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The Ghosts of Chalk Hill — Part 3: The Outlaw Self

On the fighters and outlaws of New Mexico’s present and past, featuring quotes from famed MMA striking coach Brandon Gibson.

July 14, 1881

Pat Garrett could hear voices in the orchard.

Rumors had led the sheriff and his deputies to Fort Sumner. If the Kid was indeed closeby, his old friend Pete Maxwell might know where to find him. But as they made their way to the plaza where they could look in on the Maxwell house, Garrett signaled for his deputies to hide.

The voices spoke in Spanish, too softly for the lawmen to make out a word. Then a figure in the orchard rose to its feet.

He wore a broad hat that hid his face from Garrett and his men. He spoke once more to a figure still obscured from the hunters’ view, and then he climbed over the fence that separated the orchard from the town plaza.

Garrett circled back and took a more covert path to the Maxwell house. He may have had justice and retribution on his breath, but the need for caution flooded his mind. He was determined not to suffer the same fate as the Lincoln prison guard Bob Olinger, picked off from above by a shotgun in a second-story window.

Garrett left his deputies outside the house and let himself in. He sat down right on Pete Maxwell’s bed and shook the man awake. The Kid wasn’t there, he told Garrett. But he was close.

It was then they heard the voices on the porch. When Garrett turned, a dark figure was standing in the doorway to Pete Maxwell’s room, inquiring about those strange men stationed outside.

In the bedroom now stood two men whose lives had been and would forever be entwined, as if a man’s purpose could be born chained to a kid’s fate, and in the dusty shade they looked to each other like shadows cast from the windows. But the young shadow saw the other move at the end of the bed, and so he pointed his six-gun and shouted: “Quien es? Quien es?”

Garrett raised his Colt revolver and pulled the trigger. His already obscured vision went blind in the muzzle flash and so he leapt and fired another shot. It proved to be unnecessary; his first bullet had slammed into the young man’s chest, just above the heart.

The sheriff sprinted out of the room and onto the porch, where one of his deputies explained the strange encounter they’d just had with a boy who had stumbled up0n them, gotten startled, and dashed into the Maxwell house. The deputy, John Poe, believed Garrett had just shot the wrong kid.

“I’m sure it was him,” Garrett replied. “I know his voice too well to be mistaken.”

They placed a candle in one of the bedroom’s windows. In the faded orange light they saw a Winchester rifle propped up against the door; a butcher’s knife and a pistol on the floor, along with the tousled bedsheets Maxwell had cast aside in his scramble out of the room; and the body of William Bonney.

“A struggle or two, a little strangling sound as he gasped for breath,” Pat Garrett’s ghostwriter later wrote in the book The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid, “and the Kid was with his many victims.”

Reward Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Garrett collected his reward money in 1882 along with several other gifts, including a gold sheriff’s badge from Albert J. Fountain.

He had recognized Billy’s voice in that bedroom, not merely because he’d been the one to capture the Kid and bring him to Lincoln earlier that year. Years prior, the sheriff and the young outlaw had been old shooting buddies in Fort Sumner.

They would banter all day about who was the better shot of the two. Garrett insisted that the Kid’s skills were a touch overrated, that he was no better a marksman than any other man who knew his way around a six-gun. He did offer one concession: he had seen in Billy a talent more valuable than accuracy, a talent very few men, even sharpshooters, possess: “He shot well, though, and he shot well under all circumstances — whether in danger or not.”

The Outlaw Self

“It might be theorized that fighting activates in certain people not only an adrenaline rush of exquisite pleasure but an atavistic self that, coupled with an instinctive sort of tissue-intelligence, a neurological swiftness unknown to ‘average’ men and women, make for the born fighter, the potentially great champion, the unmistakably gifted boxer. An outlaw or non-law self, given the showy accolade ‘killer instinct’.”

—Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing

The crowd’s collective adrenaline howl drowns out Brandon Gibson’s commands, rendering him a passive observer as he peers through the cage at his pupil, his friend, Carlos Condit, who for two more interminable minutes must stave off the hellish onslaught of Robbie Lawler.

UFC 195: Lawler v Condit Photo by Brandon Magnus/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The five-round title fight has reached its final frame. As Lawler surges forward, stalking Condit, his fists hugged tight to his chest as if fixed in some infernal prayer, time seems to slow. The collisions of hurled crosses and catapulted hooks seem unsustainable in their brutality — surely Lawler must tire, or Condit must succumb — and yet also endless. Condit like a killer in a riptide, mad enough to swing back at crashing waves. Lawler like a vessel for ancient rage. Trapped against the cage, his legs refusing to buckle, Condit absorbs the champion’s berzerker blitzes and fires back, fires back, until soon the final horn wails and both men collapse against the fence, spent, their heads pounding and lungs screaming, having each lost something the crowd can never comprehend.

