Somebody has got to lose.
With a sense of routine they walk to the arena, at times on their own, often with some sincere well-wishers that either do believe in them, or merely support them through friendship. No crowds of auto graph hunters for them, or gushing round card girls as they pass them by. They are the opponent, the journeyman, the sacrificial body there to pad the record of a ‘name’, they are the long shot.
He is often on the bad end of the high light clip, the battered face in the back ground during the post-fight interview, the familiar yet obscure name that gets around but is forgotten all too soon, he is the sparring partner, the last minute replacement, he is the man that gives the combat sports the beating heart.
Sometimes they have their day and win the upset, earning a money shot or they seemingly defy the odds with a victory to look back to years hence, but on the Monday they are home, sore, battered and bruised they go to work, they pay the mortgage they slip back into the mundane, only a few know who they are or what they do, those within the game offer some respect or disregard them as they would a pair of old battered sweat burned gloves, a necessity for a period, but always replaceable.
Champions, Challengers and Contenders are remembered, but who looks up to the journeyman ? Who puts their poster up on the wall or defends them at the bar over an argumentative brew on fight night? They are the beating, pulsing, thumping reality of the sport, the ones that the Greats sharpen their teeth on, the ones that bleed to feed hall of famers, the ones that go down to lift up heroes, the ones that go home alone while legends go off into history.
They start with a dream, a fertile ambition so bright and brilliant it burns deep within them, fuels their hard work and effort, then somewhere along the way, life happens and they fall short…they fail. Loss after loss, failure after failure, disappointment follows disappointment, but still they are back into the gym, still they enter the arena, still they forget pride or arrogance and take what they are offered so that they may live the sport for just one more fight. They slip into the spotlight, though briefly before a small club room or an international stage and they stand up with courage, self-belief but no illusions, and they fight…and all too often they lose and lose badly. They pocket often less than the catering staff, or round card girls, rarely do they do it for money, but they take what they can get and why shouldn’t they, do they not deserve more than someone who announces their name wrong or wears a bikini around the ring between rounds? They hurt, they work hard, they feel the sting of loss and their skills and body should be valued. But ringside experts and well-wishers remind them that despite the licks and bruises, that they apparently do it simply for the love of the sport. Just as an opportunity to fight. Maybe they do it because it is all that they know. No love, no hate, just reality.
The commentator, the ringside expert, the informed fan may know of them, they watch and wait, what round will it come? Will they stretch it out a bit longer, or will it be another exciting blow out? Never do they believe in their chance for victory, never do they have admiration for what they do. Never do they applaud them for the pain, not the physical, but the internal…to be a loser. To be a part of a list of wins for another. Just another ‘W’ for some one better, some one great.
To them they have a shot or a chance, after all it is a fight and so long as you have two combatants, nothing is a sure thing. Though often the odds and fates tell another story. They are merely here to advertise a product, to highlight the name to be a fistic perennial fodder of leather and busted ambitions. Still despite what the cruel words of fate tell them, they fight as hard and as best as they can. They never stop believing, even long after the rest of the world scoffed at their best efforts. They are the down stroke of a Blues man’s guitar note, sad, lonely but despite that it will come back for another beneath sad lyrics of another’s moment.
‘Experts’ have their opinions on the sport, men who have never felt the pain, the sting and the depression of defeat, men who have never risked their body nor reputation inside the arena, these men will scoff and joke, remark and prophesise with cockiness about their career and lack of talent. They punch down key strokes upon a keyboard with an indulgent arrogance of language as though each sentence they conjure up is as relevant or hard as a well-placed combination, as though the narrative that they often invent transcends the sport itself. Meanwhile unknowns do beneath the blanket of mundane pain what they could never hope to imagine doing, despite their proclamations of expert glory. And yet the Journeyman keeps on fighting, the lash of the tongue, the burn of the printed word, the sting of a jab, the pain of so many defeats and the depression of letting everyone, or anyone down, still though it does not stop them from getting up, training hard and going through the process all again. A long walk back to the change room past an indifferent crowd as the pain rises and the sweat cools, tired mind and body too sore to argue with a promoter that chooses now to renegotiate the purse. An envelope filled with a few notes that stab at their pride and dignity as much as the loss does. But they take it and shrug it off as part of their fate.
