According to my father, who was an assistant doctor for the Dallas Cowboys, I spent a significant portion of my early years on the sidelines of Texas Stadium watching Tom Landry’s team practice. According to my mother, Roger Staubach called me his lucky charm. Or at least he did until he had to sit out most of the 1972 season with a separated shoulder.
What would have been a fantasy boyhood was cut short when Uncle Sam came calling and stationed our family in San Diego so that my father could help in the evacuation Saigon. After the police action was over, Dad decided to set up practice in Topeka instead of Dallas for reasons he’s explained to me several times and I’ve yet to accept.
“Kansas,” Kansans like to say. “It’s a great place to raise children.” And of course they are right. I remember fondly my idyllic grade school days being brainwashed by Free to Be…You and Me, my afternoons running from bullies, and my evenings imagining I was either Bruce Lee or Luke Skywalker and lived in a galaxy far, far away.
My chance came when Princeton’s admissions office made the mistake of accepting me into the class of 1993. After three years of Religion and East Asian studies and lots of “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore” jokes, I dropped out to travel to the Shaolin Temple in China and study kung fu with the monks—an experience I recount in American Shaolin. Two years of expert beatings later, I returned to college and won a Rhodes scholarship. Apparently several of the Rhodes judges had been fans of David Carradine’s TV show Kung Fu.
It was while studying for my master’s in politics and philosophy at Oxford that I made the mistake of dropping my vague plans for a career in something that might lead to a steady paycheck and decided I wanted to be a writer. I thought to myself, Compared to Princeton, Shaolin, and Oxford, how hard could it be? The answer turned out to be: much harder.
My first job in publishing was editing the 1998 April Fool’s parody of The New York Times, which won me plaudits from the editors at The New York Post, who like nothing more than to laugh at the Times. My brief moment of notoriety led to an editorial job at a high-flying internet company, which shall remain nameless (hint: direct dial-up, three letters), at the tail end of the dot.com bubble. When it burst, I picked up pieces for Esquire, The Nation, Playboy, Publisher’s Weekly, Slate —anybody who’d have me. Along the way, I won several Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing and wrote American Shaolin, which became a national bestseller.
Then I fell in love.
But a man can’t propose without job prospects. I talked to my book editor about another project and he convinced me that a book about mixed martial arts (MMA) was the hot ticket. But… If I wanted the deal I needed to train with the top coaches in the world and get into the cage and fight myself. I was middle-aged, overweight, and over-the-hill. For the text two years, I was tortured by a fascinating assortment of skilled sadists (er, trainers) from across the globe. When the day finally came, I surprised everyone by winning my fight.
The things we do for love.
My current book, Tapped Out, is a blow-by-blow retelling of this adventure.