“Have you ever been in a fight?” Trevor Latham, president of the legendary East Bay Rats Motorcycle Club, asked me.
I wanted to lie, to tell him that I’ve been in lots of fights, that I wasn’t afraid of anything, that I spent my formative years holding nerds upside down to shake loose change from their pockets.
“Not since I was a teenager,” I said, with my chest puffed out.
“Well, that’s better than nothing.”
We were standing on the edge of the boxing ring in the courtyard behind the East Bay Rats’ clubhouse. The ground was trampled flat, pocked with burn marks and dark stains that I imagined to be blood. “Who are these guys?” I asked, gesturing to two men sparring in the ring.
“That’s Vince,” Trevor said, pointing to a man who seemed to be leading the training. “And that’s Eager Tim.”
This other man had a beard and was dressed in a black hoodie and black jeans.
“Why do they call him ‘Eager Tim’?” I asked.
“It’s because Tim’s eager. He’s been training every day for three weeks for Fight Night.”
If you live in Oakland, chances are you’ve heard rumors about Fight Night. It’s a party that the East Bay Rats have been hosting for over twenty years, inviting anyone who is brave enough the chance to climb into the ring and punch the lights out of someone they’ve never met. A lazy comparison would be Fight Club, though Trevor’s motivations are more altruistic than utter anarchy.
He’ll tell you that everyone has a fire in them. If they’re able to let that fire out in the ring then maybe they won’t hit their wives or their kids or get into fights in public. There’s a lot of tension in Oakland — a lot of friction between the locals and the gentrifiers — and all of that frustration has to go somewhere. Fight Night is the Rats’ attempt at keeping everyone’s rowdiness in check. Their own mini version of The Purge.
“Does everyone in the club fight?” I asked.
“Not everyone. Most of the people who come aren’t bikers, they’re just normal people looking to let out some aggression.”
I’d contacted Trevor because I wanted to write about the history of the club and the history of Fight Night, about Oakland, about violence and crime, about Sons of Anarchy, about club rivalries, and the influx of money that is flooding into the Bay Area.
Then, before I could ask anything, Trevor told me I should fight at Fight Night. Two days later.
It was a clear challenge. Somewhere in the distance, I heard demonic fingers tickling the neck of an electric guitar. My stomach lurched, my skin goose-bumped, cold sweat beaded on my upper lip. I had worked very hard to put up a tough front for Trevor. How could I say “no” now? “I think I have to,” I said.
“Good,” Trevor said. “Let’s get some gloves on you, I’d better show you how to throw a punch.”
“Have you ever been in a fight?” asked Eager Tim, leaning on the ropes, sweat coursing through his beard.
“Why is everyone asking me that?” I was wearing black jeans, a black shirt, and a black denim jacket covered in badass patches. I was even wearing torn up black boots. Was it my glasses? Maybe my hair? I’d tried hard to show up not looking like an idiot, like someone who had never been in a fight.
“Do I look like a guy who has never been in a fight?”
“Your feet are backwards,” said Tim.
“He’s right,” Trevor said, with a laugh. He told me to put my left foot forward and my right foot back, both at shoulder’s width, and to put my right glove up against my cheek and my left hand up just in front of it. “Whatever you do,” he said, “keep your gloves up.”
Trevor walked me through the jab and cross, left and right hooks, and left and right uppercuts. He showed me how to swing with my core and how to keep my footing right, how to twist and turn and stay on the defensive, how to duck, and how to block.
“I’ve trained a lot of boxers,” he said. “You’re not doing so bad for your first lesson.”
I left the clubhouse with confidence. I’d been nervous that the motorcycle club would treat me like an outsider, but Trevor was welcoming, he’s weathered, and he’s got this talent of transferring his confidence to anyone he talks to. Boxing with him, even for just an hour, made me feel like I actually stood a chance.
The clubhouse was already packed when I showed up, and I showed up early. I pushed my way through a sea of leather jackets and creative facial hair. The smells of whiskey and beer and cigarettes and sweat all twined together to form a pungent bouquet. Trevor was standing on the outside corner of the boxing ring where I’d met him just two days earlier.
