There was music when the cage door closed behind me.
That I could hear it surprised me. Hear it over the thumping bass line of my walkout track. Over the roar of friends and family who had traveled to see me fight. Even over the industrial-sized fans, buzzing with the vibration of an unseen swarm, in an attempt to cut through the liquid air that collected in the field house that 107-degree summer night, managing only to circulate it, and nothing more.
Still I heard the gentle chime of the chain link as the door swung shut. As the M.C.’s microphone crackled to life, the refrain of metal sliding against metal when the lynchpin slid home sounded over the rush of blood thrumming in my ears with the hummingbird rhythm of my heart.
They sang a song of inevitability. There was no way out now, at least none that did not involve the humiliation of quitting before it began, or climbing over the fence and running into that same crowd of relatives and loved ones, cowering, pleading for their protection.
Up until I heard that song, that was what I wanted to do. Run. I was a grown-ass man, with a job that paid good money, about to get into a fistfight that wouldn’t pay me jack; that would end up losing me income if I got hurt. A mixed martial arts competition, while safer than many would ever imagine, safer than other more mainstream contact sports, still meant chancing severe injury.
Lacerations. Strains and tears. Breaks. Concussions. Even, though ever so remote, death.
Not fifty feet away from me stood a man to whom I had to be prepared to inflict these things, lest he do them faster to me, and with greater fury. But there was something about him that, even in my barely-contained adrenaline-fueled panic, gave me pause. That made me not want to.
We didn’t face off as I had done in matches I’d had before, a change for which I was grateful. For someone like me, there is an immeasurable dread at the face off in the middle of the ring. The crowd is quiet. The house lights go down as the ring lights go up. The sudden drop in sensory input allows a maddening question to enter, rude and unwelcome:
“Is this man afraid?
So I postured. I paced my side of the cage. Slapped my own face. Jumped up and down. Did all the things you’re supposed to do that say you’re not afraid. That you’re hyped. Ready to throw down. I did all this while avoiding actually looking at him.
Until I messed up and did just that.
He bounced lightly from foot to foot, almost floating. His long arms swung back and forth, his hands brushing past the middle of his thighs, in rhythm with the calm of his movement. So calm. His lids hung heavy over his eyes, but even then I saw him watching my every movement, every frenetic, over the top gesture that told him everything he needed to know.
He wasn’t scared, and he knew I knew it.
If your trainers and coaches care about you, you don’t just jump into an MMA match. Particularly not if you are a 36-year old whose greatest athletic accomplishment was winning a gold medal for long-jump at a community event for kids age 7-10. So, leading up to the match, I fought in a number of amateur kickboxing matches in order to prove myself ready.
For those, we wore headgear and shin guards, and fought modified muay Thai rules, which meant not only were kicks and punches legal, but so were knees from the clinch. Headgear does nothing to prevent concussions, despite popular misconceptions. It actually increases the surface area of your head, providing a larger target to hit. At best, it prevents cuts when a 12- ounce boxing glove drags across your cheekbone; it does nothing to prevent your brain from ricocheting off the sides of your skull. One could make the argument that in some ways, an amateur kickboxing match is more dangerous than a professional one.
And it’s done for free.
Amateur mixed martial arts in my state required less protection. No headgear, so a smaller target. We still wore shin guards, but there were no kicks to the head, and no strikes of any kind to the head if the fight hit the mat. Four-ounce fingerless gloves replaced the hand pillows utilized in boxing and kickboxing. Designed to allow for greater hand movement and dexterity for jiu jitsu were the fight to go the ground, MMA gloves prevent broken knuckles (sometimes), and, in combination with the decreased available target space from the lack of headgear, actually make it harder to get hit. But if you get hit?
And it’s done for free.
That’s if you don’t count the required pre-fight physicals and blood work. The extra time training at the gym. The food you buy to make weight. Paying a drop-in fee at the gym to use the sauna to cut weight. The cost to your relationships with friends and family when you skip yet another night out. When you’re short with your spouse because you’re so God damned hungry.
