Monday, January 14, 2019

Books: LookIng For Meaning In The Ring In "Why We Fight"

Why We Fight: One Man's Search for Meaning Inside the Ring
By Josh Rosenblatt
Ecco; hardcover, 224 pages; $26.99; available Tuesday, January 15

Josh Rosenblatt, a writer and journalist who lives in Brooklyn, tracks his trajectory from pacifist to pugilist, from idle philosopher to trained fighter, his life's abrupt face, and what compelled such a change in his new book, Why We Fight.

In his burgeoning attraction to brute force and other primal urges, Rosenblatt recognizes that to fight is to be alive, to grapple with mortality, to wrestle with the metaphysical, and make it flesh. As a writer and fighter, he is able to create a memoir that is cerebral and corporeal, brains and brawn, an exploration of the body, mind, and soul.

Josh Rosenblatt.

Rosenblatt writes of his father's influence to his early pacifism, "I had always viewed my own avoidance of physical confrontation, my cowardice, as an inheritance, both a gift and a burden from a father who could never seem to give one without the other.

"Still, deep down I knew there was some part of me that had always been attracted to the idea of fighting, no matter what I told myself or how terrified I was. There was violence buried deep in me somewhere, deprived but alive. I may have turned away from every fight on television, but I also stole glimpses over my shoulder. I may have run from every fight that had presented itself to me, but I was also dying to know what it was like to stick around, to hit and be hit, to harm and be harmed. I was horrified, but I was fascinated.

"Eventually it became clear that if I hoped to complete my education in the senses, my resignation to the temptations of the body would have to move beyond sex and chemicals and make its way to violence. I needed to admit the connection between my lust for flesh and my lust for harming it. I saw, however faintly, that there were extraordinary sensations to be found in fighting. That pain was pleasure's reflection. That to fight would be to feel life deeply.

"So, after more than thirty years of avoiding the issue, I set out to explore this dark world. And since mixed martial arts, which was then just barely knocking on the door of broad cultural acceptance, seemed to me like the height of civilization's shame and cultural collapse - fighting nonpareil - I figured I'd start there: in the depths."

Rosenblatt was thirty-three years old when he first came to the realization that he wanted to fight. A lifelong pacifist with a philosopher's hatred of violence and an aversion to exercise, he drank to excess, smoked with a passion, ate whatever he wanted, and mocked any physical activity that didn't involve nudity.

Deep down, there was always a part of him that was dying to find out what it was like to hit and get hit, to harm and be harmed. He sensed that to fight would be to live life deeply. He studied Muay Thai, Krav Maga, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and boxing for nearly a decade before deciding, at 40 years old, to take the ring for a mixed martial arts match.

It was all in the name of experience and transcending ancient fears, and Rosenblatt writes that fighting is his "reprieve from the cerebral agonies of writing, and writing is my civilizing response to the monstrous demands of fighting: they keep each other balanced, like two sides of a split personality." He explores his dual personality by reflecting on the affinities between writing and fighting, and why many writers from Ernest Hemingway to George Plimpton have been drawn to the sport, while delving deeply into the mind of a fighter. Throughout his training, Rosenblatt comes to the realization that "fighting shows us who we really are."

Rosenblatt trained for the fight at legendary Gleason's boxing gym, which is located on Water Street, in one of the trendiest parts of town by the Brooklyn waterfront.

"There was a time when Gleason's boxing gym, with its peeling paint, aging equipment, and air-conditioning-free squalor, fit perfectly  in this neighborhood in western Brooklyn, which for decades was trapped in a slow implosion, each year more dilapidated and violent than the last," writes Rosenblatt. "Now, surrounded by coffee shops and boutique clothing stores and multimillion-dollar condominiums and all the other trappings of gentrification, the gym feels like a museum exhibit, like a relic from an earlier, more sordid New York. And climbing the long, narrow staircase and passing through the affectless metal door into that steaming warehouse and walking between all those ancient rings with their torn canvases and the small weightlifting area with its ancient barbells and fraying medicine balls and looking around at all those fighters who are pulled apart when they clinch rather than taught how to fight there, fighters who never use their feet or their knees to attack, fighters who would be lost on the ground and so never go there - one can't help but feel like it's a cathedral for a sport from another time as well. A time when a pair of fists was enough to win a fight.
"I sought out Gleason's because I wanted to learn the secrets of this older world: the subtle fakes and feints and weaves and parries, the crafty footwork that can propel a fighter in and out of an opponent's range with minimal movement, the pivots and bumps and shuffles that conspire to flummox before punches even start getting thrown: the art of movement and misdirection. MMA may be the new world of fighting, but these ancient arts, I decided, would be my defense against the kicks and submissions and overwhelming urgency of the next generation."

This is one of the most gripping books on fighting competitively that you will ever read, and the fact that this is by someone documenting his journey from the start makes Why We Fight a compelling read.

Rosenblatt, whose work has appeared in VICE, the Texas Observer, and the Austin Chronicle, was the editor-in-chief of Fightland, VICE Media's mixed martial arts publication, between 2012 and 2014.

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