Saturday, June 16, 2007

Bread & Circuses

Cobo Hall. Detroit, Michigan. Summertime. Hot-as-hell, unrepentant humidity. 1984. Commercials for The Toughman Contest had been playing for weeks on Channel 50, showing amateur pugilists in tight, stained jeans flailing at one another, shirtless, wearing sloping discolored boxing gloves circa 1940. No Vic Tanny muscles there. Hardened Joe Q. Roughnecks chosen from the audience to face-off in the ring. Winners continued through the tournament -- to another weekend or another town -- and the losers went home to muster themselves with bathroom surgery; pissing blood, affixing raw calves' livers to shamed, blackened eyes.

Pryvett Rawgers & Co. were there to see it.

The protocols preceding any stadium event dictated that Pryvett & Co. got themselves liberally shitfaced beforehand. They blew the afternoon at the Sunnyside Tavern in LaSalle. Among Pryvett's crew was "Milk Man," whose nickname derived from his pathologically pristine appearance: long flaxen hair, pressed white shirts, immaculate beige Members Only jacket. Milk Man was voted "Mostly Likely to Pursue a Career in Menswear" two years running in their high school yearbook.

There was Konrad, a surly Arab guy whose method for picking up girls in bars involved tripping lasses or spilling drinks on their arms. Whenever a brother, boyfriend or bystander punched Konrad in the face for such conduct, he swore that he was suffering residual prejudice from the 1979 Iran Hostage Crisis. Konrad did, however, distinguish himself once for bringing three packages of hotdogs to a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and disposing of the weiners by hurling them over the audience throughout the film.

The quartet was rouned out by Ernst, an opaque young man of few words, bearded and crowned with an unruly thatch of uncombable brown hair. He was an artist who once submitted a project to his art teacher comprised of a baby doll scorched with a blowtorch affixed to a piece of wood with a dagger. His instructor went ballistic and Ernst was ordered to see the school psychologist, a wan man who regarded the world with heavy-lidded eyes staring through thick-framed Henry Kissinger eyeglasses. He had long, wispy sideburns and stared at Ernst for a long time at the start of their first session before saying, "What are you trying to say with the doll and the dagger?"

So, gunned on draught beer and corned beef sandwiches, Pryvett & Co. made their way to Detroit's Cobo Hall for the Toughman Contest -- MulletVille, Redneck Woodstock. The boys assimilated perfectly with the assembled crowd. This was where drunken auto workers, plumbers, roofers, working slobs of all stripes spent a summer Saturday. Tickets were ten dollars a shot -- "Priced right for families," Pryvett later recalled. "I could just see guys asking the ticket-seller, 'Hey, do I get more beer if I buy the Family Pack?'"

The scene around him at Cobo enthralled the historian in Pryvett. It was Ancient Rome colliding with contemporary trailer park.

The Toughman Contest audience was jacked up on beer, cocaine, nitro-glycerine testosterone. Jeers and epithets circulated through the mob as though some outrage had just occurred on a baseball field, that a running back had just fumbled the ball, or some referee had stuck his officious, ferret nose into the business of sportsmen competing. There was a general contankerous, grunting pulse amid the arena's inhabitants as they waited for the fights to commence.

However fragmented and disjointed the audience's attentions were as the arena filled, all voices joined in a communal roar when the guest MC of the event made his appearance ringside: Mr. T.. Rocky III was only two years in the past and The A-Team was in full flower. Mr. T. shouted a few unintelligible words into a microphone he would use to give the loudspeaker play-by-plays of each fight. The audience roared back its approval. Then Mr. T. gave a final wave and took his seat amid the officials surrounding the ring.

For all of the unhinged hype of the violence to come, the Toughman Contest fights were actually tame; sometimes dull bordering on lame. Shirtless, out-of-shape autoworkers took the ring -- one wearing a pair of Budweiser shorts so tight those sitting nearest the ring could have counted the number of beer caps in the guy's pocket. One fighter threw three punches and then stopped, winded. His opponent was in no better physical condition to capitalize on this pause in the action. In between rounds, fighters returned to their corners for a few drags off a cigarette, a chance to hork into a plastic pail. To get around the Boxing Commission and all its constraining rules, fighters were allowed to kick, as well as punch. This brought a further unkempt schoolyard touch that appealed to the collective reptillian brain of the mob.

The promoters doubtless recognized the limitations of unleashing untrained fighters before an audience of thousands. Hence the guest MC. And Mr. T. did not disappoint. His rapidfire verbosity, the primeival guttural resonance of his voice, held the mob rapt. His most frequent verbal lash at the fighters was, "Come on Gorilla Man!"

Neither Pryvett, Milkman, Konrad or Ernst were particularly demonstrative members of the mob. This wasn't The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But they took in everything around them like cultural observers from another land. Every once in a while a fierce shout would go up somewhere behind them or off to the side, and a fist fight among the rabble broke out like sudden brush fires on the badlands.

After half a dozen matches, an announcement was made from ringside that women would also take to the ring. There was some booing and sexist outburts amid the almost-completely male crowd. These soon turned into startled, excited cheers when it was seen that women were capable of sudden, stunning violence, as well. The female roughnecks had their own menace the mob recognized and approved of. The women had more endurance than the male fighters, flailing leopard-like in the center of the ring, launching kicks with greater frequency and speed. Although few fight-goers would later admit it, the female fighters put on the kind of show they had paid to see.

One of the last fights, between two women, had all the hallmarks of being a completely lopsided slaughter. A gargantuan Detroit Mama, sporting a large round butt and enormous, unwieldy breasts hanging to her waist was to face-off against a petite Latina chick who had the body of a sparrow. The Latina would certainly have speed and dexterity on her side, but the moment the Detroit Mama got hold of her, a massacre would ensue.

The bell rang. The Detroit Mama moved across the ring with a lumbering swagger that seethed menance and confidence. The Latina approached with a light lithe step that betrayed no fear. The disruptions among the audience dissipated as the bloodsport they had all come to see was surely seconds away from happening. The Latina didn't have a chance.

The Detroit Mama made her move, launching a sweeping haymaker that would have easily decapitated her opponent had it landed. It didn't. Where the male fighters usually failed to take advantage of their opponents being off-balance, the Latina chick lashed out with shocking surety, kicking the Detroit Mama in the tits. Unlike the male fighters, the Latina chick didn't lose her wind two or three kicks into her onslaught -- she continued with a ferocious, automated rhythm that soon had the mob on its feet cheering, screaming, calling for more, more.

No matter how the Detroit Mama sought to protect herself, the Latina chick continued kicking her in the tits. After a few failed turns and attempts at blocking the blows -- after a couple of dozen kicks -- the Detroit Mama collapsed to one knee. The Latina reset her stance and delivered a crushing blow to her opponent's face. Then another, and another. The Detroit Mama buckled and crumpled to the mat.

The mob was in overheated hysterics, cheering and cheering the untouched Latina chick.

As the sated crowd poured out of Cobo Hall that night, Pryvett & Co. retired to the Detroiter Bar on Beaubien street in Detroit. The place was filled with fight fans reliving the night's entertainment. As Pryvett and Milkman and even Ernst talked and joked about the last fight, Konrad was unusually quiet. None of the guys commented on this, and it was quickly forgotten after that night. And though they continued meeting and hitting the taverns of LaSalle and Windsor and Detroit, never again did Konrad spill another drink on a girl's arm, nor did he ever trick another lovely prospect on her way to the Ladies' Room.

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