When my lungs stopped working, I turned the sink full-blast onto the hottest water, draped an old towel over my head, and then leaned there for fifteen minutes breathing the steam. That goddamn Russian did this to me, ruined my energy—I’d felt okay until he got himself pummeled from the top like some garden variety fratboy. . . I’d jammed the drain with a red facecloth so that the water sat atop it for a while collecting heat. It felt like someone had clogged my chest with tissue paper, and I’d feel fine if only I could reach down my throat and pull all that junk out. My girlfriend had been my slave since Fight Night, when my fever really took hold. Just minutes ago she’d smeared vapor rub all over the soles of my feet—it works, she explained, I read it online—and then I slid a pair of socks over my slimy toes. I thought I might need a trip to the hospital, where I could stare at the phlegm coloured walls for a couple hours, rocking back and forth in a hard plastic chair, and probably come down with tuberculosis or some other godless thing. Last time I’d visited outpatients, a scraggly old lady three seats from me coughed and grabbed playfully at her chest before toppling to the floor. By the way the nurses watched her roll on the ground, eyebrows raised, I knew she’d been a regular.
And all of this because Fedor Emelianenko, the Great Russian master, could no longer win a damn fight. His misfortune made me sick—I knew this even before Fedor’s camp came out and accused his opponent of psychic mischief, the disabling of energies by way of forbidden psychological technologies, evidently some strange military machines or maybe just a series of vile hoodoo witch doctors who hid in the stadium audience shaking bones at the indestructible Fedor. All I knew was that I broke into a fever right about the time the doctor called off the match, feeling more than a little depressed. And what more proof did I need? None. . .
That night a few friends came over for drinks. We were all pumped for the fights, even though most Saturdays we’d get drunk and play music at their place. For whatever reason the jam house needed quiet this weekend, so it was our good fortune that it was also the opening round of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix. We gathered around my television set with some beers, waiting for a few grown men to beat the holy-piss out of one another. It was great fun, and what did I care about the fighters’ concussions and bone density. I’d watch gun duels if they only set up weight classes and put a shiny title up for grabs.
In the first bout, a burly fellow with an astonish pair of mutton-chops got kicked right in his cauliflower ear, which popped on the side of his head like a splattered grape. Blood dribbled down the side of his head, staining those righteous chops, while he continued to push forward, cracking his opponent—a young submission artist—with a series of hard looping hooks & uppercuts. Soon the young fighter got dropped & struggled back to his feet only to be knocked into dreamland by another series of power punches. Mutton chops ran around the cage, hugging his conermen. Later he touched blood from the side of his head & asked how bad his ear looked. It looked pretty rotten, some kind of mangled fleshy bulb hanging off the side of his face. But he didn’t seem to care, always smiling. At home he worked as a firefighter—at least people gave a shit about fighters.
The next match was a waste of everybody’s time, lots of lying down and standing up, until one of the big waterheads finally got himself choked out.
‘Well that was crap,’ we all agreed, taking heavy sups from our bottles.
But soon came the co-headlining matchup, a redemptive story of sorts, the story of a former heavyweight champion who’d been knocked loopy in 2 of his last 3 fights, the other loss being a poor decision. Belurussian Andrei Arlovski always wore a thick black beard and a strange pitbull mouthgard that made him seem marketably vampiric. I could do without the silly teeth, but I’ve always found myself rooting for bearded folks, since before I could even grow my own. And all together it seemed like a good enough shtick. . . His career hit the skids in a fight with Fedor a few years before when Arlovski backed the pudgy champion against the cage with a barrage of punches and, seeing the Great Russian stunned, came rushing in with a flying knee in a blood-hungry attempt at finishing the fight. But instead Fedor caught him with a brutal overhand punch that landed flush on the airborne Belurussian and left him face-first on the mat, eyes wide open and staring into the dark void of a heavy concussion.
But tonight Arlovski was matched up against another dangerous Russian striker with a golden kickboxing background. This fight with Kharitonov was the first of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, a call-back to the days of Japanese PRIDE fighting tournaments. The night’s main event between Fedor and a fat-headed Brazillian was to be the second preliminary tournament bout of four, with the other two supposedly occurring in April. Meanwhile many thought Arlovski would win the fight, if only he stayed careful and picked his shots. We were all primed for a resurgence, a fluffy comeback affair. My drinking buddy was a long-time fan of the Belurussian and anticipated the fight, unaware of Arlovski’s recent unconscious streak.
