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.
"No one can actually build that Adam's apple," he said, "so you can crush it."
Though Ahmed had sworn this was an amateur tournament, several of his professional colleagues were in attendance. The Johnson brothers had come from Carlsbad, New Mexico. They had neither nicknames nor tattoos, nor menacing attitude. They were generally cheerful. Adam was a short, swarthy man who resembled Lenin. Izzy was tall and blond and looked like he might have a dandy tennis game. The brothers shared nothing in appearance, except their black eyes, which they had received the previous weekend in California. It would be five weeks before the next no-holds-barred tournament in Virginia. When work is short like that, the brothers strip-tease for a living and try to stay in shape fighting wherever they can. They had driven 15 hours to practice here.
"I live for this!" said Izzy. "It sounds strange, but I can't think of anything else that I was born to do."
The tournament offered seven categories of fighting. In traditional Japanese point fighting, a green belt named Onah Chukwubeze repelled his opponent with a fist to the eye. The winner went in search of first aid; Onah sat down, disqualified. An hour later, in the continuous sparring event, the same thing happened again -- more work for the paramedic, another disqualification for Onah.
"I was aiming for the top of his head," Onah told his instructor, "but his face got in the way."
In every event, the fighters left their faces exposed, which raised the question of how real such a reality tournament could be. The face would be the obvious target in a street fight. How could the dungal prepare anyone for such a fight, if no one had to protect his face?
And then there were times when the reality was too real. Whatever submission grappling offered to the participant, it was strange sport for the spectator: two half-naked men locked in each other's arms, lying on the mats together, hardly moving at all, for 15 minutes at a time. From the stands, it was slow and dull. Up close, it was obscene -- these bodies close enough for love but moving to kill. It seemed an act of too much hate to put your hands over the nose and mouth of someone beneath you, or to press your elbow slowly into his throat.
At a quarter till two, there were broken bones. One submission grappler had managed to place his knee in the bent elbow of another. As he pulled on the arm, his foe did not surrender. There were two sounds -- pop pop -- and then the arm was released and withdrawn, looking as though another joint had been installed above the wrist. More work for the paramedic. The grappler who caused it said he was sick to his stomach. A photographer snapped a picture. Zulfi Ahmed shouted, "No injury photos!"
Izzy Johnson, meanwhile, was in the stands, dozing on the lap of his wife. His wife said she doesn't worry about him, because he can take care of himself. Elsewhere, a mother said the same about her son, though she covers her eyes when he is on the mat.
They had come expecting violence, but then, submission grappling did not seem violent enough. It was a muffled, under-the-sheets affair, and even when a fighter stood up with a ripped earlobe and the blood streaming down, the people leaned on their fists and watched without passion. Expectations of ass-kicking had not been met.
"Notice," said Adam, suddenly appearing, "that when the free fighting starts, they'll cheer and hurrah. That's something people pay to see, and that the fighters need to be paid for."
Just then his name was called. Adam slipped out of his sweats and stood hairy and brazen in a black Speedo. His was the first free fight -- an explosion of fury. Yes, the people were screaming now, but Adam looked like a naked pirate in his Speedo, and so they were screaming for his foe. It did the poor fellow no good. He had only been studying ass-kicking for a few months. Adam took him down and sat on him and began raining punches and elbows into his chest. He paused to look up and let Izzy snap his photo. Izzy kept snapping tourist photos and calling out to his brother, "Work it, work it! Key lock. Can opener. Keep on, it'll give." Adam kept cracking away at the ribs, and before long, like a nut, it did give, and the boy surrendered. Adam gave him a good hug and walked off triumphant. The boy lay quietly in the lap of his girlfriend, staring at the ceiling as she stroked his hair.
The free-fighting category was more purely wild than any other. Some men had paid to enter only to find they were not capable of fighting back. Even as the blows fell upon them, they couldn't abandon that bargain of civilization: "If I don't hurt you, you won't hurt me." It was hard to forget the rules. In the middle of one fight, a man asked the referee if it was okay to slam his elbow into his opponent's shoulder. The referee had no objections.
Adam was thoroughly uncivilized, but he got into trouble in his next match. He had broken a knuckle on his first foe, and he badly needed that knuckle to use on the second. Suddenly, he was on the bottom, his hands trying feebly to block the fists and the crowd cheering at his pain. At last, there was no way out. He gave up with a scream of rage.
On another mat, Izzy used a nice rib choke to subdue his first foe in about 15 seconds. Shannon the Cannon got away with an elbow to the skull, and after that his opponent offered little resistance. One by one, they plowed through the bodies, and then they stood facing each other. Izzy got the takedown. "Good move," said Cannon. "Hey, thanks," said Izzy, as he began punching him in the ribs. The referee barked, "No love stories!" but by then, it was too late. Cannon had politely requested no punching, and Izzy had agreed. It was professional courtesy; there was no sense in getting hurt out here. Izzy finished Shannon the Cannon off with a quick ankle lock.
For John "the Beast" Lammons, meanwhile, the day had been most relaxing. He had not broken a sweat. Each time it was his turn to fight, his opponents had gotten a look at him and had thrown in the towel. Now, sneering through his goatee, there he stood for the grand championship -- 270 sculpted pounds of mean, with arm tattoos of a machine gun and the words, "Thank God I'm white."
"Whoa!" someone said.
"That guy's a brute," said someone else.
Zulfi Ahmed said, "You sure you want to fight him?"
Israel Johnson said, "You gotta be kidding me! I didn't drive all this way to stand here. Let's get it on!"
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The Beast had never lost a match; he was 40. Izzy often fought four times a month and had lost quite often. They came charging out of their corners. The big man held his hands like David Carradine on the old Kung Fu show. Izzy, who was exactly 100 pounds lighter, had his arms stretched wide, like he was going to tackle an elephant. Boom -- that's what he did. As he began pounding into the ribs, the Beast turned to the audience and smiled. Big guys always do that when they're hurting, Izzy knew, and he kept punching. The Beast twisted and got on top. "Now it's my turn," he said, but Izzy already had him in an arm lock and was threatening to dislocate his shoulder. The Beast yielded for an instant, which was long enough for Izzy to throw a roll tuck and emerge on top. He was fastening his arms around the neck when the big man pounded the mat for mercy.
Izzy jumped up and began leaping wildly around the mat. The Beast rose and said he'd had the flu, you know. Izzy shook his hand and said, don't worry about it -- he had fought someone twice his size just the week before.
Dungal champion -- Izzy and the Great Bhollu! He put his arm around his brother. They stared into the video camera and said, "We came, we saw and we kicked some butt!"
Zulfi Ahmed let him pose with the trophy but wouldn't let him take it home.