Erik spent the next morning resisting the intake of liquid. It was then that I recognized perhaps the only salutary psychological side effect of self-starvation, for Erik was about to weigh in beside his opponent, and he had not, as far as I could tell, thought about his opponent at all. He had seen Cisco by the blackjack tables a while back and briefly in line at the in-house movie theater, and the moment Cisco left his field of vision was the moment Erik’s thoughts returned to the Rio Buffet or gourmet granola or a single chocolate cupcake, though he was even beyond that now, because now he was dreaming of water. The thirst, Erik said, was worse even than the hunger. It made his teeth ache. Desiccated by forced dehydration, Erik’s skin had taken on a new solidity; pinched, it would pause before flattening back into itself. His ligaments had turned brittle. His elbow hurt. He sneaked, at some point, a sip of Crystal Light, but the powder at its base stuck to his teeth in his dry mouth and made his teeth hurt so intensely he regretted the transgression. He slathered himself in baby oil and stepped into the sauna and sweat, tensing hard as if he might will a few more drops of water from each straining muscle, until the sauna scale read 145.5. At his last fight, Erik had been so weak at this weight that a friend had to physically support him on the walk from the sauna to the scale.
In a packed hotel conference room later that afternoon, Erik watched Cisco play with the chains around his neck. There were reporters present from legitimate media organizations, which itself distinguished this entire endeavor from any fight I had yet experienced, and they came flanked by cameramen. The fighters were surrounded by teams of coaches in matching T-shirts; all were supported by sponsors more eminent than their local tattoo parlors. The fight would air on pay-per-view, and whoever won the main event would win fifty times what he might at one of the smaller, marginally legal fights I’d watched before.
Cisco and Erik both stared out past photographers crouching and clicking around the dais. When he heard his name called, Erik stepped onto the scale, which scrolled up to 146, the maximum allowed weight. His face went slack and his lips parted slightly. He flexed both arms. It was a less than convincing show of strength, a bizarre accumulation of protrusions popping under a translucent sheet of skin on his arms and abs. When he flexed, his two tattoos, “HD” for Hard Drive on the left and “Z” for Zombie Nation Army on the right, gleamed black and clean. He was nauseated and shivering with cold.
Erik stepped off the scale and posed for some shots with Cisco, who stood two inches shorter than Erik. Cisco was thin but not very, fully capable of fighting at 135 should he find within himself half of Erik’s willpower. They faced one another with fists raised, and Erik equalized their heights by forcing his head forward so his neck shot vertically from his shoulders. He had started doing this a few fights ago, he had informed me, and someone said that he looked “like an alien.” Now he was doing it every fight, and shaving his head to augment the effect.
“He looks like an alien,” I heard one of a dozen sportswriters tell the gentleman sitting next to him.
Erik stepped off the stage, and a girl in French braids handed him a large Tupperware container of twenty-four German-chocolate cupcakes.
Off-scale, backstage, I watched Erik slump against a wall and rip the top off a small plastic bottle of cherry Pedialyte: “Helps Kids Feel Better Fast.” He downed it quick as a shot and opened another and another. Twenty other fighters were drinking the same thing. Smiling teddy bears stared from between their thick fingers, then gathered on the floor in a growing mass of crushed plastic.
Erik ripped open a black duffel bag, inside which he had packed food and drinks that he knew from experience his shriveled stomach will not immediately return: cornbread, a single banana, V8, and a small turkey sandwich. He forced a large square hunk of cornbread into the round of his mouth and closed his eyes. Other fighters were staring. No one else had courier-delivered cupcakes or a canvas bag full of cornbread.
“Can I get some of that?” someone asked.
“Yeah, man,” Erik said, and tore off a generous piece. He shoved more moist cornbread in his mouth. His eyes went glassy as he splayed himself against the wall, a great goofy smile spreading across his face, and began to twirl a cupcake in his hand, peeling the foil wrap gently from the chocolate.
Erik said he felt dizzy, though one could tell from his weak smile that it was a pleasing, diaphanous drunk sugar-high kind of dizzy. It took him a moment to notice, when we skipped onto an elevator about to close, that the elevator was packed tight with Cisco and Cisco’s five-man Hispanic entourage. Erik came to consciousness in an awkward silence as we together ascended the fourth, the sixth, the eighth floor. He stared at the floor and rubbed his hand over the back of his neck. One of Cisco’s men leaned against the poster of Erik.
A small voice came from the back of the pack.
“Let’s jump him!”
Erik had stocked the refrigerator in his room with small turkey sandwiches. He would incorporate food slowly, permitting himself only one every hour, along with a smattering of Ruffles, though chips are not an accepted part of the prefight diet. He popped onto the bed and watched, for the first time in weeks, something other than the Food Channel.
