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Anytime, Anywhere 

Hardcore provocateur Eugene Robinson searches for the almost-perfect punch

Thursday, Sep 29 2005
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Photos by Ted Soqui

There’s the spastic flurry of hands and the smell that always ends up smelling like way-gone chicken soup (fear). There’s the mumble and the groan and eventually the slip into recognized roles (doer and done to). And finally, if everything works right, there’s the reminder that we are far worse/better than the animals whom we hold as pets and unsophisticated chattel (veritable ladies and gentlemen when the comparison is made). What we are, though, is this: We are fighters. And the scenario is repeated again and again and it wheedles its way into boardrooms and bedrooms, this not so particularly male obsession with the eternal, unasked “Can I take him?” Which could be extruded to “Can I take it?” Or better yet, “Can I?” With all apologies due to Sammy Davis Jr. (also a student, despite his diminutive frame, of the fistic arts), the answer is always the same: “Yes I can.” (Even when you can’t.) My name is Eugene. (Hi, Eugene.) And I’m a fight­aholic. “Hey, I’m going to need my seat back.” The speaker was Todd Hester, former longtime editor of Grappling magazine and current editor of Bodyguard magazine. He’s 6-feet-4-inches, 245 pounds. The scenario was ringside at the very first King of the Cage competition, Cali’s own paean to pummel. The year was 1998. And then this: “You’re also going to need to breathe.” No move to get up or acknowledge him other than that. The speaker was Rickson Gracie, one of the best fighters on the face of this entire planet. And there it is again, the skin torn off all of our quiet and civil discourse, civilly delivered but definitive in its assertion to your unasked question: “No. No, you can’t. Not today. Maybe not ever (take me, that is).” Hit me with a flower: Marcus Vinicius, the sensei of viciousness Or better yet, just simply, “Fuck no.” Because even though he’s got two arms and two legs and a head just like you, there’s no chance. None. Hester apologized, grabbed his bag and found a seat somewhere else and, laughing, added, “Well I did need to breathe.” We all need to breathe. Some realize that sooner, some later. But of the ones who realize it, there are those whose realization of it does nothing to actually help them. Continue breathing, that is. It started for me with another not-so-simple, simple question: “What the fuck are you looking at?” It’s New York City. The Clash’s Rude Boy is letting out of a midnight showing in Bay Ridge. Three cugines — think Italian cholos — are fighting with three men by a gypsy cab. Two of the Italians have wrenches. One, curiously enough, has a German shepherd. I am on the other side of the street. Crossed the street to get closer, natch, just as one of the be-wrenched cuginos took out the back window of the cab, which went skidding off into a Brooklyn night, leaving three very angry men with no reasonable resolution to whatever situation was at hand. “What the fuck are you looking at?” It was times like these that were meant for words like fracas, melee and donnybrook. Broken bottles, broken noses, broken jaws ensue, and at the end of it I end up in an emergency room with my left lower earlobe dangling and cartilage torn inside my ear. Topographical maps of the evening’s fun had spread out all over my suit in bloodied rivulets, and I clear my throat and waited for the overweight and angry nurse to render assistance because, after all, this was an EMERGENCY. “Yeah, yeah, they’re all emergencies,” she said. And aside from the guy who walked in smoking a cigarette to announce that he had been shot (And he had. Right in the thigh.), we all had to sit and ponder the highly ponderable foolishness of our wayward ways. It was a meditation that inevitably carried me along with it back to the crawl space at home, where — in my head — I had retrieved my Hi-Standard pump-action shotgun. I always loved that: Hi-Standard. You’re goddamned right. Except, you see, it’s not easy to stroll through the kitchen with a pump and a bloody suit when you’re 17 in a household where people give even the remotest fuck about you. Back at the hospital, I got stitches and a meditation that stuck. If I was going to do this shit, I might as well learn to do it right. “This is called the rear naked choke,” said Matt Furey. I was standing at AKA Kickboxing in San Jose, California. Now, it’s the home of a revolving group of at least eight great fighters of significant worth; names you’ll never even know — Dave Camarillo, Bob Southworth (Frank Shamrock used to work out there), Josh Thomson, Paul Buentello, Mike Swick, Mike Kyle and owner Javier Mendez. But back in 1999, it was where NCAA champion wrestler Matt Furey reigned. Though now widely derided by those in the know as sort of a quasi–Billy Blanks exercise enthusiast, Furey was (and is) the real deal. I’d seen his Charlie Atlas–esque ad in some weekly rag, and where it said, “Want To Fight?” I thought, Yeahhhh. And so after eight years of Kenpo Karate (“You might as well have been studying interpretive dance”), a year of Muay Thai and a month of thinking about how another Gracie (Royce this time) had run through the competition in the first bow of what’s now called mixed martial arts, no holds barred or submission fighting, I wanted to learn the rear naked choke. I mean, Gracie won using this self same choke — I had to learn it. But, “What do you do when they get you in one of these?” “That’s like asking, ‘What do you do after you’ve been knocked out?’” said Furey. Dream? No. Not yet. But to hell with this brain-twisting Mr. Miyagi