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in: Health & Sports, Martial Arts, Podcast

February 20, 2019 Last updated: November 30, 2019

Podcast #484: A Man’s Search for Meaning Inside the Ring

If you’ve never been in a fight before, have you ever wondered how you’d respond to getting punched in the face?

My guest today found the experience pretty delightful. Which is all the more surprising given that he’d lived more than three decades of his life as a self-described pacifist, who abhorred violence, thought fighting was barbaric, and feared he was a coward. His name is Josh Rosenblatt, and he’s the author of Why We Fight: One Man’s Search For Meaning Inside the Ring, which describes his decision to enter an actual MMA fight at the age of 40.

Today on the show, Josh talks about why after a lifetime of being a hedonistic, non-physically oriented, intellectual type of guy who thought mixed martial art fighting was dumb, he decided to climb into the cage as a MMA fighter himself. Josh describes how he first got interested in MMA fighting in his early 30s, started studying Muay Thai, Krav Maga, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and boxing, and discovered the joys of getting in touch with his long submerged aggression. We then discuss what it was like to train for an actual MMA fight as an older guy, how fighting has influenced his writing, and what getting into the cage taught him about sacrifice, asceticism, transcendence, and the potential for human transformation.

Show Highlights

  • What Josh was like before he decided to start punching people 
  • How Josh ended up being drawn to MMA fighting 
  • What Josh discovered about himself when he started getting into Krav Maga
  • Turning from Krav Maga as self-defense to sport fighting in MMA
  • What is like getting punched in the face the first time
  • The storied history of writers who also fight, and why writing is like fighting 
  • Being an older guy in the ring 
  • The asceticism of fighting 
  • What it’s like to optimize your body and mind for fighting, and how it ironically makes you more fragile 
  • How Josh dealt with an injury while training for his fight, and the mental toll it took
  • What Josh’s wife felt about his fighting 
  • Were there life lessons or bigger meanings that Josh found in fighting?
  • The value of training even if there’s no fight to train for 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Connect With Josh

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Josh on Twitter

Josh on Instagram

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Recorded on ClearCast.io

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. If you’ve never been in a fight before, have you ever wondered how you’d respond to getting punched in the face? Well, my guest today found the experience pretty delightful, which is all the more surprising, given that he’d lived more than three decades of his life as a self-described pacifist who abhorred violence, thought fighting was barbaric, and feared he was a coward. His name is Josh Rosenblatt, and he’s the author or Why We Fight, One Man’s Search for Meaning Within the Ring, which describes his decision to enter an actual MMA fight at the age of 40.

Today on the show Josh talks about why after a lifetime of being a hedonistic, non-physically oriented, intellectual type of guy who thought mixed martial arts fighting was dumb, he decided to climb into the cage as an MMA fighter himself. Josh describes how he got interested in MMA fighting in his early 30s, started studying Muay Thai, Krav Maga, Brazilian Jujutsu, and boxing, and discovered the joys of getting in touch with his long submerged aggression. We then discussed what it was like for him to train for an actual MMA fight as an older guy, how fighting has influenced his writing, and what getting in the cage taught him about sacrifice, asceticism, transcendence, and the potential for human transformation. After the show’s over check out our show notes at AOM.is/ Why We Fight? Josh joins me now via ClearCast.io.

All right. Josh Rosenblatt, welcome to the show.

Josh Rosenblatt: Thank you so much for having me.

Brett McKay: You’ve just got a new book out, Why We Fight, One Man’s Search for Meaning Inside the Ring. You decided to become an MMA fighter, start training for MMA, and actually did a fight, but let’s talk about life before you decided to do that. What were you like before you decided to start punching people in the face and getting punched in the face?

Josh Rosenblatt: I was pretty much the exact opposite of that. I was a writer, and a drinker, and a smoker, and a sensualist. I was a lazy, no exercise, none of that in my life. I was very much a pacifist, probably a coward, or at least I was concerned about being a coward. Really, to be totally honest with you, I didn’t like the idea of fighting. I didn’t like watching fighting on TV and had not really been a fan of MMA before I suddenly became a fan of MMA. So, really I existed on the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

Brett McKay: You talked a lot in the book about the role your feather played in that sort of worldview you had. Right?

Josh Rosenblatt: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, my father was a sweet guy and the smartest guy in the room, but he was a very cerebral guy. He was a man of books, and a man of learning, and an intellectual. It wasn’t really in his nature or in the way that he brought me up to sort of deal with the sort of physical realities and that sort of classic father/son notion of I’m gonna take you outside, and teach you how to make a fist, and teach you how to fight. It wasn’t him. It’s great. It says a lot about his character. He wasn’t a violent guy. He didn’t enjoy violence. He didn’t think about violence in that way. It was a consequence I think I sort of came up always with the thought in the back of my mind, you know, I wanted to know how to fight, or I wanted to know, at the very least, what I would do in a fight. It was always sort of lingering there. It was sort of a question that was always around.

