Books / Ultimate Fighting Championships / What I Read / Writing

Book Reviews: MMA as Cultural Force

“Uffizi Florence Wrestlers 1” by Rorybowman (Extracted from scan and enhanced in Photoshop by Rory Bowman, background removed by Jdcollins13). Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

In the second half of the year, I’ve been on a mixed martial arts (MMA) reading binge. To be clear, I read a lot of articles, blog posts, and essays about the martial arts, most often focused on Filipino martial arts, MMA, and grappling. Rarely, though, do I read books about the martial arts. Instructional books are fun, heavy on technique but superficial on the art as a whole, and somehow, these books lack the depth that technical breakdown essays possess. The memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies are interesting but don’t really hold my attention until the finish. I haven’t found a history or martial treatise that interests me. But I recently found my niche in reading about martial arts as a modern cultural phenomenon. MMA provides an exciting look at American culture’s relation to martial arts in general.

Prior to the Ultimate Fighting Championship, martial arts biggest contribution to society was as vehicle for action movies. The general population’s major encounters with the martial arts is through cinema, and as with everything in film, the reality of the martial arts gave way to choreographed dances. The art superseded the martial. A small portion of us, though, continued to practice, to study, to train in a way that lay outside the general populace’s knowledge. MMA is effectively a bridge between the popular but false world of movies and the eclectic but physical world of martial arts training. While I would like to see realistic Filipino martial arts have a larger presence in the culture than their action movie equivalent, I can only look at MMA as surpassing the cultural norms previously experienced by other martial arts. It’s worth studying how this phenomenon has become the force that it is today.

“Ronda-Rousey” by Rbautista91 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons –

As Brazillian jiu jitsu and MMA have continued to gain popularity, a larger section of the population has taken up martial arts training as well. The sport itself has undergone a dramatic transformation from the days of so-called “human cockfighting” to the licensed sport we have today, but it has also become a significant cultural force. Needing a break from novels, I picked up four books about mixed martial arts: The Professor in the Cage, Beast, Tapped Out, and Blood in the Cage. Each book is unique in and of itself. Together, the four combine into an impressive narrative of the sport that I love. From the societal place of MMA to the lives of the fighters to the journey of the novice to the story of a mixed martial arts legend, these books showcase the how and the why of MMA’s rise in popularity. If during this holiday season you’re looking for a gift for your favorite MMA fan who is a little nerdy, these books are a good place to start.

The Professor in the Cage by Jonathan Gottschall

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By far my favorite book out of the four was the Professor in the Cage. Mr. Gottschall used MMA as a vehicle for exploring why violence as sport is so alluring. This book was academically rigorous without the stuffy academic writing. In an attempt to sabotage his own career, he decides to take up MMA training and shock the stuffed shirts at the college where he worked. Along the way, he delved into biology, history, and culture to search for the attraction to sport violence. This book is light on the MMA training and heavy on the cultural critique. It’s a mix that worked for me as I found it a fascinating work. While I would have loved more of an in-depth look at his training, it would have increased the length of the book too much. The historical, cultural, and biological investigations were necessary to frame why mixed martial arts has a place in our society. For an academic, Mr. Gottschall’s writing was surprisingly accessible. In my experience, academic writing tends to be formal, clinical, and not too exciting. The Professor in the Cage, however, had a lived-in feel to it with the personal and the educational balanced in a way that each supported the other to transcend the sum of its parts. This book will not be for the MMA fan who wants to read about hard training sessions, the sacrifice needed to achieve a goal, or what it’s like to train with legends. It is for anyone who wonders how such a brutally violent sport fits into a civilized society, and the answer may surprise you. Where this book excels is in placing the sport into a historical context. In the dark beginnings of MMA, the sport thrived on its outsider status, and to this day, the mainstream still looks at it with a wary eye. Mr. Gottschall’s book shows us that rather than being an aberration, mixed martial arts and violent sport are entirely human. Recommended to anyone who enjoys cultural critique or anyone who wonders how such a violent sport is entertainment.

