When author and former fighter Mark Tullius ends his career aspirations as a fighter, he is only beginning his journey through the MMA and professional fighting world. His curiosity about what makes fighter’s train and fight professionally sends him to 22 states and 95 gyms, seeking to interview as many fighters as he can about their backstories, their motivations, and their path to professional fighting.
Over the course of several years, Tullius interviews 320 different fighters, young and mature, male and female, amateur and professional. He learns that not every fighter comes to the mat for the same reasons. The interviews produce gripping glimpses of stories of loss and perseverance. From substance abuse recovery to finding a healthy outlet for anger, each fighter has a unique yet remarkably positive anecdote about their entrance to the fighting world. The book is rewarding in moments where a fighter shares something deeply personal, such as experiences being bullied, overcoming eating disorders, or finding solace from a life of crime in the gym.
While the stories Tullius gathers are compelling, they do offer only short, distant glimpses. A defining element of UNLOCKING THE CAGE is its brief treatment of each fighter’s story. Mark Tullius writes his best chapters when he slows down and allows the self-told stories of other fighters to occupy the page. The author’s descriptions of each gym visit are often quick-paced summaries that spend only a paragraph or two illustrating the conversations he holds with the 320 different fighters he interviews. Readers will find something closer to a sociological study than a personal memoir in this book. However, several stories are memorable and moving, such as one particular fighter in the book’s beginning who, after losing his young child, turned to fighting to cope with the loss. Well-known names like Julie Kedzie offer glimpses into self-struggles with body dysmorphia and struggle to find confidence and identity through fighting. Bullying is a thread connecting many fighters’ stories, and Tullius notes the high frequency of fighters motivated into the gym from haunting bullying experiences.
UNLOCKING THE CAGE offers a fast-paced, enjoyable ride through the surprisingly poignant and peaceful word of mixed martial arts and boxing gyms. Outside of the ring, many fighters expose a tender, calm, introspective side which Tullius captures well when he lingers in those conversations more and writes less about the logistics of traveling from gym to gym. Ultimately, the book succeeds at what it set out to accomplish: It finds the intrinsic and extrinsic motivations that move fighters to fight, humanizing the intriguing world of professional fighting.
~Megan Roth for IndieReader