Brett McKay: Yeah. You also recount like moments in your life growing up where you got bullied or some guy did something, and you just sort of slinked away, and you felt kind of … I think everyone’s had that. Every guy’s had that experience, where you’re like, “I should have done something. I should have stood up for myself.

Josh Rosenblatt: Absolutely. With that sort of moment in the book where I sort of list off over the course of 15 years seven occasions where that happened, I wouldn’t say I was bullied consistently by any means, but as you say, everyone’s got those moments where you sort of look back and you go, “You know, if I had just stood up to that person, I would be able to live with it a lot better.” You sort of slink away. You walk away. You turn your back. You leave a situation that you were enjoying in, and it just kind of eats at your soul just a little bit, nothing dramatic, but those things add up. Eventually, it’s sort of reached a point, for me anywhere, where I sort of said, ” I don’t wanna do that thing anymore. I don’t wanna do the walking away if I don’t have to walk away.”

Brett McKay: Was there a specific moment where you went from I’m a philosophical, cerebral writer pacifist to I wanna start punching people in the face?

Josh Rosenblatt: I think it had been growing. I had been sort of watching MMA and getting into watching the sport and learning, starting to appreciate its value as a sport, rather than just sort of an act of barbarism, but even at that point I still was not doing anything about it. Then I was at a party in Austin, where I was living, and I was thinking about MMA or talking about it with someone and boring them, because no one I knew enjoyed the sport at all at that time.

I ran into someone I knew sort of in passing, who I knew as a filmmaker, an ironist, and sort of one of us, whatever. He overheard me. We started talking about fighting, and it turns out that he was an instructor at a Krav Maga studio in town, which I had no idea about. He said, “You should come down and check it out.” I was sitting there. I’m holding a cigarette. I’m holding a glass of whiskey in my hand, and I’m thinking, “Yeah. I think I have to.” It felt like not sort of like a revelatory moment. The clouds didn’t part. It was more sort of like he said it, and I said, “What else do I have to do?” So, that was the moment.

Brett McKay: Well, you talked about you started getting an appreciation for MMA. What led to that?

Josh Rosenblatt: Again, I was sort of writing and reading about films, and politics, and on that end of the spectrum. I read an article in ESPN, the magazine, about Kimbo Slice. I don’t know if you remember Kimbo Slice, but he had sort of a quick moment in the sun there as a YouTube phenomenon for … He fought in backyard MMA fights, or at least in backyard bare knuckle fights. He was all over YouTube, and he started to get some mainstream attention. I’m reading this article, and, again, I was totally repulsed by it. I didn’t want anything to do with it, but the article was well written, and I was sort of fascinated. His picture on the cover was just … I mean, he just looked like the portrait in my head of what a fighter was.

They’re describing him, and they’re describing his fights and his knockouts. I’m thinking, “This guy is the most terrifying man who ever lived.” Halfway through the article they interviewed a couple of actual professional MMA, UFC fighters. To a man they all said Kimbo Slice would get knocked out in 10 seconds in an actual fight. I didn’t understand that. It just didn’t make any sense to me. I think my knowledge of fighting, it was entirely cinematic. You know, this guy looked terrifying. He sounded terrifying. In the movies it’s always the guy who looks and sounds terrifying who wins the fight. When they said that, when they said that he didn’t have any of the skills, and I said to myself, “Well, something’s going on that I need to check out.” I sort of put my disgust to the side and started watching some videos, just to see what they were talking about. It was kind of strange how quickly I became completely fascinated. Within a matter of weeks it was sort of all I wanted to be watching.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I imagine you saw that it was pretty cerebral.

Josh Rosenblatt: Yeah. For the first time I realized that I saw it as a sport. When MMA started, and I remember seeing it would be played on bars that I would go to, it wasn’t cerebral. It wasn’t a sport. It was really brutish and really barbaric, and they sort of played that up. Over time, it developed into this sport, and I didn’t realize that it had. I’m watching these guys fight, and some of the first guys that I fell in love with watching, it wasn’t simply a matter of skill, though it was that too. There was skill, and athleticism, and all the Jujutsu stuff that you sort of watch, and you go, “Why are they ending the fight? I don’t see what’s happening at all.” That sort of sparked my curiosity. Even more than that, it was temperament of some of these guys.

