My back-rib pain, from getting slammed repeatedly and not asking if I was falling correctly during Judo last night, has receded to a whispering numbness. I’m still going to compete in the jiu-jitsu tournament on May 14th; I have no reason not to. My back twinges as I wait for the light to change, and I promise my back I’ll go light tonight.
“I’ll only work on technique,” I assure my back and ribs.
As I walk up the stairs I hear the patter of foot movements and the slap of gloves snapping out punches. I enter the gym, and see two men sparring in MMA. No one is rolling on the mat, and besides the two men circling each other in the cage, everyone else is inert on the mat and by the weight benches watching the show. I rush into the locker room—a close with five lockers and a shoe bin behind a dust covered fan—and pull on my shorts.
“Nah-say-oh,” I say greeting the people on the mat. They reply in a unified zombie-moan as they watch our head MMA instructor snap a jab into his opponent’s jaw that makes the other man look like a grandfather that just ate a lemon. I call him Big-Guy-Purple-Shorts, because he is a big guy who always wears purple shorts—our head MMA instructor that is.
I sit down and begin to stretch as Big-Guy-Purple-Shorts taps out his opponent. He stands up and begins speaking in Korean to the men sitting on the red square a few feet away. The cage is a large rectangle with black mats running around two squares of red and three heavy bags running along the windows of the far wall of the gym. Big-Guy grabs his opponent and tells the men on the floor what he did wrong. He then slaps the other man on the shoulder, smiles, and stands up. I twist to my left and my back becomes hot, screaming and shouting that it’s not fine. I grunt and turn the other way, and my ribcage bites together and asks if we can leave.
“Briayawn,” Big-Guy says singing my name in his Korean accent. “Sparrring?” he asks putting one too many r’s in the word.
I jump up and say yes before I think it through. I’m pulling on the gloves when I hear my name a second time, spoken in the raspy, Godfather voice of the Buddha-built mobster that gave me a hangover from a drinking game the week before.
“Brian…” he says and then loses me in a labyrinth of Korean and fist pumping.
“He says put on a show,” someone translates.
I pull on the gloves and my hands twinge and my fingers dance excited to finally hit someone for the first time in a long time. I start hopping, and the threads and sinews of my muscles pull tight as if they’re going to snap. They keep pulling tight as I move in, and they pull tighter when Big-Guy rockets a jab into my cheek. I laugh and we start trading punches. My back soon goes quiet as the rest of my body bobs and weaves trying to land a big punch. He grabs me and we go to the floor. We’re twisting and coiling when Master Sung yells, “You can punch him in the face…Punch him in the face.”
I climb on top of him like a schoolhouse bully and start dropping axe-blow right hands. He tries to get up and I punch him flat again. He laughs something to the mobster sitting outside the cage on a weight bench, and I punch him in the mouth again. He twists and moves using the years of experience that got him a purple belt in jiu-jitsu and helped him knock out more than a few people in the cage. But none of them were as strong as me. I don’t even mind that he’s locking up my left leg in his half-guard. I hook several fast shots into his ribcage. I’m not worried as he rolls onto his side; I uppercut a few lefts into his chin and drill a few rights into his spine. His foot on my hip means nothing as I jackhammer my right hand into his temple. Then somehow, whipping his legs like the twirling flags of Olympic flag twirlers, I’m locked in a deep triangle while he punches my face like a speed bag. All I can do is laugh as I turn over trying to pop my head out. His legs go tight as two anacondas and I have to tap. We both collapse on the mat and my ribcage curses me for being an idiot. But I couldn’t be a punk ass bitch; I can’t show weakness in front of the Koreans, they might think Americans are soft.
I heave and place my hands on my hips as Big-Guy, in a show of respect takes both my hands and bows to me. I bow to him, and the Mobster laughs something at him while he points at me. Then Mobster gives me a big thumbs up. I drop my gloves, and wipe some blood from my lip. I look up and a smaller man with cannonball shoulders and MMA trunks slides on Big-Guy’s and starts hopping while he stares at me.
“I think you have a challenger,” One of the other Americans says pointing her eyes at the other guy.
“Okay, enough,” my ribs and back plead, “You didn’t even win the first time.” My back and ribs can be very rude when they’re feeling discomfort, and just mean when they’re in pain. I nod and wave a hand asking for a moment. The Challenger sits down in the Lotus position on the mat next to the sprawled out body of Big-Guy, laying with his forearm over his forehead and sucking in all the air he can.
I slide on the gloves and touch hands with the Challenger. He starts changing levels and sliding his feet like a trained fighter. He throws a one two combo with a low kick and I realize he’s a trained fighter. He moves in and I snap out a jab to keep him away. He throws a low kick at my thigh and I jump back. I plant my front foot and whip a leg kick at him and my ribcage bites down on my muscles and spins me across the gym with my hand planted in my back as if I were ready to give birth.
“My back,” I groan. The Koreans mumble things to each other, the big man sits up on his elbow, and the Mobster waves claps his hands asking for a show. I slink out of the cage and sit down on the weight bench while the Koreans look away me with accusative-slit eyes. They whisper things and smile, and I’m certain they’re all calling me a big sissy. I spend an hour apologizing and trying to stretch before I pull on my post-workout shirt and then hobble out onto the street to look for a cab. I tell Sung that my back is hurting and he smiles and says, “Feel better.”
Now, I’m lying on my bed reclined like a Roman Emperor with my calves hanging over the edge. I’m worried if I lay down on my back I won’t be able to get up. I’ve left my door unlocked and I have my phone in my hand just in case when I wake up I can’t move. I just hope I can compete in the tournament in two weeks. If I can’t, I’ll tell them I was hit by a car during after fighting off five, no seven guys. I just can’t tell them I went to bed biting my pillow to stop myself from crying. I’m also certain that I am never doing Judo again. I know those repeated slams are the cause of this. I will never do Judo again, unless one of them challenges me to Judo sparring. I can’t look weak. They need to know Americans are strong, even if they’re hobbling around on canes at the age of 28.