Will Fox

Prizefighting is unique among modern sports in the sense that physical harm is not a consequence of the contest, but rather its very purpose. It promises its audience not just something spectacular, or something terrifying, but both in equal measure. Each highlight depicts not a winner and a loser but a winner and a casualty; we cannot celebrate a knockout without, perhaps unwittingly, admitting culpability in the battered state of the knocked-out.

This moral knot is why the sport of fighting is most easily enjoyed at a distance. The casual fan tunes in and sees combatants as interchangeable conduits, unique in their styles and movements but uniformly blank as human beings. But to truly invest in the fighters — to know them not only as Reebok-clad avatars but as fathers and mothers, husbands and wives; real people — is to invest in the wellbeing of athletes in a game where hurt is the objective.

The image of a man falling frozen to the canvas may earn a wince from the casual viewer. But follow that man’s life, learn how he eats his dinner and buckles his children in car seats, and the same scene can plant a crater in your stomach. Older family members ask me why I watch and I answer, never telling them of the nights I’ve asked myself the same thing.

What brings me back are the fighters: the men and women who, like the sport itself, are burdened by contradictions the average citizen may wrestle with but never understand.

It’s the esoteric allure of the fighter, not his capacity for violence, that recalls the American outlaw. We don’t hang Billy the Kid posters in spite of his crimes or because of his youthful aura, but because we’re captivated by the tangled mess of it all; the remarkable notion that someone can be so many things at once, so much like the rest of us and so alarmingly different.

The historian in Brandon Gibson recognizes the appealing duality of the Kid, a murderer with a moral code, a boy caught up in a man’s war. And he recognizes a similar (if more law-abiding and less sinister) duality in fighters like Condit: the reserved family man, the ‘Natural Born Killer.’

“At the core of all these guys, you gotta be a dog,” Gibson says. “You have to be the guy to kill or be killed. As time goes on, and they become fathers and husbands or develop other passions, the ‘peaceful gardener’ side can be strengthened. But you’re always gonna strengthen the ‘warrior’ side as well. You have to continue to harness and feed that and put it in the right condition.

“Carlos carries that dichotomy better than any fighter I’ve ever met. He’s a bit introverted. He loves to cook, he’s a great father, he loves hunting and backpacking. A very peaceful person. Loves yoga. Then you get him under the lights and there’s a different side of him. He’ll flick that switch and quickly shift.”

Gibson speaks of the fighter’s arcane nature as more than a coach, more than a companion. He also is a man of two selves, flipping his own switch as he hangs up his day clothes and heads to the gym.

“I can relate to them in a lot of ways,” he says. “Even today, someone told me,’You’re always so sweet’ and it’s like...well I’ll still punch a motherf-cker in the mouth, you know? You can be sweet all day, every day, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a darkness and a toughness there where I can go into the trenches with these guys. Where I can coach somebody through an excruciating five-round battle with blood all over my little Reebok outfit.”

UFC Fight Night: Cowboy v Medeiros Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Decades from now, the fighters Brandon Gibson has guided will be studied by historians of the sport. Holly Holm, Carlos Condit, Jon Jones and others will be revered by fans who weren’t alive to watch them enter the cage. But few will consider the dual lives of men like Brandon Gibson. Few will ask about the striking coach who trained the world’s deadliest men and women by night and served the land of New Mexico by day.

Gibson wouldn’t have it any other way. A century ago his ancestor Albert Fountain fought and died in the service of the same land, and today his name is much more seldom spoken than the name of the flighty young outlaw he once defended in court. Gibson won’t make headlines long after he’s gone, but he hopes to make an impact on his community and his fighters that won’t soon be undone.

Until then, he’ll keep waking up early and working to preserve the land his forebears fought for. And when the afternoon rolls around, he’ll change his clothes and head to JacksonWink — or perhaps somewhere else, somewhere vast and roofless, some place he’s willing to share with the right dance partner.

He’ll take his fighter out atop the Sandia Mountains, or to a wide open plain where the Cabezon Peak hangs in the distance, the volcano neck gleaming orange in the last spectral gasp of sunlight. Some place where they’ll work up a sweat as darkness blankets the plains, cloudbanks shifting overhead until the terrain itself appears in motion, sweeping across itself, nightfall a slowly drawn curtain.

A land alive with its bloody history, a chapter of which has followed Gibson all his life. How far an old shadow can sprawl at this hour, out here.

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