Thursday, December 4, 2008

Review: Total MMA by Jonathan Snowden

Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting is, without question, the definitive history of mixed martial arts. Author Jonathan Snowden charts the two distinct historical paths that lead us to modern MMA, the first from Brazil, the second from Japan.

He traces Mitsuyo Maeda's travels around the globe spreading the techniques and training methods of Jigoro Kano's Kodokan Judo -- but not necessarily it's spirit. Maeda fought professionally, and fought all comers, in both legitimate contests of skill and "worked" performances more akin to professional wrestling than genuine athletic competition. This is the man who quite briefly taught Carlos Gracie the rudiments of his fighting system, basic techniques and principles that the Gracie family ingeniously developed into their own distinct style of grappling. Certain members of the Gracie family (by no means all) have been notoriously inconsistent, incredible, historically inaccurate and downright dishonest in their accounts of Maeda and the origins of their art, trying to make their already impressive history all the more spectacular. This is one respect in which Total MMA shines: it does its part to set this record straight. Snowden gives the Gracie family all due credit -- and indeed much credit is due -- for their tremendous innovations, but he also calls a spade a spade, revealing many aspects of "The Gracie Myth" to be exactly that.

Even better than Snowden's account of how Maeda brought submission grappling to the Gracies, who then helped popularize it in America through the creation of the UFC, is Snowden's history of the independent and simultaneous rise of something akin to MMA in Japan. This is perhaps where the book is strongest. From the Inoki/Ali debacle, to the rise of Akira Maeda and the UWF, to the eventual experiment of the early days of Pancrase, which blended pro wrestling rules and real competition, Snowden provides the most thorough account of the emergence of Japanese MMA out of the strange world of Japanese professional wrestling that is available in print.

Total MMA is not only a study of origins, however. It's an impressively thorough account and assessment of virtually every fight, fighter, promotion, and event of any real significance to the ongoing history of mixed martial arts, from the early tournament wins of Royce Gracie, to the dark days of the UFC's largely untelevised middle years, to the modern boom of the Spike TV era. And there is considerable attention paid throughout the book to the Japanese incarnation of the sport, which attained a cultural presence far in excess of what we see even today in North American MMA. Snowden gives us the early days of Pancrase, where Ken and later Frank Shamrock competed against and alongside the young stars of Japanese pro wrestling; the early years of Pride FC, where wrestling legend Nobuhiko Takada faced the great Rickson Gracie; to Kazushi Sakuraba's emergence as "The Gracie Hunter." We're taken through the heady days of Japan's MMA peak, where fighters like Bob Sapp, "Kid" Yammamoto, and Hidehiko Yoshida drew television crowds in the many millions, and through Pride's downfall to a backroom Yakuza scandal.

Total MMA lives up to its title. It's simply all here, from a Kodokan expert far from home teaching a young Brazilian the basics of grappling eighty years ago through the build-up of Brock Lesnar's UFC title bout with Randy Couture only a few short weeks ago. Snowden's prose is never less than clear, and at times excellent, with an uncommonly fine feel of flow from one section to the next. His meticulously researched text documents every one of its many sources, which number in the hundreds. That inspires confidence: Snowden isn't "spinning"; he isn't telling half-truths here. He's got nothing to hide; he's inviting you the reader to test his facts and arguments against the source materials he's drawn upon.

In short, Snowden's mixed martial arts history is the standard against which any and all future such works will be measured. The bar has been set high.

Total MMA at

No comments: