Remember when smoking was manly? When the notion of a "smoker" conjured images of cowboy poets and late-night tequila-fueled rendezvous?
Yeah, me neither -- born too late. But from what I can tell, once upon a time, smokers were all Don Draper coolness and hot downtown abandon. Say "smoker" to me now and I'm thinking pacemakers and wrinkled old women who breathe through holes in their necks. I don't know any smoker today who doesn't wish he never started.
It's as if our whole society learned an ugly lesson there, and we're still coming to terms with it. Although the same ugliness is true of eating flesh, that lesson is proving more elusive.
The first time I met Maldanado -- the guy who I'm fighting in 10 minutes -- we were maybe 19 years old. He was a little guy with thin whipchain arms and a long braid down to his waist. Everything was point style back then, which meant you never went to the ground, and if you got into a clinch, the referee would stop it and separate you. It wasn't like the continuous brawls that you see now in the Ultimate Fight Championship (UFC). But at the same time, in point style, you could have five or six fights in a day. Nowadays you have one fight, and then you recover for three weeks. Back then you just became close friends with that shady cat who had a Percocet connection.
I'm a vegan -- haven't eaten any meat since 1989 -- and it's funny how I get all this guff for it. The grand master of our school was a Chinese National Living Treasure named Chan. He was, I don't know, four, maybe 500 years old and mean as a snake. The only words in English I ever heard him say were "Wrong!" and, my favorite, "Idiot!" He used to teach class with the smell of cigarette smoke on him and a glass of whiskey in his hand. Chan called me Lo Han Jai, which sort of means "vegetarian" or "guy who eats like Buddha," but -- in that ineffable way Chinese phrases can mean several things at once -- is more like calling me "spicy tofu with veggies." That used to make me crazy because he was basically calling me a wimp.
Maldanado is taping his hands. He sits in a full split, wrapping each finger, gung-fu style. He's a Chinese stylist with a Taekwondo history, so his kicks are faster than my Internet connection. One time, back at a club tournament fight at New York University, Maldanado threw a roundhouse kick at me that was so blindingly quick that he tapped my nose with his big toe and set his foot back down on the ground before I even raised my hands. I spent the next seven days having to explain my two black eyes to classmates and having to take handfuls of pills until my shoulder worked again. No one ever said these lessons come easy, but they come all the same.
Tonight though, I'm way more ambitious -- so much so, in fact, that I'm hoping to be able to walk home without a limp.
Maldanado climbs into the ring and rolls his head. It's three rounds tonight, three minutes each, and, let's be honest, nobody expects me to win. If I could take him to the ground, I'd be preaching the painful gospel all up in here, but tonight is all stand-up. I have way more knockout power than Maldanado does, but in order for that to matter, I gotta hit him -- and trust me when I tell you that I'm not optimistic about landing anything.
We step up into the ring, and the ref gives us a quick once-over before shooting me a look that says, "Wow, do I feel bad for what's about to happen to you," and someone rings the bell. Now, I'd like to tell you that I go in all full of fire and razor wire, but sometimes you know you're gonna take a beating, and anyone who says otherwise is delusional. I ain't making it up, though, when I tell you that the delusional cats are often the best fighters. They think they can take anybody. Maldanado was like that, would step into the ring with guys three times his size and walk away without a mark on him, and right now, I'm envying his myopic badassery.
When I was about 11, I stumbled onto the momentous discovery that the dance studio was packed with unbelievably hot girls, and I began an epic ballet career that led to two things: the first was that I determined that chicks really liked guys who could dance, and the second was that I got called a faggot pretty much every day of my life. But it got me jacked and ultimately led me to gung fu and then Jiu Jitsu and finally mixed martial arts (MMA). Those ballet dancers who taught me in the beginning -- no lie now -- they were some of the biggest tough guys I've ever known. They could balance better, jump higher and kick faster than any of the guys I ever fought. I'm not saying they could take a punch, and, yeah, pretty much all of them were gay, but I always saw them as being just like the fighters I knew. The only difference is that one group likes to make stuff, and one group likes to destroy stuff. Go watch a Jiu Jitsu class and see if you can tell the difference between a bunch of half-naked sweaty Brazilian guys rolling around together on a mat and your average West Hollywood-rave scene. Not kidding -- same thing.
Somewhere along the line, we developed the same misconception about vegetarians. We decided that they were soft, effeminate. This never made sense to me. Not just because I am one and never thought of myself as particularly soft, but because I've seen the alternative. Burger fiends, pork hounds... you trying to tell me those guys come down on the butch side of the spectrum? You gonna sell me on the hunky masculinity of a huge pot belly, achy joints, wheezy lungs and heart disease? Go try it right now: go spend some time at the Kentucky Fried Chicken and try to pick out one guy, one effing guy, who embodies virility.
