Monday, January 28, 2008

BOOK REVIEW: FIGHT by Eugene S. Robinson

"Everything you wanted to know about ass-kicking but were afraid you'd get your ass kicked for asking", indeed.

Human beings, perhaps since we discovered the utility of standing upright and making a fist, have had a love/hate relationship with violence. We have managed to make use of all types in our development as a species, from mass genocide to one-on-one interpersonal conflict. While violence in and of itself is not necessarily unique to us, our ability (and perhaps need) to intellectualize violence and give it context and meaning is an essential part of our humanity. Some of the more thoughtful fans of fight sports like boxing and mixed martial arts may recognize a paradox in how we deal with the ancient art of fisticuffs: we tell each other that two people should not settle their disputes by punching each other, but we would gladly pay to see it if they are in a ring (or cage) and wear gloves.

In FIGHT: Everything you ever wanted to know about ass-kicking but were afraid you’d get your ass kicked for asking, author Eugene S. Robinson has produced perhaps the most unabashedly honest, unflinching, and unapologetic look at what makes two people want to punch each other in the face…and what makes other people want to watch. His central thesis is that fighting is an “expressively honest” endeavor that should be explored and indulged in for the lessons to be learned, not only in victory but in defeat. Both fans and detractors of fighting should find this assertion challenging and fascinating, and this is a refreshingly difficult book to categorize. It is all at once a chronicle, a travel diary, an instructional and homage to those who fight. Robinson is less an analyst than a tour guide as he takes readers on a journey through a world that most people either condemn outright or only enjoy as spectators.

Robinson is no stranger to the subject, having been in his share (and perhaps your share) of fights. He is not only the front man of Oxbow, a dark and often confrontational rock band, but is also a journeyman martial artist and competitive fighter. He is quick to make the distinction between competitive and professional fighter: he has spent many years studying various martial arts and challenging some of the best fighters in the world, but as readers will quickly learn he loses most of these challenges. Fans of mixed martial arts will be familiar with the adage that a fighter learns more from a loss than a win, and Robinson’s bouts with lesser known fighters as well as top athletes such as Cung Le, Darrell Gholar, and several members of the famed Gracie clan provide the main narrative structure of FIGHT. It is rare in martial arts literature to have an author give his readers this level of access to his many defeats, which gives FIGHT its unique character. These firsthand accounts are interspersed with interviews with popular figures in the fight world (David “Tank” Abbott, Kevin Randelman, and Gilbert Melendez to name a few) and investigations of lesser known fighting styles such as the mythical “jailhouse rock” prison fighting.

In his treatment of this broad subject of fighting, Robinson employs an almost jazz-like rhythm as he bounces from interviews to investigations to sidebars (such as the top ten best and worst movie fights). This gives the reader the ability to read the chapters as a straight narrative or in non-chronological spurts. In short, it goes equally well on the coffee table or on the back of the toilet (no offense to Mr. Robinson, but we all know a great deal of our reading gets done there). His style is all unaffected bravado with a James Ellroy edge perfectly suited to the subject matter. There is no pretend tough guy posturing on display here: Robinson is close enough to the subject of fighting to present a true depiction while keeping enough distance to still provide solid journalism and avoid lionizing his interviewees’ behavior or interjecting his own values into the proceedings. This journalistic distance allows for one of the more enjoyable aspects of the book: the reader is left drawing their own conclusions about what Robinson’s subjects are saying and doing.

At first glance Robinson’s humor and levity in dealing with interpersonal conflict may cause some readers to dismiss his book as a juvenile exaltation of our basest behaviors. Such criticisms can be dismissed upon reading Chapter 13, titled “I Killed a Man,” in which his interviewee recalls a street fight that was ultimately avoidable but ended in the accidental death of his opponent. Readers get a glimpse of how easy it can be to cross the line into the ultimate consequence, and how one choice forever altered the lives of all parties involved. It is weighty stuff that presents an interesting dichotomy when juxtaposed with the rest of the book: we enjoy reading about the world of fighting until we see the ultimate consequence of death and its aftermath. In fact, the placement of this chapter is the only misstep in the book: seeing the gravity of a fight gone wrong makes the subsequent chapters on soccer hooligans and hockey fights seem quaint and insignificant. This chapter would have better served the book as its finale.

FIGHT is an impressive work and one of the few brutally honest meditations on interpersonal combat from an author who is qualified to investigate it. The book can be all things to all readers. If you are a thoughtful and introspective fan of combat sports, you will find much to reflect on and you may find yourself questioning your personal value system and just what you get out of watching or participating in fighting. If you are against fighting, the book will not likely change your mind but it may help you better understand some of the various motivations that drive people to fight. Or if you just want to read about people kicking ass, that’s here for you too.

--Jason Tiefel, editor

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