“So we had a little trouble finding someone for you to fight,” he said. “You’re going up against Allan. He’s a decent boxer but he’s smaller than you.”
Allan was standing next to Trevor. He was smiling and jolly and a good six inches shorter than me. Unlike the rest of the crowd, he was wearing a black shirt and red shorts. I smiled, introduced myself, and shook his hand. The black tape that he wore wrapped around his knuckles should have scared me more than than it did — it showed that he knew something about what we were about to do.
We stepped into the ring, touched gloves respectfully, and waited for the crowd to finish their maniacal countdown. “10, 9, 8, 7…” Why does Allan look so happy? “…6, 5, 4…” Wait, did he bring his own gloves? “…3, 2, 1…”
The bell tolled, and it tolled for me.
Allan punched first, landing a blow on my stomach, then my jaw, then my stomach, then my jaw. I pushed back and attempted a jab and cross. He dodged and ducked and I tried to jab again.
Allan sidestepped my jab and lunged forward. I glimpsed his fist under my chin and attempted to intercept, but was too slow. Stars swirled across my vision — that’s a real thing, and it happened. The courtyard rotated 45 degrees; a fist slammed my ribs; the taste of iron in my mouth was surely blood. I reared up in time to see Allan advancing, fists up, toes bouncing. And for the first time in a long time, I was scared.
Everything that Trevor had told me, every move that I had practiced—my footing, my lunges, keeping my gloves up—it was all gone. My mind was a blank slate, beaten clean, like the mind of an infant that had not yet recognized her own reflection. I threw a hard cross and—I think—made contact with Allan’s jaw just before he landed a deft uppercut. I stumbled backward and tried very hard not to pee my pants.
Allan jumped into the air and punched me in the head from above, pulling a collective groan out of the audience. This time it was bright birds sparking to life in the periphery of my vision, or… I don’t know what. The back of my throat filled with bile.
Someone from the crowd yelled “make it stop!” just as Allan landed a tremendous right hook. My mouthpiece flew out of the ring. You know that scene from boxing movies? This was it. The crowd cheered for the first and only time all fight.
I fell into the ropes, put my gloves up, and cried out for mercy. We’d been toe-to-toe just under three minutes.
I crawled between the ropes and set my feet down on the other side of the ring. Trevor slapped me on the back. “You really went after him, dude!”
The black mass of people welcomed me warmly into their clutches as I stumbled slowly away from the ring. A man in a leather jacket handed me a bottle of whiskey and screamed “Waterfall it dude!” I drank heavily, gulps of whiskey burning the cuts on the inside of my mouth. “You really know how to take a punch!” said my new, whiskey-toting friend.
“Yeah dude, that was brutal,” said the redhead standing next to him. “But your face doesn’t look too beat up.”
“You should’ve seen me before the fight,” I said. “I’m usually much more handsome.”
They laughed, I smiled, and I turned and slouched into the interior of the clubhouse.
I was afraid that I would be ridiculed, that I would be shamed, that the onlookers would deem my performance unworthy and push me out onto the street but—surprisingly—their reactions were the exact opposite. The epic (almost legendary) ass-beating that I had just endured had earned their respect, and made me a minor celebrity. Even the bikers, clad in leather vests and weathered tattoos, shook my hand, hugged my neck, and commented on the guts it took to fight.
All of a sudden where I was from didn’t matter, because the East Bay Rats aren’t building an empire, or a gang. No, what they’re building—especially with Fight Night—is community.
I sat at a stool on the inside of the club for a long time, soothing my wounds with cans of Tecate and shots of tequila and lime while watching the other fights, streaming live over the bar. I listened to the cheers of the crowd outside, all perfectly in sync with the action in the ring.
“I’ve never been to one of these things,” said a man with a mohawk sitting next to me at the bar. “Can you imagine getting into the ring like that?”
“I can imagine it,” I said.
He pulled a beer out of his box and handed it to me and, even though it was a Natural Ice, I accepted it gladly. He pulled out another for himself and cracked it open with a crisp snap and asked, “Have you ever been in a fight?”