Again, they ran sort of against everything I knew about and hated about fighting, which was tattoo covered bros screaming, and shouting, and being awful to each other. A lot of these guys, they were quiet. They seemed relatively gentle outside the context of beating the hell out of each other. What really got me I think in the end was they always hugged after a fight. Every time there was a fight these guys would hug afterwards. I thought to myself, “Something’s going on here that I don’t get,” and that was it. A love affair began.

Brett McKay: All right. So, you started getting an appreciation for MMA. You have that moment where you started training Krav Maga. When you started training Krav Maga, did you discover something about yourself, like that you had a blood lust or like a violence lust?

Josh Rosenblatt: I did. Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah. The great thing about Krav Maga is that it really introduced me to my aggression or allowed me to meet my aggression. I, again, was 33 at the time. I had never really given voice to that. I think I thought it was, I don’t know, somehow unsophisticated or it was a world I didn’t wanna be a part of. But the very first class I went to, I remember just we were learning how to knee someone in the stomach, and I’m just going crazy on these bags, and I’m sweating, and I’m yelling. The music is loud, and I’m passing out, because I had quit smoking three days earlier.

I mean, in some ways it was awful, but it was just this great, visceral animal thrill to be tapping into this part of myself that I had never tapped into before. I’m sure it was always there, but I know that I had never touched it before. I just loved it. I mean, it was so 180 degrees on the other side of anything I had done before, and at that point in my life it was clear I need that. There had been on script up to that point. Here was this whole other thing, and it seemed like there was a gigantic world out there, and it started with me giving voice to this awful, terrible, wonderful thing inside of me.

Brett McKay: Also, you know, Krav Maga, we’ve had experts in Krav Maga on the podcast before, and a lot of people know it started with the Israeli Defensive Force. You talk about it in the book. Doing Krav Maga, it gave you a different look at your own Jewish heritage. Right?

Josh Rosenblatt: Right. Well, it started even before that. Before it made its way to Israeli government was a fighting style developed to fight off antisemitic groups and Nazi groups and pro-Nazi groups in Eastern Europe. The guy who invented it was living in I believe Lithuania. After Hitler came to power in Germany, sort of acts of violence antisemitism started to spread all over Europe. This Jewish guy, Lichtenfeld, in Lithuania, he was a wrestler, and he know something about fighting, and he developed this new fighting style to fight off Nazis in the street.

Being an American Jewish kid raised sort of always in the back of his mind in the knowledge of the sort of near extinction of his people at the hands of Nazis this, though it wasn’t the think that got me to my first Krav class, this really appealed to me, because I had had plenty of fantasies overt years of fighting off Nazis. The fact that this was a fighting style that was tapped into and born out of defending my people against this sort of wild, completely irrational rage, that very much appealed to me. Had it started in as part of the Israeli Defense Force, I don’t know that I would have had that same sort of connection, but fighting off Nazis was a pretty easy thing to get behind.

Brett McKay: So, Krav Maga, it’s directly for self-defense. How did you go from a martial art just for self-defense to MMA, which is a sport martial art?

Josh Rosenblatt: Yeah. You’re absolutely right. That was another big switch, because I think that it was all well and good for me to learn how to defend myself and to tap into my anger and everything, but then there comes a point I think where you sort of say to yourself, “Do I want to try this? Do I wanna see how things actually work. Do I wanna vie with someone else? Also, do you want to get hit in the face?” The fact of the matter is that there was, when I first started doing it, there was part of me that really wanted to learn how to hit people, but there was that other thing that which is I wanna see if I will survive getting hit by someone. I wanna see how I’ll respond, if I will run away and weep or if I will stick around and see what happens.

Unfortunately, you can’t really do that in Krav, because as you say, it’s not really a sport fighting system. You’re sort of being trained to cause the most amount of harm to someone in the least amount of time, so you can escape. I started doing Muay Thai and moving over to Muay Thai and MMA simple because that was the opportunity there was to spar, and I really wanted to spar. I wanted to apply this stuff, and I wanted to simulate as well as I could what I had been seeing in these fights, which was people getting punched and punching back.

Brett McKay: What was it like for you to get punched in the face the first time?

Josh Rosenblatt: It was amazing. The fact that I took it and handled myself was just … It was one of the great days of my life. I can’t even really describe the sort of joy that I realized maybe I’m not the coward I sort of always assumed I was. I took it, and hated it, and punched back, and then sort of eventually you get hit enough times where … This is sort of a dividing line for some people. I understand some people don’t like to spar, but it got to a point where it wasn’t just a matter of taking it. It was there’s a certain amount of appreciation and pleasure you take in it, that you come to sort of need that in your life. That happened to me pretty quickly. I fell in love with sparring very fast.

