The Afternoon Fighter

          Tattoos are associated with criminals and gangsters in Japan, which is why I have to quit the sports club. I’m not a criminal or a gangster, and the Leonard Cohen-designed linked hearts tattoo on my right arm doesn’t look anything like the intricate, full-body, fish and demon motifs that gangsters here go for, but the club doesn’t permit tattoos and that’s that. For a short time I experimented with a preposterous, bra-like contraption that covered my upper arms and shoulders. Every time I wore it in the pool an apprehensive lifeguard rushed up, anxiously asking what it was, exactly, that I had on, fearful that the rules concerning proper pool attire were being flouted by some crossdressing foreigner. I have a feeling my explanations were unsatisfactory and in any case I felt idiotic and painfully conspicuous wearing a mysterious shoulder-bra in the pool. So I quit the club and looked around for some other way to stay in shape. Remembering a little boxing gym on the south side of the station I’d seen once before, I went and introduced myself to Yokozeki-san, the owner.

          I’ve been interested in boxing for a long time. It was Rocky III that did it for me: Rocky versus Clubber Lang. ”You ain’t so bad! You ain’t nothin’!” Thunder Lips. Eye of the Tiger. In grade five I used to have one pair of boxing gloves and one pair of hockey gloves and my friends and I would go into the front yard and crash each other around. Rocky III, yes, and all the magic prizefighter names in the air: Marciano, Dempsey, Robinson, Louis. And of course Ali—Ali who fought Superman—Ali who shook up the world—Ali who launched a sadness I could feel even as a kid when he lost so badly to Holmes, when Holmes crashed him around while yelling at the ref to stop the fight, stop the fight.

          Interested, but deficient. I’ve always been a wimp: bookish, wary, puny. And unless you count getting knocked over while drunk at the library when I was 17, getting my nose broken in a brief, one-sided street brawl in Cambridge, or one breathtakingly undeft punch-up in grade eight—against a classmate who was blind in one eye—I’ve more or less managed to avoid interpersonal violence. Which is sometimes cause for self-congratulation but is more often the detail that undermines the action-packed story I like to tell myself about myself. I’ve never even had a punch-up with my younger brother, which makes me feel sort of unbrotherly.

          My pal Jed punched me in the face once, because of a girl, but it didn’t hurt and he immediately hugged me afterwards. Jed was good-looking and cool and a hero of mine and the whole thing was just summertime foolishness, though in retrospect I should have hit him back, or something. But I didn’t know how.

          I ask Yokozeki-san if my tattoo would be a problem.

          “Keep it covered if you can,” he says.

          I sign up, buy a pair of boxing gloves, a pair of sneakers, some hand-wraps, and start training in the afternoons after work.

          Gifu Yokozeki Boxing Gym opened in 1992. There’s a changing room, murky showers, eleven heavy bags, a speed bag, a double-end bag, a mirrored wall for shadowboxing, a rack of jump ropes, some free weights, and a training ring with red, white, and blue ropes. It smells pretty much like you’d expect. The walls are covered with fight posters featuring the Yokozeki Soul Fighters: Naganawa, Yamaguchi, Morishima, the Endless Fighter, the Golden Boy. My favourite poster hypes a two thousand and six fight called The Rancorous.

          One afternoon I see this young guy with enormous scars like crazy railroad tracks stitching all over his head. Slow, clumsy movements; a wobble in his legs; a stiffness. His mother—at least I think it’s his mother—helps him put his gloves on and stands behind him, holding him by the hips, while he does a little mitt practice with Yokozeki-san. Later I ask him about the guy.

          “He used to train here. He had a match and he lost but he seemed ok. And then in the car going home he had a stroke.”

          He says all this straight and not unkindly. “Boxing is dangerous,” he says.

          Twice a year Yokozeki-san puts on a big local boxing show that usually includes what are called Oyaji Fights: matches for boxers over 33. Two rounds, 14 ounce gloves, headgear.

          Oyaji is a mildly pejorative term that roughly translates as geezer.