“Ruffles?” Wes asked. He had arrived just in time for weigh-ins.
“Yeah, Ken says it’s cool.”
Ken was Erik’s conditioning coach back in Cedar Rapids, and it seemed highly unlikely that he had made any actual judgment on the Ruffles.
Pettis swept into the room. Duke came in behind him. “What’s with the chips?” Duke asked.
“Anderson Silva eats two Big Macs before ev—”
“Calm down, you ain’t gotta justify it,” said Pettis.
Erik’s manager walked in, followed by a large ponytailed man carrying a leather bag.
“Doctor’s here!” said the manager.
“Hey,” said Erik, who was engrossed in another sandwich.
I thought perhaps the doctor had come for some sort of post-weigh-in physical, but instead of examining Erik he pulled out a fluid-filled bag attached to a tube and scanned the room, lips pursed, for a place to hang it. He settled on the large piece of hotel art hanging above Erik’s head, stood on his toes, and jolted it into position until the bag hung perilously from the corner of the frame.
“Can’t find your vein,” said the doctor as he stabbed Erik.
A minute later: “They’re so small.”
A minute later, to the manager: “Do we have any smaller needles?”
When the IV was finally in, the doctor gone, Erik watched Everybody Loves Raymond with rapt attention. His eyebrows kept rising, as if everything were slightly new to him. The colors. The fully internalized presence of other people. The way their voices travel through space. Erik’s exposed abdominal muscles were disappearing under a blanket of skin. His transformation was that of a wilted houseplant newly watered, stiffening back into life, and like a houseplant in revival it was a change only slightly too slow to see. For the first time in days, he was following the back-and-forth of rapid-fire conversation. This episode of Everybody Loves Raymond was funny. It was the funniest thing he had ever seen. When he laughed, the knobs reappeared in muscle, then receded back under the swell. He ripped off a piece of turkey club with his teeth.
“What happened with that girl?” Erik asked Wes during a commercial. Wes was playing with his phone on an armchair.
“Didn’t work out,” said Wes. “She was, you know, an older woman.”
“How old?” I asked.
“Like, almost twenty-six.”
Erik’s phone rang, and he ignored it.
“When are we going to the Rio?” Wes asked.
Erik didn’t look away from the screen. “I think that’s a bad idea.”
Erik’s right arm lay palm up on the bed, so as not to disturb the IV. In the window that ran the length of the room, evening was shading into night and lights were beginning to glow on the strip.
“I read on the Internet,” Erik said, “that people get food poisoning there.”
* * *
Reporters wanted to talk to Erik. Not many, as Erik was relatively unknown, but some. One of these reporters was a fighter herself, and in her Erik took great platonic interest, as if they shared something intimate I myself could never know. Erik introduced me as we stood beside the octagon of the lush Tapout gym. “She’s a writer,” he added.
She had a list of questions on a sheet of paper, and after every one Erik said, “Good question,” though they were by no means particularly distinguished lines of inquiry, and in any case would only lead to a write-up on an MMA Web site with which I was not familiar. The entire errand seemed to me unnecessary.
She reached the end of her list, and turned to me. “Who do you write for?” she asked.
I felt Erik’s gaze upon me, as if I were being tested—as if, confronted by a “writer” whose intentions he understood, my presence in his life was suddenly inexplicable. There was a long, uncomfortable pause. I could hear a man grunting as he lifted weights in another room. Who did I write for? I had recently written a paper for Professor Richard Knowles, who had awarded that paper a D and threatened to fail me for the course.
“Well, it’s complicated,” I said, glancing at Erik, who looked somewhere between skeptical and annoyed by this answer. I panicked. “I write for the Cedar Rapids Gazette.”
Erik smiled in that bright-eyed, surprised way one smiles when one has solved a problem.
“So you’re going to write about this fight for them?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, greatly displeased by this development, “I do plan to.”
It was more than a little alarming that Erik would now expect a write-up in the sports section of his regional newspaper, but I put my hypothetical association with print journalism out of my mind as we dealt with a succession of actual reporters.
“I didn’t have a job. I didn’t have any way of making money,” Erik told someone on the radio. “I just decided to train six or seven hours a day,” he told someone from another MMA site. “Most people won’t do that.”