Brett McKay: So, you’re a writer. You talk about there’s a storied history of writers who are also fighters. Earnest Hemingway boxed. Jack London boxed, wrote about fighting famously, Norman Mailer. Even Lord Byron, I guess even with his club foot, he was able to still fight. A lot of these writers talk about how writing’s a lot like fighting. What do they say? Why do they think writing’s like fighting, and did you find that to be true?

Josh Rosenblatt: I find that they definitely … For me it’s two sides of the same coin I think. It got to a point with me, and where it still is now, where I kind of need one to balance out the other. I think they perform similar functions, but in very different ways. For me to sort of balance out the cerebral agony of worrying about this word, and this comma, and moving things around, and trying to find the right phrase, it’s a really great thing and it’s sort of a release valve to get knocked around in the cage. But I do think that there’s something to be said for that idea of a person sitting alone and sort of facing off with him or herself that whether it’s staring at a blank screen or staring at someone who’s coming at you with gloves on, you’re kind of wrestling with yourself.

I mean, that’s what it comes down to. I think that’s what it satisfies in me. I’m not really a team sports guy, and being a writer I’m not really a working in an office with a large group of people guy. It sort of addresses the same need in me to sort of be in some kind of conflict with myself, but just in very, very different ways, the physical on the one side and the cerebral on the other.

Brett McKay: Did you notice your writing style change as you got more into fighting? Did your style become punchier? I know that sounds kind of cheesy, but did it?

Josh Rosenblatt: I don’t know if my writing style changed. I will say this, that I became a much better writer. For some reason, I’m still trying to figure this out, and I’ve been writing about fighting now for, I don’t know, seven years. For some reason it’s a muse to me. I don’t know why that is, ans especially considering it was something that I was so repulsed by for so long, but for some reason I write about thing that I see in the world through the lens of fighting better than I write about them otherwise. I enjoyed writing about movies. I enjoyed writing about politics. I enjoyed writing about basketball, but I kind of felt like that’s … I wrote about movies, and I wrote about politics, and I wrote about basketball.

Something about fighting when I write about it, its sort of like the lens through which I can view the world. I would never write an article about race relations, but I can talk about race through fighting. It’s like coming at these issues from an oblique angle. Fighting, I don’t know why, I don’t know if it’s simply because it’s such a human thing to and it gets me so excited, but it really has made me a much better writer.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I mean, I love reading boxing biographies, because they’re such great stories.

Josh Rosenblatt: Oh, yeah.

Brett McKay: They’re the best. We’ve had a few guys on the podcast talk about Rocky Marciano and some of the other greats. Literally, it’s like the American story. It’s always like rags to riches. They’re having to deal with all these moral conflicts about, hey, there’s some con men who are part of boxing. Do I work with them? Do I not work with them? Then there’s always an inevitable fall, because they just get old, and they can’t do it anymore, and that’s sad. Maybe fighting it’s just the ultimate story.

Josh Rosenblatt: It really is. I think you’re absolutely right. I think it’s a perfect American story. The fact that boxing was so sort of the way MMA is now or the way MMA was a few years ago, boxing was sort of loathed and consigned to the dark corners, and illegal in many places, and just sort of hated by upper class society or whatever. That it had too sort of work its way out of the shadows, I think it’s just that in itself is a great story, but yeah. You’re absolutely right. These guys are dealing with mobsters, and they’re dealing with sort of corrupt governing bodies, and they’re dealing with their own refusal to adit that their bodies are falling apart. It’s perfect.

Brett McKay: Fighting is a young man’s sport, but you decided to do this in your 30s. When was your first fight? How old were you?

Josh Rosenblatt: I was 40.

Brett McKay: Okay. 40. That’s like you’re like geriatric in the MMA world

Josh Rosenblatt: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

Brett McKay: I mean, how did your age change the way you approached training for that first fight of yours?

Josh Rosenblatt: I don’t know how it changed it, because it’s the only one I ever trained for, but I definitely … there was a certain sense of self-awareness I think that I had that maybe I wouldn’t have had when I was 23 or 25. Knowing myself as long as I had by that point and being painfully aware of whatever physical limitations I had, I was very keen on building a fighting style and building a strategy that was accommodated that. I had no delusions about what I could or couldn’t do, what my body was capable of, what I was good at. Was I good at Jujutsu? Was I good at wrestling? Was I good at boxing? I sort of really honed in on the things that I knew I could handle, because I assumed that, and it’s sort of something that they always tell you, is that when you get in that cage, especially that first time, all the fancy stuff that you’ve learned and all exotic moves and that stuff you’ve tried in sparring sessions, it’s gonna go right out the window.

