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'Tapped Out' Author Talks Transformation From Pudgy Writer to Formidable Fighter

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The first time I met Matthew Polly he was very, very drunk. I'm sure I'm not the only person who can say this. This was in a hotel restaurant before an IFL event at the Sears Centre in 2007, and I just wanted to eat a chicken caesar salad in peace. Polly, however, wanted to talk MMA, which he insisted he was writing a book on (sure you are, pal, I thought), and he wouldn't take polite silence for an answer.

Needless to say, I don't remember that first meeting fondly. I doubt Polly remembers it at all.

It wasn't until months later that I learned Polly was actually the author of a somewhat famous memoir, American Shaolin, about the two years he spent living with the Shaolin monks in China and learning their brand of kung fu. It's a wonderful, hilarious book, and it was hard for me to believe that the dude who slurred at me in a Marriott outside of Chicago had written it. It was even harder for me to believe that he could write a book about MMA that I'd actually enjoy reading, and yet, with his new book -- Tapped Out -- he has done just that.

Polly eventually sobered up enough to spend about two years training in the various disciplines that make up MMA, and he even entered into and -- spoiler alert -- won an amateur MMA bout in Las Vegas. From Renzo Gracie's jiu-jitsu academy in Manhattan to the Xtreme Couture gym in Vegas, Polly learned from some of the best in MMA and chronicled his experiences in this funny and insightful new book.

In between throwing up on the subway following training sessions and getting yelled at by Xtreme Couture coaches for his terrible diet, Polly actually learned a great deal about this sport and its denizens, and the book is a must-read for any MMA fan (read an excerpt here, then just buy the damn thing here). Recently, I sat down to talk to Polly about the book, his experiences, and the addictive nature of winning even a low-level MMA bout.

Fowlkes: I've heard a lot of people say that a book about MMA is a tough sell because MMA fans don't buy books, and the general book-buying public doesn't know or care about MMA. What do you say to that?

Polly: In my mind, I wanted to write a book that guys who love mixed martial arts would actually enjoy, but also one they could give to their girlfriend who doesn't get it -- or even their mother -- to explain why they love it. So one of the difficulties was trying to write a book that was for the martial arts audience, but also for the mainstream. I wanted to write a book that appealed to the insiders and the outsiders, and that was an issue of tone.

And I guess you feel like you managed to bridge that gap here?

Well, it's the same division, and that's one of the interesting things about mixed martial arts. I'll get an interview with, you know, Bulldog in the Morning, and he turns out to be a secret MMA fan. He knows everything, and when I'm talking to him he runs through all this information and I'm like, you know more about this than I do. Then, when I spent the afternoon with Slate, there's this woman who basically says, 'I wouldn't have read this except I was required to, but I still found it enjoyable.' That's really what I hope to do with the book, but it's really very difficult.

In the book, you present yourself as this guy who would really rather just write about MMA and is initially resistant to the idea of actually doing it yourself. But I read American Shaolin. You're the same guy who trained with the monks and challenged some kung fu expert to a fight in a restaurant, so what gives?

Part of that's a conceit of the book. A certain aspect of it was me wanting to set up an unwilling hero going forth and doing something that he didn't want to do, but a part of me was also genuinely terrified, because I knew how hard it would be to get back into the kind of shape it would take to get into the ring. I knew I would have to change my behavior and my attitude to get in there and fight, and I was genuinely terrified of that.

On the other hand, I was sort of excited because this was an excuse to take one last shot at glory. I don't think there's anyone who's ever fought, as I did before, who doesn't want one last chance to do it again. As we see with Wanderlei Silva or Cro Cop, when they come to the end of their careers, they still want one last one. I think there was something in me that wanted that as well.

The guy you fought, did he realize you'd be writing about him in this book that has now been written up in The New York Times?

He did, actually. We talked before. He knew I had written a book already and he knew I was writing a book about this experience. I think, to that degree, I had some sympathy for him, because he would end up being a character in my book. I do know what that's like, having written about myself, but he's not the author of it, so I did have some sympathy for him there.

Did you ever consider the advantage you had over him? I mean, you're getting jiu-jitsu lessons from John Danaher, Muay Thai from Phil Nurse, and basically living at Xtreme Couture for a year. Meanwhile, it sounded like he was just a regular guy training at the Air Force base.

Yes, I think it's, in many ways, absolutely unfair. But you don't get to choose your opponent. I had the world's best trainers because that's what I was paid to do. I was there to go out and find the world's best trainers to find out if a middle-aged guy could actually get good enough to get in the ring and fight. And he, of course, didn't have that. There's definitely an imbalance there, and the question of who the underdog was in the fight is certainly up for debate. He was younger and more vigorous, and I had better training and a certain sort of background that allowed me to, in the end, win. But the one thing I would say is, he came within a fraction of an inch of knocking me out twice. It wasn't some putz I was fighting. Literally, if the right hand had been turned just a little bit more, I'd have been done. He put on a good match, but in the end I was just slightly better and slightly better trained.

