Fight Night At The Octagon

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?

Los Patinadores en Invierno ( Skaters in Winter)

LA Kings primary logo from 1967 82.
Image via Wikipedia

“Style is the mind skating circles around itself as it moves forward” Robert Frost

I have an antique engraving of late 19th century Spanish skaters fastening their blades as they prepare to glide across a great sheet of frozen opaque lake.  The etching is small and the figures are muted and impressionistic – the way one might dream about a past life – as if you are looking through a great frosted telescope through to some simpler time.

I recall as a child watching ice-skating in the Olympics – rooting for the hopelessly outclassed Americans as East Germans, Russians and Scandinavian pixies gracefully floated, skimmed and sailed across the blurred rink accumulating near perfect scores.

When our US skaters were not getting smoked in some far-off rink in Boogerglob, Yugoslavia, our hockey teams were getting worked over like Poland during the Blitz.  My father had told me of the “ miracle “ in 1960 when the unheralded Americans won the Gold beating Canada, the Russians and the Czechs at Squaw Valley California.  However, I grew up during the cold war and a period of total Soviet domination.  The US was no match for these bladed automatons jacked up on steroids and vodka. The eastern bloc teams had lots of time on their hands to practice. After all, home was a sterile one bedroom apartment shared with five people, two government run TV channels and bread lines.

In California, winter happened to other people in other places and ice rinks were as uncommon as wool sweaters and US gold medalist winter Olympians.  My first glimpse of an indoor ice rink was the Great Western Forum in Inglewood where the Los Angeles Kings played hockey.  I liked hockey instantly.  Hockey was exotic.  It was played on an ice rink that rested under the glossed wooden floors of the Lakers basketball court.  Hockey players were as fast and big as football players.  They were missing teeth, had scars all over their faces and were angry all the time.  They were like pirates or life without parole prison inmates.

It looked dangerous and exciting to try to score.  Once you got around six potential felons, you had to try to slap the puck past a faceless demon called the goalie.  Perhaps, he was so ugly that he was not allowed to show his face. Maybe goalies wore masks so fans would not recognize and assault them in the parking lot for allowing a goal.  I was mesmerized.  I forced my Dad to drive us great distances through very dangerous neighborhoods in South Central LA to watch the Kings slashing center Marcel Dionne, speedy forward Butch Goring and the courageous goalie – Rogie Vachon.

Alas, like most expansion teams, the Kings were hardly royalty.  They stank.  And it seemed whenever the Canadiens, Flyers, Bruins or Black Hawks came into town, my team got crushed.  To add insult to injury, the victors would usually leave one of their past-their-prime players behind with the Kings in some horrendous trade that would prolong our long painful climb our of expansion adolescence.

What I really liked best – was the fighting.  They called the players who fought “ goons” which I thought was hysterical.  The only goon I had ever seen was Alice, The Goon on Popeye.  With names like Dave “ Tiger” Williams and Dave “ Cement-head” Semenko, these insane asylum candidates wracked up more penalty minutes than maximum-security prisoners.  They had nicknames like “ The Grim Reaper”, “The Hammer” and “Bloody O’Reilly”. They high- sticked, slashed, cross checked, punched, gouged and broke more orbital bones than a medical examiner.  The goon’s job was simple: retaliate and protect their star player from the other team’s goons.

When a fight would break out, the gloves would fly off and the adults (refs) would not even try to break up the brawl.  For a kid who sought to be freed from the yoke of parental oversight and the suffocating civility of rules based games, hockey was sanctioned violence.  The referees just stared at the scrum of wild punches and ripped jerseys while everyone in the stands went absolutely berserk.  Eventually the refs jumped in once the players had punched themselves silly.

I decided I wanted to learn to play hockey and skate.  My father had grown up in a time of hockey leagues and early morning ice rinks and did not want to spend his weekends indoors in what smelled like a three week-old duffel bag.  He was a Californian now.  There was football, tennis, baseball, paddle and soccer – all to be played outdoors.