So the bell rang and the two fighters circled for a while, throwing glancing blows to try and find their distance. The Belurussian tried to chop the Russian down with weak leg kicks but instead ate a couple hard punches. Kharitanov simply pushed forward, walking very flat-footed but still forcing Arlovski to react. Already I questioned Arlovski’s beard, whether the chin underneath could hold up. The former champion just kept backing away from Kharitonov with his hands down, getting popped with crisp shots.
‘This doesn’t look good,’ I said. Already my fever was starting full throttle, but I didn’t know it yet. I sweated and had some more beer, but I’d been drinking uncharacteristically slow all night long.
Then finally Arlovski got tagged hard by a hook & tried to lock in a desperate clinch, holding the back of the kickboxer’s head with both hands. But the Russian just swung his knee into Arlovski’s gut, buckling him forward, and then followed this up with a heavy uppercut to the chin. Now the Belurissian was swimming, rushing backward with eyes unfocused, foolishly getting his back pressed up against the cage. I saw the white’s of his eyes while he swatted his arms helplessly forward like a child chasing away a bee—you could feel the pendulum swing. And then Kharitonov dropped Arlovski to the mat with a hard hook to the chin, the bearded man lying on his back and staring up at his opponent, eyes wide & searching for the next shot, until the Russian came down hard with a few punches, dropping all his weight onto the sprawled Belurussian’s face. One two three quick pops right on the button and Arlovski lay there stiff, eyes wide open, once again watching the dark inside part of his skull. He looked dead as the referee and medical stuff rushed to remove his mouthguard and shined flashlights into his fat pupils. I couldn’t tell if he was breathing. Meanwhile the victorious Russian ran around cheering and climbed atop the cage to sit there with his arms raised. Arlovski still wasn’t moving. He was a shot fighter.
‘Jesus,’ I said.
‘Yeah,’ said my friend. ‘Guy just knocked out a legend.’
‘Man, time to hang ‘em up,’ as if I knew anything. I loved a good finish as much as the next fight fan, but not this way. It’s like seeing a marathon runner snap their femur or a once great singer butcher the high notes. It made me feel vulnerable. I tried to tabulate just how much brain damage Arlovski must have taken in his last four fights, but gave up pretty soon.
Eventually they cleared him off the mat, dragging him away in a wh
eelbarrow, and the main event was underway. . . Fedor Emelianenko had strung together and incredible 27 fight win streak spanning nearly a decade, a feat totally unrivaled in the sport of mixed martial arts. There were just too many different fighting styles and too many ways to lose for a fighter to last that long without getting caught, but somehow Fedor managed it and was regarded as something between hero and demigod. Time and time again, he’d find himself in trouble—dropped onto his fat bald head, buckled with punches—only to come back and win the whole thing. He knocked out punchers and submitted 10-foot freakshows, and all this at a tiny 5-foot-11. Fedor was untouchable, at least until last June when he foolishly gave up his arm to a Brazilian Jujitsu specialist and tapped in just over a minute. It was a pathetic & disheartening display, and for once the Russian’s pudgy head looked more like the profile of a bus driver or janitor than some iron SAMBO monster.
But surely it was just a slip up, not a sign that the master was slowing down. Tonight, the Last Emperor as ‘they’ called him (his management marketed him like a tired whore, some kind of silent action figure with a Russian Orthodox grip) was set to face a 6foot4 heavyweight monster who weighed in around 280 at fight time, an advantage of roughly fifty pounds. The Brazilian had some gigantic disease and held the comical nickname ‘Bigfoot’. . .
Fedor came down the ramp and the stadium went apeshit. He wore a re
d rubber jacket with all these bright soviet designs on the breast, abstract sickle and hammer kind of stuff. He looked a bit like Elmer Fudd. People in the crowd hollered and waved Russian flags over their heads. Everyone had already forgotten his last fight by the time Antonio Silva, the big Brazillian, came out. Some people even cheered for the challenger. In typical fashion, Fedor waited through the introductions with his head down, only glancing up at his opponent once, and even then just for half a second. And then the bell finally rang.
