Making It Real While Making It Up

By Eric Stinton May 27, 2020
Author Ernest Hemingway shows of his hands while on a big game hunt in Kenya. (Photo: Earl Theisen/Getty Images)



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Whether it’s a novel or an essay, the elements of good writing are often no different. In a 2015 TED Talk, novelist Ryan Gattis detailed what he called the five essentials of immersive storytelling, equally applicable to fiction and nonfiction: (1) hooks to grab readers’ attention, (2) the unexpected to keep their attention, (3) cause and effect to link events and push the story forward, (4) descriptions of feeling—mental, physical, emotional—to help readers connect on a human level and (5) concrete specific details to convince readers that what they are reading could actually happen.

There is no shortage of good MMA writing that employs these tenets, from opinion columns and longform features to investigative deep dives. Most of it is scattered across the Internet and some of it has been bound to physical pages, but regardless of the medium of publication, almost all of it has been nonfiction. This is a curious phenomenon. One would think a sport as dramatic as MMA would be ripe for dramatization, but the very allure of the sport—its chaotic unpredictability—can also make it difficult to shape into a narrative. The vagaries of life are not easily reconciled with the demands of dramaturgy.

“Writing fiction about sports is tough because you have to find something else to interest people in other than the actual sport,” said Ben Fowlkes, MMA writer for The Athletic. “If somebody in real live sports does something unbelievable, it’s amazing. If something unbelievable happens in fiction, it’s to its detriment. You need it to be believable.”

Fowlkes is a veteran MMA journalist who has also written short stories about MMA for esteemed literary outlets like Glimmer Train and Crazyhorse, one of which was selected for the Best American Short Stories anthology in 2015. For Fowlkes, fiction provided a way to tell stories about the sport he otherwise could not.

“When you’re in this sport talking to people, you hear a lot of good stories that are not the kind you can use as a journalist. It’s unverifiable, or it might just be gossip, or someone tells you a good story off the record,” he said. “There are times you hear those stories and think, it would be a shame to put those away and not do anything with them.”

Yet writing about fights in fiction is different than writing about them as a journalist.

“Journalism is more like building a table than painting a beautiful picture,” said Chad Dundas, novelist and MMA writer for The Athletic. “Not that a table can’t be a beautiful piece of art in its own right, but it also has to be functional. You have to build a table that stands up, that you can put stuff on, that you can eat dinner at. Fiction is more like creating a sculpture or painting from a blank canvas. You’re responsible for every aspect of it from start to finish. In some ways that can be liberating because you can just make stuff up, but at the same time, it can be daunting because there isn’t anything for you to go on. You don’t have an actual fight in front of you to describe; you’re making it up out of your own head. That definitely presents its own challenges.”

Part of the challenge of writing MMA fiction is that, unlike journalism, you can’t assume the audience knows what you’re talking about.

“The expectations are different,” Fowlkes said. “In journalism, you’re writing mostly for people who already have an interest in the sport. If I’m writing about someone who I can feel reasonably certain that you already know, I can play on that. I don’t have to do all the work because I know some of it is already in your mind when you’re reading the story. In fiction, you can do anything, and the reader knows that. If you come up with a character who’s not interesting, that’s entirely on you; you could have made them any way you wanted. If I’m creating somebody, then I have to do a lot more: I have to move the story forward but also develop the character.”

That balancing act—depicting the act of fighting as a narrative tool—is where the craft of writing fictional fights lies.

“One of the interesting and important ways you can use action and violence in a story is to use consequences to reveal stuff about the characters,” said Dundas. In his debut novel “Champion of the World,” the main character, Pepper Van Dean, was a professional wrestler in the 1920s when professional wrestling was grueling, athletically legitimate competition.

“For ‘Champion of the World,’ it was about what the outcome of the wrestling matches meant to the main character,” he said. “In addition to that, there’s a continual physical price that his body paid for these encounters that happened over and over again that eventually turned his entire life into a war of attrition. That turned out to be one of the defining characteristics of Pepper Van Dean: He’s getting beat up all the time. He’s in his mid to late 30s and doesn’t recover like he used to. That was the interesting part of the violence of that book, trying to dramatize how it would affect him on a human and physical level. If you have consequence-free violence, I don’t know if you’re earning it from a literary standpoint.”

Good MMA fiction, then, is less about the action of fighting than how that action alters the lives of those it touches. Gattis understands this intimately. “I’m a survivor of violence,” he said. “Violence completely changed my life. I know it to be deeply consequential.” Gattis’ experience of pain, damage and recovery inform the vividly detailed and often unsettlingly surreal acts of violence found in his novels, whether they are set in a fictionalized high school ruled by martial artists or in the forgotten gang-run pockets of Los Angeles during the 1992 riots.

“A year after I’d been hit, I was still feeling the consequences of what happened to me,” he said. “Once I went through something like that, I had no choice but to view violence in general and the depiction of violence in a very different way. I spent so much time recovering from my facial reconstructions that almost all I did was read books and watch movies. I had a lot of time to think about what happened to me and get assaulted by people’s depictions of how cool violence was, and in my experience, it wasn’t at all. Maybe the people who think it’s cool in an artistic context don’t have any real expertise with a grievous bodily injury, or they might create something altogether different.”

Naturally, many of Gattis’ characters have some sort of background in martial arts or combat sports— usually boxing.

“I prefer boxing because there are more rules,” he said. “I see more art to it when there are more constraints and fewer options, but the one thing that never changes in everything I’ve written is that the violence is always consequential. It always deeply impacts the characters and their relationships and the plot. That’s really the only way to explore the truth of violence in art and in fiction, is if it changes everything.”

