I’ve been in Chiang Mai for almost two weeks, bunking down in a private apartment near the university district and heading to the muay thai gym four times a week. Training in 30C+ heat after a long jog under the blazing mid-afternoon sun can give one a rude awakening about one’s fitness. Determined as I am to improve my conditioning and drop some weight, I have to gather all my mental resources when my legs alternate between jelly and lead. Yet every evening as I lie on the massage mat and get rubbed down after training, I feel great.
We chose Chiang Mai due to it’s far less seedy atmosphere than the likes of Bangkok or Phuket. My fledging thai language study doesn’t allow us to properly integrate with the locals but we do at least see how normal thais live. We find a farang-friendly riverside bar near the Old Town and take a well-earned break to watch live music.
This whole country has an hormone imbalance in the current generation. For the most part the women are cute and feminine but there is an absolute abundance of lesbians. Little frumpy girls with short quiffed hair and serious expressions. There’s probably ten times as many as would naturally occur. The men are a joke. Except for those small oasis of muay thai gyms, there is barely a milligram of testosterone in the whole country, of the younger generation at least. The men are all skinny, weak, mincing push-overs supplicating desperately to the women. Ugh.
Brutus and I get a drink and install ourselves against a pillar to watch the band as they run through a set of Greenday and Republica covers. There’s a din of light-hearted chat and the pub is bathed in a warm glow. We already stand out from everyone else. Apart from their obvious physical differences, the thai men are determined to wreck their intrigue and vibe by shamelessly pandering to the girls and then jumping up and down to the music in the vain hope they score by being “fun”. The few farang are seriously creepy. One such low-life is blatantly angling to touch-up and probably date-rape a wasted-drunk local girl. Others are breaking out into short solo dances then value-scanning the bar to see if any girls noticed.
We ignore them all. Just watch the band and talk to ourselves.
I see a smoking hot local girl with exactly the balance between beautiful and sexy. A swishy polka-dotted summer dress flows from her figure, her long tresses of black hair are softly pulled back into a ponytail, and she has on big fat black geek spectacles. Her whole aura exudes elegance. My blood bubbles. This is the girl for me. Within a few minutes she walks past with her plain friend so I turn and stop them. It’s loud, the English is strained so after a minute I say thank you and turn back to the music. But it’s long enough to make a favourable impression. She returns to her group on the veranda by the river.
Ten minutes later she manoeuvres near to us on one side, then the other. I feign inattention. Another ten minutes and she’s back again so this time I say hello and offer her a spot in front of me. She begins a pleasing gyrating dance that is the right side of slutty. She’s showing me how sexy she is without slippy over into attention whoring. Again I feign indifferences. She stops, confused. She restarts the dance, and so on. Ten minutes of me gazing over her to attend to the band and I finally talk to her. She jumps at it. I confirm not only does she fancy me but she’s not just trying to tool me. I like her more at this juncture. She’s the most suitable girl I’ve met since my arrival.
She has to rejoin her group of three friends and an old Korean guy who seems to be some kind of esteemed guest that they are showing around. As the night winds down I decide I’ll have her but I’m certain it won’t be tonight. Too much social pressure and her vibe wasn’t “fuck me” it was “I like you”. Brutus and I decamp to the veranda and for the next quarter hour the girl keeps stealing glances at me and smiling. Surrepticiously she lets me break her off from her group for long enough to exchange details. For the first time in a month I’m having a strong physiological response. My heart is beating faster when I look at her and I’m absorbed in her manner and beauty. That does not usually happen.
Fate has put this onto the backburner. She texts me the next day to say she’s in the airport on her way back to Bangkok. Still, it’s always enlivening to share romantic moments with a real woman.
I’m sitting in our cinema room with Dante as we dig in to a steak and veg meal I rustled up. He opens a bottle of good red wine to wash it down with. We feel like putting on an old Steve McQueen movie. I have Le Mans.
What a movie! It’s like a fly-on-the-wall documentary of the 1971 contest between Porsche and Ferrari. Barely a word is spoken until thirty minutes in as we are instead immersed in the atmosphere and spectacle of the world’s coolest race. There’s large trucks carrying sleek race cars into the circuit, pit crews busying around with last-minute preparations, race-goers from far flung countries converging on the campsites that encircle the track. I could almost smell the petrol and oil.
