I waited for Phil to hit me, thinking it would help me get past the taboo of sparring with my friend – that is, someone I didn’t really have a reason to punch. He threw out a jab. I caught it, but when he threw the next, he doubled it and the second punch sailed over my mitt. I got a face-full of cold and wet.
Phil’s glove was almost dripping with Clay’s blood. Clay’s blood was now smeared across my skin and over my eyes and mouth.‘Revolting!’ I thought. ‘Hepatitis! AIDS!’ Then I saw Phil’s eyes above the shining leather of his gloves and everything was reduced to survival.
The first time I boxed, it wasn’t my first fight. But it was my quintessential experience of fighting. I had travelled to Keysborough, one of the tougher outer Melbourne suburbs with my friend, Phil Fagan. Phil was a brilliant kickboxer who had come very close to representing the Oceania region in the K1, the Japanese-run International kickboxing Grand Prix. That Friday afternoon I watched him spar with Clay, a Samoan guy who was fighting the following weekend in New Zealand.
If his upcoming opponent was anywhere near as skilled as Phil, Clay was in trouble. He was shortish and stocky, around 120 kgs, and spent the entire round at the business end of Phil’s jab. Phil skipped around him on strong, elegant legs, flicking his left arm out long and smacking the glove down onto Clay’s nose. Clay wore a parachute-material tracksuit zipped up to the neck, white, and the steadily increasing blood flow made Phil’s glove slip down his face, daubing a large, muddy slick of crimson the texture of a child’s finger-painting onto his chest. I stood by the ring ropes. My mouthguard stuck to the roof of a very dry mouth. My bowels felt like they were stapled to my spine.
So much blood.
The bell rang to signal a break and Clay climbed out through the ropes. Phil stayed in. Kelly, the gym owner, waved a water bottle towards me. ‘Want to get in and have a go?’
I nodded, adrenalin cresting. The first thing about a ring that lets you know you’ve entered a rarefied space is the canvas underfoot. It soaks up your movements and slows you down a little, the way you feel when you stand up in a dinghy. While I knew Phil as my mate and co-worker, when I was standing in the ring he did not recognise me. He wore the expression of a man looking down a long, straight road.
We had been training together for a while; being smarter than your average trainer, he’d taught me to catch and parry punches as well as throw them. So when the bell rang and I was confronted with the idea of punching my friend in the face, I was a little tentative. Then it began.
I couldn’t care less about boxing films or books, generally speaking. There is a great tradition studded with mainly American writers, who tell us about the beauty and majesty of boxing. This means nothing to me. A film like Rocky means nothing to me, either. In fact, the archetypical story of a working-class-hero-fighting-against-the-odds is a barrowload of blah blah blah. And if there’s one place I don’t want to be on a Saturday afternoon, it’s in a pub watching fights on Skychannel, surrounded by a bunch of crusty old men clutching their beers and squawking like crows.
In fact, I was repelled by all sports until the age of 18. My fundamental teenage experience of sport was that I wasn’t good at it. My capacity and ability were swiftly appraised by a series of bored teachers and I was shunted down into one of the lower, more hopeless divisions. Probably more than a state school, sport at a private school is one of the principal methods used to inculcate you with their ‘values’; the code of the ‘gentleman’. The high school class system soon reared up over me and my incapacity; skinny legs, gangly arms and flipper feet became the badges of subjection. I felt like an Orc.
The contact sports like AFL football and rugby were the ones I hated the most. They were painful and I couldn’t understand them. I couldn’t work out why it was okay to hit someone in the ruck or the scrum, and ‘sledge’ and niggle behind play. Kicks and punches were directed at the ball while the underlying currents of aggression and violence were constantly twitching, like partially exposed high-tension wires. Nowadays I can’t help but feel that these sports perfectly embody our culture’s bullshit attitude to violence and aggression: you can’t punch another man in the head, but if you can step on his face in the scrum, somehow, that’s okay. In fact, you could make that the corporate motto – everything’s okay, as long as the referee doesn’t see it and it doesn’t end up on video.
As a result of this, the only team I ended up on was the First 18 Smokers.
In truth, however, no one was as disgusted at my total sporting ineptitude as me. At the age of 18 I shaved my head, dragged my sorry arse into the university gym and started lifting weights. I persevered and was pleased to discover that with application, my body would change and conform to my will. But the real epiphany came when I was walking past a martial arts studio in the CBD. I saw a video in the window of a karate school of a man breaking a baseball bat with a round kick, the point of contact being his shin. I climbed up the stairs and said to the lady at the counter, ‘I want to learn to do that!’
Inspired, I began to buy videos of fighting sports from Japan. I remember my father watching over my shoulder one day and remarking, ‘Those guys are getting the boots into one another. It’s one thing to hit another man, but something else to kick him entirely. It’s not something gentlemen do.’
