Frontier Psychiatrist

Friday Night Fights

Posted on: January 19, 2011

You are not the kind of person who would be in a place like this on a Friday night. You like indie rock shows and jazz clubs. You like poetry readings and literary salons. You like museums and galleries. You do not have a fantasy baseball team. You do not have a fantasy football team. And when you do watch sports, you like baseball and soccer and basketball, games with almost zero chance of violence. And yet here you are, in a church basement in Manhattan five rows back from a ring where half naked men and women punch and kick each other with blows that would beat your bookish body into a pulp, if not a coma.

For years, your cousin has invited you to Friday Night Fights, a series of boxing and muy thai events. For years, you have declined. You’re a lover, not a fighter. You write stories and pop songs. Your cousin closes business deals and lifts so many weights he needed back surgery.  You’ve read Hemingway and Mailer and seen Fight Club and Rocky and Raging Bull and Hurricane and Million Dollar Baby. Your cousin actually knows how to box.

Still he is family, and you love and respect him. And then the New Year comes and you make a resolution to take more risks, to find new frontiers in New York before your life becomes an echo chamber of people with the same narrow range of experience. So you decide to go to the fight. You drop off your girlfriend at the Ryan Gosling movie then head uptown to meet your partner in crime Lopez. He’s no fighter either, but he does have a few fantasy teams. Before the fight, you meet your cousin at a bar with his crew of 40. With his clean-cut Irish face and black leather jacket over a shirt and tie, he looks like a Hollywood detective. After a few drinks he leads the entourage down the block to the fight.

The basement of St. Paul’s Church is dark and crowded with hundreds of  people seated in folding chairs and standing in aisles. You push through the crowds to the fifth row, where a security guard with a watermelon gut yells at you to find your seats. You expected guys like him and the guy in front of you with the goatee and the Harley Davidson shirt and the neck like a horse. But there are women here, too, in the crowd and in the ring. And while most of the fans are in their 20s and 30s, there are older people, too, and some high school kids sipping on cokes. You drink the only alcoholic beverage available, Chang Beer, one of the night’s sponsors. It’s skunky and sweet, but it’s cheap.

The MC is a white guy in a suit with dreadlocks to his waist. He announces the fighters and they enter the ring: blacks and whites and Latinos; Brooklyn and Queens and Arkansas, Haiti and Puerto Rico, Russia and Canada. Some look like high school sophomores; one guy is pushing 40. They have tattoos and tourniquets that bind their biceps. The women wear their hair in cornrows. The men shave their heads and faces, except for the guy with his Fidel Castro beard, illegal in boxing (the hair cushions the blows), but legal in muy thai, also known as Thai boxing, also known as kickboxing, also known as get ready for some pain.

Before each fight, everybody in the crowd picks a favorite. Clueless, you pick the ones from New York, or try to guess who looks stronger or meaner or crazier. Then the bell rings and the referee waves his arm.  The fighters kick and punch, bob and weave. If they clinch or stall, the ref goads them with his hands covered in purple latex gloves. There are no clocks, only the drone of Middle Eastern music over the speakers, so for the three minutes of each round, time seems to stand still. Your cousin compares the strategy to a chess match. Fighters think three to six moves ahead. When a guy seems like he’s losing, he’s often just biding his time.

Twenty seconds before the round ends, a shushing sound interrupts the music. Then the bell rings. The fighters go to their corners. A blonde girl with pipe cleaner arms prances around the ring holding a placard with the round number. Amateurs get three rounds. The pros get five, their 15 minutes of pain. Unlike the movies, they land few punches and kicks. And unlike the movies, there are few knockouts. Of the 12 fights on Friday, the judges decide 10. The subjectivity  makes it more like figure skating than football.

You expected to be squeamish. You’ve never seen violence in person, not unless you count your first and last fistfight in fifth grade or the years you played lacrosse or the time you got mugged in San Francisco. You were raised to keep your hands in your pockets, to turn the other cheek, to look down on people who used their fists instead of their minds and their mouths.

But during the fights, something else happens. You cheer when punches and kicks hit their mark. You marvel at the strength and the stamina, the way the fighters bounce and glide across the ring. Your heart pounds when the speakers play “Seven Nation Army” and “99 Problems.” Later it hits you that aside from the physical punishment, the fighters have a lot in common with musicians and writers and artists. They have their practice and preparation, their hours of discipline spent in solitude or with their inner circle. They have their teachers and mentors, and a lineage of predecessors. They have to balance intuition and knowledge, instinct and intellect. And when they enter the the ring, they have to face their fears, to risk humiliation, to be vulnerable.

After ten fights on the undercard, it’s near midnight and time for the main event. The crowd favorite is your cousin’s friend Chris Romulo, a.k.a. Mr. Classic. His opponent, Alexander Lavrushin, is a Russian muy thai champ with a background in Kyokoshin Karate. They fight hard but after five brutal rounds, the judges confirm what everyone already knows: Romulo loses by decision. Your cousin says: “He got caught with his gun in his holster.”

At 2.00 AM, you’re back with your lady and back in Brooklyn at a joint where the television plays ironic movies and the jukebox plays ironic music. The bartender has an ironic tee shirt and as you sip your beer you hear him arguing with a woman at the bar. She says he followed her to the bathroom. He says he was just waiting to use the toilet. They yell back and forth. The bartender slams glasses and says he’s the nicest guy in the whole room. The woman says he can forget about a tip. Her three male companions slink behind her and duck their heads, but say nothing. After five minutes, the four of them get their coats and leave. Nobody raises a fist.

Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. He recently wrote about Sharon Van Etten and The Decemberists.

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3 Responses to "Friday Night Fights"

Really nice write up! You may enjoy some more writing about Muay Thai, more than just results. Check out FURYmagazine.com or my Facebook page linked above!
Please “like” and link it if you do like it.
-The Arbiter

[…] Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. On Saturday night, he read his fiction at Lu Magnus Gallery, along with six other writers and artists. His recent reviews for FP include Bright Eyes, The Decemberists, and Friday Night Fights. […]

[…] Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. On Saturday night, he read his fiction at Lu Magnus Gallery, along with six other writers and artists. His recent reviews for FP include Bright Eyes, The Decemberists, and Friday Night Fights. […]

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