Interesting is the depiction of the drivers and their world. It’s a treehouse with no girls allowed. These are driven men, all over thirty, all conducting themselves with poise, class and self-belief. There’s some great exchanges where the modesty of the words belies the surpreme confidence with which they are uttered. A journalist asks Steve McQueen’s rival if he expects the race to be between them. He smiles and answers “He’s fast. I’m fast.” A few elegant women orbit around the racers without ever succumbing to the vulgarity of groupie-hood. Real elegant young women with grace and character. One such is the widow of a racer McQueen’s character had a crash with the prior year. After many deeply emotional but outwardly reticent scenes, including a tense shared coffee during a driver changeover, she asks him:
Lisa Belgetti: When people risk their lives, shouldn’t it be for something very important?
Michael Delaney: Well, it better be.
Lisa Belgetti: But what is so important about driving faster than anyone else?
Michael Delaney: Lotta people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.
I turn to Dante and comment “What must it feel like to be a woman in this environment?Even a 10 brings nothing to the table better than what the men already have.” This is life as it should be. All the men were the best side of thirty, living interesting lives, comfortable in their world and it just came across so natural that these beautiful young women would not only seek them out but willingly place themselves below the men.
That’s it. Decided. This June we shall attend Le Mans. Steve-o has sold us on it. Why aren’t we touring Europe for all the big events. Paris-Dakar rally? Monaco GP? There must be some horseracing somewhere too. It’s not enough to be sitting in a Turkish bazaar sipping coffee while I haggle over rugs, nor enough to dabble in tapas at a Seville bar, nor even a pai-au-chocolat outside the Paris opera house. It’s not enough to see the world. I want to see the world’s events.
Gene Tunney, arguably the best heavyweight champion in history and himself a renaissance man, titled his autobiography “A Man Must Fight”. Boxing fans know him principally for his dethroning of the beloved Jack Dempsey by shutout decision and then the allegedly controversial “long count” rematch. He also shares with Rocky Marciano and Lennox Lewis the distinction of being the only heavyweight champs to retire having beaten every man he faced. Impressive.
I hold an affection for Tunney because not only was he a well-rounded, cerebal man as comfortable in the social circles of the heiress he married as he was in the prize ring, but he was also a dedicated humble man with incredible courage and determination as exemplified by his first bout with my all-time favourite fighter Harry Greb. Witness his own description from his book:
In the first exchange of the fight, I sustained a double fracture of the nose which bled continually until the finish. Toward the end of the first round, my left eyebrow was laid open four inches… In the third round another cut over the right eye left me looking through a red film. For the better part of twelve rounds, I saw this red phantom-like form dancing before me.
It is impossible to describe the bloodiness of this fight. My seconds were unable to stop either the bleeding from the cut over my left eye, which involved a severed artery, or the bleeding consequent to the nose fractures…..
… The bell rang for the thirteenth round; the seconds pushed me from my chair. I actually saw two red opponents. How I ever survived the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth rounds is still a mystery to me. At any rate, the only consciousness I had was to keep trying. I knew if I ever relaxed, I should either collapse or the referee would stop the brutality. After the gong sounded, ending the fifteenth round, I shook hands with Greb and mumbled through my smashed and swollen lips, “Well, Harry, you were the better man, to-night!” and I meant that literally. Harry missed the subtlety of the remark, for he said, “Won the championship,” and was dragged from me by one of his seconds, who placed a kiss on his unmarked countenance.
A man must fight. There are rituals in all societies marking a boy’s ascent to manhood. The English rural artistocrats would blood their sons on hunting day, for example. Fighting is integral to a fully actualised man’s demeanor. Like saying, “he’s a lover not a fighter. But he’s also a fighter so don’t get any ideas.” You can see the difference in body language and presence between a man who has fought and acquitted himself to his own satisfaction and the lilly-livered pussy who still fears physical confrontation. “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” ask’s Fight Club’s Tyler Durden. This doesn’t count as a fight…..
My first fight came in Japan in an amateur kickboxing show. I’d signed up on a whim, having read Kurt Angle‘s biography while on holiday in Thailand and then returned to Tokyo with a drive to put myself into the ring and see what I’m made of. Before then I’d been practicing a sophisticated ego-driven avoidance by training martial arts but finding excuses not to fight. So I sign up and train hard for six weeks with roadwork, good diet, and frequent sparring. By the final week my body is at it’s lifetime peak of fitness. I wake every morning feeling like I’ve won the genetic lottery. I’m full of pep and spring for whatever the day throws at me. It’s a feeling of almost indescribable physical bliss. But I’m ill-prepared for the effects of adrenalin.
A week before the fight a tiny kernal of stress balls itself up in the pit of my stomach and begins growing relentlessly. I get increasingly distracted from my daily tasks as my mind wanders to my opponent and fight night. I struggle to get good sleep and my appetite wanes. The closest analogy I can find is the week before an important exam. I understand now why trainers say most fights are lost in the dressing room. It’s a struggle to master the adrenalin and the emotions it brings. But as fight day arrives I feel good.
