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Author Sam Sheridan Goes Inside The Minds of Fighters

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The world of boxing has for years drawn in literary giants from Ernest Hemingway to Norman Mailer to Joyce Carol Oates. Though mixed martial arts treads on similar ground as the so-called "Sweet Science," it has yet to capture the imaginations of the cognoscenti, who seem to view it as some type of combination of bar fight and circus.

Progress, however, can be seen, at least in the insightful words of Sam Sheridan, a Harvard-educated author who continues his examination of the fight game in the recently released "The Fighter's Mind: Inside the Mental Game."

Though the book is not solely devoted to MMA, Sheridan delves further into the sport than most surface examinations would dare, examining the undervalued role of the mind in a sport that appears almost entirely physical. Indeed, his book serves a valuable function to MMA in an assertion that some critics may find shocking: yes, fighters actually employ brain power.

The result is a worthy companion piece to his first offering, "A Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of Fighting," which was a surprise hit in 2008.

"This is almost like a gift back to the fighters and to my friends that helped me with the first book," said Sheridan. "After doing the first book, I had a bit of access, cachet and a name, and I could get these guys, these famous fighters, to talk about the mental game. After a while you could really see that the guys who are good spend time on it. It was an interesting subject that was staring me in the face."

The result should help open more educated dialogue about the sport. Because what Sheridan found was that while fighters often spout the same tired cliches in pre-fight and post-fight interviews, get them in a non-competitive setting and they have plenty to share about the cerebral approach to fighting.

"The successful fighters and athletes we see that getting interviewed at a game or fight, and they say, 'Oh, I just go out there and do my thing.' Everyone thinks they're an idiot, but basically if they were to get more complicated than that they would not perform well," he said. "One of the chapters I get into the intersection between the zone, the psychological states of the zone, peak performance and how it relates to zen meditation. What's interesting is those mental states preclude a lot of self-analysis. If you're thinking too much, you can't get into those places."

To get a well-rounded look, Sheridan does not simply investigate fighters like Randy Couture and Renzo Gracie; he also examines the sport with trainers (including Greg Jackson), martial artists (Marcelo Garcia) and others with more remote connections to the combat sports world, including Josh Waitzkin, a former chess prodigy whose early life was chronicled in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." Waitzkin is also a tai chi champion and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt under the world champion Marcelo Garcia.

One of Sheridan's intentions with Waitzkin was to explore the popular conception of jiu-jitsu as "human chess."

"It's superficially very similar in the sense that you try to set traps and think a move or two ahead," he said. "But it's also pretty different. With chess, it's more conscious and more disciplined. With jiu-jitsu you have to spend more time on the mat because it needs to be reflexive."

Most of the thinking and self-analysis that the athletes do comes well before the fight. And during his research, Sheridan came to believe that for most, the interest in the mental side of fighting was born during times of struggle rather than success.

"Successful fighters have a similar track," he said. "Usually the bigger, better, faster fighters for five or six fights blow through regular guys. They don't start to appreicate the mental side of things until they run into the first guy who gives them a struggle. Everybody you've ever punched has been KO'd, and then in the seventh fight, you punch him and he's still coming at you. Can you figure out other ways to beat this guy?"

Still, Sheridan believes the use of the mind as a fighting tool is one of the sport's most underdeveloped aspects. There is so much to learn in the sport's different combat arts that perhaps some fighters are overwhelmed by it. Others like, UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, address it head on, seeking out peak performance coaches to retool their mental approaches to the game.

Inversely, an unthoughtful approach can sink you.

Boxing legend James Toney, for instance, recently signed with the UFC to try his hand at MMA. While Toney is one of the best boxers of his era, a truly cerebral analysis of the situation might preclude him from competing; somewhere in the back of Toney's mind he must know that he will struggle with and possibly be embarrassed by the sport's wrestling and grappling wizards.

"In talking to these boxers, I think they understand that if they get taken down they're in a lot of trouble," Sheridan said. "I think they get that, but I don't think they respect how hard it is to avoid being taken down. They think they have footwork and hand speed, and that's enough. They ask, 'How do these guys in MMA get KO'd by big, looping punches.' They can't understand it's a different game. It's a brain shift."

"It depends on who he's matched with," Sheridan continued. "[Noted boxing trainer] Freddie Roach once said many guys are made into great fighters, but James Toney was born to be a fighter. He'll beat Kimbo Slice if he's matched with Kimbo, but Cain Velasquez would tear him a new a******."

And those setbacks are often the impetus for the most painful decision for a fighter: the one to walk away and retire. It is a decision considered somewhere in all of Sheridan's explorations, one debated in the mind and fought by the heart.

"A lot of these guys, their issue is they're damaged men," he said. "They come from self issues, self-loathing, but on that one night, you're loved. It's your day. When you're in a big fight, you're the most important guy in the world. You feel bigger than a movie star. You're 'it.' [Boxer] Andre Ward's trainer Virgil Hunter would say, 'In the next 1,000 days, one of those days is your day and no one can take it from you. It's hard to walk away from that feeling of euphoria."

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