Busted and dehydrated in a rundown Taekwondo gym on La Jolla Avenue in Los Angeles, I received the worst pre-fight pep talk of my career.
“Maureen recently hurt her knee, and we’re trying to keep an eye on it,” the nervous PA told me. “And, well, she’s fifty, so if you could be careful when you’re taking her down and not hurt her, that would be great.”
The Maureen in question was Maureen McCormick, better known to the world as Marcia Brady, the all-American eldest sister on the 1970s television classic The Brady Bunch. I was, at the time, known to a couple hundred people in Toronto and Brooklyn as Sarah Bellum--all-star fighter, ref, and head trainer of the Pillow Fight League. VH1 had flown me to L.A., all expenses paid, to teach Maureen how to pillow fight for a segment on Celebrity Fit Club.
The PFL, a women’s-only combat league that combines mixed martial arts and pillow fighting with bizarre but often wonderful results, was hot-ish stuff in those days. Our stateside debut a month earlier, two sold-out shows in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, had caused a bit of a stir and attracted the attention of both the New York State Athletic Commission and the media. The NYSAC wasn’t particularly impressed with us and banned us from any further competition in their purview on the grounds that they didn’t allow the use of weapons in sports. The media, on the other hand, adored us. Good Morning America, ESPN, CNN Headline News, ABC World News, and Fox News all ran features on us that week. The producers of Celebrity Fit Club caught a couple of those segments, liked what they saw, and invited me down.
I agreed because I thought that it was a great opportunity both for me (in the sense that it gave me attention, and I was becoming very fond of that) and for the league as a whole. Somehow, somewhere in the midst of our unpredictable rise to fame, or infamy, something even more improbable had happened: the women of the Pillow Fight League had become serious fighters. We weren’t particularly good at that point at first. Much like lion cubs, or Brock Lesnar in his first UFC fights, we possessed raw power, killer instinct, and enthusiasm but still lacked the technical skill and focus necessary to do anything particularly constructive with them.
We were getting there, though, augmenting our arsenal of wild haymaker-esque swings with pillow-based striking that mimicked jabs, uppercuts, and hooks. We picked the brains of whatever martial arts trainers and armchair pundits we could find and recruit into our collective madness and started to incorporate the pillow into our favorite Brazilian jiu-jitsu submissions. The “pillow-plata” appeared to be a lost cause, but armbars and Ezekiels seamlessly blended into our sleeping aid-oriented assaults. And the rear-naked choke became particularly sinister when we added a bit of smothering to the mix. We also started ramping up our training (timed swinging drills! sandbag training ... but with pillows!) to prepare ourselves for the increasing fitness demands of our burgeoning sport. Celebrity Fit Club seemed like the perfect place to showcase all of this brilliant absurdity.
When VH1 first confirmed my appearance, they told us that I was going to be given two participants from the Fit Club house. I would beat them up with some drills, teach them some moves, and then ref a fight between them. This, like pretty much everything else related to my grand adventure, did not quite go as planned.
The night before my flight, with visions of pillow-fighting “celebrities” dancing through my head, I screwed up a box jump during a plyometric workout and hurled myself shin-first into the plyo box instead of landing on top of it like I had hundreds of times before. The accident left me with an unfortunate hybrid of bruise and abrasion that ran the length of my left tibia and hurt my leg almost as much as my pride. Instead of taking it as the obvious harbinger of minor doom that it was, I simply slapped a knee sock over my wound (because nothing says “tough and serious fighter” like knee socks) and hopped on a plane to L.A.
The flight was a low-grade nightmare that involved sitting on a tarmac in Minneapolis for over three hours for reasons I still don’t understand. We soon ran out of beverages and patience in equal order. I missed my connecting flight, by hours, and found myself stranded in Salt Lake City for the night. I remember calling my mother in hysterics, babbling about how nothing ever works out quite like I’d hoped. “And I hate Salt Lake City,” I added. “It’s like Niagara Falls, but with Mormons instead of wax museums and fun stuff.” My only consolation was the fact that my hours of refreshment deprivation on the stranded plane had left me looking as cut as a dehydrated fitness model. So I admired my beautiful abs in between choking sobs and then collapsed into bed.
Somewhere in the midst of this, PFL management informed me that I’d only be training one celebrity because no one else would agree to be associated or involved with pillow fighting in any way whatsoever. The celebrity in question was Maureen McCormick, though, so it was all okay. She was the contestant with the most genuine claim to celebrity, and I’d rather enjoyed reruns of The Brady Bunch in my childhood, so I was looking forward to working with her. Or maybe I was just looking forward to beating her up and reenacting the famous football-in-the-face scene with a pillow. I always was such a Jan.
Our venue was also a downgrade. We were originally booked to film at an Equinox, but the fancy-pants gym chain backed out over a debate about logo placement on my bosom (Equinox wanted me to wear one of their T-shirts; the owner of the PFL insisted that I sport our top instead). The best replacement the production staff could find was that sad little dojo on La Jolla, which is where I finally ended up the next afternoon.
