My sixteen-year old son is watching MMA fighting on TV. I can hear it over the clank of the zipper going round in the dryer as I fold laundry: the grunts, the crack of knuckles hitting bone and cartilage, the roar from the bloodthirsty crowd. The sound is bad enough. I am not going in there.
“Mom, come on, I promise it’s not bad.”
I sigh and poke my head around the corner. I know he won’t stop. Ever. He can go on and on like a Jack Russell Terrier with its teeth sunk into my ankle.
“Come on, I’ll re-wind it.” He grabs the remote.
Two young guys grapple on the floor of the ring, sweat gleaming off their lean muscle. One of them gets on top, starts pounding the other in the face. Sam is on the edge of his seat, eyes riveted to the screen.
“Why don’t they stop them?” I’m horrified.
“He just has to tap out. But if that was me, I’d never tap out. Never.”
The poor guy is turning into a smushed tomato. His arms look pinned. How the hell can he tap out if his arms are pinned and his brain cells seeping out his ears?
“Why aren’t there any rules?!”
“There’s rules.” He lists them. No head-butting, eye gouging, hair pulling, biting, fish-hooking, attacking the groin …
“What’s fish-hooking?” Big mistake.
“You hook your finger in a guy’s nose or mouth and pull till it rips.
“That is disgusting!” I grab the laundry basket and head for the stairs.
“You’re coming to my fight though, right, Mom?”
I turn to look at my son, his hair cropped close like a skinhead, his dragon tattoo peeking out the neckline of his black hoodie. He looks hopeful and for a split second I imagine myself in a huge auditorium right in front of the ring, cheering like a hockey mom as my child’s blood splatters all over me.
“We’ll see.” I escape up the stairs.
Up until six months ago, I was blissfully oblivious to the whole world of MMA; I didn’t even know that MMA stands for Mixed Martial Arts, and certainly didn’t realize the sport is banned in much of Canada and the States. Now my son is practically a celebrity in our neighbourhood; a mother from down the road actually stopped me in front of our house the other day.
“So. I hear Sam is going to fight a thirty-five year old in the ring. With bare fists.” The little Shitzu yapping from behind her boots grates like a car alarm at four in the morning.
Jesus, Sam. I shake my head and curse him silently. Why are you doing this to me?
Out loud, I laugh. “No, no! He’s fighting another kid. And there’s rules and everything. Big gloves, head gear. Not like on TV.”
“Well, I would never let my son do that…” she plows on.
Let? That word has never been part of our vocabulary with Sam.
“And tattoos! Don’t you need parental consent at sixteen?”
“Apparently not,” I growl. The tattoos are not my favourite subject. Sam got the dragon etched into his chest the first time my husband and I went away for a couple of days, the Chinese characters from shoulder to elbow the second time. We’re never going away again.
I grip my hands together to keep myself from reaching out and giving her a fish hook.
Sam fights his first fight and comes home complaining of neck pain. I bundle him off to Emergency, my mind bombarded with images of him in a wheelchair, sucking on a respirator.
A white-haired male doctor walks into the cubicle and Sam says, “I won. I knocked the guy out in the third round!” I grimace and wonder if that kid is in some other emergency ward with his mother as we speak.
The doctor checks Sam over, informs us his neck isn’t broken this time and goes on a tirade about Sam’s involvement in a sport whose sole purpose is to give the other guy brain damage. As I listen, I wonder what kind of reception my sister would get, hockey mom extraordinaire, if she were in Emergency with one of her sons, instead of me with mine?
“Looks like a concussion,” the doctor would say, accusatorily. “How did this happen?” Ready to pin the blame on the maternal scapegoat.
“Hockey,” she would tell him. “Triple A,” she’d be sure to add.
“Wow, Triple A. Now that’s something!
What position do you play, son?” and she’d be exonerated. Just like that.
At home I google “MMA fighting and mothers” to see if I can connect with other parents facing this dilemma, someone who can tell me I’m not being completely negligent, that their kid does Mixed Martial Arts and hasn’t gone cross-eyed or started to drool. But MMA fighters don’t seem to have mothers. None that will advertise anyway. There are no support groups or chat lines. No prominent politicians bragging about being just a down-home country MMA fighter mom from Alaska. The closest reference to moms I get in my hits is, “Yer mom’s a pussy.”
So just for fun I google “hockey moms.” 3, 520, 000 hits. There’s even a hockeymom.com. I toy with the idea of creating mmafightermom.com where you can post ideas for healthy snacks to pack for that big fight. Maybe order t-shirts that say, I’m an MMA Fighter Mom, Hear Me Roar. On a blood splatter background.
After six months of training, it starts all over again.
“You’ve gotta come to my next fight.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. We’ll see.”
“Look at my six-pack!” He puts his mixing bowl of cereal on the counter, pulls up his shirt, shows me his rippling abs.
“Wow.” I say, and really mean it. MMA fighting’s not all bad. At least I don’t have to worry about his body mass index, like all those parents of obese teens. Sam won’t touch junk food and he rarely drinks alcohol because it would jeopardize his training.
