CAGE FIGHTING

“The Fighter” by Hippolyte Reininger

“The truth is I’ve tried and failed at so many things that it happened almost by accident.” 

We sat together on a pair of folding chairs watching TV, looking at the fight replays, while my subject sat watching himself beat the piss out of his opponent on a national broadcast. He smelled sweaty, and resembled a culmination of his vicious talent. The 25-year-old Thomas Burzinski had just won his second UFC bout by TKO in the 56th second of the first round. He was my age.

Thomas continued, “It’s not for the money. God knows we aren’t compensated well after our hospital bills are paid. And privately I don’t have the sort of bloodlust that my fanbase would like to imagine I do.”

My eyebrows furled inwards in disbelief. “You licked your gloves after the fight ended.”

“I did, but that’s just a selling point of my style. I’m like a circus clown in that aspect. Still, every performer takes the mask off and goes home at the end of a show.”

“A circus clown that smashes orbital bones? And enjoys it?”

“I suppose when you put it like that it takes away the nuance of the conversation.” He paused to swish his gums with a drink of water, then spat bloody water onto the ground. “Then yes technically. But let me ask you, what if I like it? And let’s not beat around the bush, people do enjoy it. Spectators and combatants alike.”

“It packs the arena.”

“I have no doubt in my mind that if this was a fight to the death, these bouts would sell. Hell, maybe even more so. I’d hate to think we’ve made so much moral progress since the days of the coliseum. Now wouldn’t such an ancient spectacle be a waste today?” Thomas looked at me with a face that looked like it was smashed by a tire iron. It was too swollen to make detailed facial expressions.

“That sounds very vulgar.”

“Oh fuck off. You sound like a menopausal professor.”

“I… Uh. I don’t mean that in a critical sense. Even the Greatest, ended up with severe Parkinson’s from getting hit too much.” 

“Let me provide you some insight about the way I feel about it from my first professional fight. As I was limping out of the cage, little rings of smoke popped up around my dry heaving head. I’d moved so much, so fast, in the octagon that I might as well have breached the sound barrier. And while the man opposite me lay breach in defeat, I stood tall and exited the cage on my own, birthing myself, finding a new life. I looked like a grenade had exploded near my face. The crowd cheering was muffled by my carnage clogged ears. But I’ll tell you right now nothing compares to the feeling of escaping combat alive.”

“Thomas, when I watch you fight, you seem to get a legitimate delight out of the suffering and I get that. But…”

“But what?”

I couldn’t respond. Thomas continued:

“Let’s analyze me a little more. In fact let’s just cut to the chase. Yes I enjoy the suffering because it makes me feel very alive. It’s not sadistic, it’s not masochistic. No I don’t take any sexual pleasure out of it. So don’t bother asking. I’ll say this, I take absolutely no issue acting in accordance with the reflexes of nature. Fighting lets me slip back away from this curse called consciousness, and allows me to behave as absolutely wretchedly as God, or whatever nature intended me.”

We took a pause to watch one fighter choke out another on the flat screen.

“You want to hear what sickens me the most? The vice of indulging in the apparition that a civilized nature is an ascendant one. That desk jockeying, feeling the wrath of a machine unimaginably greater than you, letting it reap hours from our precious few moments. I hate the subdued cowardice involved in negating every impulse. The embedded impulse inside that is screaming, begging us to do something completely irrational, something so irrational that it might even make us happy. Christ forbid, we transcend the pathways directing us towards fruitless humiliation.” 

“Are you talking about me?”

“Do you have to ask? I mean you seem somehow unhappy to be here, interviewing a fighter, and here we were talking about sacrifice and cowardice.”

He continued. “I’ll say this. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this profession, everything is a sacrifice. You sacrificed your time to get in the car and drive to Vegas from who cares where, and ask me poorly formulated questions. Think about the breath you’re wasting.” He swished more water, and spat. “Sacrifice occurs even at the expense of dreaming.” 

“Well I…”

“Well what?” He cut me off and began mocking my voice. “Let’s imagine another ‘Ancient Spectacle.’ Even the Great Muhammad Ali ended up with Parkinson’s. Doesn’t that seem like such a waste? You might as well swim straight out to sea and find out if you really enjoy living if that’s your thought process.” 

