Thursday, February 22nd, 2007
Taken from “The Responsibility to Fight,” the first chapter in Sam Sheridan’s A Fighter’s Heart (Grove Atlantic) this excerpt opens in the grimy bowels of Thailand’s Samrong Stadium. After years of traveling the world–yachting, working construction, fighting fires—Sheridan reflects on the events that brought him to this ring thousands of miles from his Massachusetts roots. The journey is as emotional as it is physical, and the real blood, sweat, and tears have yet to be shed. As Sheridan writes: “My curiosity edged out my fear.” It would continue to for the next five years.
Read Michael Slenske’s interview with Sam Sheridan.
Samrong Stadium, in Bang Pli, an hour from Bangkok, is dirty, dingy, and high ceilinged, with concrete floors, rows of folding chairs, and crowds milling around drinking Singha beer and smoking Krum Thip cigarettes. A fight has just ended and the canvas ring is brightly lit and empty. Now it’s my turn to fight, and I look at Johann, a short, mus-cular, bald Belgian, and say, “Win or lose, I want a beer in my hand as soon as I climb out of the ring.” He smiles tightly and nods. I roll my neck like a real fighter and step through the vermilion ropes. I’m wear-ing a robe designed for Thais who fight at 130 pounds and it barely covers my oily thighs.
My heavily tattooed opponent ignores the screaming crowd and I ignore him, even though I can feel his eyes on me across the ring, his attempt to engage me in a samurai stare-down. I am absurdly, freneti-cally excited, and yet calm in the knowledge that I’m as ready as pos-sible for my first fight. I can ignore my opponent’s mind games because hey—we’ll find out who’s tougher soon enough. I suppress an urge to smile at him. I have no ill will toward the guy.
My body is aglow with the power of recuperation and heating oils, and my face is greased with a layer of Vaseline. The harsh blatting horn, the lilting pipes, and the stomping drum begin their song. There is noth-ing left to fear.
When I was in junior high, at the Eaglebrook School in the green hills of Massachusetts, I read a book about John F. Kennedy that said he used to carry an anonymous poem with him in his wallet:
Bullfight critics, ranked in rows,
Crowd the enormous plaza full.
But only one is there who knows,
And he’s the man that fights the bull.
I loved that quote. I carried it in my own wallet for years, well through college, until that wallet was lost when I flipped the dinghy during a hurricane in Bermuda. I wanted to be the one who knows. To me, the quote wasn’t just about critics and performers and artists. The man in the ring knows, and not just about that particular bullfight and whether or not he did a good job. He knows.
I grew up romanticizing fighting and fighters: matadors, soldiers, knights, samurai. There was nothing more noble. That boys should worship fighters was as unquestioned as patriotism, bred into the fabric of masculinity. Little boys pick up sticks and turn them into swords and guns no matter what their mothers might do.
I went to high school at Deerfield Academy, a fancy prep school where my father was the business manager. I had a circle of friends who were locals and sons of teachers, and we had our own sort of world between the rich kids who lived in the dormitories and the surround-ing rural public school kids.
We watched a lot of kung fu movies, but we didn’t fight. Deerfield wasn’t that kind of place; nobody fought, although they did wrestle, and in hindsight I wish I had wrestled, too. Our favorite part of any kung fu movie wasn’t necessarily the climactic fights; it was the train-ing sequence, when the hero becomes an invincible warrior.
I played sports, football and lacrosse, and was a mediocre varsity athlete. I was a not-so-secret nerd, really. I played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, sometimes by myself as I got older and it became less socially acceptable. I read voraciously and insatiably. I had one girlfriend for a few weeks, and she pretty much hated me.
After high school I joined the merchant marines out of a burn-ing need to escape before college and an attempt to see the world in a supremely clichéd fashion. I took the 3am train from an un-manned station in Amherst down to Maryland, to the Seafarers Harry Lundenburg School of Seamanship, in Piney Point. When my mom dropped me off, in a pool of light from a street lamp at the deserted train station, with my dad’s old navy duffel bag, I was a living Norman Rockwell painting.
