Jack Donovan | Gameness
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On Sam Sheridan’s A Fighter’s Heart.

(Originally published on The Spearhead, Nov. 2009)

The first hundred pages of Sam Sheridan’s A Fighter’s Heart made me want to pack it in and take up needlepoint. After graduating from high school, Sheridan joined the Merchant Marines, went to Harvard to study art, sailed around the world as a crew member on a yacht, studied Muay Thai in Thailand, won a fight in Thailand, got his EMT certification, fought fires in Washington and Arizona, worked in Antarctica, studied MMA with Pat Miletich and received a good clobbering in an amateur MMA match. In short, he’s done everything awesome.

Sheridan describes the adventures he has during his quest to understand fighting and the men who choose to fight with a balanced mix of articulate insight and thoroughly readable “guy-speak.”  He’s genuine and likable. In fact, he’s so likeable that when he writes at length about other fighters the chapters start to drag — especially the informative but 20 pages too long chapter on boxing. Sam is the main character of A Fighter’s Heart. And when Sam starts training for a fight, his dedication is so inspiring it made this writer want to put down the book and hit the gym. His efforts were heroic, even when they didn’t translate into wins.

Because he was a man immersed in male-dominated circles, A Fighter’s Heart is often as much about men as it is about fighting. When he followed Brazilian Rodrigo Nogueira to a PRIDE match with Fedor Emelienko, the chapter wound up being about the intensity of the experience, about camaraderie and in Sheridan’s own words, about “love” between men who fight. In contrast, his exploration of the world of boxing with Andre Ward and Virgil Hunter revealed a look into the tight, symbiotic “two against the world” relationship shared between coach and the athlete.

Sheridan’s brief examination of the idea of “gameness,” a concept that comes from the world of dog fighting, and its application to men was itself worth the price of the book.  He describes gameness as “the eagerness to get into the fight, the berserker rage, and then the absolute commitment to the fight in the face of pain, and disfigurement, until death.”

The final chapter of A Fighter’s Heart wasn’t as conciliatory as I feared it might be. He did his homework and tried to see fighting from all sides — even from the perspective of Michael Kimmel, feminism’s foremost expert in the pathology of masculinity.  He searched his soul and even had himself professionally evaluated for signs of psychopathology and comes up empty handed. In the end, he remains true to the spirit of the book. Even though Sheridan struggles with some of the moral issues surrounding fighting, he admits that he still loves fighting and admires the men who fight, especially the men who have made fighting their craft. His moral conflict about fighting is a healthy one that you can find in the literature about fighting men throughout the ages.

Good men have misgivings about fighting. They’re conflicted about it. And because they’re conflicted about it, they create rules and codes of honor to govern it. But, like Sheridan, they still do it. Because they want to. Fighting still attracts them, makes them feel alive, drives them.

Maybe that is a takeaway here. Men aren’t all stupid thugs who fight because they’ve never thought about it, because they don’t know any better. They fight because they want to. Because feminized, civilized society can’t offer them something that fighting can — what Yukio Mishima called “poetry with a splash of blood.” Because without conflict, life has no compelling narrative, no passion, no peaks and valleys, no grand motifs.  Without conflict, we’re just like the monks who taught Sheridan dynamic vipassana at Wat Thaton. Walking around in a circle, hamsters on a wheel, meditating on the movements of our own bodies while the thriving, bustling, struggling, fighting din of life calls to us from just over the hills. Without conflict, without fighting, life is an episode of Sienfeld — a show about nothing.

Everything fights.