“Maybe I have.”

“Maybe you didn’t swim far enough.” And with that he got up. Before he left the locker room, he turned to me and said, “Everyone will look at you and say you can simply never act irrationally. Of course there has to be a deep seated reason why your random impulses sublimate into delight. It’s because I’m good at what I do and it makes living pay off. So fuck you, that’s why.” He walked out, and I found that I’d forgotten to turn on my tape recorder. 

Several days later, Thomas “Polish Pride” Burzinski stepped into the ring and tore his Brazilian opposition to shreds. I watched a rerun of the main card from my hotel room in Reno, and analyzed the manner in which Burzinski waged war. Steadily, it transformed into an act of daydreaming. 

On TV I watched his butterfly feet pop up and down against the pink canvas. He floated around the octagon freely, dancing even. In each jab Burzinski’s arms swelled up, tempting a counterpunch. It was precision. He was setting up siege equipment around the octagon. 

About a minute in, the combatants began throwing bombs, ending their mere flirtation with violence. The Polish fighter’s arms swung twin battering rams, knocking at a weak flank protecting Mora’s heart and liver. Mora felt his vitals exposed by his torso’s collapsing bastions. Thankfully for Mora, the bell rang, signaling the end of the round. 

The two fighters went to their stools and sat down. At one end I could imagine, not trainers and coaches, but Clausewitz as Burzinski’s corner man, assisted by Hannibal feeding the fighter lessons in strategy. 14 seconds into the second round, Thomas’s high kick toppled the citadel and Mora went to sleep. My eyes were glued to Burzinski, the exemplary MMA practitioner, whose art is to put a succinct stop to life. 

That last phrase popped into my head and got the ball rolling so I sat down at my laptop and tried to imagine something he’d say. 

It went like this:

“Since my first fight I could not stand the feeling of embittered alienation. I hated that. I was the enemy of that. Each day of my life was a war against who I was in comparison to who I could be. Inside the cage, my memories are rehearsed by one another in terms of a suffering staccato. There’s nothing smooth, just jittery instances of inflicted pain. And they felt lovely. I remember how I looked at my opponent. Mora’s tan skin was a veil for pale flesh behind a blood-drained face. For a moment I was able to punch outside of myself. I saw a rusty blonde bushel of locks above feet popping gracefully like Muhammad Ali. I got a ringside view of my own body, stabbing and grappling, demanding to be felt. I looked at my muscular legs, taught like the trunks of a young oak, flexing around a body tightened up by weight cutting. 

Then I saw Mora, who chastised the image of the brutalist fighter. His ornate face lunged towards me, heaving its statuesque magnitude. Laying into him in the first round I fashioned his body out my image. In the cage I was the artist of my opponent’s body. I hopped around, poised to mold his condition into vivid, lung bled breaths. 

Out of my opponent I refigured a living statue of the Dying Gaul. My high knee peaked spearlike after a feigned jab, knocking him to his side. While he leaned, propped up by one hand, I admired his stature. His eyes, his whole frame, tempered by a feverish pain. At first I stood stunned silence by my accomplishment, then I dove in, ravenous, hawkish, death defiant. My hammer fist plunged into Mora and mercilessly exiled his mind from his body.”

As soon as I finished my exalted report, it didn’t matter to me whether or not I was performing real journalism. So I sent this fabricated interview to Victory MMA Magazine. The email was sent and I sat deep into my hotel desk chair, and realized what an absolute coward I was.

I slumped sick into my chair, daring not to feel sorry for myself. Slowly tears of self-hatred began to well up in my eyes. No, these tears were tears of fear, of self-preservation. I’ll be safe forever. No Parkinson’s. No legacy. The only thing happening at my expense is the guarantee of doing absolutely nothing. Maybe he’s healthy and I’m sick. Maybe I’m the one who deserves the interview, as part of a documentary on pontifical failure. At the thought, I started to laugh and I started to dream. I knew at the terminal exchange of life for breath, I’ll never have to sacrifice my fantasies. Not even by accident.

Kenan Meral is a currently working on a collection of short stories. He is one the many acolytes of Mishima. Meral’s blogposts can be found on his Substack page at lifeisfun.substack.com.