Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Fight

A friend of mine is, in turn, friends with a guy named Gino. Not too long ago, Gino got dumped by his girlfriend and had to move out of her house, so he stayed with my friend, Vincent, for several months while he trained.

Gino is an ultimate fighter. Of his few possessions, unabashedly on display in the guest room Vincent provided for him, off the kitchen, from where I wandered in one day, none was as fascinating as his glittering championship belt.

Last week Gino put that belt up for grabs in a title-defense bout outside Fresno, California. Vincent, his friends Michael and Josh, and I drove up there from LA to see what it would be like to watch him in action.

We rolled up to the address Vincent had been given and we were in the middle of nowhere. Not Fresno, which would have been bad enough from what I hear, but some po-dunk small agricultural town in the outlying area. His GPS didn't even have a road on it. We were getting nervous. So much for hitting up a bar for some food and drink first.

Toward the end of the 3hr+ trek from LA, we drove through the quaintest little downtown I've ever seen--not a pretty one, mind you, but quaint all the same. Nothing but old, run-down shit-box buildings housing farm banks, tractor dealerships, abandoned gas stations (or did they close at 5pm?), etc. After a blink it was gone, and the farm fields returned. In the distance we saw a circle of bright lights. We braced ourselves for what we might find there.

A barn? A rodeo ring? A parking lot? This wasn't the UFC, after all--this was the minor leagues.

A much tamer, if almost stranger, fate awaited us. An Indian casino. "Dot, not feather," as somebody later joked, to my great offense. I'm 1/64th Native American, after all. And a proud man.

Living in LA, I am of course barraged with commercials, billboards, and other advertisements for local casinos, places in Las Vegas, places in between...I've never heard of this place. Perhaps appropriately, this was the minor leagues of Indian gaming. Once they get called up to 'the show,' I'll be annoyed by their come-ons, but for now I wasn't on the radar.

We parked and went inside, once again not quite sure what to expect.

The place was packed. It was Thursday night, around 7pm. We walked around a bit to get our bearings, find out where the fight was taking place, find the closest source of alcohol.

The fight was upstairs. In the bingo parlor.

There was only one bar in the entire casino. It was packed full of people I am well-aware of, yet like to pretend don't exist, much less rub elbows with. You are not allowed to bring alcohol outside of the bar, so we braved it, walked inside, and ordered up some whiskey and beer.

The air was thick with depression and every third set of eyes screamed fight. And I'm not referring to the ones going on in the bingo parlor. I tried not to look in any particular direction for too long, no matter my urge to read the fascinating t-shirts. In this company, my friends and I looked every inch the dandy and I don't think it would've taken much for somebody to want to come over and "ugly us up" just for kicks.

Some guy came over and said hey to Vincent. Turns out he has been shooting a documentary about Gino, which he will then try to sell to a Brazilian TV network. He took Vincent up to Gino's room, where he was resting before the fight and "not to be disturbed." Vincent returned with tickets and T-shirts.

It was probably greedy, especially in retrospect, but we all expected ringside seats. Especially after we put on the T-shirts Team Gino gave us to wear and realized Vincent's company sponsored him. That had to cost something; so what does he get in return, right?

When I looked at the ticket Vincent handed me, I noticed it said General Admission where a seat number should have been. Below that was printed "000000017" and even though I doubted it very much, I maintained a sliver of hope it was some sort of secret code for "Ringside."

The others all assumed this was so. They were pretty destroyed when an usher informed us that not only were we not ringside, but didn't even have seats at all. They stood against the wall in the back, irritated.

It's funny to think a room this big is used for bingo. It's also funny that a room this small is used for televised mixed-martial-art fights. This must be somewhat like boxing used to be during the Norman Mailer era--small venues, shitty production value, intimacy, rawness.

Between fights, a DJ blasted crappy music while two hoochie-mamas shook what they've got on little roped-off platforms on either side of him. During the fight, between rounds, skinnier hoochie-mamas paraded around holding up the numbers. They looked like this:

Sadly, the fights consisted of only 3 three-minute rounds. [Except for the title fight, which was limited at five three-minute rounds]

Gino's manager came over and asked us why we were standing in the back when we had seats. We told him. He took us over to an usher and demanded to know where our seats were. The usher told him the same thing she told us earlier. Ouch.