I mean, when the adrenaline hits you, the only thing you have is really muscle memory. I felt like, as an older guy, being aware of what I could and couldn’t do and sort honing in on a couple of things that I could rely on was my best strategy. I mean, I don’t know. I’d have to talk to some 25 year old fighters, but I didn’t get caught up in the excitement too much. I didn’t get overwhelmed with the fear too much, and I didn’t try anything that was outside my wheelhouse. I just sort of buckled down and said, “Here’s what I can do. If I lose, then I lost honestly.” You know?

Brett McKay: Yeah. That was one of my favorite sections of the book, because I’m approaching middle age, and I’ve noticed my sort of philosophy of life has changed compared to when you’re young, because when you’re young, you take big risks. You’re willing to put yourself out there completely, but when you’re older, you were married, you had a job, there’s more to lose. Some people will argue, well, that actually puts you at a disadvantage, because you’re fighting not to lose, instead of fighting to win. But did you think there was an advantage to you understood that the stakes are kind of high here, i could get seriously injured or die doing this?

Josh Rosenblatt: Yeah. I think that it is definitely a different sense of things when you’re approaching middle age, when you are middle aged. I don’t know what those lines are, but yeah. I think when you go into a fight as someone who has been through a considerable portion of a life, your perspective is different. You don’t think that … I mean, as important as this fight was to me, as sort of world shakingly important as this fight was to me, it existed in context. I train with guys who are 22, 23 years old, who this is literally all they do. All they think about is fighting. All they do is train. All their diet, their social life, every part of their world is pointed toward their getting better as fighters, which means they become great fighters, but there’s no context for it outside of that.

I think for me having, like you said, the relationship, having the experience, having a life that existed outside of fighting, it made me approach it in a different way, and as I sort of say in the book, that I enjoy training with really young people. I’m in a boxing gym now, and I’m always sparring with young guys who are full of energy. They’re so fast, and they learn so quickly. Give them a year or two and I’m not gonna be able to stand next to them in a ring, much less spar against them, but right now I kind of enjoy doing the things that an older guy does.

I like to wear on them. I like to put some weight on them. I like to frustrate them, because I know that they wanna show off their fanciest moves, and they want to do their craziest things, and so I’m gonna push them back in a corner. I’m gonna bore them to tears. I like the idea of doing that, because one, it’s fun, and two, it gives me an advantage, and three, I don’t like the idea that they’re young, and fast, and trying to take the world from me.

Brett McKay: Right. Yeah. I love how you talk about Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.

Josh Rosenblatt: I love that atory.

Brett McKay: It’s a great story. Can you share that story? Because it’s fantastic.

Josh Rosenblatt: Sure. When Michael Jordan was in … He was gonna be in the Olympics. He was gonna sort of be the captain of the Olympic team when he was a sophomore I believe at the University of North Carolina, and everybody knew he was the next great basketball player, and he was coming up, and he was going to take over the NBA. At the time, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were the big guys in the NBA. In preparation for the Olympics that summer the Olympic team took on sort of an all star NBA squad just to warm up. Again, this is before the NBA players could be in the Olympics. Larry Bird was on the NBA all start team, and he didn’t like the idea that Michael Jordan had gotten this reputation and was coming up behind him to take the league away from him.

So, during the warmups before the game Michael Jordan came chasing after a ball that had rolled from his side of the court onto the pro side of the court to grab it, and Larry Bird picked up the ball. Michael Jordan very respectfully said, “Hi, Mr. Bird. Can I get the ball back?” Larry Bird looked at him, and took the ball, and heaved it over his head, and threw it out of the gymnasium and back into the locker room. He turned to Michael Jordan and said, “Go get it.” I like that idea of this, yeah, you might get me one day, but it’s not gonna be today, and I’m gonna get every advantage that I have in the meantime.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Exactly. That highlights an approach that you can take as you’re older. There’s one approach. You can decide I’m gonna become the mentor, the wise man who takes people under their wings and gives them the ropes, or you could just be like, “No. Get out of here.”

Josh Rosenblatt: Yeah. It really depends on my mood. I mean, sometimes I am. Sometimes I’m very much a mentor, and I like to help guys out and give them some advice, but sometimes I resent their youth, and I resent the idea that they want to take the world for me. Luckily I’ve put myself at a position that I get to do something about it by punching them in the face, so I do.

Brett McKay: Tell us about your experience with the asceticism of fighting?

