All braun and no brain? 10 must-read books by martial artists

When you think of the martial arts it’s unlikely that literary craft is the first thing that springs to mind!

We all make assumptions about the world in which we live and the people we meet, proverbially judging books by their covers. But, as experimental scientists, Daniel Simons, and Christopher Chabris demonstrate in their groundbreaking book, ‘The Invisible Gorilla’, intuition is often wrong.

No more is this true than with the stereotypes surrounding martial artists. Granted, they have bought much of this on themselves with public demonstrations of eye-catching physical, rather than cerebral, skills; but there is more to a high-level fighter than high kicks and backflips.

Following then, is a list of the top ten non-instructional books written by martial artists, We ’ve included the author’s book blurbs and short bio’s where possible.

Some of the authors have more martial arts experience, while others have more writing experience, and the book list represents a diverse spectrum of ideas: thought-provoking, humorous, inspiring and often unexpected. All of them are cracking reads.

So, here we go, starting at number 10:

10. Win or Learn by John Kavanagh

The author: John Kavanagh, who runs Straight Blast Gym Ireland, is one of the world’s leading mixed martial arts coaches. His stable of fighters includes the UFC featherweight champion, Conor McGregor.

The book: Conor McGregor’s trainer tells the amazing story of his long road to success in the world’s fastest-growing sport

In Win or Learn, John Kavanagh tells his own remarkable life story – which is at the heart of the extraordinary explosion of MMA in Ireland. Employing the motto ‘win or learn’, Kavanagh has become a guru to young men and women seeking to master the arts of combat. As the trainer of the world’s most charismatic champion, his gym has become a magnet for talented fighters from all over the globe. Kavanagh’s portrait of Conor McGregor – who he has seen in his lowest moments, as well as in his greatest triumphs – is a revelation.

9. One thousand degrees at the ceiling: Life on the thin red line by Gary Chamberlain

The author: Gary Chamberlain began training in Kyokushinkai in 1971. In 2000 Gary joined Enshin and is now the branch chief of Enshin UK. Gary has proved his skills both as a competitor – he is a former British and International Open Light Heavyweight Knockdown Champion – and during his time as a doorman.

The book: Recollections of joining and working in the UK Fire and Rescue Service from 1974 – 2006. Descriptions of the variety of incidents attended as well as the mental and physical stresses experienced by crews. A harrowing but excellent read.

8. Moving Zen by C.W.Nicol

The author: C. W. Nicol is a black belt in Shotokan Karate

The book: A classic story of one man’s confrontation with the self through Karate. In 1962 at age twenty-two, C. W. Nicol left Wales to study Karate in Japan. He quickly found that the study of the martial art engaged his whole being and transformed his outlook on life. Moving Zen is the multifaceted story of a young man who arrived in Japan to study the technique of, and spirit behind, Karate. His story, Moving Zen, was first published in 1975 and has achieved the status of a modern classic.

7. The Karate Ka by Joel Reeves

The author: Joel Reeves has been training in martial arts for over thirty years including periods living in Japan and Okinawa. Currently living in the UK, he teaches Okinawan bujutsu.

The book: Spanning twenty years, The Karate-ka shares the author’s adventures from Japan to Okinawa in search of the mother of all karate styles – a ‘lost fighting art’ known simply as Te.  Following a chance encounter with an Old Man who recalls training in his youth with Gichin Funakoshi, the author abandons the mainstream dojo to seek out the last of the Te masters. Along the way, he meets various teachers, some hidden, some not, but each with their own repertoire of martial techniques and strategies, all wrapped within the transformative wisdom of a former time.

6. There are angels in my head by Kris Wilder

The author: Kris has worked as a bartender, construction worker, disc jockey, political and public affairs consultant, and has been on legislative and political staffs at the state and federal levels. Currently, Kris is the head instructor and owner of West Seattle Karate Academy. Kris started practicing the martial arts at the age of fifteen. Over the years, he has earned black belt rankings in three styles, Goju-Ryu karate, taekwondo, and judo, in which he has competed in senior nationals and international tournaments. Kris is also a member of the Order of St. Francis, a contemporary expression of Franciscan tradition within the Anglican Communion.

