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How cage-fighting helped a couch-bound coward take control of his life

How cage-fighting helped a couch-bound coward take control of his life
Josh Rosenblatt's "Why We Fight" is an intimate first-person account of cage-fighting that asks: Can an arrant coward become a hardened pugilist? (Ed Mulholland / Getty Images)

The title “Why We Fight” suggests a treatise on evolutionary psychology — how combat represents an outlet for primordial urges. This intimate first-person account of cage-fighting is nothing so grandiose, but it reverberates on an archetypal level: Can an arrant coward become a hardened pugilist, able not only to withstand a punch, kick or chokehold but dish them out?

In his early 30s, Josh Rosenblatt was a sedentary, dissolute “liberal ironist” — a hipster cowardly custard with father issues. In physical confrontations, he was 0-for-6 (actually a stretch; in none of his run-ins did he stick around long enough to put up a fight), ascribing his “fear [to] refinement” and heredity as the son of a depressive bookworm dad who barely seemed to exist on a physical plane. And yet he was riveted by the spectacle of cage-fighting — the combatants’ physical prowess but also their camaraderie: wreathed in “each other’s blood, [hugging]” after bouts. “How would I respond in that situation?” he wondered. “Would I run? Weep? Beg? Curl up and give in? Or were there reserves of courage and madness and self-destruction” awaiting discovery? Perhaps, he could even shake his dismal patrimony. He was also bone-weary of miserable ease and the thought-riddled life. When a friend invited him to a martial arts class, he took him up on it with “a shrug” — “…I was tired of myself…”

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Almost a decade on, Rosenblatt is in deep. He’s proven he can take a licking, reeling off an eye-watering catalog of injuries: “seven broken toes, five dislocated fingers, three black eyes, dozens of bloody noses, perpetually sore knees, permanently bruised shins, split lips, countless headaches, six probable concussions, three herniated discs, two impacted toenails, one lightly misshapen nose, minor cauliflower ear, one case of shoulder bursitis, two less-than-mobile hips, one busted hand.” Yet, pushing 40, he yearns to test himself in combat’s ultimate crucible — a competitive cage-fight. “Am I a coward? A con-man? A savage? A sadist? A technician? An artist? A brute? An intellectual? A sociopath? A humanitarian? The answer will be written all over me as soon as the bell rings.”

But “Why We Fight” is less about one person’s discovery of their immutable traits than it is a story of perilous becoming.

…I was tired of myself…


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Josh Rosenblatt was a sedentary, dissolute “liberal ironist” — a hipster cowardly custard with father issues.
Josh Rosenblatt was a sedentary, dissolute “liberal ironist” — a hipster cowardly custard with father issues. (Eric Ronick)

Fighters present a sanitized self-portrait, talking of “discipline and self-improvement and artistry and nobility and will and respect and … so much honor!” Rosenblatt notes, but he quickly intuits a “primal” undertow. An instructor extols “civility,” but Rosenblatt detects “malice” in the pedagogical beatdown he puts on him — pressing the lesson home with a little too much relish.

He fears being consumed by the demons he’s courting. This sort of thing didn’t end well “[i]n nineteenth century Gothic novels,” he notes, “every doctor who dares to dabble in the monstrous side of the human’s beast for knowledge’s sake is punished. Dr. Jekyll. Dr. Moreau. Dr. Frankenstein.”

The sense of transmogrification is underscored by his gym-wrought body — a counterpoint to the earlier picture of decrepitude:

“My once-insignificant shoulders are now round and taut. They curve and dip into thick lines that shoot downward between my biceps and triceps like rivers though a valley. My pectoral muscles are well defined and shoot upward in a W from the bottom of my rib cage to my armpits. My chest is now wide and imposing, perched atop a flat stomach on which, in certain lights and in certain moods, I swear I can make out my abdominal muscles. Bulging veins run from my biceps to my wrists and up my neck from my clavicle bones, which jut out impressively…”

When he enters the cage, the metamorphosis will be complete:

“…I’ll be reborn, even…resurrected. Which is what I’ve been searching for from the moment I started fighting…Rebirth. Renewal. A new life. A new me. Self-creation though self-destruction. Behold the fighter.”

But “Why We Fight” drops neuroscience (what’s going on inside the fighter’s brain) beside heady personal narrative. And Rosenblatt’s approach to combat reflects a similar dichotomy: for all the talk of dark, unruly forces, he evolves a style that turns toward the light — patient, attritional, rooted in acceptance of his infirmities and a robust sense of “self-preservation”: “Diving into a life-threatening situation with abandon may be a great way to feel alive, and it may even provide a temporary tactical advantage against an overwhelmed opponent, but being strategically covetous of health is the way to … win in the end.”

He embraces the losses that come with age, not just muscle mass and speed, but bravado and impetuosity — "staying out of wild, hurling punching exchanges that exist only for the sake of proving toughness to oneself and others.” And, having watched sparring partners flail, fail and fold in competition, he works to engrain his skills as second nature — a bulwark against loss of nerve in himself.

In the event, he feels serene and drops his opponent in the first.

He feels catharsis. But just when it begins to seem pat, like an exercise in crossing off of a bucket-list item, “Why We Fight” delivers a dig in the ribs.

Rosenblatt sticks with the story to its end and beyond, when the elation’s faded and he’s feeling antsy again.

A book jacket for Josh Rosenblatt's "Why We Fight."
A book jacket for Josh Rosenblatt's "Why We Fight." (Ecco)

Listlessly pummeling the heavy bag at Gleason’s in Brooklyn, he encounters David Lawrence, who holds a doctorate in English and quit a corporate CEO-ship to fight his first boxing match, also at 40. Now 70, he remains in tip-top condition. Rosenblatt feels an affinity with Lawrence who “longed to live roughly and at great physical cost, in contention with other men and with himself.” But he’s also a cautionary case, a hard-bitten casualty who couldn’t quit, now displaying symptoms of “neurological slowdown.” Unsurprisingly, he’s more your “rage-against-the-dying-of-the-light” type than the pat-yourself-on-the-back sort. He “asks me when my next fight is going to be,” Rosenblatt recounts. “’I don’t know, maybe never,’ I tell him… ‘…I’m thinking the best thing to do is give up and go out on top.’…‘No!’ he says, punching me on the arm. ‘Go out on the bottom!’”

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Why We Fight

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Josh Rosenblatt

Ecco, 224 pp., $26.99

Phillips has written for the Atlantic, Smithsonian Magazine, NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Financial Times, Times Higher Education and other publications.

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