Doug Merlino, Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2015).
Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it.
When my twenty-five-year-old son traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand, last summer to train in a Muay Thai fighting gym, it was all I could do to open his newsy e-mails. Hearing about his travels was nice, but viewing the attached images of his bruised and bloodied lower legs and feet was something else. Still, my own long history with sport—outside play in childhood, gymnastics and track in high school, work in the fitness industry as an adult—could always be counted on to provoke curiosity about such things.
That curiosity began within the invisible boundary of a few neighborhood blocks as, under the democracy of my childhood peers, a daily matchup of kickball, flag football, or H-O-R-S-E was convened in the neighborhood’s biggest backyard. Girls against boys or co-ed? Not an issue. A good game meant two good teams, regardless of gender or apparent athleticism. You show up, you play.
Flag football was my game. I was fast and adept at snatching the white flags—old rags one of the moms scissored into strips for us—which hung off the backsides of the offensive players. Throwing a football came easy back then, and the tangible success of catching a pass was so simple and rewarding compared to the hectic tedium of a school day.
And so the joy of competition, the exultation of physical exertion, the anarchic freedom from the world of adults—these are things I understand. They are in my blood. But there’s something in the blood that seems foreign, something in my son’s photographs that makes me need to know more.
My cousin, the author and journalist Doug Merlino, who won the Washington State book award for his 2011 biography The Hustle, also spent time training as a fighter, but he didn’t send me photographs or write me letters. He wrote a book, the newly released Beast: Blood, Struggle, and Dreams at the Heart of Mixed Martial Arts, which describes the two years he spent enmeshed in the brutal sport of mixed martial arts (or MMA) and the four fighters he followed closely. Beast reads like a good piece of immersive journalism. For the uninitiated, it presents a compelling first look at MMA; for the dedicated fan, a storied glimpse into the lives of men who dare to fight. Merlino takes the reader along as he speaks, travels, and trains with four high-level fighters at one of the sport’s elite gyms, Florida’s American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida, offering history, culture, and insider details.
One of the fastest-growing sports in America, MMA incorporates striking and grappling techniques from a variety of combat forms including boxing, wrestling, jiu jitsu, judo, and Muay Thai. Fights take place inside a caged arena, a 750-square-foot octagon measuring thirty feet across and six feet high. This unusual shape avoids giving an advantage to students of any particular martial arts discipline and prevents fighters from falling (or being thrown) out of the fight area, and its wide angles preclude opponents from getting stuck in corners. Unlike traditional boxing, fighters are allowed to grapple, to kick their opponents, to take them down to the floor—whatever is necessary to force their opponents to submit. Between rounds—usually three rounds of about five minutes each—steel access gates are opened outward to allow corner men (i.e., the strategy coaches) and cut men (i.e., the coaches who treat nosebleeds, lacerations, and the like) entry. The fight-night scene also includes fight judges, commentators, and the ubiquitous ring-card girls, scantily clad women holding number signs to remind spectators what round it is.
Merlino describes the spectacle of MMA as something timeless: “Whatever else has changed in the last few millennia, the art of preparing the human body for combat is essentially the same” (34). Yet much of MMA history as we know it began in the early 1990s, when the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was getting started. It was “no-holds-barred” combat: only biting and eye gouging were prohibited. Senator John McCain called MMA “human cockfighting” and demanded that it be regulated by an athletic commission. New rules were introduced, including weight classes, timed rounds, and the use of fighting gloves. Dana White, the current president of the UFC, oversaw those changes and explains that “We ran toward the regulation, not away from it. At the end of the day, there are more people who would rather watch a sport than watch a spectacle.” As Merlino reports, the UFC has rapidly expanded, pushing to make its acronym synonymous with MMA around the world. Twenty years into what was once denounced as barbarism, this most unlikely of sports is thriving.
Harkening back to something like my own raucous days as a neighborhood kid loose in the suburbs, Merlino explains that his interest in MMA was piqued when he watched several UFC fights from a New York City bar and realized that the fighting was “an anomaly in an era where kids aren’t allowed to ride scooters without a helmet” (xii). One of the bouts that stayed with him was a fight in which an outmatched, overweight underdog came back for a knockout in the final round. Merlino states that watching the knockout was “shocking, violent, and electrifying,” a catalyst for his emerging curiosity and what would become his next writing project. “The only way to sufficiently answer my questions about the men who fought in this sport,” he writes, “was to get out and ask the fighters themselves” (xiii).
He subsequently found and followed four fighters at the top of their game, all from the American Top Team in Florida: Bosnian refugee Mirsad Bektic, for whom fighting was a way to be seen and known in an ever-changing world; Jeff Monson, a US veteran and self-professed anarchist set on proving his worth; Steve Mocco, a two-time NCAA champion and Olympic wrestler with an impeccable work ethic; and Daniel Straus, an ex-convict who had fought for everything every day of his life. The athletes allowed Merlino full access to their daily lives, inside the gym and out.
