Years after the fact, a friend of mine said that if he had known Buster Douglas’ mother had died three weeks before his fight against Mike Tyson, he would have bet on Douglas to upset the heavyweight champion, an outcome that was so absurd at the time, only one betting parlor in Las Vegas held odds for the fight. My friend’s reasoning was simple: A man whose mother has just died doesn’t care what happens to himself because his life has suddenly become unmoored. His context has changed. As terrifying as Mike Tyson was in 1990, life stripped of your mother is more so, and a fearless opponent is a terrible opponent because they refuse to accept the gravity of their situation. They’ve lost their sense of perspective. Which is another way of saying they’ve found their sense of perspective.
Like everything else in the universe, the particulars of our historical situations don’t exist in a vacuum. Historical context matters in a fight.
Last week. at the Renzo Gracie Academy in Brooklyn, I sparred a guy during MMA class who, only two days before, had lost an amateur Muay Thai fight by disqualification after knocking out his opponent with a head kick 20 seconds into their fight. The fact that head kicks are forbidden in amateur Muay Thai didn’t change two fundamental truths: one, that this man was capable of knocking out another man with a head kick, and two, that this man was now extremely upset that there was a loss on his record despite the fact that he had knocked out his opponent with a head kick. Still, he'd always seemed like a good guy to me; I’d seen him helping other students around the gym before, and my interactions with him have always been cordial. But it was clear when he and I squared up that day that he was cranky. It was only after the fact, after those three minutes of punishment, that I found out why he was so cranky—that I heard about his disqualification, about his loss, about the blemish on his record and the anger he felt at himself for whatever mental or moral lapse he’d allowed himself to fall victim to, a lapse that had forced his coach to jump in the ring and cancel his celebration in front of all those fans. No, the coach had told him, you didn’t win. You lost. You broke the rules. On top of the pain of losing and the pain of knowing he had lost control, there was the sting of embarrassment. So when he walked out onto the mat to meet me, he was fueled by all kinds of pain and anger.
But what did I know about all that? I just knew that he was better than I was and that he seemed cranky. I wasn’t aware of his historical context; I was just looking to trade shots.
And that’s what happened, at least for a little while. He was smaller than me but he was strong and fast as well. Plus, he was smart. He picked his shots and tucked back behind his defenses before I could get my counter punches going. Over and over again, I hit the top of his head with my punches, which means I was damaging myself more than I was him. Still, for the first minute or so, I was game and I got my punches in. He rattled me, sure, but I rattled him too, using my reach to keep him at something approximating bay and trying to punish him whenever he got too close.
Eventually, however, he wore me down. In addition to being better, smarter, stronger, faster, and crankier than I was, he was also in better shape. And after a takedown and brief scramble on the ground, I was spent. When we got back to our feet I stopped moving around and could barely keep my hands up. Suddenly I was just a big, unmoving target, and over and over again his punches landed on my chin. When he pushed me up against the cage, rather than slipping to the side and freeing myself, I just stood there with my face turtled behind my gloves, taking his shots, barely able to move at all. At that moment I regretted every cigarette I’d ever smoked and every glass of scotch I’d ever drunk and every time I’d missed a day of training. Here, standing before me, was a gloved agent of the lord, punishing me for my sins.
And then it happened. Having prepped me with all those punches to the head, forcing me to raise my hands to stop them, he shot a fast left kick at my midsection that I never saw coming. I felt a thud as his shin hit me just below the rib. I didn’t feel much pain; I thought I was fine. Then, in an instant, I felt the will drain out of me. Liver kick! I thought to myself. He got me with a liver kick! And that’s the last thing I thought before I crumpled to the ground. Having seen several MMA fighters collapse from shots to the liver before, and having interviewed our Fight Doctor Michael Kelly about the medical mysteries of the liver kick, I knew (basically) what was happening to me. Dynamic pressure changes in the liver were causing nerve signals to rush into my autonomic nervous system, causing what Kelly would call a “complex cascade of events.” Suddenly all the blood vessels in my body started to dilate while at the same time my heart rate plummeted. In response, my body forced itself into a supine position to make sure there was still blood flowing to my brain. As I collapsed to the ground and curled up into a fetal position I was doing so involuntarily in order to save my life. I knew this before. Now I felt it. For the first time I understood in my bones how MMA fighters could take 200 hundreds punches to the face and be fine but then completely fall apart from the impact of one single shot to the liver.
So there I was lying on the ground, unable to move and barely able to speak: paralyzed, for all intents and purposes. And the guy who’d kicked me kneeled down to ask how I was doing and my coach came over to make sure I wasn’t dead, and the world was spinning and I felt completely outside my body and I wondered what kind of permanent damage could be caused by a bad shot to the liver (hadn’t Dr. Kelly said something about losing consciousness, maybe even death?), and I thought about how ridiculous my friends would think it was that this was how I chose to spend my time (they’d said so many times before), and I couldn’t help thinking for a second that they may be right, that it doesn’t make any sense to pay money for the opportunity to get knocked out by angry men, that there must be better ways for me to pass my days.
But at the same time I felt like I’d joined a club very few people are members of and that most people don’t even know exists—the Fraternal Order of Those Who Have Been Knocked Out by a Liver Kick and Lived to Tell the Tale. And as I lay there on my back, gasping for air, straining to move, wondering if I’d ever move again, the same words kept repeating themselves in my head: How cool is this? How cool is this? How cool is this?
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