December 20, 2011

In this season of giving, what gift should you wrap up and adorn with a colorful bow for the mixed martial arts fan who has everything?

You can call your special someone's cable or satellite company and see if it'll sell you a season pass for the year's pay-per-view telecasts. I've never heard of such a subscription, but I can't imagine Comcast or DirecTV brushing you aside when you come calling, wallet in hand. Those pay TV folks love watching money flow in through the coaxial cable, and a whole lot of it would be headed their way if you purchased a year's worth of PPVs. Consider this: Next week's UFC 141 will be the fight promotion's 16th PPV of 2011, and at $55 a pop, well, you do the math.

For a little less cash, you can send your loved one to a UFC event. That'll still run you a few hundred bucks, though, even if the fight card is in your hometown and requires no plane ticket or hotel room. Yes, you can get in the building for less than a C-note, but you don't want to just get in the building. I've sat within blood-splattering distance from the octagon, and I've sat high in the rafters, and there's no comparison. Don't make your gift recipient squint at a couple of ants sparring in the distance. Let him or her really experience the fights.

Actually, if a true-to-life pugilistic experience is the ideal, why not give your gift recipient the feeling of really being in the cage? The sweaty soreness of training in multiple fighting disciplines. The butterflies and general uneasiness -- hello, weight cut -- as the bout approaches. The fight-night reality check in the form of stinging immobilization from kicks to the thigh and ribcage, the bitter mixture of pain and disorientation from punches to the head.

If that last possibility sounds like more than your friend can handle, you're still in luck. Matthew Polly has taken those kicks to the body and punches in the face so you or your loved one don't have to. In his new book, Tapped Out ($26, Gotham Books), Polly puts himself through months of training leading up to an MMA fight, and he's a vivid enough writer that you can share the whole episode vicariously.

It might have a longwinded subtitle -- Rear Naked Chokes, the Octagon, and the Last Emperor: An Odyssey in Mixed Martial Arts -- but this book is a breezy read. Polly has followed MMA since the inception of the UFC but is by no means an insider, so his prose is laced with irreverent observations that never devolve into either idolatry or cynicism. And lest you think this Ivy Leaguer and Rhodes Scholar is a crazy man for undertaking this challenge, you should know it's not the first time he's tested his body, mind and spirit. Polly's first book, the 2007 New York Times best-seller American Shaolin, recounted his two years in a Chinese temple studying kung fu with Buddhist monks.

But Polly was a college student while researching American Shaolin. For Tapped Out, he's 37 years old with a pear-shaped physique that one of his early coaches compares, with all due irony, to that of Fedor Emelianenko. To overcome the ravages of time, the author works with the best coaches he can find. He starts in New York at the Renzo Gracie Academy, working on jiu-jitsu with John Danaher, who also helps train some guy named Georges St-Pierre. Polly hones his standup game with another NYC-based GSP coach, Phil Nurse, and travels to Bangkok for Thai boxing and to Russia to observe a sambo competition. While in St. Petersburg he performs what might be an unprecedented MMA feat: teasing Fedor out of his monosyllabic introversion by engaging "The Last Emperor" in a playful, if brief back-and-forth about how a hypothetical grappling match between Emelianenko and Russian president Vladimir Putin, who trains in judo, might turn out.

Polly's humor is subtle, not forced. His inner conversation is honest. These are the things that propel the book forward, through his weeks of training at Xtreme Couture, the Las Vegas gym of UFC legend Randy Couture. When fight night arrives, you feel the nervousness the author feels. At the same time, he's still outward-looking, observant and even protective. He appreciates having training partners and friends present to support him, he writes, but insists that his parents stay away because, if he was taking a beating, "my mother might jump in the ring and go mama grizzly on my opponent." I won't say what happens in Polly's bout, other than to share his observation that he was hit so hard that "high school algebra disappeared forever."

Who needs algebra, anyway? To my way of seeing, reading is way more fundamental, and the value of a good read like Tapped Out is immeasurable.

Actually, that algebra might come in handy in calculating the amount of entertainment contained in a couple of other MMA-related gift suggestions. First, let's tackle the coffee table-sized UFC Encyclopedia: The Definitive Guide to the Ultimate Fighting Championship ($50, DK/BradyGames). Over 400 pages, Thomas Gerbasi covers everyone from A (Tank Abbott) to, um, Y (Yoshiyuko Yoshida). What UFC history lacks in fighters with last names beginning with a Z, it makes up for in stories worth telling. And Gerbasi revels in telling them.

Though he's the UFC's editorial director, the longtime MMA and boxing journalist is not issuing press release prose here. His accounts of every fight card from UFC 1 through last May's UFC 130 are alive and engaging, and sprinkled throughout the book he adds some lighthearted touches that you won't find in your dusty Britannica set. Speaking of which, why do we even need an encyclopedia when we can go online and wiki our way to whatever we need? Because as UFC Encyclopedia shows, it's not all about the facts.

Looking for something encyclopedic that covers a shorter time frame, something that doesn't merely tell you a story but allows it to unfold right before your eyes? Check out the Ultimate Fight Collection: 2011 Edition ($135, Anchor Bay Entertainment), a 20-DVD boxed set that contains most of the fights from every UFC event from July 2010 through June 2011. The fun starts with a pretty potent 1-2 punch: UFC 116, with then-heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar overcoming his biggest challenge to date to eventually squash Shane Carwin, then UFC 117, with middleweight belt holder Anderson Silva pulling out a win against Chael Sonnen after being dominated for 23 minutes.

Anchor Bay is the company that sells single discs of each UFC PPV and also retrospectives organized by fighter (Ultimate Matt Hughes) and topic (Ultimate Knockouts 9). Think of this release as being just like those but after a really nutritious energy shake. It shows two things: that much can be jammed onto 20 DVDs, and that a lot can happen over the course of a year of fighting. In 3,141 minutes (!) of viewing, you'll see Cain Velasquez and Jon Jones crowned as champs, and you'll see Vitor Belfort KO'd with a kick to the face and Couture have his career end much the same way. Think the price tag is steep? Consider what it would cost if you had to buy all those PPVs. This is like that theoretical subscription gift I started out suggesting -- only in reverse.

Thanks to the folks at Anchor Bay Entertainment, we have a copy of the Ultimate Fight Collection: 2011 Edition to give away. To win, go to the top of this page and click on the Twitter link ("follow @jeffwagenheim"). Then send me a tweet with the answer to this question: How many UFC title bouts were there in 2011? I will choose randomly from all correct answers I receive by 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday (Dec. 21), and contact the winner on Twitter via direct message.

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