at being denied a spot on the Olympic stage is glimpsed in every shot of his friendly, smiling face. Conversely, his acceptance of his bitter fate and his determination to create a life for himself and his family is palpable. The course of Zewdie’s life has been scarred by disappointment, but his innate resilience refuses to let that define him.
Zewdie’s dogged will to achieve at all costs and the father/ teacher/ mentor relationship he imparts has so clearly encouraged all of his students. Two of them are featured prominently in Suffer for Good: former UFC fighter Jared “The Jackhammer” Papazian and MMA fighter Jesse “Juvenile” Merritt. But it is the testimony of Zewdie’s eldest son (he has three kids), Matti, which is the most endearing. This young man looks at and speaks of his father with such reverence and idolatry, the likes of which all fathers should hope their kids believe about them.
The entire film is structured like a trailer for a “believe in yourself” tearjerker, complete with a synthetic score that is sometimes reflective and sometimes pumping, slow motion and soft focus shots, and rousing sound bytes such as “I must fight again” and “when you’re a fighter, you’re always a fighter.” Suffer for Good is so intent on showcasing the motivational elements of Zewdie’s story that Simmons even throws in a few Rocky-esque training montages that essentially cement the audience’s championing for him. Although, it’s not like the audience needed any prodding.
Constructing the documentary in this manner, no matter how cloying it might be, is nevertheless effective, and your heart bursts with pride at getting to know someone like Seb Zewdie, even for only an hour or so (the movie would be a perfect fit for a channel like ESPN). In a beautiful moment towards the end of Suffer for Good, Matti asks his dad, “How does it feel to be mini Muhammad Ali?” Zewdie humbly laughs and insists he doesn’t see the likeness. But Matti does, and after having spent some time with Seb Zewdie, so do we.
"…your heart bursts with pride at getting to know someone like Seb Zewdie..."