Things were looking up; Zeb and I were bonding like the ‘old days’ and I was having the time of my life in Cambodia. We had even made plans to travel the country and meet up with Zeb’s buddies – Shane and Moe. Zeb seemed at peace and was rapidly becoming more spiritual; this is why I found his announcement one balmy Friday evening rather incredulous. He asked me to travel to Bangkok for the weekend and watch him participate in a Muay Thai fight. ‘I’ve been training hard’ he said as he took a drag from his cigarette and ordered his third beer. ‘You’re a dark horse aren’t you Zeb’ I replied – still in shock. ‘Dewey – the eyes only see what the mind’s prepared to comprehend’ Zeb announced, emphatically. I swigged my beer, tipped my head towards him and exclaimed – ‘they certainly do my friend!’
We took an early taxi to the airport; the hot, dusty streets of Siem Reap came to life as our driver dodged small kids and drug-fuelled revellers. I had some rather nervous, disquieting thoughts rushing over me – like my first day of school. I didn’t know why I was so anxious; maybe I was just worried about my friend. When we finally pulled up to the airport – I thought my heart was going to beat through my chest and I’d bleed to death. The more I thought this – the more I felt sure of it; the news headline – “six-foot-eight man’s heart explodes” – pressed itself into my consciousness. I really needed a cold beer – to calm my nerves and drown my paranoia.
Check-in was a breeze and we made it to the bar. After my seventh beer, I began to relax and asked Zeb some questions regarding, how, why, and when this fight business came about. – ‘A few months back Dewey, (in my quest for discovery) – I was trekking through the steamy, tropical jungle of northern Thailand. I came across a large stream with shiny, glistening water – it was intoxicating; the smooth trickle of clear, running liquid, harmonized with the sounds of brightly coloured, low swooping birds.
I hurried to get a closer look – when I discovered an old man, squatting on a large rock, on one leg – like a statue. His deep tan helped intensify the whiteness of his breezy locks, as he held his wiry, muscular posture. The man was a Dutch traveller named Carlo – highly proficient in the art of eight limbs. I asked him if he’d like some company and we spent the entire afternoon training by the stream; I was his student and he was my master.’ ‘Zeb – you had an afternoon of training?’ I gingerly asked – ‘Dewey – the mind is a powerful tool – my learning never stops’ Zeb replied: confidently.
The time was upon us already; the lead up to fight night seemed to pass in a drunken blur. Zeb had hired a local Thai man to warm him up and organize some pre-fight pad-work; I was to be Zeb’s assistant coach and help keep him motivated. We entered the noisy, illuminating club at around eight and found a dingy little back room – to warm up. Tiger balm and testosterone filled the air as we squeezed into the corner, feeling rather intimidated by the other fighters, also preparing for their moment of glory. I must say – for someone in charge of so much weight – Zeb moved rather delicately and had the grace and energy of a featherweight boxer. He was landing crisp one-twos on the pads and delivered a devastating roundhouse kick; he really surprised me, and I felt proud to join him on his ring walk.
I’m not sure who was more nervous – Zeb or myself, but when we made it to the ring – I was a quivering wreck. Fortunately – I had a hip flask of Sangsom whisky and I downed the entire contents, finally relaxing. Zeb smoothly ducked through the ropes and began to undertake some-kind-of-ritual; he would bow and perform almost dance-like movements. Strange music filled the air – like bagpipes and car horns – lifting my spirits and making me feel jubilant; I stepped into the ring and began to dance as well, performing an Irish Jig, and clapping my hands. Maybe it was disrespectful, as Zeb gave me a contemptuous look and barked ‘no Dewey!’. I guess I just got lost in the moment.
Zeb’s fighter had now entered; he was a rather menacing looking Hungarian, with primate features, and a bowl cut. His scowling dark eyes pierced from his pumpkin-shaped head, staring Zeb down like he was about to feast on his organs. Veins pumped from his tree-trunk legs as they glistened with sweat. The beast sat on his stool, grunting as he glugged from a bottle of Russian vodka. The crowd became raucous when the two fighters leapt up and took their place in the centre of the ring. ‘Come on Zeb!’ I shrieked as I nervously watched my friend square up under the flashing lights – ready to battle for his life.
Bang! – he didn’t see it coming – a strong right hook connected with Zeb’s chin sending him to the canvas. The noise roused the crowd – like an elephant stampede as Zeb crashed onto his back – tumbling, rolling, and attempting to find his feet. I honestly thought it was over. I was screaming at him – ‘get up, get up Zeb!’ – When a moment of divine intervention seemed to arise, raising him to his feet. It was like a scene from a Rocky movie – I was jumping up and down, ecstatic with joy. He was ok, my Zeb was ok.
Like the flick of a paintbrush – the Hungarian’s blood decorated my cream t-shirt as Zeb landed a sensational roundhouse kick on the primate’s nose. The crunching sound of broken bone made my legs weaken as the man stumbled back onto the ropes. Zeb was like a brave warrior; he advanced towards his stunned opponent – using his jab, and evading shots with perfect footwork. He was playing with the Hungarian, until finally – deciding to call it a night.
Zeb feinted a left body jab, causing the ape to drop his hands as he spun on his left foot and landed a devastating right hook kick to the blood-soaked pumpkin. The Hungarian’s jawbone waggled like a broken stick as he collapsed below the bright lights and clicking cameras – finally landing in a luminous puddle of blood and sweat. Zeb had won. To this day – I still don’t know what happened to him; he tells me it was Carlo, sending him thoughts, but I like to think it was me.
We felt like celebrities when we got to the Khao San road that night and celebrated. This was a night I will never forget; I can honestly say – I now revered Zeb as my hero.
A.T Hawthorn – 31.8.19