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
, novelist Ryan
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

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
, 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

“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

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

“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
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

“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