Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Joshua Davis: The Underdog

Joshua Davis's book The Underdog is subtitled 'How I survived the world's most outlandish competitions'. It is a funny and surprisingly interesting account of how young Joshua -- a nine-stone weakling if ever there was one -- went in for a number of dangerous and physically demanding events cum sports, such as sumo wrestling and bullfighting, and survived to tell the tell.

Joshua is a bit shy of telling us exactly how old he is, but I would guess that he is now in his early thirties. He likes to present himself as a lifelong failure: e.g, in grade school he electrocuted himself when building a model; he started a rock band and at the first performance forgot the lyrics; and so forth. But in fact he is clearly a pretty sharp knife. For one thing, he went to Iraq to cover the war for Wired magazine, and was subsequently made a contributing editor, and they don't do that to fools and failures.

There are five principal chapters in this book. The first tells how Josh got involved in the armwrestling business: this, as you've probably noticed if you watch TV or movies, usually involves really tough truck drivers and the like making the veins on their foreheads stand out as they struggle to prove who is the stronger. A man who weighs less than 130 pounds is at something of a disadvantage.

However, it turns out that armwrestling, like boxing, has weight divisions, and in the lighter divisions there aren't many entries. So, one way and another, and despite getting thrashed, Josh suddenly became the fourth-highest-ranked lightweight armwrestler in the United States. He was also, it seems, the only vegetarian armwrestler in the history of the sport.

This fourth place got him on to the US team for the world championships. His experience in the sport was almost nil, and his achievements definitely nil. But they guys who were placed first, second, and third, all couldn't go to Poland, so Josh went.

He got thrashed there too, needless to say. For one thing he was up against guys who had had a leg blown off by a landmine or something, and so became lightweights instead of middleweights, but he probably would have lost anyway. Nevertheless, credit where credit is due: Josh Davis became the number 17 lightweight armwrester in the entire universe. (The guy who might have been placed 18th didn't turn up.)

All of this, you will have gathered by now, is an amusing account of (I suppose) a real-life experience, embroidered a little (or maybe a lot) in the telling. Either way, it's a lot of fun.

Despite his international success, Josh was at this point unemployed, and both his wife and his Mom were muttering darkly at him. Undeterred, Josh decided to travel to Spain and take up bullfighting. At this he was not much more successful than at armwrestling, but at least he emerged with his testicles still attached to his body, which is, apparently, more than can be said for some who fight bulls. What is more, despite the humorous tone of the text, it is quite clear that anyone who does what Josh did requires an exceptional amount of courage.

At this point, in a paragraph or two, Josh tells us about going to cover the war in Iraq and being made a contributing editor of Wired. Enough success, one might feel, for most of us. But Josh was still attracted by entirely unsuitable physical activities: unsuitable, that is, if you're five foot eight and 128 pounds. So he went in for sumo wrestling. A sport in which he found himself fighting a man who weighed 460 pounds.

Again, not surprisingly, Josh lost seven straight sumo matches. But he found that people still wanted his autograph because they admired his guts. 'You should have given up,' said one man. 'But you didn't.'

Josh, it turns out, is quite a good runner. And so for his next endeavour he took up running -- but backwards. Chiefly in India, but also in Italy. In both places, apparently, running backwards is a competitive sport. However, despite his ability to run forwards quite well, Josh still didn't win at the backwards bit. He came twentieth.

And finally the sauna competition. John has a complicated family, but (if I've got it right) his mother, stepfather, stepbrother, and sister, all decided to go to Finland and enter a sauna competition. And, if you're wondering how you can have a competition in a sauna, the answer is that the one who can sit there while they turn the heat up, and go on sitting there until his skin burns off, is the winner.

Joshua's Mom is a very good Mom, and while in Finland she did her best to get dates for her unmarried children. Josh is married, but the other two are a Lutheran pastor and a militant lesbian, so the dating business posed certain problems.

The account of the actual sauna competition is one of the more entertaining sections of the book. Preparation for entering a sauna which is allegedly running at a temperature of 220 degrees (Fahrenheit, presumably) seems to involve emptying several buckets of iced water over your head. Not a procedure which would appeal to everyone, I feel.

Josh didn't win this one either, despite suffering first-degree burns over most of his torso. The winner managed nearly 12 minutes in a temperature of 240 degrees. All in all, however, the family trip was a success in that Josh and his kin got to know each other better.

At the end of the book, Josh suggests to all of us that we should look around for something we might be great at. Perhaps we might be good ostrich jockeys; or a success at bar-stool racing. The coming years, says Josh, will be the era of outlandish sports. And, reality TV being what it is, he may be right.

All in all this is a thoroughly entertaining book, put together by a highly skilled writer with a pronounced sense of humour. It would make an excellent present.

For more on Josh, visit his personal web site. And, to find your own personal arena for success, go take a look at the UnderdogNation site; because everyone deserves a little time in the spotlight. Any spotlight. There is plenty to choose from: naked bug-eating, for instance; or ax shaving. You can't complain about lack of opportunity.

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