Atlantic £17.99

A Fighter's Heart, By Sam Sheridan

A sports writer boxes clever in his attempt to understand the longstanding appeal of combat sports

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable