At school, there was nothing quite like fight day, writes Tommy Martin.
The talk would do the rounds for weeks beforehand. This guy and that guy were going to fight, it was going to happen, they were going to sort it out once and for all. Sort what out? Who knew? A girl, a smart comment, a fundamental disagreement about Pythagorian theory?
Pretty often there was no problem at all, other than the fact that two rutting stags needed to lock antlers.
And who was making the fight happen? Who were the teenage Don Kings pushing these walking vats of testosterone together to settle their differences in front of a baying schoolboy mob? It was never quite clear, but soon whispered insults were being ferried from one camp to the other and by a sort of inverse diplomacy the situation was inflamed towards its violent conclusion.
Ah, but the morning of the fight. What a time to be alive. The message went around by school corridor bush telegraph: It was today! Lunchtime, in the handball alley, or behind the chipper up town, or round the back of the prefabs. It was happening!
School was like St Petersburg on the morning of the revolution, awash with rumour, fear, and excitement.
Sometimes the fight would be between two straw-weight patsies forced together by some proto-Eddie Hearn. They would grapple reluctantly for a few minutes before one began to cry and everyone else got bored and went back to kicking a ball or smoking fags or whatever they normally did at lunchtime.
But every now and again there was a clash of titans. In our school the two alpha males, our schoolyard silverbacks, met one autumn afternoon. Let’s call them Aidan D and Cathal M, not their real names, for fear of retrospective detention. I think the beef was over something said about Cathal M’s sister, but Aidan D was also the school bully and Cathal M presumably saw himself as a valiant Galahad figure putting the world to rights.
In the self-contained universe of our school this was the Fight of the Century.
That morning, there was not an algebraic equation solved nor a dense Yeatsian metaphor untangled as the anticipation grew. As soon as the bell for lunchtime rang everyone streamed toward a densely wooded area beside the school which had been decreed our MGM Grand for the day. As the teachers retired to the staff room to their crosswords and cigarettes, the kids gathered around the pubescent pugilists and battle commenced.
Well, I say battle. There was some swinging, some wrestling, a little bit of rolling around on the ground for a while. A jumper definitely got badly ripped. Eventually someone shouted “McVicar!! McVicar’s coming!” Everyone scattered and that was it, all over.
As a lifelong pacifist with a rather strong aversion to pain, I was never involved in a Thrilla After School Dinna myself, practising careful appeasement policies to weasel out of situations which could be have been threatening to my hairstyle.
But I remember the thrill of those days and have thought about them this week as violence erupted in the normally genteel surroundings of the UFC octagon and Ulster club GAA fields.
In the aftermath of the pretty much interchangeable scenes involving camp followers of Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor, and players and fans of Downpatrick and Ballyholland GAA clubs, I wonder now what I wondered back then: Why do fellas like battering the heads off each other, and why do we like to watch it?
In my playground Neville Chamberlain days I could never understand why anyone would want to fight. Like, it really hurts. Once after an outbreak of sibling rivalry my father threatened to send my brother and I to the local boxing club. I’ve never been so terrified in my life. I became a goalkeeper in GAA because for some reason they were excused from all-in rammies, so I could continue casually chatting to the umpire while my team-mates threw haymakers and dodged roundhouse kicks.
I’m reminded of what Hugh McIlvanney once said when the Times’ former chief sportswriter Simon Barnes told him of his distaste for boxing: “You’re a nice boy, Simon, but your trouble is you’re a fucking coward.”
But I understand that some people are wired differently and the crunch of knuckle on cheekbone is as exhilarating to them as scoring a volley or playing a guitar solo is to others.
Think of McIlvanney, again, and his famous words about the Welsh boxer Johnny Owen, killed in the ring in 1980. “It was boxing that gave Johnny Owen his one positive means of self-expression…It is his tragedy that he found himself articulate in such a dangerous language.”
Around the time of our schoolyard schmozzles in the early 1990s, it seemed as if this language might be about to fall into disuse. The terrible career-ending brain injuries suffered by British middleweight Michael Watson and American Gerald McClellan led to a public debate about the future of boxing, with some believing that violent combat sports would simply be left behind as humanity evolved towards peace and understanding.
I should, at this juncture, mention that the UFC was founded in 1993. So much for that theory.
The human desire to batter the heads off one another, and to watch each other battering the heads off one another, seems incredibly durable. The ancient Greeks practised a sport called Pankration, a combination of boxing and wrestling remarkably like MMA aside from the fact, luckily for Conor McGregor, that a Pankration bout often only ended when somebody died.
It is the tolerance of those watching on that allows those in the fray to act out their impulses, whether that is the UFC’s nurturing of McGregor’s aura of mayhem or the GAA’s longstanding failure to clamp down on violent faction-fighting.
But perhaps violence persists because of the very fact that it’s not supposed to. It is that very idea of transgression that saw UFC grow in popularity and the GAA hard man become a cult figure; the thrilling notion that there are those among us who will re-enact the most primal urges, the ones we are supposed to suppress and resist, the ones that tell us to climb over the fence and wreak havoc, even if we end up wrassling in the car park.
It’s why they’ll flock to Las Vegas for McGregor and Khabib’s rematch, desperate to hear the sound of that dangerous language, just as we were when the schoolyard chant went up: “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
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