IF YOU'RE going to read just one book on the history of the Ultimate Fighting Championships, folks, make it this one. While tracing the rise of Pat Miletich—from small-town Iowan brawler to UFC champ to revered mixed martial arts' trainer—L. Jon Wertheim's Blood in the Cage also delivers a strong account of the UFC's evolution from a barely regulated sideshow in the mid-1990s to the most successful pay-per-view sports enterprise of all time.
You'll need a strong stomach. Just two pages into Cage an ass-kicking begins that leads to a guy heaving up a "blood-saliva gumbo." Later Wertheim renders images of a UFC fighter getting his teeth kicked out—one flies into the stands—and of Miletich opening up an opponent's face with a punch that sounds "like a water balloon exploding against a brick wall."
Both Wertheim, a senior writer at SI, and some of the sport's key investors spend a fair amount of time defending the UFC—pointing out proudly, for example, that no one has actually died in the ring. Promoter Bob Meyrowitz, for one, says that after realizing that the competitors are highly conditioned athletes and also pretty sweet guys when not in their cages, "I completely believed in the righteousness of Ultimate Fighting." It's a tough sell to the nonbloodthirsty, even if the UFC has grown tamer while going mainstream in recent years (no more fish-hooking, groin-smashing or kicking a prone guy in the head like in the good old days).
Yet this is an intelligently reported and often wonderfully written book, rich with lasting, intensely macho characters. Miletich, poor, estranged from his allegedly abusive father and rocked by family tragedies, was a pathological street fighter before learning crucial skills such as Brazilian jujitsu. By the end of Cage he's a cult hero who has transformed his otherwise allureless hometown of Bettendorf into arguably the most important mixed-martial-arts training ground in the world.
January 19, 2009
MMA has changed the sporting landscape: It's an alternative to boxing that, in addition to glitzy UFC events, fills scores of small but profitable cards each year. Wertheim conveys the spirit and energy of the movement in well-observed detail, a good book about a brutal sport.