BOOK REVIEW: Enter the Dangal by Rudraneil Sengupta

Enter the Dangal: Travels through India's Wrestling LandscapeEnter the Dangal: Travels through India’s Wrestling Landscape by Rudraneil Sengupta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Enter the Dangal offers a fascinating discussion of the sport of wrestling in India, be it the dirt-pit Kushti variety or on the mats in the highest stage the sport has to offer, the Olympics. Sengupta offers a glimpse into the fully formed subculture that exists around akhada, live-in wrestling academies. We see India’s wrestling world through both the tradition- and virtue-oriented training grounds that produced greats like Gama and Sushil Kumar, but the book also takes forthright dips into the darker reaches of the sport.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part both provides background and tells the story of one of the most profound experiences of modern Indian wrestling, Sushil Kumar’s match for the gold medal in the 2012 Olympics [he took silver.] The second part explores the long wave of the rise and fall of Indian wrestling, and the third part takes the reader back to the golden age of wrestling, telling of the international matches of Gama and the movement by some Indian wrestlers into both the legitimate and staged wrestling domains of Europe and America.

There are two discussions that I found particularly intriguing. First, there’s the matter of women entering this all-male domain. Historically, not only did women not wrestle, mothers and sisters didn’t even go to the akhada to see their son’s and brother’s training. Second, the book answers an interesting question: why is India such a non-contender in the Summer Olympic games? [India falls between Uzbekistan and Ireland for total Summer Olympic medals, not even making the top 50 – which, for a country of its size and talent pool across a range of body types, is pretty dismal performance.] The answer is rooted in patriarchy, corruption, and downstream problems resulting from those problems (i.e. lack of best practices vis-à-vis sports science and poor facilities.)

I found this book to be compelling read and would highly recommend it for those wishing to learn more about wrestling in India.

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BOOK REVIEW: Training and Conditioning for MMA ed. by Dias / Oliveira / Brauer & Pashkin

Training and Conditioning for MMA: Programming of ChampionsTraining and Conditioning for MMA: Programming of Champions by Stéfane Beloni Correa Dielle Dias
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: September 15, 2022 [It may already be out in some formats and markets]

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This book provides an overview of fitness building for Mixed Martial Arts athletes. It covers program design, athletic assessment, nutrition, exercises and conditioning practices, and injury prevention methods. On the positive side, it’s not only comprehensive, but – also – presents some of the best and latest methods in combative sports training based on sound scientific research. On the other hand, the book does assume a certain level of understanding of sports science, and it gets pretty deep in the weeds with respect to technical detail and to scientific and specialty jargon. If one doesn’t have such background, one may find some of the content (particularly the early chapters) a bit daunting. That said, it offers an excellent reference for those who are interested in methods and sports science not just for MMA, but for combative sports, in general.

The book uses color photographs throughout. I found the photos to be clear, well-sized, and well-lit. While there is definitely an attempt to keep the number of photos to a reasonable level, they do offer multiple angles where necessary and – generally – give enough pictures to make the action clear. There are also tables after each of the methods sections to give a handy summary of sets, reps, and scheduling suggestions for various exercises. In the early chapters, the ones that convey more technical content, there’re charts, graphs, and diagrams as needed. There’s an extensive bibliography, though it should be noted many if not most of the references are not in English. (The team of editors and contributors is large and international.)

This book offers an excellent reference for coaches, trainers, and athletes. While it does get quite technical, it’s great that it offers insight into cutting edge science and training methods.


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ESSAY REVIEW: The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved by Hunter S. Thompson

The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and DepravedThe Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved by Hunter S. Thompson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Online Available Free: Grantland

Available within the collection: The Great Shark Hunt

This story is cited as the first work of gonzo journalism, a highly entertaining style of immersion journalism which takes liberties with objectivity and factual detail for comedic effect or heightened narrative impact. The Kentucky Derby is more setting than subject of the story. It’s Thompson attempting to throw together coverage of the horse race at the last minute for Scanlan’s Monthly, a magazine that existed less than a year. So, the story is as much Thompson racing around trying to con his way into some press passes as he and the graphic artist sent by the magazine go on a booze-fueled junket on and around the race track grounds.

