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
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
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.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015