Since we couldn't get any closer, we watched a couple fights from afar, mostly on the video screens, so we might as well have been at home, watching it all on...the NASCAR channel? I don't know where you'd find that shit, but that's probably where I'd begin my search.

One of the fights was between two women, which was interesting for that reason alone. Otherwise, the fight itself was pretty boring.

Vincent had only been given one wristband, which allowed access to the makeshift locker/sparring room off the main "arena." He went in and out a few times, saying hello to Gino, getting noticed by the people guarding the door. Then, since he never actually secured the wristband in place but had held it together in his fist, he was able to hand it off to Josh. Vincent walked right past the guards, a known quantity at this point. Josh followed him inside.

A few minutes later, Vincent handed me the wristband and walked back inside. I held it together in my hand and flashed the wristband on my way in. Three for one special. Not bad.

Inside, there were numerous fighters--most surprisingly short--warming up, getting rubbed down, roughhousing with their sparring partners, etcetera. A member of somebody's pit crew was on a table getting sewn up by a doctor (or maybe he was just a hobbyist?) after, I presume, a mishap.

In the back of the room, there was a black curtain sectioning-off a private room. Unable to spot Vincent anywhere in the room, I held my breath, found a slit in the curtain, and stepped inside.

Sure enough, there were Vincent, Josh, Gino, and his crew; we had lost Michael at some point, which was fine with all of us. Michael is a dog breeder-- of pocket pit bulls--and can't stop talking about them.
"I got a good little bitch for you, a real beautiful bitch--you should see the face on this bitch. It's one of the best I ever made. Only $6000, which is a good deal for... No-no way, man--why would I trade her for one of yours? I don't need that blood--I got that blood all over my yard! Why would I do that? No, no--I don't do that shit..."
This is the same guy who had his prize-winning pooch poisoned by the Mafia--who are hugely into the dog market, there being much more money to be made there than in the horse world. When Michael refused to sell them his dog's semen, because he didn't like them, they threw a meatball soaked in antifreeze over the fence. He saw it on his security tapes. The dog was ultimately spared, but hasn't been the same since. Luckily, there was semen put away for a rainy day. Extremely expensive semen. Interested?

The one thing in life Michael seems most proud of is acquiring one of his enemy's dogs--through a third party hired for the task--and turning it into a prizewinner for his own operation. He got the best pup in the litter, I guess, and named it something like "Ha, ha! Fuck you--Checkmate" or "Checkmate," for short. After telling me this story, beaming, he then described, in detail, the shots he would like to have in a video he plans to create to advertise this dog as a stud. I guess he makes DVDs of all his dogs and sends them to prospective semen/dog buyers--mostly in the South, unsurprisingly. I really want to watch one of them some day.

Anyway, back to the fight.

Behind the black curtain, Gino was sparring with his partner as his trainer, manager, documentarian, and a couple other members of the posse watched. Everybody wore one of the two new t-shirt designs.

Gino was a giant--a giant chiseled out of rock, a giant who works out 5 hours a day--who couldn't stop smiling and joking around. I found out the day after the fight that he is 34 years old, but he didn't look a day over 20.

Ten seconds after this photo was taken, Gino farted and laughed. I moved elsewhere.

It was awkward to be back there, to say the least. I didn't have a wristband and could have been ejected at any point, all but Vincent were strangers to me--the fact that I had just spent three hours in a car with two of them didn't really count--and I was surrounded by trained fighters pounding guys wearing pads, guys in their underwear, guys who looked like they wanted to kill me because they thought I was spying on their boy, reporting back to his opponent about his moves and perceived weaknesses. As if that wasn't enough, almost everybody else in Gino's room was speaking Spanish. I mean, I can speak Spanish, but not like a native. It might as well have been Chinese.

And even if they had been speaking English, I still wouldn't have had much to say about anything. I hate chit-chat, I don't care about fighting, I was mildly afraid of uttering some sort of "break a leg" faux pas, and inspirational outbursts are hardly my stock in trade. The feeling was similar to the one I felt when I had to visit our guide's dying mother in a hospital in Moshi, Tanzania. I had never met her, I didn't want to be there, I didn't want to catch meningitis when somebody sneezed, and I didn't speak Swahili--but even if she had spoken English, I still wouldn't have known what to say to her.