          The ultimate confrontation? Meaning: a shot at redemption? All wimpy high-school horrors and run-away failures erased forever? Membership, however brief and insignificant, in the same club as Muhammad Ali?

          When I was in elementary school I had a paper route. I’d pick up my stack of the Vernon Daily News, now long defunct, at a corner store—Kal’s Korner—in the neighbourhood. One afternoon, for reasons I no longer remember, some kid and I decided to throw a couple of punches. I didn’t know him but it seemed like a good idea. Everything was arranged and overseen by the kid’s older brother. The kid and I grappled a little, inconclusively. The weirdness and pointlessness of the scene—not to mention the looming brother—started to freak me out, so I turned around and went into the store and waited until they left. When I went outside again, my bike was in a tree.

          That kind of thing can prove exasperatingly hard to forget. That, and Jed punching me, and watching Ali videos—I’m so pretty! I’m a bad man!—and Rocky III. And I’m forty, now, a proper oyaji. So I sign up for a match.

          My opponent, Miyazaki, is a southpaw from another gym. I don’t know anything else about him except that he’s out there somewhere, training with some Japanese killer cult, crushing skulls, bulging with all kinds of sweaty, industrial-strength muscles, and pulsing with inscrutable Asian ferocity.

          Boxing is dangerous.

          I train hard for a year. I quit smoking. I even quit drinking, for a while, anyway. I spar 110 rounds. I get knocked around pretty good once or twice—I’m inordinately proud of my first black eye—and I knock a couple guys around. I spend a few evenings lying on the floor of my apartment, sore and sad and convinced I have a hundred pounds of brain damage. I jot combinations and reminders (punches in bunches, don’t let the other guy do anything he wants to do, speed kills) in a little notebook. I start to really dig sparring, despite the terror and concussion-fear: the raw flow of intensely personal data, the murder of all boredom, the silencing of my mind’s habitual, anxious chatter, the fusion of hard physical work with the sudden, uncluttered clarity of here and now and nothing else.

          My sparring gloves have TRAININING IS EVERYTHING printed on the palms.

          I get stronger and faster. I start, for the first time in my life, to look reasonably good with my shirt off. But I’m still not sure; I’m nowhere near sure. In the back of my mind I keep wondering how I can get out of the whole thing. One of the toughest guys at the gym is a brawler named Adachi. I asked him once if he had a girlfriend. “Oh, lots,” he said. “I’m a night fighter.”

          “An all-night fighter?”

          “You,” he said, considering me with his head cocked to the side, “are an afternoon fighter.”

          Luminous self-doubt. Boxing is dangerous.

          An ordinary afternoon in October. My match is the first of the day. I wrap my hands and Yamaguchi helps me warm up. I sock some rights in; the sound reverberates in the hallway. “Ouch!” Yamaguchi yells, shaking his hand. “Whew!” He’s exaggerating like mad and he knows I know but it works anyway. A little.

          My friend Tom arrives to watch the fight. “I used to get nervous when you played with your band,” he says, “but now, when you could die, I’m not nervous at all. Makes no sense, does it?”

          In the makeshift dressing room I sit and tremble. When I was a kid I leafed through a book on Jack the Ripper I’d found in the bookstore in the mall. I had no idea such things had ever happened, that guys like that walked around and cut strangers to pieces with knives. I was comprehensively dismayed, and deeply scared. That fear was strengthened and enlarged soon after when Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, was arrested. There was a two-page spread on his victims in the newspaper. I clearly remember lying on the green shag carpet in the living room, reading with mounting disgust and alarm how Sutcliffe, annoyed that the woman he’d just murdered seemed to be staring at him, gouged out her eyes with a screwdriver. That scared me all the way; still does. But those are ordinary, abstract fears, part of my routine and fretful background static. They’re also not my responsibility. They’re not my fault.The reptiles slithering around now are a different type entirely. The whole point of me is to avoid death for as long as possible and my internal machinery, sensing imminent destruction, is overloading all the circuits and trying to scare me off. Everything’s on me; if Miyazaki knocks me down, knocks me out, beats me up, everybody will know it’s because I’m dumb and slow and weak.

