Stroll Into The Ring

Shaun Stoffer

Stroll Into The Ring

            Wearing a green collared shirt, a black apron with my nametag, and slip-resistant work boots, I take a deep sigh as I scan out the hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of spoiled product – bruised organic bananas, rotten plum tomatoes, and overripe Hass avocados all get curveballed down the trash compactor. I pull out my cellphone and roll my eyes in boredom that I still have three hours of my shift to go before I can head to jiu-jitsu class.

            I’m wearing my gym shirt under my uniform and shadowboxing in the cooler as I pack my float full of the BOGO salads. More often than not a customer asks me about my cauliflowers ears and I explain to them that Publix pays my bills, but fighting in a cage is where I live my life.

            On my break I do everything within my power to pass by the fried chicken tenders and onion rings. I power walk through the cookies that are on sale and curse the endcap display filled with potato chips beckoning me to open a bag of their fattening goodness. Every fighter will agree that getting kicked in the face or getting your throat choked is not all that terrible, it’s what we signed up for after all. The worst is not being able to eat whatever we want. Weighing my meals and labeling times to consume them on post-it notes on Gladware containers. Telling all your friends you can’t go out again because you have to train tomorrow morning and you have to step on the scale at one-hundred and fifty-five pounds on the dot or risk losing twenty percent of the money from your purse. Telling girls you can’t come over because all your attention is focused on the pain you want to inflict on the man in six weeks’ time.

            Sitting in the break room I shove fistful of vitamins in my mouth and chug the gallon of water I have to lug around with me. Everyone’s eating Checkers, McDonalds, and Publix subs. I walk out knowing my will is getting weak. The half-pound of steamed tilapia is not quite hitting the spot. To avoid conversations I plug my headphones in and turn on Pandora radio. Dieting destroys pastimes because your mind constantly is reminded about what you cannot eat and drink – especially if you work in a grocery store, it’s like putting salt on a wound.

            My gym bag is stinking up my car while I fill up a display of Honeycrisp apples. I remind myself to buy another can of Lysol as I clock out. I rip off my uniform shirt and people give me seconds takes as they see the tattoos that cover my arms and chest.

*

            In class I am glad people know I’m not a fighter. I don’t want to be seen as a brute, a meathead. Drinking pre-workout from a shaker in the middle of class, it is obvious I am failing miserably. Alas, I do not care. My life revolves around getting to training, where nothing else matters. At the gym I forget about the pretty girls in class I keep working up the courage to talk to, the homework assignments that I’m going to put off until the last minute, and the tests I’m not going to study for but cheat or improvise and hope for the best. The second class is dismissed I grab my backpack and make a B-line from the classroom to my car. I never stop to talk to anyone, I try to be casual as I power walk, and I dread the rush hour traffic at UCF.

*

            In my home I avoid my family. I moved back from my three bedrooms, three bathrooms apartment to save money. Simply, fewer bills means less hours to work and more time to train. It’s a sacrifice I am more than willing to take for a shot to make it to the limelight. However, I do not need to hear about my sister’s success in medical school, my brother’s success at Rollins, or my mother and father’s engineering business that they built from scratch. I do not hate them, I do not envy them, but I do not see success and happiness as simply one’s bank account and diploma.

            I do not fear taking this journey because something about it evokes the best part of me. I cannot help that fighting in a cage excites me more than celebrating a wedding or zip lining from one-hundred foot towers. It’s what makes me come alive in every sense possible. As fearful as I am of losing I am willing to give up everything I have, everyone I have known and every luxury I adore just for a chance to wear a championship belt around my waist.

            Few people understand this journey, but what are they doing with their lives?

*

           Ten o’clock on a Saturday night you might be having a beer with your friends at some hole in the wall bar working up the courage to hit on the pretty girl who just walked in. Or maybe you’re working the closing shift at your nine to five college job handling a register or managing a bunch of whiny employees, but if you’re me you’re sitting in the locker room of Top Combat Alliance’s locker room waiting for your name to be called. I’m not in my favorite spot in Downtown Orlando having a 7&7 or working the closing shift in the produce department at my Publix off of Curry Ford and Conway road; instead I’m in a locker room in a pavilion in McDonough, Georgia waiting for my name to be announced so I can fight for fifteen minutes.

