If you were to rank all known sports from most legitimate to least, you’d probably put mixed martial arts—also known as MMA, or ultimate fighting—somewhere between candlepin bowling and shooting stop signs with buckshot.
Part of this is because of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which turned MMA into a wildly profitable spectacle through pay-per-view televised “death matches” attended by what, on TV, looked like blood-thirsty meatheads. These origins helped stigmatize MMA from the get-go. Editorials censured it. States drafted laws against it. John McCain called it “human cockfighting” and called for a national ban. And the perception has stuck ever since. While boxing has star-power and glamour, and professional wrestling has, at least, a campy sense of humor, MMA’s identity has been cemented as a Mad Maxian pursuit where anonymous brutes pummel each other like rabid primates.
“There’s something about being a woman and being able to dress up in men’s clothing, so to speak.”
It was a sport in need of a sympathetic voice to humanize it, give it a bit of the Mickey Rourke treatment. It probably wasn’t expecting that voice, however, to come from a willowy young Asian woman. Yet Katie Kitamura, a Princeton-educated former ballerina, has produced a lean, taut little novel as authentic as any sport could hope to have represent it. The Long Shot, her debut effort, reads the way we imagine the best fighters to be: quiet, measured, self-assured, always thinking ahead. “I assumed people would be able to tell it’s written by a woman,” she says, “but apparently people are saying they can’t.”
Which isn’t really the point, but Kitamura points out that, if we must gender our literature, The Long Shot is a book for women as much as for men. The story of Riley and Cal, a devoted trainer and his tenacious young fighter, “is about the stakes between two people,” she says. “Women have responded to it quite strongly, I think because it’s kind of a relationship book.” Riley, a former fighter, sees in Cal shades of his former self, and watches his fights with googly I-love-you-man eyes.
But make no mistake: Kitamura didn’t write the The Long Shot because she wanted to do chick-lit for guys. “I was introduced to fighting by my brother—he’s a tattooer, a tough guy,” she says, “and I completely fell in love with it. I was watching fights on YouTube all the time. I would go to parties to watch UFC fights.” The knuckles on the book cover, in fact, belong to her brother, and the tattoos are real. “He was like, ‘Why don’t I just get the title on my knuckles, because I haven’t had my knuckles done yet?’” If she writes another book, she says she’ll pick a title with ten letters so he can put it on his toes.
Kitamura, a featherweight at most, might seem a awkward messenger for the material. But she thinks “there’s something about being a woman and being able to dress up in men’s clothing, so to speak. Being a spectator is much more straightforward...Getting into the heads of these guys,” she says, “it’s much easier to talk about expectation, about failure, about disappointment”—themes familiar to anyone with a competitive streak, which Kitamura clearly has.
Because even though she’s no martial arts expert (okay, as a child, she punched a girl who “was being really boring and talking on and on, and I had some hysterical madness and I clocked her”), Kitamura is clearly a competitor. She holds a PhD in English and worked her way through the cut-throat art world. And her classical ballet background, of all things, gave her first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to endure brutal training regimens, physical injury and pain, fanatical coaches, and success or failure in front of a large audience. Her practice schedule spanned “five hours a day,” routines that were “very extreme on the body. It ages you—the wear and tear.” And she says that, like Cal gets his strength from Riley, “that relationship between trainer and fighter, between teacher and student, a lot of my physical discipline also came from that.”
Also, the familiarity with body contact. We’re a culture that hates touching; a handshake is the most skin-to-skin time we usually share with a stranger. But in ballet, “you’re getting manhandled all the time,” says Kitamura. “You get used to the fact of a stranger grabbing your body. Also, I was really preoccupied with the rhythms of fighting, where people are feinting and dancing around.”
The Long Shot is the type of book you can’t fake -- there’s too much lingo, too many scenes and vignettes that are more sensibility than actual description, and Kitamura's novel reeks of authenticity. She had been to MMA fights all over the world, so she knew that in most places, it’s not beer-soaked crowds chanting “USA! USA!” with mindless abandon. Cal’s fights, which take place in Tijuana, more closely resemble the ones Kitamura used to attend in Japan, where her family is from. In Japan, “it’s like basketball...50,000 people. It’s families, it’s women and children. They don’t really shout or chant—they kind of clap when something good happens. The sport is the same but the context is really different. When I first saw the sport in America I was really kind of shocked.”
For research, “I spent a lot of time with fighters,” she says. “I went to dinner with fighters the night before the fight, or hung out with them in the gym, and their banter would just kind of happen. So I picked up a lot of the lingo from sitting and listening to them. I love the way they speak.”
The way they speak is the same way they fight: a chopped, guard-up dialect with all the economy of a two-minute bout. The Long Shot, a clipped, four-day read, feels much the same way. It’s quick and confined, and you don't really care about epilogue or backstory. Kitamura has cleverly realized that, in a novel such as hers, this finiteness not only concentrates the story, but lends it a fierce sense of elegance. “In a fight, you don’t need much context for drama,” she says. “You watch a fight and that’s it.”
Will Doig is the Features Editor at The Daily Beast. He has written for New York, The Advocate, Out, Black Book and Highlights for Children.