"Total MMA" by Jonathan Snowden Book Review

Date: 02/26 4:30 PM
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Written by Stevie J

Jonathan Snowden will be our special guest on the AngryMarks Podcast tonight at 11 PM EST, 10 Central but before we talk to him you might like to know a little more about his book "Total MMA." It is by far the most definitive book on mixed martial arts I've ever read, and contained quite a few surprises to boot.

"Total MMA" is an oversized paperback with a slick cover of approximately 400 pages, including sections of full color photos showcasing legends of MMA and famous fights of the sport's history. HISTORY would be the most apt word to describe Snowden's book. For some of the modern fans of the sport, "history" begins with Forrest Griffin and Stephen Bonnar. While there's no denying that The Ultimate Fighter introduced the sport to a whole new audience, and their epic war in that season finale created a whole new legion of UFC fans, mixed martial arts has a history that dates back a minimum of 100 years in modern form. In fact it can be argued in fairness the sport dates all the way back to pankration, an Olympic sport that combined boxing and grappling back in 648 BC, but Snowden wisely chose to focus on the modern history of MMA. History records a few tales of a few epic pankration fighters, but it can hardly compare to the modern day myth of the fighting Gracies.

Snowden has in fact created a lot of very vocal critics, practicioners of both Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Grace jiu-jitsu, who take exception to the fact "Total MMA" challenges the history of the Gracie family. For "Total MMA" to be worth the price of admission though it has to be willing to establish an AUTHENTIC history of mixed martial arts though, and not simple tout the family story which has been used to market and promote their name. Despite upsetting so many people, the book actually takes a very fair and levelhanded approach to seperating Gracie myth from fact, acknowledging that much (but not ALL) of modern MMA owes a huge debt to the Gracies. The earliest days of the fighting Gracies started with Gastão Gracie and Japanese Judoka Mitsuyo Maeda in the early 20th century. There is a lot of confusion about what is "judo" and what is "jiu-jitsu" but history reveals "jujutsu" to be an ancient samurai art developed as unarmed combat against opponents with weapons. What Maeda learned in Japan was the judo developed by Jigoro Kano, a jujutsu student who had been small and frail in his youth. That turns out to be a recurrant element in the development of MMA, because Kano refined jujutsu into a "gentle art" wherein a smaller man could defeat a larger man with leverage. Fighters who charge straight forward like a bull with brute force can easily be thrown by a judoka who knows the right time and place to grab his opponent and redirect that momentum. Kano's students became teachers in their own right, and so on and so forth, until Maeda himself became a student of a judo master. When he moved to Brazil, Gastão Gracie became fascinated by Maeda's judo, and as a result of the friendship between the two men Maeda agreed to teach Gastão's son Carlos his martial art.

It is with Carlos that the legend (and myth) of the fighting Gracies began. Successive generations have embellished the Gracie family story to ridiculous lengths, but what's absolutely true is that Carlos has TWENTY-ONE CHILDREN and over half became expert martial artists in their own right. Their legacy in fighting progeny is deep, but the biggest legend of all may be Carlos' brother Helio, a sickly and frail boy (sounds familiar right) who had to learn his own variation of what the family was marketing as "Gracie jiu-jitsu." When he wasn't allowed to practice the arts, he learned through watching others, and when he was strong enough to fight he further refined the style Maeda had first introduced. Helio focused on fighting off your back, using what was ordinarily believed to be a position of weakness as a form of strength. An overconfident fighter would put his opponent on his back believing he could simply pound on him, while Helio had learned a wide variety of defensive postures (what we call guard) to control a man who was on top - and once that control is established it's a matter of transitioning to the most effective submission that presents itself. It's only a matter of time before an arm, a leg, a foot or a neck is exposed and vulnerable. Helio's techniques allowed him to submit much larger and stronger men. Helio learned as much in defeat as in victory, such as the now famous Kimura lock named after the man who defeated him with it, a staple in the repoitoire of any modern MMA fighter.

To this day there is still a lot of debate about which branch of the Gracie family produced the better fighters, but for modern MMA it was the sons of Helio who learned his refined form of Brazilian jiu-jitsu that went on to make UFC mainstream. Son Roiron Gracie was a founder and partner in Ultimate Fighting Championship, while son Royce became the icon of the sport as a small man who routinely submitted and defeated opponents twice his size. While telling the story of the Gracies, Snowden acknowledges all of these pioneering accomplishments and landmark achievments, while throwing out the boisterous and useless hyperbole that needs no place in their legitimate legacy. The idea that Helio "never lost a match" is easily debunked by the historical records, even though Gracie advocates like to claim "moral victories" in fights that ended in a draw or where Helio lasted far longer against an opponent than he was expected to. Other Gracie myths such as Helio's son Rickson having "one thousand fights" in his career are given short shrift. In the end Snowden is to be commended for acknowledging what modern fighting owes to the Gracies without letting braggadocious bluster and misinformation from the expansive family's hype machine cloud the air. Future generations of MMA fighters will owe the Gracie family a debt for their techniques, while historians and fans will owe Snowden an equal debt for daring to set the record straight.