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” the infamous Mike Tyson quipped, and the guys Merlino profiles get hit hard. They get pummeled. Merlino shows that, like the variety in the sport they practice, MMA fighters come from all kinds of backgrounds and combat disciplines. Despite these differences, however, each has the same goal in mind: to make it in the sport. Success would provide money to support their families and their dreams, even if it means the destruction of their own health. “Fighters need an inner spark, something to push them to the physical and mental extremes they sometimes have to go to in order to win,” (63) Merlino explains. Emotions like anger, insecurity, and lack of confidence are tied to punches and kicks—they are sparks that help push fighters forward.
One of the men Merlino follows accepts a fight two weeks after being knocked out, placing himself at dangerous risk for second-impact head trauma. He takes the fight because he needs the money, yet at any given time, only a handful of elite athletes earn sufficient funds for a comfortable future. The vast majority, even the high-level fighters Merlino profiles, are not in this category. They all practice the same combat disciplines, the same daily grind, and they all face uncertain futures due to the perilous nature of an MMA career. Merlino’s book is an exploration of why—what keeps an athlete going in such a forceful, injury-prone sport? What motivates this unwavering attention to training?
Shortly after he meets the fighters, Merlino writes that he decided to start training at American Top Team. His performance began in fits and starts. “I lashed out like I was trying to smash through a wall,” he says of learning how to jab, hook, and throw a straight right (60). Over time, those punches and kicks transform Merlino in unexpected ways: accelerated physical fitness, emotional steadiness, and even the settling of some old accounts. Like his fellow MMA fighters, Merlino begins to see himself as someone who, when life gets tough, digs deep and overcomes. Maybe even a beast.
Women might be beasts, too. Holly Holm, the former world champion boxer and kickboxer who competes in the UFC bantamweight division, shocked the sporting world at the UFC 193 championship fight in Melbourne, Australia, in November 2015. Holm knocked champion Ronda Rousey out with a brutal left and a follow-up kick to the head, handing Rousey her first UFC loss. The win played out in front of a record-breaking UFC crowd of over 56,000 and is considered a major upset in the history of sports. Still, Holm held onto the title only a few short months. After a four-round defense at UFC 196 in March 2016, she was defeated by Miesha Tate (Tate’s first title defense will be against Rousey at a yet-to-be-determined event in 2016).
Tate’s takedown of Holm—a standing choke hold and victory by submission—is certainly a moment of heart and grit to remember for now. Touching briefly on the heart of human affairs, Beast lends itself to age-old questions of greatness: one person succeeds; another does not. What explains the difference? Even diligent, talented people with all the right connections sometimes fail. Nations prosper while others go from bad to worse. Do world events, history, or the interworking of our personal lives actually have a purpose?
In Beast we read a subtle critique of this measuring stick of accomplishment. Our global culture—whether in national sports or international politics—emphasizes winning at all costs. The one who scores the most points gets the praise. The one who plays the greatest part receives the accolade. The victor is elevated while all others, though they may have done their very best, are overlooked. Adults push children into activities and lessons at an increasingly early age so they have the opportunity to earn that victory. The resulting message? Winning matters most. But while winning and losing will always matter in MMA, Merlino’s Beast suggests that training, strategy, and mental discipline are just as important to the fighters as fame, power, and prestige. In one of the most controversial sports in America, we find that winning matters, but so does the journey. Picture a defeated fighter who stands tall, her dignity intact.
As it turns out, my curiosity about mixed martial arts is here to stay. My son continues to train at a gym, and he plans to travel back to Southeast Asia next summer for more Muay Thai. He has some credit at the facility in Chiang Mai because he had to cut his previous trip short due to injury; when he arrives, he says he will “sign my life away” and pay for a month-long hotel stay, gym dues, and training gear—fees that cost less than a month’s rent in his Seattle hometown.
Perhaps I will join the Moms of MMA Facebook group, where members “share experiences, feelings, and support each other, because our sons and daughters are in this crazy sport!” In the meantime, every so often I drive through the childhood neighborhood where I grew up and played hard. I am grateful for the outdoor sport space where movement flowed freely: the worn basketball hoop, the steel gymnastics bar, the backyard activities arena. All of the neighbor kids have their own families now, and as adults, they have weathered many of the same ups and downs that I have. My shoulder no longer allows me to throw a football as I once did, though occasionally I throw a few passes with a Nerf.
We may not be bloodied and bruised, but I think we can all relate to Merlino’s description of a young fighter who has suffered a loss: “A few minutes earlier he had been at the apex of youth and strength; now he looked old and used up” (204). Exhausted, the fighter might take it easy for a little while. He might play with his kids and go to his job—some of the same things the rest of us do after a tough day. But then he will rise. He will dust himself off and renew his training. He will study strategy and improve his mental discipline. He will become a beast.