Josh Rosenblatt: I mean, that was always gonna be the hardest part for me. I think when I look back on it, the getting over a fear and the getting punched in the face was probably easier for me than denying myself things that I want. I had really no training at that and no interest in it. I had the interest in fighting. I never had any interest in denying myself things, so that was really the difficult thing, because when you’re training to fight, when you’re in a training camp, there’s the basic things that you have to give up for the sake of the performance, and your ability, and your endurance, and the whole thing like drinking, and smoking, and things like that. I love drinking, and I love smoking. But then as you get closer to the fight, you know, I had to cut …

In the last week I had to cut probably eight or nine pounds, which compared to what professional fighters do is nothing, but I had never been on a diet in my life. I had never denied myself any foods, but suddenly you’re not eating bread. You’re cutting out carbs, and you’re cutting out sugars, and you’re cutting out all things that make eating worthwhile and make living worthwhile. Until literally that last day you’re cutting out everything. You’re cutting out water. I’m glad I went through the experience, because for better or worse it’s a fundamental part of being an MMA fighter is the weight cut, as sort of inhumane and ridiculous as I think it is. But I’m glad I went through it, but I hate it. I hated every moment of it. I don’t like saying tom myself, “you can’t have this thing,” and for such a silly reason as you need to weight 170 pounds on such and such a date. It runs contrary to everything I love and everything I believe.

Brett McKay: Yeah. It’s kind of silly too, because after you weigh in you just put all the weight back on.

Josh Rosenblatt: It’s awful. I mean, the weight cut, I sort of look at weight cutting two ways. On the one on the one hand, I think it’s awful, and I think in a sport where people consistently break each other’s bones and each other’s faces, I think it’s kind of the worst and most inhumane thing that they do. I mean, to cut 20 pounds out of your body in 24 hours just to be a weight that someone else just cut 20 pounds out of their body for, I mean, if everyone would be honest and say, “Hey, everyone is cutting 20 pounds of weight. Why don’t we just actually fight at our walking around weight,” it would be much more reasonable. But they’re trying to get an advantage. The problem is that it’s sacrificing performance, and it’s sacrificing health. A lot of these guys go into a cage and they’re much more vulnerable to long term brain damage, because they’re sucked all the liquid out their body. So, it’s sort of a collective insanity in some ways.

Now, that being said, I do sort of understand it from a more metaphorical standpoint, in that to get into a ring or get into a cage and to want to harm somebody who you don’t even know, physically, you have to put yourself in a different kind of frame of mind. You almost have to be two people. There’s the person who walks around on the street, and there’s the person who gets into a cage and fights. I felt like there had to be some sort of threshold that you crossed. It’s mythological in some ways. There had to be a line that you crossed between being one person and being the other person.

I think that the weight cut is definitely a way to do that. I think it’s an unfortunate way to do it. I think that there are other probably better ways to do it, but I think that it does put you in a frame of mind where you sort of say, “I am so angry that I’ve been denied these things, and I’m so hungry, and I’m so thirsty, and I’m physically miserable. There’s one person that I’m gonna blame for that, and it’s the guy across the ring from me.” So, I get it. I think it’s awful, and I think it’s in the long term counterproductive, but I understand it.

Brett McKay: Yeah. It sounds like a ritual that just sort of puts you in a spiritual mindset to enter the ring. Right?

Josh Rosenblatt: It absolutely is. It’s a ritual thing. I get it, bu there are other ritual things. You know, I think if you had put me in the ring nine pounds heavier, if I had walked out of the cage without having denied myself chocolate and bread, I think I would have found a way to realize that I was entering a new world, because I was half naked in a cage with some guy wanting to harm me rushing across the cage at me, and everyone’s … a bunch of drunks are screaming. You know, I was in another place. I didn’t need a weight loss program to get my brain there.

Brett McKay: Another insight you had while you were doing this is that when you’re doing the cut and you’re doing all this training to become an MMA fighter, you’re optimizing your body and your mind for fighting. So, there’s a downside to that over optimization. You in fact become more fragile. Can you talk about that?

Josh Rosenblatt: Sure. Yeah. I mean, it’s sort of the greatest irony about fighting is that I was far and away in the best shape of my life when I was training for this fight. You’ve really through the training regimen, and through diet, and through weight lifting, and running, and all these different things you do, you really get to a point where, like you said, you’re optimized. At that moment the fight starts you are in peak physical condition, but at the same time, you’re completely vulnerable, because the smallest flaw, the smallest break, the smallest twist or tear, and kind of the whole system falls apart.

During the course of your daily life I you twist an ankle or you jack your wrist up a little bit, it might not really change the way you go through life. When you’re training for a fight though, it can be everything. I remember feeling at several points during the training that I felt like a strong wind would make me sick or that the wrong move on the Jujutsu mat would really cause me a lot of damage, something I would not have felt six months earlier, when I was just training for fun. I mean, it really is sort of a remarkable thing how finely pitched you are and how vulnerable to the slightest breeze you are.

Brett McKay: You experienced a setback. You got injured when you were rolling, doing Jujutsu during practice, and it set you back a few weeks. What was it like when you found out you couldn’t train like you had been usually?

