Come Loose

Things Happen

The way the fighter’s coach put it to him as they sat in the gym’s back alley long past midnight was to let the fire do what it needs to do. You could spend your whole life tensing up. Tensing up for a word, for a punch, for a fight. Or you could come loose and strike first.

It was a kind of controlled chaos, the same way the combustion engine harnesses miniature explosions to propel a vehicle forward. The fire, though, must be controlled. He’d been out of control long enough, as a boy, getting in fight after fight, fighting just to survive, fighting because that’s all he knew how to do. No form, no technique, just using whatever would work to stop the pain and inflict that pain onto the other person. So much destruction. So much hurt.

But even hurt can be harnessed.

It felt unnatural at first, having to adapt his wild punches to something more controlled, more precise. Drilling footwork, and takedown defense, and grappling. Practicing the same punch over and over and over, exasperated, asking his coach if he could move on, learn something else. He was hungry. And his coach would bring up the old Bruce Lee quote about not fearing the man who’s practiced 10,000 kicks once but instead fearing the man who’s practiced one kick 10,000 times. And the fighter would laugh and say yeah yeah yeah, get back into position and hit the pads again. Jab, jab, right hook, dodge and roll, right hook again.

He remembered the first time he landed a right hook. Some asshole kid was following him home after he got off the school bus. Making fun of him for having to get school lunch assistance, saying his mother worked the streets but even that wasn’t enough. The bully was getting in his face and shouting insults till his left eardrum felt like it’d burst, till his shoulders tightened and his head got hot and his vision focused. That first time he landed a right hook, it was textbook. He pulled it across with the precision of a conductor, his arm his baton. And when it landed on the bully’s chin, sending him down, unconscious before he even hit the ground, it was like his own symphony had started to play. It continued to play the whole walk home, and it never quite stopped.

He had dreams of making it big, starting a gym in his old neighborhood, and coaching the kids looking for a way out, giving them the discipline and structure he himself didn’t find till he was already an adult and had made his mistakes. He was going to fight for every kid out there who didn’t see a way out of the black hole that was poverty. He knew what it was like having no concept of the future, not being able to think past where the next meal might come from. He was hungry, and he’d stayed hungry. Hunger comes in many forms.

But his coach would come in and tell him the quote about the journey of a thousand miles beginning with a single step. Always with the quotes, his coach. But he was right.

The fighter trained. He practiced punches, kicks, sprawls, submissions. He practiced, but more important than that, he listened. If his coach told him to do something, he did it. Even if it seemed pointless, even if he couldn’t see the immediate purpose, he did it.

Months passed. The fighter shed fat and put on muscle. He found that he could go an entire session without getting gassed. He’d sweat, and he’d feel sore after, but he could keep fighting for as long as he needed to.

He trained on pads, bags, and dummies. He sparred, first with headgear, then without. He fixed his diet, drank plenty of water, and got good sleep. He didn’t realize it then, but he’d worked himself into the best shape of his life.

And then he got his first amateur fight.

He didn’t know what the outcome would be as he stood across from his opponent. Didn’t know then that his right hook would land him a win in the first round by knockout. All he knew was that the tightness he was feeling, that instinct to tense up, was less than useless. So he breathed. He let go. He came loose.


Secrets Secrets


When I was little, like five or six, I watched my dad fight for money for the first time. It was our little secret. He’d come up to me, bloody-lipped, and remind me what it was I had to say. I’d go, “Secrets secrets are no fun. Secrets secrets hurt someone” and he’d slap me upside the head before buckling me up in the car.

He’d clean himself up real nice while Mom worked the third shift, apply ice to his lip and wash away all the blood. He went through bleach like nobody’s business cleaning up all his tanks. The jeans would go through the wash three, four times before even some of the blood would come off. It became so I was his little partner in crime. His thinking, I’m pretty sure, is that if they see he has a kid, maybe they’ll (subconsciously or otherwise) lose the fight. Most fights it was $25 if you lost, $50 if you won. If Dad was on a losing streak he’d tell me he was “counting his quarters.” Guys bet on the side, raking in cash or giving it away.

I scooped up my father’s teeth when I was seven, big root structures like the undersides of trees poking out of them. He’d later say he was glad they were back teeth. Easier to hide from my mom. The guy who knocked them out threatened to do worse, and the organizers held him back as he bellowed. My father had been taunting him. My father liked to taunt people, whether that was a good idea or not. His thinking, I’m pretty sure, is that if he taunted them, they’d get pissed and sloppy, and he’d be able to get some good shots on them. It rarely worked, but he did it anyway.

I was eight when my mom found out. Call it an anonymous tip. We still don’t know which of our neighbors squealed, but they must’ve seen him coming in all bloodied up one too many times. She didn’t know it was from fighting until I told her. My father chased me around the room when I said this, threatened me with everything in the book. Told me to come and take my punishment like a man when I ducked around the kitchen table. Mom told him off and he stopped coming after me. I’ve never seen so much malice in a man’s eyes as I did then.

What the fuck was my father thinking? Didn’t he have any concern for anyone other than himself? And what did he think he was doing bringing his kid around with him to this? Didn’t he have any sense in that thick skull of his? He was to quit doing it immediately. But honey, he already had a couple fights lined up. No way out of them. And she didn’t give a shit if he had a shot at the heavyweight fucking title. He was done. Did he understand that? And yeah. Yeah, he understood fine.

He went out the next week. Call it a compulsion. Call it an addiction. Call it willful stupidity. We were out of the house the next day, divorce proceedings to follow. I don’t know for sure because I never did see him again, but word on the street is he kept on fighting, this time to pay for child support. We moved somewhere quiet and shaded with big, leafy trees. Last I saw of my father was a bloody old tank that slipped through the cracks and into our laundry, one of the blood stains shaped into a heart.