Crooked Noses and Cauliflower Ear

Andre with stories written on his face.

Jason with his collection of trophies. 

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.

Muay Thai Promotion

Buddhas

Buddhas

Josh, Jason, Andre, me. 

Saturday was the Muay Thai promotion with my trainer Andre Madiz. Getting promoted to light blue with Josh and Jason is one of my best accomplishments. The 3 of us were given the highest ranking in the group. This is my 3rd promotion in 4 years.  Muay Thai is the only sport in which I have ever earned any sort of recognition for achievement. Here are a few pics from the ceremony. Andre always makes it a really special affair with Buddha and prayers and memorable words. 

On Boxing

ON BOXING by Joyce Carol Oates was a thrilling read! I just finished. Here are a few of my favorite things she wrote. But the whole book is really my favorite thing she wrote. My copy is full of underlining and circles and scribbles. 

Boxing is for men, and is about men, and IS men. A celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost.

Professional boxing is the only major American sport whose primary, and often murderous, energies are not coyly deflected by such artifacts as balls and pucks. Though highly ritualized, and as rigidly bound by rules, traditions, and taboos as any religious ceremony, it survives as the most primitive and terrifying of contests: two men, near naked, fight each other in a brightly lit, elevated spaced roped in like an animal pen (though the ropes were originally to keep rowdy spectators out); two men climb into the ring from which only one, symbolically, will climb out.

I have no difficulty justifying boxing as a sport because I have never thought of it as a sport. There is nothing fundamentally playful about it; nothing that seems to belong to daylight, to pleasure. At its moments of greatest intensity it seems to contain so complete and so powerful an image of life - life's beauty, vulnerability, despair, incalculable and often self-destructive courage - that boxing is life, and hardly a mere game.

Boxing is the only sport in which the objective is to cause injury: the brain is the target, the knockout the goal.

One should know that a well-aimed punch with a heavyweight's full weight behind it can have the equivalent force of ten thousand pounds - a blow that must be absorbed by the brain in its jelly sac.

Clearly, boxing's very image is repulsive to many people because it cannot be assimilated into what we wish to know about civilized man. In a technological society possessed of incalculably refined methods of mass destruction boxing's display of direct and unmitigated and seemingly natural aggression is too explicit to be tolerated.

Which returns us to the paradox of boxing: its obsessive appeal for many who find in it not only a spectacle involving sensational feats of physical skill but an emotional experience impossible to convey in words; an art form, as I've suggested, with no natural analogue in the arts. Of course it is primitive, too, as birth, death and erotic love might be said to be primitive and forces our reluctant acknowledgement of that the most profound experiences of our lives are physical events though we believe ourselves to be, and surely are, essentially spiritual beings. 

The artist senses some kinship, however oblique and one-sided, with the professional boxer in this matter of training. This fanatic subordination of the self in terms of a wished-for destiny. One might compare the time-bound public spectacle of the boxing match with the publication of a writer's book. That which is "public" is but the final stage in a protracted, arduous, grueling, and frequently despairing period of preparation. Indeed, one of the reasons for the habitual attraction of serious writers to boxing is the sport's systematic cultivation of pain in the interests of a project, a life-goal: the willed transposing of the sensation we know as pain (physical, psychological, emotional) into its polar opposite. If this is masochism - and I doubt that it is, or that it is simply - it is also intelligence, cunning, strategy. It is an act of consummate self-determination - the constant re-establihment of the parameters of one's being. To not only accept but to actively invite what most sane creature avoid - pain, humiliation, loss, chaos - is to experience the present moment as already, in a sense, past. Here and now are but part of the design of there and then: pain now but control, and therefore triumph later. And pain itself is miraculously transposed by dint of its context. Indeed, it might be said that "context" is all. 

 

Not for hemophobics, boxing is a sport in which blood becomes quickly irrelevant. The experienced viewer understands that a boxer's bleeding face is probably the least of his worries...

 

A terrible beauty is born.

(in reference to Mike Tyson)

 

… to be a great champion one must have great opponents. 

 

When a great fight occurs … the spectator experiences something like the mysterious catharsis of which Aristotle wrote, the purging of pity and terror by the exercise of these emotions; the subliminal aftermath of classical tragedy.

 

Real courage is required when you  lose, Floyd Patterson once said. Winning is easy.

 

George Bellows

Even before fighting was anywhere near my radar, I always liked the George Bellows paintings of boxers from the 1920s. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and I remember his work from the Columbus Museum of Art when I was a student there at CCAD from 1989-93. In October 2013 I drove to Ohio to see a show of George Bellow's work so I could see his boxing paintings and lithographs again now that I've become interested in the subject of fighting. It was exciting to come across one of my own images from Josh's fight that has that essence from Bellows' "Stag at Sharkey's".

bellows.jpg
1909_Stag_at_Sharkey's.jpg

Josh's Fight February 22, 2014

Here's the team, including lucky me the team photographer.

Josh and Raul had Muay Thai matches in Kalamazoo this past weekend. 

Raul down. When you watch a fight on TV, the thing you can't experience is the sound of a man being hit so hard he is knocked out.   

Raul in the ring back on his feet after the knock out.