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
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).”
me with a flower:
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
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. 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.”
“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.
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.
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.”
out some issues
When Push Comes to Punch
A pugilist takes the couch
L.A. WEEKLY: We know you like to fight, but why?
EUGENE ROBINSON: Short answer? It’s expressively honest. There’s no real
equivocation in an elbow to the jaw, no pussyfooting about the gray shadings
of meaning inherent in civilized and power-shielded discourse. And it’s a potent
tie to our immediate and ever-present animal. Now words are all well and good
and like the Meat Puppets say, “Well, who needs action” when you got words,
but in a land where words have ceased having meaning, this will have to do.
Nicely. The problem here is, largely, this has become the model for our
national discourse. In other words, fighting has become trendy. Not the stuff
in the ring, which I will love no matter what, but the idea that words are an
embarrassment used only by those who do not know how, can’t, or are afraid to
fight. Remember, I choose to fight and I do so not because I have no
other choice but because it’s frequently, in the wide and rainbowed palette
of personal expressions, the expression that people seem to most want to see.
So my reasons for wanting to fight are:
Part Florence Nightingale: It’s not unusual for me to be thanked by the
beaten. If not right away, then later. I’m not a bully and only fight as a last
recourse, and if it’s some ass clown who’s been pushing and pushing, well, he’s
thanking me for teaching him a lesson as gently as a hardhead like him is likely
Part Ted Bundy: Vast wellsprings of rage, the sources of which go back to early-life
Freudian shit having everything to do with every single existential and psychosexual
issue you can ever imagine. Not to politicize my way around this but I’ve got
a very, um, very complicated relationship with other human beings.
Part Zorba the Greek: I like to fight.
But what about the moral and legal repercussions?
If you are a reactive fighter, not a bully, the law affords you a good
deal of latitude. I mean, under the auspices of defending yourself you
can get away with murder. Literally. Also, being well dressed, sober and articulate
can be a great saving grace and a license for the aforementioned murder. I was
at this party, trying to make my way through the crowd to get out. The police
were breaking things up. A biker stood in my way. I said, “Excuse me.” He belched.
I walked around to the left. He stepped in front of me. I walked to the right.
He walked to the right. I looked at him and said, “I’m going to give you until
the count of three to get the fuck out of my way. One… two…” (Always go
ON the number three, please.) I broke his nose and shattered his cheekbone with
three solid right crosses that put him down, as luck would have it, right at
the feet of the cops, who asked me what happened. Well, I looked at the unconscious
biker, drunk, covered in blood and beer; I looked at the cop and said as honestly
as possible, “He fell.” Good enough for the cop who arrested… HIM… on the
spot. This covers the legal ramifications.
As for moral ramifications? None to speak of that I know about. I mean, to quote
AC/DC, “I never shot nobody that didn’t carry a gun.”
I mean, sure, sure, you cry a few crocodile tears if you’re around a woman who
you like and you want a few extra-special points for Alan Alda–esque sensitivities
and a certain amount of noble savagery. The reality though? It’s as fun as the
most fun thing you could ever do. Crushing your enemies, driving them before
you and hearing the lamentation of their women? It doesn’t get much better than
Is this what your teacher, Marcus Vinicius, taught you?
Marcus Vinicius is one of the greatest men and fighters that I know.
He’s a gentleman and in true Brazilian fashion would be shocked and appalled
at my extracurricular application of a discipline that he reveres. He pursues
the fight game globally. I’ve spent time with him in Russia and here. He’s gone
to Serbia, Italy, the Amazon Rain Forest, Japan and Puerto Rico in search of
the Apollonian heart of this Dionysus. While Marcus has taught me the finer
points of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu — a coterie of chokes, cranks and debilitating
arm bars — his South American mix of an easygoing love of life combined with
a certain machismo made my distinctly North American assholishness something
I necessarily had to leave at the door. But make no mistake, what he taught
me, he taught me to great effect.
Translation: If I’ve choked you the fuck out, don’t thank me. Thank the great
How did OXBOW become part band, part fight club?
OXBOW is all band, and if you were looking for four musicians
more serious about playing the music they play, you couldn’t find any. Serious.
Pretentious. Portentous. It is not easy music to play. Unfortunately this means
that in concert the most important thing for us is the playing of
that music. Not the fact that you want to show your friends how funny it is
to piss off the Negro with the knife on stage in his underwear by screaming
shit at him that would get you largely the same treatment streetside sans
the amps, the speakers and all the rest. In any case, because disrespect
seems to beget disrespect, if you don’t want to hear the music and you don’t
want us to play the music we’re being paid to play, well, it seems that leaves
very little doubt as to what you really want: to get to know us better. Closer.
More intimately. And you will.
But yeah, your instincts are right here. There was an evolution to this position.
It occurred one night when a “friend” taunted us the whole show. Because he
was a “friend,” we gave him a pass. But after the show it felt so bad, like
we had failed as musicians and artists, that we decided to NEVER, EVER
again ignore the reality of the moment. To never ignore the hereness and the
nowness of this Zen two-step between you and us. And so it goes: We’re engaged
in the collective creation of a piece of art. It’s as egalitarian as it gets.
Everyone participates. For good or ill.
But the most important thing to note here is when playing a show, we’d always
rather just finish playing the show than fight. (That is the collective WE.)
And when fighting a fight we’d always rather just finish fighting the fight
than play the show.
Can you beat me?
Beyond a shadow of a doubt.
OXBOW’s most recent record, An Evil Heat, is on Neurot
Records, while their newest DVD, Love That’s Last, is being
released by Hydrahead.