The professor went on the Joe Rogan Experience to discuss his book:

Beast by Doug Merlino

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American Top Team (ATT) is one of the premier MMA teams in the world. Because of this prestige, Doug Merlino focused his book on this legendary camp. Among the ATT fighters are champions from the UFC, WEC, and Bellator. Beast follows four fighters a various stages of an MMA career: the declining legend, the champion, the fighter transitioning from minor league shows to the big stage, and the novice professional. Of the four I reviewed, this book was the best written of the four. The stories and prose pulled you along, and Mr. Merlino, despite being close to the fighters, didn’t pull any punches. While I suspect that the friendship developed while observing these fighters colored his narrative, I didn’t find that it intruded. It was an honest look at the lives of these men – both past and present. By focusing on the fighters, Mr. Merlino was able to present the good, the bad, and the ugly of chasing the MMA dream. I enjoyed this book but wanted more about American Top Team. I expected the focuse to be on the team itself, but ATT was the supporting cast. The four fighters were excellent to follow, but I wanted to see more of their day to day training. Beast didn’t add anything new to the MMA conversation that any of the others have already said. There was no new insight into the sport itself or what it takes to be a fighter. Of the four books listed, I read this one last, and it suffered for that. I expected commentary on the sport, yet, found four biographies. Expecting to follow four fighters on their path will prepare you for an excellent read. Mr. Merlino’s prose is the best of the four books. In fact, the writing by itself is reason enough to read this book. Beast paints an excellent portrait of four fighters’ lives by detailing the road they walk to follow their dreams. If you enjoy learning about the real fighters – not their stage personalities, this book is for you. If you want to know what it takes to be a professional mixed martial artist, this book is for you.

Tapped Out by Matthew Polly

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Matthew Polly, a journalist with a background in traditional martial arts, decided to investigate the phenomenon of MMA by becoming a fighter. Tapped Out, Mr. Polly’s second book, followed his entrance into training all the way through his first – and only – MMA fight. Tapped Out was a humorous look into what a beginner undergoes to learn MMA. From Brazillian jiu jitsu to Muay Thai to Xtreme Couture, Polly takes you along for the ride. Big names from the fighting world show up in this book, but the relationship that I enjoyed the most was with John Danaher. Danaher is a legendary grappling coach under Renzo Gracie; so legendary that my first draft said the John Danaher instead of just John Danaher. This book made me want to read more about him, his journey, and his process. Maybe Mr. Polly should write a book about John. Polly gives us a lighter read compared to the others, and this is refreshing because MMA fans, including me, tend to be too serious about the sport. Those who have watched the sport evolve from the old side show spectacle days to a legitimate event have watched others minimize and misconstrue this sport, and we’ve become a bit leery of any approach that doesn’t recognize the importance of the sport. Mr. Polly’s approach is much needed because the sport can be both important and funny. But the lighter take worked against it as well. While this book is a personal journey, it read as tourism into a world that means a lot to me. Sometimes, the attitude towards training was flippant, but I imagine that approach is through the lens of hindsight. Based on his physical transformation by the end of the book, he must have trained seriously. Overall, his depiction of the people that helped him along the path was a positive one. His journey shows how much amateur fighters need to know in order to compete, and in the end Mr. Polly’s book conveys his respect for the individuals in the sport. I would recommend this to anyone who is new to mixed martial arts. The humorous approach removes the savagery that is all too often emphasized, and the new fan can learn along with Mr. Polly how much preparation is needed for a single fight. This look into what it takes to just start a path in MMA is a good introduction for new fans. Tapped Out is recommended for anyone who wants a light hearted look into the MMA world that still respects the fighters.

Blood in the Cage by L. Jon Wertheim

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Any book that features Pat Miletich this much is halfway to being great already. I am an unabashed fan of Mr. Miletich as a fighter and his time as a coach. Mr. Wertheim weaves the story of Miletich with the story of MMA and, in particular, the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Pat fought during the transition from sideshow spectacle to legitimate sport, and he was a pioneer in integrating various arts into a fighting system. Blood in the Cage accurately portrays one of the most dynamic times in UFC history by focusing on one of the sports legends. It’s cliché to say, but the results are greater than the sum of its parts. As a fan of the sport for over a decade now, I will say that this is the best mixed martial art book available today. It’s packed with information on the micro and macro scale. From Pat’s life to his coaching to his mishandling by the UFC, this book gives the ultimate behind the scenes look at the infancy of American MMA. At the end, it’s difficult not to admire Mr. Miletich even more. This book had the right mix of personal story and what training looked like in those early days. You almost feel Pat’s struggle as he tries to stitch together various aspects of the game. Now, it goes without saying that the fighters train in all disciplines and have coaches that make it all work together. Miletich, upon learning that grappling was needed, had to figure that out on his own. The writing is a bit dry for me; Blood in the Cage read like a newspaper article. That’s perfectly okay but means that it is a slow read. Mr. Wertheim has produced a truly excellent piece of journalism in this book by digging into the histories of Pat and the UFC. Recommended for everyone. Highly recommended for all UFC fans.


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