Edited by Dhruv Bhatia | 5-min read
I can’t think of the happiest moment of my life off the top of my head, but I do have the oddest.
Bueller's Day Off
Another Philippines account. Circa 2019.
I’d recently gotten out of a long-term relationship and had some consulting work in the main metropolitan city, Manila. Clearly hurting, and after roaming unshaven for months, I was in a truly decrepit state. Throwing myself into work usually worked, but this time was different. I got out of the office and was chauffeured to a friend’s place in Makati. I pleaded with him to organize a fun night of distractions and he said he had ‘just the thing’. We walked out of the gated community and hailed a cab where he whispered some Filipino. I looked out the window and could see the red-light district. I stalled.
‘I’m not looking for this right now.’
We passed by scores of strip clubs and I didn’t have the heart to look. Dodgy men approached us, offering us the best of both worlds — a dose of Viagra (to energize us) or a massage (to relax our bodies). We ignored and trudged on. I was getting increasingly restless and made a pit stop at the local Circle K. The Filipinos' preferred tobacco product is Marlboro, which is my choice too. You can purchase loosies (similar to India) but I wasn’t about that life. We paid and with cigarette lit, the crackling and smoke filled the dingy trail we navigated and took us to roads we would never dare walk under daylight. And in the middle of all the dives and nightclubs stood Ringside Bar. Rated as one of the top five nightlife spots in Luzon, the combination of Chinese lanterns and marquee signage depicting tonight’s events really tied the joint together. Posters of Filipino’s dressed up as superheroes were plastered along the walls of this fine establishment. It was unnervingly heroic and asked more questions than it answered. We apprehensively stepped in and the heavy doors closed behind us.
Round 1: of drinks?
I had already assumed the worst. I wasn’t wrong. Unclad women surrounded us, and we were drowning in a sea of breasts and bright lights. I rolled my eyes. Enjoy the view, he said. I don’t feel safe, I shot right back. In hindsight, carrying a quarter of the average annual household income in my back pocket wasn’t the best decision I had made that evening. And as usual, there were many more bad choices to be made.
I switched on my phone to knock out a few games of chess. A notification popped up signaling low battery. This was going to be a long night. We each grabbed an overpriced beer and waited as an hour passed while we spent each minute prodigally, chatting with the bartenders about the current state of affairs in the Philippines. The neon lights dimmed and a spotlight shone on the ring. A British man, six-foot-tall, few drinks down, walked out with a mike to a flurry of cheers from the excited ex-pat audience and the drunken regulars. The British man was dressed as a referee, and I wondered if this was a particularly lucrative occupation or if he just liked the ambiance. In a monotone voice, he ran through the events for the night: Midget Boxing, Wrestling, and a final surprise. For a brief second, his voice cracked; unfortunately, Lady Oil was to be postponed for a later date. I looked at my friend with raised eyebrows and told him it wasn’t too late to back out — we could still head back to my place, close the night, and live to tell the tale. Hush!, he said, the show’s about to start.
‘There are two paths you can take. Yours or the path others choose for you.’
My friend bastardized Emerson’s quote but he had a point.
Pugilism — to not cause much offense
Out came — for a lack of a politer phrase — five vertically challenged men, and as they entered the ring, they threw chairs, punches, toys, and cigarette butts at one another, rallying the spectators. For a good hour, these men attacked one another with ferocity, while the announcer described, in great detail, their bouts and jabs. I had a creeping suspicion this wasn’t entirely staged. And then the surprise. The announcer hadn’t forgotten about the special gift he was about to bestow on his captivated audience. My friend started laughing as if he knew something that I didn’t. What did he know? I hope he wasn’t a drunken regular here.
The announcer-referee walked into the ring and requested one of the audience members to fight the midgets. My friend lept up from his chair and pointed at me. I was halfway through a chess game and my phone was on its final breath. He snatched the phone from my hands and pushed me into the ring. Startled, I slid in between the ropes and stumbled into the middle. Fuck it, I said, and with a princely disposition, I awaited my gloves and personified Ali in his prime. There was silence.
The announcer was shouting and he forced me to get on my knees and to take off my glasses (this was before I got LASIK). Was I really about to wrestle bare-knuckle box against these professional midgets? As if my handicap and skill wasn’t enough, he also mentioned I would have to fight with one arm behind my back. The Brit left the potential crime scene and the five fighters entered.
Five of them. Bare-fisted. Me on my knees. With an arm behind my back.
Reality hit me like the smoke which hung in the air, smoke which I could feel in my lungs and which only now began to worry me — because how could I fight one-armed against regulars, glasses-off, with this thick layer of cigarette smoke separating me from my Joe Fraziers? I crawled to the first man I could see and pleaded my case. I have a family and children, I lied, go easy on me. He assured me this was a ‘safe space’, and no harm would ensue. But I didn’t trust him.
The Fantastic Five
I walked to my corner and evaluated the situation. The best way to go about this would be to have my back against one post and take them on one at a time. My arm span, for the most part, would keep them away until I could figure out their weakest link. I should have observed them while they were play-fighting.
The announcer rings the bell, and they immediately pounce. Two came straight at me with one of them rushing from the left, landing a solid right hook onto my ribs. Fight or flight kicked in and I stood up and started swinging. I landed a solid kick on the closest boxer and managed to slap the other. I used both my hands — I wasn’t planning on keeping any survivors. The music stopped, the announcer stepped in and said I can’t fight dirty. The round was supposed to last a minute but with the crowd jeering on, and with my lashing and kicking not permitted in their rulebook, the official called it only thirty seconds later. The five started laughing and said we should commemorate this moment — and on the tippiest of toes, they held my hand up.
My friend posted this on Instagram on my behalf and I was immediately swamped with messages from people I’d never talked to asking me if I was okay. I don’t know if I was, or am. This was the most-viewed story on my account. My phone died shortly after.
I paid to get beaten up. Would I do it again? Probably.
From Kenny Rogers, The Gambler:
You've got to know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you're sittin' at the table
There'll be time enough for countin'
When the dealin's done
The morning after, I got out of bed at 6, witnessed the sunrise above Dasmariñas, jumped into the pool, and cleansed my soul. Paid penance. My next step was to pick up a safety razor. I shaved my entire beard. A clean and fresh start.
This was one of my many cathartic experiences in Makati. I am recounting this story a year late. All in all, I’d rate the incident a 7/10.