Tired, trapped in the maddening irony of exhaustion so severe that sleep eludes you.
Sore, muscles blowtorched with lactic acid, built up from days, weeks without rest
Afraid, the mind running sprints of possibilities and worst case-scenarios.
There is a question that perseverates in the weeks leading up to the fight, but you rationalize. You generate enough internal white noise to drown it out, but the interrogation persists. It’s often enough internal white noise to keep it in the background. It gets a little louder after you step off the scales, weight successfully made. It picks up in volume while your coach wraps your hands. Louder still while warming up. When every obstacle, every possible delay that stands between you and stepping into that cage is successively removed, the question repeats:
“Why the hell am I doing this?”
It repeats until a pressure builds in your chest, until it feels like the only valve that can relieve it are fits of hysterical crying, vomiting, or the proverbial primal scream, but you can’t because you’re not alone, because one half of the field house’s bleachers are filled with people who cheer for your victory, while the other half of the auditorium reverberates with the foot stomps and jeers of those who want nothing more at that moment than to watch you fall.
That’s when the door closes. Your question doesn’t stop. It provides the lyrics to the cage’s song.
Funny thing is, I knew the answer.
I didn’t inherit my Pop’s proud natural. He primped and preened that Afro, round and flawless, picked to perfection with an old-fashioned pronged cake cutter because regular combs just didn’t do the trick. My brownish-blackish hair fell straight down from the top of my head, razor straight when wet, parted down the middle, and curling up in wings around my ears when it dried; the same ears that made me make my parents let me wear it long after Pops cut the top of my ear with his barber’s scissors just the once.
This is to say, coming up through school, I didn’t look like other kids. Too dark-skinned to be white, but light-skinned and with styled, straight hair, I loosely fit the profile of any number of different ethnicities, particularly in high school. Questions already familiar to me at that age came with a privileged ease. I’d learned to grin through the uneasiness.
“Hispanic? No? Indian, then. Not that, either? Got to be Italian. Seriously?”
“So what are you, anyway?”
Floating in this perpetual limbo of fluid racial identity, I searched for friends in a high school where I knew no one. Nobody had a seat waiting for me in the cafeteria. Introducing myself to people revealed a vulnerability I immediately regretted. I looked a little bit like everyone and belonged nowhere, and at that age, that need to belong breeds desperation.
I became the Great Pretender. I code-switched to belong with the black kids, though my hair and clothes were still too white to belong, to keep from getting snapped on by them nearly every morning in homeroom. I found some refuge with some of the white kids, even friendship with some who shared my love of movies, video games, and comic books, the only difference being that we shared derision for our geekiness from all sides. There was some comfort in that. Still, I never felt settled with them, either.
There was one white kid, however, who dominates my memory like no other. He was my first real fight.
He was the answer to my question.
Taller and heavier than me by far, he honed in on my vulnerability like a raptor from on high. The books knocked out of my hands in the hall, the cutting in the lunch line, the extra shoves during touch football in gym class, were indignities to be sure, but gym class inevitably ended; lunch eventually got eaten; bruises faded. What failed to recede were the wounds left by his words.
When he told me that because of how I dressed and how I talked, he, a white boy, was blacker than I was.
That my lack of athletic prowess in most sports equally called my blackness into question.
At that age and almost clinically anxious, looking for a place where I fit and finding none, it didn’t take much to believe the things I’d repeatedly been told about myself.
I acquiesced. Never resisted his insults. Kept my head down in the hallways, stayed away from him in gym class. I weathered his racial stereotypes and jokes, not just around him, but other white classmates. I was afraid if I spoke up, it would lead to a physical altercation, something that, despite my afterschool tae kwon do classes, terrified me. Far more frightening, though, I thought that if I defended myself, defended my identity and chose a side, that I’d be alone. That by choosing one, I’d be rejected by both. I couldn’t find the courage for that decision.