The story is laugh-out-loud funny in places, and features Thompson’s irreverent and fast-paced style throughout. It really was something new. Thompson, apparently, thought he’d failed completely when he sent in the story, but the response indicated that – rather – he’d invented something new, something for which there would be a huge market.

It’s definitely worth reading this story, just don’t expect deep insight into the horse racing tradition of Kentucky.

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BOOK REVIEW: Kill a Man by Steve Orlando

Kill A ManKill A Man by Steve Orlando
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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James Bellyi is a closeted gay mixed martial arts fighter in contention for the middleweight belt. Amid the pre-fight smack talk, Bellyi is outed by his opponent, the man who current holds the title. The dropping of this bomb throws Bellyi’s career into disarray, his gym quietly drops him, the fight promoter overturns Bellyi’s previous fight, saying that he cheated under the referee’s nose, the organization – name “EFC” for legal reasons, I presume – fearing that much of its fanbase is not ready for a gay champion.

When the EFC finds itself in a bind because losing an injured headliner threatens to bleed the interest out of its upcoming event, they are forced to give Bellyi another shot to work back to a title-fight. With no one in his corner – literally — Bellyi manages a victory, but he knows he’ll need a coach to succeed in the title fight against the man who publicly outed him.

This is where things get interesting. Bellyi’s father, DJ Bellyi, had died due to fight-related injuries when James was still a boy. DJ Bellyi had been trying to stigmatize his opponent, Xavier Mayne, with anti-gay slurs, in part to get Mayne of his game and in part — we learn — because the senior Bellyi was genuinely a homophobic bigot. However, instead of knocking Mayne off his game, what DJ succeeded in doing was throwing a legendarily powerful striker into a seething rage.

While James Bellyi always despised Mayne for killing his father, when he finds himself facing a title fight without “a corner” and with all odds against him, Bellyi decides to pursue Mayne as a coach. Reluctantly, Mayne agrees. This creates overlapping stories between James and Mayne, and the core question is whether the younger generation can learn from what the previous generation went through. We learn that Mayne was traumatized by DJ Bellyi’s death. It’s also about whether and – if so – how the world has changed on a societal level in the intervening years.

I found this book to have an intriguing premise. It’s a simple story. It may seem like I gave it all away in the review, but reading the back-cover blurb gives a reader at least as much insight into the key story elements as did my description. There’s not a lot by way of extra layers. So, its more about whether the details of the story (e.g. the characters’ interactions) resonate with the reader than whether the reader will find some huge unexpected twist. The art is easy enough to follow. The artist uses different color palettes to differentiate different blocks of panels, I believe this is for the purpose of establishing emotional tone (but, perhaps, I misunderstood what was meant to be conveyed and it’s more about differentiating scenes.)

I enjoyed this book, and if you like fight stories you’ll likely enjoy it. It’s like “Rocky” but with the underdog status being less by way of being from down-and-out circumstance and more based in bigotry.

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BOOK REVIEW: Yoga for Sports by B.K.S. Iyengar

Yoga For Sports: A Journey Towards Health And HealingYoga For Sports: A Journey Towards Health And Healing by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a book by the renowned Pune yoga guru who passed away in 2014, B.K.S. Iyengar, on how athletes can use yoga to build general health, prevent injuries, and combat postural misalignments that result from sporting activities that are asymmetric or unbalanced. A book on yoga for athletes might address any number of topics from core strength and stability to meditations to prevent choking under pressure, but this one focuses heavily on asana (postural yoga) – particularly – for improving flexibility and postural alignment. (It does introduce pranayama, but only the practices of viloma and ujjayi breathing.)

