Kung fu competitions struck a particular type of dread into my heart even when I had been training regularly and was feeling fairly good about my fitness level. Therefore, the prospect of fighting in a competition when I had only been training sporadically over the last few months, due to my dissertation and money problems robbing me of my will to move, caused a whole new level of fear. If I hadn’t already agreed to drive the university minibus to the venue, there was no way that Master Ang could have talked me into it.
A note on Master Ang – Imagine Mr Miyagi but Malasian with dyed black hair, a tad pervy and with a tendency to laugh at you when you hurt yourself. I once limped over to him, after my instep made very hard contact with a friend’s elbow, and complained that I couldn’t put weight on it. He applied the most aggressive cold spray ever and laughed when I screamed. For some reason, he used to call me ‘Posh’ as in, “Come on, Posh. Stance lower, Posh. You doing it wrong again, Posh.” And once asked me out to dinner, despite being only slightly younger than my granddad. We all agreed that he was exactly the sort of old character you wanted teaching kung fu and there was absolutely no saying no to him.
Cold sicky crawly feelings were going on in my belly as I collected the minibus and drove it to the meeting place. My friend, whom we called Ironman Dan because he practised kung fu four days a week in the gym and for countless hours at home but also had a PhD in applied maths and no TV, jumped into the front next to me clasping a map.
“You do know where we’re going this time, don’t you?” I asked.
“Yes, I do. I knew where we were going last time too. If that road hadn’t been one way we’d have had no problem,” he said.
With any luck we’ll be too late to participate, I selfishly thought. In the meantime, the minibus was shifting about as people got into the back.
“I bet you’re fighting Flo again,” Dan said, as the last few people got in.
“She beat me last time,” I said.
“Not by much though and it was a very good technical fight.”
It had been a good fight, actually. Flo was a girl of far eastern extraction who was almost exactly the same height and weight as me but slightly more skilful. The last time we fought she won on points but everyone praised the fight for being very clean and technically correct. In other words, not one of the fights the kids have where they completely forget everything they’ve been taught and just go at each other until they’re both crying. I didn’t want to talk about the competition. Dan was easily drawn in to telling me about the weird and wonderful things he had learnt online that week.
Eventually, after being told to turn right just as I was passing the turning, we arrived at the venue; a sports centre in Oldham. As I opened the door to let the passengers out, I discovered something amazing. I was driving a bus full of totty. Every passenger was young and male. He’s nice, I thought as a young man with red hair got out. Wow, he’s really nice, I thought as a tall boy with dark hair got out. In fact, at least five out of the eight who got out of the bus were rather dishy. Well, that’s a turn up, I thought with a funny little smile until the full implications of being humiliated in the ring in front of this lot settled in. “Oh bollocks, what am I doing here, Dan?” I said to my puzzled looking navigator.
Oldham Sports centre was as shabby as it sounds and had that disconcerting school gym smell going on. Our half of the main sports hall was cordoned off with a huge green net that was opaque up to about six foot which meant that the badminton players on the other side kept peeking over at us.
The first half of the competition was a blur – children fought and cried, a few of our young men fought bravely and mostly lost. A vague memory endures of a particularly beautiful young man with amazing pale ginger curls, like something out of Troy, struggling to get padded up in the cumbersome safety gear and me trying to tuck those fabulous soft curls into a head guard. Following this, the lovely boy took a kick to the head that span his head guard and those curls came tumbling out to completely cover his face. Embarrassingly, the ref stopped the fight long enough for me to tuck them back in again.
When my fight came around – I was indeed fighting Flo again – it was Ironman Dan who helped me suit up. This was senior belt business now and no place for pretty boys. The padding was huge on me and restricted my leg movement somewhat. It was the head guard that was a real pisser though as it was very detrimental to my peripheral vision as well as being tight and uncomfortable. Stepping up to the ring – not actually a ring, just a square of thin mats – I gave Flo a polite nod and she nodded back. I felt better now I knew I was fighting Flo. The worst she could do was beat me as she was far too disciplined and mannerly to kick the shit out of me.
Graeme, a friend of mine who happened to be refereeing, began the fight. It went very much as it had done last time; a front kick to the padded stomach that pushed her back; a side kick to the chest that pushed me back; a couple of turning kicks to the arms that stung; a few punches to the chest that did little. Then it happened. I threw a front foot turning kick that was a faint. She turned into it and blocked. She didn’t see the back foot turning kick that was my real intent. I caught her right across the head guard. Graeme stopped the fight to check that she was OK. She was fine and I was relieved: I didn’t want to hurt her really. Round two. More kicks and punches rained in. We don’t punch to the face in kung fu, just to the body and kicks to the head. She fell for what would become my trade mark move twice more that fight. The fight ended, the corner judges gave their verdicts, Graeme held up my hand. It was the first time I’d won a fight.
Now came the bad news: I had made it through to the second round. My fitness wasn’t what it should have been and I had nothing left. My next opponent wasn’t someone I knew. She was bigger than me. Her belt was brown when mine was only blue. Her first kick barrelled through my weak guard and knocked me nearly out of the ring. Preserving a scrap of dignity was my only goal. I failed. Practically staggering round the ring, it was all I could do to keep my guard up. This woman was a class fighter: no aggression, only well picked shots and strength. The last of my strength is spent on a well aimed front kick that caused her to take a step back. Pivoting slightly she sent a side kick through my pathetic guard that connected with my chin so hard that I saw stars. The next thing I knew I was on the floor with St John’s Ambulance people around me. Apparently, I had reeled back, ripped off my head guard and muttered swear words. I don’t remember any of that. I don’t remember falling or hitting the mat.
Laying there, my only emotion was embarrassment. “I’m fine,” I kept saying as the First Aiders fussed. “Just let me up.”
“How many fingers am I holding up?” an elderly man with a big belly asked.
“This many,” I said, giving him the finger. On reflection, this was gratuitously rude but embarrassment was turning to humiliation and I just wanted to get out of there.
Eventually, they allowed me to stand up. I was shakier than I thought I would be but both Graeme and Dan helped me to a chair. “I think Master Ang is laughing,” Graeme said.
I looked over to the judges’ table and sure enough, there was Master Ang, with his receding hairline and too black hair, giggled away looking at me. Confronting him about this later, he simply said, “I was thinking about something else.” Yeah right.
Later, when the adrenaline had left my blood stream and the headache had set in, my opponent, who turned out to be very lovely and polite, said, “I’m sorry. I knew you were knocked out before you did. You staggered around that ring for a good ten seconds before you fell. I didn’t mean to kick you so hard.”
Although surprised at her account, I appreciated her consideration and politeness and knew that she meant what she said. After that, Master Ang came over. “You OK, yeah?”
“I’m fine thanks, Master Ang.”
“OK. Good,” he said, and walked off.
I noticed then that my bus load of totty were looking at me. My face started to heat up again like it had in that bastard head guard. Then I realised that they actually looked quite impressed. That’s something I suppose, I thought before it occurred to me that I probably shouldn’t drive the minibus home but would have to. We made it back fine, by the way.