The fight turned ugly within moments of its start. There was no trigger, no insult or questionable shot to the groin, but it was clear to everyone in the audience that the two men in the pit were filled with the rage to win and that one of them would have to be carried away.
The bald man with the beard stood a head taller than his opponent and was clearly the crowd favorite. Most of those in attendance had already seen him nearly decapitate a German mercenary the previous week. He was both bearded and bare-chested, both rarities for a street fighter, which seemed to be the point—to intimidate his opponents with both size and lack of fear. With each punch, spittle flicked from his lips in a thin spray that caught the single bare fluorescent light that illuminated the pit from above. A Chechnian military tattoo stretched across his hairy back, and there was a red skull painted crudely on his chest. Whether it was blood or pigment, no one could say.
The bald man connected for the third time, and his opponent’s head whipped to the side. But the man recovered immediately. Although shorter than his gargantuan rival, he was still tall, athletic, and seemingly impervious to pain. He wore a dark, featureless mask that matched the nondescript combat fatigues that covered the rest of his body. Just below his shoulders, a number six was hand-painted in white on both sides. He was taking a beating, but returned each punch in kind—sometimes doubling-up with two quick jabs—and what he lacked in strength, he made up in ferocity.
The largely African crowd fed on the spiraling aggression as the two fighters traded blows. The men had burst from their corners like runners off the block and proceeded to beat each other back and forth without pause and without any attempt to block or parry. At first, jostling onlookers moved casually through the stiff, salty air as they searched for space on the tiered rows of benches that surrounded the pit. But in just moments, as the slap-slap-slap of tit-for-tat strikes echoed off the walls of the hexagonal room, everyone in sight of the bout went to their feet, waving money, twirling colored towels, and whooping at the top of their lungs.
After five disappointing matches, they finally had what they came for. One of these two men would bring the pain.
But after several minutes, it became clear that jabs and crosses would put neither man down quickly, and the referee—a three-foot man in a neat dealer’s vest and slacks—rang the bell and the first round was called to the groan of the crowd. A pair of hats were passed, one marked with a skull and one marked with a six, but few in the crowd parted with any money. It wasn’t time. Yet.
“What do you think it means?” A thin Ethiopian with high cheeks spoke to the old man next to him as he passed one of the hats down the line.
“I’m sorry?” The old man lifted his head to the ceiling.
“The number. On the masked man’s arms. What do you think it means?”
“I’m afraid I can’t see it.”
The Ethiopian turned. The eyes of the man next to him were frosted gray, and they danced over the flapping red tarps of the ceiling. Although he couldn’t say why, he was immediately angry that a blind man was there. He turned back to the beating. “Why do you come to the fight if you can’t see?”
The second round was for mixed martial arts, and as soon as the bell rang, the combatants danced in a spiral around the beach-sand floor before launching into a series of blocks and kicks.
The masked man connected at the knee and the crowd hushed at the audible snap, and for a moment it appeared that the fifth match of the day would end early, just as all the others.
But the bearded man with the red skull roared with bulging eyes and got to his feet, and the battle resumed.
Everyone stood and cheered.
Except the blind man. “There’s more to a fight than the spectacle.”
The Ethiopian sat back down with the rest. “What is a spek-tackle?” he asked without turning from the contest. Perhaps he would find another seat. If one opened closer.
“You’ll see.” The old man’s head was oddly shaped and mostly barren, with just a few long wisps of gray hair that floated up and down gently in the hot breeze.
The bare-chested colossus punched with such force that the masked man flew into the plywood wall, which shook on loose nails. As he pulled away, one of the nails exited the flesh of his arm, trailing blood.
The crowd cheered again but groaned immediately as the little man rang the bell and ended the second round. The hats were passed again. This time both filled nicely.
The Ethiopian pointed. “Number Six wears a mask. Do you think it means something?”
The hats were collected impatiently and the referee counted the money in each. There was enough for machetes, but no more. A pair wood-handled blades was tossed to the sand. Some people cheered. Some booed.
“Why do they object?” the blind man asked.
“They had hoped for chainsaws. We have not seen a chainsaw battle in many weeks.”
“Which one did you pick, my friend?”
“The masked man. I like him. He is smaller, but tough.”
The old man smirked. “I hope you will not be disappointed.”
“What do you mean?”
The bell rang and the pair grappled for the machetes. With his mobility hampered, the bearded man hobbled forward and missed his weapon, but he tackled Number Six and ripped one free with bulging biceps. Blades met even as the masked man lay on the sand. The bearded colossus leaned over the crossed blades, using his weight to force them down onto his opponent.
But lying on his back, the masked man’s legs were free, and he kicked his opponent’s swollen knee twice, then in the balls three times, drawing mixed reactions from the stands as the beaded giant stumbled back. Six rolled away and got to his feet. He leaned over and gripped his machete with two hands, panting, as his adversary glowered with hate that, to the audience, seemed to presage the end of the bout.
The fighters faced each and circled the pit, machetes in hand. The red-necked giant hobbled, then swung. He was reduced to powerful but mostly wild swings, which the masked Number Six dodged easily. And so it became a battle of endurance rather than strength.
“You see?” The Ethiopian pointed, on his feet again along with most of the rest. “Six will win!”
The blind man kept his seat. “Of that, I am certain.”
Machete blades met again. Three time. Four times. Ten. The bearded man lunged again and his masked opponent spun out of the way suddenly, turning 360 degrees and bringing his blade down two-handed onto the giant’s scalp. There was a sharp crack and another burst from the crowd.