Iyengar is most well-known for an approach to hatha yoga that uses props to allow anyone to achieve a properly aligned posture, regardless of whether one has a yogi-level contortionist body (and most athletes don’t because of the countervailing requirements for strength necessitated by their sports.) This prop-centric approach is seen heavily in the book’s second part, which describes and demonstrates a range of basic asana (postures) along with relevant variations. I mention this because through the first part of this book, I felt it was much more of a book for yoga practitioners who might also happen to be amateur athletes than it was for athletes looking to introduce yoga into their training regimen. By that I mean that the photos of recommended poses in Part I are unlikely to be useful for athletes who have tight muscles from intense physical activity. However, if you’re feeling that way about the book, too, you may find that the second part’s variations are more reasonable for a person who doesn’t have an extensive background in yoga or stretching.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part consists of ten chapters that cover the topic of yoga for sports with broad brush strokes, covering topics like skeleto-muscular anatomy, common sports complaints, yoga for warmup, yoga for prevention and for recovery. It also deals with specialty topics like maintaining a healthy body in retirement as well as issues for women athletes (women may find this section to be a bit menstruation-heavy, as if that were the predominant challenge facing women engaged in athletics. On the plus-side there’s none of the bizarre and / or offensive notions about menstruation that have been known to presented in the context of yoga.) As I mentioned, during this first part I thought the book would not be so useful for the problems of athletes, and some may find that still seems to be the case after reviewing part two. The gulf between what is recommended and what the average practitioner can physically do is a perennial difficulty with books on yoga.

The second part discusses asana in detail, providing pictures, text descriptions, and notes on benefits and – where applicable — other considerations (e.g. contra-indications.) Here one can find prop-based variations to allow individuals who may be stiff or in recovery to perform the asana. Mostly, there is just one photo of each posture in mid-pose. However, where special guidance is needed getting into or out of the pose (which can be the case with prop yoga) there are sometimes multiple photos demonstrating a progression of movement. My major gripe with this book is that it was littered with typos (at least the e-book edition that I read on Kindle.) The typos were most notable in this section. I can’t remember if I saw any in parts I, III, or IV, but the errors stuck out in part two because there is a lot of repetitive directions for the poses that seem to have been copy / pasted such that the same missing letter typos appear many places throughout the section.

The third part is much briefer than the first two, and it simply describes props that an athlete might consider acquiring. It starts with basic kit and moves to bigger items, though it doesn’t discuss all the huge equipment that one would find in a fully equipped studio teaching Iyengar-style yoga. It provides text discussions of critical considerations as well as photos.

The last part is just a couple pages of testimonials of famous athletes saying how much yoga (in general) and Iyengar’s teaching (specifically) helped them to improve their games. These brief testimonials are presented in text-boxes and look somewhat as one might see on the opening pages of a novel.

As would be expected of a book on sports published in India, most of the examples are cricket-centric. (Again, not surprising as cricket is the 800-pound gorilla of sports on the subcontinent.)

I found this book to be quite informative. If you can bear the typos (and they may have been exorcized from the print editions,) you’ll likely find the book to be informative and well-presented.

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BOOK REVIEW: Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka

Chinaman: The legend of Pradeep MathewChinaman: The legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Chinaman” is the tale of an alcoholic Sri Lankan sportswriter, W.G. Karunasena, who is attempting to write a biography of the man he considers the greatest cricketer to ever live, Pradeep Matthew. The two-fold challenge is that Matthew had a short and controversial career before disappearing off the face of the earth, and Karunasena is in a race to finish the book before the bottle finishes him off. [For non-cricket fan readers wondering about the title, Chinaman is a cricket term for a style of bowling. I also learned that a “ponytailed Chinaman” in Sri Lanka is (or was) slang for someone gullible.]

I try to read at least one work of literature from every country I visit, and I chose “Chinaman” for Sri Lanka, and am happy with my decision. While the book is very much cricket-centric, it does offer insight into the familial and community dynamics of Sri Lanka. Given the time frames discussed in the book (i.e. the 80’s and 90’s), we also learn a little about the civil war that was going on at the time. But most intriguingly, one views the politics and underworld that largely remain hidden to tourists, and so the book has that appeal. The book contains many explanations, diagrams, and drawings to help clue those, such as myself, who are ignorant of the game into the fundamentals, but it’s not just about cricket.

The book is presented as a novel that’s only sold as fiction for legal reasons, but my little bit of research [including a short author interview] suggests that that is just a plot device to add to the feeling of intrigue.

The last two of five parts of the book, while less than 15% of the pages, are presented from a different point of view. This is a bit jarring because the reader has developed a great deal of affinity with Karunasena, and that kind of connection doesn’t have time to blossom with his son, the second voice of the book. However, the last to parts do give the reader a satisfying conclusion.

