A few months ago, in a rash moment, I took up with an MMA team. I wanted to learn how to spar, and they seemed the likeliest teachers. The team — which includes a professional MMA fighter, several younger guys preparing for their first fights, a boxer or two, and a bunch of jiu-jitsu players — is generous with me, a permanent amateur late to the game, with more heart than skill. They welcomed me into their fraternity, sensing, I guess, that I wouldn’t (couldn’t) cause any trouble and might even prove useful as a moving punching bag.
I move pretty well, too. Setting aside my rounds with Matt, the one pro in the bunch (rounds that consist generally of him peppering my face from great distances with quick double-jabs and short hooks that scramble my brain and make me apoplectic with annoyance), I can hold my own in a kickboxing match. Jameson, who has a few boxing matches under his belt, is too fast for me, but if I cover up and concentrate on movement and counterpunching, I can usually deflect most of his hardest punches and get a couple of licks of my own in. The other week, however, he caught me clean with a right cross that brought tears to my eyes. He apologized but I waved him off — my hands were down, not his fault. For my troubles I now have a Roman swell on the bridge of my nose, probably temporary, and I would be lying if I said it upset me.
The team’s spiritual leader, Erik, is training for his first amateur fight, scheduled for later this year at a place called Cowboy’s Dancehall in San Antonio. He’s a big bull of a man, funny and boisterous, with tree trunks for thighs, an encyclopedic memory for fights and fighters, and an indifference to getting punched in the face. Sometimes he’ll drop his hands and invite me to wail away. At first I did, happy for any chance to land a clean shot, but recently my pride has gotten the better of me, and I’ve started to refuse his offers. Erik is a big puncher who loves to punch, and it turns out I love to punch as well and don’t mind getting punched, so our rounds usually turn into bruisers. Erik stalks me around the gym, winging huge hooks at my head while I backpedal, occasionally stopping to surprise him with a flurry of head and body shots. My head is always ringing after a round with Erik and I can barely breathe (despite his size, he seems to have bottomless endurance). Two weeks ago he said he likes sparring with me because I stand and bang, meaning I’m not afraid to trade punches. I couldn’t have felt prouder if he was thanking me for saving his kid from a burning building.
On the whole, sports writers are a sedentary lot. Outside of George Plimpton, few football writers play football. Baseball writers may toss a ball around, but they rarely work on their curve with any seriousness. But Ernest Hemingway spent time in the boxing ring. Norman Mailer sparred with light-heavyweight champion Jose Torres. And I’m not the only MMA writer who trains: Among journalists of a particular stripe there’s a fascination with combat sports that transcends literary curiosity.
It must be that writers see something essential in fighting that we can’t find sitting at a computer — that we recognize something life affirming in the transcendence of fear and want to be a part of it. After all, how many times can you watch others fight before you ask yourself: Could I do that?
But I think there’s something else going on as well: a natural creative affinity between the two arts. Both are alchemical. The greatest writers take unmanageable life and press it into something meaningful, and the best fighters convert their basest and most violent instincts into something beautiful. Think of Anderson "The Spider” Silva, dodging punches and kicks by millimeters with his hands by his side, or Jon “Bones” Jones, beating up opponents with shoulder shrugs and spinning elbows. I’d put them up against Dostoyevsky or Somerset Maugham any day.
Writers also recognize, I think, that a fighter — despite all the trainers and cornermen and referees and fans, despite even his opponent — is out there on his own, squaring off with himself every time. “A boxer, like a writer, must stand alone,” wrote the great boxing writer AJ Liebling. I think that’s probably true. Then again, maybe, like so many writers who cover fighters, Liebling really just wanted to believe that there’s a connection between what he does and what they do, so he came up with an epigram to make it so. In this regard, writers have got it all over fighters: We get to create the world they only live in.
Or maybe it’s just that all that time we spend locked in our heads makes our bodies cry out for action, action, action! For some of us, fighting isn’t a risk; it’s a refuge from the loudmouthed battle that constantly rages in our brains, all those opinions and critiques and internal sparring matches — put this word here, no, switch it back! My mind is never so quiet as when I’m fighting someone who’s fighting me back. A solid punch to the nose cures all psychic ills.