The day of my first fight, May 2007. Pacific Northwest, USA
The sun burns hot on the back of my neck and reflects back up into my face from the fiberglass beneath my feet. My lips, sun scorched and cracked while my hands all but glow white once de-gloved. I am shades of red, white, and brown from days of changing work clothes in attempt to combat the unpredictable sun rays. Having finally broke 100 degrees I wear an undershirt and if not for regulations I would do without that. Mornings of frost hardened grounds and overcast skies, turning a menacing grey and threatening to spit chill seemed to be behind us. That said, summer skies have given way to hail and lightning in the midst of a summer afternoon before, such is the nature of Idaho weather. For now I am content, my Irish glow burned red, for the cold I was not made, I welcome the heat.
Ten hours a day at $12 an hour for six days a week, at 19 years of age I fancy myself pretty well off. Mallet in hand, I absently pound the edge of a section of the giant waterslide I’m helping build into place. My co-worker lays adhesive between the seams, I notice as he wipes the excess with chemical soaked rag that he is a few digits short of a full hand.
Pre-occupied, the day melts away and I find my hands again soaked with the cold touch of harsh chemicals used to clean tools. I wave to the concrete crew as I open the door and climb into my old, silver Cadillac Deville. The interior is cracked, spongy yellow sprouting from the seats. She’s not new and she’s not what I pictured myself driving before I bought her, but I’ve grown to love this car. I recline the seat back so far that I am all, but lying down. I drive with one hand on the wheel, a stupid smile on my face amused with some inside joke I’ve created with myself. My digital speedometer glows a bright green 75, it won’t be long before the explosion of pink and orange fades to black and grey.
On cue, as I close in on the Washington border the night sky has set in. The concert house carries the sound of but a murmur, occasionally punctuated by drunken yells and whistles. Balconies full of people are above and folding metal chairs extend out from the stage. The floor sticks to my boots as I walk towards the cage, 5 steps high and then another 6 feet above that on the elevated platform. Scenarios dance in my mind, when I step in that cage I can do almost anything until the other man goes unconscious, or the third man tells me to stop.
There’s a nervous excitement in me as I’m escorted to the dressing room. Rows of nervous bodies scrunch together on animal print couches, tape and gauze litter the floor, the room is quiet. I contrast starkly, my muscles while lean and strong, lack the maturity that comes beyond your 20th year. Beyond the aesthetics is the more significant. I have no fear in me, I feel no pressure, a passionate enthusiasm runs through me, unmarred by years of compromise and bitterness.
My time draws close, I set aside my black pants and shirt in exchange for the shorts and gloves, but I maintain my leather jacket draped atop my shoulders. It’s a comfort, I’m rarely without it, and it’ll help maintain my sweat as I warm up. I shadow box, or do my best imitation of shadowboxing until sweat lines my face. A man with a headset informs me it’s almost my time and I descend to the staging area. I maintain my movement carefully to stay warm, despite the floor littered with razorblades and staples and the side exit door left ajar.
Synthetic fog rises, strobe lights flash in unison with thunderous music. As I push pass the curtains the crowd roars, elated by the promise of violence merely moments away. I’m offered one emphatic piece of advice as I approach the steps to the cage:
Half a smile curves, the doubt in people’s faces and voices up to now had been thinly veiled, the urgency of their concern on this day absolutely betrayed them. My opponent emerges as I wait anxiously in the cage. He has the face of a lion inked on his chest and he’s thickly muscled. The size difference between us is obvious, despite the fact that he stands shorter than I. It’s surreal, unfolding right before my eyes, months of day dreams rapidly coming to life; Shadows and blurred faces given color and substance, lights in my eyes, fog in my lungs, everything feels somehow more real than it ever has before!
I feign complacency and turn to my corner as the referee makes his way to the center of the stage and my opponent does the same, but I’m acutely aware! The referee says fight and by the time he’s facing forward I’ve covered nearly the whole distance of the cage and I’m airborne! My opponent’s eyes widen with shock and he draws his hands to his face as I thrust my foot as hard as I can too his solar plexus. As he bounces off the cage, I realize almost comically that I hadn’t planned a single detail beyond the flying kick, my day dreams had ended there and I had plunged into a world of chaos! I struck as fast and viciously as I could, punching wildly! My jaw is clipped in the exchange and I’m dropped to a knee. I rise up enraged, wrapping my arms around his waist and slamming him to the floor!
The chaos that preceded the bell ringing to signify the round’s end isn’t even a thought yet, much less a memory. Between rounds there was probably familiar voices coming from familiar faces urging me on and offering strategy, I honestly can’t say. I‘m on my feet and the referee commands us to continue our violence. I fly across the ring again, narrowly avoiding a snapping kick aimed at my face before brutalizing my opponent to the floor once more. I grab his arm and hyper-extend it, he’s stubborn, I wrench with all my might and he lets out a yell! The referee commands me to stop, pulling me to my feet and urging me to step away while he checks on my opponent. He leads me to the center of the cage and raises my hand, the adrenaline has worn off… my forearms are absolutely on fire, my legs are weak to the point of cramping, I’m so tired! It felt so impossibly genuine and painful and visceral and chaotic… its absolute unreality now, yet it was so vividly real! It felt realer than reality! I know that makes no sense, I know how ridiculous that sounds, yet that’s what lingers. I feel like I’ve awaken from a dream still fresh in my waking moments, but threatening to turn to smoke in my grasp at any moment.
I remember kicking him in the ribs as he stood from beneath me and throwing him mercilessly to the floor as he faced me, I remember punching him as hard as I could in the temples while he was struggling to fight my attempt to choke him from behind his back, I remember throwing my face into his strikes defiantly as he threw punches from his back… But I have no sense of the order any of that happening and there seems to be much missing! How could something so intense, so immediate… something that felt so unbelievably profound, be so elusive?
I feel good… my body is sore and tired, my face is a bloody canvas of purple, red, and black, my body aches with fatigue, but I feel happy. It’s more than that though, more profound… more permanent.
I’ve spent so many years of fumbling through life with tired eyes and a half vacant mind battling the mundane. In school I spent years reading full pages of text books only to realize that I hadn’t comprehended a word of what I read, apathetic and unable to engage. Now I subsist, I subsist comfortably… or at least painlessly; moving dirt, swinging hammers, and tightening bolts, living in my little apartment by myself with barren walls and no furniture. My fridge full, my bed comfortable and a TV, a laptop, and video games to fill empty little moments, in their own little place of my empty little apartment. I live such an empty little life…
… But at this moment that all feels a million miles away. On this day a beautiful chaos held its hand out to me and I took it! The smile on my face feels foreign, but beautiful. Sitting quietly in that locker room thinking of nothing, just feeling as I slowly sober from the absolute intoxication of the beautiful waking dream I’d just come out of! It was moments of true serenity, where all the little pieces of James were finally in the right place.
…So now I chase chaos.
** Published unedited at the request of Mr. Chaney