Car headlights get very hot. This makes sense really, being as they are basically huge light bulbs. But you tend not to think about these things until your battered face is propped up against one. This was the position I found myself in one particular December evening. Sat on the floor of a car park listening to the drip-drop of my blood hitting the tarmac. Having failed miserably in my first foray into bareknuckle boxing, I should have been annoyed that I'd lost. I should have been in pain. Instead, I was grinning from ear to ear. I couldn't have been happier.
* * *
It's something about that sensation of being feral, half way between free and afraid. That wild current that surges through us once in a while, often when we're doing something that we ought not to be. I still remember feeling that rush of blood for the first time. 18 years old and as stupid as every other testosterone-fuelled kid. Following in the footsteps of countless British teenagers before me, I booked a discount flight to somewhere warm for a "lads' holiday".
What followed was 10 days of nothing more than sunning ourselves in the Spanish heat, and getting wasted on a surprisingly good (but disgustingly cheap) beer known as Argus, the consumption of which has long since blurred those days into one extended drunken haze. Despite this I still distinctly recall two momentous discoveries: the first was just how well tequila goes with a slice of orange and a sprinkle of cinnamon; the second bucked the trend of the trip and was completely free of alcohol, though it does include an angry bull and a cheering crowd.
Spain, more so than many countries, loves to blur the line between animal cruelty and good old fashioned family fun. The best example of this is the Spanish pastime of pissing off bulls in a variety of ways. Stupid as we were, and as I may still be, we were eager to experience this brutality first hand. We didn't have to look far, with every other wall adorned with posters advertising the bull run taking place in a neighbouring town. We were a long way from Pamplona though, and it showed. Instead of standing regally in the ceremonial white and red of the famous run, we found ourselves in a backwoods fishing town, dressed in tank tops and swimming trunks just like everybody else.
After a few too many Arguses the night before we overslept and, after a mad rush, finally turned up an hour late. As it turned out this was exactly 45 minutes too late to run with the bulls, but to our surprise the day's events had barely begun. What we were greeted with was some twisted Mad Max-style hybrid of cliff jumping, bull fighting and parkour. This was and still is all of my fears rolled into one: I hate bulls, can't swim, and if I'm honest don't really care for heights. In an attempt to try and make sense of the madness, I found myself stood atop a hastily constructed photographer's platform, hiding from the melee below. Every time a bull came close to spearing some poor soul, my legs would grow heavy with fear. As much as I wanted to jump down and join in the fray, my frozen legs refused, holding me firm to that damn platform. Fortunately, fate intervened in the unlikely form of a large bull.
I learnt a great lesson that day: bulls can jump surprisingly high, especially when pissed off. This enlightening information was delivered to me first-hand as one of the more agile animals leapt straight into my hiding place. Panic struck me like a brick, stopping me where I stood. The bull, however, did not suffer the same affliction. It charged. As luck would have it I was not the target of this 700kg horned projectile – the podgy drunk fellow to my left was. The bull went for him instead, coming so close to me that its matted hide bristled against my sunburnt skin.
That literal brush with the beast got to me. Coming so close to the goring of a lifetime and yet escaping unhurt left me convinced I was nothing short of invincible. Without hesitating to see if the poor drunk bloke was okay, I was down on the gravel with the other lunatics, pleading with the animals to chase us, if just for a moment. Each subsequent near miss with those horns made me feel more untouchable. At times it got close – very close – but more through luck than anything else I always kept half a step ahead. My reckless bravery (or stupidity) came to a glorious head soon enough.
A new bull had just been introduced to the pit. It spotted me and headed in my direction at a sprint, head lowered. In this situation the only sensible thing to do is move anywhere and fast – but I didn't. This time, not through fear but through a possibly misguided sensation of invincibility, I screamed at the bull, imploring it to just try and move me, all the while never breaking eye contact. What was at a first a sprint slowly changed to a gallop, then a jog, before it simply stopped mere metres from me. A wall of noise rose up from the stands as the crowd cheered. Then, a moment later, it was over. Someone else caught its eye and off it went to try and gore them. For the rest of its short time in the arena that bull would not come within 10 feet of me, much to my chagrin. I appreciate that this whole story sounds far fetched but if you know TJ, ask TJ – he saw it with his own eyes and talks of it to this day.
* * *
After flying back from Spain it took about three years for me to realise how much I craved that rush again, that sensation of being in great danger with no one coming to help. In that rough gravel pit we saw a man gored badly, nothing fatal but nasty enough. Watching it happen, we looked around expecting someone to appear with a tranquiliser gun, to rush to his aide. Instead the crowd just cheered louder. That was what they'd paid for.
In England I couldn't find that same disdain for human welfare anywhere normal, so I decided to look for it in odd places – like bareknuckle boxing matches. I'm a photographer, which means I often get into very unique places, as was the case with bareknuckle. Within two fight nights I'd become the league's official photographer. Not content with witnessing the action from the ringside, however, I pestered them to give me a shot between the ropes – I wanted to fight.
