THE MUSIC, THE LIGHTS, THE CROWD—all of it’s a blur until the first punch. The walk to the ring, the introductions, approaching the ref, touching gloves—you don’t remember any of it. Just that first punch. In your first bout you beat a fighter within an inch of his life. Not just a man, a fighter: someone who eats clean, doesn’t drink, worships at the altar of the Fight God. The first punch you land decimates a barrier. The second’s lightning in your veins. After the third, the ref wrenches you off the battered body. Roaring. Victorious.
You win your first three fights with knockouts. Coaches can’t teach raw power. Either a guy has it or he doesn’t. You have it. Promoters notice. Power punchers fill seats. The venues get bigger. The money gets better.
Your fourth fight is with Sam Heenan, an up-and-comer from Iowa. There’s no tape on him (YouTube footage nowadays, but everyone still calls it tape). Your coach, Pat Kedzie, predicts that Heenan will go straight to the mat—fighters from Iowa always do. You wrestled in high school. You know that some of the best grapplers on the planet come out of Iowa. There and Brazil. Proof that the Fight God has a sense of humor.
You stand in the ring across from Heenan, not listening to the ref’s instructions. You stare at each other without malice or derision—a silent physical appraisal. Heenan’s a lanky white dude with cauliflower ears and a nose like a man who worked the docks two centuries ago. You’re fighting at one ninety-five, five pounds heavier than him. He’s six-three, two inches taller than you, but your reach is about the same.
You touch gloves and manage one glancing punch before Heenan rushes and you both tumble to the mat. Then it’s all violent and subtle shifts of weight—squirming, reaching, keeping your head above water, while trying to pull Heenan under.
“Breathe, Simon!” Pat shouts from your corner. “God damn it, breathe!
Calm down. Shift. Work. Move. Calm down. A complex game of kinetic chess.
You’re in a good spot, latched on his back. You dig your heels into Heenan’s crotch as he claws for space between your forearm and his carotid artery. His fingers slip. You snarl, lock, and pull in that near-orgasmic moment of finding your opening. You know what Heenan’s feeling; you’ve been there in training more times than you care to admit. The tap cascade: that all-consuming panic, those fireflies on the periphery of your vision and then, finally, the tap. Surrender and momentary relief, stalked by anger, disgust, and disappointment.
You roll off Heenan and bring your gloves to your face, the roar of the fans swallowing you whole. You’ve rappelled from helicopters, jumped out of perfectly good airplanes, and everyone who’s ever shot at you has missed. But nothing beats this: pure adrenaline on tap.
The Heenan fight shuts up your detractors.
“Yeah, he’s got that power punch—he can hit, but can he fight?”
No more. Fighters who never looked your way before in your gym, Jersey City Razor, now nod when you enter.
“That’s Simon Moten, an up-and-comer.”
You nod back but keep your mouth shut. You’re older than many of these fighters, but not in gym years. And that’s the only time that counts.
YOU WERE CONTRACTING with one of the fly-by-night, Blackwateresque firms in Mogadishu when you received Pat’s email.
Were you serious about fighting MMA one day? Where’d you say you placed in Oklahoma’s 6A division back in high school? What year was that? You still in shape?
Long before Mog, back at Camp Vance in Afghanistan, you’d served on a mixed team of SEALs, FBI Hostage Rescue, Army Civil Affairs, and members from “other government agencies.” You’d been a rookie Air Force PJ, and Pat, a redheaded grizzly bear of a Master Gunnery Sergeant who talked nonstop about MMA, had been the team’s most seasoned EOD tech. Waaaaay back in the day—between pre–9 / 11 deployments—Pat had fought, managed, and coached. One of those guys who’d done everything in fighting except make money at it. Retired from the Corps, Pat had returned to his native Jersey City to open a gym and manage a stable of fighters full time.
You quit the contracting job in Mogadishu and took your high school buddy Michael up on his standing offer to move into his place in the West Village. Unlike the other guys on Pat’s roster, you didn’t have to fight every three or four weeks, hunting for purses. Between the military and contracting in Somalia, you had plenty to live on and even a chunk of change put away for your kid, James. You still haven’t met James. Thanks to the Fight God, you hardly think of him.
You told everyone that you took the contracting job in Mogadishu for the money.
But that’s a lie. You took the job in Mog because—after Afghanistan—you knew you could lose yourself in Somalia. War zones are great like that. Then you discovered fighting was even better. The Fight God doled out that same sublime, single-minded clarity of purpose you found in war. But while no one really won on the battlefield, victory in the ring was clean and pure. All the Fight God demanded was a life shorn of complex human relationships, alcohol, drugs, and pleasure in food. In return, He shrouded you in His little sect, made you difficult for the rest of the world to find. And that’s exactly what you wanted.
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DEWAINE FARRIA’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the New York Times, the Rumpus, the Mantle, CRAFT, and Afropunk. He also co-edits the Maine Review’s weekly “Embody” column. As a U.S. Marine, Dewaine served in Jordan and Ukraine. Besides his stint in the military, Dewaine spent most of his professional life working for the United Nations Department of Safety and Security, with assignments in the North Caucasus, Kenya, Somalia, and Occupied Palestine. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Tobias Wolff selected Dewaine’s novel, Revolutions of All Colors, as the winner of Syracuse University’s 2019 Veterans Writing Contest. Syracuse University Press will release the book in the fall of 2020. Dewaine lives in the Philippines with his wife, three children, two cats, and a dog. Find him on Instagram at dewainefarria and on Twitter at @dewaine_farria.