The fight itself is a blur. I forget all my higher skills, forced to get by on muscle memory and determination. I take far more punches than in the gym and I can hear my girlfriend shouting “Don’t hit my boyfriend!” But I perserve until the fight finishes with my chasing my opponent around the ring because I hit much harder than he. He gets a well-earned decision based on his good start. We shake hands and as my seconds remove my gloves my girl can’t keep her hands off me. The power of testosterone! I retire to the best shower of my life and for a week afterwards I’m walking on air. I’m blooded. I know more about myself. In the early-going I was battered from pillar-to-post and never gave up.
So as I write I’m sitting in my Thai apartment the morning after watching a gym-mate headline a small hall muay thai show. He’s a 45-yr old former fighter (not high level, just avid martial artist) who wanted one last chance to experience the thrill of the ring. In truth it was a poor fight. He’s shot. I’d only met him that night, as it was my first day in Thailand, but simply watching him perform the pre-fight Wai Kru ritual I knew he was done. His body was too stiff, too ringworn, I knew he wouldn’t even be able to turn his kicks over at the hip. It was exciting while it lasted but eventually he retired on his stool at the end of the fourth with a broken rib and right hand.
Disappointed? You wouldn’t know to look at him. He’d been in the ring with the buzz of adrenalin, the din of a cheering crowd, and the look of satisfaction of having been hit hard but give it back as best as he could. Needless to say the women mobbed him.
There was a time when Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) was called No Holds Barred (NHB) and it really was. No gloves, no time limits, no referee standups, no Affliction t-shirts. This was before MMA become dominated by West Coast cookie-cutter douchebags with questionable facial hair, tribal tattoos and sloppy kickboxing. Back in the old NHB days (circa 1993-1998) promotions held one-night 8-man tournaments stacked with genuinely interesting fighters with contrasting styles.
The sport was more intriguing in it’s infancy. It was spectacle but it was also psychologically different to it’s modern sanitised incarnation. Murillo Bustamante, himself a great bare-knucle fighter, put it best in an interview with the old Full Contact Fighter newspaper:
Imagine two similar scenarios, that differ in only one detail. A guy flies you by helicopter 100 miles into the desert and leaves you next to a big rock. The sun is high in the sky. He gets back into the helicopter and says “I’ll be back for you tomorrow.” Now imagine the same scenario but his parting words are simply “good luck.” It’s a massive difference. In the first case you hunker down till the time expires. In the latter case you have to start walking.
That’s what time limits and busybody athletic commissions did to ruin NHB. Just compare the vibe and rawness of these two different fights. Don’t get me wrong, the modern fighters are highly skilled athletes and under the modern rule set they’d beat the old timers. But feel the difference between a fight and a sport. NHB is nature red in tooth and claw.
The annals of NHB greatness are stacked with the names of great men: Jose Pele Landi Jons, Mikhail Avetsyan, Dan Henderson, Vanderlei Silva, Kareem Barkalev, Amar Suloev…. but one name stands above all others. The man who won the most 8-man tournaments in history, who put together an unprecedented undefeated streak (his wiki is incomplete), the first kickboxer to regularly beat BJJ players and wrestlers, a short tubby light-heavyweight who consistently fought and beat the best heavyweights on the planet. Gentlemen, I present Igor Vovchanchyn. The greatest bareknuckle fighter who ever lived.
My favourite Igor moments:
- He fights a one-night tournament in Israel (Absolute Fighting Championship 3) with a ten minute win over, then comes back for a titantic struggle to edge past Mihkail Avetsyan (himself a great fighter), and with only ten minutes break takes on a fresh Nick Nutter. He’s beaten on for half an hour until his face runs out of blood to bleed from and then he starts headbutting Nutter from the bottom until he breaks his nose and Nutter taps out from the top.
- In the rematch in Recife, Brazil he meets Nutter in the final of the 8-man tournment. Nutter dives for a double-leg and takes a full-on knee to the face. The fight is over in 10 seconds.
- Mark Kerr is the next big thing in American NHB. He’s won two UFC tournaments, an 8-man tournament in Brazil, and is looking unstoppable. He’s a herculean figure. Igor meets him in Japan for Pride in 1999. Kerr takes him down, dominates position but just cannot hurt the man. Igor grinds him down with rabbit punches from the bottom, kicks himself free, and finishes the fight with knees to the head. Due a recent rule change the fight is declared a no-contest (though everyone knew who got beat up and who did the beating). In a rematch a year later Kerr fights very scared and lays’n’prays for the distance to hand Igor an official decision win.
