Fighting a matter of heart and mind

You can follow Dave Doyle on Twitter at @yahoodoyle.

Mixed martial arts fans don't need big bookshelves to fit most of the literature worth reading on their favorite subject. The sport, after all, has been in existence fewer than 17 years, so it is going to take generations to catch up to the rich literary history offered up by the boxing game.

That's not to say there are no MMA books worth reading. No fan worth his salt should do without Clyde Gentry's 2005 work "No Holds Barred: Ultimate Fighting and the martial arts revolution," with its meticulous detailing of MMA's early days. And Sports Illustrated writer Jon Wortheim's "Blood in the Cage: Mixed martial arts, Pat Miletich and the furious rise of the UFC," which looks at the sport's popularity explosion through the prism of the pioneering Miletich's career, is another must-read.

After that, though, the pickings get slim. The landscape is littered with quick-hit biographies and glorified message-board material masquerading as total reads on MMA.

Doing his best to fill the void, however, is Sam Sheridan. The Harvard grad already earned his spot on MMA literature's A-list, thanks to his surprise 2007 best-seller, "A Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of Fighting." Sheridan has returned to the scene with a companion book, "The Fighter's Mind: Inside the Mental Game," which endeavors to find what exactly makes elite fighters' brains tick.

In his first book, Sheridan traveled the globe and learned fighting in several of the world's major forms. Among his notable stints, he trained in Muay Thai at Thailand's famed Fairtex gym and fought professionally; learned MMA at Miletich's gym and competed in a fight; studied jiu-jitsu in Brazil with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira; and boxed under the tutelage of Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward and his trainer, Virgil Hunter.

While Sheridan's journey enabled him to compare and contrast combat through its manifestations in cultures around the world, the breadth of the subject matter never quite allowed him to delve into the specifics of the mental game. So "The Fighter's Mind" picks up where the first book left off: What separates the minds of the world's elite fighters from mere mortals?

Sheridan, for instance, sits down with Dan Gable, the American wrestler who put on one of the most impressive displays in the history of the Olympic Games. Gable ran the table en route to a gold medal at the 1972 Munch Games – without dropping a single point along the way. Most who understand amateur wrestling regard Gable's achievement with the sense of reverence it deserves; but Gable himself was not happy with his performance. Sheridan's chat at Gable's house reveals a perfectionist who appears to handle all of life's tasks with the meticulousness he employed in his preparation for matches.

Gable's approach, of course, isn't the only route to the top, and Sheridan profiles an array of characters whose insights are as diverse as their backgrounds. That includes Freddie Roach, whose brilliant boxing mind has been best evidenced in his career as a trainer. As a professional fighter, Roach was never quite able to reach the highest rungs of the boxing world, coming up short in his championship challenges. But his wisdom has enabled Manny Pacquiao to reach heights few envisioned when Pac-man began his pro career. Then there's Marcelo Garcia, the undersized Brazilian jiu-jitsu whiz who can't quite explain what exactly enables him to routinely submit larger foes.

There are, of course, certain universal themes which surface regardless of one's fighting style. As much as they try to intellectualize it, many fighters struggle with the notion that in order to succeed, they have to cause another human being physical harm. And no fighter, no matter how naturally talented or intelligent they may be, is going to succeed against elite competition if he's not taking his training camp seriously.

Several of the book's most insightful moments come from sources who, at first glance, don't seem to belong in a book related to the subject of fighting. Ultramarathoner David Horton, who once held the record for running the length of the Appalachian Trail, explains how his Christian faith spurs him to push further when his body is telling him to quit – thoughts Ward echoes in relation to his boxing career.

Then there's chessmaster Josh Waitzkin, who once sized up his foes in a Caribbean tournament based on their reactions when they were stuck outdoors during a sudden rainstorm; incorporated his observations into match play; and won the tournament.

While these characters are not literally punching their foes in the face to achieve victory, they are indicative of the sort of above-and-beyond thinking that enables the best to achieve at the highest level.

Sheridan's work isn't flawless. Several times, the book meanders off into complaints about the business of mixed martial arts which aren't backed with practical suggestions on how to change the system without turning it into the boxing model that has turned fans off to the latter sport for years.

But that's nitpicking. All in all, "The Fighter's Mind" is an entertaining and enlightening read and is a worthy addition to any MMA fan's bookshelf.

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