Inside stories don't get any more inside than this.
John McCarthy was a Los Angeles police officer in the early 1990s when, in the wake of the Rodney King beating, he was asked to represent the department on a panel of martial artists charged with developing appropriate police tactics for apprehending violent suspects. Among those in the room was Rorion Gracie, who was not the most physically imposing practitioner there but was the one whose art, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, impressed and intrigued McCarthy to the point where he began training in the guy's gym. And when Gracie, after absorbing the self-possessed attitudes of some on the police task force, came up with the idea for a competition called War of the Worlds, to test his family's fighting system against others, McCarthy ended up serving as a training partner for Rorion's younger brother Royce, who was tabbed to represent the Gracies in what ended up being renamed the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The rest is history, as they say, and a whole lot of that history is contained in Let's Get It On!: The Making of MMA and its Ultimate Referee ($24.95, Medallion Press), the autobiography of the ubiquitous referee who's come to be known as much for his "Big" John nickname as for his fight-starting command that's used as the book's title.
McCarthy takes us on a wild ride from the UFC's "no holds barred" beginnings through its evolution into a sport with a growing mainstream acceptance. It's been not a linear progression but a winding, bumpy road, and "Big" John has been there every step of the way. He doesn't lord this insider status over the reader, though, but instead uses self-deprecating humor to lure you in. The 400-plus pages are a breezy read, no doubt thanks to McCarthy's co-author, my SI.com colleague Loretta Hunt, the longtime MMA reporter who also worked with Hall of Famer Randy Couture on his autobiography.
Even fight fans who think they've heard it all will learn some fascinating tidbits. How the very first bout in UFC history shockingly sent something flying out into the crowd. (Hint: Is there a dentist in the house?) How McCarthy originally wanted to fight in the octagon, rather than ref. How "Big" John went looking for the irascible Tank Abbott one night with vengeance on his mind.
I haven't read every history of MMA and the UFC -- I'm more likely to sit down with a good novel or history maker's biography. But among the books about this sport that I've seen, Let's Get It On! has been the most enlightening and enjoyable.
Fighting Words by Mike Straka ($16.95, Triumph Books). The 15 portraits of MMA figures in this fertile collection are drawn from interviews Straka conducted on his HDNet show, Fighting Words with Mike Straka. Only his touchy Q&A with the inharmonious Ken Shamrock is left intact, the others transformed into vignettes of running prose utilizing the most telling quotes from each interview. That involves a lot more work than simply transcribing, but I have to admit that I most enjoyed the straightforward question-and-answer approach. Of course, I've always been a sucker for interviews, from Playboy to Rolling Stone (before the latter became People magazine for music biz celebs). Still, Straka has been doing this long enough to know how to get inside his subject, giving the reader some rare (and rich) glimpses into the sport and the people who have made it what it has become.
Death Clutch by Brock Lesnar ($25.99, William Morrow). MMA fans should note that the first three-quarters of this autobiography deals with Lesnar's amateur wrestling and pro rasslin' careers -- in fact, Brock wrote the book with the help of longtime WWE cohort Paul Heyman, who did a great job in capturing his friend's never-wavering voice. And when Lesnar uses that voice to talk about life in the UFC, he has quite the story to tell. He gives his take on the fiasco he created after beating Frank Mir at UFC 100. Even though he's a notoriously private man, he offers an inside glimpse at what it was like to have his MMA career derailed by diverticulitis. Death Clutch was published right around the time Lesnar's relapse put him out of action again and into surgery, making the book's subtitle -- My Story of Determination, Domination, and Survival -- especially poignant as he prepares for a comeback fight Dec. 30 against Alistair Overeem.
Ultimate Royce Gracie ($19.97, Anchor Bay). You know that thing I said above about John McCarthy's book telling a true insider's story? Well, here's MMA history told in more than five hours of video. The two-DVD set (also available in BluRay) includes every Gracie fight from the UFC and Pride, so you get to see him win UFC 1, UFC 2 and UFC 4 ... and get dominated by Matt Hughes in a first-round TKO loss at UFC 60. You might think of that as a downer, to show a legend being beaten down, but kudos for including such vivid evidence of the evolution of the sport Royce Gracie pioneered.
Bad Blood: Chuck Liddell vs. Tito Ortiz ($19.97, Anchor Bay). My first thought when I heard about this new release: Boy, the UFC guys sure are oversaturating the home video market, shamelessly, if they're digging this deep. I mean, Liddell and Ortiz fought twice, and Chuck won both times, decisively. Where's the rivalry? Well, it's in the backstory, which this DVD lays out beautifully -- with clips from their early friendship, interviews with each guy, and footage from not just their bouts at UFC 47 and UFC 66 but also other career highlights. Holding it all together is some insight into each man from Dana White, who before becoming UFC president managed the careers of Liddell and Ortiz. This video tells a surprisingly evocative story.