Set in a post-promise Midwest of disappointed dreams, empty warehouses and closed storefronts, "Thrown" is a surprisingly engrossing work about the rising sport of mixed martial arts (MMA). Focusing on two cage fighters, one seasoned and one a starter, Kerry Howley writes with texture about a brutish sport.

In a curious choice for a book being marketed as "nonfiction," Howley creates, as she admits in her author's bio, a "semi-fictionalized graduate student named Kit" to tell the story of how she shadowed two MMA fighters for three years. Kit is a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Iowa; Howley herself was a graduate student at the university's Writers' Workshop. This device creates a meta view: Howley is nothing if not coy.

Her bored narrator wanders out of an academic conference on phenomenology in a Des Moines hotel into the "Midwest Cage Championship." Along with a hundred sweating male spectators, she is not only transfixed, but transported: "I had, for the first time in my life, found a way out of this, my own skin."

Thus begins Kit's sharp turn from the study of lofty, abstract philosophers into the earthy application of where the mind ends and the body begins. As a "spacetaker," or glorified gofer, she has an intimate view of two very real cage fighters. One is the well-creased Sean Huffman, an occasional construction worker and bar bouncer from Davenport; the other is Erik "New Breed" Koch, a young Cedar Rapids specimen with no job beyond training several hours a day in his brother's gym in the mash-up of fighting styles known as MMA.

Davenport had been the mecca of cage fighting when matches were held in strip clubs and basements, before being eclipsed by cable television's pay per view. The river town's decline mirrors that of the fighter Sean, who is suffering from post-divorce depression.

Howley writes: "Does not every human story open midscene?"

With the youthful Erik, her narrator potentially has a chance at more moments of the ecstasy she experienced the first time she saw Sean fight. But when flesh meets the mat, the laws of physics prevail more often than the precepts of philosophy.

Howley penetrates a sport and its practitioners, who starve and splurge, make huge economic sacrifices and subsist on dreams of defying flesh. She is not slumming, but rather chronicling, this bromancey, cultish world, where champions are awarded kitschy belts made of pleather. Ironically, her choice to blend fiction — her philosophy grad student, Kit — with fact puts an arm's-length distance between herself and her material. That said, the University of Tennessee-based Howley writes with grace and dark humor about rough edges.

Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer and reviewer and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.