Do you still train at Renzo Gracie's?

I'm living in New Haven now, but I do [still train]. There's a little MMA gym that I go to, and I kick the bags and do jiu-jitsu, but one thing I promised my wife is that I will not get hit in the head anymore. I do only have so many brain cells left, and I spent a few on this book project.

I know that you, as I do, like a drink from time to time. Did this require you to make a lot of changes to your lifestyle, aside from when you thought it would be a good idea to drink an orange soda on the day of your fight?

[Xtreme Couture] striking coach Joey Varner still talks about that one. He couldn't believe that I would drink an orange soda [on the day of the fight]. But in general, I would say that I got better, but I still wasn't perfect. I ate better, I drank less, I was healthier and clearly worked out much crazier than I ever had before. I went from about 250 pounds when I started the project to fight at 185, so it was a dramatic change in my physical being. I was, you know, taking heart pills before. Over the course of doing this, I met tons of guys who would say, 'I was a football player, then I ballooned up to 300 pounds when I stopped playing. Then I started doing MMA and I slimmed down to 215.' So I think, actually, the MMA diet book might be the best book you could put on the market.

I remember reading a newspaper article in Las Vegas about your fight, where the reporter was a little ungenerous in his description of you...

Pudgy, right? He called me 'pudgy' like three times, and I remember you wrote asking, 'Why does he have to keep calling you pudgy?'

Right. But now that you're putting this book out, and the video of your fight is on the internet, I mean, do you worry about how it's going to feel to be on the other side of the critical lens, so to speak?

I actually don't worry about that, because the point wasn't to turn out to be this great fighter. I mean, there were little moments when I imagined it in the dark closets of my heart, but I knew that my only realistic hope was that I might win one amateur fight. That was my biggest goal, so I wasn't terrified of people saying, 'Well, he's a little overweight.' That's kind of the point. I was a very overweight person who became a less overweight person doing this. But you do know, when you put yourself out there, especially in the MMA community, there's going to be people on the comment boards who will take a swipe at you. Some of them are actually very funny, and then there's a few that sting a little bit. But overall, it doesn't bother me.

After you did the fight and you won, did you ever think, well maybe I'll do another one?

You know, the thing that terrified me the most was that I would lose, because then I would totally want to fight again. I had put myself and also my wife and my family through so much to try and get through this whole book process, that I was scared I might feel like I had to do it again if I didn't get a win.

That said, the high of winning an MMA fight is unlike the high of winning anything else I've ever done. It's better than any drug. When you're done, I literally felt like I was walking on air. You're walking around and women think you're cute and you're just the man. It's this primal thing, and it's so different from winning a football or basketball game, both of which I've done, and they don't feel the same way at all. I could see the addictiveness of it, and I also know why fighters feel there's one more in them. You'll never feel that way again. You'll never be the center of attention like that once you're done. Fortunately for me, since it was part of this project, I remember just how horrible the training was, and I'm not tempted to do it again. And the thing with MMA is, every day it's getting better, so if you win one you should just tuck that in your pocket and go away. Because the next day, there's the next Jon Jones.

Do you think the things you experienced and felt doing this taught you what fighters felt? Because they seem to be wired differently, in many ways, and what a normal person might go through is not necessarily what they go through.

In the book, one of the things I tried to be was humble. I wasn't going through what the fighter goes through, because he's planning a career out of this and I'm just planning a book project. But in the book, there was that one moment where I was getting ready to go out for the fight and the [Nevada State Athletic Commission] official called my name and I stood up and said 'That's me,' and he looked at me and said 'No [expletive] way. No way you're fighting.' And he burst out laughing, and Mike Pyle, who is a tough dude and is nobody's sympathetic character, but he stood up and said, 'Hey, that's a great way to build up our teammate.' And when he used that word 'teammate,' he said it with emphasis. Like, tonight, this guy is fighting for Xtreme Couture, and even though he's not a pro fighter, not one of us, he's actually getting in the ring and he's going to do it.

To me, one of the things I found most wonderful about MMA fighters is, if you're willing to get in there and do it, you pass a kind of fundamental test. Before, they regarded me as this journalist who was kind of annoying to them and who they'd rather avoid. But when I was going to get in the ring it was different. Like, oh, you've got that kind of balls? You're going to actually do it? Okay, you're a part of the tribe.

My last question is, how many times would you say you threw up in the subway after a training session at Renzo's?

[Laughs] That's my last question? Man, there must have been about five to ten times. I can't even count them. At least half a dozen, without question. After Renzo's I'd usually be okay, but coming back from Phil [Nurse] at The Wat, that was the brutal one, because Phil is very cardio-oriented. Then, literally I would just puke my guts out.

When you were puking on the subway did you ever think, man, how many times have I seen somebody doing something gross on the subway and judged them without considering the possibility that they might have a good reason?

Well, many of the times I was dressed in just sweatpants and a shirt, with my head sweaty, and I'm vomiting and I thought, these people must think I'm homeless. Then I realized, I'm a writer; I'm about a half a step away from homeless.

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