Dundas agrees with Gattis’ assessment.

“I don’t want it to be a 1980s action scene where a hero wins the fight and emerges without a scratch on him and carries on about his day,” he said. “I don’t want the stuff I write to feel like a cartoonish display. I try to focus on the consequences of the violence. I try to make the violence itself entertaining without being garish [and] have it meet the demands of the story in a way that feels satisfying without being gratuitous. You definitely earn an appreciation for violence if you’re around this sport for any amount of time and you see the toll it takes on nearly everyone who is involved in it.

“It’s not just a 20-year veteran fighter who has 50 fights who suffers the damage,” Dundas added. “His family suffers that damage; his coaches suffer that damage. The pain of watching this person undergo all of that physical trauma and the way it changes their brains, their behavior, their body—it’s sobering after you see it for a while.”

Gattis points to the potential permanence of damage.

“Pain is just a moment, but damage is something that lasts a long time, and in some cases, you never heal,” he said. “I know what it’s like to be torn apart and be slowly—and I mean slowly—knit back together. You’re not going to read romantic boxing or MMA stories about the six months of someone coming back from a knee injury or shoulder dislocation. It doesn’t have the inherent drama of a five-minute round. It doesn’t have the quick, literally punchy narrative arc.”

Of course, there’s more to fighting and violence than its bodily toll. For professional fighters, that’s often just the beginning.

“The physical stuff in a lot of ways is easier for fighters to deal with because you get so used to that,” Fowlkes said. “That’s so much of what training camp is: getting in shape and getting your body used to physical punishment so when you take a hard leg kick or knee to the gut you don’t have the regular reaction of your body saying, ‘Holy s---, that hurt.’”

Insanity over time becomes familiar, but whether you’re a professional fighter or a casual spectator, it’s the unknown that poses the greatest challenge.

“One thing that fighters have told me about is transitioning out of MMA to a life where you don’t have set points on a calendar where everything is decided,” Fowlkes said. “When you’re fighting, you know what your goal is, and it’s very clear. You don’t have to sit around and think about big-picture questions. Your goal is to beat this guy on April 18 or whatever, and you have that circled on the calendar. One way or another, when that day comes, you get a pass/fail test that tells you how you did. There’s a satisfying conclusion to that. Then you just start over. You live your life in manageable chunks. Once that’s taken away from you, you have to go back to how normal people live without that. Fighters go through the same stuff everyone does—ascendency and then decline, doubt and all that comes with it—and the only thing they have to base anything off of to try and figure out if they’re doing the right thing is the result of the fight, which doesn’t always tell you everything you need to know. You can do everything right and lose the fight. You can screw around and not do what you’re supposed to do and still win. Yet that’s all they have to base decisions about their future. It’s a really difficult life that’s full of all these internal contradictions they have to deal with.”

It’s impossible to write well about MMA—fiction or nonfiction—without a genuine appreciation for the experience and umwelt of the fighters themselves. It’s what drove Fowlkes to write “You’ll Apologize If You Have To,” a masterful story about a fighter in the ensuing days after getting knocked out.

“When you talk to fighters after a knockout, especially after a really bad one where they got knocked all the way out, they usually don’t remember it,” Fowlkes said. “Sometimes they don’t remember the entire day. I’ve talked to fighters who woke up the day after the fight ready to go. They have to try to work backward and piece together what happened. They almost feel like it’s not fair. They’ll watch the tape of this thing happen to them and they see themselves doing stuff but they don’t remember doing it, so it doesn’t feel like they really did it. It feels like they were robbed of their chance, even though they can see they had it. They have to walk around after that, especially in those first few days afterward, and they’re dealing with all these questions: ‘What does this mean for my career? What does this mean for my finances? ‘Does this mean I should start to do something else? Am I in the wrong business?’

“To be dealing with that at the same time that you also are dealing with the devastating physical effects of a knockout and then be plunged back into your regular life with all the regular day-to-day concerns you may have been ignoring—that’s part of the appeal of training camp for a lot of fighters,” he added. “You’re so obsessively focused on this one thing that you get to shut out your regular life.”

That’s just one of countless examples of how life-altering fighting can be and why focusing on the consequences of it is so crucial. It’s what makes a story real, even when it isn’t true. Despite the abundance of excellent nonfiction MMA writing, fiction can capture the full weight and consequence of fighting in ways journalism would have to strain to achieve. Fiction has the ability to obviate the messiness of factual accounts and directly penetrate the heart of the matter.

“It’s not just about what is occurring; it’s how does it feel and why am I doing this and what am I willing to risk in order to accomplish this goal. It all comes down to intent,” Gattis said. “Intent gives us a sense of the character. You could have a villain who only wants to gain power or inflict pain and feel big, whereas a hero is generally trying to protect others, especially others who cannot necessarily help themselves. That’s part of how we think about the world, and it’s why fighting is so valuable, not just in stories. It’s the world in microcosm, the struggle that we all have to go through. It’s more immediate and quicker. Life sucks and it’s long and we all get our share of defeats. It’s just part of being human, but your intent is what matters.”

Fighting distills that humanity—the drive for greatness, validation, purpose—into a neat and easily understood sequence of cause and effect.

“That’s part of the enduring appeal of combat sports,” Fowlkes said. “It actually promises answers. Sooner or later, you’re going to get in the cage and they’re going to lock the door behind you and we’re going to find out. In our society, we don’t have too many venues where that is the case, where eventually you’re going to be found out. We’re used to the opposite. Fighting promises we’ll get the final answer, and there’s no way around it.” Advertisement

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