“Hey, Mom, I want to show you something. Put your hands up like this.”
“Not on your life.” I back away from him. The last time I was his guinea pig he flipped me on the trampoline and I had to go to my chiropractor for mild whiplash.
“I promise I won’t hurt you.”
“Get lost!” I say.
“Okay, then just stand still.”
He does a high kick and I feel the air move as his foot whizzes by my ear.
Sam’s passion for MMA shouldn’t surprise me. He’s always had to be different. We’re a left-leaning, hippyish mountain family. We rock climb, mountain bike, ski and snowboard. All of us: Sam’s father, step-father, sister, me. But not Sam.
When we lived in a small Interior logging town, Sam hung out with kids who had snow machines, dirt bikes and guns, instead of mountain bikes, climbing gear and skis. When we moved to North Vancouver, he decided the best way to disassociate himself from our earflap hats, hiking shoes, and Gortex was to take up golf. He latched onto the preppy look: the golf t-shirts with the collar, those shoes with the frilly flap, the one glove, the neat hair cut. And now, what better way to rebel against his liberal-minded, pacifist parents than to mutilate his body with tattoos, shave his head and beat the crap out of people for sport?
Maybe this is Karma. For years I ricocheted from one extreme opposite of my parents to another, just like Sam’s doing. My parents were well-educated, reserved, middle-class, agnostic couch potatoes, while I, their first-born daughter, was a rabid Pentecostal at thirteen; a binge drinking, dope smoking truant at fifteen; a shop lifter of full volumes of Harlequin Romances at sixteen. At eighteen, I hitched across Canada till I hit ocean and became a hippy on a communal farm; then by twenty I was a rock climber residing in a ’67 Dodge Dart. Not exactly what my parents had envisioned for me.
“Mom, I hate it when you put this stuff on the fridge.”
Sam rips the newspaper clipping out from under the magnet. It’s all about how multiple concussions can lead to early dementia.
In spite of my constant attempts to practise “unconditional love,” I can’t seem to stop myself from the occasional passive-aggressive jab. Last week’s pin-up was about a guy who got HIV from a tattoo parlor that used unsterile needles. My mother used to send me newspaper clippings of climbing accidents with little notes like, did you know this one?
“At least my friends don’t die all the time like yours do,” he reminds me.
I think of my many friends and acquaintances who’ve died in the mountains since I first took up climbing twenty-seven years ago. My children grew up with the ghost of my boyfriend, killed in an avalanche in Alaska before they were born, following us through life.
“You’ve got a point there,” I concede.
“Don’t forget to pick up tickets for the fight.” And he heads out with his fourth bowl of cereal.
“Don’t hold your breath!” I yell after him.
In the end, I come to his next fight. During the match just before Sam’s, a mother in the front row screams and cheers on her teenager. “Hit him! Hit him again! Hit him harder!” It’s worse than the hockey arena.
Then it’s Sam’s match. His opponent comes out first, a tall skinny beanpole, about six foot five, with a huge black beard. Sam can’t even grow a beard yet. The crowd goes wild and I sit up on the back of my chair to get a better look. Sam comes out next. I can see he’s acting tough because he’s nervous, and I can’t help myself. I start to cheer. “Alright Sam! You’re the man! You can do it. Go Sam!”
When they start to fight, it’s not so bad. There’s no blood, and though there are no big gloves and headgear, there are rules. I cringe each time Sam gets pounded in the head, especially since the other guy’s head is way out of reach for Sam’s punches –but then Sam grabs Black Beard’s leg and kicks out his other leg from under him, sending him sprawling on his butt. I jump up and down and roar like Simba’s mother.
When it’s all over, I hold my breath while the judges adjourn, knowing it’s close. Finally, the verdict is in. The ref grabs Sam’s opponent’s hand and holds it in the air, while I bite my tongue to keep from shouting obscenities at the judges. Sam puts his head in his gloves and sinks to the floor in shock, then recovers, shakes Black Beard’s hand, hugs all the coaches and bows respectfully.
A few days after that second fight, Sam’s English teacher calls. I always shudder when I see the school on call display, but it’s better than a call from the police or hospital.
“I don’t know if I should tell you this, but Sam tells me he’s an extreme fighter. I’m sure it’s not true.”
She leaves a polite opening for me to laugh and say, “Oh that silly boy, he’s always making up stories!” but to my surprise, I find myself defending him.
“Well, I’m starting to think organized fighting might be the lesser of many evils.”
In the silence that follows I’m sure she’s thinking, So, you’re trying to keep him out of trouble by allowing him to beat in heads, risk multiple concussions, mutilate himself permanently with tattoos…? But she politely accepts my reasoning, like she’s familiar with some of those evils: drinking, drugs, gangs, knives, guns, AIDS, jail, rock climbing, to name a few.
She must be a mother.
First Place Winner, Non-Fiction Category, North Shore Writers’ Association, 2010