Flesh and Blood

Review: 'Why We Fight: One Man’s Search for Meaning Inside the Ring' by Josh Rosenblatt

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The first time you get hit in the face, says Josh Rosenblatt, "you're overwhelmed with fear." The second time, "you take offense." Eventually it becomes "just another thing you do"—and, like most human activities, "sometimes you find meaning there," but "sometimes you find nothing."

Reading Josh Rosenblatt's new book is a little like that. An account of trying to become a mixed-martial-arts fighter, Why We Fight keeps trying to hit its readers in the face. Sometimes you'll find meaning there. Sometimes you'll find nothing.

In truth, Why We Fight comes at its readers like the new fighter its author describes himself as having been: overenthusiastic at times, prone to telegraphing punches, swinging a few haymakers, windmilling a few blows. The book wants to be a powerful tale of violence, as seen by an educated man whose experiences and intelligence combine to discern the raw stuff of human existence. "Every man thinks meanly of himself for never having been a soldier," Samuel Johnson once opined, but it might not be true. Josh Rosenblatt seems to think meanly of himself mostly for never having been Ernest Hemingway.

As Rosenblatt indulges himself with excurses on the legacy of Ashkenazi Jews and bulks up his text with the history of personal combat, Why We Fight sometimes reads like a punch-drunk fighter, clinging to his opponent in a clinch he hopes will get him through to the bell. Why We Fight just isn't at the top of its weight class, the way A.J. Liebling's 1949 The Sweet Science was, the greatest classic ever written about boxing. Or even any number of other first-rate accounts: Norman Mailer's 1975 The Fight, for example, or George Plimpton's 1977 Shadow Box and Joe Layden's 2007 The Last Great Fight.

But that doesn't make Why We Fight bad. The author of essays in a range of publications and the former editor of the website Fightland, Rosenblatt can assemble a sentence. "The greatest writers take unmanageable life and press it into something meaningful," he notes, "and the best fighters convert their basest and most violent instincts into something beautiful." He can even cobble up an essay-length chapter. What he lacks thus far is much sense of how to put a book together.

Still, he knows what he wants the book to do. Why We Fight is seeking some explanation of human fragility. If the reader strips away the psychologizing—Rosenblatt's account of his bookish, depressed Jewish father is both cruel and overstressed—Why We Fight dances away from all the standard, knee-jerk animadversions of violence these days. Rosenblatt doesn't buy the goofy notion that fighting is an expression of rape culture. Or the misplaced sex-drive of toxic masculinity. Or the brute expression of base nature.

Rather, Rosenblatt grasps that we are embodied creatures. Fighting at its root is about the brittleness of the body, the deep philosophical strangeness of pain, and the unbearable fact that we die. Fighting forces up into visible, tangible experience the most profound metaphysical quandaries of existence.

Or, at least, fighting did so for Josh Rosenblatt. He woke up one day at age 33 with a hangover, a pudgy body, and enough self-disgust to bring him to vow that he would start to reform. Of course, every habitual drunkard has had such moments of self-promised change, but Rosenblatt actually began to enact it.

Invited by a friend to begin training in Krav Maga, the cross-discipline form of combat developed by the Israelis, Rosenblatt spends the next seven years falling deeper and deeper into a fanatical devotion to fighting. Sidelined with a broken finger, he finds himself "going mad," in thrall to the need to fight. He tries a little Muay Thai, a venture into Brazilian forms, some American boxing, an exploration of Jiu-Jitsu—until, at age 40, he enters his first MMA (mixed martial arts) tournament.

Blood drips at the symbolic center of the book. Blood is to the fighter's body as ink is to the writer's mind: the deep stuff that flows out in moments of truth and pain. The real insight of Why We Fight is that all this is only incidentally about dominance over other people. Real fighters fight, Rosenblatt thinks, because they want to know about themselves—physically, psychically.

This comes clear, for instance, when Rosenblatt insists, "It would be a lie if I said I don't want to get hit." Getting hit reveals the truth about himself, more even than hitting someone else does. "I haven't been plagued by a lifelong desire to win a fight, only the desire not to cower from one."

It stands even clearer in his constant return to blood. Connecting it again to writing, he argues that fighters find that "the sight of their own blood" is "a muse." When we bleed, we reveal to ourselves and others "what kind of person we are."

The narrative dips at times into the hackneyed tropes of 1950s pop sociology. His pre-fight life was full of parties that lacked meaning. The suburbs show us only "emptiness of experience." His American psyche aches with "some desire for authenticity that seems to find satisfaction only in fighting." His weak, over-intellectualized father never showed him how to make a fist and thus left him unprepared to be a fully formed adult, comfortable in his skin. Comfortable as an embodied being.

But maybe that's the success of Why We Fight. In his hipster, Brooklynesque way, Josh Rosenblatt reaches back to reclaim old truths that we once knew. The body isn't just a temple of pleasure, all sweet and pleasant. It's a tower of agony, too. We break, we bend, we bruise, and we bleed. We die, for that matter. And once we accept the pain of getting hit, we can get beyond fear—to the point, sometimes, of finding a very human meaning.