Fight Night

How do bike messengers blow off steam on a Friday night? They beat the crap out of one another.

From the outside, the office building looks like a hole-in-the-wall tenement. The only clue to what's taking place inside is the roar of a crowd, carried out to the street through an open window and audible three buildings away.

It's a Friday night in SOMA and upstairs, in the cramped offices of a bike messenger service, 50 people have thrown five bucks each into the beer kitty to get into this informal, illegal boxing party. As they cram around a closet-size ring, a guy in a "Nobody Knows I'm a Lesbian" shirt and baggy shorts hijacks the MC's microphone. He growls, "If you're just standing around watching ... then you're a bunch of voyeuristic pussy motherfuckers getting off on other people's misery! You can all go to hell and kick yourselves when you get there!"

The ring is wrapped with yellow twine twisted around four garbage cans, flanked by two vending machines padded with pillows and spectators guzzling Budweiser and smoking mostly tobacco. The MC goads 30 fellow messengers and their girlfriends or boyfriends into pairing up for fights, matched loosely by build and weight. The MC, in shorts, T-shirt, and backward baseball cap, is nowhere near as serious as the ponytailed ref, though, who sternly instructs the two men inside the ring.

"No punching below the belt, no shots to the back of the head. If I get between you to break you up, break up. When the bike horn sounds, fight. When it sounds again, stop." He points at a clock dangling at eye level from a strip of duct tape on a vending machine. "There are three rounds, each round is 30 seconds, with a 30-second break between rounds." He toots the horn in their faces. They touch gloves and begin to box, badly. The two men throw loopy, wild punches, earning cheers from the room whenever one somehow connects.

A guy in the crowd starts singing the theme song to Quicksilver, a movie starring Kevin Bacon as a San Francisco bike messenger: "I am lightning! I am lightning!" The fighters stop a moment to laugh. Then it's back to beating the crap out of each other until the bicycle horn toots again.

When the fight is over, two other people take their corners in the ring. No one pauses to pull out nose or lip piercings.

After a couple of bouts, it's time for the first of many, many 10-minute intermissions, because beer is needed and so is fresh air. A guy wearing a Hawaiian shirt whispers the next matchup to a tiny woman in her mid-30s. "Ooh," she sighs. "That will be a good fight." In a back room, people play Tekken 3, putting pixelated fighters through their paces on a PlayStation 2.

"Fight Night" started a few months ago as an outgrowth of the regular office beer-drinking parties bike messengers threw on Fridays after work. One evening, two guys got it into their heads to start boxing matches, and there was no turning back.

The monthly "Fight Nights" are invite-only, but once you're in, anyone can fight. Skill is nowhere to be seen, and neither is safety equipment like headgear or cups. The boxers walk away with nothing more than bruises; no one even bothers to judge the matches. But determination rings out in the smack of glove on flesh. The combatants punch to hurt. The women, savage as the men, fight like schoolgirls on the playground -- lots of slapping and tumbling to the floor. The men aren't much better, sacrificing balance and body to launch one windmill after another.

As the bouts progress tonight, fighters now and then stagger from big overhands to the jaw, but keep going. Two or three catch a hard right and hit the floor, then pull themselves back up. Only one guy quits before the full three rounds go by. "He just gassed, like he was going to puke," a spectator narrates to a sluggish border collie that serves as the fight mascot. In one of several battles of the sexes, a short, solid black girl in overalls throws good stiff punches at a hippie dude, knocking his contacts out one after the other. "That's a good-ass fight," the MC yells. The fighters stop to scour the floor until they find the contacts. Then, like the other matches, it ends with a hug.

The title bout of the night -- promoted by word-of-mouth two minutes before the fight as "War!" -- is between two heavyweights who actually know what they're doing. Both carry pounds of muscle. One wears baggy shorts and strips off a gas station attendant's shirt with his name embroidered on the breast. His opponent in the opposite corner is tall and black, in slacks and a button-down shirt that also quickly hits the mat. As the fighters bob and weave, their ham fists jabbing, the makeshift ring cannot contain them. The spectators scatter as the fighters careen off walls and finally ricochet back into the arena.

By round two, it's over.

"Oh, fuck, not this again," the black heavyweight says, looking at his dislocated shoulder. After trying to teach three or four soused spectators how to pop it back in, he apologizes and quits the fight. A bystander gleefully explains, "You're on your own damn own."

With 15 fights over and no blood spilled, the office empties. The intact heavyweight grabs his girlfriend on the way out the door to a post-fight party: "I need to do this more often! Fuck headgear!" he shouts.

In roughly a month they'll be back for "Fight Night 6."

 
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