Advertisement
Books

John Vercher: We now know contact sports are dangerous – so is it ethical to watch them?

In his latest novel about a MMA fighter, John Vercher explores the reality – and the morality – of the devastating effects of repeated trauma on an athlete’s brain

Memory is a funny thing. We often try to make its intangible nature concrete, whether in the digital photo albums on our phones or keepsakes from our childhood, or those of generations past.  

But the memories living in our minds are as fluid as the organic matter in which they reside, malleable and subject to change. Sometimes that change is intentional, misremembering things as they happened, reshaping a narrative to make us the heroes of our own stories. Other times, the changes come due to trauma or the ravages of age. And in some cases, both instances can be true. 

These were the ideas I wanted to explore in my second novel, After the Lights Go Out. It is the story of Xavier ‘Scarecrow’ Wallace, a late-thirties mixed-race professional MMA journeyman fighter coming up on the end of a year-long suspension from fighting. Xavier is suffering from the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or pugilistic dementia. He has short-term memory loss, crippling migraines and mood swings from depression and paranoia to violent rage. 

Subscribe to The Big Issue

Support us

Take a print or digital subscription to The Big Issue and provide a critical lifeline to our work.

Working for his cousin and manager, Shemar “Shot” Tracy, a retired professional boxer, Xavier is also tasked with caring for his ageing white father, Sam, who is in the throes of late-stage Alzheimer’s. As Sam’s filters begin to fall away, he reveals the man he truly is, and Xavier gains insight into – and is forced to reconcile with – the reasons his Black mother left the family when Xavier was a teenager. 

Amid this drama, Xavier is offered a last-minute fight in the sport’s biggest promotion, but an incident at Shot’s gym puts Xavier in the pocket of dangerous people who, along with Xavier’s crumbling mind, put the chances to fight his last fight on his terms – let alone survive – in severe jeopardy. 

My childhood Saturday mornings were spent on the living room floor in the glow of our television watching Kung Fu Theater, while the evenings meant watching highlights of boxing greats like Hagler, Leonard, Hearns and Duran with my father. 

Advertisement
Advertisement

My obsession with combat sports led me to Tae kwon do training as a high schooler and mixed martial arts training as an adult, and even some amateur competitions in the kickboxing ring and the cage. As a mixed-race young man constantly on the search for a place I belonged, the training mats were a rare place where I felt truly at home.  

I also worked as a physical therapist for more than a decade in a variety of settings, from skilled nursing and home care to sports medicine, working with athletes at many levels. During that time, I saw the effects of both age and contact sports on the brain. Doing so caused me to see the sports I so loved in a different light. It raised a question in me – why do I continue to enjoy these sports when I know what it costs the athletes who participate in them?  

Ethical Shopping
Browse our range of books and support a social enterprise today.

While I still don’t have an answer, I wrote After the Lights Go Out to explore that question. I also wrote it to explore themes of identity and belonging, particularly about navigating the nuances of mixed-race relationships, as well as to explore the idea that misplaced loyalty can often lead us to intentional misremembering of our past, causing us to lie to ourselves about the people we love. Lastly, I wanted to shine a light on the unsung heroes of our healthcare system – the men and women of colour who often put their safety and dignity on the line to care for some of our population’s most vulnerable, often being exposed to hateful acts and language in the process. 

I’m a selfish writer in the sense that I write the stories I want to read, stories I haven’t yet read. Often those stories revolve around these kinds of social themes. Fiction, in my estimation, is one of the best ways to explore these ideas – to ask these questions, because I feel in non-fiction you’re expected to know the answer. Additionally, non-fiction topics around these themes run the risk of feeling didactic, wagging the finger in admonishment at the reader.  

To be certain, it’s a risk in fiction as well. However, that suspension of disbelief, no matter how small, allows the reader to let their guard down and inhabit the world and skin of the characters, perhaps to even see a mirror held up to themselves. It’s in those instances that new understandings can be reached. 

After the Lights Go Out book cover
After the Lights Go Out by John Vercher is out now (Pushkin Press, £14.99)

At least that’s my hope.  

John Vercher is an essayist and author

You can buy After the Lights Go Out from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

To support our work buy a copy!If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Advertisement

Every copy counts this Christmas

Your local vendor is at the sharp end of the cost-of-living crisis this Christmas. Prices of energy and food are rising rapidly. As is the cost of rent. All at their highest rate in 40 years. Vendors are amongst the most vulnerable people affected. Support our vendors to earn as much as they can and give them a fighting chance this Christmas.

Recommended for you

Read All
David Aguilar: Forget pity, I needed to change perceptions of disability
from the author

David Aguilar: Forget pity, I needed to change perceptions of disability

Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Christmas message from the stars
Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson: A Christmas message from the stars

Our Daily Bread: Father Alex Frost says it's not just prayer we need to tackle poverty
poverty

Our Daily Bread: Father Alex Frost says it's not just prayer we need to tackle poverty

Top 5 books about the power of music, chosen by Adriana Barton
Books

Top 5 books about the power of music, chosen by Adriana Barton

Most Popular

Read All
'Robert Smith isn’t people’s perceptions': Stories behind classic photos of The Cure
1.

'Robert Smith isn’t people’s perceptions': Stories behind classic photos of The Cure

David Jason: 'I find it difficult to believe that Del Boy is so beloved'
2.

David Jason: 'I find it difficult to believe that Del Boy is so beloved'

Postal strikes dates: When are the Royal Mail walkouts this December 2022 and why?
3.

Postal strikes dates: When are the Royal Mail walkouts this December 2022 and why?

All the amazing things Sadio Mané has done for charity
4.

All the amazing things Sadio Mané has done for charity