My new novel has a pretty clear focus on the relationship between violence and sport and entertainment, a common theme in my recent work. Damn you, pro wrestling!
But unlike my sad devotion to that ancient combat-con-game, the book deals with real combat arts, though through the usual Ridlerian lens.
As prep, I’ve read a lot and watched a lot on the history of different kinds of martial arts. If you ever get the chance, watch UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS, a documentary by Ken Burns on the first black heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson. A stunning look at an amazing athlete who cut his own path against the racism and social convention of his day, the documentary follows the rise of Johnson from his humble and mysterious origins in Galveston, Texas, to his often challenged but unstoppable rise to the top and many run ins with the law. While his final days were, like many celebrity sports stars, sad, Johnson was a ground breaking athlete whose skills and personality were larger than life. A true American original.
I also came across a terrific boxing story by Lucius Shepard in CRUCIFIED DREAMS, “Beast of the Heartland.” A mythic tale of a career boxer on his last major run whose opponents who are more than they seem. I’ll have more to say about the antho, but if you love gritty fiction of the fantastic, buy it post haste.
I’ve also hammered through TOTAL MMA: INSIDE ULTIMATE FIGHTING by Jonathan Snowden. A very cool behind the scenes look at how MMA took off in the US, and, to a lesser extent Japan, and survived by becoming more of a sport than a real “no holds barred” fight. Personally, I don’t begrudge the UFC from moving away from reality to sport. In doing so, they learned what real wrestlers had discovered way back in the 1920s: real fights are often not entertaining. Brutal? Yes. Authentic? You bet. But I remember some of those hour-long matches where dudes sat on each other in a single position until one could slip on a choke or an arm bar. Lots of respect for their talent, but once was enough. But catching a really good three-minute round MMA match between different kinds of talent, that’s pretty engaging stuff. Sport is more entertaining than an unrestrained fight. That’s the truth of it.
Pro wrestling learned this truth around WWI, when matches between champ Frank Gotch and Georg Hackenschmidt went on for an eternity. A quiet, uninteresting eternity. Fans got bored shitless and decided their money was better spent not falling asleep watching who was “master of the headlock!” Ten years later, pro wrestling instituted rules, time limits, had a ref in the ring . . . and went from being legit contests to rigged entertainment. They kept that secret for about a decade, but by the 1950s, even with a lot of shooters and hookers still in the ring (real submission fighters), most folks knew wrestling was just entertainment, though the illusion was maintained in the industry until the 1980s.
UFC certainly hasn’t gone that far, but they did put in rules, rounds, and made it a sport, and a reality TV sensation with THE ULTIMATE FIGHTER (also known as JUJITSU GONE WILD!). realding Snowden’s book, I also learned about the intense and strange world of Pancrase, a form of pro wrestling that is “part real.” Whoa! We are now through the looking glass, people!
One of the best things about writing is the strange path of research you take to finish your projects. Really digging the discoveries I’ve found while writing this book, which, as you can imagine, will not be chick lit.
Or will it?