Felt. Or cotton. Maybe some kind of soft vinyl. Markdale High Intercollegiate Champs 2009, 2006, 1998. Banners hanging like red shark’s teeth from the gym ceiling. Felt. Definitely felt.
But hard to tell from where I’m lying on my back, waiting to get my lamps punched out by Roger ‘The Big Hurt’ Bronson. After three minutes of ground and pound, of elbows slicing across bruised cheeks, of awkward flail and grapple, the full mount press of Bronson’s sweaty bulk on my chest, I’m exhausted, and, thank God, so is he. But suddenly he pulls his arms free of my over-hooks, postures up and begins to drop bombs. Coach Yankovic is yelling through the mayhem unfolding inside my brain, Remember your training! Move your head, Jake, side to side, like you’re saying no no no!
But maybe I want to say yes yes yes. Maybe this is a scene from Fight Club and I’m Tyler Durden and I just don’t give a damn because my life is crap. Not that I’m talking about fight club or that I would ever, ever talk about fight club. No, sir! I know the first rule. And the second.
The kids in the bleachers are screaming, Guillotine! Kimora! Get up, Chapplain! That’d be me, Jake ‘The Apostle of Pain’ Chapplain, crunched up against the Octagon fence, being tenderized by my best bud. I’m no iron jaw, but I can take a punch with the best of them. So, even after Roger clocks me a couple of times, my head bouncing off the canvas like a bat-a-ball, I shake it off, throw a smart-ass smile into his fat face, and follow that with a sharp elbow from the bottom. Which only serves to piss him off. Not that he was in a good mood before the fight, having found out that I was seeing his ex, Romy. Okay, more than seeing. At any rate, he starts to slam his freight car of a shoulder down onto my chin. Once. Twice. And I’m thinking, Geezus, this is getting tiresome. So I pop up my hips to send him flying forward overtop of me. And now my face is buried in his hairy gut that stinks of perspiration and I can hear his stomach gurgling from the pasta sauce he inhaled before the fight, and I know that I’ve got to move quick , get out of there before he recovers his balance. I heave him upwards as hard as I can while slithering sideways.
It’s at this point that I realize that I’ve been seeing everything through a curtain of red.
My face covered in blood and the kids in the bleachers gasping at the fact that I’m not a video game avatar, but a real human being bleeding all over their tender years. They’re gasping at the horror of what these bodies of ours are capable of enduring. Cats ain’t got nothing on us when it comes to pain control. Cats don’t lie there, ignoring their broken bodies, looking up at the ceiling and wondering whether the red banners are made of felt or vinyl or cotton. Cats don’t pick out individual voices in the crowd, the pubescent squeakings of pimple-faced kids as they feed their souls to their cellphones, tweeting stuff like: Check it out. Me at The Berserk MMA. OMG, this guy sucks.
Fact is, we’ve trained together and fought together so many times on the Berserk Mixed Martial Arts circuit, that good old Roger knows my moves by now. In an instant he’s back on top in half guard and is crushing his elbow into my throat. He outweighs me by twenty pounds, and being a great wrestler, is near impossible to move. Now me, I’m the guy that’s light on my feet. Keep it standing is where it’s at. Jab, jab, in and out. Muay Thai kicks. Stay on the outside. Sprawl to stuff the shoots and takedowns. Keep him off-balance and never, never go to ground. Problem is that I thought I heard Romy’s voice from the bleachers, and she was yelling, It won’t work, Jake! I can’t go on like this. And here’s me thinking, What the hell? My girlfriend dumping me in the middle of a fight? Distracted me just enough for me to mistime my sprawl, and boom, The Big Hurt is slamming me onto my back. Goddammit, Romy!
The referee keeps pushing his bald head into view, checking out my condition. He’s looking at the blood streaming down my face from a cut over my right eye, the ugly haematoma below my left, and I can see he’s thinking about calling a timeout so the ring doctor can take a look. Half choked-out, I’m mumbling to him through my mouth guard. I’m good, I’m good, to keep the fight from being stopped. But I know that if I don’t get out from under Bronson, if I don’t keep active, and he keeps hammering down with his massive elbows and fists, this fight’s over. I just need to hang in for another minute. Be patient. Wait for an unlikely mistake.
Coach told me once in training that whenever I found myself in real trouble and could feel the fight slipping away, that I should try something crazy, something completely unexpected. He told me the story of his welterweight title match against Fyodor Asklepian. It was round five and he was losing the fight on points. He had to knock out or submit the champion and he had only two minutes left to do it.
So, I said to myself, what’s the freakiest thing I can do to surprise this guy? And then it came to me. The next time Asklepian faked a jab in my direction, coming up six inches short, I dropped to the canvas like I’d been clocked by a ball-peen hammer. Confused, the champ’s automatic impulse was to jump on me to finish me off. I knew he was coming, and with a perfectly timed up-kick, caught him under the jaw on the way down. Bang! Out like a light. Point is, Jake, you got to have faith in yourself. That, no matter what kind of pain you’re in, you’re better than where you are.
I’m thinking about where I am and what coach said and I’m beginning to see stars from The Big Hurt’s pressure on my throat, and time is running out, along with my career.
Career, that’s a laugh. Fighting on an obscure amateur MMA circuit called Berserk, travelling from high school to high school. Bruise to bruise. And all that bullshit about warrior spirit is just that, bullshit. But hey, it’s a life and it’s a living, what can I say? You want to call that warrior spirit, you go right ahead.
I twist my head from side to side (no no no) and I can see Romy in the bleachers, tears glistening in her eyes, as she watches her new ex getting the crap beaten out of him by her former ex. And I can see that she still cares for me, that my pain means something to her. Maybe there’s still a chance. And Coach is screaming, Now, Jake. Make it happen!
Romy! Romy! I shout at the top of my lungs. What about our baby? Through the corner of my one remaining workable eye I can see Roger turn his head to peer through the Octagon fence, and I can feel the pressure easing up on my neck. Just enough for me to slip a hand under his elbow, turn to my right and throw my left hip into his. I push with everything I’ve got, and bang, I’m suddenly on top in side mount, and the crowd is going nuts as I waste no time dropping elbows onto Roger’s face before he can bring his gloves up for protection, torpedoing his ribs with knee shots; one, two, three, like a jackhammer, into his side. And then something gives, softens, breaks. I hear Roger cry out in pain, Unhhh!, and I know that it’s as good as over. One more knee—thwap!—and he taps the canvas four times. Ref jumps in. Done. The kids leap out of their seats, screaming their joy at the comeback kid. I hear them chanting, Chapplain! Chapplain! Chapplain! as the referee grabs my wrist.
Of course, there is no baby. And soon enough no girlfriend. Just a sweet victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, as the saying goes. Later, I’ll get stupid drunk with Roger, kid him about his balsawood ribs. We’ll still be buddies. That’s the way it goes with guys.
As the referee raises my hand to the sky, a sea of cellphones flashes selfies. Kids stream out of the gym, deleting the file of me stroke by stroke as they go. Backwards. And I’m left there in the centre of the Octagon, looking up at a row of red shark’s teeth. Felt. Definitely felt.
By Harry Posner