Review: Blood in the Cage by Wertheim (2009)

Blood in the Cage: Mixed Martial Arts, Pat Miletich, and the Furious Rise of the UFC
L. Jon Wertheim

Like any good bout in the sport of mixed martial arts that Wertheim describes so well, this book is fast-paced and entertaining. This is an important work that documents and discusses the phenomenal success of MMA in recent years and will likely become a standard for those new to the sport.

Going into this book, I was concerned that it was going to be yet another fighter-abused-as-child-goes-through-adolescent-fights-and-legal-troubles-before-taking-anger-out-in-ring-to-become-champion tale. To some extent it is, but luckily it goes into more depth, commenting on the rise of the UFC, the promotion as it stands today, and somewhat on Miletich’s role in shaping today’s MMA. Gentry’s No Holds Barred: Ultimate Fighting and the Martial Arts Revolution and Krauss/Aita’s Brawl: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Mixed Martial Arts Competition are both more detailed on the rise of the UFC and MMA, but both are dated and while they cover the early history well, they both lack meaningful commentary and of course pre-date the UFC’s exponential growth following the first seasons of The Ultimate Fighter on Spike.

Rather than the same tale told with new names, Miletich’s story is instead the narrative thread that holds together Wertheim’s examination of the sport itself, and that lifts this treatment above the ghosted autobiographies that haunt the genre. Even though the concept works, it is clear that Miletich will not be at the forefront before even opening the book: for some reason Chuck Liddell is pictured on the front cover and Roger Huerta and Clay Guida on the back, none of whom have any particular connection with Pat Miletich.

A minor annoyance is that it is initially overbearing for those familiar with MMA because of the adjective-heavy breathlessness that describes everything as bloody, brutal, painful, intense, etc. Worse yet, the slang of twenty-something fans on the internet boards occasionally creeps in. That may be natural, as Wertheim describes himself as an outsider to the sport who has been recently immersed in MMA events, websites, and message boards. Likely, it also strikes just the note Wertheim needs to capitalize on the recent converts brought in through The Ultimate Fighter. Seriously, though–we all know submissions hurt or fighters wouldn’t tap, and we’ve all seen blood, hell, most of us have probably seen our own blood in the dojo, so it could stand to be ratcheted down a notch. MMA fans are so de-sensitized to the sight of blood that anything smaller than an axe wound-looking cut from an elbow hardly merits mention.

Fortunately, though, the hyperbole either settled down or just became easy to overlook once the book got going, because this really is a work that has a good chance of becoming a classic. Coming at the subject fresh was undoubtedly helpful, and allowed Wertheim to describe Miletich, a UFC champion for much of the late 1990s with a yawn-inducing style, appear dynamic and exciting in his fights. It doesn’t hurt that Wertheim opens with the funny, irrepressible, and shithouse crazy Jens (Lil Evil) Pulver offering to break the author’s nose.

The book abounds with insightful comments, whether about the opacity of the UFC as an organization and the practices of the Fertittas and Dana White, the relationship dynamics between fighters, coaches, managers, and promoters, the growth of the sport in the last five years, or the discussion of the open secret of steroid use, and even touching the almost sexual nature of an MMA bout.

It is worth the cover price for the non-confirmation confirmation of the Gene Lebell/Steven Seagal legend alone. He also managed to capture Lee Murray’s outside-the-ring exploits (much more interesting than Murray inside the ring) within a couple paragraphs and a long footnote. Those footnotes liberally sprinkled throughout are like porn for MMA junkies, riffing asides on the significance of tattoos to MMA fighters, to missed nicknames, to encapsulating the changes in Dana White through the years by noting his change in attire.

The more the UFC succeeds, the more casual White’s attire becomes. His suit and tie were replaced by a sportcoat and an open collar. Today he’ll show up for interiews wearing a form-fitting T-shirt, tattered jeans, and a belt buckle adorned with a skull.

The footnotes are indicated in the text by asterisks that I always missed–I wouldn’t catch the footnotes until I was leaving the page and always had to search back through the text. That’s either a criticism of the footnote asterisks or praise at how engrossing the text was, I’m not sure which.

One of the most telling stories is one that couldn’t be told–the way that Zuffa shut down access to longtime UFC matchmaker Joe Silva (”Don’t talk to Joe. Don’t. Talk. To. Joe.”). Just one instance of the paranoid UFC management locking down the ship; an interview with Joe Silva is definitely something that fans would have enjoyed reading.

There are some minor negatives: his perspective as an outsider leaves the technicals a little vague and unsure at times, and he leaves readers with a strange impression of Miletich’s gym that it’s all come-in-and-fight with no technique training, which is obviously false at the gym of one of the most respected coaches in the sport. Notable for its absence was Dana White’s blacklisting of Miletich’s IFL promotion; Wertheim hinted at the UFC’s excommunication practice once it feels crossed by a fighter, but for some reason he doesn’t describe how the same thing happened to Miletich.

But again, this is an excellent introduction to the sport, easily the most readable out there, and it is poised at the correct time to catch the MMA wave. It gives the new fans some of the background needed to appreciate the sport while keeping things entertaining and thoughtful enough for those fans who have seen the transformations firsthand.

Note- this book went to press before Miletich KO’ed Thomas Denny with punches that could drive piles in his December 2008 comeback fight.

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