Choosing Your Opponent

Time for a much-needed break from the disturbing news world (now what — Tour de France winner Floyd Landis tested positive for medicating his ailing hip during the race)? Correspondent-at-large D Heimpel files from the ring in Iceland.

I’m in the ring and the borders of my vision rattle. Here I am, fighting a guy who is bigger, stronger, faster — the heavyweight champion of Iceland. I have no chance so I decide to attack. If I had been smarter I would have never chosen this fight.

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My high school was fraught with racial tension. Funny in Berkeley, where hippies from all over rolled out west to fight the man and were stoked by ideals of racial unity. But that wasn’t the case with their mostly white progeny, the first generation Filipinos, the second generation Mexicans or the blacks who hung out on Berkeley High’s “slopes” with a huge map of Africa painted on the ground.

There had been a white party in black South Berkeley, and there had been fights. I was there. I saw white kids dragged out into the night to get stomped. My girlfriend, Janna, had stayed late to ice the eye of a black kid who was missing an eyelid. Because she was helping, I thought I was safe.

We left late and a group of black kids who had been waiting for me fanned out into the dimly lit street. Somebody yelled, “This is for my cousin!” from behind. I felt a thud and woke up back in the house where the party had come and gone. Janna told me I fell flat on my face and was humming on the asphalt.

That Monday a racial war broke out at Berkeley High. I was standing on the steps of the school theatre. It was nice there, you could overlook the courtyard. It was where all the white kids hung out. I saw a large group of black kids making there way from the “slopes,” across the courtyard and towards the steps.

They came straight up to where I stood, hands in the straps of my backpack, and everybody around me stepped back. It must have looked like I had stepped forward to Jervon, the big football player leading the charge.

“Were you at that party Saturday night?” he asked me, spitting the words from his gold of his teeth. This was 1997, but Berkeley kids were precocious when it came to bling.

“I was.”

He raised his big fist. I saw the gold of his rings — and swack — he laid a heavy blow on my face. I stood up and ran at him, I had no chance but decided to attack. A kid in Jervon’s group ran in from the side and leveled me again. My head was reeling in the warm courtyard. I wasn’t aware of much, but knew that a half-black, half-white circle of onlookers had formed around me. I stood up a third time and ran forward again, intent on hitting Jervon just once. But another black kid from the crowd crept into my periphery with a clean blow, and I was sprawled out on the brick and concrete courtyard.

I rush Lalli, the champ, and try to hit him. Maybe I do, but his face and eyes don’t register pain. Don’t register anger. Just a stoic message — “If you come in too close, I’m going to have to punch you.” I come in too close and he rocks my mouth. Everything flashes white. Fabio, the boxing coach, later tells me I said “whoooooo,” like I was having fun. My legs wobble, but I don’t fall and rush him repeatedly till the third round bell rings.

Afterwards I feel a little like a fool. I’m standing with Fabio in the office.

“I would have liked you to be defensive,” he says. “But that was good.” Fabio is smirking, his dimples showing. “You know I can teach a fighter everything. But you just went at him. Having the instinct, the balls to do that… you can’t teach a fighter that.”

Great consolation: two months of training reduced to four and a half minutes of bludgeoning. It’s all my creation, I chose my opponent. I could have been a smidge more discriminating.

I’m about to leave the gym. I tell Fabio how I wanted to try the things he had taught me, but going forward — Frankenstein — was all I could do.

“I really figured out that I was becoming a boxer when I was on the tube with some friends,” Fabio says. “This big giant of a guy, with a midget next to him, not a dwarf but a mini man, says something like, ‘Are you interesting?'” Fabio says contorting his face and slowing down his words. “Like an idiot I said yeah. What he was trying to say was, ‘Are you interested?’ Like do you want to fight?”

The big giant lunged at Fabio. “I was like bam-bam-bam,” Fabio says twisting his hips and extending his hands. “The movements just came to me. The big guy was bleeding and then I noticed the midget was bleeding too. I guess I just picked him up.” Fabio holds out a fictitious midget and beats its head in.

“Anyway the police come and see me with five guys, blood on my hands and this messed up midget. The big guy pulls out a card saying he’s deaf and a little retarded.” Luckily for Fabio, an old lady had witnessed the brawl and said he had been attacked and had acted in self defense. But still? hitting the deaf and mildly retarded midget?

It always seems like I’m going up against people I have no chance of beating. Maybe next time I should use the Fabio method of opponent selection. Or maybe I shouldn’t have any opponents at all.

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