Never before have I gone in to report for a story in which I’m so completely aware that, if I make fun of the subjects, I could totally get my ass kicked later.
At first, as I arrive at StandAlone MMA Academy, I’m worried. There are buff bros. There’s the sort of nu-metal playing that asks such rhetorical questions as “Are you down with the sickness?” Oh no, I think, I’m totally going to have to make fun of this and then I’m going to get asphyxiated on the streets on a weekly basis for the rest of my life. Damn. I’m going to have to move. Where should I move?
StandAlone is in a nondescript building in the industrial area out toward the train tracks. Inside, it’s one large room, with a boxing ring in the back, a row of heavy bags, and an expanse of blue and grey padded floor. There are posters with pictures of shirtless dudes and words like “extreme” and “cage” on them. There are flyers laid out for tanning salons and chiropractors and belly-flattening products. People are bouncing around, warming up.
The class I’m in is Muay Thai Kickboxing. We start jumping rope. I am chubby. I am old. I jiggle in a not-attractive way as I jump. After 30 seconds I feel like I have chlamydia of the lungs. It burns. Then we are told to do 30 push-ups, leg-lifts, and squats. “So, like ten each?” I ask, prayerfully. No. No, not ten each.
Shadow boxing goes better. I’m fucking some shadows up! Doing all sorts of flying moves and shit. I take out like at least a half-dozen shadows before the buzzer goes off. I’m some sort of prodigy.
Then it’s pad work time. I’m paired off with another elderly and out of shape newbie (we’re both in our mid-30s). His name is Andy Hunter. We punch and kick each other’s pads and wheeze and perspire and take dramatic rests where we just sort of hang from the waist, wincing and looking pained.
The instructor’s name is Cedric Schwyzer. He’s ridiculously yoked-out. He’s also pretty much the nicest guy ever. Cedric generously explains moves in these elaborate metaphors that verge on the poetic.
“Picture you’re a medieval knight,” he says, trying to get me to see how some attacks are like spears, others like swords, and still others like daggers. I picture it. I look ridiculous.
When the class is over I talk to a few students. 24-year-old Nico Flores has been training for two and a half years. He’s wearing this skin- tight black shirt that looks like a wetsuit top. It’s a “compression shirt,” Nico tells me. It’s for sweat. Nico has been sparring almost every day for the past six months. He hopes to do some real amateur fights soon. “I wanna see what I got,” Nico says, in a gentle voice, not an ounce of bravado or aggression.
That’s what a lot of this is about, I think. A journey of self-discovery. Testing yourself, finding your courage, your limits.
23-year-old Kelsey is the only female fighter in the class. She has long vivid red hair with bangs, long good-for-kicking legs, and long pale lashes around mischievous bright eyes.
“At first it’s just punching people that’s fun,” Kelsey, a Chico State Anthropology student, tells me. “But then you realize you like getting punched, too. Getting hit becomes fun. You realize that and then you’re like, ‘There’s something fucked up about me,’” she says, laughing. “But there’s something satisfying about it. I just like that kinda thing. I like beating shit up. It’s pretty simple, really. It’s fun.”
Yes. Why do we fight? Stupid question. It’s like asking why we fuck. Because we are animals, that’s why. We lock horns, we thump our chests. That is what we do.
I ask Kelsey if, like, when she’s using the bathroom or whatever, she fantasizes about some girl stepping to her and then laying the chick out with a crazy head kick or something.
“Yeah,” she says. “But, actually, it’s dudes’ asses I fantasize about kicking.”
Kelsey explains that MMA is a great sport for women. “The first thing they teach you is you’re on your back and someone is in your guard [“guard” is a jiu-jitsu euphemism for missionary position, basically] and you learn how to break their arm or choke them out. In jiu-jitsu having someone between your legs is an offensive position,” Kelsey says.
27-year-old Brandon “Kiba” Ricetti is one of the jiu-jitsu instructors. He’s also an undefeated pro-fighter, with a pro record of 7-0. He’s finished all of his fights by TKO or submission within the first two rounds. With his bushy brown beard and nose made prominent by being broken seven times, he looks a little like a smaller Abraham Lincoln (by which, of course, I mean like Daniel Day- Lewis playing Lincoln). “For a while I had that Owen Wilson thing going on,” Brandon says, of his nose. “But it’s kinda smoothed out since then.”
Brandon is the nicest guy ever, too. Apparently, being able to kick ass makes one exceptionally nice. I’m realizing that this place is super cool and that I’m not going to have to make fun of it and consequently spend the rest of my days getting wedgied and asphyxiated. I’m saved! Which is good because getting asphyxiated really sucks, as I soon find out.
“OK,” I tell Brandon. “I’m just going to try and kill you, and then we’ll see what happens.” Brandon smiles, disguising his fear with impressive acting skills. I lunge at him. Try to take him off guard. Instantaneously, I’m human-pretzeled. I tap-out to a series of joint locks and then, finally, Brandon wraps onto my back.
“This is how I get most of my opponents,” Brandon says, his arm anaconda’d around my neck as I pointlessly writhe. He points out the series of championship belts that are displayed over the door. Four of them are his.
“Go ahead,” I say, my fingers pulling with all my might at his arm. He squeezes. I start to see the tunnel of white light. With my last wisp of consciousness, I tap.
We shake. Brandon is lucky I’m hungry for dinner, otherwise I’d lunge at him again, and I’m pretty sure this time I’d take him. I take a chiropractor flyer. I leave.