          Handsome young Japanese boxers, topless, sinewy, powerful, limber up all around me, wearing professional boxing shorts and shoes. I’m wearing a black sleeveless tank top, so that my tattoos show, for maximum intimidation. I don’t mind if Miyazaki thinks I’m a criminal and a gangster. I don’t have regular boxing shorts, so I’m wearing a pair of sweatpants rolled up to mid-calf. I slip my groin protector on over them, just like I do when I spar at the gym. And then, nearly immobilized by an anxiety that’s both leaden and turbulent, I sit, tussling with fear. Fear of failure. Fear of failing to overcome my fear. Fear of having to admit mistakes were made. Fear of humiliation. Fear of proof of powerlessness. Fear of being the eternal wimp. Fear of flop. Fear of pain. Fear of damage. Fear of having a stroke in the car on the way home. Fear of being minimally exceptional. Fear of murderers. Fear of super villains and tough guys. Fear of tough guys trying hard to punch me in the face. Fear of age. Fear of not being a man, whatever that might mean. Fear of my son dying. Fear of my son growing up to be a serial killer. Fear of the big give up. Fear, fear, isotropic fear, plutonium-dense, fully unleashed and gleefully cavorting in my stomach and head.

          Naganawa laces up my gloves. And exactly one minute before my entrance Yokozeki-san comes over and barks, “You can’t wear your jock outside your shorts. Change. And hurry up.”

          This is an unmitigated disaster. My cobbled-together outfit looked reasonably cool when I was posing at home—my blue groin protector, brand new, matches the blue stripe down the side of my sweat pants, for example—but, with it on underneath, I look ridiculous. How can I possibly assert my personal integrity, bend Miyazaki to my will, dominate him in the harshest and most brutal way, when I look like this, lumpy and absurd and puffy from the waist down?

          Things are never as bad as you think they’re going to be. But sometimes they are.

          My entrance music—Kiss’s War Machine—starts up. Resigned to total catastrophe, I walk to the ring, trying to look predatory and ruthless but feeling laughable and diapered. There are maybe 65 people—including my wife and son—scattered throughout the hall. This is the very bottom of the card; the main fights, with the pros from my gym battling pros from other gyms, start hours from now.

          I climb into the ring and walk to the centre for instructions from the referee. Miyazaki bows; I give him the curtest possible nod. Project the fear. Eye of the tiger. Shake up the world.

          Astonishingly, Miyazaki is a little shorter than I am, bald, and totally normal in every conceivable way. He even looks friendly, not at all like the kind of guy who’d gouge my eyes out, given the chance.

          In the corner I chew on my mouthpiece and, head down, do a little shuffle I’ve seen Ali do. And the instant the bell sounds my fear dissolves completely. One second I’m shuddering with anxiety and panic, and the next some other module, some other system, has smoothly assumed total control.

          In 1992 I spent the summer in Saskatoon, selling fresh B.C. fruit at a stand in a Burger King parking lot. On a day off I went to the fair and as soon as I saw the bungee jumping crane I knew with queasy certainty that I was going to try it. I paid and signed the waiver and rode up in the little swaying cage while the earth curved. The carny in the cage with me suggested I pretend I was getting home “after partying all night” and just flop on an imaginary bed. I must have made a face because he quickly suggested I pretend I was really, really tired after work, instead. I shuffled to the lip of the cage, the cord a heavy drag on my legs, and, appalled, began to—very slowly—fall forward. At the exact instant that the fall became irreversible there was a flash of perfect, gin-clear calm. This was immediately followed, of course, by the bowel-loosening awfulness of the plunge, but it’s that instant of faultless, chatter-free cool that I remember best, the sudden, complete removal of every last smoking trace of panic. The fear is empty and then it’s gone.

