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Off the beaten path

In fighting, he took a road not often chosen by a Harvard grad

When he first got to Harvard, Sam Sheridan planned a movie night with some new friends. "They got the beer," he recalls, "and I got the movies."

The titles he chose were all kung fu films. His friends were horrified. Sheridan, who grew up in Western Massachusetts with kids who loved Bruce Lee as much as he did, was taken aback.

"But you're men!" he remembers exclaiming.

Now 32, Sheridan has crossed the globe for the past decade in search of his own adrenaline. He has served in the merchant marines, done construction in Antarctica, and fought fires in New Mexico's Gila National Forest . Hemingway would have been proud.

Some years ago, Sheridan set out to scratch another epic itch -- the itch to fight another man. Easy going, close with his family, and evidently comfortable in his own skin, he has no chip on his shoulder. He was just curious about the persistent allure of violence, and he felt obliged to explore it from the inside. Given the option between doing something that intrigues you and not doing it, he writes in his new book, "A Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of Fighting, " there is no choice: "You've already done the 'not do it' part."

Having messed around in the boxing club at Harvard, where he was inspired by the now- late, legendary trainer Tommy Rawson, Sheridan , at 26 , went to Thailand to study Muay Thai , the "Art of the Eight Limbs" (hands, elbows, knees, shins). His training was captured in a documentary picked up by the National Geographic channel. That exposure led to a magazine assignment to train with Ultimate Fighting Championship athletes in small-town Iowa.

By the time he finished researching "A Fighter's Heart," Sheridan had logged time in Rio de Janeiro with jiujitsu champions, in Oakland, Calif., with Olympic boxing gold medalist Andre Ward , and in New York with a tai chi master. The account of his travels gradually reveals itself as a kind of spiritual quest, albeit one that came at the expense of a rearranged nose and a chronic rib cage injury.

It took some time getting used to the idea that the book would be a personal journey, Sheridan said last week, in town a day before his appearance on "The Daily Show." Friends and editors, reading his early drafts, urged him to emphasize the story of his own development.

"You don't really think about your own arc," he says, stretching his long legs at a folding table at Sityodtong Muay Thai Academy in Somerville, a basement training site for several UFC contenders. He pauses. Leaning forward, he makes a scooping motion with his hand, as if ripping out his heart. He holds out the imaginary organ, above the little black moleskin notebook he has set on the table.

Sheridan sits back and stuffs his hands in the pockets of his Everlast hoodie. His close-cropped hair, peeking out from beneath a black watch cap, is salted with a little premature gray. The gym is empty; it's mid-morning, and most fighters have day jobs.

A son of teachers, Sheridan attended Eaglebrook and Deerfield private schools through his parents' employment benefits. "We never had cash, but we lived on campus," he says. Class distinctions were apparent: "There were guys whose dads were billionaires, and I had friends in the neighborhood who were making bonfires in the woods."

His mother, an artist who kept no television in the house ("I read super fast," says her son), encouraged Sheridan at an early age to explore his creativity, and he painted and acted in school plays. At Harvard, he enrolled in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies . To this day, he's not quick to offer the fact that he went to Harvard.

"Harvard kids call it the H-bomb," he says with a laugh: You only use it on a new girlfriend's parents."

Though he no longer paints -- it was, for Sheridan, a solitary and tedious pursuit, not to mention a brutal way to make a living -- he clearly has a keen eye for his surroundings. While bouncing around the world on short-term gigs -- smoke jumping to fight fires in New Mexico, crewing aboard a yacht to Australia -- he dove headlong into each situation.

"I always hated how Americans travel," he says. "If you go to Europe for two weeks and see 15 countries, you're going to see airports."

That willingness to stay put, and to put in hard work, proved invaluable in getting the professionals to open up to him. Fighters, he says, are typically suspicious of newcomers and loath to give away secrets.

"Going into a new gym is mentally exhausting," he acknowledges.

At each step along the process, he vowed to improve a certain area of his fighting skills -- his endurance, his striking form or his "ground game," the wrestling holds that have helped make the mixed martial arts of the UFC such a surprising television draw in recent years. His parents, now divorced, were both extremely supportive, he says.

"They don't like the getting-hit-in-the-head part, but they were into it. My mom says she wished I'd wrestled in high school," which would have made him a better mixed martial arts fighter. As it is, he says, the ground game remains his bugaboo: "Rolling around with sweaty guys is not my favorite thing to do," he says, grinning.

A year after typing the last page of "A Fighter's Heart," Sheridan still trains when he can. Now living in Los Angeles with his girlfriend, filmmaker Patty Jenkins (who wrote and directed "Monster"), he spars on occasion with a former pro boxer.

Yet he's ready to move onto a new obsession. "I'm happy I'm not a pro," he says. "Training is deadly boring. You can't eat, you can't drink -- you're micromanaging your life."

Which simply won't do for such an experience junkie. "Somebody asked me if I was looking for something," he writes in the book. "I am looking for everything."