In the time line of the fighter’s life, the last month before a fight should be monastic in spirit. To make sure he’s walking into a cage prepared for a life-or-death affair, the fighter has to lock himself away and make an enemy of the world and anything that is not in him. Traditionally, boxers will disappear from their city homes to upstate rural campsites, finding solace in the boredom and disorientation of the natural world, better to focus their minds and immerse themselves in the long runs and bruising sparring sessions and the thousand and one acts of self-denial that will build up the necessary defenses around them. One reporter writing in the early 1960s described then–heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson’s run-down camp in rural Connecticut as “an abandoned road house.” While training there Patterson refused to see his wife and children.
Mixed martial artists, too, will go into a shell of self-obsession, not dissimilar from that entered by astronauts who fear falling ill before a mission. Their lives become focused entirely on their gym and their diet and their weight and their routine and their health. Jobs and domestic duties are ignored, friendships and romances cast aside, politics and pressures temporarily forgotten. Fighters come to believe their fight is the entire world. This is an ugly necessity. Without that kind of solipsism and single-minded devotion they’d be putting themselves into a suicidal position. A sense of perspective and proportion would be death to them. The best comparison is a Benedictine laboring away in a monastery. Monks fearful for the state of their souls absent themselves from the world to think on God. Fighters fearful for the state of their bodies absent themselves from the world to think on themselves: my technique, my pain, my struggle, my desire, my victory, my loss. It’s a religion of the self.
One month out from my fight, when I should have been retreating into the confines of my own self-obsession, far from the concerns of the world, I found myself not in my MMA gym in Manhattan or my boxing gym in Brooklyn or even in my apartment studying fight footage on YouTube, but 90 miles southwest, wandering the working-class Kensington enclave of North Philadelphia, knocking on strangers’ doors. In this neighborhood of shabby row houses and abandoned lots I was hoping to motivate residents—most of them Vietnamese immigrants, Latin Americans, and young white couples—to vote in that day’s presidential election and to help hold back the tide of fascism that I felt sure was now beating at the country’s door. Hello, sir, I just wanted to remind you it’s Election Day and the world is on the verge of collapse. The week before, I had foregone too many hours of desperately needed training time to call these same voters (and voters like them in Florida and North Carolina and Arizona) from my apartment in Brooklyn, imploring them to throw their support behind the candidate not endorsed by actual Nazis.
Now, after the heartbreak of Election Night, after which I assumed I would be able to return to the monasticism of my gym and my writing desk, I find myself instead consumed by a new and paralyzing obsession. My sleep is troubled by visions of mobs in the streets and angry racists with shaved heads, my writing time ruined by intimations of mass deportations and American pogroms.
I should be living in the gym. As a natural striker with middling jiujitsu skills, I should be drilling my takedown defense and grappling reversals in order to keep the fight from going to the ground and give myself a chance. There are still many painful, humbling, enlightening hours of work left before me. Instead my days are filled with the damned outside world. All of a sudden there are online petitions to sign and rallies to attend and chants to chant and hopeful political strategies to ponder and arguments to have and internet news to obsess over. And most of all there is the fear—the anxiety of an American-born Jew long accustomed to the peaceful embrace of his country but also raised from birth to be on the lookout for sudden violent outbursts by the gentile world against his people. Some terrible communal memory is stirring in my blood.
Here, at this most crucial moment, I’m feeling for the first time the meaninglessness of my desires in the face of great historical upheavals. I’m becoming politically awakened at the most inconvenient moment. When I need to be at my most self-obsessed, I’m thinking about my fellow man. Fighting requires unquestioned belief in the seriousness of the enterprise. Doubts and perspective and other abstractions are poison to the fighter’s soul, as are outside concerns. Yet here I am, only one month away, drowning in the world and in abstractions.
