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Exclusive: ‘The Fighter’s Mind’ Author Sam Sheridan Discusses the Psychology of Fighting

By CagePotato contributor Elias Cepeda

Released in 2007, Sam Sheridan’s A Fighter’s Heart took readers across the globe and inside some of the best camps in the world to access and understand the physical realities of professional fighting. The captivating and often personal tale became a national best-seller, and now Sheridan has followed it up this year with The Fighter’s Mind, which delves into the psychology of competing through conversations with everyone from Randy Couture to top neuroscientists. Sheridan sat down with to discuss his new book.

CAGEPOTATO.COM: What is this book, A Fighter’s Mind, about to you?
SAM SHERIDAN: Well, A Fighter’s Mind sort of came out of conversations I had with the Victory Belt publishers, Erich Krauss and those guys. They had taken on fifteen or twenty contracts and they were looking for writers to help them. They said, “Hey, do you want to write one of these books?” Like BJ Penn’s “Book of Knowledge,” or whatever. I looked at it and said to myself, “You know, I’m not really interested in doing a technique book. There are plenty of questions I want to ask these guys. But most of these questions have to do with the mental game.”

I’m not really interested in Randy Couture’s Greco clinch trip takedown. I’m not so interested in diagramming the steps to that. I’m interested in Randy’s mental strength, and his ability to gameplan and his ability to stick to a gameplan. He can take a guy and put him the one place that, well, take the Gabe Gonzaga fight. Randy took Gonzaga the one place that he’s going to beat Gonzaga. I mean, anywhere else, Gonzaga is going to have his lunch, pretty much. He’s too big, he’s too fast, he’s too rough. But holding him against the cage, Gonzaga doesn’t know what to do and Randy basically drowns him right there, he just mashes him up. It was an amazing example of how having the right gameplan and sticking to it can allow you to beat somebody that should beat you.

So that was where it came from for me. I started thinking, “I can’t believe nobody has written this book. Why hasn’t somebody written this book?” It was a way to re-pay the fighters and my friends who had helped me in the first book, who are wondering about these things. Because I think a lot of guys wonder how Randy does his thing or how Marcelo Garcia thinks about Jiu Jitsu. A lot of people wonder that stuff but they don’t get a chance to ask it, so this was my gift back to fighters, friends and trainers that were so good to me in A Fighter’s Heart.

For the book you talk with many fascinating competitors from people who were in A Fighter’s Heart like Andre Ward — now a gold medalist and top pro boxer — to Dan Gable, Randy Couture and Marcelo to some of the top MMA trainers to ultra marathoners to chess champions. How did you decide who you wanted to speak with?
You just start asking that question, whose mind do you want to pick? And certainly, Greg Jackson is one, and Mark Dellagrotte and Pat Miletich, these trainers that have had so much success. What makes them different stylistically, and what makes them strong? And then certain fighters like Kenny Florian, he has been an interesting guy to me because he always improves so much between fights. He’s a guy who comes out and is a completely different fighter between every couple of fights because he applies himself. I mean, he was an undersized straight BJJ guy in the show (The Ultimate Fighter) and he lost and re-assessed and became a real pro. Then he lost to Sherk, re-assessed and he really put together some incredible runs of victories. Through his decision-making, his planning, he has turned himself into one of the top two or three guys in that weight class. And that’s a tough weight class! So that was interesting to me. The other thing was there are certain guys that you know are not going to be great interviews about the mental game.

Not to knock BJ Penn but BJ doesn’t want to talk about this stuff, or doesn’t find it that interesting. He may have changed now but when I interviewed him before, you know, BJ just goes out and scraps. He’s very, very mentally strong but he’s not really going to talk to you about it. So there were considerations like that. Shane Mosley, I wanted to talk to but he wanted a contract. And Shane Mosley is very litigious so I didn’t want to get involved in something like that. I would have liked to have gotten some more boxing names besides Andre and Freddie Roach; for instance Larry Holmes, you know, I talked to his guy for a year. Teddy Atlas I talked to for a year. And, you know, I just couldn’t get a hold of them, they didn’t have time. So there were all kinds of things that affected the book. Certain interviews led to others: For instance, the Dan Gable stuff indirectly lead to the ultra-marathon stuff. Marcelo Garcia lead to Josh Waitzkin the chess prodigy and then a Tai Chi prodigy. So it was a little bit of an organic process but I picked the 10-15 names in MMA and fighting that I really wanted to hear from and luckily I got almost all of them.

