(Photo courtesy of Amazon.com)
This is both a very good and very difficult time to write a book about mixed martial arts. Good, because interest in the sport is at an all-time high. Difficult, because you can’t assume your audience already knows anything about the sport, including basic terminology and modern origins. The hardcore fan doesn’t want to hear the same familiar back story about the Gracie family again, but the new fan (or the simply curious, book-buying non-fan) needs that info just to understand the conversation.
This is a problem. With Blood in the Cage, L. Jon Wertheim has solved it in a way that should appeal to the masses without boring or condescending to the aficionados. That alone is an accomplishment.
The way Wertheim manages it is by weaving together two stories: Pat Miletich’s and MMA’s. The book is essentially a biography of both, using one as a jumping off point for the other.
To that end, Miletich might be the perfect choice. His rise from local Iowa ass-kicker to martial arts enthusiast to UFC champ to trail-blazing trainer is not only interesting enough to keep you turning pages, it’s also a story that largely mirrors the rise of MMA in America.
Looking back on the early days of the UFC, it’s sometimes easy to believe that all it took to be a champ back then was a decent gas tank and a working knowledge of the ground game. Miletich’s struggles – personal, financial, and professional – remind us that the history of the sport is not so simple.
The strength of Wertheim’s book, which knowledgeable and passionate MMA fans will appreciate most, is his ability to tell the real stories behind the stories you thought you knew.
From details on Miletich’s downright depressing family history, to the pre-Zuffa UFC and the somewhat sketchy details behind the Fertitta brothers’ acquisition of the organization, there are enough previously untold (or at least undertold) stories to make this a worthwhile read. There’s even a hilarious revisiting of the Steven Seagal-“Judo” Gene LeBell encounter, as well as an anecdote about Dana White threatening and bullying his way through the Spike TV offices, demanding to know why Spike was pushing Al Sharpton’s I Hate My Job, which White calls “the stupidest fucking thing I’ve ever seen," instead of The Ultimate Fighter.
Yes, some of the connections between Miletich and MMA feel forced at times, but Wertheim is a skilled-enough storyteller that you don’t really care. Whatever it takes for him to get from point A to point B, by the time he gets there you’re just glad he did. Wertheim also maintains his perspective as a very interested outsider to the sport — a kind of regular sports fan who has stumbled upong this new phenomenon — trying to understand both how it came to exist in its current form and why we, as a culture, love it so much.
Blood in the Cage is a quick, entertaining read for the thinking MMA fan, and one that mixes human interest stories and MMA history together in an entertaining and informative way. It may very well be the best MMA book to date.
(For those interested, you can buy it here.)