The school was run like a boot camp—shave your head, shine your boots, do push-ups till you puke—and my “class,” number 518, started out with about twenty-eight guys and finished, four months later, with thirteen. Classes usually lost five or ten guys, but we were gutted. Some of this was due to racial tension; the class was half white and half black, and there were some fights. The black guys, it seemed to me at the tender age of eighteen, had a better handle on how to deal with the pressure, and the endless work: They did just enough to coast through, while the white guys were killing themselves trying to complete the Sisyphean tasks put to us by an unusually cruel bosun. I found a way to live in both worlds, and I learned one of the most important lessons in life: Keep your mouth shut. It was my introduction to the world of tough guys.
Half of the class had been in jail for one reason or another, and I told no one about my prep school background or Ivy League future. One of my best friends there had a spiderweb tattooed on his face, right under his eye. I dared him to cut my hand off one night on the meat slicer, laid my hand on it, stared him in the eye, and said, “Fuck you, do it” (everybody had to talk that way). He gave me a small, tight-eyed look and then looked away. On the first ship he got on, he stabbed the chief mate three times.
We would fight in the weight room with some old boxing gloves, and looking back with the benefit of some experience, I realize we had no idea what we were doing. There was a tall black kid named Sypes, from Mississippi, who spoke like birds chirping and claimed to have been a pro boxer, but when he was sparring with Walzer, a five-foot blond redneck who would just windmill, Sypes didn’t look that good. Walzer in his fury caught Sypes and blasted his eyebrow open, and blood sprayed
everywhere. Sypes dashed to the bathroom clutching his eye, leaving long spatters of blood on the filthy linoleum. We mopped up the blood, rusty stains trailing like a big orange-brown paintbrush. I got in there and tried to box with a few people, and I was hesitant and awkward. A tough kid from Florida, Davey Dubois, racked me with an uppercut, and for days my jaw clicked in a funny way. Still, I got in there; my curiosity edged out my fear. I had to know. I wanted to know.
A few years later, an art critic named Peter Schjeldahl, who was teach-ing at Harvard (I was an art major), said to me, “You’re wondering what all young men wonder: Am I a coward or not?” That was part of it, though I knew I probably wasn’t a coward. Bravery is something dif-ferent. Bravery has to be proved.
My dad had been a Navy SEAL, Explosive Ordnance Disposal, and the military was an obvious choice after college, maybe a little too obvious. It didn’t really grab me, partially because of my merchant marine experiment but mostly because I learned too much history, too much about politicians and great-power politics. I don’t want to kill people, and I didn’t want to be a tool, a tooth in the cog of a great machine. My idea of a war hero is Hawkeye on M*A*S*H. If you have to go to war, then you go; but if you don’t, then you don’t.
Bar brawling didn’t interest me, either; when I’m in a bar, I’m interested in having fun. What appealed was the dynamic of a duel: What is it like to meet a man on open ground, a man who is ready for you, a man who is your equal in most measurable ways?
At Harvard I tried tai chi and tiger kung fu, and one day I hap-pened upon the boxing gym, where Tommy Rawson was the coach. He was about four foot five and maybe eighty years old. He’d been a pro-fessional fighter in the thirties and New England lightweight champ in 1935 with a record of 89–6, and he was magical. Finally, here was real fighting and sparring, with headgear and a mouth guard and big sixteen-ounce gloves. Tommy couldn’t remember anyone’s name, but he under-stood boxing in his bones. “Hey slugger, don’t start weaving until he gives you trouble,” he’d call in a harsh voice that had yelled out things like that for fifty years. He always had a gleeful smile on his handsome, crumpled face.
Once I started boxing, I prized hammering away on a big bag, working the speed bag, running stairs, jumping rope. Of course, I still smoked two packs a day and drank five nights a week—this was college. Sparring with headgear comes as a revelation, because you get hit and it doesn’t really hurt. It becomes like a chess match: You think, Hey, he jumped back when I did this, so next time I’ll fake this and actually do that— and then you have the satisfaction of burying a hook to the side of his head. There is the battle rage that is so enthralling, the berserker emo-tion that doesn’t discern friend from foe but simply rejoices in blood. This was the feeling I was after. My adrenal glands were triggered and I was fully engaged in the moment: Someone was trying to kill me. The door opened on a new world.
