Fight Call

In Pittsburgh, Uncategorized on July 3, 2009 at 12:00 am

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Until you’ve seen a man streaked with blood dry-hump another man, trying with all his might to kidney-punch him into submission, you’ve missed a key part of life. Until a man growls into a microphone, “IT’S A GREAT NIGHT TO FIGHT!”, and 5,000 crazed fans scream for blood, you’ll never know the joys of mixed martial-art cage fighting. Nothing matches the thrill of watching two heavyweight champions kick each other in the face, then hurtle each other into the ground. You’ll never fully appreciate the sight of 160-lb. fighters knotted around each other, their limbs folding and unfolding like vein-popping origami paper.

Last weekend, I was invited to see the Rumble on the Rivers, to cover the first legal MMA championship to take place in Pittsburgh. The Civic Arena was well-packed, the fight-card listed 16 fighters, and if I didn’t have to perform a comedy show later that night, I’d probably have stayed ’til the end. I interviewed some of the fighters on Friday, and most of them were goofballs; James Brasco, a Pittsburgh native and Duquesne alum, surprised me with his tenor voice and friendly demeanor. They weren’t the cutthroat lugs I was half-expecting. Brasco’s most offensive gesture was to instruct me when to quote him. “Write this down,” he said, pointing to my reporter’s notebook. “This is good.”

Luckily for both of us, it was good stuff. I learned more about Brazilian jiu jitsu than most theatre critics will learn in a lifetime. Brasco even performed some demonstrations — I can say with confidence that a six-time MMA champion grasped my throat in a light choke-hold. Take that, Rolling Stone, who no longer takes queries from freelancers.

As I sat alone in the “West Igloo” section of the Mellon Arena, watching Brasco manhandle Matt Brown, I thought of my own little fight club experience.

“Until you’ve been punched in the face,” said Brasco, “you don’t know yourself.”

And crazily, I knew exactly what he was talking about.

My entire life, I’ve avoided physical violence. I’m not afraid of pain so much as annoyed by it. Pain is tedious, because it lasts so long. Plus, violence is the least effective way to solve problems. Guys like to brag about how easy it is to resolve issues; they yell, they break things, and then they punch each other out in the backyard. The next minute, they’re friends. This is the traditional barbeque wisdom, the kind of mythology suburban Dads like ot spin while flipping burgers and making fun of their wives.

But violence doesn’t solve problems — it’s just a way to express problems. When enraged men (or women) swing fists, they’re saying, Hey, look how pissed I am! Did you see how I broke that guy’s nose? That’s because I dislike his personality and manner of speech. Most fights I’ve witnessed were fairly pathetic: Thumping fists, smacking palms, grabbing, tackling. Most people go about it half-heartedly; they’re too cerebral, too wrapped up in their fury, to land accurate strikes.

This is why I let my friends David and Bill convince me to box.

David has boxed for many years. He’s trim and firm-jawed and owns all the proper equipment. Bill, my token outdoors friend, will do anything physical, especially if it risks minor bodily harm. So we gathered in Bill’s living room, strapped on gloves, and gave sparring a shot.

Mostly, I wanted to see if I could take a punch. Wearing gloves and headgear is different than bare-knuckled brawling, especially when a mouthguard protects precious teeth. David and Bill are both in much better physical shape than I, especially in their upper-bodies, but I was surprised how naturally the movements came. The footwork is nearly identical to fencing (and I competed in epee for four years, with great success). I’m left-handed, but my right arm is freakishly more powerful, so guarding with my coordinated left and jabbing with my powerhouse right was remarkably effective. I managed to block, duck, hook, and upper-cut within a few minutes. My primal brain hijacked the rest of my reasoning. Instinct über alles.

When Bill’s nose started streaming blood, I swelled with pride. Bill seemed impressed, although he added that his nose has been broken countless times. “I cross my eyes and get a bloody nose,” he said with a laugh.

And then he knocked my lights out.

This is an exaggeration. I was never KO’d. Rather, Bill swung at my jaw, blasting the mouthguard from my lips, and as I thumped on the floor, a jet of saliva followed the little rubber horseshoe. My brain bounced in my skull, and in the second of impact, a red star blasted across my vision — it looked exactly like the TNT explosions in the Warner Bros. cartoons.

As enlivening as these matches were, I quit after two evenings. I fought seven fights, never survived a five-minute round, and decided that a health insurance policy should come before serious bouts. Also, Bill’s small den made it impossible to exercise sophisticated footwork. The boxing ring offers space, strategy. And for me, strategy is my only hope for survival.

But Brasco was right: Each skull-splitting punch was a lesson in self-awareness. And when my own nose started to bleed — and gushed for an hour — I relished the injury. For two weeks, every sniff ached, triumphantly.


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