Maldanado goes to work with some stiff jabs and plants a roundhouse kick under my arm that shatters my breathing into shards of jagged rasps. I tuck in one elbow to hold my ribs in place and switch sides. I can fight right- or left-handed, so I still have a shot at landing a big hammer to his beak, but right now I'm more concerned with catching my breath. He knows I'm rocked and he starts using a long flicking kick to my kisser to keep me off balance. Every time I move in, he sticks me in the teeth with it.
Now don't get me wrong. I don't mind the taste of blood and meat, especially my own. My mouth fills up with the iron flavor, and every time he nails me again, I get that slick metallic syrup shoved down my throat a little more. And don't think for a second that he doesn't know. He can smell the disquiet coming off me like cold sweat, and he's predator enough to know when to press his advantage. His legs are so long and fast that I can't get inside. I simply have no answer to his speed, and two minutes into the first round, I already know how this thing is going to end. Now, settle down, it's not what you think.
You know what? I miss meat every day. Every dang day. But you think ceding to that craving is all beefcake? I don't get it: since when is doing what's easy, as opposed to doing what's right, the definition of masculinity? I covet all sorts of stuff. That doesn't mean I just go and take things. I have dreamed the impossible dream. I have fought the unbeatable foe. (I'll show you those scars if you ask me nicely.) But unlike the venerable lord of La Mancha, I don't glean any satisfaction from the mere struggle. I do, however, glean satisfaction from the fact that I didn't eat anybody.
We end the round with Maldanado sauntering to his corner, fresh as a dang daisy, and I stumble to my stool and miss it by a good six inches. Climbing back up, my corner man is spitting instructions at me, but I'm not really sure which one of his faces I should be listening to. I've already got it worked out, so he's wasting his words anyhow. Just give me some water and don't let the ring doctor know I've got a cracked pin on the left side. I know how to deal with predators.
Maldanado flies out of his corner, right at me. I shrug off his hands, not enough brawn there to end this thing. But he keeps driving me back with those crazy bolts of lightning that he walks on. I step back again, trying to sidestep and keep my back off the rope, and I manage to avoid the majority of his spleen. I can feel his frustration as he tries harder and harder to land something substantial, and right when he's off his nut with ire, I go right at him. Off his back leg, his power leg, he throws guan men, which means "slam the door" and I tuck my head and block it full-on with my mug.
Hunters, predators, bullies, they're all the same. They all believe that power grants them absolution or, at least, immunity, but it doesn't. Power grants culpability, the ethical onus of restraint. Restraint. See, there's a valorous concept -- that's masculinity. We have dominion over this world. That power is ours, and at some point the world will demand to be paid back. Immunity is a myth, man, trust me on this. And what Maldanado hadn't learned (predators never do) is that sometimes the boot to the brainpan is its own justification. Not only is the shock of a cracked bean worth the hurt if it lets you get inside, but the throes of that pickle bring a sort of clarity, a transcendent epiphany that heals your wounds and resolves your bleary vision.
So they can keep their blasé hipster bacon references and their outdoor-cookout meat fests. They all just look like cowards to me -- silk-skinned scaredy-cats too fragile and wavering to resist their own appetites.
Maldanado can't believe it. He can't get his head around the fact that I just traipsed right into his kill shot. And even worse, that I'm still standing there, way too close for his comfort. And in the whisper-quick moment that he hesitates, I drop an overhand soup bone right out of nowhere and lay it across his gob. As his back hits the mat, the thing I'm most aware of -- besides the ache in my elbow -- is the baffled look of confusion on Maldanado's pie as his eyes flicker dim like a bad neon bar sign, and I drag my battered carcass out of the ring, another fight wiser.
The humor doesn't guise it, really. Every time my manager tells me, "Don't worry, Kucan, this cow was suicidal," as he tucks into a t-bone with a self-conscious giggle, it's really like Maldanado's weak-ass jab, a carefully-placed barb trying to perpetuate that illusion of moral exculpation. I've learned now to step into those shots, block 'em right on the dial. And every time you call my dinner rabbit food, or ask me if I'm a vegan because I love animals or because I hate plants, or tell me that God intended for us to eat animals because he made them out of meat, I can feel my rib go squishy again, but I'll step right into it anyhow.
After Maldanado wrestles back his lucidity, he comes over to my corner and gives me a bloody and sheepish smile. He points at me and says, "I'm gonna need that." Stupid me, I'm thinking he means my courage, or skill, or something internal that he sees now but had missed before. I should've remembered that Maldanado was never quite so esoteric. He clears it up for me when he takes hold of my arm, the one that just put his lights out, and pulls out of my elbow a long, bloody incisor, wedged there from when I just rang his bell. "Thanks," he says, holding up the jagged tooth, and he grins wide enough for me to see the space where it belongs.
Ah well, I'm thinking. No one ever said these lessons come easy, but they come all the same.
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