In March 1966, Muhammad Ali declared himself a conscientious objector against the war in Vietnam, citing his religious beliefs and his disdain for the United States government’s treatment of African-Americans. “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” Ali asked one reporter. It’s hard to remember now, but opposition to the war was still in its early stages then, and as a minister in the much-reviled Nation of Islam, Ali was still years away from cultural sainthood, which meant his refusal was met with vitriol by much of mainstream white America. He was attacked in the press, both sporting and otherwise, and by politicians and members of the public and even some of his fellow fighters. The legislature in his home state issued a proclamation saying Ali brought “discredit to all loyal Kentuckians and to the names of the thousands who gave their lives for this country during his lifetime.” He was put under investigation by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and faced up to five years’ imprisonment for his refusal. Still, somehow, during all that turmoil and sudden infamy, Ali managed to find the time to train for a title defense, a 15-round fight at Madison Square Garden in March 1967 against Zora Folley, a stocky Texas native with a big overhand right. It was a fine fight, but Ali, younger than Folley by a decade and much faster, slowly wore down his challenger and, midway through the seventh round, caught him with a beautiful cross-counter right that sent Folley collapsing to the canvas face first and unconscious.
A month after the fight, Ali refused induction into the military. He was promptly stripped of his title and, after being found guilty of evading the draft, banned from boxing entirely. He wouldn’t fight again for three and a half years.
As I write, America is entering a dark new period, one where the worst elements in the culture are feeling emboldened and paranoia is spreading to everyone I know. Reports and rumors of harassment and violence against minorities are everywhere in the first weeks after the election. Every day a new threat or swastika is found spray-painted on some wall, and stories about women in hijabs getting harassed and Latin American immigrants getting attacked are common even in liberal New York City. I’m beginning to wonder if these dark forces will make their presence felt at my fight. After all, where better for Nazis to gather than at a cage fight, to get themselves riled up on all that violence and to bark their ridiculous chants from the anonymity of a crowd made rabid by the sight of blood and the swell of testosterone: Trump! Trump! Trump! This has always been the risk you run by falling in love with MMA: rubbing shoulders with the uglier side of the American experience, those thugs and goons who adore violence for violence’s sake and who seem to revel only in the coarseness and cruelty of fighting, not its art—like British football hooligans who see a soccer game as merely a pretext for a melee. But these unwanted elements always felt like a minor subculture of MMA, a few bad apples tucked away in a corner, drunkenly caterwauling, something you could manage and even ignore. But now who can say, when nothing seems manageable or ignorable? Will they show up at the arena en masse? And if they do, will just the sound of my name being announced arouse ancient hatreds and kick off something horrible in them? Is their loathing for Jews, for African-Americans, for Hispanics, for Muslims, for women (who, taken together, will make up at least half the night’s fighters) as deep inside them, as inextricable, as unnoticed and unnamed as my terror of that loathing? This is just what I need: fear of the crowd to go along with fear of my opponent.
In 1933, Werner Seelenbinder, a Greco-Roman wrestler of Prussian descent and a devoted member of the German Communist Party, refused to give the Nazi salute when he won a medal at the German wrestling championship. The new fascist government punished the light heavyweight by banning him from training and competing for 16 months. After the ban Seelenbinder returned to training at the request of the Communists, who recognized that the wrestler’s fame and sporting success granted him the rare ability to travel across Germany and to other countries, making him the perfect secret courier for the anti-fascist resistance.
By the time of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Hitler’s Olympics, Seelenbinder was not only one of the country’s most famous athletes but also a member of the underground anti-Nazi Uhrig Group. He was arguably Germany’s best wrestler then, but he was so disgusted by the regime’s propaganda machine that he vowed to boycott the games. Friends convinced him to compete, though, and to use the medal ceremony as a chance to throw up a vulgar gesture in place of the Nazi salute, a small but dangerous act of political resistance in a growing nightmare. But Seelenbinder’s plans for civil disobedience were dashed when he came in fourth place and was unable to secure a place on the medal podium. That he got that close under the circumstances was a small miracle.