Asian fighting sports carry their tradition of a warrior class. Samurai were the guardians of a moral code and the custodians of a religious philosophy that held absolute risk as the portal to enlightenment; to becoming entirely present in the moment. Just like their pictorial languages, their sports – Kickboxing, Mixed Martial Arts (or ‘no-rules’ fighting) and Thai boxing – are an integral part of a culture which remains evocative and ‘strange’ to me in the most romantic sense of the word.
No other ‘sport’ so effectively showcases strategy, raw fitness and sovereign mastery of technique. Add to this the dark and thrilling spectacle of one person hitting another with the intention of incapacitating them entirely, and there is something absolutely galvanic about watching the other person endure it. Other sports are metaphors; fighting is the real thing. And for me, in particular, fighting was a revelation. It made absolute, instinctive sense. It was as primal and clear as blood.
I suspect it was Hemingway who said that boxing is elevated above sport to the status of ritual because of the blood that is in it. Other than Hemingway, when I think of blood, I think of Cormac McCarthy, who describes “A world construed out of blood and blood’s alkahest and blood in its core and its integument because it was that nothing save blood had power to resonate against that void which threatened hourly to devour it.” Blood is sacred. This is something women understand and something men are ceasing to. But fighters are constantly reminded.
I also think of the Shakespeare’s Henry V quote, ‘For he who sheds his blood with me today shall be my brother.’ As a fighter, your brother is your opponent. He is the man who hammers you into the shape you are chasing when you’re hitting the bag or running down the road. Who brings you to the very edge of your fitness and technique and sometimes consciousness to a confrontation with your essential self. Your opponent is the literal incarnation of your Jungian shadow. He is the reason and the occasion.
I remember clearly that instant of Phil hitting me in the face and the way I was catapulted, head-first, directly into the moment. Iggy Pop, another man who understands the ritual of bloodshed, talks about the ecstasy of performance; “And, ah… when I’m in the grips of it, I don’t feel pleasure and I don’t feel pain, either physically or emotionally. Do you understand what I’m talking about? Have you ever, have you ever felt like that? When you just, when you just, you couldn’t feel anything, and you didn’t want to either. You know, like that? Do you understand what I’m saying, sir?”
When I’m fighting, it’s always more or less the same psychological experience. I’m not sure how my technique or ringcraft improves from session to session; I am not ‘present’ in an intellectual way. And the success of the session depends largely on the first punch. Getting hit in the body isn’t such a big deal. Getting hit in the head, however, is distressing for a complex set of reasons.
First, the face is the seal of the personality. Being struck in the head, and especially the face, is a distinct assault on the essence of a person, their emotional self. In addition to this, it is the locus of most of the senses (sight, hearing, smell, taste, and the organs of speech). Last, and the thing that bothers me most, is that the brain is in there. I was hit once and didn’t see it – the worst kind of blow, because I couldn’t tense my neck to minimise the movement of my head and therefore my brain – and I saw a flash of my father and I doing chores together when I was ten.
The other thing is that the face is delicate. The skin is thin, easily torn and bleeds profusely. The nose is very sensitive and bleeds easily also, and the eyes fill up with tears. Before the bell goes, I think about all of this, at least subconsciously. Once it rings and we start moving around, I think to myself, ‘It’sgonnahurt/it’sgonnahurt/itsgonnahurt/’ in anticipation of that first punch.
When it comes, it’s never as bad as I fear it will be. It is never remotely as bad as the mortal terror of failure. That first blow is felt more than heard. I expect this is because the impact travels through the vault of the skull and into the eardrums before it can become a sound in the outside air. Once I have sustained it and I am still conscious, the fear escapes like smoke and I can get to work.
Some years ago, my eye socket was fractured and the eye came partially out of the socket when I blew my nose. I decided to quit, but I couldn’t. Regardless of the expense, the hassle, heartache and – the principal terror – neurological damage, I’ve never been able to stop. I need that ritual assertion of values. It is something rare and difficult to find in our culture; something long gone from our schools and churches. I need to climb into the rope and canvas altar where a fighter goes to sacrifice himself. His ego, his weakness and his fear. With nothing to protect him other than his courage, his technique and his discipline.
I understand that the whole thing probably appears a bit strange; I know many only see the spectres of thanatos and masochism from their armchairs, blah blah blah. But after fighting, even when I have been given a beating, I feel utterly alive. I feel strong and I feel capable, and most of all, I feel brave. I know that because I have discipline, I have fitness and I have technique. And in a world where we are fundamentally beset by ourselves, our greed and lust for comfort, our mindless pursuit of a lifestyle designed to shield us from pain, I feel vindicated. Because these things – strength, courage, fitness, technique and discipline – are the only things that truly matter.
These are values.