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By a quarter to nine that Saturday, they were at the gym, waiting to see the doctor. They stood with their arms crossed, not speaking. At least half of them had shaved their heads. One man wore a picture of Bruce Lee on his shirt and the words "Seek and Destroy."
The doctor, it turned out, was not actually a doctor but a paramedic. Later, there would only be so much that he could do. If people started bleeding, he could give them a towel and some ice. If they started breaking, he could provide a splint and a wrap. He could say "There there" and he could say "Oh well." But for now, he just checked their blood pressure and said, "Good luck." He cleared them all to fight. They were all healthy enough to sustain a beating, even the boy with high blood pressure who said he was cold and nervous.
"Thank you for attending the dungal," announced Zulfi Ahmed, when the 70-odd fighters had gathered at half-court.
First of all, he said, there will be no strikes to the face, the groin, the kidneys or the spine. Sticking your thumb into an opponent's mouth and ripping off his cheek -- that is not allowed. Nor can you gouge eyes, pull ears, bite or lift your opponent over your head and slam him down.
Otherwise, in the free-fighting matches, anything goes. You can slam your opponent from chest level. You can twist his feet, distend his arm, choke him, hit him anywhere at any time.
You have been advised, of course, that only basic first aid is available. And you have signed the waiver of liability.
Okay then: Let the dungal begin.
The Dungal All Styles Fighting Championship was held on the last day of February. It was not heavily advertised, perhaps because bare-knuckle fighting is illegal in Texas. But in the fliers that Ahmed distributed in fighting circles, he billed it as "the most elite and complete fighting championship in the world." Anyone with 50 bucks could enter. The arena was the gym of Baker Junior High in La Porte. Principal Larry Cox said he was told there would be a karate tournament for children. He never would have allowed it, he said, if he'd known what on earth a "dungal" was.
"Dungal" is the Urdu word for the grappling tournaments of Pakistan and India. According to Ahmed, the original dungal warriors fought in sandpits with knives and brass knuckles until someone died or surrendered. By the time Ahmed came of age in Pakistan, they had abandoned the weapons and were satisfied with unconsciousness. Ahmed's dungal heroes were the Great Gama and the Great Bhollu, and most especially, the Great Goga, who gave his life to the sport in 1977.
After immigrating to the U.S., Ahmed established himself as a fighter and says he was named some sort of national champion in the martial arts. He says he developed his own style and began teaching it from his "international headquarters" in Deer Park. And one evening, when he sat down before the television, he must have felt a warm spot in his heart as he watched the Ultimate Fighting Championships.
The UFC's original slogan was, "There are no rules." Two men simply stepped into a ring and punched and choked and kicked each other until unconsciousness or the referee intervened. Ahmed watched and grew nostalgic. It seemed that we were all one on this planet, joined by our interest in combat.
Three years ago, he sponsored his first dungal. He saw it as a chance to make a little money -- "People love to watch other people get beat up," he said -- and a chance to let fighters test their skills. There are students of the martial arts for whom training is like building a bomb: Every now and then you want to set it off. The dungal is for these people. "This is reality, baby," said Ahmed. Some people called it a reality tournament. He said it was known as "hard core."
They gathered in the gym under the mural of the green Baker bear, beneath the banners for basketball and volleyball championships.
They came with their wives and children, fathers and brothers. A bouncer from Clear Lake said he had come to find himself. A Houston stockbroker said he got a rush forcing men into submission. The biggest guy there was the owner of Bad Boy Tattoos. He wore his hair in a ponytail and his beard in a goatee. Another fighter said with awe, "Are you John Lammons?" and he said yeah, he was, but people call him "the Beast." "Anything scary, I like," said the Beast.
And there were others like him. The fighters networked and made allies before the war. "They call me 'Cannon,' " said one to another. "Cannon," said the other, holding out his hand, "they call me 'Terminator.' " Who knows? Maybe that was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
Shannon the Cannon Ritch was an unusual character, even here. His back was entirely covered by a tattooed crucifix. "Go with God," it said, and Cannon said he had gone all over the world fighting. He was only five-foot-nine, but he was a professional fighter. When he was asked how he manages against much larger foes, he laid his forefinger on the source of his confidence, which was the reporter's throat.
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