As Super heavyweight Ben Edwards delivered a devastating right cross to the face of Jamal Ben Saddik – a man the announcer introduced as “a heavy-handed Moroccan” – I was surprised to find that my hands had involuntarily clenched into fists, and were repeatedly slamming on the table in front of me. Newly aware and somewhat frightened of my own bloodlust, I turned to my colleague for support. She had been watching me the whole time, and appropriately, was a little freaked out. “Look at your face,” she said. “Yikes.”
Prior to that night I had never watched a single round of a live fighting event. I’d never even been in a fight before, unless you count the time I pushed Ben Tukey into a radiator when I was six. Unsurprisingly, then, I wasn’t sure what to expect as I stood outside the Madison Square Garden Theater, waiting for the GLORY 12 World Championship Kickboxing Tournament to commence.
Fortunately, a man who identified himself only as Ron was there to help. “Kickboxing’s not like other sports,” he said. “The fans don’t get into it with each other. They just come to watch the event. They focus on the action.”
Nodding, but not feeling any more enlightened by his council, I noticed Ron’s eye start to wander towards a female fan waiting by the doors. “What’s she doing dressing like that? It’s freezing! You really need to show off that bad?”
This put me at ease. The confident ignoramus, equal parts sexist and racist, is a constant – and ironically enough, a minority – at all sporting events, and his presence here served as a reminder that athletic events are meant to be enjoyed by everyone, from the dandiest aficionado to the crudest, most slack-jawed pleb. With newfound confidence, I entered the arena ready for a fight.
“Knee to the shin! Knee to the shin! Knee to the shin!” The first bout of the evening featured the fan sitting behind me as much as its two female combatants, Anna Shearer and Brooklynite Andrea D’Angelo. Try as I might to carry out Ron’s wishes and “focus on the action,” that rogue fan’s constant pleas for arthro-devastation, combined with the fact that I spotted several children in the mostly empty audience, took me out of the moment.
“These kids are doomed,” I thought. “What kind of parent brings their child to a kickboxing match? This is disgusting.” Such concerned, and admittedly self righteous, thoughts would have swirled in my head all night had I not remembered that in Rocky IV, Rocky’s son Robert watched the entirety of the brutal Ivan Drago fight – under the supervision of a robot, no less – and ended up turning out just fine, save for a little rough patch in Rocky V. “Well, if it worked out for him…”
Three hours and several fights later, awful 80’s cinema was the furthest thing from my mind. The immediacy of seeing someone get hit so hard they nearly have to be carried out on a stretcher will do that. But that was three fights ago, and now my attention was focused squarely on Andy Ristie, the 31-year-old Surinamese underdog who seemed to be holding his own against Giorgio Petrosyan, considered by many to be the best kickboxer in the world.
“He’s going to win,” said a reporter sitting beside me, also from the small South American Republic of Suriname. She smiled. “Even the ambassador is here.” Whether it was her infectious enthusiasm or my own spectatorial instinct to latch onto someone and root for them, I couldn’t help but sympathize with her cause.
As the third and final round of the bout began, it had become clear that I’d made the right call. Ristie came out of his corner on a mission, striking Petrosyan with a flurry of punches and crippling knee strikes. The crowd was going ballistic, and somewhere, the “knee to the shin” guy was smiling. Less than a minute in, Petrosyan was on the canvas, and when the ref waved his arms to call off the fight, I found myself jumping up and down in a frenzy, throwing my arms into the air.
In that moment, I didn’t care about the welfare of the kids in the crowd or keeping up the facade that I knew where Suriname was. The self-conscious, pretentious “try to act smart” voice that permeates almost everything I do – including coining the hyphenated monstrosity arthro-devastation – was temporarily silenced and I was, for this rare instance, fully engaged in the present. I’d done Ron proud.
Inevitably, the feeling of euphoria faded just as quickly as it arrived. But when the self-conscious streak returned, the question running through my head was a new one, something I’d never bothered to consider before seeing these modern day gladiators whale on each other:
“What have I missed out on by never getting my ass kicked?”
Not sure I’m brave enough to find out the answer to that one.