I was surprised to find chapters on ultra-marathons and chess in this book. Do you think their inclusion made it a different and better book than it would have been otherwise?
Absolutely. I think it would have gotten maybe a little boring and repetitious if it had just been trainers. These guys that are kind of on the edge of the fighting world, even though Josh Waitzkin’s now a brown belt and competes in Jiu Jitsu and is looking to win Mundials in 2012 or whatever, he’s in it now, he comes from the chess world and from the Tai Chi world. To me, variety is the spice of life and I think coming at this problem from different angles is more effective than just getting different trainers in there. It’s funny, I read somebody wrote about the book on Amazon, “Oh he’s doing filler with these guys,” and to me these things were as interesting as anything; because I don’t know anything about ultra-marathons, I don’t know anything about the chess world. It was so interesting to see the parallels. Everybody you talk to, every single person you talk to about Jiu Jitsu will compare it to chess. I mean, it’s so boring. Or, MMA is physical chess, you’ve heard it a million times. But is it really? Let’s ask this guy who’s competed at the highest level in chess and is a serious competitor in Jiu Jitsu, are they alike? And there are some similarities but there are also a lot of differences. I think people use chess as a cop-out to mean something is complicated. It’s not checkers, its chess. But what chess actually is, and what Jiu Jitsu actually is, mentally, there are some corollaries and you can learn from each but I think it’s important to sort of understand those.

And the ultra-marathon guy, I just got interested in this because it is sort of surreal. All the long-distance runners I’ve ever met swear up and down that it’s mental. One of the first guys I ever met that did triathlons, and I think I mention it in the book, he ran a half marathon and then two months later he ran a marathon in the same time as his half marathon just because he realized he could go faster. I said, “You’re crazy.” And he said, “No, you just don’t know because you don’t know about the push. You don’t know how hard you can make yourself work.” Of course there is a direct corollary to fighting and mental toughness and conditioning.

I think Greg Jackson had the most interesting and the most directly eye-opening thing to say about mental toughness and teaching mental toughness and training mental toughness. About pushing that line where you might break, back further and further away so that your opponent can never take you there. That was really interesting to me.

That is one of the many examples of knowledge dropped in the book from the experts you speak with. How much of what you heard from them about the mental game of competition surprised you and how much did you already kind of figure from your own experiences before?
It’s a tough one. What’s funny about this stuff is that its stuff that you kind of already know. You’ve heard it before but when Dan Gable says it, it’s a lot different than when I say it. When Pat Miletich says it, when Randy Couture says it you hear it in a different way because you’ve seen it put into practice and it hits in a different way. In a way, none of it is a surprise, but the way it lands, its kind of like when you learn something, you hear it over and over again, you hear it over and over again, and then one day you put it in practice and, “Oh yeah, I do have to do that.” It makes sense, it lands.

It’s so funny to read the sports psychology books because it’s all so basic. Yeah, think positively. Think about things that lead you to do better. Ok, that’s obvious. But it is obvious and that’s what you have to do. It is very labor intensive. That’s maybe the big difference. It’s not easy. It’s a lot of work. I think we look for shortcuts. We think, read this book, or learn this philosophy. Wax on, wax off, and you’ll get it. You won’t need to study or work. But unfortunately that’s not the case. You have to do the work, you have to labor intensively. Every practice has to be intelligent and you have to commit to it and learn something from it.

