My theory about octagons is this: There is really only one octagon, and that one flickers in and out of existence over space and time, such that the very same octagon is summoned to consciousness over and over again. The fighters all know they have something to summon; why else the little bow at the cage door, the solemn straight-faced walk-out, the open-mouthed prayer as their brows are Vaseline-slathered. "Enter the octagon," says the announcer, and suddenly it's there. Except when it isn't, for the theory also accounts for the fights that failed: the octagon neglects to show up. These are the fights we all leave disappointed, depressed, feeling vaguely dirty for having witnessed whatever we had just witnessed. The cruelty without the "theater of." We know these fights by the way they fail to bring us outside of ourselves; rather, they drive us deeper in, make us quiet and sick and wondering whether our past ecstasies have been mere illusion.
And though I would not have put it this way at the time, what I very much wanted to know in St. Louis was which were the elements that brought forth the octagon, and which that kept it away, and how one kept the elements in sync such that the integrity of the spectacle might be best protected. I would have liked a spreadsheet or a bulleted memo to this effect.
I bopped along to the music Kenny Nowling was blasting as he forced us to stand in the August heat. I believe it was some kind of rap. In addition to his musical selections Kenny wished us to admire the full-size bus he'd slapped with the logo "Fight Me MMA," before which he stood as he addressed the fighters in the parking lot beside the arena, a few hours before the fight.
"We want you to come back and fight for us," he said, smiling, oleaginous in the summer sun. The fighters were confused by all the ceremony; perhaps they were being buttered up for some cruel letdown, something about the lack of funds to pay them. Instead we were led to a locker room with a television that took up half the wall, the screen filled with the still-empty octagon, and a dozen lockers labeled with the fighters' names. The lockers, upon further inspection, each contained bags bursting with swag. Their names were sewn into the sides.
For a moment the only sound to be heard in the locker room was that of zippers unzipping. Hands breaking into packages: an iPod, a mousepad, a pen, T-shirts, cologne.
"Fight for you?" Sean said, tearing plastic from the iPod, "I will hook for you."
"I can use this pen for Bible college!" Brian said.
We were meant to stay in the room afterward, listening to the referee recite the rules. The fight would end when a man tapped the canvas in defeat, or the referee decided that one of the fighters was not adequately defending himself (whether out of exhaustion or because he had lost consciousness), or the doc- tor Kenny Nowling was legally obliged to employ felt an injury particularly grievous, or, alternately, the three five-minute rounds ran their course, at which point a panel of three judges would consult their notes and determine a winner. There was to be no "small joint manipulation," which meant that one could not bend an opponent's finger backward until he tapped, no eye-poking, groin-kicking, head-butting, skin-pinching, or hair-pulling. There was to be no "fish-hooking," or sticking one's finger in the other man's mouth. Nor, as the rules have evolved thus far, is it permissible to strike a man in the back of the head, the spine, the throat. It is illegal to knee him in the head while he is on the ground. This last prohibition is controversial, and it is often noted that such a knee would be perfectly permissible in Japan.
We were meant to stay in the room and listen to a recitation of the rules, but Sean is not a man in the thrall of authority. It was six o'clock, well before any ticketholders had arrived. On the ground someone had pasted sets of blue footprints leading we knew not where. Wordlessly Sean and I followed them past the other locker room, a snack stand, a "Fight Me MMA" T-shirt kiosk, and through some double doors, where we stopped and craned our necks in unison. Terraced walls sloped up on all sides, 10,000 seats planted in them. Four prodigious flatscreen TVs— these, I surmised, for the "video component"—faced each side of the arena. The octagon waited, inert. From its far side a fireball shot into the air.
"What the hell was that?" Sean asked.
The twin fire-coughing propane tanks the promoters had apparently procured were attached to an elevated ramp, on which fighters would make their entrances. There would be revolving laser lights. There would be dry ice. I felt offended by the lack of delicacy. Sean, whether out of nervousness or disgust, fell silent and walked back to the locker room. I took a seat by the cage and stayed as the arena swelled with fans, until each terraced wall was half-stippled with faces, until all the earpieced assistants materialized, clipboards in hand, until the ring girls assumed their cross-legged pose. There are those who feel smaller in a crowd, but I felt part of an intuitive elect, each of us driven here by the impulse to gather and be given access to something I could not name.
