“Everybody circle up,” yelled Pete, the wiry, wild-eyed boxing instructor at Combat Fitness.
“If I point at you, get on the mat. Three-minute rounds.”
I stood awkwardly adjusting the tattered, sour-smelling headgear over my ears and scanned the other men in the circle.
A full spectrum of ages and fitness levels, all with one common trait; the desire and ability to inflict damage on another human.
I’d been training at the gym for a month or so – on a dare from my six-year-old daughter.
Mostly circuit training and coordinated boxing drills where your partner aims at your padded mitts, but never your head.
Because I enjoyed the classes so much, Pete had been egging me on to come try a sparring circle.
“Toe-to-toe is the only way to learn, dude.”
I’d seen people in there sparring on my way into class and could see they were far beyond my level.
But, Pete was relentless – a fighter for life kinda guy – and I eventually gave in.
Now I was standing with my naked toes hovering over the deep end, and more sure than ever that I did not know how to swim.
Pete stretched his arms out simultaneously, pointed at two of the men, and tapped a red button on the black timing box…
“DING!” … The clock face counting down from 3:00.
The two fighters prowled toward the center of the mat, touched gloves, and began their violent dance.
My heart was racing in a way I’d never felt before.
I’d had my share of skirmishes as a kid, but I was not a fighter.
Just didn’t have the gene.
Once, in the tenth grade, the neighborhood kids decided that there would be a showdown in “Laramy’s backyard” between myself and a guy I considered one of my best friends, Jimmy Stoupas.
Who knows what led to it.
Some stupid conflict had us shit-talking each other at school.
Next thing I knew, one of the neighborhood guys… a barely pubescent, Clearwater, Florida version of Dana White…
… had convinced my friend, Jimmy, that the only way to solve our verbal dust-up was to “KICK HIS ASS!”
Not just walk up and start swinging on me at school…
“That would be ‘assault’ and could get you expelled… like they did to my brother,” Dana informed him.
Instead, he needed to declare that he was going to “kick my ass” at lunch that day… where news of the event would quickly spread through the cafeteria….
Then dare me to show up, off campus, for the fight.
So, he did.
“Four o’clock, behind Laramy’s,” Jimmy shouted at me as I sat gnawing a mouthful of tasteless salisbury steak.
I remember how strange it sounded to hear Jimmy, who, just a week prior, was still picking me up for school in his rumbling, glacier blue ‘69 Camaro…
Now calling me out for a fight.
(As if we were movie actors in opposing roles who would run off to smoke weed and crank tunes in his trailer after the director yelled, “Cut!”)
Then, to deliver some juice for Dana and the crowd he’d gathered around my table for what had now become the high school equivalent of a pre-fight press conference… Jimmy added,
“You better fucking be there, bitch!”
“Owwhh!” went the crowd, and the fight was set.
Inside Combat Fitness the timer flashed 1:09… 1:08…
The first two fighters now drenched in sweat and breathing heavily, their chests heaving between flurries.
The sound of Pete’s bark tone coaching (“Cover, Carlos! Footwork, footwork!”) muffled weirdly under my tattered, gym-issued headgear.
I resisted the urge to itch and shift it around for fear of signaling my out-of-place-ness… like a gangly teenager wearing his first necktie.
The other fighters around the mat stood relaxed and ready, their fitted headgear fastened snug to their faces like sturdy Roman helmets.
:29… :28… :27…
“Jesus. I know he’s going to point to me next,” I thought to myself as the clock flashed down towards zero like a makeshift bomb.
I arrived at Laramy’s, alone, pushing past the rusted metal fence gate and stepping carefully around random piles of dogshit to his backyard.
Six or seven other kids were standing around Jimmy, with Dana at the center, giving him instruction on how to “take me down.”
Not quite the Vegas-level sell-out fight card young Dana was hoping for, surely, but he seemed thrilled, nonetheless, to have organized a real fight.
He could build up his empire from there.
I’d been wrestling in my head all day, my stomach twisted in knots, with the idea of showing up for the fight.
All this had nothing to do with Jimmy and I, and whatever teenage ignorance had us at odds…
Yet, if I didn’t show, I’d be forever known as a “pussy.”
Thing is… I was a pussy.
And, even at 14, remember being pretty okay with it.
Confirming it to the entire school, however, would lead to unbearable harassment.
This was my chance to stop being a pussy.
What if there was a real fighter inside of me, seething in adolescent rage, just dying for a chance to unleash its shocking fury.
After today, perhaps, I would become a fighter.
Known as a fighter.
Feared and admired by all the kids at school as a guy “you don’t fuck with.”
“DING, DING, DING” sounded the timer as the clock flashed 0:00.