Courage found me one fateful day in gym class, though I still don’t know how. Many a story trope of bullying talks about the day the oppressed narrator snaps. I can’t say it was that. There was no fugue, no haze that surrounded the event, save I can’t remember what he said that triggered me. I only recall walking across the gym towards him with purpose, while he laughed in disbelief that I’d somehow grown a set as one of my friends ran up behind me in an attempt to save me from myself, from my first fight, and likely my first loss.
He failed on all counts.
The house lights went down, the cage lights came up, and the bell sounded. We touched gloves in the center and began our dance.
We circled each other, throwing out feints, finding our range, and measuring the other man. My heart kept a breakneck pace, and with the oppressive heat of the field house, I felt fatigued almost instantly. He threw out a pair of lazy kicks, ones I would have checked in practice, but then practice isn’t a fight. Feeling the distance close, I threw a left hook, only just missing the tip of his chin.
His shot for a takedown was high, wrapping up my arms, and not my waist or legs. The momentum propelled my back towards the cage, but I turned and dropped low, pressing him against the fence and dropped for my own takedown, head glued to the outside of his hips, my arms wrapped high around the tops of his legs.
I went to elevate him from the mat, to hoist him over my shoulder, turn him in the air and bring him crashing to canvas, a highlight reel maneuver that would bring me one step closer to victory. My side of the auditorium felt it, too. They roared when I turned him against the cage. The sound swelled as I dropped down and locked my hands together, prepared to take him off his feet; and as I stepped back to hoist him up towards the rafters, they fell silent as my legs gave out, and I fell backwards, flat on my back, with my opponent on top of me. In full mount.
My friend held me back, but not really, with a slight laugh that said, “okay, we get it, you’ve had enough.” When I pulled my arms free of his loose grasp, the laugh stopped. He grabbed again, but I had picked up my pace, his fingertips dragging at the backs of my arms. I swung. Hard. Not the size of the dog in the fight that matters.
I missed. And I paid for it.
I fell forward and my nemesis laid into my midsection with a flurry of body shots. I’m not sure why he didn’t punch me in the face. Perhaps he’d been in enough fights to know not break your hand on someone’s skull. Maybe, despite his antagonism, he didn’t want to hurt me, at least not badly. More likely, he knew he’d be in less trouble if I had nothing show to for being on receiving end of taking a serious “L.”
Though his punches hurt, my friend had to pull me away from taking more punishment. The shouts caught the attention of the other students who had come in between us, laughing as I lunged forward for more.
It wasn’t bravado. I was still terrified; technically, I’d just lost; but it felt so good to fight, because it was the exact opposite of everything I’d ever done and experienced up until that point. Even the laughter felt good. Classmates who’d once joined my antagonist in mocking me now laughed with a coupling of disbelief and respect. My friend steered me away by my shoulders, whispering words of encouragement, saying dude was lucky I didn’t connect or it would have been a bad day for him.
I knew that was nonsense, but I didn’t care. My ribs ached and my eyes burned from angry tears, but there was this other feeling, this crescendo of invincibility that said I would no longer be bullied; that no more would I put up with racist jokes in my presence, from him, or anyone else who was supposedly my friend; that I would put my humanity first, that I would no longer be a victim to the complacency of fear.
It didn’t take long for the novelty of my standing up for myself to wear off. As it is so often with teenagers, something infinitely more interesting happened before the end of the day.
And that fear? Of being alone? Of not knowing who I was, or where I belonged? It burrowed its way back in, hooks deep in my viscera, where, like a xenomorph, it incubated and fed, well into my adulthood.
Fed on my weight gain.
Fed on my hair loss.
As it engorged itself on my self-doubt, it filled me with anxiety so severe, it felt as if it would exit through my sternum like the metaphorical chest-buster it was; so severe that my wife, a woman whose capacity for love and understanding know no bounds, didn’t know how to help me. At one point, I’d begun a new job where I was the only person of color on staff, and again I found myself back in high school, where jokes about stereotypes became something I ignored or laughed off, making the excuse for them that they were making these jokes as satire, poking holes in the ridiculousness of prejudice and racism.
There’s a saying about protesting too loudly.
