What exactly, in this age of health and safety and fabric softener and pay-as-you-go personal injury lawyers, makes two outwardly-normal men want to jump into a ring and cause each other extreme physical damage? How can we rationalise the enduring attraction of boxing, or cage-fighting, or any other form of regimented violence that still passes as a sport? These are the questions that Sam Sheridan attempts to answer in this frequently compelling study of the testosterone-fuelled world of recreational fighting – a world that currently finds itself in the middle of a somewhat controversial, and highly-lucrative, TV-driven consumer revolution.
Sheridan, a Harvard graduate afflicted with an incurable wanderlust and a longstanding obsession with combat sports, has spent the best part of his adult life travelling the world and working-out in the various gyms, dojos and training camps where the hardest professional tough-guys on the planet spend their days learning how to knock several bells out of each other. This memoir tells his story, in all its gory detail, from the several months in which he lives at a Muay Thai camp in rural Thailand to his stretches with a cage-fighting team in Iowa. He spends time "throwing leather," as the aficionados say, at a professional boxing gym in Oakland and learning to put people in an arm-lock (and more) on the rubber mats of the world's toughest ju-jitsu clubs in Rio de Janeiro.
So far so Ross Kemp. But Sheridan doesn't just hang out and train with the hard men: he also steps into the ring with them, creating what amounts to a staggering memoir of physical derring-do. Along the way, he accumulates an array of nosebleeds, black eyes and injuries, inflicts a couple of Rocky-style knockouts on opponents, and is the subject of the blood-spattered author portrait that adorns his book's front cover.
If you're the sort of chap who likes the manly first-person tales that jazz-up FHM or GQ magazine then you'll lap this stuff up. Indeed, Sheridan's pedigree is entirely as a men's magazine writer (this is his first book). Yet to pigeonhole A Fighter's Heart as a mere experiment in journalistic bravado is probably to ignore its most important contribution to the literary canon.
It is one of sports-writing's most enduring mysteries that, despite the ancient universal appeal of all combat sports (and the fact that they have been around almost as long as civilisation itself), the only martial art to have ever attracted the attention of great writers is boxing, which inspired the likes of Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway and Joyce Carol Oates. That ain't fair. The noble art, as writers call it, is intrinsically no more "noble" than any other form of fighting, and no more deserving of serious attention and consideration. A Fighter's Heart goes at least some way towards correcting this oversight, with some acutely observed insights into the curious paradox of all forms of fighting for fun, and about the underpinning of mankind's primeval desire for conflict and for the establishment of pecking orders.
Sheridan also provides a fascinating commentary on the mentality of fighters, their constant desire for refinement, and the relentless quest for self-improvement that so often prevents ageing fighters from knowing when it would be best to quit. He makes a fantastic fist of explaining "gameness" – the ability to carry on fighting beyond the point of normal physical endurance – through a first-hand investigation into the dubious, and in most countries illegal, world of dog-fighting.
This is not to say that A Fighter's Heart is a literary masterpiece. It amounts instead to a forensic and profoundly authoritative examination of a thuggish industry. A critical reader might observe that Sheridan's prose is not as expansive, or as expressive, as sports literature's greatest writers. He might even carp that a couple of his book's narrative highlights fall flat, mostly because the author gets injured in the run-up to long-awaited professional bouts. But to dwell on that would be sour grapes. Or should I say fighting talk?
The depth of knowledge and research on display throughout this Boy's Own memoir more than makes up for any artistic oversights, and succeeds in going at least some way towards demonstrating why we will never really know what it is that makes men fight, nor what makes others so compelled to watch them.