crap. Patience is not a virtue I’m given over to, and so off with the Eastern aphorisms, barroom wisdoms and, how about just this: Field-testing. Screw the books, bring on the left hooks. What say we bounce? Bounce? Bounce. Not the intransitive slang verb but you know, more Patrick Swayze in Road House bounce. It seemed so seemly, what with me now pushing the scales at 265 pounds of animal under my skin, that, of course, I should end up here: here being floating raves, stripper security scenes with me wielding Maglites and escorting mud wrestlers amidst and betwixt fucking bachelor parties full of drunken hockey players, or South Bay clubs where those who came to fuck but didn’t would stay to fight. It was like a dream. It was dreamesque. And I was The Bouncer With The Groovy Demeanor. Also known as The Choker. Also known as Mr. Clean. And despite being in Fight Heaven, I was dour. Daily. Because, you see, commerce had sullied the waters. I liked to fight but I was being paid to work. And work I did. Witness: He asks her to dance, she says no after giving him the loser scan, and he, predictably, loses it. Punches her down to the floor. In life I’m quite sure things will never get better than this for this man. I throw him and his brother out of a double door, one of which is locked. They hurl invective from beyond the safety threshold, the door jamb of justice. “Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you.” “Anything else?” “Yes, fuck you.” And that was it. Five fuck-yous is one fuck-you over my fuck-you limit. I step across the door jamb and his friend who’s been hiding behind the closed door punches me in the face and as I turn to get him, the Fuck You man punches me in the face, and like some Popeye cartoon my head swivels with each hit until I figure out that first things must come first. So I choke out — rear naked choke out — Fuck You man while his friend works on my head from behind. Then I turn to him and choke him out, and the police show up with guns drawn and haul them away. Invigorated? Not exactly. Because though the fight is joy enough on its own, it wasn’t enough. I had to write a report for the manager describing what happened. “What happened is my jaw hurts and I should probably get some fucking X-rays.” “What’s going to happen is that you should finish writing that report and then go chew some fucking gum because we can’t afford it.” Now the water was muddied as muddied could be. The jaw was fine but I was pissed off. And the next night, as I stood between The Two Guys and The Three Guys apparently scheduled to fight The Two Guys, I started to wonder what it was all about, Alfie. And right about that time there was a looping overhand from The Three Guys and I knew what it was about. It wasn’t about stopping fights. I mean I wasn’t here for that. That’d be like a hooker working a Mormon ministry in a massage parlor. I was here to fight. Specifically, to protect my still-throbbing jaw from all sorts of chewing-gum-related HMO concerns. So I trapped the sloppily delivered punch and began punching the puncher in the mouth, always the offending mouth, and I was grabbed by guy number two of The Three Guys, and I swiveled my arm under his arm and into a hip throw that landed him on the ground, where I stomped and stomped until guy number three tried to take me down and I grabbed his hair and began working the anvil chorus of his head against the marble bar and against the rising chorus of screams and shouts, now all in unison... “EUGENE STOP, STOP, EUGENE STOP...” Through the mist of all of the blood lusting, I did note that they were all calling my name. Curious. But not nearly so curious as them firing me. For fighting? Hahahahaha. Fuck them. There are some places that know fighting, and so from Furey I went to Marcus Vinicius at Beverly Hills Jiu-Jitsu. I drove by it laughing. That was before I knew. It sort of seemed like Tough Guy Day Spa. Except it really was. Vinicius was training cats named Judo Mark, and training with Bas Rutten, Darrel Gholar, Mark Kerr, Vin Diesel, for chrissakes. It was a who’s who of asskickage. The crème of concussion crème. Guys who, given the Mike Tyson archetype of big and burly, are not any kind of a guy who’d register on your street radar as giving off any kind of a nature’s warning signal — unless you count cauliflower ears, or preexisting subdural hematomas, or cuts around the eye. The most dangerous men, man to man, in Los Angeles. Who’d a thunk it? Sunk in off Robertson and not even gifted with anything more than a half number —912 1/2 South Robertson — it looked much less like a strip-mall self-defense deal and much more like a place where if you didn’t like to, want to, need to fight, well, you could just get the fuck out. All pea green outside and walls of blue pads inside, it recalled nothing for me if not New York’s Gleason’s, or one of those places in John Huston’s Fat City. But in the early afternoon of a California white Wednesday, it was where I was going to be if being here meant I’d get to fight like those guys that fought here. “What are you doing?” Vinicius called me aside. “We’re just training now. Not fighting. Don’t be like Joe Charles.” There was a difference, it seemed. Training is what you do when you’re getting ready to fight. Fighting was what I was doing. I had learned it from Furey. And Furey had learned it from Karl Gotch, one of the old-time greats. And Joe Charles had learned it from Judo Gene LeBell, and it was just a different way of being done and it was a way that guaranteed that if you learned anything, you’d learn it because you were a tough sonuvabitch. And if you didn’t learn, you’d go home hurt. In football it’d have been called “unnecessary roughness,” but there seemed