Fighting is not necessarily about survival or pride, according to Josh Rosenblatt, author of “Why We Fight: One Man’s Search for Meaning Inside the Ring.”
Rosenblatt states that “to fight is to know who you are in a very immediate sense.” As he sees it, fighting is the “pursuit of active self-knowledge through self-endangerment, pain, and risk.” It is about coming face-to-face with danger and embracing it.
To be crystal clear, the book, “Why We Fight,” is not a celebration of violence. Instead, the book is a story about a single MMA fight, the training that led up to the fight, and what it means to Rosenblatt.
According to NPR, the book is a rational and personal meditation on self-hood. However, the book is filled with a wide array of intriguing literary and historical excursions – each one gives the idea of “fighting a dignity it might be harder to grant without.” If it was not for this balance, “Why We Fight” may have slipped into either a kind of dude memoir or a romantic abstract argument doomed to be tiresome.
It is understandable that there are skeptics who will wonder how meaningful two people inside a cage brutally beating each other could be. The answer turns out to be very meaningful.
Early on in the book, Rosenblatt notes that he has always been a “devoted pacifist with a philosopher’s hatred of violence and a dandy’s aversion to exercise” – until he turned 33 and he decided he had enough of self-indulgent living and wanted to “impose meaningful difficulty and discipline on himself.” Rosenblatt wanted to create a purpose for living that was not just about pleasure or self-justification. He remarks that his ability as a writer helped him to cast what was a self-destructive lifestyle into something legitimate, even as it left him empty.
He contrasts himself with his father. It is uncomfortable because Rosenblatt is direct and frank and continues to be so throughout the book. At one point, he writes that his father had “gifted his only son a love of words but left him alone to figure out the physical realities of life himself.”
This book is about toughness. One of the reasons the idea of toughness is so fascinating here is that it is bough to one of the book’s recurring motifs: blood. The author of “Why We Fight” relates blood to vitality, and fighting is a sure means to their convergence. More importantly, however, blood is also revealing, and the sight of it scares many, owing to “the unconscious sense that anyone who sees our blood will know what kind of person we are.” This explains why blood is important to a fighter’s identity. Additionally, fighting is a way to self-knowledge and, eventually, self-mastery. With self-mastery comes the absence of fear.
Interestingly, fights do not often become a reality for fighters until they see their own blood. Rosenblatt relates how “the sight of their own blood is a muse…the shock that motivates them.” Throughout life, blood is mostly on the inside, felt but not seen. Once a fighter bleeds, the area of responsibility of feeling become vital, immediate, and real.
In addition to blood, writing plays a prominent role in the book – and there are multiple tidbits and reflections of interest that tie fighting and writing together. For example, Albert Camus and Ezra Pound sometimes boxed, the latter against Ernest Hemingway. This may not be surprising, but Rosenblatt writes that the connection between writing and fighting in undeniable – “they are alchemical arts – the greatest writers take unmanageable life and press it into something meaningful. The best fighters convert their basest and most violent instincts into something beautiful.“ T.S. Eliot wrote, “The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.”
Consistently Rosenblatt shows his sympathy for fighters who are women of people of color, although it his tone is read as “one that takes for granted that his experience in fighting could be (or should be) effectively universal.” The author mentions his sometimes-female sparring partners and shows contempt for the bullish and racist attitudes he encounters in some MMA fans. There is not much in the away of an extended consideration of how the fighting lives of women and people of color differ from his own. The book is a kind of memoir/treatise hybrid.
Rosenblatt is consistently direct in his writing. This is commendable, even amidst the author’s flights of fighting fancy, where he could have faltered into deployment and clumsy diction, according to NPR.
The most subtly successful aspect of the book may be its greatest feature: The steady build-up of momentum toward the MMA fight that should have all the “trappings of a Rocky-esque drama but does not. When the fight finally arrives, there is drama. However, his contemplation of fighting to this point makes the outcome of the fight seem like a redundant surprise.
Initially, the author of “Why We Fight” feels that he should leave MMA after the fight, but he decides otherwise. For Rosenblatt, fighting is a means to a reflective life: one where his life and death are “uniquely precarious in their balance – a balance he needs and reveres.
By Jeanette Smith
NPR:In ‘Why We Fight,’ One Man Searches For Self-Knowledge Through Mixed Martial Arts
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