Untimely Observations

The Hero Engine


On Sam Sheridan's The Fighter's Mind

If you want to study the engine of masculinity -- if you want to know what really drives men -- don't start at the junkyard. Yet, that's too often exactly where people who study men start. It's not that you can't learn anything from the rusted out, fragmented husk of a broken man, but it's always going to tell you a story about "what went wrong." You're not going to understand men if you only talk to the men who are failing, who are in therapy, who are angry at men, who aren't making it. And you aren't really getting the whole picture by crossing your legs, sliding your glasses down your nose and interviewing young men who are still figuring things out, all hopped up on testosterone, passionately reciting their manly mantras. You don't go to the student for enlightenment. You go to the teacher. You go to the man on the mountain. If you want to understand men, talk to the men who are good at being men. Talk to the men who other men worship. Talk to their heroes. Figure out how their engines run, and why they run so damn well.

Any honest, serious attempt to understand men should include a survey of sports writing and biographies of athletes -- the kind of men who men choose, organically and of their own free will, to put on pedestals. Sam Sheridan's The Fighter's Mind is as good a place as any to start, though to get your bearings I'd recommend reading his 2007 book A Fighter's Heart first. His running, informal bibliography found throughout the books should round out a solid reading list.

Sheridan is something of a "gonzo" journalist. He's a bookworm, sure, but he's also one of the guys. He writes about fighters because he, too, is driven to fight. He gets the kind of access and honesty and insight he does from his subjects because, clearly, he can hang. He doesn't seem to be the kind of writer who has to hide behind his Harvard vocabulary when he's sitting in a room full of tough guys. He's in there with them -- sparring, training, bullshitting.

The Fighter's Mind is basically a series of interviews with heroes, the men on the mountain, the men who have "swum the deep waters." It's aim is to discover what drives them, what made them winners. Gold medal wrestler Dan Gable and fighters like Randy Couture, Frank Shamrock, Marcelo Garcia all weigh in. Sheridan also talks to some trainers and a few other "extreme" competitors -- chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin and ultrarunner David Horton. Of course, there is no "one" magic answer. We get anecdotes, glimpses, and deeper thoughts about the kinds of sayings, clichés and aphorisms that sometimes sound like nonsense but somehow speak to athletes and so many men. Sheridan relates them to zen koans.

Manhood is like that. You can't always explain everything. It's an experience. The best you can do sometimes is help someone get there, get to that next level. Perhaps that's why men continue to find value in heroic myths. We want heroes who are "giant, honest and brave."

Sheridan, searching for motivations, also touches on the subject of manly nihilism, as it has been called by both Mishima and Harvey C. Mansfield.

Fighting plays to the instinctual nihilism in some men, the part that when faced with impossible odds, or certain destruction, says "Fuck it" and charges. It's not something easily understood, and here I think the sexes often diverge -- not many women can be satisfied with "fuck it" as a real reason, but most men will understand it.

-- Sam Sheridan, The Fighter's Mind

Try explaining that to a feminist.

Yet, many men will nod. And maybe grin a little.

Laughing at death.

This is an area where the book is missing something, though. Sheridan did some research footwork around Special Forces trainers and military facilities, but if he was going to go so far away from the MMA theme as to include a chess prodigy and an ultra runner, the book really would have benefitted from an interview with a proper warrior. Sports and sport fighting are metaphors for the big fight, the fight for your life. Fighters speak of "going to war." It would have made sense to get inside the head of a man who had to get into "the zone" with bullets flying over his head, a man who had actually gone to war. There are plenty of educated, articulate military men who have had to fight other men for their lives, and who, like sport fighters, sought out that experience intentionally. An in-depth interview with a recent Special Forces combat veteran or two would have rounded out Sheridan's look "inside the mental game."

The Fighter's Mind is going to be of interest to MMA fans first, and but it's more than another fight memoir. As Sheridan says, "everyone is fighting something."

For more, visit Sam Shepard's Official Website:


See also:Jack Donovan's review of A Fighter's Heart