The book: Am I  experiencing self-deception or something profound? The unexplainable has happened. A prayer has been answered, a gift has been given, a communication has occurred… Is it the voice of God, or the voices in your head? Here’s how to find out… In this work, you will discover the organization of the mystical experience.  Discover what forms divine communication takes, and how to understand and interpret what is happening to you.

5. The Hardest Path- a journey outside to answer the questions within by Matt Jardine

The author: Matt Jardine is an author, writer, athlete, and teacher. He is the founder of ‘Jardine Karate’ and has helped thousands of students discover their personal potential through his specially designed martial arts programmes. He teaches in schools throughout London and at his Surrey venues. He has practiced meditation and other Eastern arts for over twenty-five years

The book: On the Japanese island of Shikoku, amidst mountains, coast and Bamboo forest, lies one of the world’s most sacred trails: the 88 temple pilgrimage. Inspired by Paulo Coelho (author of the Alchemist) and driven by dissatisfaction with the day-to-day grind, Matt Jardine embarks on a journey in search of answers to life’s great questions: mysteries that confound us all. In his heartfelt, accessible, humorous and profound book, what he discovers is that the hardest path is rarely the one we walk outside, but the one we walk within.

4. Angry White Pyjamas by Robert Twigger

The Author: Robert Twigger writes about extreme experiences and extreme places. He has written about several expeditions to remote parts of the world he has taken part in.

The book: Robert Twigger came to a revelation about himself: he’d never been fit. In a bid to escape the cockroach infestation and sweaty squalor of a cramped apartment in Fuji Heights, Twigger sets out to cleanse his body and his mind. Not knowing his fist from his elbow the author is sucked into the world of Japanese martial arts, and the brutally demanding course of budo training taken by the Tokyo Riot Police, where any ascetic motivation soon comes up against blood-stained dogis and fractured collarbones.

3. A fighters heart by Sam Sheridan

The author: Sam Sheridan joined the U.S. Merchant Marines after high school and then attended Harvard College. He is an amateur boxer, MMA fighter, and a student of Muay Thai and Jiujitsu. Sheridan has worked in construction at the South Pole Station in Antarctica, as a cowboy and farmhand on the largest ranch in Montana, a Wildland Firefighter in Washington State and New Mexico, a professional sailor, and a Wilderness EMT.

The book: After a series of adventurous jobs around the world, Sam Sheridan found himself in Australia, cash-rich and with time on his hands. It occurred to him that he could finally explore a long-held obsession: fighting. Within a year, he was in Bangkok training with Thailand’s greatest kickboxing champion and stepping through the ropes for his first professional bout. But one fight wasn’t enough, and Sheridan set out to test himself on an epic journey into how and why we fight, facing Olympic boxers, Brazilian jiu-jitsu stars, and Ultimate Fighting champions.

2. An American Shaolin by Matthew Polly

The author: Polly graduated from Topeka West High School. In 1992, at the age of 21 years, Polly took a leave of absence from Princeton University and traveled to China to train at the Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and kung fu.

The book: Matthew Polly was your typical 98-pound weakling with sand kicked in his face – until he decided to learn to kick back. Dropping out of university, he traveled to China to study at the granddaddy of all Chinese martial arts monasteries: the Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of both Zen Buddhism and kungfu. American Shaolin is the hilarious story of Matthew’s remarkable two-year travel odyssey – a tale of grueling training, forbidden romance and an eye-watering insight into the art of ‘iron-crotch’ kungfu.


  1. Waking Dragons by Goran Powell

The author: Goran Powell is a freelance writer who holds a 5th Dan in Goju Ryu Karate. He works in London and teaches and trains at Daigaku Karate Kai, one of the UK’s strongest clubs.

 The book: Thirty Man Kumite is one of karate’s toughest tests. Kumite means fighting, so it means fighting a line-up of 30 people, one after the other, with no pause in between each fight. Each new fighter is fresh, and the person taking the test must move up the ranks fighting higher and higher grades, the strongest last. Few martial artists will ever experience this. This book is a true account of Goran Powell’s Thirty Man Kumite – which was much harder than even he had imagined – and the lifetime of martial arts that led up to it. He explains what he learned at each stage and how he put it into practice for his ultimate test. The book touches on concepts such as chi, ‘soft’ techniques, Zen and the idea that ‘it’s all in the mind’.

Published by Matt Jardine

Author, writer, teacher and Martial artist

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