Night Crawler

Strolling across the San Jose State University campus is like being transported to what Midwesterners would think of as Southern California. All the students enjoy athletic, well-bronzed limbs that occupy very short shorts. The climate varies between hot and warm (even at dusk, when we San Franciscans are usually bundling up against the dashing fog). There are palm trees and fountains and lovely stone benches where students might discuss lofty ideas; most importantly, there is much well-planned space. Compared to the messy compression of cars and humanity that makes up San Francisco's Mission District, it seems like Mars.

A well-dressed young man with glistening hair stands on campus, just outside the San Jose Event Center, the large arena that is host to tonight's ESPN 2 Strikeforce World Martial Arts Championships. He approaches casually, offers me an unnecessary ticket with aimless indifference, and walks off, saying over his shoulder, "I was going to give it to you for free, you know. You look like the type of person who would really appreciate this bloody sort of thing." There are questions pending, but he disappears behind a palm tree like a tropical apparition.

Inside the arena, the snack bar teems with wide-eyed children who talk at a million syllables per minute in high octaves while juggling glossy Strikeforce paraphernalia and superlarge cups of Coca-Cola Classic. Their equally anxious fathers stand in line waiting for the sluggish snack guy to package up cardboard trays of hot dogs.

"How long does it take?" huffs Damon Dlamas, a large man covered in heavy-handed tattoo art. He glances at a mammoth gold watch (the band of which is stretched out like trestles) as his son bounces nervously back and forth in his state-of-the-art Adidas.

"We're going to miss Bob Wall!" says the child, reaching supersonic pitch.
"Wall was in Enter the Dragon," explains Papa Dlamas. "One of the kid's favorites."

Despite a liberal sprinkling of extravagantly coiffed young women in the audience, the testosterone level in this San-Jose-yet-Roman-style arena has already reached olfactory tangibility -- not only can you smell it, but you can feel it crawling around inside your nose. As arcs of red and blue lights blink in low-cost Vegas splendor, the well-equipped but scantily clad "ring girls" are vocally rated according to diminishing attire (after costume changes). Wives' scowls become apparent just before Chuck Norris steps into the brightly lit ring. The aging "warrior" speaks briefly but honorably in regard to his nonprofit organization, Kick Drugs Out of America. He thanks the ring girls with a slightly mocking chuckle, and most maternal ticket-holders are momentarily placated as their rambunctious, autograph-hungry children turn Strikeforce back into a family event (though some enterprising tykes quickly discover certain advantages to obtaining a ring girl signature).

After a martial arts demonstration set to an interesting musical combination of "Eye of the Tiger" and "Cotton-Eye Joe," the crowd is ready for action. The next scheduled bout is for the Muay Thai ISKA Super Welterweight Championship (Muay Thai, which translates into "Sport of Thailand," is an intense, often brutal form of kickboxing that allows for knee and elbow strikes). The competitors are Fernando Yguardo ("from Albuquerque, New Mexico") and Alex "F-14" Gong ("from San Francisco, California"). At the mention of Gong, the entire C section of the arena explodes into applause. Gong is a titleholder and instructor at Fairtex Muay Thai Camp, the most renowned kickboxing school in the world, which has been training champions in Thailand for over 40 years. As the only U.S. camp certified by the government of Thailand, when it moved from Arizona to San Francisco last year, many of Fairtex's fans and students followed.

Large Fairtex banners are unraveled in the audience. As Gong makes his way into the ring, an ominous chant of "Al-ex! Al-ex!" fills the amphitheater. "New Mexico" looks immediately ill at ease. Ganyao Fairtex -- an internationally renowned trainer who, in Thai tradition, has taken his school's name -- leads Gong in a quick prayer. After a civil bow, the bell rings, and Gong comes out of his corner in a vicious but calculated fury. The cracking sound of shin bone against shin bone reverberates throughout the arena. Kicks to the head result in quickly bloodied mouths and misshapen noses. "New Mexico" stumbles -- "He's got kicks, but no hands," says one sympathetic spectator. Gong is relentless, faltering rarely, even when "New Mexico" draws on a "commendable second wind" (as the crowd says) in the third round. The two competitors fight through all five of the scheduled rounds, but Gong wins by unanimous decision. The crowd goes wild, even though most people agree that "New Mexico" demonstrated surprising stamina and a "commendable serenity" (during the fight, he often appeared to be laughing as he picked himself up off the mat).

In the course of the eight-hour night, Fairtex sails through four more fights: Michael Reginer loses his amateur match by decision; Jean Claude Leuyer wins the ISKA World Super-Heavyweight Kickboxing Championship by knockout; George Tsutsui wins the ISKA North American Welterweight Championship by split decision; and the grueling Super Welterweight Championship fight between Bunker Fairtex and Belgium's Bilan Nesrdine is a draw.

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