But my dreams of boxing fame were dashed before they could ever really take hold. I was politely declined, specifically because I possessed next to no fighting experience. This was a problem for promoters: if by some miracle I were to land a lucky shot and win my first bout, it would do nothing but make their fighters look bad; in the more likely case of my demise, a skilled fighter would have been wasted fighting a nobody. They made the right call.
Taking their hints to heart, I began looking for a match among those who were okay with fighting outside a ring and would be up for that particular brand of fun. I quickly ran into a peculiar problem, however, namely that if you run round asking people for a bareknuckle fight they will assume you have at least some rudimentary skills and any protest to the contrary just makes you seem like a hustler. I managed to get at least five people to initially agree, often when drunk, only for them to back out as the date neared and they sobered up.
This was irritating to say the least, especially as I'd hoped to get it done and dusted in the summer, when we could fight under a blue sky. These delays turned that to fantasy, as summer became autumn and autumn gave way to the cold of winter. This spelled disaster not only for the fight itself but also my training, which by necessity had been undertaken entirely outside. Sparring suffered the most, as with rain and dark nights contact sessions dwindled. With the few skills I had managed to accumulate up to this point at risk of disappearing entirely, I asked the last person I wanted to, knowing the answer would be yes. In the end, even he took some coaxing.
Please welcome my opponent, a giant of a man with no name – at least not one I'm going to mention here. Standing at a mean 6"7 and 130kg, this behemoth had me not only on size but also in talent. During the few sparring sessions we had shared, his punches had knocked me off my feet – and that was with gloves. I on the other hand am 5"11 (when wearing a beanie) and at the time weighed in at 85kg. Nevertheless, I had fitness on my side and a moderately acceptable jab to boot.
With a challenger who wouldn't back down finally lined up, it was time to reveal my makeshift ring. Instead of ropes we had shipping containers and barn doors. Instead of the springy canvas we had a rough concrete floor. And in place of the ring lights were my car headlights. It was perfect.
With the stage set and appropriately lit, all that was left to do was actually fight. Now that there was nothing left to distract me, the reality sunk in – and I was terrified. The day of the fight was the worst. Like a bipolar hummingbird, I darted between bouts of supreme confidence and nerves so strong that I wretched. One moment I'd be shadow boxing the shelves into submission, only to find myself hiding in the toilet texting my funeral plans to Woody minutes later. Mind numbing routine was my saviour: make tea / work / press ups / work / drink tea / work / repeat. This repetitive monotony ebbed the nerves away, and vivid images of me sprawled on the damp tarmac, head split wide open, were replaced by customs forms.
One big mistake I made was to try and drown out the voice in my head by listening to the Joe Rogan Podcast special on the dangers of head trauma. Hearing the ping of your phone to be met with a message asking "How long before you die?" didn't fill me with confidence either.
Time passed and eventually I stood opposite the man who must not be named in a cold, dimly lit car park.
"Do you really want to do this?" he asked.
"No," came my reply. "Let's get it over with."
"You sure?" He'd offered me one final chance to back out. I rejected it.
And with that we squared up. Touched hands. Heard the bleep of the timer and got to work. I threw the first punch, missing his torso by a foot. With my adrenal system over-clocking I doubt I noticed this at the time. In fact, I was cold to pretty much everything save for where his gigantic fists were located. A blow to the cranium soon changed that, a straight right that connected with my mouth. I struggled to swallow the blood now filling my throat. I didn't have long as I had to dodge another incoming missile. My focus returned, as did the grim reality of the situation. I was barely clipped, yet my mouth was spewing blood. What happens when a real shot lands?
I wasn't left wondering for long as I heard a huge looping hook tearing through the air. Knowing it was coming, that I wasn't fast enough to block it let alone duck, was worse than the impact itself. I became theatrically airborne and my vision blurred. When my senses returned I was still upright, which was a blessing, as was the fact that I was moving without being cognisant of doing so.
The rest of that opening round was a blur of glancing blows and near misses. We didn't need a scorekeeper as that call to rest rang out. I was losing. Did I even land a single meaningful shot? I squatted down to catch my breath and suddenly felt foolish for having wrapped my hands.
I wasn't there during the Christmas Truce, but in that moment I understood how those soldiers must have felt in 1914 – just glad for the respite. My unnamed compatriot and I met in the middle, shared a bottle of water, discussed tactics, and then with the sound of the bell we were back to beating the hell out of each other.
In the first round I felt nothing but wired, only aware of those gigantic fists trained on my face. That changed in the second, as with the adrenaline gone I now felt everything. The swelling around my face, the cold wind, the stone in my shoe, the lot. Any far-flung hopes of a comeback melted. Legs burned as I ducked and dived under the incoming barrage and my heart, desperate to be heard, beat faster and faster.
As another blow crashed into me, I battled the urge to quit, to take a knee and just call it a day. While my mind was fighting its own internal battle, my body was fighting a very real one – and it wasn't doing especially well. Backed into the oppressive glare of the car headlights, I threw a straight left to his face, hoping to create space. Instead I created nothing but a gaping hole in my defence, which was subsequently filled with a backhand.
It was then that I found myself sat against the hot lights of my car, blood trickling down both cheeks, my nose pried open. I was down and out, my opponent now helping me to my feet. It was over.