Study Striking to Write Better Fight Scenes

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As a fiction writer, I’m always interested to discover someone talking in great and substantial detail about a thing they care about. The topic doesn’t matter. I’m merely looking for a certain density of explanation, the way that, as they talk, small important things become clear.

There’s an extreme level of detail required, after all, to write even a middling fictional scene. To bring to the reader the breathing, moving, meaning-filled world a character walks through. It’s something non-writers find hard to grasp, how much “stuff” is necessary before a fictional passage starts to take on the ring of authenticity. This is not just about committing to memory diagrams of car engines, or learning the names of songbirds: it’s about learning to see. It’s about learning the kind of thinking that takes place in certain spaces, and in particular the kind of thinking that I, living my own life, would not be likely to discover on my own.

People who are enraptured in their art, and willing to talk about that rapture, are rare, because they can provide the kind of material that transfers easily into stories. These are the sorts of people Auden described in his poem Horae Canonicae:

You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wearing the same rapt expression,
forgetting themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.

That’s why I was delighted, thanks to a tip from the writer Brett Riley, to discover Connor Ruebusch’s essays on boxing technique on the MMA site, Bloody Elbow.

In each post, Ruebusch points out a wealth of details that the untrained eye would never see, narrating deep into the fighters’ minds as the bout proceeds. This is an except from his essay on the recent Diaz – McGregor fight: Defying the Storm.

On first look, nothing much happens in this sequence. Diaz connects with a decent kick, but misses with his follow-up attack, and McGregor manages to keep him backed against the fence despite everything. For a boxer such as Nate, however, there is no such thing as a failure. There is only opportunity.

Diaz notices that, forced to make a quick reaction, McGregor slips to his left and looks for the uppercut. It is a counter that he had been preparing for Rafael Dos Anjos, and pre-fight training footage showed that he expected it to work against Diaz as well. Nate takes that information and files it away. It will come in handy in just a few moments.

Ruebusch narrates the key exchanges of the fight in blow by blow detail, displaying not simply a description of the different names of various punches, but also the thinking involved in such a battle, a way of seeing choices made or missed. It’s also impressive how he inserts narrative tissue into seemingly unconnected parts of the fight, teaching the reader to see what he sees (“Nate takes that information and files it away.”)

1. McGregor and Diaz square off at range.

2. Diaz tries to hand-fight but McGregor slides a jab under his left arm.

3. Diaz pulls back as the jab extends, but leaves himself open to an incoming overhand left.

4. As Conor’s left connects, Diaz moves with the punch, pulling back and absorbing the shock with his legs, all while looking to counter with a wide right hook.

Highly recommended.

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