           The waiting is where the battle really is. The doubts cloud your mind. Some people can’t accept that their opponent is human and bleeds the same blood as you. Others think about showing the crowd they’re the animal, they’re the predator, and all you’re watching is hunting. Everyone’s different but similarities preside over us all, because here you’re not just simply waiting for your name but waiting for your time. You have fifteen minutes to prove that an eight week training camp was not a waste of time, that you have a place in combat sports where the pay is low and the fame is filled with controversy as a human cock fighter, and that you have more to offer the world besides your fists and brawn.

           Part of me wants to settle for mediocrity. Here, I don’t have my buddies buying me my pint of Black Velvet or rounds of Fireball shots or my co-workers telling me to try the cotton candy grapes or that I need to work on rotating the Bartlett pears. Instead, my hands are being wrapped with gauze and athletic tape to ensure I don’t break them swinging for the fences as I’m being interviewed for my predictions on the fight I’m to take part in. I reluctantly fight the urge to half-jokingly say I predict “pain” tonight, ode to Mr. T in his famous role as Clubber Lang in Rocky III.

           I’m just a kid. But I’m the farthest thing from a child right now. Plenty of cliché thoughts and feelings are running through my mind: fear, anxiety, and rage, but few understand why I feel that in that very moment. I’m afraid because getting knocked out in front of my family and friends at doing what you do best is worse than losing, it is failure. Anxiety and rage are blended because I never know what to expect, I don’t know what to be afraid of, and I’m not sure what to be mad about. All I know is it’s what I’m feeling, because losing is in the back of my mind always.

           Maybe it’s the pressure. My girlfriend’s in the stands and to her you’re the baddest man on the planet, my parents are in the stands and they don’t want to see their youngest child leave in a stretcher, my friends and teammates are screaming your name telling people in their drunken stupor how you’re going to beat your opponent to a bloody pulp. Me, I like to make them bleed.

            Maybe it’s the fact I’m young. I should be worrying about not drinking and driving or not failing my UCF courses, about how I’m going to afford to save up to move out of my parent’s house or how I’m going make a career out of that English degree. Instead, I’m worried about the worst case scenario, waking up in the hospital with a broken jaw, an expensive medical bill, and no memory of what happened a few hours prior – but none of those compare to the pain of seeing a loss on my professional record. It’s my resume, the merit of all my hard work, it’s everything.

           I warm up hitting pads to make sure my combinations are fluent, strikes should seem effortless not winged. Hitting the pads should sound like a thud not a slap. Jab-leg kick-jab. Right hook-left cross-right uppercut. Straight right to the body, overhand left to the head. Jab-left cross-left head kick. I can feel my knuckles pierce through the hard leather of my four-ounce gloves. I stretch recalling the private yoga lessons I paid for; my feet need to be able to reach my opponent’s head – nothing personal. I keep drinking water like my life depends on it because I weighed in one-hundred and fifty-five pounds last night and woke up over one-hundred and seventy pounds this morning. Cutting weight through the depletion of body water through sweat is a bitch. I spent three miserable, heart-wrenching hours in the sauna of my local LA Fitness. I would’ve much rather used that time to watch Peter Jackson’s new Hobbit film. At least my abs look good for the event photographers now.

            Before a fight my mind must be clear. Some people slap themselves around, some start yelling about how their opponent’s going to need a body bag. The guy next to me is doing the former. He is fighting right after me; if I had a crystal ball I would warn him that he would be trading his victory via split decision in return for throwing up blood next to me later that night, so much it looked like a movie’s special effect, my educated guess was bleeding kidneys or a ruptured liver.

               But me I simply pray and recite my favorite quote that I adore enough to memorize, Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena.” I recite his words time and again. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

              They call me “The American Dream” when I stroll down the arena to enter the ring surrounded by black coated mesh. That is my given nick name that I am proud to own. Johnny Cash is playing the rambler, the gambler, the back-biter, sooner or later God’s gonna cut you down. I have the referee inspect my gloves to ensure I didn’t hide a brick in them. He puts Vaseline on my face so the Velcro of the gloves don’t split my face, he taps my cup, and I murmur, “Gotta buy me a drink first, sweet cheeks.” Alas, my humor is too dry for my own good. I share a wide grin to show the referee that I’m wearing my mouth piece; it has an American flag stamped across it to match my nick name. I hug my three corner-men who have been preparing me for this fight for weeks, my training partners and friends who will coach me from cage-side and gingerly walk up the stairs and bow before entering the cage because my traditional martial arts background in karate and jiu-jitsu has taught me to relish deference. However I wink at the ring girls and propose to the one strutting around the cage with a “1” round card, “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

            She replies, “Yes and good luck!”

