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Looking into 'A Fighter's Mind'

Boxing may be a brutally simple-minded task, but there's a romanticism and grace to the sport that has lent itself well to prose. Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates -- these are writers who could compose shopping lists that would win awards, yet they turned their considerable skill toward the dissection of a blue-collar sport. Who could resist? Boxing is plainly a metaphor for the struggle of life. For an author, it's honey.

The same has not held true for mixed martial arts, which strikes me as odd. As Mark Law wrote in his love letter to judo, "Falling Hard," grappling is certainly a better rehearsal for life than boxing. We're far more likely to become entangled in problems, sweating and grimacing, than we are to knock them out of the ring. But the sum total of mixed-fight literature is comprised largely of garishly ghost-written "autobiographies" and academic histories.

Sam Sheridan is not, by any stretch, Hemingway -- which is probably a good thing, unless he's looking forward to a tragic middle age. But in tasking himself with peeling back the layers of a complex and multifaceted activity, he's raising the bar for everyone else. His latest work, "A Fighter's Mind," is a companion piece of sorts to his "A Fighter's Heart." While the latter was mostly an examination of physical trials, "Mind" attempts a deeper cut into the way a brain operates under threat of punishment. We know losses affect psyches, but how? And why? When does the ego become another opponent? How does the athlete who seems to know everything keep his mind open to more?

Sheridan isn't content to ask these questions of fighters; he seeks exposition from chess players, wrestling coaches and marathon runners. The ways in which these brains' activity intersect is surprising.

Fighting is like an animation cel: One acrylic layer is placed on top of the other. Your methodology is based on your opponent's skills, his eye movement, his maturity -- and he's reading you in the same manner. What goes on in a fight, the information in the margins, is almost overwhelming: Sheridan's aptitude for spreading out those components, evaluating them one by one, is unique to his series.

There still is no "Sweet Science" for MMA, and no Oates to sharpen the sport in a way that could be called art. But Sheridan knows what kinds of questions will help get us there. If you want a better grip on a sport even some of its participants may not fully understand, his work is quickly becoming required reading.