I think about power like Nietzsche thought about prostitutes.
That is to say, I’m all over every one of the deleterious manifestations, permutations, and iterations of showing someone who's boss.
So when I’m in cars, in bars, I'm watching the parvenus take baby steps, from staring duels to loud talking to shoulder bumping. I notice people playing for advantages of a spiritual, philosophical, or physical nature. It's animal politics, and arguably nowhere are power struggles more evident than in a city of pacifists: our patchouli and peace-and-love loving San Francisco.
I see the streets of San Francisco as having an almost palpable sense of hostility and paranoia. This isn’t a bad thing. Paranoia sharpens your knives against sharper knives. I enjoy this chaotic tableau. In fact, it’s why I’ve become a "likes to fight" guy.
Wherever there's a guy screaming, "What the fuck are you looking at?" or a dude getting beaten by four other dudes, I am there – in spirit, if not in the flesh – like a crazy patron saint of street struggles. Even if I’m simply watching, I’m analyzing the breakdowns and the takedowns, blow for blow. I love not turning the other cheek.
I’ve decided I need to refine my approach, though. I want to wander in to some of the city's toughest places (make that "tough" minus gunplay, drive-by shootings, and high recidivism rates), all pool-hustler-like, and challenge the roughest guy in the room to a fight. Why? Because there's absolutely no reason I can think of not to.
Now total disclosure time: I'm not an untrained scrapper. I authored a book called Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass-kicking but Were Afraid You'd Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking. As of this writing, I've just won two first-place wins and two second-place wins (in four different divisions) at a casino slugfest called Grapplers Quest.
But I want rough customers and I know where to find them. Fairtex and Ralph Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, arguably two of the top three local houses of tough, sit in SOMA. El Niño Sports, the third of the top three, is in Bayview, baby. Pound for pound, these are some of the best places to learn what you'd need to know to kick any and all asses. (El Niño even houses world champion Gilbert "El Niño" Melendez who, as luck would have it, I’ve fought before. Last time, he savagely beat me. But that was before I was winning medals. Before I learned…tricks.)
Nestled near the base of the Bay Bridge, Fairtex sits on a side street at 132-140 Hawthorne. It’s ground zero for all things devastatingly Muay Thai, a Thai martial art composed almost exclusively of slashing elbows, upward arching knees, and tree-chopping leg kicks. Over the last 10 years, Fairtex has branched into Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, the Frankenstein combination of martial disciplines. Pros stroll into this place as easily as they roll out of it.
I choose my opponent randomly. Or maybe it's just the look in his eye that says, "Pick me, punk." His name is Leopoldo Serao.
Ever heard of him? Yeah, me neither.
I was told later – much, much later – that Leopoldo is a five-time national and five-time state champion in Brazil. He was chosen by Brazilian media twice as the best grappler in the 175- to 185-pound range, and has an MMA record of 16 wins, 13 of them by submission. This last bit means his opponents screamed "uncle." Loudly. And possibly repeatedly.
I walk over and ask Leopoldo if he'll fight me. He asks if I’ve done this before. I tell him I have. He reaches for his mouthpiece and very quietly says, "Sure. You sign the waiver?"
We hit the mats against the cages at Fairtex and the now 195-pound Leopoldo then beats, chokes, and wrenches out of the socket the limbs most readily available to him. I fail to achieve any sort of recompense after these savage renderings, so I up the ante.
"This time I will crush your skull,” I boast. “I will peel it like a grape. Or perhaps a potato."
The beatings only get worse – until finally, after 30 minutes, Leopoldo starts clearing his throat and says, "Um, I have to go now."
I chalk this remark up to abject terror – at seeing me drag and drop my torn, sweat-stinking hoodie and pants as I limp off the mat out of Fairtex into a night of woulda-coulda-shoulda.
It’s Monday. And we've only just begun.
It’s a chill evening in the Bayview as I revisit the scene of a crime at 2555 Phelps Ave. The crime is a prior beating at the hands of the El Niño Training Center’s owner and Strikeforce Lightweight champ Gilbert Melendez, a man widely held as the second best lightweight fighter in the world. This savaging was for a spread in the now-defunct Real Fighter magazine, wherein Gilbert punched and choked me into the history books.
My return is about something else. You know that bit in Westerns where our beaten protagonist hides out in the hills and perfects a defense before facing his nemesis and emerges victorious? Well, yeah, this is about something like that – especially if instead of the hills, you have 7-11 parking lots.
But I have something extra in store for Gilbert. And less than 24 hours after my defeat by the wily Brazilian Serao, I am ready to bring it – to a man with a record of 18 wins and 2 losses. Who only weighs 155 pounds. And is apparently smarter than the average bear.
When he sees me hit his mat, Gilbert tells the gathered assemblage of fighters to train. That means I am drilling, and ultimately fighting, but with people other than Gilbert.
I should be taking it easy warming up, but Gilbert correctly guesses that I’m constitutionally incapable of taking it easy.
After five fights with other people, my only loss going to Grappler's Quest past winner Juan Nuñez, Gilbert finally calls me out. You can almost hear the bar stools scraping back across the floor as I wade to the center of the mat. Much like his nick-namesake El Niño, he proceeds to do to me for free what he's paid boatloads of money to do to others: He beats my head in.
I start to feel complete indignation that God has cursed me with outsized ambition and undersized talents. This has the strange and unintended consequence of making me fight longer and harder than is probably advisable.
In the end, it’s exit Clint Eastwood, enter Eugene Robinson. I am heading back to the cave in the hills – older, wiser, bruised, beaten, broken in parts, but unbowed.Day three is looming. Large.
The air at the Ralph Gracie Jiu-Jitsu Academy on Howard Street stinks of desperation. (Mostly mine.) It’s also scented with despair, failure, and the perilously high wages of fighting pros who would rather chop off their own body parts than let some smarty-pants journo-kibbitzer come in and look good for even one second.
I’m going to double down, though, baby. My march to glory will be written on Luke Stewart – punk rocker, Seventh Son tattoo shop owner, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt, MMA professional, and victim. Yes, I said it: victim.
We shoot the shit for a bit and then hit the mats. While I'd like to say that this journey becomes about something other than loss, it isn’t – although in the world's tiniest horror movie of my memory, in the first 10 seconds of the fight, I am doing quite well.
Then Luke shoots in, jams his head up under my chin…wait, did I say "jams"? I mean "rams." Yes, he rams his head up under my chin while bear hugging me, then lurches backward and forward as my back starts to bend at an angle typically reserved for accordions. I lay on the mat and gently move my toes, just to make sure I still can.
And when I can feel my feet, I use them to sit upright. And then to stand.
Luke is full of faint praise. "Um…well, you had a pretty explosive attack there." I wave him off and wander out onto Howard Street.
I know I shouldn't feel bad. I did something daring and dangerous with a good measure of style. Standing on the pavement, I glare at everyone I see. They all ignore me.
Yeah. Go ahead. Ignore me. I'll take you all on! All of you!
Just not right now. But soon. Oh yes. Sooooooon….
Getting your head beaten in is a service frequently provided free or for next to nothing by Raiders fans, just about anybody who knows a Raiders fan or, well, that's about it. But if you want to have it done by a professional?
Fairtex and Ralph Gracie Jiu-Jitsu are both located in SOMA, and they charge a one-time drop-in fee of $20. El Niño Training Center in Bayview/Hunters Point charges a one-time drop-in fee of $20, but that can be waived if you’re adept at slick talking.