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
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
    Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

    Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
    John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

    Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

    'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
    Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

    Forget little green men

    Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
    Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

    Dying dream of Doctor Death

    Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy