by Adam Park
The smell of stale cigarette smoke hung low and dense as I walked through the heavily tented doors. The lighting was dim and poor. The sun stopped at the doorway. It took some effort for my eyes to adjust. Flashing neon. The unnatural greenish hue of florescent bulbs hanging overhead. Ostentatious carpets, where any stain would easily get lost in the motley of unrelated colors. A cacophony of bells, horns, whistles, and clinks from the hundreds of slot machines. Gloomy figures pumped tokens into various automated contraptions, eyes affixed, shoulders hunched. Oxygen tanks and wrist braces. An all-you-can-eat seafood buffet to the right. A panoptical tower in the middle, with double-sided glass, seeing all, seen by none. No windows. Time, day/night, was irrelevant. Outside is not welcome here. But first, a gruff security guard in an ill-fitted uniform. My ID. Fortunately, I was old enough for this. It was a beautiful Saturday. Fight night at the local casino.
I made my way to the impromptu arena. The white floor of the fight cage was encrusted with blood from untold previous encounters. Appropriate. Employees lined stackable chairs around the chain-linked hexagon. Others followed as they placed flyers advertising the forthcoming weekend’s events on each of the chairs. Midget wrestling and wet t-shirt contests. The bartender busily stocked the bar full of light domestic beers. Merchants arranged displays for their pricey wears, such that interested consumers might have the option to let anyone else know that they were once a part of this fandom. Said fandom begins to slowly enter. Affliction and Tapout shirts aplenty. Tattoos and bejeweled jeans. High heels and shorts skirts. Still plenty of time for the cash bar.
Backstage—i.e. the mobile home out back—the atmosphere was tense. Grapes, bananas, bottled water, and cheap assorted lunchmeat in the middle. The “red” and “blue” corners on opposing sides of the trailer. Combatants temporarily partitioned by inches of laminate wood paneling. Some paced nervously, exchanging apprehensive yet aggressive glances. Others sat listening to their trainers and cornermen as they got their hands taped. Others sprawled out on the black faux-leather couches, listening to ear-phoned music. Words were sparse in here. Quiet focus. The occasional laughter seemed to be born less of comedy than of a bodily need to vent, to release the overabundance of stored up energy from what was to come. Combatants in the evening’s earlier fights warmed up their kicks and punches in the back parking lot by the dumpsters. 1-2-3, 2-3-2, 1-2-10, 1-1-3-10, 2-3-2-9. Pads of various shapes and sizes absorbed the edgy strikes. Anticipation was palpable. Ring girls smoked cigarettes.
The fights went quick. Adrenaline tends not to pace its release over time. It’s not easy to train your body to curtail its natural reaction. But this made for short and exciting exchanges. Knockouts and submissions were abundant. Opponents rapidly expressed those years, months, and weeks of training and anticipation. Warm-ups became a luxury backstage, as we worked quickly to tape hands. Fighters were rushed in by the event coordinators who beckoned them by yelling last names. Each time the doors opened the sounds of the cheering audience would spill out. Sweat, blood, bruises, and hematomas visible on the exiting combatants. They did it for fun.
By the time the main fight was to commence, the bar ran dry. The audience was ready. Assigned seats were irrelevant, as most stood and hovered toward the center ring. Groups of same-shirted family and friends gathered in support of their representative. Behind thin curtains, the fighters and their respective entering entourages awaited announcement. I helped one of the fighters stay warm. Each kick, bruising my forearms behind the Thai pads. I pretended it didn’t hurt. He was ready. Less than two minutes into the first round, he took his opponent down to the ground and minced him with a flurry of punches. Blood. The referee pulled them apart, stopping the fight. The audience was rabid. They had gotten their fill of overpriced cheap beer and violent spectacles. Bloodlusty.
But not all of the casino’s bars ran dry that night. As I walked past the gruff security guard in the ill-fitted uniform to seek a more oxygen-rich environment outside, I looked back to see the two headliners sitting shoulder to shoulder, laughing over shared beers. Less than an hour after they met in the crimson-stained ring. Hallmark.