It takes a Dave Frendin to climb into a cage, a weary and bested body minced over decades of combative training and trial, to stare at another muscular prospect from the other side of the cage. The announcer drops words like ‘veteran’ or ‘seasoned’ in the mish mash of pre written introductory notes before attaching it to his name. A brave hand lifts to acknowledge those that care for his welfare but as a gesture of vain defiance to all of those who are there to watch the other guy. It does not matter if the foe is a hulking monster of muscle like a Tony Green, a tall technical master like Anthony Perosh, a ball of violence like a Hector Lombard or a once in a life time all-rounder like a Sam Nest. It is simply a fight. The crowd has come for the opponent’s victory. Despite that, a Frendin tries, he plies and though against them he fails, he climbs back in on another night. Victory is never far, but it is the losses that he and the others think about the most. The loss that is as painful as the obscurity as aches and injuries crawl up from beneath the skin to remind of the bodies past abuse, while lesser men boast about their prowess while never risking or daring, and yet a courageous warrior like a Frendin is over looked by the expanded modern fan base of goldfish minded viewers.
An up and coming hopeful, young and excited prospect Jesse Ferguson boxes his way to credibility before local and television audiences. Climbing the near to the top of the rankings, only to suffer a set back against a top tier contender, Carl Williams. It’s not a fall to the bottom. A couple of wins and then that fight which everyone shall forever remember him for, his valiant though brutal five round loss to super star Mike Tyson. After which a career as a prized sparring partner help to litter his career with as many losses as wins. The W’s tarnish the stream of L’s in the ledger books of a professional body by which to plug away at. All but written off by the smug journalists and know better commentators Ferguson topples the hopefuls after his own hopeless outings. His second decade as a professional attaches the name ‘Up setter’ replacing the ‘sparring partner’ or ‘opponent’ fixture. His defiance sees these ‘up sets’ over Ray Mercer a future opponent to others himself, Bobby Harris and Samson P’ouha other young and up and comers much like Ferguson once was suffer before his veteran wileyness. But on that night, the moment that mattered, his own Cinderella’s Ball, he suffered beneath the furious combinations of the then Heavyweight champion of the World Riddick Bowe. No fairy tale ending for Ferguson, just more bouts and too few long shot wins.
Boxer Johnny Greaves rationalised his and other opponent’s careers by saying “Turn up, fight, lose, get paid, happy days.” For his 4–96 career this perhaps was just the case, a mercenary spirit for money and the occasional moment of glory with a great. Though for many others who are not quotable this is far from the case. The turn up is ticked as is sadly the losing. The getting paid and happy days however is very rarely the case. Some tickets, a t-shirt and maybe some walking around money is all that many can hope to get. Empty promises that brush over their heads more often than their more fortunate opponent’s punches do. Though for Greaves or a Shannon Ritch in MMA the pay and losing is a joyous inevitability. And perhaps as is the case with forever journeyman Travis Fulton it is simply a near life time ritual, losing in the hundreds in both MMA and boxing and any other variations of combat that falls in between.
The moments can be made light of and entertaining as was the case for on the day replacement Tim Tomashek in his comical attempts at frustrating boxing super puncher Tommy Morrison. Or a regular routine like the four losses to Bill Lang experienced in a row and the two against Tommy Burns as was for the case with turn of the twentieth century journeyman Bill Squires in his outings against these and other better prize-fighters. It could be gloriously famous as was the much heralded win by James J Braddock when he bested Max Baer for the World title, in an age that needed a fairy tale with a happy ending. Or it can be a tragedy as was the case for kick boxer Redone Bougara when he died as a result of his match in a Draka event, one of the many hybrid variations of MMA in its frontier days.
