FightTicker.com Book Review: BLOOD IN THE CAGE by L. Jon Wertheim

When offered an opportunity to review L. Jon Wertheim’s BLOOD IN THE CAGE: Mixed Martial Arts, Pat Miletich, and the Furious Rise of the UFC for FightTicker, I jumped at the chance. I’ve only had the opportunity to read a few MMA books, including FightTicker.com’s own Dave Mayeda’s Fighting for Acceptance, and as a reader of everything from Dante to Peanuts to Tolkien to Palahniuk, I’ve been happy to see that more and more books with my favorite sport as the main topic are getting out there. I also had a chance to interview Wertheim after reading his book – look for the interview in the next few days.

Blood in the Cage is not Wertheim’s first book, but it is his first (and at this point, only) book on MMA. Given Wertheim’s history as a sportswriter for Sports Illustrated and the fact that he had previously written books about women’s tennis, basketball, and pool, I was interested to see the perspective with which he would approach the fundamentally different sport of MMA.

Here’s a blurb from the press packet that accompanied the book:

In BLOOD IN THE CAGE: Mixed Martial Arts, Pat Miletich, and the Furious Rise of the UFC, the veteran sportswriter L. Jon Wertheim peers through the chain-link Octagon “to deliver the first honest journalism about mixed martial arts” (Jeff MacGregor, author of Sunday Monday). Offering the first inside account of this sensational new sport, as seen through the lens of its pioneer Pat Miletich, “the patron saint of badass,” Wertheim reveals how the six-time UFC champion has single-handedly transformed a gritty Iowa town – where he currently runs the most famous MMA training school in the world – into an unlikely hotbed for his sport. Miletich has also transformed many an average Joe into a walking weapon of mass destruction.

The first thing that struck me about Blood in the Cage was the quote that Wertheim used to open the book. From Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, it is a lengthy quotation but it bears repeating here because it truly sets the stage for the book:

There is always danger, and I should try not to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found true about it. To do this I must be altogether frank, or try to be, and if those who read this decide with disgust that it is written by someone who lacks their fineness of feeling, I can only plead that this may be true. But whoever reads this can only truly make a judgment when he has seen the things that are spoken of and knows truly what their reactions to them would be.

Immediately after the quotation from this iconic author, readers are confronted with another equally powerful image – that of Jen “Lil Evil” Pulver’s fist in front of Wertheim’s face accompanied by an offer from Pulver to bust Wertheim’s nose, to help him gain a better appreciation of what fighters go through. Wertheim did not accept Pulver’s offer, but it’s clear from his book that taking the punch was not necessary for him to accurately portray fighters’ struggles and triumphs.
Wertheim’s book is filled with these sort of dichotomous images – a quotation from Lao Tzu opens one chapter while one from Vince Lombardi opens another. Nearly every chapter is opened the same way, featuring sayings from such figures as Bruce Lee, Sugar Ray Leonard, Dana White and movies such as Fight Club and Predator. The brutality of bar fights alongside the grace of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, the glitz and glamor of the UFC alongside small regional promotions held in local strip clubs.

Blood in the Cage really does live up to its subtitle as well – it thoroughly discusses mixed martial arts, Pat Miletich and the furious rise of the UFC; however, Wertheim doesn’t simply section it into separate parts where you read about MMA, then Pat Miletich, then the UFC, but he works them together in such a way that readers can get a sense of the history of the three of them developing together, with a focus on Miletich.

Wertheim covers nearly every aspect of Miletich’s life from his childhood to one of his last appearances as a coach in the now-defunct International Fight League. The coverage isn’t misleading – Wertheim writing reflects Miletich’s style – tough, no-nonsense, and with a fierce sense of competition alongside a huge amount of respect for the sport.

The longer that I have been a fan of MMA, the more I enjoy the backstories. I like hearing about the struggles fighters face trying to get to a good payday while trying to get respect. I like covering the local events and meeting the fighters and seeing the kind of training they do. I like seeing the dedication they put in, and I even like seeing and reading about the dark times and the problems fighters face, the rivalries (friendly or not) between different fight teams; the proverbial downside of it all, because these things give me a greater respect for the sport and the men and women participating in it. This background information and the things we don’t see on the TV shows and Pay-Per-View events are what truly set the scene for events. Blood in the Cage gives readers all of this. Granted, it is mainly with Pat Miletich or one of his fighters as the centerpiece of the stories, but Miletich’s history in the sport allows him to share some things that even hardcore fans might not know about. Additionally, Wertheim writes of his experiences with other fighters, both inside and outside the Miletich camp. Add that to Wertheim’s strong research and readers can learn even more inside information – again, things we don’t see on TV.

Take, for example, some things about Wertheim wrote about The Ultimate Fighter reality show. Before quoting Dana White’s infamous “Do you want to be a fu**ing fighter” speech in its entirety, Wertheim wrote about how this speech was due, at least in part, to the fact that word had gotten to the contestants that fighters on the NBC show “The Contender” were being paid $25,000 per fight while the TUF guys were not being paid anything. Obviously they were not happy about this. This prompted White to institute the $5,000 win fee for a KO or submission. Maybe some of you knew this – I did not. Or take Mikey Burnett’s head-first battle with one of the doors in the house – as Wertheim stated, “Never once was it mentioned that his father had died that night.”

With regard to Miletich’s TUF connection, I was also not aware that Miletich was in talks to be a coach on the third season of TUF, but White’s pseudo-reconciliation with Tito Ortiz put a stop to that which ultimately put a stop to Miletich’s dealings with the UFC. Wertheim also recounts various what speaks of as possibly the “mother of all street fights”, involving Tito Ortiz, Lee Murray, Chuck Liddell, Tony Fryklund, that all started because Fryklund mistook one of Ortiz’s friends drunkenly hugging Miletich as an attack.

In addition to this great inside information, Wertheim gives credit where credit is due to MMA websites, for fueling interest in the sport and keeping the UFC alive during the “dark years”. In my interview with Wertheim he even went as far as to admit that he was confused by the UFC’s refusal to credential websites as members of the press corps for events in spite of the fact that the internet carries the vast majority of MMA news.

Wertheim made sure that Blood in the Cage is accessible to all levels of fans – the hardcore, the mainstream and the newbies. He even went as far as to include a glossary of commonly used terms as well as the UFC Rules.

If I had a complaint about the book, it’s that I thought it ended too soon – not that it randomly cut off in the middle of something, but only that I wanted more. However, as the story of MMA continues to develop everyday, I recognize that one can only write about so much, and Wertheim covered a lot.

I do not want to go into too much detail about the content because I hope all of you will take some time and read the book. Wertheim clearly put a lot into it and I would be doing both him and the book a disservice by giving too much away.

I highly recommend Blood in the Cage not only to MMA fans, but also to those who claim to dislike the sport and guys like Bob Reilly (the NY assemblyman opposed to MMA legislation) because it presents an honest assessment of the sport, one of its biggest names, and the preeminent league. I recommend it not only because it often portrays the sport in the positive light in which it deserves to be portrayed but also because of realistic approach Wertheim takes in writing about it. A description of MMA from one of Wertheim’s novelist friends also serves as an appropriate description for Wertheim’s book - “It’s complete deconstruction, a stripping away of all pretense. It’s the real thing.”

You can purchase Blood in the Cage here.


(Originally posted on FightTicker.com)

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