Back in all too familiar situation, back at the beginning of the endless cycle, my disquiet grew. I tried prescription medication for about a month, but although it eliminated the anxiety, it left me incapable of feeling anything else, either. As the meds worked their way out of my system, the irrational thoughts draped over me like a stage curtain lowering. I had to find something soon, something to address all of the issues attached to my lack of physical and mental wellness.
My veneer had all the thickness of an eggshell, and pressure was building from within.
Then I found a mixed martial arts school.
The mat was hot on my back, the cage lights searing spots into my eyes. This is what I thought would happen. At damn near 40, I had no business in this cage. This is what I deserved. This is how I would lose. In full mount, the fight over before it had time to begin. I waited for him to rain down strikes, to cover up and wait for the ref to pull him off, wave his arms, and declare me the loser.
But he hesitated.
My feet were against the cage. Neurons and synapses fired messages down channels to my muscles before my thoughts could reach them. My toes grasped at the links and I walked my legs upwards until the angle flipped us over.
I was on top.
And I did not hesitate.
I threw punches to his body from every angle, without cessation, without fatigue, until his legs opened and he threw them up over my shoulders, attempting a submission hold. Ducking under, I threw his legs to the side. On all fours, he crouched in a turtle position while I leaned on his back and continued to deliver punch after punch. He tucked a shoulder and rolled through, exposing his neck.
There is a maneuver in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu called the guillotine. It’s essentially a front headlock, where your opponent’s head is to one side of your body while he is in your guard, a position where he is trapped between your crossed legs. It is a simple but high-percentage move, had always been my go-to in training, and my opponent had put himself in it. I crossed my feet, grabbed my own wrist and leaned back.
Clichés have to come from somewhere, and I found myself right in the middle of one. Time slowed. Though I had the submission hold locked in, I somehow knew I was going to lose. Whenever I had tried anything of meaning to define myself, to be better than I was, I had failed. I’d become so accustomed to losing, it felt pre-ordained. Yet here I was. My grip secure. My legs strong. His breathing changing. His legs shuffling. His arms raising to strike my body in an effort to get me to let go.
And then it happened.
He tapped out.
My side of the field house exploded. I leapt to my feet and jumped up, hanging my arms over the top border of the cage, scanning the crowd for my wife amongst the sea of supporters, on their feet, cheering my name. There is no drug like that feeling.
I have a picture of my hand being raised, captured at the moment they announced my name as the winner. I remember the feeling of the face I made, but I had no idea how it would translate in photographic form. My nose is scrunched, my eyes are closed, and my head is tilted back, a combination of euphoria and satisfaction, but above all else: redemption.
I did not lose. It was not predetermined. I won, and so much more than just the fight.
That feeling stayed. It changed me at a molecular level. I have a confidence in myself I’d never had before, and not just physically. To fight in the cage gave me the strength to fight in the world. No longer do I abide stereotypes or racism in my presence. I do not fear calling out bigotry, even if it costs me friendships. Beyond that, I have moved beyond the passivity of fighting it only when I witness it; I have lent my voice to the causes that are part of the fight.
Most of all, I fight each day to discover who I am, examining with an unflinching eye about what it means to be a mixed-race man in the world today, being the son of a mixed-race marriage, and being a father to mixed-race children. The escalation of violence, the emboldening of racists groups and movements have, without a doubt, stirred fears in anxiety for me and my family. The relentlessness of the news cycle makes it all feel a little overwhelming at times, like it’s too much to stand up to.
When I get to feeling that way, though?
I sing myself a familiar little song. And I’m ready to fight.
John Vercher is a writer currently living in the Philadelphia area with his wife and two sons. He holds a Bachelor’s in English from the University of Pittsburgh and and MFA in Creative Writing from the Mountainview Master of Fine Arts program. He is a for Cognoscenti, the thoughts and opinions page of WBUR Boston. Two of his essays published there on race and parenting were picked up by NPR, and he has appeared on His fiction has appeared on Akashic Books’ and . His debut novel, Three-Fifths, will be published by Agora – Polis Books in Fall 2019. You can find him on Twitter @jverch75.