Thursday, May 29, 2008

INCIPIT TRAGOEDIA

Matt strode around the ring clockwise, tapping the four turnbuckles three times: top, middle, bottom. The Wai Kru, a customary Thai tradition before a fight, seals the ring denoting that the fight is only between the two opponents. Matt didn’t seal the ring; he marked it as his. His blackened shoulder, the rings around his elbow, as well as the dark lines on his forearms contrasted with his sinewy frame. Across his shoulder blades was a newer tattoo, a phrase he had scrawled into his flesh in dark black letters when he began fighting. Matt slunk around the ring towards his corner, the tattoos rippled along his body. His opponent, a stocky bearded man, hung his jaw as his trainer poured water into it. He bounced, spilling the water onto his bare chest. His eyes locked onto Matt as my brother finished the Thai ceremony.

The judge motioned the two fighters forward, and spoke lowly to the men. “Clean,” is all that could be heard. Matt pounded the shorter man’s fist and backed away as the bell rang. His opponent rushed towards him with fists of fury. Matt’s arms shot to his face as a deluge of jabs pummeled him. Dancing around the ring, Matt tried vainly to check the aggressiveness and block the punches. He shot a jab at his opponent and missed. A right hook was returned in kind. Another jab blasted towards his opponent. This one landed. Matt stepped forward and became a Muay Thai fighter.

Versatile, brutal, and straight forward, Muay Thai is the science of the eight limbs. Fighter’s employ their shins, knees, elbows, and hands to destroy each other. The traditional aspects of Muay Thai were followed for the fight at the Fairfax Gym in San Francisco albeit gloves, headgear, kicks and punches were included- normal procedure for a modern fight.
Matt had trained extensively and this was his third smoker (non-professional fight). “He looks like a cancer patient,” a friend quipped. In two months Matt had lost all of his body fat. Though we are identical twins, he was twenty-two pounds lighter—he disappeared when turned sideways. He stopped eating a day before his fight, to weigh in as light as possible. Matt tipped the scales at 140 lbs/63.5 kilos and fought as a junior welterweight. The daily regiment of heavy bag work outs and calisthenics not only trimmed him down but made him fit to become a Nak Muay, a traditional Muay Thai fighter.

Matt’s desire to fight is hereditary. Our paternal grandfather was a fighter. After work he liked to drink and beat his wife and kids. Our father, Don, was also a fighter. Forty years ago he had his first fight. After school, he caught his father dragging his younger brother Rick upstairs by the ankle. Rick’s head bounced off each step. Don won his first fight and hospitalized his father. As part of the legal procedures that followed, Don served community service and enrolled in the Police Athletic League, an association where the local police force coach youth in an attempt to build community relations. For four years in high school Don fought in PAL, training once a week at a gym in Albany, New York, and running along the country roads of the Catskills. In college, he graduated to Golden Gloves and a short-lived professional career. Don fought as junior heavy weight, weighing 185 pounds and standing 6’ 3”. However, Don was no Rocky Marciano. He woke from his first fight in the hospital discovering he had a glass jaw. He woke from the hospital after his second fight, discovering that professional boxing wasn’t for him.

He kept his gloves, hanging them from the wall. The leather cracked and the gloves fell apart. Rambunctious and young, Matt and I would toss the gloves on and spar. The loser of Rosh ambo would be the south paw. No face hits and nothing below the belt. Bruises covered our biceps and chests. Matt graduated from the single glove and began scrapping. His senior year in high school he attended a World Trade Organization protest in Washington D.C. When a police officer began to pummel a protester, Matt snatched the officer’s oversized Maglite and smashed the butt of it into the officer’s cranium. Matt’s next fight was in Las Vegas when an irate motorist attempted to run him and his friend off their bicycles. The motorist was bludgeoned by a bicycle lock. His third fight occurred when he was jumped by some thugs in Oakland. They stole his wallet and bike. Matt decided he needed to protect himself in case he was assaulted again. “I need a Glock,” he stated. I encouraged martial arts. “Why do you need a gun anyway? You can just fight ‘em off?” “But,” Matt responded, “What if they’re a cop?”

Matt’s Muay Thai training began in Oakland when he and two anarchist comrades got together to learn some basic self-defense. They trained in a small basement but Matt migrated south to Santa Cruz and then later to Las Vegas. His desire to fight stayed with him as he traveled. In Santa Cruz, he attended weekly sessions at a small gym. In Las Vegas he worked out at the commercial Master Toddy’s. When he returned to the Bay Area, he began to train in earnest. Pacific Ring Sports in Oakland has served as his home five days a week for the past eight months. He signed up for monthly smokers and fought as much as possible.

The plasma screen TV’s that hung beneath the San Francisco gym’s ring showed my brother’s fists. They were jets; as soon as one took off another landed. His opponents head snapped back. Matt kicked him in the ribs. His opponent stepped forward and they clinched, grabbing each other’s shoulders. This form of stand-up grappling is conducive to kneeing one’s opponent in the stomach. Matt’s patella jack-hammered into the fighter’s belly button. Trying to protect himself, the other fighter moved his elbow in front of his abdomen. Matt’s knees bruised the man’s forearm. After two three minute rounds, a well placed kick, and a dozen knees to the stomach, Matt’s opponent was worked. The victory was clear.

Stepping out of the ring, I stared at my twin brother. His latest obsession was sticking. He talked of going to Thailand for 3 months to train. The conditioning was religious. He stopped drinking. His shins were covered in speed bumps from kicking heavy bags. Still, his next fight wouldn’t go as well; he’d be momentarily knocked unconscious. But this fight he won. I congratulated him, as he stood next to me. A veneer of sweat covered his body; he looked strong. The swelling from the hits hadn’t set in yet and he smiled. He turned slightly showing the block letters between his shoulder blades INCIPIT TRAGOEDIA. I suspected the Latin translation but asked anyway.

“It’s Nietzsche,” Matt smiled. “It means the tragedy begins.”

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