The lights went out, and the screens flipped on; it was time to see what had become of the video. What first came across were just pictures—crisp images of men against brick, all the clean visual work you'd expect, montages of men lifting iron things. Someone was beating a tire with a sledgehammer, and then someone was punching a bag, and then someone was just standing in front of some wooden beams. It wasn't until the sound kicked on that I woke up and began to wonder whether I had misjudged the entire enterprise. A fighter stared at the camera. Hideous noises poured from his open mouth, and from the mouth of the next fighter, and the next. The audio system was broken, distorted beyond all recognition. Thousands around me put their hands over their ears, closed their eyes. The sounds were complex variations on a long low moan, so loud as to be physically painful, the soundtrack of a bloody war waged underwater. I left myself open, put my hands at my sides, parted my own lips. Each time a man moved his face, this low prehuman music blasted out, a cry just outside the decipherable. Oh, auspicious malfunction! For five long seconds Kenny Nowling, who was standing between me and the cage, stood shocked in terror-stricken stillness. This moment had not been in the script. Then, lifting his arms over his head, he crossed and uncrossed them, until someone somewhere sucked the voices from the men so nothing at all issued from their lips, which went on parting and meeting and parting again.
Now everything seems to click, as if the final element has been righted such that a waiting spectacle might spring forth. Now the face of the announcer is beaded with sweat, the light beams spin in tandem, the beer carts creak with melancholy. The one element that does not shift, that seems incapable of shifting, is Sean, who walks out, when summoned, looking exactly as I had left him. He strolls slowly toward the octagon, eyes downcast, as if taking a solitary walk on a spring day.
The fighters of St. Louis, we are soon to discover, eschew the elegant minimalism of their Des Moines counterparts for some over-costumed vaudevillian mime. In a moment Darryl Cobb will walk out—"The Devastation Darryl Cobb"—wearing a construction vest and a camouflage balaclava, will pause at times on the ramp with his hands on his hips, as if modeling said vest on a runway, will bring men to their feet. In Sean's case the ramp merely seems like a long way to get to the cage, and his utter lack of affect renders everything else bizarre, like a dancer stopping mid-performance to have a smoke as the rest of the company swirls by. The propane tanks do not start shooting flames until he is halfway down the ramp. Sean strolls along, looking down, and does not appear to notice the balls of fire rising in his wake.
"It is very evident," an announcer will say during the commentary added to the fight when it airs, weeks later, on local television, "that Darryl Cobb, you can see there, is a much more fit fighter than his opponent."
Cobb stands two inches taller than Sean, hairless and hard. Deep creases line his upper body, articulate shoulder from biceps, ripple across his abdomen. Musky light bounces off his head. The ring girl rises from her seat, all teeth and confidence.
Sean's arms, which I have heard him describe as "T. rex arms," are so short they do not seem to serve the same animal purpose as those of Cobb, which are uncommonly long; Cobb's biceps rise almost comically from the small of the elbow. He seems to slide through a different substance than Sean, every tap quicker, arms extending from and snapping back to his compact torso like the searching tongue of a fly-hungry frog. He jabs Sean, kicks him, jumps into and out of Sean's reach in a single hop. And yet it is Cobb pressed against the fence, crowded by Sean, who glides toward Cobb even as he eats shot after shot. Sean moves like a fat man on hot coals, never still for a moment but each step fractions of an inch off the ground. Cobb jabs. Sean's back is to me and he vibrates hard twice in time with the glorious unfurling of Cobb's arms. They dance in my direction; Sean has gone red in the soft skin under both eyes. When Cobb leans into one leg and shoots the other across Sean's white calf I hear the knock of bone against bone and feel the crowd hear it behind my back, the small parts of 3,000 ears vibrating in tune. Brian pours water into Sean's mouth and kneels close to whisper his counsel. Now there is a third slash on Sean's face, this one on the nose, a red so deep across the bridge it's almost black.
When the ring girl is through her second cycle, Cobb tries the same side kick. Sean catches Cobb's ankle in his hand, and for a long moment holds him still and tilting on one leg, before yanking it hard and sending Cobb flat on the mat. Sean pounces, and now they are both on the ground facing one another, Cobb struggling from the bottom. Sean spreads his whole self prone atop Cobb's flat body, shoving his bloody eye into the other man's chest. Both men are soaked in sweat; as Sean holds Cobb down they slide this way and that, two jellyfish jockeying, and then all at once two black legs and one arm emerge from the bottom to spider around Sean's back, and it seems that Sean, still on top, is a piece of meat inside a hawk's spindly talon. Cobb twirls out, all length and grace, and Sean stumbles to his feet. I have forgotten myself entirely; if any mortal part of mine is calling out for attention, I cannot hear it.
The men, standing now, pause for a breath. Cobb throws that same kick, and this time Sean absorbs the blow while slamming his right fist into Cobb's cheek.