That's not to say "Total MMA" is strictly a book about jiu-jitsu or Brazilian fighters. While the book's most valuable function for me was to chronicle the true stories of the Gracie family, there is plenty of attention paid to other pioneers of the sport such as Antonio Inoki, a man who firmly established the Japanese fascination with letting the strongest martial art prevail. His mixed fighting bout with Muhammad Ali is boring to watch by modern standards, but was a blockbuster news story and a huge ratings success in Japan in its own time. Both Inoki's successors and imitators duplicated his innovative ideas of promoting different fighting styles against each other, and Japan's history of martial arts innovation made the culture ripe for just such spectacles. "Spectacle" is a key word here, because like so many other things that Snowden debunks, the idea that all Japanese MMA fights were (or are) on the level is quickly thrown out. The term "worked shoot" in Japan applies to everything from pioneering fight promotion UWF-I to the recently dismantled PRIDE. Some of Japan's most popular fighters actually lose more fights than they win, such as Nobuhiko Takada, because culturally "fighting spirit" is considered as important as actual wins - another form of "moral victory" if you will. Regardless Japan developed many top fighters who would go on to compete all around the world and find fame in America as the UFC grew in popularity. Historians and fans alike often agree that Kazushi Sakuraba and Royce Gracie's epic 90 minute fight may be the single greatest MMA fight of the last 100 years, and Sakuraba is himself a student of Takada's. As always in fighting the students eventually become greater and more famous than the masters they once learned from.

Snowden covers all aspects of MMA's development with equal care, from the rise of vale tudo in Brazil and worked shoots in Japan to the refinement of a pankration style of fighting in the US as Olympic wrestlers sought other means of making a living when their Olympic dreams ended or faded away. The U.S. story is much better known and told than the other stories in this book but that doesn't make Snowden's coverage any less exhaustive or fascinating to read, particularly during UFC's "dark days" when they weren't on cable and were barely available via satellite. As with many of the pioneers of modern MMA, Snowden's research and writing are a testament to the ability of people to survive and adapt under difficult conditions, which UFC did by selling to the Fertitta family. The Fertitta family fortune didn't come without some degree of unscrupulous and underhanded tactics, which Snowden fearlessly chronicles despite the potential backlash such coverage could bring. Fortunately for MMA that same gutsy and ruthless profiteering in the casino industry proved equally valuable in promoting UFC, which was all but dead in the water in the late 1990's in the U.S. as top fighters were going to Japan and Brazil to make a living and only a few shows in the midwest continued to run unabated. They took a leap of faith in buying a struggling company and putting Dana White in charge of promoting it, believing it could be profitable, but Snowden debunks yet another myth that the Fertittas had faith all along in the product. Several times the Fertittas looked to sell off the struggling company they had bought, until finally several marquee fights (including the Couture v. Liddell trilogy) and the aforementioned Ultimate Fighter series turned UFC's fortunes around in a big way.

Snowden's history of fighting post-2003 in the book is equally of interest from a historical standpoint but is far less instructive to modern day UFC and MMA fans than is his coverage of the early roots of the sport. Still a "comprehensive" book of MMA couldn't be called comprehensive if it didn't also tell the story of men like Matt Hughes, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Rampage Jackson. "Total MMA" is nothing if not comprehensive but this is no dry and dusty tomes of historical fact. Snowden doesn't embellish the stories he tells in this book simply because they don't need to be - each of the pioneers is a larger than life figure whose life story could be a motion picture in its own right. By the end of "Total MMA" you not only have a deeper appreciation for how the sport got to where it is today but how the men who helped it get there beat overwhelming odds to make MMA a credible worldwide sport. If you're a wrestling fan who "doesn't get that MMA stuff" and wonders why sites like Wrestling Observer and AngryMarks cover it, you will after reading it. If you're already a fan of MMA but don't know all the facts about the sport, you will after reading it. It's undoubtedly true that Snowden could have written an even longer and more exhaustive book if he wanted to, but at 400 pages it also feels like Snowden told all of the most important stories of MMA's history and left very little out. I can't recommend this book more highly.

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