to be something pretty necessary about it. I’d stay with Vinicius, barring hell or high water, because he’s a technician’s technician, but I’d never forget for a minute the taste in the mouth of that certain savagery, hinted at in classes, aggressively suggested in the streets. You see, that’s really why I was there, because that’s what it was that got me. Sure, I could train, and I did, but I really wanted to fight. Not sport-fight either (which is about as close as you can get), but fight. Not Ultimate Fight, but fight. Reliving like we do, perhaps, the burn of first loves, this love of the fight. I wanted to train but I had to fight. Enter OXBOW. Call it a pro-social umbrella for antisocial activity. Call it a band. Call it a couch whereby the id airs itself out and people, frequently fans, come to enjoy music. Call it a nightly excuse/invitation to be taken seriously when you ask: “Can I take him?” And lest confusion sully the waters here, this has much less to do with the TV-coach trope of winning and much more to do with just fighting. Win or lose, I love it just the same. Hold on. That’s a lie. I like winning much more but I like fighting enough to risk the losing because in the end it’s the fighting that justifies itself and not the winning or the losing. Call it Zen and the Art of Kick Assertainment. And they lined up in long lines: ice throwers, hecklers, critics, guys hiding by back doors, women trying to club me with beer bottles, stoner rock dudes with knives, all wanting to go all Wide World of Nature on me and try their “luck.” And what’s more, something else happened. Girls whose boyfriends had beaten them, dominatrixes who needed an edge on an increasingly demanding clientele, art rockers and tattooists willing to trade for trade. — 24-hour party people started coming to me wanting some get-back, or at the very least to learn how to. And add to that the fact that I had started making worlds collide, writing about fighting pros so that I could fight pros who inevitably kicked my ass because they are pros — Daniel Gracie, Cesar Gracie, Frank Shamrock, Rico Chiapparelli out in Redondo — and you have a prescriptive for the cyclical nature of life. They, the more skilled, beat me, the less skilled, savagely. I, in turn, would beat those less skilled savagely. With a soundtrack of unholy squall throbbing in clubs in Germany, England or the Netherlands, or standing on the sidewalk clubside in Maine. Now, I don’t mean to diminish our art, and make no mistake about it, when Vice magazine called us “the best art rock band in the world,” they knew of what they spoke, but I do mean to underscore the symbiotic arrangement we have when, realistically speaking, critical accolades are not enough. We’d rather play a set than fight one but in the end, where it all ends up, it’s almost the same thing. Then this from the record label: “We thought you might like this.” It was, or would have been had it been handwritten, a scribbled e-mail inducement to Fight Club. Rule Number One of Fight Club: Do not talk about Fight Club. But here it was. You had to call a number, and go to an address, and then buzz a buzzer, and meet a man named Hank before moving off to a cranky old elevator and into a room next to an incinerator with about 20 other dudes. Perfect. There are no referees here. Nothing but graying concrete, men who don’t look at each other except in sidelong glances of appraisal and heat pipes that raise the temperature, pre-fight, to a standing 20 degrees hotter than outside. Did I mention the smell of garbage that wafted through the place? This one was in San Francisco, but it’s a movable feast, and it travels up and down the coast and it bows in Venice, San Jose, out in San Fernando for chrissakes. Pancrase guys from Hong Kong. Boxers coming in from Seattle. Stretching and taping their fists. I’m stretching and taping my fists. And after doing all of these things I find myself in a tight ring. It’s tight to force faster action. Tight to discourage tourists. I’m faced off against a guy with a David Niven mustache. He’s about 215 (to my now svelte, well-cardio’d and non-steroided 210). I kick his legs with Muay Thai kicks and he backs up and I’m back in Brooklyn again thinking, “Oh yeah. I CAN...” I bob. I weave. I drop my right hand. I wake up on the mat. He was a southpaw. He was also Chris Sanford, one of the stars of Spike TV’s not-long-gone Ultimate Fighter show and a Cesar Gracie protégé. Funny thing about getting knocked out: It steals your time away. And the 10 seconds you were down there while feeling like a blink paradoxically also have you feeling long-nap refreshed and saying shit like, “I tripped.” But moments like this were made for Memorex, and instant replay had shown me taking a solid one and falling to the mat. I shrugged, got the fuck off of the mat and knew something then that keeps me coming back to this basement, other basements, and fights that I win or fights that I lose, and that’s: Our essence is divine, we are infinite, and I am going to try to kick your fucking ass. “You had the weirdest light around you. And this smile on your face,” my mom said. I was 17. You see, some kids’ moms were drudges, Florence Henderson martyrs of motherly attentions. Mine, all Diana Ross cool, was stepping between me and three bouncers at The Ritz, New York City, New York, minutes before a Killing Joke show and minutes before I was going to be tossed bodily down a marbled flight of stairs. The fight had been short and set up, and with my arms pinioned behind me and three of them, it was soundly, squarely, nay, healthily one for the L column. “You seemed really very, very content. It was strange.” Do tell.

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