The next post in a series from contributor-at-large “Diesel” D. Heimpel finds the author getting his ass kicked in a boxing gym in an Icelandic fishing village but living to write about it. This was originally published in the Iceland Review. UPDATE: Soon after publishing this article, our star got his ass kicked again! ed. note: Heimpel didn’t really get his ass kicked, per se, but would like to thank the anonymous reader that sent flowers.
He’s out there in a lonely Icelandic fishing village, running up treeless hills with a bag of stones slung over his shoulder. His nickname is Lalli and he’s the blonde man with arms like jackhammers in the poster on the boxing gym wall. He’s Iceland’s heavyweight champion, and if Fabio, head coach at the Reykjav?k boxing gym can finalize arrangements, those jackhammers will be on me in less than two weeks.
“He hasn’t lost yet, and he will not let you win. He will beat you,” Fabio said as I panted after a couple rounds with Iceland’s second best junior heavy weight. “Let’s just say that I don’t like holding a bag for him.”
But, that’s the better story right? I’m a month and a half into training and I still may look like Frankenstein, stiff and all arms. But every once in a while I manage to swing my hips and unleash some power.
As I rode my bike home I got to thinking about why I’m even doing this. I tell myself it’ll be a great clip, a journalist who went to Iceland and decided to fight the country’s best. A story I can peddle at journalism job fairs. But then I got to thinking about what really makes me want to do it – beyond the vanity, the fake bravado, and the half-pathetic attempt at hyper-masculinity.
At 22, I quit UC Santa Barbara’s Lacrosse Team. But I had an intense desire to live out my last bits of athleticism, which were never that impressive, with a hail of punches in the fraternities’ annual “Fight Night,” an orgy of young men battering each other, under the chants of 3,000 or more college students.
Two years before I did it my friend, McGee, who’s now arming helicopters in the 42 degree heat in the desert of Al-Anbar Province, stepped into the ring and exchanged blows until the third round bell dinged. The white of his right eye was painted crimson for the next two months.
I entered as an independent. The large crowds attracted amateur fighters who wanted a venue. It wasn’t only frat boys; there were some sharks in the water.
I trained by myself. I asked the Isla Vista Police Department to sponsor me. They said they couldn’t, but one of the officers offered his service as a sparring partner. Over two months my confidence grew as I watched his left cheek grow red under my right hand. When else can you repeatedly punch a cop?
But then came the weigh in. I remember looking around at all the fighters that showed. There was one guy: Latino with a big tattoo on his shoulder and the kind of hands that can turn quartz into chalk dust. ‘Anyone but him,’ I thought.
The day of the fight I arrived at the UCSB basketball stadium. There were chairs up until the bleachers and then the empty bleachers. I saw the large Latino guy and walked over to him with the fight card in my hand. I pointed to the name opposite mine and asked if it was his.
He said yes and put is big arms around me. “It’s all love baby,” he said. I put my hands on the boulders of his shoulders and wanted to run home. But I didn’t, I was locked in, driven by my stupid conviction. Like always, I had let my mouth run way out ahead of me, and I needed to fill up my the empty bubbles of my words with images ? make it real.
I paced the locker room. A middleweight Mexican fighter came back in with his nose a red, smushed triangle on his face. His entourage told him he fought a good fight.
I stepped out to look at the chanting crowd and the hypnotic spectacle of blood and punching, frenetic violence. The fighter next to me said, “We are leading a colorful life.” Then he walked into the ring and beat his opponent into swollen-faced shame.
It was my turn. I didn’t look at my girlfriend or my friends (or maybe I just don’t remember) and walked straight into that ring. My legs jiggled with fear. The referee came up and taped my gloves tight. The finality was on me. All I wanted to do was go home. And then my opponent stepped in and beat the pads held out by his trainer, and I thought the jiggling was going to rattle my kneecaps off.
The bell rang. I had always thought you were supposed to go back to your corner. I was wrong, and got hit hard and square. A sound like a submerged bell screamed in my head and I threw wild, stiff punches — a young Frankenstein. I landed some and survived.
Between rounds, my one man entourage, a good friend Dave, said, “You’ve gotta do something else man, you’re getting killed.” He might have said to go, “ghetto.” But that could just be a fuzzy memory.
Recently I watched a tape of the fight. An old teammate and fellow Berkliite had made a spoofish documentary at my boxing bid with the mini tapes he had rooted out of some box from five years before.
I rush to the center of the ring. I shake my head. And then strike: left – right – left, right, right. I back the big bully, and the square muscles on his chest, up. For the only time in the fight, I hear the crowd screaming. And then I’m tired and can’t punch with much power.
I survived the round, but whatever Dave said in the corner was incomprehensible. The submerged ringing had surfaced, howling through my head ? the sound of pain. I ran back in. But the ghetto had left me. The tape shows my opponent hunch down and come up with his fist to my jaw. My hands go up. He twists and lets go a right and I fall: blank stare, hush of the crowd and (like a felled tree) straight on my back.
I was helped up. I managed to raise my arm when they called my name. The crowd roared. After, I looked in the mirror of the locker room; my nose wasn’t as bad as the Mexican fighter’s, but I was bloodied. “Don’t worry. You fought a good fight man,” Dave said. And I was happy, ‘I never have to do that again,’ I thought.
A few days ago I was in the gym. There’s an American boxer there. He’s here to study ancient Icelandic law, and even though he’s an academic he can’t stay away from the chronic headaches associated with the ring. I told him the story.
“As bad as it was it was one of the best moments of my life.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” he said back. He was smiling widely.
Three rounds, four-and-a-half minutes. That’s all there is an amateur fight. And that’s all there is until I can think, ‘I never have to do this again.’