Did the success of the first book, A Fighter’s Heart, affect how putting together the second one went?
I think it just gave me a little bit of a leg to stand on which was nice. People called me back. Randy Couture called me back. Would he have called me back if he didn’t know who I am? All it did was help, give me a legitimate place to come from. That was my excuse to write The Fighter’s Mind, almost. Hey, I’ve got a little bit of a reputation now or whatever, now I can get to these guys, great! Before, these guys wouldn’t give me the time of day. When nobody knows who you are, they don’t want to talk to you. Now they are going to return my calls, going to talk with me. Like Greg Jackson, he’s interested in me, in what I have to say. It’s just a great boon to me. I feel extraordinarily lucky that things went the way they did. Again, The Fighter’s Mind was just a book staring me in the face, “How can I not do this?” So I just did it.

You didn’t always know that you would do a follow-up to A Fighter’s Heart?
Not at all. I had this whole other book planned that had nothing to do with fighting. And I kind of went down that road for 6-8 months…

Was this the book about climate change?
Yeah, it was the climate change, book about the oceans, whales and all kinds of things. It would have been super fun but I just couldn’t get it to go the way I wanted it to go. The less interesting parts were happening but the interesting parts weren’t happening so I thought, I kind of want to do this other thing. It was right in front of me and I was curious to see what these guys had to say. MMA is such a hard game to get out of. It’s a hard thing to shake once it gets its hooks in you, in whatever sense. You think you can turn your back on it and a lot of guys have a hard time retiring for the same reason. Once you make it a part of your life it’s a tough thing to walk away from. I’m having the same trouble now. I’m trying to move on and do a different project now but I still want to goof off at the gym. Why? I’m never going to be champ but what the hell? You want to make yourself into a better version of you, so that’s an endless quest.

Were there things that you wanted to include but didn’t make it into The Fighter’s Mind?
Yeah, sure. For instance, Dan Gable slaps guys sometimes because they need it to get going in that ‘fight mode’ before the match starts. I had meant to ask him, I had written it down, I had thought a lot about it and then I forgot to ask him that. It was kind of stupid of me not to ask that because it’s such an obvious, interesting thing. I had talked to other guys who had been under Gable and who were training at Pat Militech’s place and they said some guys needed it and some guys didn’t. And who needs it and who doesn’t?

There’s a ton of boxing guys I would have loved to talk to. John Ruiz. Here’s a guy who has a terribly boring style but who competes at the top level and who has beaten some good guys and he’s done it with basically his willpower. He’s not a great fighter but he can beat good guys because he makes them fight his fight. There’s something admirable about that. Sure, it’s not great to watch but hey man, he’s making pay-days and so you have to beat him. And some guys can’t. I read an interesting interview with his trainer, he’d be a fun guy to talk to. I would have loved to talk to Bernard Hopkins, or Sugar Ray Leonard. I tried, but their agents and managers kept them away from me. Or they didn’t want to do it.

I should have given BJ a shot. I didn’t get out to Hawaii. Anderson Silva has always really impressed me. I remember reading about the James Irvin fight and we all think, Oh, he just ran right over him so that wasn’t even a real fight. He just caught his leg and dropped him. How easy of a fight was that? But then you read about how Anderson only had 45 days to prepare for that fight and that he wasn’t sure that was enough time. Or I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that reverse elbow he hit on Tony Fryklund. You read his book and he says, “Yeah, my trainers didn’t think I could do that but I had my wife hold a pillow and I would do it three or four hundred times a day.” You know what I mean? Here’s a guy who makes it look so easy and effortless but really what is behind that is an incredible amount of work that he’s doing. He’s really not phoning it in, he’s applying himself religiously and he’s staying ahead of the curve which is why he can do things like that; or his superlative performance against Forrest Griffin. Because he is so far ahead of the curve and he keeps improving or “pulling away,” as Dan Gable would say. He keeps getting better. There are a million people that would have been great to get. Its just time and money and the way things go. There’s still more brain science coming out all the time. Malcolm Gladwell is writing new stuff about “choking.” He has a really interesting article in the New Yorker about two of the most famous tennis chokes in history. The difference between being anxious and choking. One is too relaxed and one is too tense. There are all these various levels of stuff. It’s a very deep field and we’ve just scratched the surface.