After an awkward introduction to Gino and his crew, I retreated outside the tent. I didn't really want to go back out and watch from the standing section, but I didn't really want to be in here either. I compromised and escaped via the television, watching a couple bouts on the monitor hanging from the ceiling. They were some good fights, especially this one:

A lanky scrapper against a small strongman. Well-matched. Well-fought.

That's not his blood, but this guy definitely lost. They were both covered in it by the end, the result of an elbow to the Asian guy's head. As I watched it on TV, along with several guys in the business, one of them shook his head and said, "Gotta hope there's nothing in that blood..." Ditto. But I wouldn't want my life riding on it...

With a few fights left before the main event, I ducked back into the curtained room and there was no sign of Vincent or Josh. I went outside and wandered over to the corner where some girl told me they were selling alcohol. They only took cash.

I left and headed back down into the casino, looking for an ATM, or maybe just going to the bar. Vincent called and told me to meet him "under the cameras." I found him and Josh sitting ringside and joined them. We were sitting in the second row, right behind the media, so I kept my camera out and took a lot of pictures, hoping nobody would kick me out.

After a good bout with a "Kick Crusader" from Thailand, who performed an energetic Thai dance in the ring before his fight, Gino and his opponent--whom we'll call Hammerhead--took over the spotlight. A video played on the screens scattered throughout the bingo hall, introducing each fighter and playing a short clip of them talking about themselves.

Hammerhead was a fatty. He was the only guy with a body fat index over 4%. But he was also a former Greco-Roman wrestling champion. This fight with Gino was a rematch of one that ended when they both tumbled out of the ring, which I guess is not allowed.

The audience was firmly in Gino's corner, frequently addressing him as "Champ." Before the end of the first round, Hammerhead walloped their Champ in the nuts with his knee and sent him reeling in pain. The crowd booed wildly and shouted encouragement at Gino.

The moment of impact was replayed on the TV screens as Gino rolled around in agony, using four of the five allotted recovery minutes after an 'accidental foul.' Whether or not it's accidental is pretty hard to determine, since knees to the lower abdomen are a common move.

In case you're curious what a man's face looks like 3 minutes after he's been viciously kneed in the balls, tried to stand up, and sat back down in pain, here it is:

I can relate, having been viciously kicked in the balls when I was in junior high. I think I took longer than four minutes to get to my feet, cried more, and definitely didn't do anything strenuous afterwards. I wonder if Gino will find a telltale drop of dried blood in his underwear, like I did. I wonder if we'll be able to have kids.

Round 2 was somewhat of a stalemate. As with every fight tonight (save the one between two females), this one consisted mostly of two men hugging, trying to inflict pain from extremely close range, while also avoiding their opponents similar attempts. Both fighters try desperately to "pass the guard" of their opponent--ie, straddle them above the waist, in order to pound their face without having to worry about a foot to their own face. Whenever a fighter gets into this position, his opponent will tap-out to end the fight, unless he has a death wish.

During Round 3, Gino threw Hammerhead to the mat, using a Jiu-Jitsu move, and cracked his arm in several places. "I had to do it, you know, and so I did, and I heard 'pop-pop-pop.' " Immediately afterward, Gino jumped on him, 'passed his guard,' and began pounding Hammerhead's face. After a few devastating blows, Hammerhead tapped-out and Gino retained his belt, doubling his purse and securing his future in the big leagues. The crowd went nuts.

After the post-fight interviews were over--complete with a shout-out to Vincent's company, as well as the girlfriend he moved back in with--we joined Gino in the locker room.

As you might imagine, the mood was festive. Gino hugged everybody--even me--to thank them for their support. His manager sent somebody to go pick up the paycheck, which seemed funny to me for some reason (what, no direct deposit?), and I wondered how the money would be divided among the posse members.

After agreeing to get sushi with Gino sometime this week, the four of us began the slow retreat to Los Angeles, one t-shirt richer than we were when we arrived...

No comments: