A spectator at Erbil Fight Night in Kurdistan unexpectedly finds herself in the middle of the ring.
“We won what?”
The woman hosting the trivia night at the local bar waved two tickets to the upcoming Erbil Fight Night in front of my face. “They free for you, this Friday at 7pm! OK? You want?”
I’d never won anything from a trivia night before nor attended a fight night. Luckily, a friend agreed to go with me, having some knowledge of MMA, and before I knew it, it was Friday night and we were pushing aside dark red, velvet curtains to enter the basement of a large sports center.
An open, dimly lit room with a low ceiling greeted us with loud hip-hop music blaring from rectangular speakers in the corner. Closest to the entrance was a separate, brighter space with a dummy on the ground, a punching bag hanging by a thick chain suspended two feet above the ground, and four fighters jabbing into the air, kicking their knees up and bouncing lightly on their feet to warm up. A metal chain link barrier separated the training and preparation room from the larger room.
I turned away to find an elevated boxing ring in the center with bright lights illuminating the sponsor logos plastered on the floor, and four taut, well-padded ropes on all sides of the ring. White plastic chairs were arranged facing the ring, half-filled with primarily young, male spectators. An assortment of bags of chips, crushed Coke cans and cigarette butts were kicked towards the walls of the basement. A suited security guard glanced at my half-torn ticket and pointed my friend and I towards one of the four sections. Three were clearly for the public, while the fourth section only had five seats with official-looking men jotting down notes on paper at a long table.
“There is the Iranian team coach!” My friend shouted to be heard over the music coming out of speakers right behind us. I followed his gaze to one corner of the ring where a fit, tall man in a T-shirt and sweats was speaking and gesturing rapidly to a young fighter, his hands wrapped in tight bandages, taking in his coach’s last-minute advice. I checked the diagonal corner, and sure enough, the opposing Iraqi assistant coach was setting up their station with a small, plastic stool, a water bottle, a bucket of ice, and three clean towels.
Just then, a large man with a gray suit jacket over his black T-shirt climbed the steps to the edge, swung one leg in between the ropes, and ducked his upper body in to enter the ring. He bent over and had a quiet conversation with the panel of judges, then straightened up and turned on his mic. He looked off into the distance and mouthed something unintelligible to someone out of sight, and the loud music abruptly shut off.
With a booming, deep voice, the MC launched into his welcome speech, then paused for dramatic effect, pointing towards a short platform off to the side where two men were waiting. With grandiose gestures and almost comical intonation, he introduced the home-turf boxing champion, who then stepped up onto the platform, head held high with the Kurdish flag draped over his shoulders. The crowd erupted in cheers and pent-up energy from the wait, stomping their feet and loudly clapping.
After the fighter walked a lap around the ring, arms holding up the flag and soaking in the excitement, the MC pointed him towards his corner and welcomed the Iranian competitor. An equally fit champion jogged up the platform to slightly muted applause from the two dozen or so Iranian Kurds in the crowd, hooting and calling out encouragement to compensate for being outnumbered.
The MC safely ducked out of the ring as a referee in a buttoned-up shirt took his place in the center. He exchanged a few words with each fighter, a bell rang out, and the crowd descended into relative silence. The two fighters cautiously approached one another and lightly tapped gloves as a sign of sportsmanship to begin the match. Without warning, they started their dance. The Iraqi targeted his opponent’s sides, alternating with short jabs to the chin, while the Iranian ducked, weaved, and bobbed like his ribs depended on it. I was convinced the referee, who was hovering just one or two feet away, monitoring them closely for any infraction, would be clobbered at any minute.
At one point, pinned in the corner, the Iranian fighter retaliated with a series of punches to the Iraqi’s face, which were mainly blocked, although the last one landed square on the jaw. I winced at the impact as a collective “ooh” rang out over the audience. The Iraqi champion’s head snapped back, and he blinked twice to refocus, grinding his jaw over his mouth guard and stepping back a little bit.
Another bell rang out, signaling the time limit for that round, and the two fighters relaxed their tensed postures, retreating into their respective corners. They collapsed wearily into the stools that were propped up quickly in the corners, and the coaches slid expertly into the ring to wipe the blood off their champions’ faces with a wet towel. While they rattled off quick suggestions and held an ice pack to their faces, the assistant coaches took out their mouth guards and cleaned them.
Another ding of the bell rang out, and with a deep breath, the two fighters stood up, and the plastic stools were whisked away in a millisecond, clearing the ring for action again. The referee raised his right arm, called out “Fight!”, and the two boxers went at each other again.
If it weren’t for the occasional ringing of the bell, I would have lost all sense of time. The two hammered into one another relentlessly, sweat dripping off their foreheads and mixing with the oil on their face. They fell into a rhythm, each one circling the other like a predator, waiting for the smallest slip up or opening to pounce. At the final bell, the fighters notably breathed a sigh of relief, having exhausted all their energy in an interminably long match. The second they dropped into their stools, their team of coaches went to work removing the gloves from their hands, massaging their shoulders, and passing them a cold bottle of water. The MC hopped back in the ring, and while he went about gathering the information on the winner he needed, I took the opportunity to go to the bathroom.