            I laugh at myself.

            I give the referee a thumbs up when he asks me seconds later if I’m ready. I am the shark smelling blood in the water. I repeat this in my head time and again as I tune out the crowd and narrow in on my opponent. I don’t have time to be nervous. All my focus is on my game plan and victory.

           I stare at my opponent and see he’s stocky and has a grim reaper surrounded by demons tattooed on his side. His back is wide and full of striations. His face is worn and his hair is dark and curly. He doesn’t look me in the eye but he’s an up and comer who has won an amateur title, he is proven and so I know he will come out strong, he will not hesitate and I am glad,

          We touch gloves in the center of the ring to show sportsmanship but I hesitate. I’ve been hit on the glove touch before. Cheap fuckers. I reluctantly do so and stay in the center. I get cracked with a straight cross and left hook. This retard’s faster than I thought. He throws his straight right lunging forward meaning he covers the distance quicker and throws everything behind his punch. I shoot for a takedown and get his bodyweight sprawled on top of me. Fuck me, this sucks. I get back to my feet to get stuck in a guillotine choke that resembles a front headlock. I fight out of it. Yeah, I think I’m losing this round. He shoots for a single leg takedown but my balance saves me. Won’t be that easy. We keep it standing but I can’t find my rhythm. I’m throwing combinations and hitting air. I’m circling left to his straight right and circling right to greet his left hook. When I come straight he sits back and counters. When I bully he shoots for a takedown. When I clinch he punches his way out. The round begins the way it ends. Me blocking his fists with my face. My nose is bleeding; I exhale hard when the bell to end the first round rings and blood hits one of my corner-man’s white track pants.

            They shove Q-tips into my nose and tell me to throw kicks and keep the distance, circle to my left and throw left head kicks and right leg kicks. A good old-fashioned strategy called high-low where I throw from one angle to the body or leg and the other angle to his face. The second round commences and I’m failing miserably. He steps in on my leg kicks and throws an overhand to my grill. I’m going to feel this in the morning. When I throw my head kicks he jolts back out of my reach. He’s beating me standing – obviously. He gains confidence and rushes in. I throw my trademark walkaway right hook. It clips and he’s stunned. He shoots for a takedown but I laugh. I’ve been training with D-1, All-American, and State champion wrestlers for this fight. He’s not going to take me down but does not quit in trying to get the fight to the ground. I keep my hips and back against the cage and let him wear himself out. He’ll get exhausted, is my hope. But I’m still losing because I’m defending.

             I’m sitting on the stool waiting for the third and final round to begin. I tell my corner-man I’m going for broke, this is it. He replies I have to; I’m down two rounds to zip. The bell for the third round to start rings and we meet in the center, he reaches his hands out to touch gloves but I step back falsely thinking he’s going to go for a cheap shot just cause. I hear his corner laugh and rage fills in my eyes. I rush forward and start throwing leg kick after leg kick. He’s breathing with his mouth wide open and not blocking whatsoever. I fake for the leg kick and land a liver kick. I hear him wince and he starts to back up. I lob head kick after head kick feeling the tip of his nose as I graze him. He shoots to take me down and I pull his head down in the clinch and start throwing knees to his head and body. He shoots again and I sprawl on top of him. He drives me to the fence. I’m stuck against the cage so I throw elbow after elbow after elbow. My elbow hurts now. But I don’t care. I stand up and circle around. I bait him to stand up and I shoot for a takedown. I pick him up and slam him hard. I hear him gasp in pain and I go to get on top and rain down strikes. He rolls over and I take his control of his back. I stand over him and give him everything I have. Punch after punch after punch. I feel the ref hovering over. I hear my corner yell to go for the choke. I sink my legs into the crevices of his hips and wrap my arms around him as if I’m a seatbelt. He struggles and fights. He tries to defend the rear naked choke which most people know as the sleeper hold. I cross-face him hard and feel the blade of my forearm creep under his neck into his throat. I grasp my palms and squeeze with everything I have. He starts tapping out and I look at the ref. He stops the fight with twenty seconds left in the round. I lie on my back and raise my hands in reluctant triumph. My corner-men run into the cage and one of them picks me up and walks me around the cage. When he puts me down I put my hands on my thighs and murmur, “Fuck I’m tired. I need a drink.”

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