Jake Tyler is your average boy from Iowa. Except that his dad is dead and as a result, Jake is angry all the time and expends his excess energy by beating the crap out of anyone who makes the slightest comment involving his lack of ongoing male adult influence. His kid brother is a budding tennis star who gets a scholarship to a good tennis school in Florida. As Jake is in severe trouble at home in Iowa, this is a good move for all involved. Once he arrives in Florida, he finds something new and unexpected: Mixed Martial Arts. Seemingly the entire school is involved in an unofficial MMA club. Yes, the whole school, even the ladies, has a singular obsession with MMA.
As things progress, Jake gets beaten senseless by Ryan McCarthy, the school's resident Jerkass, in a fight that was unwanted by Jake and instigated by Ryan's innate ability to sense his opponent's Berserk Button and proceed to mash it repeatedly. This fight is Jake's first lesson in MMA. His friend then gets him into formal MMA training, where Jean Roqua teaches Jake how to defeat any opponent. Many matches later, Jake ends up facing Ryan in a one-on-one fight to determine, once and for all, who the better fighter is.
The film was followed by two sequels, (Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown and Never Back Down: No Surrender), both directed by and starring Michael Jai White as ex-MMA phenom and martial arts master, Case Walker.
This film provides examples of:
- Abusive Parents: Ryan's father.
- Arc Words: "This is my fight. Everyone's got one."
- Artistic License Martial Arts: The 540º kick Jake uses to finish off Ryan would likely break his own foot if attempted the way he does. Otherwise, the film uses pretty realistic MMA choreography.
- Berserk Button: Mentioning Jake's father or the events surrounding his father's death are two ways to make Jake leap at you with fists raised.
- Blood Knight: Everyone who participates in the Beatdown.
- Cool, But Inefficient: The Capoeira fighter shows off with fancy flips and spinning kicks apparently forgetting he is in a fight, so Ryan finishes him with a single punch.
- Cut Himself Shaving: Jake claims his injuries are due to him "running into a door." Lampshaded by Roqua when he forbids Jake from fighting outside the gym, "no matter how big the door."
- Defeat Equals Friendship: Ryan shows respect to Jake at the end of the film.
- Designated Girl Fight: Played With: We first see two girls fighting it out at a party. Moments later, we see "The Battle of the Exes", with a girl kicking the crap out of a guy twice her size.
- Easily Distracted Referee: Averted. Ryan cheats by using an eye gouge on his opponent. The ref notices the resulting injury a few seconds later and disqualifies him on the spot.
- Eye Scream: Ryan performs an eye gouge on an opponent during the semifinal match at the Beatdown.
- Inevitable Tournament: The Beatdown is mentioned, but Jake says he doesn't want to fight in it. Guess what he ends up doing. However, it's subverted when Ryan ends up disqualified and Jake taps out intentionally from his own semi-final having nothing to prove. When a fight between Jake and Ryan happens outside at the parking lot, the crowd is more interested in their fight than the actual final.
- I Have No Son!: What Roqua's dad told him after his brother was killed as a result of a brawl when they were out at a bar.
- Jerk Jock: Ryan.
- Kick the Dog: Ryan doesn't simply just believe in beating his opponents in a fight. He believes in kicking them when they are down.Ryan: And now for the bad news. It's gotta end with you looking like a bitch in front of everybody.
- Klingon Promotion: A non-death example, but all of the characters in the movie see fighting this way. The only way to be the best is to beat all the rest.
- Moment Killer: Charlie, Jake's little brother, walks in on Jake and Baja making out on his bedroom floor. Baja lamely claims that they were "wrestling."
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Played straighter than Robin Hood's arrows.
- Reality Ensues: Ryan executes an eye gouge on his opponent when the ref's back is turned. Immediately after the match, the ref notices the other guy's messed up eye and immediately disqualifies Ryan from the tournament.
- Reasonable Authority Figure: The referee at the Beatdown. He checks on Jake after he is injured during a match to make sure he is alright before going into the next round, and disqualifies Ryan on the spot when he uses a forbidden eye gouge during the semifinal match.
- Serious Business: The description above isn't exaggerating much about how obsessed the kids at Jake's new school are with MMA. To be popular with a majority is one thing, but it strains Willing Suspension of Disbelief when the movie makes it seem as though a second common interest simply does not exist among the student body.
- Shout-Out: Some to the history of MMA.
- Max mentions Roqua has having "trained the Gracies" back in Brazil, which would quite be a sign of badassery for him in real life, as the Gracie family (the main developers of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and the force behind the creation of Ultimate Fighting Championship) did not use to learn from outsiders to their art for a long time.
- The main character entering a tournament to get a revenge and forfeiting at the semifinals after learning his rival is not anymore in the card draws parallelisms with the real life run of Ken Shamrock at UFC 3, where he forfeited at the end when he learned Royce Gracie had forfeited too.
- The Only One Allowed to Defeat You: After Ryan is disqualified, Jake forfeits his semifinal match because he was only in the tournament to beat Ryan.
- Title Drop: Delivered by Roqua during his Rousing Speech.
- Training from Hell: The Combat 365 gym. Jake is a football player and finds himself struggling to keep up (at least until the Training Montage).
- "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Ryan.
- Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Lampshaded by Baja as she suggests that her parents smoked a lot of weed.