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Monday, January 6, 2014

WRITING FIGHT CARD MMA: ROSIE THE RIPPER

WRITING FIGHT CARD MMA: ROSIE THE RIPPER

SAM HAWKEN

I’m a pretty visual person. When I was younger, I wanted to direct movies and only gave up that dream when I discovered making movies required large amounts of money, which I never had. Far, far cheaper to make paper movies out of words. And so it goes.

When Paul Bishop first announced the Fight Card MMA line, he posted a picture of a mock-up cover done by Fight Card artist Keith Birdsong. The cover was a dynamic image of a woman in mid-punch and the title was Rosie the Ripper. Seeing this got me thinking. It was that visual part of my brain going to work.

I’d been aware of the Fight Card series and read a few, but it wasn’t until I saw Rosie and those magic letters, MMA, pop up that I felt I could actually write one of these things. A long-dormant novel idea about a boxer in Baltimore never really seemed to get anywhere, but Rosie the Ripper kept asking for my attention as the weeks and months went by until finally her storyline came springing into my head, ready to be written.

Mixed martial arts hits some strange, buried sweet spot even boxing – a sport I’ve followed for decades – has never managed to touch. There’s something about the mixed part of mixed martial arts that really gets me interested, as there are so many technical elements that go into the execution of a successful fight. Boxing is intricate and far more complex than non-fans give it credit for, but MMA is a whole other level. Striking, clinching, grappling, submissions – it goes on and on. And for me, anyway, some of the most interesting MMA is happening with women fighters.

There have been female boxers for time out of mind, but MMA has integrated women into the sport in a much more organic way. Rosie the Ripper was my chance to translate some of that feminine energy into an action-packed fight story. But I’d go one better and place a layer of drama over the raw physicality. Drama geared specifically toward family, personal tribulations, and redemption.

The very best fight movie ever made is Rocky, and though Rocky Balboa was a gofer for a small-time loan shark, his story was never about crime. It was about heart. There was his relationship with Adrian and Mickey, and his struggle to actualize himself as a person. I didn’t think I could reach those Oscar-winning heights, but I could at least try to create a human portrait of a woman and her life in MMA.

Rosie Bratton is a fighter – a given in a Fight Card tale – but she comes to her fight the long way round. Divorced, with a young daughter she only sees on alternate weekends, Rosie’s first real battle is with the bottle. When her custody struggles with her successful ex-husband turn sour, she feels a renewed pull toward drink.

Her AA sponsor, Felix Treviño, recognizes the signs and know she needs something on which to focus her disparate energies. Once upon a time, in another life, Felix was an MMA contender, and he has turned his skill toward training others like his niece, Tina. For Felix, MMA is not only a path toward physical strength, but also toward mental toughness and stability.  He believes MMA training is what Rosie desperately needs.

I believe in fight training’s ability to form positive connections in a person’s life. I’m in my forties now and pretty much settled, but there was a time when I was not so old and not so settled, and for a time I took solace in learning to box. I was never any good, and I never progressed to the point where I was even safe to be in the ring sparring with another human being, but I did learn and I did feel better. In the intervening years, I’ve wished I’d stuck with it, because as a body slides into middle age the spirit is willing, as they say, but the flesh is weak.

From time to time, I’ll see an advertisement on the side of the road for some Brazilian jiu-jitsu place.  There is also a gym right down the road from me, which sponsors actual, honest-to-goodness professional MMA fighters. I sometimes consider these things and I wonder if maybe there’s enough gas left in the tank to roll with the young guys and learn a thing or two. Then I remember I get winded eating a particularly large salad and the thought is whisked away.

One thing a guy like me can do, however, is read and write about the sport. I’m heavily into it in a way I wasn’t just a few years ago – and I pay particular attention to WMMA. I spend a surprising amount of my time keeping up with developments in the mixed martial arts world, so I suppose it was inevitable I would write something like Rosie the Ripper, even if Paul Bishop hadn’t done me such a big favor by posting that cover so long ago.