The roll call for those who came and failed is immense, incalculable. It is one thing to attempt and then to walk away to seldom try more than a few times. For those however that make a career of their failures it takes more than a mercantile instinct to satisfy the niche that the craft demands. The reasons are perhaps as nuanced and as varied as the fighters that validated them. In a World of material value, it is with confused perspective that so many assume that one would do something so injurious to mind, body, spirit and reputation for so little pay. That despite being barely able to pay the bills or to satisfy the bank that fighters would dare to risk so much for such a little pay off. And yet despite the theories of economists, pragmatic observers, cunning business people and philosophers they do this beyond an apparent pay off. Not because they are violent actors in a violent world, nor for a perversity of self-punishment. Their one prize is in doing and knowing. Daring and risking. While the observer watched on with a cowardly voyeurism they lived on with a painful truth. And often they do not do it because they ‘love it’.
As an International star like Ronda Rousey makes dramatic over tones about her defeat to a fellow combatant, the fanfare and media that adulates such both celebrate and deride Holly Holms victorious effort but also further enables her ego in its failed ability to grapple with the reality of winning and losing. As she looks to that one loss before all of her supreme victories, well beneath her among the sewers of obscurity on the many under cards of local and lesser known stages are those who yearn not for her fame, not for her wealth but for that one shot at victory. A victorious platform that those truly talented and gifted seldom prize until in the depths of defeat that they crave for it again. Or after vice and arrogance rob them of youth and excellence as their relevance wanes and legacy drips away with so much sweat and tears, it is then that they yearn for what they once seemingly easily had. Meanwhile those who never had it, look on with not so much envy or respect but with a chomping on a bit to have their one moment in glory.
And no matter the sport of combative trial, the more prestige and wealth it brings to the promotions and those house hold celebrities the more unlikely that fighting ability and tenacity with pay off. Certainly it does for some but in the end, the bitter blow of truth is in the realisation that its marketability and packaging that relates to viewers and promoters alike. So many unknowns with stained skin, foreign tongues and in exotic lands shall never rise up and onto the stage of glory unless it profits someone else. Instead they ply on, dream big and fight hard. And in those fortunate lands, those ugly, boring or who lack the sizzle they shall perhaps have a moment but a famed momentum is ever elusive. And the truth that some soon realise is that they should have practiced smack talk more than they did their jab, or that they should have sought an aesthetic appeal over a practical ability.
The advice thrown up to these seldom applauded gladiators is token at best. A veteran of a decade plus supposedly is naïve as to the benefits of ‘chin down hands up’ or to ‘avoid his right hand’ such advice apparently never occurred to them, if it was not for that outsider throwing it at them when it was all too late. As though their failures and successes had somehow robbed them of any cognition or awareness of combat, while these voyeurs of others pain are the wise masters of combat simply because they can repeat clichés that they had heard on some broad cast or read in some magazine. Where were they when the journeyman needed training partners, needed help IMPLEMENTING such words of wisdom in the weeks or hours before the show down. Instead the shallow sentences are another insolent lashing by which they must suffer. All the while they can simply smile and nod, thanking these side line coaches for such belated instruction.
And after these many bouts, these hundreds of rounds of sparring, these years of scouting potential foes all of this knowledge. Should such memories, thoughts and experience not be lost or bruised by the many impacts, should they not be fogged by bitterness and the consumption of escapist elixirs. Rare is the avenue for such pearls of actual wisdom and knowledge. Cowardly virgins of combat, those fascinated by their trials and pain, market and promise lies that sound so splendid to ignorantly eager masses. All the while the truths known by these actual veterans of combat, what they know and had to learn are buried beneath magic pills, snake oil and cultish promises in a market place that seeks no real truth. Who wants to learn from a loser anyhow? When you can learn from a lying, untried expert whose self-praise trumps the many losses of those journeymen pugs. Apparently feeling and experiencing is second only to watching and fantasising. It is the genius of marketability in this World of sometimes real and sometimes make believe. It is another lashing insult to be suffered by these many unknowns of combat.