The first two bruisers stepped back from their combative dance and bumped gloves again – a pool of sweat forming on the mat beneath them.
Pete emphatically shouted out his critiques to each fighter as they paced around the circle, arms above their heads, working to catch their breath.
“Alright, next two…” commanded Pete, scanning the circle and stretching out his arms in what felt in my mind, under the itchy, stinky headgear, like excruciating slow motion…
“Kevin, and…” scanning the circle again, deciding which flavor of humble pie he should serve for my first taste,
Young Dana hadn’t thought through how this backyard bout was actually supposed to start.
High school fights are spontaneous acts.
Two kids bow up on each other between a set of lockers… someone yells “FIGHT!” and they instinctively start throwing fists, pulling hair, and forcing each other to the ground, hoping to end up on top.
Whoever does will be declared the “winner” by the howling throng of ravenous onlookers packing the isle and climbing lockers like crazed chimpanzees to get a look.
The whole thing is over within the ten seconds it takes for an underpaid teacher or portly “school officer” to show up and get names.
The fights that build up into off-campus showdowns usually never happen at all.
Spontaneous violence can’t be coordinated, and somewhere in Dana’s soft baby-hustler’s head, this reality was setting in.
He’d achieved his goal of getting two fighters in the ring, but failed to attract a crowd.
The result was a handful of goony teenage boys with homework to do, standing around a dogshitty backyard waiting awkwardly for a punch to be thrown.
Jimmy, feeling the pressure, moved towards me with fists raised and knees bouncing, repeating, “Hit me, bitch!” and “C’mon, you fucking pussy!”
I walked onto the mat and touched gloves with Bill, who I could now see was a good twenty years older than me.
I assumed the stance I’d been practicing in class and tried to calm my nerves. Remember to breathe.
Bill moved towards me in an easy flow, like a wild puma gliding up a grassy hill to scan for prey.
BAP… He landed a quick jab and shuffled away fluidly before I realized his feet had even moved, then slid back in with two more.
Clearly, Bill had been doing this longer than I’d been alive – and I was 44!
Pete is not the kind of instructor who gives context, so he never thought to (or purposely avoided) announcing to the group that this was my first time sparring.
My lack of anything like “moves” and constant adjusting of my now-crooked gym bin headgear made it abundantly clear to Bill, and every other fighter in the room, that I had no idea what I was doing.
I stepped back from Bill hoping to buy some time before – BAP, BAP, BANG!
He slipped in two more jabs and followed with a right cross. Then, tired of toying around, unleashed a flurry of body strikes that forced me to drop my hands and cover.
Soon as I did that, Bill went to work on my head, landing a series of skull-rattling right hooks… stepping in closer after each one until I instinctively doubled over, covered my head, and did the worst possible thing you can do when being punched…
TURNED AWAY from my opponent.
My untrained “fight or flight” brain had defaulted to full-on “FLIGHT mode.”
A few of the fighters around the circle grunted their embarrassment and I could hear Pete shouting something about getting my “head up.”
Bill was now pummeling me with overhand rights and lefts to the head – each one sparking strobes of white light behind my tightly shut eyes and now completely sideways headgear.
“Alright, alright!” yelled Pete.
Old man Bill backed away and stood calmly across from me, not a drop of sweat on his body.
“This is fucking stupid, Jimmy,” I said as he continued bouncing in front of me with his fists raised high, looking like one of those mustachioed boxers from a vintage fight poster.
“I’ll be a pussy all you guys want,” I added. “But, I’m not gonna hit you. Fuck off.”
I turned and walked away, resigning to step in shit, as Jimmy continued taunting me in victory…
“That’s what I thought, little bitch!”
Once I had my headgear twisted on straight enough to see out of again, Bill walked over to check on me.
“You alright?” he asked, putting his gloved hand on my shoulder.
“Yeah, I’m good.”
“Fuckin’ hurts to get punched in the head, doesn’t it?” he asked, rhetorically, taking on a fatherly tone.
“I did that to teach you to NEVER turn away again,” he added. “It leads to very bad things.”
“I can see that,” I replied.
Last I heard, Jimmy Stoupos is still driving muscle cars. Married with kids, and living a good life.
I can’t recall if we ever became close friends again after that day, and I’m sure neither of us could tell you what had us pissed enough at each other to want to duke it out.
(Nor could “Clearwater Dana,” wherever the hell he is now.)
I still don’t know how to fight, but I’ve developed an uncanny skill for avoiding them. (The number of scary situations I’ve been able to “talk my way out of” over the years still boggles my mind.)
My daughter is 17 now, and loves the art of fighting.
She’s rolled Jiu Jitsu with men and women twice her age. She works with a boxing coach twice a week.
She knows what she’s doing, and when to use it.
And, most importantly, when not to use it.