Journalist Merlino (The Hustle: One Team and Ten Lives in Black and White, 2010) delves into the fierce and unforgiving world of competitive mixed martial arts fighting.
The no-holds-barred matches between MMA fighters, popularized by big-ticket Ultimate Fighting Championship specials, are a brutal combination of combat forms such as jujitsu, muay thai, kickboxing, and wrestling that takes place inside a caged arena. Unlike traditional boxing, MMA fighters are allowed to kick, takedown, and use grappling maneuvers to force their opponents to submit. The spectacle is a throwback to the days of gladiators, and MMA has attracted legions of fans for its testosterone-fueled mayhem. While it might seem easy to label the sport barbaric, the hulking fighters are mostly misunderstood. Seeking to correct this misrepresentation, Merlino—who inserted himself into the training camp at American Top Team, one of the most respected and revered MMA gyms in the country (“where you are received on your abilities, not your pedigree”)—witnessed firsthand the struggle of each fighter striving to become a national prospect. Among them is Mirsad Bektic, whose family fled war-torn Bosnia when he was a child. Bektic represents a common theme among the many young aspiring fighters: MMA is a way of transcending their often tragic backgrounds. Some, however, just want to fight. Perhaps the most intriguing profile is of Jeff Monson, an over-the-hill fighter with a waning career and a master’s degree in psychology. He’s also a self-described anarchist and fervent anti-capitalist, and he’s shy about sharing his beliefs. While the individual profiles vary, Merlino consistently captures the grit, determination, and sheer willpower of these hungry warriors. However, at times, the author is a static storyteller, trudging through repetitious detail and inserting chapters about his own involvement in the gym that read like noncommittal attempts at participatory journalism.
A mostly fascinating exposé of the personalities behind the growing business of fighting.