Erik did not particularly want to talk about his fluidity, his striking, his record; he wanted to talk about everything he had given up, all the possible lives he had rejected. He did not have a “back-out plan” he insisted over and over until I could see rowboats burning in his wake. Had he been able he would have told you from which particular sacrifice every piece of him emerged—the narrowest hinge of his hand, the curve of his neck, systole and diastole. How impressive Erik was before the microphone! Even when he could feel his stomach curdling and his eye sheen shriveling, his words were smooth and full. Often the question of from where Erik Koch had come—he was described to himself by interviewers as having “burst out of nowhere,” which was an invitation to an origin story—involved a kind of generational inevitability. He was the “new breed” because he was well-rounded, and he was well-rounded because he hadn’t trained as a wrestler or a kickboxer but as a mixed martial artist, and this was possible because he had come of age in a different world than that of his older opponents. Sometimes he had started training at ten, sometimes eleven, sometimes sixteen or seventeen, but always he was “just a kid” and always MMA was a thing he’d latched onto, hard and of his own accord. It had been there to pull from the air like oxygen and like oxygen his body just knew how to absorb it, break it down, become the thing he’d found. “My brother taught me” is not a story about sacrifice, which is perhaps why the brother remained an anonymous figure around which conversations danced.
In Cedar Rapids that evening, the members of Team Hard Drive make their way to a viewing party at an establishment that sponsors Erik, known to the fighters as Cici’s but formally and fittingly “Cici’s Pizza Buffet.” The fighters bring their kids, mittens hanging by strings from their sleeves, and let them loose to play arcade games in the back of the restaurant. The adults drink Coke out of tall plastic cups and ignore the fights before Erik’s fight, making fun of the one guy they always make fun of. The pictures flickering across the screen are familiar; they know the cast by name. There is the octagon, cerulean blue and crosshatched by red beams of light. There are the ring girls and the long camera shots that follow them around the ring; there is the kiss they blow to the camera as they twirl and sit back down. There are the referees the camera stops and acknowledges—Herb Dean, Big John McCarthy, Steve Mazzagatti—and the top-tier ticket holders it humors, platinum-haired women in diamonds and glittering tanks on the arms of hairless, polished, elaborately tattooed men. There is Stephan Bonnar’s boyishly jacked inflection carrying the viewers through each hit: Oh and a straight right drops him; Michael’s is all over him with some vicious ground and pound; He landed that left hook earlier; Smiled and answered with a laser straight right hand, right down the middle; Armbar, it’s on! There is Bruce Buffer’s voice, operatic in scope, hailing the arrival of each fighter into the sacred space with oceans-deep rich, rolling swells of sound that rise gently and dip hard with the demands of the ritual welcome.
Erik has his own warm-up room and Duke and Pettis are there, gently there, minimizing their presence as Erik hops and swings at imaginary opponents and as the fights tick by. Nothing is articulated here. There is a television in the warm-up room but no audio; hits happen soundlessly, chased by the low boom of the crowd outside. Duke slides cracked red mitts onto his hands and stands in front of Erik, who thrusts his shins into them. Thwap. Pettis sits on a metal bench and stares at the screen, worrying his knuckles, crack crack, sucking on the lace of his hoodie.
Erik’s is the ninth of eleven fights tonight, which means he is a “contender” but not yet a “champion,” and the pressure implied in this distinction is considerable. He is wearing white shorts that crink and whistle as he walks and although he looks hydrated and healthy, it is hard to imagine this slight white figure—“Powder” people will call him from the stands; “he should get a tattoo of a tan,” someone will tweet—conjuring the kind of power it takes to throw any man to the ground.
Everything is waiting. He waits for Pettis to put on some pads so he can punch them and he waits for the seventh fight to end and the eighth fight to end and he waits for the room-rocking thump-thump of his entrance music and waits for Duke and Pettis to gather behind him with his banner and waits for Pettis to slather Vaseline on his face and then he is in the cage, finally in the cage, only now he is hopping around and waiting for Cisco the Californian, who evidently has many more fans in Vegas than does Erik, and he waits for the cry of Cisco’s crowd to move up through his feet to the tips of his fingernails and something is gathering and then finally Steve Mazzagatti, a man Erik has watched from a couch in Iowa referee fights for years and years, says, “Let’s get it on,” and Erik begins to sway.
He and Cisco step forward and backward, forward and backward, rocking in hypnotic rhythm, a low kick here, a missed uppercut there, and Erik leans low and right and swings his left shin high into Cisco’s head and the head whips out of rhythm and Cisco drops like a dead man and Erik lunges onto Cisco and Steve Mazzagatti jumps in between them because Erik Koch is the winner and the champion and millions of people are watching and the whole room is standing and grown men are moaning and as I look at my hands wet with my tears, Erik flexes every muscle in his body—hands fisted, arms low—and screams.
© 2014 Kerry Howley. Reprinted with permission of Sarabande Book.
Kerry Howley’s work has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and Bookforum. She holds an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa, where she was an Arts Fellow and the Provost’s Visiting Writer in Nonfiction.