Josh Rosenblatt: It was awful. I mean, I did. I was sparring Jujutsu one day and just got my hand caught in the wrong way in my partners Jujutsu gi, and it broke one of the bones that leads down the back of the hand. So, I was out for about … I was supposed to be out for about six weeks. Yeah. It was heartbreaking and scary immediately, because I realized … I heard the pop, and I knew something had gone wrong, but it did. When you’re sort of that focused on one thing, and your whole world is surrounded, and you’ve got this idea in you head, well here’s the next benchmark. Here’s the next step. I’m just gonna move from this, to this, and this. Then all of a sudden this silly accident … I want even being … The guy wasn’t trying to submit me. I literally got caught in his lapel. I mean, I got beaten by his shirt, which is depressing. But when that happens, I was thrown off completely.

Suddenly this project felt in danger, and the book felt in danger, and the fight felt in danger. I didn’t know it was gonna be just six weeks, but it sort of becomes like an existential crisis. You’ve got this little, tiny broken bone in your hand, and you feel like it’s preventing you from doing all the things that you’re supposed to be doing. When I found out it was six more weeks, I just sort of said to myself, I would rather tuck that hand away, and hold it to the side and work on my left hand, just whatever I could do with my left hand. So, I went to the boxing gym every day and worked on my jab, and ran on the treadmill, and did all the 101 things you can do that don’t require a left hand, simply to keep myself both on some sort of trajectory and also from slipping into pretty deep depression, which was a real risk.

Brett McKay: Did you see that happen to guys who got injured and they could train? Did they just kind of slip into a depression, a funk?

Josh Rosenblatt: Yeah. Definitely. You see it all the time. I mean, especially the people who take it … the professional guys and the guys who want to be profession, because again, your identity is wrapped up in it. For me, my identity is wrapped up in somewhat, but more sort of my emotional state and my psychological state are wrapped up in it. So a hand, I’ll be okay. I can keep doing something, but these guys who have to be at their best all the time, they’re constantly learning, and they’re constantly getting better, you can see it’s like a matter of their identity being lost.

You know, I imagine it’d be no different than if you took a painter’s brush away, but obviously the chances that you’re going to injury yourself painting are much, much slimmer. You know, fighters do that to themselves. Fighters walk a line where they’re as dedicated and devoted as anyone, but the thing that they’re devoted and dedicated to is putting them at risk of not being able to do the thing. I don’t think fighters like to think about it too much. I think too much perspective will ruin a fighter, but it’s always there. It’s always waiting for you. The injury is always knocking at the door, waiting to take two months out of your life.

Brett McKay: What did your wife think about all this when you were training? Was she on-board with it? Was she just sort of ambivalent, or she just didn’t think about it very much?

Josh Rosenblatt: So, when I met my wife, I was already in the process of preparing for the fight, and preparing for the book, and knew that I would be doing it. So, she accepted that and knew that I would be doing the one fight. During the training it was totally fine. I mean, she made some sacrifices, and put up with a lot of mood shifts, and listened to me yap a lot about things that she probably didn’t care too much about, but the fight itself she did not like. She didn’t like watching the fight. Even after the fight was over, she didn’t seem to be enjoying herself. It was not a pleasant experience for her. I think that that’s sort of keeping me from doing it again. I mean, there are several thins that are keeping me from doing it again, but one of them is the realization …

When I saw the look on her face after the fight was over, that she still was not … It was all done, and she was still not taking any pleasure in it, but she was still sort of terrible and miserable. You know, stupid me. That was the first time I think I realized what a terrible thing it is to ask of people who love, to sort of choose between your happiness and your health. My mother couldn’t watch the fight, had to hear about it from a phone call from somebody. My wife was totally miserable the entire time. It’s a terrible thing to put people you care about through. Yeah. That was definitely an interesting thing, going through this with a partner.

Brett McKay: So, let’s talk about that fight. So, when going into it, were you super nervous? Were you worried about how you were gonna react? Were you gonna get freaked out and butterflies, and your brain was just gonna go black, of did you have another idea of what was going to happen?

Josh Rosenblatt: I sort of half assumed that that was a very strong possibility. It was so without precedent in my life that I sort of felt like nothing would surprise me. I was prepared to be terrified. I was pretty sure I wasn’t gonna jump out of the ring and run away, but I was pretty resigned to being scared to a point that I have never been scared before and reacting. I didn’t know if I would sort of freeze up or I would sort of go crazy, and just sort of forget my technique, and just sort of throw my hands and my fists around like I was in a bar fight. I was comfortable with that. I hoped it didn’t happen, but I sort of resigned to that happening.