By senior year, I was boxing less and less. College was winding down, and I was wondering what the hell comes next. I was signed up with the Marine Corps, but also to go to Honduras with the Peace Corps, both to begin right after graduation. I vacillated daily, hourly. I used to say, “Peace Corps or Marine Corps, just so long as it’s hard core.” Hilarious. Then, about two weeks after graduation in 1998, my godmother told me that a friend of hers had just bought a yacht and was looking for crew. I sent him my scrawny résumé and we talked and I kept my mouth shut (that essential survival skill learned in the merchant marine) and didn’t reveal my cluelessness, and he hired me. He was going to pay me good money to help fix up his yacht and sail it around the world with him. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, impossible to refuse, and so I spent a year and a half on the boat, seeing her through three captains, five steward-esses, two engineers, and a variety of guests. I made it all the way to Australia, where I finally had had enough of being part of a rich man’s toy and stepped off onto dry land.
I was twenty-four, in Darwin, Australia, loaded with cash, and I planned not to work again until I’d spent it all. I got a room in a hostel and started working out in a local gym; I stopped smoking and began thinking again about fighting. It occurred to me, slowly, that I could return to fighting now, without distractions. I started taking classes in muay Thai, the Thai variation of kickboxing that utilizes elbows and knees, with the local Aussies. The instructor, a thin, bald, narrow-faced former professional fighter named Mike, had trained in Thailand.
Muay Thai is considered by the sport-fighting world to be the premier “stand-up” ring sport, for the simple reason that it allows the most dangerous moves. Western-style boxing is all hands, and punches must be above the waist. Kickboxing, full-contact tae kwon do, and karate all allow kicks, but they’re restricted to above the waist. Muay Thai, on the other hand, allows kicks anywhere, which dramatically changes the style of fighting, as leg kicks are quicker, nastier, faster, and easier to execute. Perhaps more telling is that muay Thai also allows fighting in the clinch. In Western boxing, the clinch—when fighters come together and lock up arms—is a safe haven. The clinch in muay Thai is very different: The fighters wrestle for control, looking to throw knees and elbows; the clinch is where most of the damage is done.
After a few weeks training with Mike, when he could see I was getting more serious, he told me that months spent training in Thai-land were worth years of training anywhere else, including his gym. He also said, “You can either be tough or you can be quick.” When I asked him which he was, he smiled ruefully and said, “Quick.” I thought that maybe I could fake tough.
I left Darwin with Craig, the engineer on the yacht I had crewed on, traveling in a Kombi-van with flowers painted all over it. We spent a few months driving across Australia, telling girls we were professional long-board surfers but the waves were too small for us today. Along the way, I kept thinking about muay Thai, and at campsites I would throw three hundred kicks with each leg at trees, amusing and occa-sionally alarming the other backpackers.
We ended the road trip in Sydney, and I found my way into a gym where I met a short, mean-looking Maori who had spent a year training in Thailand. His legs were a lattice of scars and veins: In muay Thai, the leg kick uses the shin as a striking point, and the only way to counter a shin kick is to block it with your own shin. Shin-on-shin contact is very painful—at least until all the nerve endings there have died. The Maori told me that if I was going to get serious about muay Thai, I should cover an empty bottle with a little oil and vigorously roll the bottle up and down my shins while pressing hard, a proce-dure that if repeated enough times would eventually kill the nerve endings.
I started doing the bottle rub back in the hostel while watching The Simpsons and figuring out how I could become a real muay Thai fighter. I had the money, I had the time, I had the inclination—so I decided to train in Thailand. I’d always wondered what would happen if I could train all the time, like the Shaolin monks who were raised in the temple, the samurai, the Spartans. No drinking, or smoking, or coffee, or girls—just fighting all the time.
Read Michael Slenske’s interview with Sam Sheridan.
Excerpt courtesy of Grove Atlantic.