I enjoyed this book. It’s humorous and offers a glimpse into Sri Lankan cricket and everything it touches (which is pretty much everything.) I’d recommend it for fiction readers. Even if you aren’t a big fan of cricket, you’ll enjoy the story and the humorous dialogue. If you are a fan of cricket or want to know more about Sri Lanka, it will be particularly enjoyable.

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DAILY PHOTO: Ball Court of Ek’ Balam

Taken in the Summer of 2009 at Ek’ Balam

BOOK REVIEW: Greatest Ever Boxing Workouts by Gary Todd

Greatest Ever Boxing Workouts - including Mike Tyson, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Roberto DuranGreatest Ever Boxing Workouts – including Mike Tyson, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Roberto Duran by Gary Todd
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This will be a quick review as the book is simple and straightforward in its approach. The author interviewed 30+ boxers, and each chapter corresponds to a boxer. A few of these boxers are household names, e.g. Tyson, Duran, Pacquiao, and Mayweather, but others may or may not be known to those who aren’t fight fanatics.

Each chapter consists of three sections. The first and longest of each is an overview of that boxer’s career, but it’s the other two sections that are most relevant to the book’s title and theme. One of these sections is an interview that asks a series of 14 questions about how the respective boxer organized his training day, and the other is a description of the boxer’s workouts (typically there was more than one workout—i.e. sparring v non-sparring days.)

If you’re a big boxing fan, this book will be interesting to you particularly for some of the insights about the boxers. The author is clearly knowledgeable in that regard. If you are mostly interested in the book from a fitness perspective, and seek to learn about working out for combative sports, it’s of decidedly less value. It still has some fascinating information, but you’ll probably find it tedious and of limited usefulness. The question and answer section elicits answers from one word to a couple of sentences and the workouts are a page each. What is fascinating is how similar the day in the life of a boxer is, and, specifically, how standardized workouts are. What I mostly found intriguing was when someone stuck out as having a different mode of operating. For example, most started their days very early (often going back to sleep after road-work) but a few were clearly night owls. One can also see a little of how approaches have shifted between the earliest fighters and the ones active until recently.

There are plenty of photographs in the book, but they are the only graphics. There isn’t much else by way of ancillary matter. (i.e. there is a section of pictures of the author with various boxers, but that—of course—is primarily of interest to the author.)

In one sense the book is quite limited and tedious, but it’s also interesting to see how thirty different fighters answered the exact same pallet of questions. There is some insight into nutrition, sleep schedules, optimal time for workouts, etc. However, the book doesn’t drill deep.

If you’re a fight fan, fascinated by boxers and their careers, I’d recommend this book. For those who are buying it thinking they’ll get some insight into how to prepare as a boxer, I’d say said insight will be extremely limited. That said, the book isn’t much of a time investment, and so if you can get it cheap you may find it of some benefit.

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BOOK REVIEW: Head in the Game by Brandon Sneed

Head in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Greatest AthletesHead in the Game: The Mental Engineering of the World’s Greatest Athletes by Brandon Sneed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are many factors that influence whether an athlete can reach an elite level. Physical factors such as VO2 max (maximum oxygen consumption) and musculature have long been at the fore in the minds of coaches and trainers, but they’ve never told the full story. There are athletes who have the muscles, lungs, and general physiology to dominate their sports who fall apart under pressure. One also sees the occasional athlete who is consistently good even though he seems puny by comparison to his peers. It used to be that mental performance was considered an endowed X-factor–you either had it or you didn’t. Coaches didn’t know how to coach for issues of the mind and often exacerbated problems with old school attitudes and approaches.

We’ve now entered a new era in which a bevy of techniques and technologies are being exploited to strengthen the mind and improve psychological deficiencies, just as gyms have always been used to build the body and combat physical deficiencies. These range from techniques of meditation and visualization that have been known to yogis and Buddhists for centuries to advanced technologies that have only become available in recent decades and which are constantly improving and being made obsolete. Sneed examines the gamut of these approaches as they are applied to improving performance in sports: from the meditative or therapeutic to the electronic or pharmacological. One no longer need give up on athletes who are great at their best, but who get the yips at the worst possible times. The performance of mediocre athletes can be improved and that of the best can be made more consistent.