When I came back, I saw the MC deep in conversation with my friend. He was gesturing towards the stage, then at me, and then in a larger sweeping movement, towards the whole room. I watched my friend’s face closely which, in turn, changed from polite attentiveness to childlike amusement, and he glanced at me with a wide smile that I couldn’t explain. He nodded and patted the MC’s shoulder, holding out a palm for him to wait as he translated for me.
I leaned in to hear my friend over the music, exploding with curiosity by this point. “So the next fight is a girls match in kickboxing.” I nodded, my surprise at that statement cut short by confusion of where this conversation was going. They surely wouldn’t ask me to fight, right?
“Since there aren’t many girls here tonight, he’s asking if you’d want to present the winner with the belt at the end. It’s totally up to you, no pressure, but he says it’d be nice, for all the girls.” My friend shrugged, a small, encouraging smile dancing on his lips.
A dozen questions sprang to mind – How will I understand who the winner is? Does he realize I’m not any sort of kickboxing expert? Should I have dressed up a bit more formally?
I chanced a glance at the MC; his obvious eagerness to add an extra element to the evening was written all over his face. Before I could stop myself, a “Sure, why not?” snuck out of my mouth. The MC clapped a heavy hand on my friend’s shoulder, nodding enthusiastically and rattling off a quick series of what I assumed were instructions for later.
My friend laughed as the MC walked off with a renewed spring in his step, and we sat down as the music stopped abruptly, signaling the next fight. “He’s so excited. I am pretty sure he’s going to present you as a very important American diplomat flying all the way here just to present this!” he joked, but I half-suspected he was right.
Within minutes, the two female fighters were in the ring. Immediately, I could see that the women, in contrast with the male fighters, were significantly quicker on their feet, bouncing forwards and backwards in smaller increments, jabbing with more needle-like precision. The Iranian competitor, much shorter and with a shaved head, had a clear disadvantage in height and limb length. She was visibly flustered as she struggled, eyebrows furrowed in concentration, to get close to the Iraqi fighter, who kept her at bay with her long jabs. The Iraqi’s dark eyes, razor sharp in contraction, tracked her opponent’s every move, the small bun on the top of her shaved head swaying from side to side.
As the first few minutes passed, my thoughts strayed. Should I stand behind or next to the two of them while I waited for the announcement? Should I congratulate them before reaching around their waist? Do I just walk off the stage afterwards?
Without warning, the Iraqi opponent landed a punch so firmly on the side of the Iranian’s face that she lost her footing and fell, leaving one arm hanging over the side of the ropes. Half the room stood up in unison, a loud roar erupting from both teams as I jerked myself back to reality and tried to figure out what the fuss was all about. The referee had his palm out to keep the Iraqi back, who was pumped up on adrenaline by that point. The Iranian wasn’t getting back up, and I could make out beads of sweat being flicked off as she shook her head slightly, blinking hard.
The crowd was up in arms, and with each passing second, the noise was increasingly deafening. One half of the room was hooting and crowing loudly, already declaring the Iraqi the winner. The other half of the room, less in quantity but equally passionate and boisterous, was screaming for their champion to get back up on her feet and continue. The referee was intently speaking to her, inches from her face, as the Iraqi part of the room started counting down. Finally, the referee put up his hand and signaled to the judges, and the floor trembled with the Iraqi cheers celebrating her epic knock-out.
The MC appeared in the ring before my mind could process that the fight was already over, and he beckoned me over with one finger. My friend nudged me with his elbow. “You’re up!” he excitedly grinned at my unpreparedness. I stood up, moving towards the muscular security guard at the foot of the steps, and ascended into the ring.
The two fighters were milling around their respective coaches, visibly worn out and drained from the quick but voracious round. The referee took his place between the two sides, and they lined up shoulder to shoulder. The MC, clutching a piece of paper from the judges’ table, pointed for me to stand behind the referee. From behind me, I could feel dozens of eyes wondering who this random girl was, empty-handed, in non-athletic clothes, clearly not Iranian or Iraqi. An arm nudged me from behind, and I turned to see a young man handing me a plastic-wrapped champion’s belt. I quickly tore off the plastic before straightening up to face the panel and a row of cameras positioned directly at our motley crew.
The room descended once more into relative calm as the MC launched into his winner announcement. I peeked right and left at the two fighters and their blank expressions, the Iranian slightly more dejected than the Iraqi, who was standing tall, shoulders squared back. I gripped the heavy black belt, ready for action, and when I saw the referee raise his right arm to hold up the Iraqi’s left gloved hand in victory, I stepped towards the right to be directly behind her.
I didn’t even register the Kurdish chanting and cheering in the background as I fumbled to unbutton the belt nervously. The Iraqi coach, eyeballing me impatiently, extended a hand to pull one side open and reached around his fighter’s waist to loop it on. I held onto the back with my sweaty palms, aware that all eyes were on us, and fastened the buttons with the coach’s help. He pulled the belt into place as the MC waved me over to stand alongside them at the end of a row, and I grinned sheepishly for the cameras flashing and clicking.
With even more embarrassment, I spotted my friend with his camera phone behind the photographers and journalists recording the moment, no doubt for my future humiliation. The MC tapped my arm, and I looked down the row to see everyone was holding up their fists in a mock fighter position. Figuring that I had nothing to lose at that point, I copied their pose, trying not to think about the number of local news outlets and social media accounts my unintentional center stage moment would be immortalized on the next day.