The heat hits you like an open oven on Thanksgiving Day. Sometimes we throw out metaphors to be poetic. But sometimes, the visceral sensation is so similar, that a metaphor is all there is to explain how it all went down. A forty degree May day in New Delhi, before the monsoon season brings in death by sauna, takes me back to a beachside Holiday Inn kitchen where I cut my first honest paycheck as a dishwasher. But in Delhi it’s the heat that washes over you. Clearly, nearly a decade in Russia has left Yakov Smirnov jokes firmly entrenched in my mind, even if I hated ‘in Russia’ reversal jokes at the time.
A transparent belly dancer aligning her hips with the horizon, a tandoori oven sun opens its mouth and spits fire at you through a haze of dust.
I march on down the wide, tree-canopied lanes of bungalo-dotted ‘New’ New Delhi, until I push on down the staircase for the Barakamba Road subway station, the ‘half-hearted’ sirs of the shoe shine boys, still groggy with streetside sleep, echoing in antiphony with my footsteps.
Thirteen stops, 12 of which are above ground, give me a panoramic view of the center to west perspective on the Delhi cityscape. The whole thing rushes by like a two-dimensional cardboard box claymation rendition of a town on a television from my youth. Pot-bellied men and women in technicolor saree meet the morning on their terraces, big and small. My heavy eyes feel as dust-filled as the sky. Out of shape drinkers and sometime smokers should never wake up at 6:00 a.m. to do Ju Jitsu on Jail Road.
In Delhi I try to avert a thousand glaring eyes. In Moscow I tried to navigate a sea of aggression. And getting back into martial arts after half of my own lifetime had passed me by, I realized one thing very quickly. Moscow, with all of its anger, might have hardened my heart, but it had not hardened my body. Luckily for me, on those days when my attitude had soured enough for me to confuse the former for the latter, I did not have the learn the difference in an uncontrolled environment. The first time an Amerikana screamed fire ant spit through my rickety elbow and arthritic shoulder, I became eternally grateful that happened in a situation where it could all end with a tap.
When my infinitely chill instructor Lakshye, who seemed just as intent on teaching us boxing as he did jiu jitsu, showed us how much more power he could generate using proper technique with his hips by merely planting his quarter-wide knuckle into my chest and pushing off, I winced, and battled not to flench when he opted to do it again. But I also asked myself what would happen if a dude like him started throwing mechanically correct elliptical hammers at my face. And it reminded me of lessons I had learned as a barely mediocre high school wrestler, and yet somehow forgotten. If you go too long without being humbled, while a million stressors, passive aggressive slights, and overt aggressions big and small buffet your psychological defenses like the Kuiper Belt teeing off on Jupiter, your anger can make you delusional. You can become so accustomed to being pissed off that you develop a certain fearlessness, if not for actual combat, than the pageantry of combat that often fizzles out (though, as a litany of YouTube knockout videos demonstrates, sometimes does not.)
Back in high school, there was an incredibly affable and good natured guy on my wrestling team named Mike Snelgrove, who represented , for a lack of better words, the ‘you can’t do shit’ principle. The you can’t do shit principle is what happens when a person you are up against is not only more skilled at every aspect of the fight game, but may also be larger, faster, stronger, tougher and a creature of greater will.
Mike wasn’t the only person on our team who could thrash me, but he perfectly embodied the you can’t do shit principle. He wrestled two weight classes above me, was incredibly strong and compact, highly aggressive on the mat, more skilled, more athletic, more everything. The only reason I even got thrown to the varsity wolves was because our vastly superior 145-er blew out his knee during a freak accident while wrestling Mike at practice. I remember once during a match at Coco High School in Brevard Country Florida, Mike charged this kid like a bull out of the gate, threw technique to the wind and sent his adversary airborne in seconds — bottle rocket-style. It was shock and awe; an overwhelming and irresistible display of force. Every wrestler on both sides of the matt pitied that kid. We were also all secretly relieved that Mike would only issue one execution for that night, and that it wouldn’t be us.
But there is something more to it than that. There is a Mike Snelgrove in every wrestling room in every high school in the United States. When the Mikes of the world separated the wheat from the chaff, they make it to regionals, then state, then the nationals. The best of them go on to do the same thing in a tiered-university system based on school size. And the procession of elimination continues to both expand and whittle down until unfathomably hard men, men of iron sharpened by iron for decades, clench Olympic gold.
I don’t know what Mike’s maximum potential was. He went to regionals, that I remember, and I have an inkling he went to state but didn’t place, though my memory fails me on that point. But he never went on to wrestle in university. He instead became an Army medic, served in Iraq and tragically died in 2010 shortly after returning stateside. Mike was a good man, he was never a bully and he never, ever preyed on the weak. Even when I was an awkward and overweight 13-year-old transplant to Florida who could not have cut a sharper contrast to Mike than I did before running and wrestling transformed me a few years down the line, he cracked jokes with me and granted a level of respect that few did at the time. He was that way to everyone, it was his nature. But there was also a savagery in him, and not in the typical sense that he was specifically violent towards other men. There are just some men who come across a bluff and put their nose to the grindstone until they manage to move mountains or die trying. It just so happens that some mountains come in the shape of other men.
There are men like that everywhere, and we often cannot tell it just by looking at them. Sometimes telltale signs of cauliflower ear, crooked noses and scared faces give it away, but not always. There are some beautiful men out there who can fuck you up.
For me and many others, there is something about actually training in combat sports that makes you far less aggressive in your everyday life. You become acutely aware of the you can’t do shit principle and it sticks with you. Delusional teenagers and delusional men can fantasize about throwing haymakers at any opponent and knocking his ass out cold. Some secretly believe they could pull it off on pro-fighters. Madness, pure and utter madness. But during my second lesson, when a guy who was slightly bigger than me completely manhandled me, purely with technique, I had no room to imagine what I could have, would have done. I’d done everything I could and it wasn’t enough. He had free reign to impose his will on me any time he wanted. He also wasn’t a master. He’d been rolling for 6 months. Six months gave him that advantage over me, at least on the ground.
Imagine someone who’s been doing it for 6 years. And a lot of men have done it a lot longer than that. I’m not even talking about those who become professional fighters.
You have no idea how helpless another man can make you feel until they force you to play a game where you scantly know the rules. That knowledge is humbling. It’s also ironic. The better I become at defending myself, the less I want to have anything to do with any type of physical altercation, no matter the reason. There are too many variables to manage, too many consequences, and a logical unwillingness to find yourself in a situation where a tap is not going to forestall a snap. Better to just let whatever is troubling you go and save it for when you really don’t have a choice. Funny how the 17-year-old version of my self that had never stepped foot on a Moscow street could have told me that. Funny how we can find a way to keep learning the same lessons over and over.
My friend Charles once saw a guy take a ‘non-lethal’ pistol shot to the face after an altercation over nothing on the Moscow metro. He got off at the next stop. The pool of blood and the man face down in it created an interesting semantic argument about the meaning of the word lethal. Charles was cured of his Moscow commuter aggression. He keeps it where it belongs; the London tube. Sometimes it takes an extreme act of violence to cure a man of his delusions regarding the consequences of his anger. Sometimes all it takes is BJJ on Jail Road.