Nearly no one writes really well about fighting, which I've always thought was less because of the sport itself than because of the institutions around it. Promoters, matchmakers, agents, sponsors, and reporters are, after all, at all times engaged in a conspiracy to deny the essential humanity of the fighters, who are presented as blanks, avatars upon whom the public can project themselves. It's hard to write about anyone who's not just unknown but unknowable, so abstract as to not be recognizably human.
Kerry Howley's Thrown is so good in large part because, so far as possible, she ignores this entire sports-industrial complex in favor of her subjects' humanity. Rankings, purses, pay-per-view orders, judging, won-loss records, sober discussions of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, marketing strategies, and the like come in here only when they're truly unavoidable, and are quickly dismissed. Howley, who spent three years in the company of two serious fighters for this book, is writing about something else entirely.
What she's interested in is what makes people watch, and what makes them fight. As ridiculous as it seems to the uninitiated—and Howley is both too self-aware not to know how ridiculous it seems, and too self-assured to care—it's the possibility of transcendence, of a moment like the one she experienced watching the first fight she ever saw, held at a convention center in downtown Des Moines in 2010 not far from a phenomenology conference from which she was fleeing:
I had the oddest feeling of a cloudiness momentarily departing. It was as if someone had oil-slicked my synapses, such that thoughts could whip and whistle their way across the mind without the friction I'd come to experience as thought itself. I felt an immense affection for the spectacle before me, but it was as if the affection were not emanating from anywhere, because I had dissolved into a kind of mist and expanded to envelop the entire space that held these hundred men.
This is a feeling any serious fight fan knows, one of total dissociation. Time speeds up and slows down and perception isn't just sharper but actually different. Other sports can bring you to a place like this, but few so reliably, and none so mysteriously. Everyone understands how a World Series game or FA Cup final can offer transcendence; how two journeymen fighting on the lower end of the regional circuits in Iowa can bring it about is a much more curious thing.
Having experienced this herself, Howley—a doctoral student in philosophy—decides to write a "phenomenology of ecstasy," a great work to follow on Nietzsche and Schopenhauer. ("I have recently had reason to reconsider everything I know about what it means to make contact with the noumenal realm," she announces to her department's listserv. "Great experiments in consciousness are being regularly conducted in our region.") This project involves insinuating herself into the life of Sean Huffman, winner of that first fight she saw, and attempting to understand exactly how and why he was able to alter her state of being for a moment, something so tied to her visceral disdain for the dust-filled academics around her, and to the prospect of slipping into an easy, comfortable, and mediocre life like theirs, that it would be impossible to untie the two. (Howley, wisely, doesn't try very hard.)
Huffman, we learn, is a fringe veteran in his early 30s with sad ambitions of reaching the big shows. He has ties to the champion fighters who once reliably came out of Iowa, but he's now overweight, near-homeless, and taking any fight anyone will offer, usually for a few hundred dollars. He's lost about as many as he's won, and his main distinguishing trait is his ability to take a punch. Although Howley never uses the word, he's a can, with all the main traits of the class: a streak of sentimentality, a conviction that with a bit more discipline he would make it to the top, and a tendency toward self-destructiveness that he passes off as courage.
This would be a lot sadder than it is if it weren't for the specific nature of Howley's inquiry, because while Huffman isn't a very good fighter, between his recklessness, his toughness, and his very real determination to overcome himself, he's able, occasionally—at least as Howley describes it—to reach and induce a state that makes the niceties of skill and record and such not only trivial but pointless. (The circumstances that lead to his losing this ability make up a lot of the narrative.)
When Howley isn't serving as Huffman's entourage, she's taking up space—her term—around Erik Koch, not only one of the top featherweight prospects in the world, but Huffman's opposite in every way, a young and abundantly gifted athlete from a solid middle-class background whose flaw is that, if anything, he's too disciplined. When Howley takes up with him, he's already fought on national television and is obviously destined for things much greater than Iowa has to offer. To a point, he fulfills his promise. (By the end of the book, he'll have had two different championship bouts scheduled, then canceled due to injury.)
