Last night, I watched Warrior (2011). I don’t know why I haven’t gotten around to it before. It’s right in my wheelhouse. There’s fighting, family strife, addiction and Tom Hardy with traps the size of mountains ranges. Even Cameron from House M.D. is in it (playing a very cookie cutter wet blanket character). On paper, it would seem to be custom made for me, but for some reason or another, I haven’t gotten around to it. Probably because I saw Fighting (2009) and I was worried this would be another low-budget, over-the-top, MMA porno.
While watching, there were scenes that made me so tense, I wanted to skip through them. They weren’t, as you might expect, the fight scenes. They were the scenes where Joel Edgerton’s character needed to think about how to pay the mortgage, or explain to a superintendent about his black eye. The fight scenes were gripping but they weren’t the object of tension, they were the release. It was the day to day that left me feeling battered. It always seems to be the day to day that leaves me feeling battered.
The fights, on the other hand, are a catharsis. I envy the way fighters in movies get to let it all out. During a crucial fight, Joel Edgerton’s trainer tells him “ You don’t knock him out, you don’t have a home.” The entirety of his struggle is made tangible. Everything he was helpless to change before is now malleable in his hands. Outside of the movies, day to day life doesn’t come with a release valve. The frustrations of work, the pressure of life, a lifetime of struggle— these don’t come with that button you find on your Instant Pot. I guess there are adult coloring books and transcendental meditation, but I don’t know man, I just feel like there are some amounts of steam that don’t get blown off with colored pencils.
In The Fighter (2010), Christian Bale plays Dicky Ecklund, a crack-addicted former boxer, who gives Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) a moving speech in Mickey’s title fight. After the family overcomes failures, addiction, imprisonment, injuries and embarrassment, Dicky tells Micky “You f***in’ get out there, and use all the s*** that you’ve been through, all that f***in’ hell, all the s*** we’ve gone through over the f***in’ years, and you put it in that ring right now. This is yours. This is f***in’ yours.”
There’s something incredibly powerful about the idea that you can take everything, everything bad in your life and channel into your fists and bring it into a ring. I don’t know about you, but there are aspects of my life that I’m deeply disappointed by. I feel like made me these promises that it didn’t keep. I feel like there’s a type of person I could have been and a kind of role I could have had in society but society decided it didn’t need what I have to offer. Sometimes, I feel so mad at God that I don’t know what to say to him. Sometimes, I feel like I’m Jonah and I ran away and God never bothered to send a big ol’ fish after me. He just said, “oh well,” slapped the dust off his hands and moved on. I can almost taste what it would be like to pour all of this damned heavy heaviness into my hands and let it all out.
I envy the fighters because they aren’t helpless like me.
Yesterday, I was lying in bed thinking about the destiny I was meant to have. I could have been a great man. I could have led people through war and strife. I could have penned great American classics, composed compelling ad campaigns, directed masterpieces of cinema and stage. I was mad at the world for not wanting the qualities I love most about myself and replaying my favorite Fight Club (1999) speech in my mind.
“I see in the fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables, slaves with white collars, advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy s*** we don’t need. We’re the middle children of the history man, no purpose or place, we have no Great war, no Great depression, our great war is a spiritual war, our great depression is our lives, we’ve been all raised by television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires and movie gods and rock stars, but we won’t and we’re slowly learning that fact. and we’re very very pissed off.” Fight Club – Chuck Palahniuk
How can you face that level of disappointment and not want to fight?
I stayed up at night and thought about what I wanted to say about all of this. I thought about how I would explain it to Stephy. I was gonna tell her that I love fighting movies because I can live vicariously through the hero who can fight a manifestation of his problems. And as I got to this section of self-pity, it sort of flipped around on me. A question kept popping into my head that I couldn’t put down. It’s the question that Stephy would have asked me, but she went to bed first. The question is this:
“Who’s stopping you?”
Who’s stopping me? The answer, frankly is no one. I have to come face to face with the fact that I, like the fighters in these movies, have the opportunity to take fate into my own hands. I want the chance on the big stage with the bright lights, but I don’t put the work in on the ground. I want the title shot, but I don’t want to live out the training montage. No one stopped me from doing the things I love. No one came crashing through my door and slapped the pen out of my hand or threw my laptop to the ground. I sabotaged myself through Instagram Explore, Covid-19 memes and my fourth rewatching of The West Wing. I do hold my fate in my hands, I just don’t live like it.
You know, I don’t think this piece turned out the way I thought. I thought I wanted to rail against the decline of masculinity, about the vacuum of leadership that exists in the world, and the minimal stakes in which we find ourselves out here in suburbia. But I think the place where I’ve arrived is the same as the best part of any truly good boxing movie. Good fighting movies aren’t about dealing with the world outside. They are about a man by himself, a man learning to conquer the demons within.
I have a lot of demons to conquer. I don’t have any discipline. I’m an addict, just not to anything sexy. I’m a glutton and a deadbeat. I’m a coward and I’m quick to point the finger elsewhere. Maybe the takeaway from this isn’t to crave fight scenes, but to commit to the training montages. In a pivotal scene in Creed (2015), Sly Stallone (Rocky) points to Michael B. Jordan (Creed) and tells him, “You see this guy here staring back atcha? That’s your toughest opponent. Every time you get into the ring, that’s who you’re going against. I believe that in boxing and I do believe that in life. Okay?” You can feel the intensity when Jordan begins to confront his own demons as he shadowboxes. Stallone begins to step out of frame. As he takes a couple steps back, I can hear his voice speaking to me and my demons, speaking to where I need to put in some work. In that thick, tough guy accent, he says quietly, knowingly, “I’m gonna leave you two alone for a while.”