Not so long ago, John McCain characterized mixed martial arts as “human cockfighting’’ and called for it to be abolished.
He lost that one, too.
Mixed martial arts in various manifestations is available to anybody with a TV, a laptop, or a smart phone, and as far as Matthew Polly is concerned, that’s as it should be. He protests that even in the allegedly bad old days when the sport’s advertising hyperbolically claimed that there were no rules, “MMA fighters were free men voluntarily participating in a regulated, unarmed combat sport that at worst resulted in a broken hand or a concussion. MMA wasn’t as safe as golf, but it wasn’t Mexican knife fighting.’’
In order to write “Tapped Out,’’ Polly explored mixed martial arts in several exotic venues, including Bangkok, where he watched two practitioners of a form of combat known as Muay Thai lock arms and take turns kneeing each other in the chest until said chests were “pulped like raw meat.’’ Compared to spectacles like that, the big business of mixed martial arts as it has flourished in the octagons of the United States may seem downright tame, and Polly does emphasize that despite lots of World Wrestling Entertainment-like trappings - dry ice and so on - the best practitioners of MMA, like the most successful boxers, are patient and tactically sound rather than pathologically violent.
None of this explains why Polly felt that to write “Tapped Out,’’ he had to step into the octagon himself and face somebody determined to punch, knee, elbow, and otherwise pummel him until either Polly or the other guy “tapped out,’’ meaning surrendered. To understand that sentiment, it’s important to know that the author is no novice at getting kicked in the head. As a younger man he trained for two years with the Shaolin monks in China - men who beat their shins with sticks to turn those shins into more effective weapons with which to humble the foolish westerner. Polly has a taste for this sort of thing, and he puts himself in the hands of the staff at Xtreme Couture, the MMA gym and training center in Las Vegas, with at least as much enthusiasm as trepidation.
It would be a heel to the nose to reveal the outcome of the event to which “Tapped Out’’ builds: Polly’s bout. Suffice it to say that readers of “Tapped Out’’ will learn a good deal about how the battlers of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and various MMA vehicles train, and how they regard what they do. It’s also safe to say that if George Plimpton, the fellow who embodied participatory sports writing by pitching to Major League Baseball all-stars, playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions, and otherwise humiliating himself, were still alive, he’d cringe at Polly’s endeavor.
Unlike Polly, Mark Kreidler did not feel it was necessary to climb on a surfboard half a mile off the coast of Northern California to write “The Voodoo Wave.’’ Several of the most accomplished “big wave’’ surfers have experienced a kind of ecstasy atop the 50- and 60-foot mountains of roaring water at the site known as “Maverick’s.’’ One claimed that in the sunlight reflected off a wave he was riding, he saw the face of God. But when asked whether this had tempted him to paddle out into the winter-cold Pacific and catch a wave that had been building for a couple thousand miles, Kreidler laughed.
This is not to say he didn’t do his homework. “The Voodoo Wave’’ chronicles the geology and history of this curious and temperamental venue, where the first guy to dare the gigantic waves, Jeff Clark, first spent years just looking at them from the shore.
The competition itself is unusual in that sometimes it doesn’t happen. If waves of sufficient magnitude don’t materialize during the span of weeks designated for the championship at Maverick’s, there is no championship. But in that regard, Kreidler lucked out. The 2009-2010 Maverick’s Surf Contest he covered produced “by acclaim, the greatest day of paddle-in surfing in the history of big waves.’’
“The Voodoo Wave’’ is, in part, the story of the feats performed on that day, but there is considerably more to the book. Kreidler writes about the conflict between the surfers who regard what they do at Maverick’s and a few other big wave areas as pure and mystical, and a promoter who has tried to turn the competition into a corporate brand. The author presents Clark himself as an embodiment of that conflict: He surfed Maverick’s alone for the pure joy of it but feels entitled to profit from the spectacle his solitary achievement has begotten. That ambition goes some distance toward fouling something that had been beautiful. As Kreidler presents it, the conflict transcends surfing.
TAPPED OUT:Rear Naked Chokes, the Octagon, and the Last Emperor. An Odyssey in Mixed Martial Arts
By Matthew Polly
Gotham, 304 pp., $26
THE VOODOO WAVE:Inside a Season of Triumph and Tumult at Maverick’s
By Mark Kreidler
Norton, 243 pp., illustrated, $25.95
Bill Littlefield hosts National Public Radio “Only A Game’’ at WBUR in Boston and teaches at Curry College in Milton. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.