Unlike pretty much everyone who tries, Howley, as a stylist, is up to the task of actually describing fighting. (Watching Koch in one fight, she wants him to "slide out of a clinch like an eel in a fist ... and unravel before us.") More important, though, is her reporting. This is the closest look any writer has ever taken at fighting, and it reaches an astonishing level of intimacy. There are startling moments—Koch all but deliberately breaking his own brother's shoulder, Huffman's kidneys shutting down, a low-rent promoter dropping cash on Huffman's chest as he lays on a dirty floor backstage after a fight—but the main thing is that Howley is in the gyms where these men train, the terrible apartments where they live, the dingy basements where they waste time with their friends, and in the locker rooms at their big fights, and she's there consistently enough, and over a long enough period of time, to really understand and convey just how much of a fighter's life is pure, repetitious tedium and low-grade suffering. She goes around Las Vegas with Koch, who's in the process of losing 35 of his 180 pounds ahead of a weigh-in, reduced to the point where he's dreaming about water and can only get through it by thinking of nothing but food, going to the buffets where he'd like to eat, and talking incessantly about peanut butter and cupcakes.
The thirst, Erik said, was worse even than the hunger. It made his teeth ache. Desiccated by forced dehydration, Erik's skin had taken on a new solidity; pinched, it would pause before flattening back into itself. His ligaments had turned brittle. His elbow hurt. He sneaked, at some point, a sip of Crystal Light, but the powder at its base stuck to the teeth in his dry mouth and made his teeth hurt so intensely he regretted the transgression.
Eventually, Howley comes to the conclusion that to reach transcendence, a fighter has to be profoundly selfish, totally unattached to the world. Koch and Huffman, she argues, don't move inversely in their careers just because one is young, talented, and disciplined and the other isn't, but because Koch is willing to completely cut himself off from everything he knows while Huffman allows himself to bog down in commitments, like the one he desperately tries to make to the mother of a baby that may or may not be his. Her argument is that you have to essentially be empty and alienated from worldly concerns to reach and inspire ecstatic experience.
I don't think this is actually true; plenty of great fighters love their kids and worry over their investment portfolios. It works as a conceit, though, given that the central focus of this book isn't really the washed-up journeyman, the rising prospect, or even fighting, but the narrator, Kit Howley, who's very close to but distinct from Kerry Howley, the writer. Kit is a comic figure, quite aware of how preposterous it is to seek transcendence in cage fighting and convinced she's on to something anyway. She's given to fits of self-deprecation, rhetorical excess, and mild paranoia; fixated on her phenomenological study, which she never actually writes after coming to the conclusion that academic philosophy is too dead an experience to be worth her time; and seemingly worried that she might accidentally "decide to spawn a nuclear family and enjoy their dull companionship between bouts of desk-ridden drudgery," and so condemn herself to never discovering what she could do with herself. She's trying, basically, to figure out how to live in good faith, and what preoccupies her is the sense that there is more to the world than what we can see, and that there are ways to find it:
The glorious heightening of the senses, I had come to believe, was only the first stage of an ecstatic moment, after which the feeling changed from that of a body made extraordinarily powerful to escape from that body altogether. It wasn't enough to say that one could see a flow of dancing atoms where others saw a squishy cage, or hear the squishy whisper of colliding cells where others heard only the dull thump of a landed strike. The categories of sight and sound no longer applied, for a mind in the throes of ecstasy had expanded outward, beyond these rough tools of perception, to greet the universe without the interference of anything so frail as an eye or an ear.
This is easily the best inside-fights book ever written, and it fits nicely next to books like The Glory Game and A Season on the Brink, in which the writer, totally immersed, manages to get past the image-making machinery and at some central truth about sports. It doesn't even matter that Huffman has lost nine straight on the local circuits since the events of the book, or that Koch has lost three of his last four and hasn't been the same since Ricardo Lamas elbowed him so hard that his face exploded (I saw this from a few feet away, and it was not a transcendent experience); where they were and what they did while Howley was shadowing them had enough to it to give you basically the full range of fighting and the experiences it offers. What will stay with you, though, is less that than Howley confronting those moments when a competition offers you a way out of yourself, the ones that the entire architecture of sports seems designed to obscure. She never did pin down a theory of this experience, but in the attempt she produced something strange and interesting and a lot closer to the truth about fighting than anything anyone else has come up with.
Photo via Associated Press