Authors: Sam Sheridan
Tags: #Martial Artists, #Boxing, #Martial Arts & Self-Defense, #Sports & Recreation, #General, #United States, #Sheridan; Sam, #Biography & Autobiography, #Sports, #Martial Artists - United States, #Biography
ONE MAN’S JOURNEY THROUGH THE WORLD OF FIGHTING
Atlantic Monthly Press
Copyright © 2007 by Sam Sheridan
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, or the facilitation thereof, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Any members of educational institutions wishing to photocopy part or all of the work for classroom use, or publishers who would like to obtain permission to include the work in an anthology, should send their inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003.
Cut Time: An Education at the Fights
by Carlo Rotella. Copyright © 2003 by Carlo Rotella. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
Rope Burns: Stories from the Corner
by F. X. Toole. Copyright © 2000 by F. X. Toole. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
by W. C. Heinz. Copyright © by W. C. Heinz. Reprinted by permission of William Morris Agency, Inc. on behalf of author.
Chinese Boxing: Masters and Methods
by Robert W. Smith. Published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 1990 by Robert W. Smith. Reprinted by permission of publisher.
“These are forces…redefines the possible” by Ronald Levao and “…when we did not…we were high and dry…” by Ted Hoagland from
Reading the Flights: The Best Writing About the Most Controversial of Sports,
edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Daniel Halpern, copyright © 1998 by Joyce Carol Oates and Daniel Halpern. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
“No doubt much…hunters than ourselves” and “thus the ritual…is a carnivore” by Barbara Ehrenreich from
Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of Wars
copyright © 1997 by Barbara Ehrenreich. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
by Norman Mailer, copyright © 1997 by Norman Mailer, Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
by George Plimpton. Copyright © 1977 by George Plimpton. Reprinted by the permission of Russell and Volkening as agents for the author's estate.
by Leah Hager Cohen, copyright © 2005 by Leah Hager Cohen, Random House, a division of Random House, Inc.
by A. L. Kennedy, copyright © 1999 by A. L. Kennedy, Anchor Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
by Konrad Lorenz, copyright © by Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH & Co. English translation copyright © 1966 by Konrad Lorenz. Harvest Books, a division of Harcourt Brace & Company. Excerpt from
A Neutral Corner: Boxing Essays
by A. J. Liebling, edited by Fred Warner and James Barbour. Compilation copyright © 1990 by Norma Liebling Stonehill. Reprinted by permission of North Point Press, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
Manhood in America: A Cultural History
, copyright © 1996 by Michael Kimmel. Oxford University Press.
copyright © 1987, 1995 by Joyce Carol Oates, used by permission of Harper Perennial.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A fighter’s heart : one man’s journey through the world of fighting /Sam Sheridan.
1. Sheridan, Sam. 2. Martial artists—United States—Biography. I. Title.
Atlantic Monthly Press
an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Distributed by Publishers Group West
To my parents, Susan and Michael, for the unwavering support
To Claudia, thanks, regrets, love
To Panio, my brother
Apidej sit-Hirun at Fairtex Gym, Bangkok, Thailand, May 2000.
Elephant behind Fairtex Gym.
Ibn Khaldun, the immortal Tunisian historian, says that events often contradict the universal idea to which one would like them to conform, that analogies are inexact, and that experience is deceptive.
—A. J. Liebling,
A Neutral Corner
Every talent must unfold itself in fighting.
—F. Nietzsche, “Homer on Competition,” 1872
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, muscular, 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 wearing 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, frenetically excited, and yet calm in the knowledge that I’m as ready as possible 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 nothing 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
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 surrounding 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 training 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 burning need to escape before college and an attempt to see the world in a supremely clichéd fashion. I took the three a.m. train from an unmanned 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
A few years later, an art critic named Peter Schjeldahl, who was teaching 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 different. 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
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 happened 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 professional 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 understood 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 emotion 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 stewardesses, 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 Thailand 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 occasionally 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 procedure that if repeated enough times would eventually kill the nerve endings.
I started doing the bottle rub back in the hostel while watching
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.
I wanted to find a contact before I went over to Thailand and on a whim bought a copy of
magazine, which featured a full-page ad for a muay Thai camp called Fairtex. I began a tentative e-mail correspondence with its manager, and he was matter of fact: Come on over and stay as long as you can, no experience necessary.
I arrived in Bangkok around midnight on Valentine’s Day of ’00. A gentle, round-faced Thai named Han picked me up at the airport and drove me the hour to Fairtex, where he unceremoniously deposited me at my room. There were two men inside asleep when I stumbled in and flicked on the lights; they half-woke to curse me out in French before I hurriedly shut off the light and lay down on a mattress on the floor.
I was too jet-lagged to sleep, and tossed and turned in the dark with the snoring of strangers in my ears, the unfamiliar heat thick in the air. I stared at the ceiling for long minutes or hours, ears pricking at strange noises. Finally, I crept from my room, trying not to wake my unseen roommates, and padded down the stairs into the green wash of morning. The camp was silent, still and deserted. I glanced briefly at the boxing rings; the heavy bags hung like a neat row of lynched corpses. I could hear dogs barking and a nearby cock marking the morning.