When I got in the cage though I was really calm. I shocked myself. I got in the cage, and it just felt like, okay, here I am. This is the thing that I’ve been training for. I don’t wanna train anymore. I’m done with waiting. I drove all the way out here. My friends drove all the way out here. There’s that guy. This is the thing that I’ve been thinking about for years, and years, and years. I’m gonna find out now what I am. There was a real sense of calm that was … the spiritualist in me would say was born out of some sort of connectedness to the universe, but I’m not really that person. I was just sort of resigned. I wasn’t gonna leave. I was there to do this thing, and I think my body stopped being frightened at some point. It was really strange. It’s not what I expected at all.

Brett McKay: So, we won’t talk about the outcome of the fight. We’ll let people pick up the book. But I’m curious. You said this was your search ofr meaning. What did you discover about life training for this fight that you don’t think you would have discovered, had you not done it?

Josh Rosenblatt: I think probably the main thing is that there’s nothing firm and fixed about our lives, and our bodies, and our personalities. I found training for the fight, and even going back further, the first time I went to that fighting class and started falling in love with it, this whole 10 year process, the meaning that I found is that your entire life can be transformed. You can make a conscious decision to recreate yourself. I found the entire thing totally liberating. When I think about fighting and what it means to my life, it’s an agent of liberation, first and foremost, and transformation.

You know, there’s the bodily transformation, the emotional transformation, and all these other things, and the sort of aggression, and your comfort level with violence and that sort of thing, but when it comes down to it, it’s just that we’re clay. You know? That’s the revelation that I had, that I was this one thing, and out of whatever it was, boredom, desperation, rage, desire, whatever it was, I transformed myself from one person into another person, and that’s a totally liberating idea in this world. For that reason alone fighting is my favorite thing, because it’s a change agent, and I love the idea of being able to change yourself just out of pure will.

Brett McKay: So, you mentioned earlier that you’re probably not gonna do another fight, but are you still training? If so, why are you doing it, just because you just enjoy it?

Josh Rosenblatt: Yeah. I still do boxing now. I’ve sort of cut out a lot of the MMA stuff for any number of reasons. You know, Muay Thai, I don’t have the hips for it anymore, literally. I just don’t have the flexibility in the hips anymore, but I love boxing. I love sparring. So, I still go to a gym, and I still spar. The reason is because there’s nothing else in my life that gives me a feeling that can even approximate that. When I get into a ring with somebody … Sparring is very different than fighting, but it’s still in that world. There’s a level of the visceral thrill, and the tapping into the aggressive parts of myself, and allowing myself to express some anger and to take a couple of punched to the face, it’s still the biggest thrill I have.

Otherwise, my life is a relatively calm, quiet affair. It’s writing and hanging out with friends and my wife. It’s drinking. It’s not a whole lot of excitement going on, so this is the thing that taps me into that. Also, the other thing is that for sort of a devoted materialist like myself it’s the one avenue I have that gets me close to what I would consider sort of a spiritual, or a mystical, or out of body experience. I’ve tried to sit and meditate. I’ve tried to concentrate on my breathing. I’ve tried to focus on a word or whatever. I’ve sat there in the lotus position.

It just doesn’t work for me, but you put me in a cage or a ring, and someone starts coming at you with a pair of gloves on, and they’re trying to take your head off, you know, you talk about mindfulness, it’s really hard to think about and concern yourself with politics or your monetary situation, or the state of your relationship when someone is trying to harm you. It’s a very focusing, very clarifying activity. If for no other reason, I can’t imagine stopping. I know people who do this that are in their mid-60s. I know exactly why they do. It’s a disease, and it’s an addiction, and it’s the greatest thing in the world. I couldn’t imagine reaching a point where even if my body is screaming at me to stop, that I would stop.

Brett McKay: Josh, is there some place people can go to learn more about your work?

Josh Rosenblatt: Sure. Yeah. I have a website, JoshRosenblatt.com. I’m on Twitter and Instagram, @JoshRosenblatt1. Obviously if you wanna learn about me and my work, Why We Fight is the best place to do it. I sort of poured everything I had into that book. I sort of squeezed the sponge on my knowledge of and my affection for fighting into that book. Yeah. If you’re curious at all, the book is the place.

Brett McKay: All right. Well, Josh Rosenblatt, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Josh Rosenblatt: Yeah. It’s been great talking to you. Thanks so much.

Brett McKay: My guest there was Josh Rosenblatt. He’s the author of the book Why We Fight, One Man’s Search for Meaning Inside the Ring. It’s available on Amazon.com and book stores everywhere. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.is/WhyWeFight, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM Podcast. Check out our website, ArtOfManliness.com, where you can see our podcast archives, which there’s over 470 there, also thousands of articles on just about anything, personal finance, self-defense, style. You name it, we’ve got it. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or stitcher. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for your continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you to not only listen to the AOM Podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.

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