The Russian came out wild, swinging with these looping overhand punches that whipped from behind his head. A few clocked the Brazillian’s fat noggin but they had no visible effect—the monster’s skull was thirteen inches of bone. Soon the Brazillian backed him against the cage, which Fedor fought away from only to be pushed backward again. The first round went by in seconds, with Fedor winning most of the standing exchanges with his aggression and superior boxing. It was a good round, but I’d begun sweating. My lungs had already begun filling with snot.
‘Fedor looks bad,’ I noted. ‘He’s not fighting a patient fight.’
My friends nodded and I tried to take some more beer but couldn’t stomach it. The cornermen splashed water on Fedor and Silva, gibbered to them in Russian and Portugese. Then the bell rang and the fighters squared off for the second round. Immediately Fedor swung with a looping telegraphed hook. Bigfoot saw coming, ducked underneath, and then planted the Russian firmly on his ass. Fedor now had to survive under three hundred pounds of muscle for almost five minutes, or somehow roll to his feet.
Silva came down with hard punches from the top and worked to improve his positioning. Fedor wriggled around on the bottom, keeping his hands faceward to try and deflecting the big Brazillian’s hammerfists. Most of them landed on Fedor’s bald head, and soon Silva had wormed his way into full mount, essentially sitting atop the Russian’s chest and teeing off with hard punches.
Fedor’s head bounced off the matt from punch after punch and there were still minutes left in the round. A lot of punishment to Fedor’s face, Bigfoot picking his shots and unloading with those heavy fists. Fedor rolled around and gave up his back, blocking an attempted choke, only to find him
self back underneath Silva, eating punches to the head. It looked like a big brother beating on his young punching bag, straddling him and smacking him in the face at will. Again Fedor rolled over and gave Silva his back but eventually found himself in the same position beneath the massive fighter. It looked bad and we were shouting at the TV, sure that the legend was seconds away from a TKO loss. Silva unload for a couple minutes, Fedor floundering away from the punches a best he could, until the last twenty seconds of the round when the impossible happened. Fedor Emelianenko somehow rolled out of the mount completely and got a leg hold on Bigfoot Silva, twisting away at his ankle for the final ten seconds. We were all on our feet and screaming at the television, hoping for another miraculous victory for the Russian. Rip that big foot off! Snap the ligaments! Kick him in the balls!
Nothing. The bell rang and Fedor limped to his corner.
And then it happened. The doctors inspected Emeliankeo’s eye, which was a red pulp and had swollen completely shut. He couldn’t see and the announcer told us that the cageside physician had called off the bout. Neither fighter knew it was over. Fedor’s forehead was scratched and swollen, the eye a grotesque bloody mass, as if a worm has burrowed deep underneath his orbital bone and laid eggs. Meanwhile the Russian’s corner was busy preparing their fighter for the next round—an epic round th
at would never happen. If you can’t see, you can’t fight—what stringent rules. I felt sick to my stomach and wiped sweat from my face. My lungs were clogged with dirty cement and I tried to cough it away. I couldn’t breath. And then the referee informed the fighters: Fedor, you’re done. . . Bigfoot came alive at the news and began a sick medley of hugging and screaming, arms raised and that hundred-pound head almost all a toothy grin.
I’d been had. And thus started a week of hacking and coughing, choking on my own snot, some natural form of water-boarding. Fedor and I had been victims of evil energies, some twisted evil technology that threw off our chakras and ruined an otherwise good night. A doctor’s stoppage is like coming too fast—nobody’s happy in the end, even if you got what you wanted. But somehow Bigfoot still seemed happy, as if he’d just beat God in a fistfight. Didn’t he know we hated him for his victory? The once indestructible Fedor, now on a two fight skid, first tapped out and then pummeled into submission. . . When his camp came out with the psychic entrapment theory, I knew for sure what had happened. They’d ruined Fedor’s energies, and mine too, and now a once great fighter’s got his back against the ropes and I’m busy, choking to death.