An opponent covered in tattoos. A crowd screaming at the top of their lungs. The scent of blood lust in the air thick with atmosphere. Months of self-sacrifice and self-inflicted pain trying to learn muai thai, a Thai martial art style employing kicks and punches, on the line. It is, fair to say, a long way from Harvard.
For Sam Sheridan, author of A Fighter’s Heart, this bout, his first professional match in Thailand, was merely the starting point in what evolved into a cross-continental journey into the very mind, and heart, of a fighter. This “endless quest” saw him attempt to unlock the secrets of ground fighting in Brazil, learn from an Olympic boxing gold medallist and his guru-like trainer, experience the hype and hoopla of a high-profile fighting tournament in Japan and observe illegal dog-fighting competitions in the Phillipines and Thailand
As a child, Sheridan was well-off and well-educated, earning good grades at the “fancy prep school” he attended. While never involved in schoolyard fights, or a target for bullies, it was an action-packed time, with Sheridan and friends devouring kung-fu movies, James Bond adventures and Conan books, and playing lacrosse and varsity football. “But what kid is ever tough enough?” he muses “I think most kids want to be superman”.
But there was always a thoughtful side to this would-be superhero. He used to carry around a copy of a poem admired by John F. Kennedy, which scorns the critics at a bull fight, before concluding “only one is there who knows / And he’s the man who fights the bull”. This struck a chord with Sheridan. He wanted to be the one who knows.
It wasn’t until he boxed at Harvard, however, that he became serious about fighting. He felt pushed out of his comfort zone and recognised the opportunity fighting offered to test himself, to find out who he really was. “What fighting is about is self-improvement” he says “it’s about knowing who you are”. But most of all, he felt alive.
After graduating from the Ivy League school, Sheridan spent time in the Marines, considered joining the Peace Corps, and ended up sailing across the world. But he felt dissatisfied, bored with the “rich man’s toy”. A brief spell in a law firm proved equally unsatisfying. He needed adventure, challenge, to recapture the feeling he’d experienced in the ring at college; he felt himself “lured by the siren song of violence”.
Now back in Los Angeles, the 33 year-old Sheridan is married and his wife (who is “amused” by his love of fighting) is expecting a child. He explains that he always always had ambitions of turning his experiences into a book. “It was always something I wanted to do… Even when I was in Thailand, I was like ‘you know, I should really stay here until I have 10 pro fights’, but my visa ran out and it didn’t really work out that way, and money ran out. I was always looking at an angle to make it a longer project and then, as I discovered the mixed martial arts world, you start to realise there’s so much travelling and so much of an international presence”.
Sheridan proves an eloquent interviewee, an affront to stereotypical views of fighters and fight enthusiasts as grunting and inarticulate. Never one for half measures or timidity, one senses Sheridan thrived on the grand scale of the project, the challenge of winning the respect of the fighting community and of explaining something troubling about human nature: why people fight.He talks passionately about the endless layers of complexity involved in any fight which is part of the reason he finds it so compelling: “ At a very high level boxing match, of the ten thousand people, there’s five people who would have any idea what’s going on…It’s amazingly technical and complex”.
This nuance is often lost on the media covering professional fighting, with many of the worst media hacks, in Sheridan’s view, being those who have never experienced the gruelling preparation and discipline needed for professional fighting themselves. “I have a problem with people who critique without risk” he explains “When I read a book review, I almost feel like writing the book reviewer and saying ‘I’m really looking forward to reading your book’
Having contributed to magazines like Mens Journal and Newsweek prior to writing this book, Sheridan continues to dabble in fight writing, but notes “I try to stay as respectful as possible. There’s nothing worse than when you read someone write ‘Oh, this guy’s got no heart’ when the guy has 40 fights. It’s like, what the f*** do you know about it?”
Even in the short time since Sheridan wrote his book, professional fighting has proved resurgent in the States, with mixed martial arts in particular exploding in popularity. But some of the new trends dismay him: “There’s this thing ESPN cover out here, all these silicon valley nerds, tech-heads, guys who are on the computer all day, who are meeting and having these fight clubs, beating the crap out of each other… These guys aren’t involved in trying to improve themselves, that’s not what was I involved in”
His own involvement with boxing continues. He is persevering with training, despite still battling a chronic rib problem. “This year has been absurd” he says of the injury. “how ridiculous it’s been…I got healthy, and I was training pretty hard for almost a year, and then all of a sudden it started popping again, boom, boom, boom”
“It’s a very draining thing to pursue when it’s full on, because there’s so much training, your energy levels for other things, for living, are pretty low. Even in trying to write this book now, I have to really try and not give my life force to the gym. I have to give it to the book”
Said book is his newest project, which will focus more on the mental side of fighting. He has been conducting interviews with many of the top fighters and explains his non-judgmental approach to them is a key to his work: “Many people say ‘Oh that’s gross’ or ‘Oh that’s violent’. I have an open mind”
Despite A Fighter’s Heart being warmly received and containing some nerve-rattling descriptions of scenes like his fight in Thailand, Sheridan says he is “not satisfied with how anything came out”. His determination to keep improving as a writer is clear. It is this restlessness, this ceaseless quest for self-improvement, which is, to Sheridan, the very core of fighting. The curiosity which he believes is everyone’s duty to cultivate remains unfulfilled. “The thing about fighting” he has realised “is it’s never finished”
A Fighter’s Heart : One Man’s Journey Through The World of Fighting is published by Penguin, $32.95.
Originally appeared in: The Sun-Herald