“I’m just going to, you know, check it out.”
It was a Craigslist listing, under activity partners. The activity in question: fighting. Yes, a club for fighting. Like the 1999 movie, it was called simply Fight Club, and it exploited a loophole in San Francisco’s assault statutes with the handy-dandy phrase “mutual combatants.”
Which is to say that two consenting adults, as long as they’re consenting, can punch each other to their hearts’ delight, and no one gets cited for battery. Probably.
The club also had the cinematic secrecy thing going for it: You had to call a number, which would direct you to an apartment where, after signing a release, you’d be taken to the place where whatever issues you had could and probably would be resolved in one of the oldest ways ever: suddenly, definitively, and at the end of another human’s fist.
I’m not choosing to think of it. It’s hardwired in my brain and the question just surfaces: Can I take him?
“Everybody sign a release?” The gathered assemblage of fighters, numbering about 18 by my count, nodded to Hank, the organizer who was all Popeye-esque grizzle and tattoos. “And just to be clear: The rules are there are no rules. We generally are not doing really dirty shit like eye gouging for the simple reason that both of you have eyes that can be gouged and no one wants to go home blind, but in general, do what you gotta do.” You could challenge whomever you wanted, and while you didn’t have to accept every challenge, you did have to do one thing: fight.
Which, as the son of full-on 1960s parents, I was told only angry people did. But this was not so much about anger as it was a primal desire to “out-think, outfight and outlast” just about anyone who had the same inclination. A particular part of the male psyche, this spiel is on a 24-hour loop, just about whenever a man meets another man. I even thought about it when I met Bill Clinton for the first time. And I’d probably think about it if I were meeting Jesus Christ. I’m not choosing to think of it. It’s hardwired in my brain and the question just surfaces: Can I take him?
Fast, crushing and definitive.
We ride down a rickety elevator and wend our way through the basement and out into side alleys until we eventually arrive at the fight room: tight, small, cramped, walls lacquered with black and blue, wires — laced through eyehooks in the walls — measuring off “the ring,” and steam pipes steaming. Hank turns on some Judas Priest.
“Welcome to Fight Club, men.”
The talk grows a little tighter. People are taping their fingers, wrapping their hands, trying to figure out whether to go with or without shoes, and casting around sidelong looks, anticipating a challenge or weighing whom to challenge.
“You train before?” He was 5’7”, about 165 pounds, muscled and Italian.
“Me? Oh, yeah. You know. Here and there.”
Funny, since I had trained more than “here and there”: from Shotokan karate as a kid, to boxing at the Boys Club in Flatbush, to wrestling for a hot minute in both high school and college. My “here and there” sort of made the point — it just didn’t make it completely. It especially didn’t if you added in the Kenpo karate, muay thai and Brazilian jiujitsu that came later in adulthood.
I was sandbagging, being cagey, and I didn’t see it coming when I made my first challenge to a guy who was more or less in my weight bracket: about 240 pounds at the time. “You do much training?” I asked him. He was shorter than my 6’1”, but about the same weight and, my Spidey sense told me, likely to be an easy win for me. Blame it on his shy and retiring manner. His David Niven mustache. Or the slight softness around his middle.
“Not really. You know. Here and there.”
Which is precisely how God says, “The joke’s on you, Jack!”
We climbed through the wires and onto the mats. Dirty mattresses are pressed against the exposed concrete walls that ring the ring, and with Hank “officiating,” he kicks it off with a screamed inducement to “FIGHT!”
I thai-kicked my challenge at the knee joint of his lead leg and he backed up, hands raised. Which was right about the time I noticed that he was left-handed. I framed that in my mind, thinking, “Oh. He’s a southpa…,” and before I could round out “southpaw,” I was face-down on the mat.
Fast, crushing and definitive. I struggled up to my feet, mumbling about having tripped, which, when they let me go and I went crashing back down to the mat, was clearly untrue. Of course, not one to “take a hint” or “stop while ahead,” I insisted I could continue.
They sat me down on a broken weight bench and my challenge came over and introduced himself: longtime mixed martial artist, member of the Cesar Gracie fight team, later to be on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter TV show. And in a former life? A Special Forces soldier.
Which is precisely how God says, “The joke’s on you, Jack!”
To which I respond: If only. Because it doesn’t get any less jokey than ending the evening face-down.
But not only did I return to have many evenings that ended up much better than the first, I also wrote an article about it and even published a book on the topic. And in December 2013, I won a world championship at the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation’s competition in Long Beach, California.
So. All’s well that ends well in Tough Guy Town. And standing in the mirror after a recent bout and undoing the tape from a ligament-torn left middle finger, I finally, laughing, asked myself the aforementioned question, but this time about myself: “Can I take him?”
Do I really have a choice?
This OZY encore was originally published June 24, 2014.
This is the seventh installment in a series of True Takes from the eclectically and electrically lived life of OZY’s own Eugene S. Robinson.
Earlier takes include Advice From Andy Warhol, unexpected Affliations With White Supremacists, Wild Orgy Nights at Stanford, Is It a Riot If It’s Just the Four of Us?, Tattoos, Tough Guys + the Travails of Making a Living, and Full-Force Fathering.
Why you should care
The value of what you learn about yourself after having been in a fight? Priceless.