Cobb backs up. He turns his head side to side theatrically, as if to shake off the punch. He smiles wide.
"You've got a nice right," Cobb says.
"You've got a nice left," Sean says.
"I think a lot of people," says the TV color man, careful to steer clear of self-incrimination, "would not have expected Huffman to last this long."
Both men are smiling now, their eyes wide as they lunge into one another. Cobb's arms swing right up the middle, one-two, jabs that would take another man out; Sean's face trembles slightly and he hops out of the way, swinging with great loping hooks from either side. He seems not to register kicks to his thigh, stomach, calves; Cobb grimaces more as he throws a punch than Sean does as he receives one. Sean was bleeding from the brow a moment ago, but the bleeding has stopped altogether, as if the seams on Sean's body were something you could rip only temporarily before the flickering surface of his skin fuses back into a single unbroken sheath.
It isn't until the third round that Sean's skin begins finally to tear. First it's a stream from one eye and then the next; the blood dribbles onto his chest, draws itself into a strange webbing along the front of his torso. When Cobb knuckle-digs the deep cut along the bridge of Sean's nose blood falls thicker, in dark waves. Sean is still absorbing blow after blow, barely quivering at Cobb's hardest, straightest jabs, but it is as if his skin is conceding where he will not; Cobb is still hard and unbroken while Sean leaks onto both of them, still smiling, still in the center of Cobb's range. My thoughts slide by with the same whistling clarity of that night in Des Moines, but this time I feel pulled toward Sean with the painful, pathetic gratitude of a person who knows herself to be incurring a debt she'll never discharge.
Sean huffs hard as the bell rings, as the judges judge, as Cobb's arm is raised in predictable triumph. Cobb looks mildly pleased in victory. Sean is perfectly delighted in defeat. He walks out into the crowd, smiling hugely. "Feels good!" he says to no one. "A fuckin' war!" In the locker room the other fighters fist-bump, slap his ass, lay large hands on his sweaty shoulders. "I got more gas at 170!" he laughs. They all congratulate him at once, their voices lost in the sweep of praise, the words "warrior" and "monster" floating up through the sweaty mob. Sean hops into the shower and sings loud happy syllables that bounce off the walls. "Where's the doctor?" he asks Brian as he towels off. Later there will be needles, anesthetic, thread, but the doctors are nowhere to be found at the moment, and Sean is too adrenaline-drunk to feel anything; he slips back into the crowd to catch some fights, but so eager are people for a piece of Sean that he doesn't get to watch a single one from the floor. A boy of maybe twelve walks up to him and asks for his autograph, and, having revealed Sean as generally amenable, unleashes a stream of kids with pens at the ready. A stout blonde pretends to have a question for him, kisses him on the cheek, and runs away in heels that click on the sticky arena floor. When I turn from the fights to Sean, I realize that I am standing in a line of people waiting for an audience. A man in a suit waits behind me, and as I step out of the way puts his arm on Sean's shoulder. "I would like to invite you," he says, "up to our skybox."
As Sean jogs up a flight of arena stairs, I stay close so everyone knows I am of his party. A Hispanic woman in high heels blocks our passage; she holds up a camera, raises her eyebrows, and smiles shyly. Her husband snaps the picture.
"Thank you!" she gushes. "Oh, thank you!"
People crowd around Sean, shoulder up against one another to better hear his chatter. As a man places a Bud Light in his hand, Sean is as garrulous as I have ever seen him. He is telling them about Miletich, about his game plan, about his time in the Navy. He is telling them about his plans, about his comeback, about how he is going to make a go of it this time for real, about how he really is going to get into shape. I can see our future clearly now, a trimmer Sean, bigger fights, the two of us thrown together into an exalted dissolution each time he elects to take us there.
From the skybox we have a perfect view of Josh Neer pounding his fist into the face of his opponent. The shock of Cobb's beating has only just begun to register on the soft surface of Sean's face, which is bubbling up in odd places. As he talks a purple egg swallows more and more of his forehead. The skin under his eyes has gone bulbous and yellow. Dried blood in the moon above his right eye has clotted to black. His left ear is deformed as ever, the top half shiny and round as an eyeball. "Hey," Sean says, taking notice of me for the first time since the fight, "did I tell you that I'm going to be a dad?"
Kerry Howley's essays, short stories, reviews, and reportage have appeared in The Paris Review, Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Gulf Coast, Vice.com, and frequently in Bookforum. Thrown, her book-length essay, is an account of two years spent in the company of mixed martial artists, narrated from the perspective of a semi-fictionalized graduate student named Kit. Howley teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she resides with a husband, son, and vizsla. You can follow her on Twitter @KerryHowley.