Fighting costs all of us dearly, too dearly, in physicality and mentality. It’s unfortunate that dedication has such an innate sacrificial element to it.
Bryce, Tizoc, and Jordan get to sleep in that day because they all fight that night, but the rest of us stagger into the lobby unmotivated and groggy (Note: Jordan and Tizoc were moved to fight earlier than expected). The apathy built up from the week before to a sudden punishing daily routine hit us hard. And it was only day two, really. The van drives us through Elm Street, we train for three hours, and we take a lunch break.
A small restaurant juts out from the back of the gym into an unkempt field. Our van driver waits for us at a table, where he pre-ordered a local meal for meal consisting of fish and vegetables. Despite the somewhat rough and unappetizing appearance, the fish crumbles in my mouth, meaty and tender. After eating a culture’s food in the native land, it always surprises me how unhealthy American counterparts are. But as much as I enjoyed the food, my teammates prefer to stop by a more American joint on the way back to the gym. Bryce, Tizoc, and Jordan stroll in for afternoon training, and practice some last minute moves. If I learned anything from competition though, it’s that 60% of technique leaves once you enter the ring.
For the rest of the day, we meander through Bangkok’s sights to calm our nerve before the fight. Large super-malls filled with counterfeit luxury items tower over the impoverished streets, and inside, I buy a Gucci belt for my dad and a few graphic shirts. Bryce buys a fake Tiffany’s bracelet for his girlfriend Amber. He talks about other girls a lot, but its obvious he loves her.
Our van driver picks us up from the lobby around six, and we hastily chow down on a light meal before heading to the stadium. “I was once the champion of this stadium,” our driver tells us in broken English. It’s the first words he spoken this whole trip.
Inside, strangely enough, the ratio of foreigners to natives is around 1 to 1, which makes one wonder about the popularity of the national sport. The foreigners generally have some sort of escort with them (female or transvestite), while in the back, old Thai men exchange some form of gambling sheet. There’s a familiar smell of menthol in the atmosphere seeping out of the back room. Attached to this familiarity is another change of plans – Bryce’s fight is rescheduled to next week in a bigger stadium.
We prepare Jordan and Tizoc in the back, but are immediately interrupted when a greasy announcer and his cameraman rushes into the back room, blinding us with their lights. They want interviews for some obscure, most likely illegitimate blog. Tizoc, as expected, declines the offer, but Jordan and his natural love of the spotlight accept wholeheartedly. I decide to ignore them and work with Tizoc instead, who stands in the corner, blankly staring through the wall.
Tizoc rushes in very much like a bull, lost in the rush of adrenaline and the fear of the fight. The poise he exhibited in training disappears. Tizoc throws a few overhands that catch his opponent, a stocky Thai fighter with a bulged forehead, but his opponent jabs, snapping Tizoc’s head back. He comes to his senses a bit, stepping back, and assesses the situation. Jake, Mike, and I quietly sit ringside while Bryce and sensei shout from the corner. Jordan is somewhere, preparing for his fight.
Then suddenly, within the unsettling tension, Tizoc connects, and again, and again. The opponent’s arms limp to the side, wobbling, held up by the tension of the red ropes behind him, and the referee steps in. I’m up, screaming from the back of my throat without realizing it. Under the confusion, Tizoc violently jumps onto the ring ropes, which helplessly snaps under his weight. It takes nearly twenty minutes to repair.
Tizoc strides out of the ring, silently strutting to where the rest of the team invites his dignity. Foreigners and their girlfriends snap photos faking kisses and molding bodies into extravagant fighting poses. He’s an instant hero. As the energy depletes, Tizoc settles in with a sigh, wishing Jordan good luck.
Jordan enters the ring, naturally, poised, but possessed with the confidence from the interview. His opponent (as generally the case) has a significantly smaller build, but the Neanderthal visage displays raised scars from his battles. It’s always terrifying looking into the ring at Jordan. While he never affects me much in training, there’s always a sociopathic fearlessness in his eyes. The human center of the brain suddenly turns off, it seems, and in the moment all ability to understand emotion disappears. It’s almost too natural for him.
What’s more, it almost always ends the same way. Jordan’s fists aimlessly attack every vulnerable point in the opponent’s body until they break down into a motionless bag of bones. Perhaps I expended my excitement on Tizoc, but I can’t rouse myself up as much after Jordan’s dominant performance. I walk to ringside where the wooden eyes of the beaten opponent glares back at me. The foreigners rush to take photographs with the winner, posing with fists up. All these photographs are carbon copies of each other. The Thai gets taken out on a stretcher, but no one else notices.
That night, Bryce and Jordan manage to sneak alcohol into the rooms. We all quietly make our way to the roof, where we look over Thailand’s naturalism. Eventually the familiar feeling of alcohol kicks in, and the city below blends together with the night sky until everything becomes another memory, an experience, a story.
A combination of jet lag and paper-thin bed sheets gets me up before sunrise. Since I left school in the middle of a quarter to make this venture, I had a series of imminent deadlines that included two ten page essays. Since most of the team took advantage of the drink service on the plane, I figured they would sleep in, allowing me to get a leg-up on work; however, like clockwork, Bryce and Jordan burst through the door. Yo we’re hitting the roof to train, get up.
Ten minutes later all of us are performing jumping jacks in the morning air, the door propped open with a single cinderblock. The weather is surprisingly warm for five A.M. Despite the time, a decent number of people bike through the streets, and the bright colored lights of street vendors glow through the gray morning fog. I wouldn’t be surprised if these shops were open all night.
The morning routine ends two hours later, with the sun still struggling to shine through the hazy air. I’m not sure whether it’s the morning mist or the smog. As we head down to the lobby, the concierge calls us over and tells us something we already know. We have another day in Taiwan.
I don’t intend for this to scare people away from Taiwan. In addition to the impending fight, the unfortunate location they decided to drop us into is nearly fifty miles away from any metropolis, and our lack of understanding of the language and culture hinders us from exploring beyond our current perimeter. Finally, there’s no transportation anywhere to anywhere. We’re stuck.
The area around the hotel consists of an elementary school, a series of specialized shops, and a mall. Vendors line the street. I’m intrigued to try the food they sell, but the stench and the scheduled fight prevent me from doing anything I could potentially regret. Instead, we all order an unappetizing noodle set at the mall restaurant and trudge around.
Three hours later, we’re back on the roof. Our only focus here is to get ready for Thailand. After another night, our sensei convinces the airline that we need to get into Thailand. The next morning, we board a plane to Chiang Mai – 543 miles away from our destination. At least we’re in the right country.