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Book Review: “The Fighter’s Mind”

If you are familiar with the author Sam Sheridan, you know that he is always searching for what makes people capable of achieving great feats. Not only an accomplished writer from an Ivy League background, he is also an avid martial artist. Sheridan’s background means he can take on a more personalized perspective than other acclaimed writers who have never trained a day in their lives. In writing the book “A Fighter’s Heart,” he set the bar for delving into what makes a fighter “tick.” With his new book “The Fighter’s Mind,” released last month (Atlantic Monthly Press), he elaborates on this theme while also exploring the differing opinions of a fighter’s disposition going into a fight.

Where most writers want to focus on the fight and its significance, Sheridan centers on the concept of preparation. While the last two chapters in this book leave something to be desired, it is still an excellent addition to the fight genre. It gives you a doorway into the mind of a fighter, which has to be unrelenting to compete in a world where your career could last for less than three minutes.

Sheridan conducts interviews with more trainers than actual modern fighters in this tome. You can see the genius in this angle right from the beginning: Trainers have been doing their job a lot longer than their fighters have been competing, and they are responsible for getting the fighter in the best possible state of mind going into a bout.

You see that every trainer usually has a couple key points they agree upon. One, a fight is won or lost in training. Fighters can have the best technique in the world and the perfect mindset for a fight, but if they don’t put the work in the gym correctly, they will lose. Two, fighters have to come to grips with the simple fact that in order to win they must hurt their opponents. As Joyce Carol Oates once said, fighter does not “play” boxing, which is also true for mixed martial arts. After those common points of agreement, individual trainers start to diverge is their styles and philosophies.

Virgil Hunter is a man I knew little about before reading this book. He is the trainer for Andre Ward, who has been working under Hunter for practically his whole life.  At the beginning of the chapter on Hunter, he speaks about drilling the mindset of dealing with adversity into Ward’s head. He would spar Ward – then younger than an adolescent — with the older and bigger Glenn Donaire (brother of the man who’s probably the best 115-pounder in the world, Nonito). Hunter would tell Ward to just focus on surviving and not worry about fighting back. Donaire was much more experienced than Ward, and Hunter’s thinking was, ”This is what Andre has to go through to become tough enough to fight.” After three or four weeks, Donaire’s father pulled him from the gym because Ward started to beat on him too much for his dad’s liking. Needless to say, Hunter’s strategy worked.

Freddie Roach is one of the most famous boxing trainers in the world today, and probably is one of the best of all time at his chosen profession. Roach is sought out by boxers throughout the world, and has also fine-tuned the standup of some notable mixed martial artists. Sheridan examines what made Roach the boxing trainer he is today, from his own boxing career, to his relationship with Eddie Futch, to what differentiates him from his star pupil, the pound-for-pound best boxer in the world Manny Pacquiao. One of the reasons Roach is so widely in demand is his attitude of letting a fighter be the person they are and not trying to fundamentally change them. This sentiment is noted a few times in the book, but the point is conveyed most effectively when Roach speaks about Michael Moorer, the former heavyweight champion of the world. Michael left Teddy Atlas — who is a Hall of Famer in his own right — to train under Roach, and the way Roach explains how he trained Moorer is very simple: “I let Michael be Michael.”

Fighters and trainers are not the only people Sheridan interviews in this book. His subjects range from Tai Chi world sparring champion and former chess champion Josh Waitzkin (who was the subject of the movie “Searching for Bobby Fisher”) to Dan Gable, who is recognized as the best American wrestler ever and is the only person in Olympic history who did not have a single point scored on him for the duration of the tournament. Sheridan also shares information from groups such as Army Special Ops units who conducted studies on the brain when it is placed in stressful situations. The length Sheridan goes to explore the mindset of a fighter  — whether a boxer or combat soldier — is quite amazing.

The last two chapters are a type of summary where Sheridan tries to relate the mindset of the fighter of today to other groups such as the samurai of medieval Japan. The samurai subscribed to the concept of “zen” so as to not over-think about fighting while in combat. He relates that to terms of today — for example, the phrase “being in the zone.” These last two chapters give you the feeling the author might have tried too hard to relate the teaching of Eugen Herrigel and various professors Sheridan has had throughout his life to today’s trainers and fighters.

This book is still a must-read for fight fans. It leaves you in envy of the punishment these men can absorb, but by the same token give you a sense of guilt for not trying hard enough in everyday endeavors. I would highly recommend it.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C., where he is a staff writer for CQ Roll Call.

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