I dreamed of snow and ice-skating but did not understand that for ice to form, a person must endure consecutive days of bitter cold.  On New England lakes and ponds, there was no Zamboni machine to smooth the natural irregularities of a frozen body of water.  The ice accumulated and moved indiscriminately like a crack across a windshield.  But I had to try. Ice-skating and hockey looked so easy and I wanted to meet my Peggy Fleming on a frozen pond where we might waltz or tango and then spin around waiting until one of you fell to the ground and looked at the other and said, ” kiss me, you fool.”  I lacked the imagination to speculate what would happen much beyond this point.  I was ten.

My father bobbed and weaved with me like an outmatched prizefighter. Growing up in suburban Chicago and then discovering Eden at the University of California at Berkeley, my father vowed he would never return to the raw, sideways sleet and arctic winds that knifed across Lake Michigan. He had learned to skate, sled and survive in the snow but traded his Currier & Ives childhood for an aquamarine Christmas morning of 60 degrees and the rhythmic sway of palm trees.

I kept chipping away at his paternal guilt and finally convinced him that my inability to skate would one day keep me from getting into a good college.  He was about to say “ no” for the thirtieth time, when he got a wry smile across his face and said, “ Sure”. I will never forget his mischievous smile. He confessed that his aversion to snow had perhaps unfairly denied his sons the ability to attempt a triple axle.  In what we thought was a rare fit of nostalgia, he drove us to a suburban ice rink on Christmas Eve to “learn” to ice skate

The excitement was palpable as I laced my razor–edged rockets and ran my finger along the dull but intimidating blade that ran from the toe to heel. I was mentally already on the ice – a goon in search of mayhem and perhaps a six –year-old that I could check into the boards.   I got up to try to walk in the skates and my ankles buckled.  I fell to one knee and hit the ground hard. My eyes watered but I did not cry.

We walked on to the ice and I fell backwards, hitting my large head like a pumpkin dropping on the kitchen floor.  I had no helmet and saw stars as my head cracked on the hard ice.  A strange ensemble of people gingerly moved with arms under weak fluorescent lights flailing and awkwardly lunging like drunken sailors.  Suddenly, a pink flash shot past me.  A magnificent teenaged girl came to a knife edged stop and spun in place.  She was like a music box ballerina suspended by celestial gossamer strings.  I was in love. I tried to get up and my leg shot out from under me as if it had been fired from a rocket.

My father lifted and guided me to the railing where I moved myself along a great rectangular rink for one hour.  Each time the rose colored girl skated by, I let go and fell injuring some hidden body part with a flash of white-hot pain.  It was on my eleventh consecutive fall that I conceded that I did not have the patience or pain threshold to learn to skate or keep up with the pink projectile.  It was my secret shame – being so hooked on hockey and knowing that I could not even stand on skates.

The following morning, I awoke to sensations not dissimilar to the black plague.  Severe aching limbs consistent with internal bleeding, bruising and feverish.  My father looked on with amusement as I struggled downstairs and declared that I must have the flu.  My skating career officially died anno domini one thousand nine hundred seventy two.

Years later, I look on at skating with a twinge of envy and great respect.  I never returned to the ice.  I often slow my car to  watch as a small group gathers by the edge of  black frozen ponds.  Skaters ease on to the ice and breeze across dark, crosshatched arteries of rock hard water.  I now understand why the best skaters have quadriceps larger than many Christmas turkeys.  It is magic to stand in a cold biting wind, teetering on the razor thin edges of a single blade, pushing out with one leg while bracing the other leg to move ahead.  Slash-glide-slash-glide.  You move like winter wind across the ebony water trapped below.

It is part of the cinnamon scented of the holidays – these simple pleasures.  It is a new pair of skates under a tree.  It is a pond iced over to its proper depth.  It is frozen twilight and a single, solitary person floating like a downy feather across a frosted sheet of glass.  It’s Christmas Eve and the skaters cannot wait for the next day. I watch from a raised embankment along a serpentine road. I am thinking once again of that elegant ancient etching of “Los Patinadores En Invierno”– wispy shadows cast from another time. The skaters disappear, an evergreen pine suddenly obscuring my view.

The pond, it seems, goes on forever.