It’s hard not to think of Hemingway when you’re reading Rollie Peterkin’s memoir of his years as a professional cage fighter in Peru. On the cusp of financial success, the author rejects life in the United States. There’s a lot of fighting and drinking, punctuated by oaths in Spanish. The sentences are declarative and short, like a punch to the head. Appropriately, our man, bloodied by love, ends up in Madrid.
To be sure, what we experience most in The Cage is the fighting part, which is described in such percussive detail that perhaps only fans of MMA– Mixed Martial Arts– can make it to page 100 without skimming through some of the brawls. For the uninitiated, MMA is a full-contact combat sport that borrows its tactics and strategies from wrestling, boxing, jiu-jitsu, something with the exotically lethal name Muay Thai, and other martial disciplines, but seems at at the end to descend into street fighting. A typical account of one of the author’s bouts goes like this:
When I passed to side control, I tried to punch his face but he smashed his bony elbow against the side of my head. I was on top, but I was taking more damage than he was, so I lifted my body up and started grinding my forearm into his face. I slammed my knee into his ribs with full force. The crowd started chanting “Peru! Peru! Peru!”
Keep in mind that there’s a referee in the cage during these contests, ensuring the fighters play by the rules.
Peterkin, a former champion wrestler for both Blair and the University of Pennsylvania, takes and dishes out this sort of abuse throughout the book, occasionally losing those who are not familiar with the combat arts in a flurry of technical fighting terms. “Submission experience” seems important, for example, but at the end of the book, I still had no idea what it meant. Surely the MMA cognoscenti will thrill to Peterkin’s accounts of spinning and sprawling and shinbone fencing, but for the rest of us, the eyes glaze over a bit, even when jackhammer fists rain down on some guy’s jawbone.
Which is too bad, because in between fighting scenes, Peterkin not only has some interesting things to say, but he can write pretty well. Of his emotional recovery following the devastating final match of his NCAA wrestling career, he writes: “Eventually, I chased the feelings of pain and resentment into a remote corner of my brain, and sealed them up, brick by brick, like a spiteful Poe character.” Late in the story, wandering bereft through Paris in the rain– there’s the ghost of Hemingway again– he puts a fine point on his wrenching loneliness:
I wished a mugger would creep out of the shadows and rob me. Or maybe even stab me. If I went to the hospital, someone would have to talk to me there.
Observations like this suggest that The Cage, like all good sports stories, is not about the game itself, but instead the man or woman who plays it. We come to care about the author, cheer his triumphs, quail through his most dangerous decisions, root for him as he pursues the girl, and release our breath at the beginning of the last chapter, when he reports to us from a cafe in Madrid. And at its end, we hope that this is not the last book by Peterkin; while his writing, though sound, has yet to resonate like Hemingway’s, he’s an adventurer for the 21st century, a good storyteller and we want to learn what happens next.
The Cage is available through Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Cage-Escaping-American-Dream/dp/1514294206
(Copyright 2016 James Moore)