What the gym lacked in class it certainly made up for in atmosphere; it genuinely looked like the kind of place the plucky small-town kid would stumble into in your average martial arts movie: chintzy trophies lining the windowsill, old weight equipment and torn benches languishing in the back room, disintegrating foam mats covering the floors, and a giant mural of a tiger covering one wall. I can’t remember if it smelled, but I do remember thinking on my way in that it looked like it would.
Two geekily enthusiastic producers immediately took me aside to start filming promos for the show. They clearly loved what they knew of the PFL, but their concept of the whole thing was just a bit off.
“Walk toward the camera with the pillow and say, ‘This is how we do it, CANADA STYLE’ as you swing the pillow at the camera!” one of them told me. “This is gonna be awesome!”
I did my best to live up to his vision of awesomeness, but it just didn’t feel right to me. I felt like I could spend the rest of my life wearing multiple pieces of denim clothing, watching David Cronenberg films, eating poutine, and benefiting from socialized medicine and never once describe any of my patriotic activities as “doing it Canada-style.” So we started to work on alternatives, eventually settling on “This is how we do it in the Great White North. There’s no flying feathers, just a few flying teeth if we’re lucky.” Which is, in retrospect, no less dumb and awkward than “Canada-style,” but it made perfect sense to me at the time. I wanted to address the fact that we didn’t use down pillows in regulation pillow fights (down was a hazard due to overall weight and allergens), and dentistry was on my mind because I’d just watched a lawyer who fought under the name “A-Pillow Creed” lose a tooth during an amateur bout at one of our Brooklyn shows.
Cheesy taglines settled, the PA pulled me aside and issued me my Maureen-related warnings. But before I really had a chance to figure out how to train and fight someone while looking after her bum knee and her apparently decrepit-by-Hollywood-standards age, the hobbling old maid in question magically appeared on the other side of the dojo window, waving to the lot of us over the trophy collection.
Maureen was every bit as perfect and sunny as her most famous character, and despite my lifelong sympathy for her jealous fictional sister Jan, I found myself immediately charmed. Who cared if everything became Maureen, Maureen, Maureen once she stepped into the dojo? She was famous and so pretty and the whole reason we were all there. So what if she immediately forgot my name? She called me “this person” with such warmth that it was hard to hold it against her. I no longer wanted to exact my revenge for a lifetime of not being beautiful or blonde or popular enough on the 70s sitcom epitome of all of those things. I wanted nothing more than to guard her wonky meniscus with my life.
I didn’t need to sacrifice my life for Maureen’s knee, though. My dignity more than sufficed. I managed to keep things vaguely fighty during the striking part of our training despite the hot pink PJs she’d changed into. I showed her a few basic swings and then held one of the pillows like a makeshift focus pad so she could practice them. I also let her take a few free shots at me so that she could get the feel of it.
I kept the submissions simple and safe for a woman of 50, sticking to the old-school smother. Maureen took to the move immediately, giggling and attempting it in all of its variations, including the Smother From Mount, numerous times. I teased her about liking the submissions, completely unaware of how softcore porny I sounded.
I tried my best to demonstrate our variation of the heel pick (sweeping the pillow around one leg and pulling) and then had her try it on me a couple of times, but those attempts never amounted to much and my efforts to take her to the mat were marred by my overbearing concern for her knee. So I just sort of lovingly cradled her toward the ground instead.
We finished up the segment with a mock match in which I was, somehow, both the ref and fighter. The double duty made about as much sense as anything else that happened over the course of our mighty battle, which mostly consisted of giggling (mine), shrieking (hers), and limp swinging. At some point, I crawled through her legs, which is an action I can’t really recall or defend. I only really know that it happened because I’ve seen footage of it. After a few minutes of this romping, Maureen threw herself upon the mats dramatically and declared that she was tired. I jumped on top of her, smashed a pillow in her face, and declared myself the winner. Then we were separated for our post-fight interviews. I praised the star’s rookie efforts and said that she showed promise. She compared pillow fighting to kickboxing, which was more than charitable of her given the featherweight flouncing we’d just engaged in.
Maureen quickly changed out of her flannel getup, graciously accepted the PFL T-shirt and DVDs I gave her, posed for a photo, and disappeared into the sunny California ether just as magically as she’d appeared. My old producer friends took me out the parking lot and stationed me next to the garbage bin so that they could get some footage in natural light. I yelled, “Fight like a girl!”—the PFL’s slogan--at the camera a dozen times and that was it. The crew packed up and the PA called me a cab.
As I stood in front of the dojo and waited for my ride, shivering in my scab-concealing kneesocks and PFL T-shirt, I looked back through the window to catch the start of a kids Taekwondo class. A horde of 6-year-olds wearing oversized gis were hopping around the mats, executing clumsy jumping jacks and launching themselves into the splits. It was so much tougher, more focused, and generally bad ass than anything I’d just attempted to show the world. I was temporarily mortified. Not only was I being shown up by 6-year-olds, I was being shown up by Taekwondo practitioners.
I was over it by the time my cab arrived, though. “Whatever,” I thought to myself as I whizzed by the La Brea Tar Pits and caught a glimpse of the Hollywood sign in the distance. “You just got a free trip to L.A. in February. You got paid. And those little fuckers will get old and have knee problems of their own soon enough, anyway.”
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