Number Six dropped the blade and leaned against the wall as rivulets of blood seeped into the already damp sand.
As the body was dragged away, Number Six limped to his corner and pulled the covering from his head, revealing a swollen and bloodied face.
The crowd hushed instantly.
“He” wasn’t a he at all.
A heavily-tattooed woman with short hair, like a soldier, drank from a bottle of water. She had swollen cheeks, one fat eye, and a cut lip that seemed already to be healing. A couple men in the audience booed, but most were too shocked to utter a sound.
Someone threw a beer bottle into the pit, and it almost struck the woman’s head, which brought everyone to their feet again and the jeering started in earnest.
The dwarf in the dealer’s vest fired a greasy revolver into the air, two-handed, and the crowd moved from deafening to merely unruly, hurling insults and shaking their heads as the woman wiped the sweat from her scalp and spat blood into a bucket.
She had light brown skin but wasn’t African. Hispanic, maybe, or native. She ignored the jeers and tended to the puncture wound in her arm.
The old man listened as the Ethiopian next to him turned livid at a presumed betrayal.
After a quick calculation by the fight’s organizers in the booth above, it was decided the decapitation had earned the woman enough points to face the latest champion, a new crowd favorite who had only been crowned three days earlier. Whether she actually had, by the rules, jumped three spots or not, no one cared. The crowd wanted blood. And they’d pay to see it.
The hexagonal auditorium went quiet as the woman bent and listened to the dwarf describe both the unusual opponent and the rules of a title match. Many grumbled, but then, even a woman had a right to know what she was facing.
The crowd whispered a name over and over between them. “Cano . . .”
When she nodded in assent, cheers burst with such force that the plywoods walls shook and the old man grimaced.
The Ethiopian tapped his shoulder. “Now you will see. Now Cano will show that bitch.”
“I’m afraid I won’t see anything, my friend. But if I were you, I would be careful about paying any more money.”
“Why? Marcel pays the cartels to run a clean fight. That is why we come. Your money is safe here. Not like with the Triads across town.”
“Oh, it’s not the little man I would worry about. Or the cartels. It’s the other two.”
The dwarf returned and explained that Cano wouldn’t face a woman. The crowd booed and the little man suggested they raise the stakes to entice him.
Wads of crumpled bills were passed man to man and dropped in hats and buckets as the titillated, half-drunk revelers gave the last of their weeks’ wages for a chance to see something none of them ever had before: a woman in a fight to the death.
The dwarf disappeared up the stairs again, and when he returned, there was quiet.
Then cheers as Cano appeared.
“This is the best night!” the Ethiopian exclaimed.
The roars and taunts faded as the crowd repeated the man’s name over and over. “Ca-no! Ca-no! Ca-no! Ca-no!”
The man was tall, but no taller than his opponent, nor even as muscular as the burly woman. He wore a hood and jeans. His face was covered in a colorful plastic mask, a red-and-blue devil dog held to his head by a thin piece of elastic. He raised his arms and the crowd fell silent. He pointed a gloved hand behind him.
The roars returned.
Within moments and without fanfare, motors revved loudly, drowning out the crowd, and the man and woman faced each other.
The dwarf rang the bell and the fighters wasted no time. They swung their saws amid clangs and sparks.
The old man kept his seat and felt the motion of the crowd around him. The Ethiopian was almost went cataleptic as his body tensed with each swing, each parry, waiting for the blow that would sever an arm in a splatter of blood—or a head.
But as the battle raged over five minutes, then ten, the fighters began to tire from swinging the heavy saws and dancing about. The woman named Six and the man in the devil dog mask were too evenly matched, it seemed, and each time one maneuvered to an advantage, the other would parry with a skillful roundhouse swing, or simply lean artfully out of the way and return with a thrust of their own.
Soon the crowd began to despair of the hero, and whispers fell into the pit amid shaking heads. Cano was supposed to handle the woman named Six easily. But she was wearing him down.
Cano the devil dog let his saw’s engine sputter, and so drew a death strike from Number Six. With his adversary bearing down on him, he met her saw with his and used her momentum as leverage to run his feet up the wall behind him in an attempt to flip and cut her in half. But the plywood cracked, and the man fell to the sand.
The crowd hushed as the woman was immediately upon him.
She swung hard as Cano tried to regain his feet. He parried on one knee, but with only one hand to his opponent’s two. The woman’s swing was deflected but not before her saw sliced through Cano’s shirt and tore into his left arm just below the shoulder. Blood hit the wall.
Cano dropped his saw as Number Six raised hers again.
She had him, and he raised his right arm out of instinct. The crowd gasped as the revving saw came down.
And stuck metal with a clink.
The crowd hushed.
The chain stopped and the engine sputtered to a halt as soon as it hit the man’s arm, tearing his sleeve and nothing else.
Cano reached for his silent saw and, grabbing it by the handle, swung it. It struck the woman across the forehead like a club and she stumbled back, blood dribbling into her eye. She yanked the cord on the weapon in her hand, trying to start the engine, but Cano went for it and knocked it to the sand. Then he swung his back and forth. The woman tried to defend herself, but the motionless chain tore at the skin of her arms all the same. In moments, the dog-faced man had struck her three times across the scalp and she went down.
The masculine crowd roared as the dwarf ran into the ring and declared the bout over. The woman was dragged away, and Cano watched as the diminutive referee counted a thick stack of bills into his hand.
“You see?” The Ethiopian turned.
But the blind man was gone.