I’m a charming coward; I fight with words. Carl Reiner
In the 1952 John Ford classic, “The Quiet Man”, John Wayne and Victor McLaglen square off in what some film critics have touted as the greatest fistfight in the history of American cinema. The confrontation follows the two combatants across a half mile of County Mayo countryside as they exchange blows for a full twenty minutes. After seeing John Wayne in action, it seemed to me that a boy wasn’t really a man until he had administered or been given a fat lip in a fistfight.
When you grow up among boys, you get beaten more times than your grandma’s throw rug. It is a rite of passage to be punched in the arm every morning and pinned to the ground by your older sib’s friends who proceed to administer medieval tortures like ” pink belly’, ” cauliflower ear”, “super melvins” and the dreaded “monkey bump”. You learn quickly that to cry outside the family is to invite further ridicule. You choke back tears; rise up out of the dirt, florid and humiliated – – intent on plotting the slow, painful death of each tormentor. In later years, you just hope that one of them comes to you looking for a job.
Being regularly beaten up for a decade left me two choices – man up or move to Canada. In the 1970’s all conscientious objectors moved to the great white north. However, when it was pointed out to me that Canada had no McDonalds, I realized I must adapt to my hostile environment. Like an anthropologist I studied other families. I noticed that the best adjusted and least bruised kids were those who were quickest to cry wolf at the slightest fraternal infraction. I discovered that if I pretended to be more hurt than I really was, I could inflict greater pain than if I fought back.
It was a clever ruse to fake serious injury. At some level, my father knew that I was faking but he just could not stand the crying. He was angrier at my ear splitting screams and the disruption than the actual infraction. He would ruthlessly administer swift corporal punishment to the offending brother and then yell at me to calm down. Like a method actor, my ability to feign injury was the equivalent to the Star Wars Missile Defense System. It became a valuable prophylactic against the tyranny of older brothers.
While the internecine wars of boys were measured in scratches and welts, most of the scrapes I witnessed later in life, were one-punch affairs. Seasoned street fighters understood that landing the first punch improved their chances of survival. Cowards and thugs sometimes overcame opponents out of their weight class simply by deploying an underhanded technique called the “sucker punch”. The sucker punch was a risky and devious instrument of foreign policy where one considers the mere threat of violence as sufficient cause for a preemptive strike. This unanticipated offensive usually took the form of a head butt, nose punch or knee to the groin. It bought you time – precious time to press your advantage or in my case, run away if the attack failed.
Being the descendant of French Huguenots who fled from virtually everything, I was a pacifist and believed avoiding a fight was a good as winning one. Having spent a childhood getting pounded, I could sense when social tensions were creating a low-pressure system that only a fight could fill. When the potential for confrontation began to escalate, I would ease towards an exit. If a fight did break out, I would be out of harm’s way. Once the outcome was determined, I could stumble upon the scene and pretend that I was furious at having missed the combat. Yet fights were like flash fires and sometimes one could not be avoided. When the bullets started to fly, it was important to pick your fox hole mates very carefully.
I always stuck close to my buddies who wrestled. There was a great mythology around the physical prowess of football players. In my experience, a 260lb lineman moved like a Brontosaurus and possessed a similarly proportioned brain that gathered and processed data very slowly. Linemen were like the French forts of the Maginot line – big, imposing, and useless. Large guys just invited a sneak attack.
My fellow baseball players were generally useless in a scrape. They did not know what to do if they could find a mound to rush. Swimmers? Forget it. They were usually preening their green chlorinated hair in the bathroom and waiting for any opportunity to remove their shirt so they could show us their 42 abdominal muscles. A swimmer might attempt one swift, girly kick before rushing off like a seal to find water where they would dare you to come and get them.
It was always the scrappy 158lb middleweight wrestler that was the force to be reckoned. This was a guy that you ignored at your own risk. He was the high school equivalent of a Navy Seal. He was frozen in a permanent state of self-imposed suffering. He would spit, starve and sweat while wrapped in a plastic suit for three days trying to make weight for his next match. He had less body fat than a POW and a surly disposition from all of his personal sacrifices that went unnoticed by a student body that was mesmerized by more mainstream power sports. He labored anonymously on a dusty mat for hours, risking staph infections and dislocated limbs – often contorted against his will into positions worthy of a cirque d’ soleil acrobat.
On many occasions, a fight would threaten to break out, only to have the 175lb team captain slip underneath an errant blow and wrap the drunken offender up faster than you can say ” Little Annie’s Pretzels” At this point, the wrestler would look up like an annoyed animal trainer and say, “could you guys get me a beer?” Below him, the larger, more sloth like offender was straining to get out of a hold that Houdini could not have escaped. His captor would merely tighten his neck lock and whisper, “Had enough?” This was the inglorious bastard that you wanted as a wingman when things got hot.
Fighting was a part of growing up. Before society became wildly litigious, it was a foregone conclusion that where there were boys gathering, fists would fly. Some parents came up with creative ways of resolving disputes including forcing the adversaries to put on the boxing gloves and resolve differences in the ring.
My dad grew up boxing. In those days, kids would go to the YMCA or hang around gyms and learn the proper art of pugilism. ” Keep up your left” he would coach.
“Jab-jab-jab! Now, hit with the right cross!”
This was an era when professional boxing still held America captive with flamboyant light, middle and heavy weight fighters like, Alexis Arguello, Roberto Duran, and the greatest, Muhammad Ali. Hollywood glorified the grit, violence, discipline and rags to riches nature of boxing through movies like “Somebody Up There Likes Me”, “Rocky” and “Raging Bull”.
Where there is sanctioned violence, corruption is not far behind. Professional boxing ultimately turned on itself – fighting and splintering into divided federations and associations all claiming to be the lineal descendant of the National Boxing Association championship. A grittier and less heroic generation of thug fighters emerged and with them, America’s thirst for a heroic fist-fighter descended to a new low –- Ultimate Fighting.
In this graphic spectacle of modern day gladiators, combatants wrestle, kick, punch, choke and assault one another until a bloodied fighter taps out (yields), passes out, is knocked out or is TKO’d by the referee. They fight in a cage. When introduced many ultimate fighters reference years spent fighting in “The Octagon”. I have no idea where the Octagon is or if it is a real place. It sounds like it should be next to a cock-fighting ring in Bangkok. I know where the Pentagon is but this citadel of pain actually has three more sides than the epicenter of all American military operations.
Ultimate fighting is brutality and the new breeds of fighters that engage in this sport are not muscle bound pugilists but ex-college wrestlers and kick boxers. They are often former special-forces personnel who understand the art of hand-to-hand combat. They have names like Kevin “Kimbo” Slice and Quinton “ Rampage “ Jackson. I am drawn to it like a spectator watching a barroom brawl.
It seems as if fighting has “devolved” It has become more primitive. There is irony in this shift. Perhaps it is a reflection on our society. We discourage our children from fighting. We have become more gentrified and more accountable for our actions. We seek to tame the “Id” within us. In our efforts to evolve into a more gentile, lotus eating society, our reservoir of anxiety and hostility cannot find an outlet. Ergo, our need for brutal full contact fighting found inside an Ultimate Fighting cage. Are we more or less violent than 40 years ago? Are we unfulfilled and at our nature violent creatures? Is boxing dying because it’s not aggressive enough? Perhaps, we may find the answers to these and other questions inside the Octagon.
But just where the hell is it?