Sunday, April 21, 2013




I grew up fascinated with the combat arts. It started with ninjas and professional wrestling (scripted or not, it’s an art). I had the full ninja getup, complete with tabi boots, and my best buddy Josh and I were very careful not to hit each other with the Dim Mak (Touch of Death). We also created a wrestling tag team called The Birds of Prey, with patented finishing moves The Talon and The Wingspan. If you happened to live nearby when we held our outdoor events, I apologize. 

Then Mike Tyson came along, and I fell in love with boxing. He was a new breed of warrior, a destroyer of the heavyweight division. I was even scared to fight him in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. I watched in awe during George Foreman’s second comeback in 1987, stomping forward with his cross arm defense and standing up between rounds when he thought he was slacking. It’s a shame the two never met in the ring, an issue which became quite common the more I got into boxing. 

Since speculation was all we had, we fight fans had to debate who would win the contest. This invariably spiraled into the absurd, ending with, “All right, who wins: Mike Tyson vs. Bruce Lee.” Absurd because Bruce Lee was deceased, but also because we’d never see a boxer fight a martial artist. 

Then in 1993 I watched the first Ultimate Fighting Championship, and everything changed. These men were fighting in a cage instead of a ring, there were no rounds, and the rules basically came down to No Firearms. Gerard Gordeau kicked Teila Tuli’s teeth through the fence and some skinny guy named Royce (but it’s Hoyce??) Gracie slithered around and made everybody tap out. Wait, what’s tapping out? 

Among Gracie’s victims that night was Art Jimmerson, a former professional boxer and National Golden Gloves Middleweight champion who made the interesting (in hindsight: alarming) choice to wear one boxing glove in the cage. He may be the only fighter I’ve seen submit to a position, simply because Gracie had the full mount with Jimmerson on his back and the boxer had no idea what to do. The debate was settled. 

This was when I started to practice the combat arts as well as observe. I was at student at Western Michigan University at the time and tried judo for a semester. I took Jeet Kune Do with a crazy man who loved to put everybody in motorcycle helmets so we could punch as hard as we liked. I poked around in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, then hooked up with my JKD instructor again a few years later. He had evolved his training into a hybrid of JKD and knife, stick and gun close-quarters combat. Those classes were interesting and eye-opening. 

During this time, the UFC and mixed-martial arts in general was struggling in the United States, mostly due to campaigns to have it banned for being “human cockfighting.” The sport was thriving in Japan’s Pride Fighting Championships, but I didn’t catch on to the Pride spectacle until around 2005. This was the same year the UFC debuted The Ultimate Fighter reality show, which provided much-needed MMA action. Contestants and paydays aside, the first season did a damn fine job of hyping the rematch between Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell and Randy “The Natural” Couture, a prime example of striker vs. grappler. The UFC was turning its fighters into heroes. They were also answering, in most cases, the “who would win” question. When two guys rose into the debate, they actually fought. 

This was also the time I had finished my first two books, the CRIME FILES series, and was looking for my next fiction project. I knew I wanted to write a noir crime thriller, something along the lines of The Big Sleep. But I was stuck trying to define my hero. I didn’t want a retired/disgraced cop, or a former fill-in-the-blank military type. I wanted a badass, but somebody without the polish of a professional career or schooling. Wait—what if his profession is being a badass? And there it was. My hero was going to be one of these warriors I loved to cheer for, these fighters who made a living by dishing out—and taking—massive amounts of punishment. 

And I had the name. “Aaron Wallace” had been in my back pocket for a protagonist’s name since the mid-90s, when I was taking fiction workshops at WMU. I even created an outside linebacker for my Madden ‘97 Pittsburgh Steeler team with the name, and he held the single-season sack record with 92, thank you very much. “Woodshed” kicked its way into the middle, and I loved the alliteration as well as the context of taking somebody out to one for a whuppin. Woodshed Wallace. Woody, for those of us who know him well. 

One thing I liked about Woody right away: while most thriller protagonists rely on weapons or need to psych themselves up with emotional or physical conflict to mix it up with the bad guys, Woody’s gut reaction is to clinch, headbutt, elbow, sweep, and ground & pound. He has to constantly resist his instinct to fight, rather than work up to it. When he finally gets to open the can, it’s glorious. 

The fighting is just one reason writing MMA heroes is so fun. These are our modern-day gladiators, and I enjoy exploring the codes of honor that set them apart. These fighters spend three to five rounds (sometimes just a few seconds) working to physically, mentally, and spiritually dominate each other, then they hug. Only they know what they’ve endured to get to there. The mutual respect is inspiring, and the desire to belong to this warrior tribe is powerful. 

This theme of honor, respect, and fighters being a different kind of animal runs through all three Woodshed novels (Suckerpunch, Hook and Shoot, and the forthcoming Anaconda Choke) and The Kalamazoo Kid, which features retired MMA fighter Ray Kurt and his very talented pupil Tallis Dunbar. The Kalamazoo Kid also digs into what it means to send another person into the cage to fight, and how only someone who’s made the same walk can even begin to understand what it takes.

Woody, Ray Kurt, and Tally are all very comfortable in situations which would ignite fight-or-flight in mere mortals. They don’t mind getting punched in the face and choked, because they know they will survive it. I did some MMA training as research while I wrote Suckerpunch and Hook and Shoot. I needed some experience with the subject matter, and part of me wanted to see if I happened to be a rough diamond phenom who would get plucked from the crowd and carried to the spotlight  The parallels with a writing career are here somewhere.

Guess what? MMA training sucks. It hurts, it’s hard, and it makes you sore for a long time. It can be frightening when you realize you’re up against someone who is there to put food on the table, when all you want is a good workout and some noteworthy material. But it’s also very fun, and the camaraderie and pride of shared suffering builds quickly. Those who do it on a regular basis have my deep respect. 

Bottom line, this quote from the elite Joe Rogan sums it up: “You can’t dabble in MMA.” You’re either inside the cage or you’re not. I am not, but I love spending time with Woody and his crew and the warriors from The Kalamazoo Kid. I hope you do too. 

And Bruce Lee would have won. 

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