Sneed has a unique qualification to write this book. He counts himself among the athletes who couldn’t reach his potential because of inconsistency rooted in psychological challenges. His willingness to be forthright about his own problems makes the book more engaging. His own stories are thrown into the mix with those of athletes from football, basketball, soccer, baseball, adventure sports, and mixed martial arts (MMA.)

The book’s 19 chapters are divided among four parts. The first part lays the groundwork, helping the reader understand the rudiments of how the brain works, doesn’t work, or works too hard for a competitor’s own good. A central theme is that the ability to analyze and train through the lens of neuroscience has removed some of the stigma that has always been attached to psychological issues in sports (not to mention the days when they were written off as weakness.) Much of the six chapters of Part I deal with assessment of the athlete’s baseline mental performance. The last chapter (Ch. 6) covers a range of topics that have been around a long time as they’ve been reevaluated through modern scientific research. These include religion, faith, superstition, meditation, visualization, and the immortal question of whether sex is good or bad for athletic performance.

The second part consists of five chapters taking on one fundamental truth: mind and body are not two disparate and independent entities. This section starts at the most logical point: breath. Practitioners of yoga (i.e. pranayama) and chi gong have known for centuries that breath can be used to influence one’s emotional state and level of mental clarity. Sneed evaluates the technology that is being used to help athletes master the same age-old lessons. Having laid the groundwork through breath, the section advances into biofeedback technology. There are two chapters in the book that deal with pharmacological approaches. One is in this section and it deals with legal (at least in some locales) substances such as caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, nootropics (alleged mind enhancing drugs), and marijuana. (The other is in the final part and it deals with hallucinogens.) There are also a couple of chapters on technologies used to produce or enhance desired mental states.

For most readers, the third part will be seen as the heart of the book. Having considered how to evaluate an athlete’s mental performance (Part I) and how to influence mind states by way of the body (Part II), this part explores the range of technologies that are used to exercise the mind in a manner analogous to working out the body. These technologies focus on a range of areas including improving the nervous system’s ability to take in information, process that information, and respond appropriately. Much of this part focuses on video games; albeit video games using state of the art virtual reality and which are customized to improvement of athletic performance. Some of the games are used to train general cognitive performance (e.g. Ch. 13) but others are specifically tailored to the game in question (i.e. Ch. 14.) Just as simulators are used in aviation, part of the advantage of these games is the ability to put players in progressively more challenging conditions.

The last part of the book was the most interesting to me, personally. [It’s also the part of the book that will be the most relevant and readable a few years down the road because it’s not as modern technology-centric as most of the book—especially Part III–is.] It’s entitled “The Spirit” and it explores X-factors to performance, but sans the assumption that these are endowments, but rather under the assumption they are trainable. The part has an important introduction that presents the research about how “soft” factors like gratitude play into outlook and performance. Then there are the Part’s three chapters. The first describes an experiment involving taking elite athletes into physically arduous conditions of the kind normally experienced by military special operations forces in survival training. The second tells the story of MMA fighter Kyle Kingsbury’s use of hallucinogenic substances (most intriguingly, ayahuasca, a powerful drug long used by Peruvian shamans.) Finally, the last chapter deals with sensory deprivation—a technology some will associate with the movie “Altered States” but which many athletes swear by.

The book has an extensive section on notations and sources organized by chapter. There are no graphics.

I enjoyed this book and found it to be informative. There are a number of books that explore the techniques and technologies of optimal mental performance, but this one develops a niche by focusing on the realm of sports and some of the technologies that are only available with the kind of deep-pockets seen in professional sports. The book is heavily weighted toward the technology part of the equation, which is both good and bad. If you’re reading it now (2017), it’s great because you’re getting an up-to-date discussion of the subject from the perspective of entities that are awash in money for tech. The downside is that this book won’t age well, at least not as well as it would if there was more emphasis on approaches that aren’t based on cutting-edge technology.

I’d recommend this book if you are interested in optimal human performance, and if you have an interest in sports, all the better.

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DAILY PHOTO: Fight Arena in Monochrome

Taken on February 26, 2017 in Rangsit, Thailand