Seelenbinder continued his work in the Uhrig Group for the next six years after the games, but on Feb. 4, 1942, he and 65 other members of the organization, including its leader, Robert Uhrig, were arrested by the Gestapo. The wrestler was tortured for eight days. He was then shipped to nine different camps and prisons over the next two and a half years before being found guilty of treason by the Volksgerichtschof, the Nazis’ “People’s Court,” which had jurisdiction over what the regime considered crimes that contributed to the “disintegration of defensive capability.” Seelenbinder was sentenced to death and on Oct. 24, 1944, he was beheaded with an ax. During his prime the wrestler competed at 198 pounds. When he was killed he weighed 132.
There’s another problem now as well, beyond my fear and sudden lack of concentration: Historical circumstance is forcing my finely cultivated desires to shift against my will. The cage and its lures are losing their significance, and their pull suddenly seems too small for my ambitions. For years, when I dreamed about using the training and knowledge I’d acquired during all those hours in the gym, the only worthwhile depository for them seemed to be a ring or a cage. I was, after all, a civilized human being, and had no real lust for testing myself in the streets or harming anyone.
But now? What could I care for rings and cages and rules and rituals and aesthetics and communion when there might be real fighting to be done? Fighting in the streets. Against Nazis, no less?! What a nightmare and a dream this is turning out to be for an American Jew. A chance to face his deepest, darkest, most complete fear, and a chance to rewrite history, to correct it through resistance and bravery. This is the kind of fighting that thrilled my soul on countless nights as I drifted off to sleep as a child. In my mind I indulged the cinematic revenge fantasies of every young man who has carried deep in him since birth the knowledge of his people’s near extinction. This feels like fighting blessed with perfect nobility. Not to run from Nazis but to destroy them! Not to repeat your people’s past but to redeem it! The thrill of a thousand MMA fights couldn’t possibly compare with the transcendence of such fear and the casting off of such historical weight.
I can’t deny there’s a part of me that wants to be on the subway the next time some thug with a Sharpie starts drawing swastikas on the walls and intimidating Muslim women in headscarves, or waiting in the Jewish cemetery when a group of anti-Semites arrive to desecrate the headstones—to flush the Nazis out of New York like Meyer Lansky and his gang of Jewish mobsters busting up German-American Bund rallies in the 1930s with bats and blackjacks. Part of me wants to test myself as a fighter for real, without gloves and rules and decency, and at the expense of fascists. Part of me wants to get in touch with those darker spirits residing at the heart of my diversion. Fighting didn’t start in a cage with referees. It didn’t start with gloves or rounds or cocktail waitresses. Fighting is that other thing—that awful thing inside ourselves that we loathe and lust after in equal measure. After all, this is exactly what Imrich Lichtenfeld designed Krav Maga for: not fitness or fun or weight loss or a shot of endorphins or an improved self-image, but beating back racist gangs in the streets. Suddenly fighting in a cage doesn’t seem like enough, where before it seemed like far too much.
That I started my combat education in a Jewish martial art was no accident. I can see that now. That history has seen fit to place this latest rise of fascism outside my window seems like more than mere coincidence, even to my skeptic’s soul. That in my more optimistic moods I see this horrible new state of political affairs as an opportunity—to put my skills to some good use, to find redemption for my cowardice and for my long-mistreated people through violence, to live by beating back those who would darken and destroy life—is undeniable. Shameful but undeniable.
Out there somewhere a man is training every day to harm and humiliate me, unburdened by history, possibly unaffected by the suddenly perilous state of American democracy, maybe even inspired by it. But while he’s getting closer to the cage, I feel a thousand miles away from it and from him and weighed down with perspective, worst of all possible fates. The danger is coming from all sides now.
From the book Why We Fight: One Man’s Search for Meaning Inside the Ring by Josh Rosenblatt. Copyright © 2019 by Josh Rosenblatt. Reprinted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.