          My interior is no longer disorderly. Miyazaki and I touch gloves in the centre of the ring and circle. He throws a couple of jabs which I take on the gloves. I duck under a more serious, probing left and then he gets the first punch in, a light hook that bounces off the side of my head. It doesn’t hurt but it pisses me off. I throw a quick right lead; it doesn’t get through but it backs him up. Thirty seconds in and I haven’t landed a decent shot.

          We circle and bounce around the ring, once, twice, throwing light, cautious punches. Then I land two right hands, one to the jaw, one to the forehead, force Miyazaki backwards into a corner, hit him in the side of the head, throw two quick right hooks into his ribs and another looping right into his ear. He ties me up and holds on.

          I feel better now. We separate, and bounce, and circle. Miyazaki pokes me with a quick right. I look for gaps and slack, land an uppercut and another straight right, or maybe not, it’s hard to tell, and now he’s on the ropes and he tied me up again. The bell rings.

          I’m not even tired, just disappointed I haven’t torn Miyazaki’s face off yet. In fact I don’t think I’ve hurt him at all. The referee comes over and, with a significant look, says “One more big punch and I’m stopping the fight.” So: things are even worse than I thought. I’m losing in front of my home crowd. In front of my kid. Yamaguchi starts thumping me on the arm and whooping.

          “One more good clean punch!” he yells.


          “You tag him one more time and the ref’s gonna stop it! One more! Right in the face!”

          Through the pea soup of adrenaline and dismay and confusion swamping my senses I’d misunderstood the ref. It’s Miyazaki who’s in trouble, Miyazaki who’s about to get TKO’d. Boxing is dangerous for Miyazaki.

          Seconds out. Final round.

          Miyazaki and I touch gloves again and then he comes on all wildfire and grunt, throwing a salvo of punches that I take on the gloves and arms; if anything gets through I don’t feel it. Nothing hurts; nothing’s registering. Miyazaki throws about a dozen punches and that’s all he’s got. Spent, he backs up across the ring and clinches. We break. Miyazaki starts circling around to my left and I swat him an overhead right and trap him in the corner again. He ducks at the same instant I throw an uppercut; there’s a satisfyingly crunchy thock and a painful jolt all the way up my arm that hurts more than anything Miyazaki managed to do. I start firing in lefts and rights—four—six—and the ref steps in and waves me off and stops the fight. I’ve won: TKO.

          I hug Miyazaki and bow to his corner and get a trophy and my photo taken and climb out of the ring and pick up my son. He’s one; he squirms in my arms. “Daddy won!” says my wife, laughing. My friends laugh and shake my hand and, for a few glorious, enormously gratifying minutes, I’m no longer the high school wimp of my anxiety dreams, the scared kid dodging tough guys at the mall, an ordinary afternoon fighter. I’m the toughest guy in the hall, in the whole town.

          I’m pretty. I’m a bad man.

          I’m only pretty for a short time; my unmingled satisfaction starts to evaporate within a few weeks. I go back to work and, eventually, to the gym. I get an email from Jed, who’d seen a video of the fight. Not bad, he writes. But get some proper boxer’s shorts. You look like a chump. Eventually all of my usual reptiles come crawling back, but I’m undefeated and they’re diminished. I talk to the gangsters in the sauna at a public bath where tattoos are allowed. My brother gets married and my best friend dies and I keep going to the gym and jumping the rope and hitting and getting hit. My wife and I have another baby, another son, and I walk all over town with him in a carrier on my back. I get another tattoo: the Japanese character for sora, his middle name. Sora means sky, open, and empty. And I get some proper boxer’s shorts and tell Yokozeki-san to sign me up for another fight.

JASON EMDE was born in Cranbrook, British Columbia, Canada, grew up in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, and lived in Zimbabwe for a year as a Rotary exchange student, traveling widely in southern Africa. After receiving a BA from the University of British Columbia in 1995 he moved to Japan, where he teaches English, officiates at weddings, and pursues an optional residency MFA in Creative Writing through UBC. He lives in a charmingly ramshackle house in Gifu City with his wife, Maho, and their two sons, Joe and Sasha.