I see fight fiction as a natural extension of fandom. There was time in the ‘30s and ‘40s when boxing was very much a mainstream sport. However, when men (and it was mostly men) weren’t watching boxing matches or reading The Ring, they were snapping up pulps written by authors like Robert E. Howard. Sports fiction of all sorts was big back then’  Along with boxing there were pulp magazines for baseball and football – and even basketball. No one thought it was odd to read such things.

Now, though, things are different. The pulps of yesteryear have all gone away. Football fans don’t read Football Action anymore and Baseball Stories doesn’t exist. There are still those who seek out these old entertainments on eBay or at estate sales, but by and large, the pastime of reading fiction about favorite sports has died. 

There is no good reason for this to be the case. I expect Paul Bishop and Mel Odom, who inaugurated the Fight Card brand, feel much the same way. Why not bring back the old days, but with a new twist?  Like fashion, everything old can be new again …

If I’m any example of this, you can use me to prove the point: people will read sports fiction if it’s made available. And, as combat sports like MMA grow in visibility and popularity, now is the perfect time to introduce enthusiasts to the pleasure of fight stories. There’s no one to tell anyone it’s wrong, bad or weird to extend their enjoyment of MMA or boxing into their reading lives. In this respect, Fight Card is doing both fighting sports and fiction a huge service.

I now get to be a part of it all – and Rosie does, too. Alongside the various bruisers and brawlers of the Fight Card family, this determined single mother has punched her way into her own story. And I get to do something I love: write about fun stuff. Sure, I know MMA can be vicious and bloody, but it’s also full of great yarns about heart, perseverance and triumph. And that’s just the real fighters! The situation goes into overdrive once the fictioneers get involved in the process.

That cover of Rosie the Ripper gave me the first inkling of an idea that maybe I could do this. Maybe I could write the sort of thing fight fans would enjoy. I’d made my bones with bleak, despairing crime fiction, but here was something altogether different. 

I could stretch myself in ways I hadn’t done before, could balance on a high wire strung between action and drama with no net underneath. I could write about hope and the unbreakable spirit of a fighter. Aren’t these the kinds of things that draws all of us to the cage or the ring? We want to see the punches and the kicks and the vicious submission holds, but we also want to know two people are giving their all to fight three rounds and come away victorious. Two real, flesh-and-blood people who have all their dreams tied up in the moment when the referee raises their hand.

So maybe I pulled it off. Maybe I didn’t. The point is, I gave it my best shot. I worked hard, I visualized the victory and, when the time came, I threw those punches just as hard and as fast as I could. I may not ever do so much as exchange pitter-pat strikes with another MMA student on the mats in some gym, but I feel like I stood beside a woman who did that and more. Rosie’s triumphs are my triumphs, her failures my own. I imagine pretty much any writer in the Fight Card stable would say the exact same thing about their protagonists. That’s the thing about fight fans: we put ourselves at the end of those punches.

And as it happens, I think Rosie the Ripper might also make a pretty good movie. I’m available to direct.

FIGHT CARD MMA: ROSIE THE RIPPER 

Baltimore, 2014 ... Rosie Bratton is a recovering alcoholic. Divorced, working a dead end job, and with a young daughter she only sees on alternate weekends, her life is going nowhere.  Her hopes hang on the outcome of a custody battle to regain primary custody of her daughter, and the vague possibility things might get better together.

When circumstances turn bleak, Rosie nearly retreats into the bottle, but her sponsor has a solution. Felix was once a mixed martial arts contender. Now, he’s turned his talent toward teaching his skills to others. If Rosie becomes his student, he hopes she can learn how to be a stronger, focused, better person.

Some people are born to fight – in the cage and out – and Rosie is one of them. When she’s given the moniker Rosie the Ripper, she becomes something more than she was before – and it may be enough to give her a fighting chance …


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