It was about a year ago; a karate championship. I’d travelled about a hundred miles to get down there and fight. The type of karate I used to do – it’s called kyokushin, which means the ultimate truth, but god knows what that means – involves bare knuckle fighting, without boxing gloves or anything. Just two guys going at it for two minute rounds until someone falls over and can’t get up. Thing was, I’d been fighting in the under-eighteens for years. It was easy then; I used to win a lot of fights: hack the legs until they couldn’t stand anymore, or just thump them over and over until they fell to their knees, gasping. Sometimes I even got a kick to the head and sent someone to sleep. However I did it, I used to win a lot, which I liked.
Thing is, when you turn eighteen, you’re an adult in their eyes, and when you’re an adult, you fight adults. My first fight was a thirty-two year old guy from London. I was doing well in the first few rounds: got a few good hits in, knocked him out of the ring once or twice. If you knock someone out the ring three times, you win the fight outright, so I was getting pretty excited. I thought I was going to win this fight, going to smash this guy out the ring for the third time. Guess I was getting over confident.
I don’t really remember when it happened: I was pushing him out for the third time, the winning time, and then there was an explosion somewhere in the vicinity of my frontal lobe. There were spiders’ webs of electricity spinning themselves along my cerebral cortex, and what little perception I had of the outside world told me that I was on my knees. Turns out I’d leant forward a little too much as I was smashing into this guy. He’d jumped up and driven his knee into my face: bust my nose, split my lip and generally knocked me out for the count. I swam into consciousness with a guy holding fingers up to me and asking how many. I didn’t care how many fingers: I just wanted to get up and smash the guy who fucked up my face.
Back in the changing rooms, looking at myself in the mirror, I surveyed the damage. So... my nose had swollen so that one distended side spread bulbous and round across my face, and my lip was the size of a grape. There was a steady trickle of blood from one nostril, which seeped down into the corners of my lips and stained my skin purple.
Over the loudspeaker, I heard the announcement: “Next fight, in five minutes, Paul Cooper, and...” I didn’t hear the rest. Hmm... Paul Cooper... that was my name. Another fight. I looked at the crude impression of myself that stared back at me in the mirror, and I sighed. I had come so far to fight, and I knew that the monster in the glass would never leave me alone if I dropped out of the next one. I looked at myself, bleeding and concussed, tightened my fists, and walked out of that bathroom to fight the next man. From this second fight, I gained two small victories: first, I got a hell of a lot of blood over the other guy, who didn’t seem to be expecting that, and second, I didn’t lose my self-respect, which I think is probably the most important thing.