Cage fighting. It's a concept that, to most people, evokes brutality, violence, lawlessness, outlaw behavior. It certainly doesn't suggest anything redeeming. Two men entering an octagonal ring surrounded by chain-link and beating each other until one can't stand up anymore; that's not a sport, that's gladiator stuff. That's the end of civilization.
These people don't know Pat Miletich, Iowa-born former mixed martial arts champion and hero of sportswriter L. Jon Wertheim's latest book, "Blood in the Cage: Mixed Martial Arts, Pat Miletich, and the Furious Rise of the UFC." Miletich, 42, grew up amid difficult circumstances in Davenport, Iowa, a declining Corn Belt town, and might have wound up as a lifelong manual laborer or a frequent guest of the U.S. prison system had mixed martial arts fighting not arrived to engage his unique intelligence, liberate his peculiar destiny, and unleash his powerful and inspiring character.
"Since I was 5 years old," he said recently, "I knew I was going to be world champion at something."
Wertheim spent two years diving deep into Miletich, his story, and the rise of mixed martial arts (and the Ultimate Fighting Championship) as a legitimate sport. A senior writer at Sports Illustrated since 1997, Wertheim was initially unsure about how his interest in this outwardly crude yet perversely compelling new spectacle of men in intimate combat would play out. "I was this strange Jewish guy from New York, and Pat was a cage fighter with a cauliflower ear," he said of his early meetings with Miletich, when Wertheim was first researching a story for SI.
Over time, a comfort level developed. An understandable occurrence, as Miletich is an exceptionally well-spoken veteran of this young sport, and also something of a historian of its emergence as an alternative to boxing. Wertheim does seem like an unlikely chronicler of mixed martial arts (MMA): He writes primarily about tennis and basketball for SI, and has a book forthcoming that will cast the Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal rivalry in terms of John McPhee's tennis classic, "Levels of the Game." But MMA, which he discovered via pay-per-view events and Web videos, became an obsession. He promoted it to his editors at SI, stressing its exploding cultural importance. Additionally, his previous book, "Running the Table," told the story of pool hustler Kid Delicious, so he's had some seasoning with fringe sports and personalities.
Men among boys
"Jon is very interested in intensity," said SI's editor, Terry McDonell. "He led the awareness of MMA at the magazine and insisted that we should be covering it." McDonell added that "Jon never gives us anything without a subtext." In the case of MMA, the subtext is the growth of ultimate fighting as an ironically ethical alternative to boxing, in which fighters take so many head shots that they can end life with permanent brain damage. MMA may look more brutal, but the many ways fighters can strike, grab, punch and kick an opponent tends to mean less overall permanent damage (although the sport logged its first fatality in 2007).
Wertheim also delves deep into Miletich's background, and the result is a book that uses Miletich's biography as a lens through which the rise of ultimate fighting can be viewed: as a sport, a business, and cultural phenomenon.
"At some level, MMA is a backlash against a culture in which we don't let kids ride bikes without knee pads," Wertheim said. Mixed martial arts fighting can be shocking to the uninitiated. Two fighters, generally clad only in tight trunks, often shoeless, enter a caged, octagonal ring and proceed to employ a wide variety of techniques -- everything from boxing to kickboxing to wrestling to Brazilian jiujitsu--in order to score a victory.
"MMA is a stiff jab to the overprotective social engineers waging 'the war against boys,' as a recent book calls it," Wertheim writes. "It's a sport for Hemingways in a culture of Dr. Phils. In the Octagon, no one gives a . . . about your satirical blog or the updates to your Facebook profile or your iPod playlist. It's you and another guy fighting."
There's a degree to which the sport attempts to answer some goofy timeworn hypotheticals, such as "What if Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee fought each other?" But as it has become codified since its arrival in 1993, MMA has evolved into an intricate and highly tactical contest, placing extreme athletic demands on its participants. It's come a long way from the brawls of its infancy.
Miletich, along with the Brazilian jiujitsu proponents who created the original Ultimate Fighting Championships, was integral to the maturation of MMA. In fact, Miletich's fighting style, which relied strongly on grappling and so-called ground fighting to negate the skills of kickboxers and power-punchers looking to throw knockout haymakers, has become so influential that, in retirement, he now trains fighters at a facility in Iowa. Aspirants to the cage travel for miles to learn from the master. Several have gradu- ated to championship sta- tus.
"You have to think about how long it takes to get good at boxing or wrestling," Miletich said. Throw in karate, kickboxing and plenty of other fighting techniques. "When you put all those components together in a fight, that's the level you have to get to."
Apart from his knowledge of what it takes to be a great fighter -- he's been a UFC title holder in two weight divisions -- Miletich knows what happens in the mind of the men who enter the cage. "You're scared when you first start fighting," he said. "It's absolute chaos."
Miletich's aspirations for his sport go way beyond personal glory. "When Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard fought, everything came to stop," he said. Mixed martial arts may have a ways to go before it can deliver that kind of spectacle, but if its rapid ascent over the last two decades is any indication, ultimate fighting may be well on the road to that kind of appeal. Miletich is optimistic. "It used to be that we'd educate one person at a time," he said. "But now with TV exposure, people have already been educated."