It took a clever mouth and a persona of pro wrestling majesty to elevate a Chael Sonnen from obscurity as a poor man’s Randy Couture and into a highly paid ‘peoples champion’. Winning streaks could not override his losing past, nor could it excel him above the heap of the other victorious contenders. It was abilities that lay outside of the cage. Here the journeyman plays the true foil. Should they dare to upset the celebrity, become an uncelebrated Rocky Balboa to the marketing guru Apollo Creed, no victory can really elevate them. Instead the celebrity simply had a setback. Upsets are just that. Upsetting to fans and establishment. A loser is still a loser no matter how off script their performance may be. And so we see with Holm her voice but a whisper to the excuses and sobs of the Rousey mega machine.
As ‘trial horses’ like Jeff King climb from their bed every day carrying more injures than victories, a reminder of win and loss and the elusive in betweens. They head to training to go through the same actions as they had done so many times before, their name on a short list of those willing to take a fight on a month, a week, or a day’s notice. Nearly always saying ‘yes’ to the opportunity before details of the fight are discussed. No contracts and no guarantees offered just turn up and fight. As the elites train with an army of specialists tending to their needs, doctors and rehabilitation specialists working and massaging their prized bodies so as to best maintain it for those lucrative nights. The unknown pugs limp into a hospital waiting room, at the mercy of a public health system unsympathetic to the demands of physical craftspeople such as them.
While the names and elites are rushed to facilities of medical prowess, tended to immediately afterwards. The journeyman often drives themselves or is driven by a loved one home or to the local ER. Ring side doctors often as clueless as the baying fans as they stumble over the injuries, their presence a formality, a regulators mandate. Officials make snap decisions or incoherent calls which may embarrass them on the night, but haunt the records of the fighter for decades. Protest is an ugly exhibition as disinterested fans and well-wishers care little more than the officials after a week has passed and the mistake of another is what the fighter must suffer forever.
As the sports glitter with popularity and become a part of the vernacular sponsors and the ability to profit from such risk eludes most of those who actually fight. Clothing lines, artists, photographers, officials, commentators, announcers, pundits, and posers tend to gain more materially than those who foolishly climb inside the arena to suffer a brutality so that these uninitiated may gain. Social media and Instagram notifies with glamorously edited images of those who #hashtag fighter related words. Six packs and silicone filled chests being the requirement for sponsorship, those with actual records inside any objective arena do not look right or fit the assumed role as to what an athlete or fighter should fill.
How one becomes such an outcast within the realm by which they help to enrich is varied, sometimes it is on the way up. Premature match work, a lack of skill or simply bad luck. Or on the way down, injuries, age and losses accumulate so as to make one toxic enough to be simply a ‘name’ opponent. A name that seldom has any value other than it fills a pretty pre fight narrative for the promotion or by which a lazy journalist, should any bother to report, mentions them in a generic manner such as ‘experienced’ or ‘hardened’ as though these empty words could somehow steel the fighter on any night.
For the journeyman, the opponent, the less famous, excuses are ugly. For the heralded and regal they are expected and welcomed. No amount of wins can overcome one bad performance, for some. Not a blend of wars and snores can stand above the populist nature of pugilism. And so whether sometimes glorious, rarely or absolutely obscure the fight is in itself the objective.
It is after all just a sport. No one forces them to play it. It is not as though one can get hurt or even die in there, right? The risk and consequence is theirs and theirs alone. And yet with a perversity from outside of the arena so many strangers bay for their pain, excitedly watch on for their miserable anguish. Entertaining and exhilarating perhaps, human most certainly, they are professionals after all. Frequently Unpaid, undervalued and over matched. Yet, they still do it. The why, only they and a few shall ever know.
If not for them, we have no heroes or legends. If not for them, we have no arenas of combat. No prize ring. If not for them, we have no great sport…
Because, somebody has got to lose.
Kym Robinson, Feb 2016