A few months ago the top of my left ear swelled up a little after sparring with my trainer one night. I’ve developed a very small cauliflower ear. This is when fluid builds up under the skin and if it is not drained immediately calcification happens and the ear becomes permanently swollen and deformed. Sometimes it looks like cauliflower. You will often see wrestlers, fighters and rugby players with this kind of injury from trauma to the ear. Feeling the heat emanating from my ear and that added thickness was a real surprise to discover because it didn’t hurt when it happened. My trainer grabbed my neck in a clinch. I freed my head by putting both of my gloved hands on his chin and rolled his head back until I could pull my head free. This is what he trained me to do. My ear must have caught on his arm on the way out and swelled up a bit. Now that the skin and cartilage have been separated my ear tends to re-injure and swell easily. It feels hot and sore after vigorous escapes in grappling or Muay Thai clinching.
This, believe it or not, gives me an enormous sense of pride. It means that I train hard and don’t stop for small discomforts. And what’s even better is that the men who most contributed to this condition are highly trained, seasoned fighters. My Muay Thai trainer is a fight champion and a black belt in Jiu Jitsu under Carlson Gracie Jr. My grappling coach, now 45, began training at age 10 and wrestled for the Soviet national team in the former USSR. If my tiny badge of honor had been inflicted by some new guy who just walked in off the street and who I never saw again - well, it would suck to walk around the rest of my life with that story sealed into my ear.
The men I photograph have similar stories all over their bodies. Some very obvious, like cauliflower ears and crooked noses. Some you can’t see at all, like injured joints. And quite a lot are carried right on their faces. The very first portrait I made for “FIGHT”, was of my Brazilian Muay Thai trainer, Andre. I had known him for 3 years before I ever photographed him. It wasn’t until I was processing the images that I noticed he has a subtle vertical crease in the middle of his bottom lip. When I asked him about it, he said he took a knee to the face in a Muay Thai match. That must have been a bloody fight. Some of the men are scarred from experiences outside of fighting, too, like gun shots and military explosions. I sometimes wonder about the painful baggage that those scars must carry.
Something about having a fight-related injury - however miniscule - makes me understand a kind of satisfaction at having a body altered by “surviving” a battle. Not that I totally love injuries or pain and seek it out. On the contrary I always strive to improve my fight game and avoid getting hurt. And I don’t mean to make light of sports-related injuries which I know can be devastating. But when I look around at all the tattooed and pierced bodies not just in the gym but nearly everywhere in this city, I can’t help but wonder if that self-inflicted scarring is some kind of unconscious longing for times long gone when injury was more integrated into daily lives from grueling manual labor or brutal hand to hand combat. People by and large don’t really use their bodies the way they used to get used. Maybe there’s some weird vestigial urge for that souvenir of pain and victory that must have been a part of existence for eons.