You’ve now explored the physical and psychological elements of fighting with your first two books. Are there any more elements of fighting that you plan to explore as a writer or are you going to try and move away from fighting again?
(Laughs) I’m going to try to get away. I’m going to try to move away. I’ve got a cool idea that I can’t talk about now but I’m pitching an idea. I’m writing a bunch of stuff. I’m in Hollywood so I’m always messing around with TV and film and stuff like that. I might get more involved with MMA that way. I did an MMA film over the summer with Gavin O’Conner who did Pride and Glory. It’s called Warrior and I think Lion’s Gate is going to bring it out in September of next year. It was a lot of fun and they had a lot of good cameos. Greg Jackson consulted. Nate Marquardt, Yves Edwards, Eric Apple and Anthony “Rumble" Johnson made cameos.

Is that what you did for the film, consult?
Actually, Randy Couture was going to play one of the announcers and he couldn’t make it because he was in The Expendables so of course if Randy can’t make it, who’s the next person you call? Sam Sheridan (laughs). No, I know the guys so they called me and I said, “Yeah, absolutely.” So I went down and played an announcer with a friend of mine who is a stand-up comedian and who trained with Renzo for years and years. This guy Bryan Callen who’s been on MadTV and a ton of different movies. Great guy, great Renzo impersonation (laughs). And he knows the game too so we had a lot of fun pretending to be announcers.

Do you think it will be easier or harder to branch out into other subjects now given the success of your two fighting books?
I think it’s going to be a little bit difficult to sell things to publishers. But I think if I can show that it is a similar audience, I’ll do okay. I may be more able to sell a book about a different form of fighting than the ecology in the Amazon or sociology concepts. Listen, everybody wants to pigeon-hole you, everyone wants to put you in a box and it’s going to be up to you to break out and show that you are the guy that can do other things. I’m going to try. I think I can pull it off. We’ll see.

You write that everybody has their fight. Is that a motivator for you? Is proving that you can do other things your fight?
No. I’m interested in the big bad world. It’s not just MMA, its not just boxing. It’s not even sport-fighting, it’s "what’s the whole picture?" Life’s too short to do just one thing. I have a lot of things I’m still interested in and a lot of worlds to explore that are not sport-fighting related. That’s the motivator for me. It’s not about being pigeon-holed for me. I don’t really care. The fight world has been great to me, it’s a really interesting world. It’s just that there are other things out there that are interesting too and I’d like to take a crack at them.

Cagepotato Comments

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NinJay- March 2, 2010 at 9:38 am
My fiance got this for me out of the blue last week. I hadn't heard about it but she knew my love of everything MMa and thought I might like it. I have only made it a few chapter so far but it's very interesting. I really love hearing how different trainers approach their fighter mental state leading up to a fight. I highly recommend this book.
Viva Hate- March 2, 2010 at 9:19 am
Nice, I actually stumbled upon this book this past weekend browsing my local book store and picked it up, it really is a great MMA read, I highly recommend. Great book and great interview.
Stevextreme- March 2, 2010 at 9:19 am
I actually never read the first book because i didn't care about some random amatuer training for his first fight. But after reading A Fighters Mind I will definitely pick up the first book. If you have a BooksaMillion or some other bookstore where you can sit and read, just read the first chapter about Dan Gable and that should be enough to convince you to get it. Can't wait for his new projects.
rM- March 2, 2010 at 8:21 am
Fighter's Heart is badass book! I honestly couldn't put it down and I don't read books, I actually hate reading books! But Sam's stories and writing are friggin amazing!!
mthomas- March 2, 2010 at 8:12 am
Good interview--sounds like an interesting book
imakeutap- March 2, 2010 at 8:00 am
Im gonna get this party started and im gonna miss everybody!!