Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Unexpected World of Cage Fighting and What It has to Do With Us (Books - Beast by Doug Merlino)

I am as guilty of it as the next person - reading for comfort.  Either we read about worlds with which we are familiar or, and I think worse, to confirm what we believe we already know. I say 'what we believe we know' because that's the risk - isn't it? That we might learn something new, or that we might change our minds, and sometimes that comes in unexpected packages. I read Doug Merlin's Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts (Bloomsbury USA, 2015) because Doug is a friend and, frankly, would never have read it if left to my own reading habits. I'm glad that I did.
Jeff Monson was, as usual, running late.  He was trying to get his two-year-old daughter, Willow, to eat.

"Here comes the plane, Willow," he said in a singsong voice, holding out a spoon to the girl, who was sitting in her high chair. "Are you ready for the plane?"

Willow threw back her head, covered in red curly hair, laughed, and refused.

Monson wore shorts, flip-flops, and a T-shirt that stretched to cover his muscled frame.  His head, which rose out of a triangular based of trapezius muscle, was bald.  FIGHT was tattooed on the left side of his neck, directly above an exhortation to DESTROY AUTHORITY.
Not exactly the start you expect from a book with the words 'Blood' and 'Mixed Martial Arts' in the subtitle, but that's Merlino's point. This is a book about the world of cage fighting, which is exactly what it sounds like - a brutal form of combat for entertainment that takes place in the confines of a cage - but really, it is the story of men and women in and around the world of cage fighting, how they came to be there, and of their extraordinary drive and sacrifice in the face of pain and humiliation.  One was a refugee of a war torn home, another a veteran of American war, for another it seemed like the only chance to rise from poverty.  Aside from a brief history of the rise of the martial arts in the U.S., Merlino surrounds his hard-edged portraits with a narrative that is concerned with answering the question - why should we care.  It is here that his book has the most to offer the naive reader.  The thrust of Beast is the idea of the cage as a forum for assertiveness and rage, emotions, Merlino contends, that modern American society, particularly males, are expected to avoid.  Most of us encompass the range of human emotions and meeting someone with the words DESTROY AUTHORITY tattooed on their skin is not a guarantee that you are meeting a subhuman monster.

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