I love his attitude, his gameness, his heart, his will to win. And that sneaky way of teasing the left hand to draw opponents onto his money right hand. Igor, we salute you!
There’s something manly about leaning back in a chair, legs sprawled infront, and a big fat Cuban cigar in your mouth. The greatest dictators of history smoked them. Can you imagine Saddam Hussein or Fidel Castro with a skinny little Lambert & Butler between their teeth as they issue dictats ruining the lives of millions? No you can’t. If you are even able to bring up such a visual image without shuddering then get off my internet now. Cigars are manly.
So I find myself in a Havana with a couple of friends. We’ve been to Hemingway’s favourite haunt Floridita where I smoked a big fat Cohiba Robusto while knocking back a daiquiri and listened to the beautiful voice of their resident singer. My eyes idly roamed the room and I mentally patted myself on the back. This is living well. In life we get moments that live forever, mental images, smells, sounds that forever recall a feeling of gratification and satisfaction. This was one such moment. The cigar was integral.
I know little about cigars, being pretty new to the experienced (I’m a lifetime non-smoker, since my one and only cigarette was forced onto me by my best friend’s sister when I was seven years old). It all began when Kurtz and Dantes helped me design a Gentleman’s room in our house. It’s a place to be pompous, refined, elitist and manly. Green leather chesterfield sofas, brown velvet drapes, low wattage hidden lighting, jazz music…….. and cigars.
None of us knew the first thing about cigars other than we must begin smoking them. A trip to the local shop brought back Hamlets. Ugh. We upgraded to Henry Wintermans, the best we could find without trekking to a specialist cigar shop. Ugh. So finally I head down Soho and walk into an official Cuban cigar retailer. I explain my trainee-smoker cigar status and the guy recommends some Nicaraguan double maduros for £4 each. Let it be known there is a monumental difference between a well-chosen £4 imported cigar and a £2 supermarket abortion. Monumental. We were on track.
Kurtz lets us get picked up by two jineteras outside Hotel Ingleterra, the old colonial watering hole we use to get the only decent sit-down toilet stop in Havana. The girls start their scam at an overpriced bar (we don’t buy them drinks) then we are informed of a special “cooperative” cigar scheme where cigar workers have one day to legally sell top cigars at a fraction of the retail price…. and that day is today. Sure. Right-ho. Not suspicious at all. We check them out and are quoted $120 for 25 Cohiba Esplendidos. We pass but have at least filled in some price information.
A few days later we are in Vinales, a beautiful Northern village that appears to be a magnet for female sex tourists. Never in my life have I seen so many good-looking, suave, salsa-dancing men spend so much effort validating homely ageing Western women far beneath their class. Good luck to them. The day before leaving the older son of the house offers cigars at $70 a box. The negotiation begins.
I walk away with a presentation box of Esplendidos, a cube full of Robustos, and Montecristo No.4s. It’s not till I get back to Mexico (and the internet) I discover the former retail for £35 a piece while the latter are £15. Still, I’ve been reading the Count of Monte Cristo so I just had to have ’em. Money be damned. It costs me £75 for 75 cigars then the guy has a spare box of Romeo Y Julieta Milles Fleurs. He eyes my watch and wonders if I have anything to swap for the box. The irony of the situation is not lost on me: I swap a Chinese imitation Panerai Luminor Marina for what are either imitation or stolen Cuban cigars. When he finds out it’s the watch Stallone wore in the last Rambo movie he’s enthused. It may be the coolest watch in Cuba. Or at least Vinales.
Back in London I need a crash course in cigar husbandry. Ebay furnishes a pleasant Spanish cedar humidor. Dantes will be back from Poland tonight so we intend to retire to the Suite and take a long satisfying smoke.
Vibe – How do you feel when you are around a man? He is fun, relaxed, happy in his skin and with his superiority over those around him. He needs nothing but freely gives of himself. He is the warm end of the pool.
Presence – What is the initial impression that strikes you as you meet for the first time? When you size him up in those first moments how does he make you take note and think “this guy has something about him?” It’s a combination of physical competence, grooming, dress, body language, facial expression.
Mastery – A man is master of his world. He has seen it, done it, become extremely good at it. Whether he’s observing the world with clarity, advising a protege, or playing chess he is able and focused.
Intrigue – He leads a lifestyle of experience and magnitude. He travels, he fights, he loves, he drinks. When sitting at a dinner party with a fully developed man he weaves story upon story into a early hours as everyone sits fascinated.
Here I outline what I’m doing and why. The aim is to fully develop as a man and lead a lifestyle of epic coolness for my own gratification. Over time I’ll figure out teachable theories and maybe write a book. For now, it’s just a journey.