By Kerry Howley, from Thrown, an account of the world of mixed martial arts narrated by a semi-fictionalized graduate student, out next month from Sarabande.
I was at a conference on phenomenology in Des Moines, where a balding professor, stunningly wrong about Husserlian intentionality, was dominating the post-conference cocktail hour.
“Does anyone have a cigarette?” I asked a group of skirt-suited women, not because I wanted one but because I longed for an excuse to leave. None of them moved.
Having nothing better to do, I walked the conference center’s hallways. I found myself at a hotel, and then a restaurant, and then ambling along a glass corridor, one story up from downtown Des Moines. A group of young men who had fragranced themselves such that I was sure their evening had some immediate purpose passed me, and on following them through an ever more complicated labyrinth of hallways, I arrived at their destination. A framed sign on an easel in front of two closed doors read midwest cage championship. This interested me only in that it appeared to be the honest kind of butchery in which the theory-mangling, logic-maiming academics I had just abandoned would never partake.
Inside the room the lights were dim but for a great spotlight lofted above an octagonal dais lined on all sides with a six-foot-high chain-link fence. A hundred spectators had gathered in the dark on benches. Through the fence I saw that one man was beneath another like a mechanic under a truck, and the man on top had a set of angel’s wings tattooed down the length of his back. Feathers rippled as he punched the face of the man lodged under his stomach. Blood dribbled down the other man’s forehead, onto the canvas, where their conjoined writhings smeared it like the stroke of a brush. Seconds later a single hand fluttered out from beneath the wing. His fingertips touched the canvas with extreme delicacy, as if to tap a bell and summon a concierge. There was no one to inform me that this meant he had given up, so I assumed some sort of grotesque exhibition had merely run its course.
I watched a second fight, a third. Sometimes the men were standing exchanging shots as if in a street fight, and sometimes they leaned against the cage clutching and clawing at each other, and sometimes they rolled around the middle of the canvas like hugging children tumbling down a hill. Instead of turning away from the heaviest blows, some long-suppressed part of me began focusing on the mark each left behind. I felt then that I should leave, but I did not, and a gloriously cut, hairless man entered to great cheers from the crowd. His name was Kevin “The Fire” Burns, and he was, I gathered from the raucous reception, a celebrated fighter from Des Moines. Twenty seconds into the fight I realized that I was not at all interested in Kevin “The Fire” Burns, but rather in the misshapen man he was dismantling. That man’s name was Sean Huffman, and there was not a single moment in the fifteen-minute fight when he could be said to be effectively staving off The Fire’s jabs to his face.
For three long and bloody rounds I watched Sean play fat slobberknocker to another man’s catlike technical prowess. With each precisely timed shot to his own mouth, Sean’s smile grew, as if The Fire were carving it into him. All the while, watching, I had the odd feeling of a cloudiness momentarily departing. It was as if someone had oil-slicked my synapses — thoughts could whip and whistle their way across my mind without the friction I’d come to experience as thought itself. I felt an immense affection for the spectacle before me, but it was as if the affection were not emanating from anywhere, because I had dissolved into a kind of mist and expanded to envelop the entire space that held these hundred men.
It was the last fight of the night, and after the loss Sean lay bleeding flat and still across a row of metal folding chairs. I jumped up, shuffled past some legs in the cheap section, snuck under a divider, lied to security, and strode over to his outstretched body to watch a doctor — well, someone with a needle and thread — stitch pieces of Sean’s brow back together. I was too moved to speak, or even to introduce myself.
Not until my ride home, as I began to settle back into my bones and feel the limiting contours of perception close back in like the nursery curtains that stifled the views of my youth, did it occur to me that I had, for the first time in my life, found a way out of my own skin. My experience echoed passages in Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Artaud, in which a disturbing ritual — often violent — renders the senses more acute, as if the dull, blunt body were momentarily transformed into a tuning fork, alive, as Nietzsche put it, to sensations “fine and fleeting.” Some have called the feeling “ecstasy,” but until that night in Des Moines I associated the state with antediluvian rites inaccessible to modern man.
From that moment, the only phenomenological project that could possibly hold my interest was to capture and describe that particular state of being to which one Sean Huffman had taken me.
And so, naturally, I began to show up places where Sean might show up — the gym where he trained, the bar where he bounced, the rented basement where he lived, the restaurants where he consumed foods perhaps not entirely aligned with the professed goals of an aspiring fighter. Our first real conversation took place several weeks later, at a dive bar in Des Moines.
“Did it hurt?” I asked of the fight I’d witnessed.
He thought about this for a long while — I could tell he was thinking hard even though he could not, at that time, knit his stitched-up brows together in a gesture that would suggest an outward manifestation of thinking — and said, “Not entirely.”
I told him I thought his performance had been an extraordinary physical analogue to phenomenological inquiry. He cocked his head and, in a way that seemed quietly pleased with my observation, said, “You’re insane.”