In 2009, a national bestselling author named Matthew Polly entered the cage to fight an amateur MMA bout. The book he would write about the experience, Tapped Out: Rear Naked Chokes, the Octagon, and the Last Emperor, was a memorable look at the sport — one from both an insider’s, and outsider’s perspective.
Polly, whose previous book American Shaolin described his two years as a youth at the Shaolin Temple, trained at Renzo Gracie Academy for jiu-jitsu with John Danaher, and the Wat for Muay Thai with Phil Nurse, before journeying to Las Vegas to prepare at Extreme Couture for several months. Brief visits to Thailand and Russia are made along the way. This may sound similar to Sam Sheridan’s Fighter’s Heart — but it really isn’t. Unlike the athletic and serious Sheridan, Polly is overweight, middle aged, and generally invites the reader to laughs at his own foibles while he collects the occasional insight. But similarly, he trains extremely hard, visits some fascinating people, and finds some great rewards in his MMA experience.
I had the pleasure of speaking to Polly yesterday, who had just returned to the US from Hong Kong.
“To put it bluntly, I wanted to write the book you could give your girlfriend,” he describes Tapped Out. “To explain why you love this crazy sport; in a way that was kind of fun and a little more personal.”
Polly has some good-natured fun sending up some popular figures in Tapped Out. Dana White is always referred to as, “Dana White, hallowed be his name” in its pages. But Polly laughs at himself more often — everything from vomiting on the way home from training to enduring jabs from his wife.
“The goal for me, first if you’re going to write a humorous book, the goal is to make fun of yourself first,” he says. “That kind of earns you the right to joke around about other people. If you take yourself seriously, you can’t really do that. And, the premise of the book was a middle aged guy trying to become an MMA fighter: that’s inherently sort of comic.”
In contrast, “(Sam) Sheridan, in Fighter’s Heart, takes a more macho approach to the sport,” Polly continues. “A ‘blood in the cage’ kind of thing, and that sort of appeals to the hardcore fans… He’s a very good writer. There’s just a certain machismo to Sherdian’s writing, a lack of self-deprecation; that I personally don’t do.”
“The sport of fighting tends to be sort of teenage boy macho, where they pound their chests and huff themselves up,” Polly says. “I understand why you do that, it’s frightening; for me it was one of the most frightening things in the world for me to get in the cage. But there’s a kind of absurdity to it as well and I wanted to capture that tension. On the one hand, it’s pretty awesome: two men in a ring or cage with rules to decide who’s the better fighter. On the other hand, there’s a kind of sillyness. Especially for me, watching a middle-aged, overweight guy get in the cage.”
While his own MMA story is done (“I don’t have a career as a fighter,” he says with a laugh), he’s excited to see the sport’s continued development.
“To see a sport evolve this quickly, over a 20 year period, is staggering,” he gushes. “When I started Chuck Liddell was pretty much the ‘baddest dude on the planet.’ But he was two-dimensional fighter. And you see these guys now — every year they get younger, faster, more complete. The pioneers of the sport? None of these guys could compete nowadays, just ten or fifteen years later.”
“Jon Jones, you watch him and think how can this guy be this good?” he asks. “You see the ‘showtime’ kick from Anthony Pettis. The sport just gets more interesting. I’m writing about Bruce Lee now, and his whole thesis was that things should be simpler and more efficient, and waive the excess stuff. It’s interesting to watch MMA fighters get more complex… watching people throw spinning wheel kicks. Ten years ago, everyone’s opinion was that was a silly tae kwon do move that was useless. Now they’re throwing it effectively.”
Polly gets just as excited talking about the opening scene of “Enter the Dragon,” where Lee, outside the Shaolin temple, meets Sammo Hung in a fight which featured a mix of grappling and striking, similar to modern MMA. Dana White famously calls Lee “The Godfather of MMA,” and to Polly, “There’s some pretty strong arguments for it. That scene reflected his philosophy in the martial arts. It’s fair to say he’s a prophet for what became mixed martial arts.”
Listening and reading Polly’s words, it’s easy to imagine, like Polly himself, that maybe MMA has journeyed from the Shaolin Temple, to more recent martial arts pioneers, to the cage.
And hey — maybe, like Polly, while everyone keeps collecting new insights, we could all use that good laugh at ourselves along the way.