A Very Jordan Ginsberg Website

An Uplifting Story About Death and Mixed Martial Arts

[This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of Stymie Magazine.]

The stadium is still under construction and doesn’t have a proper backstage area yet, so the fighter preps in the public toilet. His trainers tape his hands, fit him with eight-ounce gloves, smear petroleum jelly on his face and rub him down with liniment oil. He’s not used to that last step; it’s annoying and it burns but it’s OK, he’s all right, he’s fine. He’s been here in Phuket, Thailand, for over six months now, training at the Tiger Muay Thai camp—started in the novice ring, worked his way up quickly and has been training six hours a day for two months with the masters, guys who retire at 28 after 400 career fights. He’s calm, he’s steady, but this…he’s been waiting for this.

His last fight was almost two years ago—his first pro mixed martial arts fight, TKO 26 in Victoriaville, Quebec, fighting in front of 2,000 people on June 30, 2006. He walked out of the gate, saw his face up on the big screen while Jay-Z roared through the arena’s PA, and in that moment, there was no question Andre Gear, the 21-year-old from Georgetown, Ontario, was a professional fighter. He brawled for two rounds with a local boy with a few wins on his record, punished him with sharp knees to the ribs and wild, swinging fists. He was winning the fight, but his trainer, Chris Boreland, could tell he was wearing himself out, not following the game plan, and the Kaybecker pounced on him in the third. Gear tried to shake him, tried to get away, but his opponent crushed him with a few good hooks to the face and that was it, a technical knockout. For his troubles, Andre got a pail to puke in and the good news that he didn’t have a concussion.

But two years is a long time to gain perspective, to evaluate what went wrong and how you responded, to digest the lessons you’ve learned and decide how to apply them. He believes there’s an inverse relationship between logic and anger, and fighting—not brawling, but fighting—is probably more reliant on logic than any other sport. Lose control of your emotions, lose the fight; the mindset comes loaded with a certain acceptance. He has no control over what punches will be thrown his way, he realizes—only over how he reacts.

* * *

It was a fluke his little sister, Stephanie, survived her first suicide attempt. The girl was meticulous: an empty house, a stomach full of pills, a profound depression kept secret from everyone but her. No reason it shouldn’t have worked, really, but there are some things in life for which you can’t prepare, things you can’t predict. How could she have known her brother Maurice would stop by the house randomly, just in time to find his 16-year-old sister, the youngest of five siblings, dying of an overdose and get her medical attention and save her life? How can you see something like that coming? A few years later, their mother, Odile, would tell a local newspaper that Stephanie probably saw that attempt as a failure. At the time, nobody knew anything. Before that day, nobody knew there was anything to know.

Andre, though…he was two years old when Stephanie was born, the youngest until she arrived. He treated having a little sister like a responsibility. They shared a room, and when the older boys would banish him from the basement, he’d spend most of his free time at home with her. She wrestled in high school because he had wrestled, just like he’d followed after Maurice, one of the top-ranked wrestlers in Ontario at one point. Oh, and she loved it when Andre started training in MMA. She had the competitiveness you need to fight, but she was a better student than Andre had ever been, too. She had friends. She did fundraising for humanitarian groups and volunteered for Doctors Without Borders, for God’s sake. And then suicide? What? Where did that come from?

But the way she did it…she meant it. She thought she had them beat. “She researched it,” Andre says. “She was a perfectionist. She was good at her shit.” There was a grudging respect there. Her methodology fit in perfectly with her personality. All or nothing. Maybe that’s why he didn’t take it as seriously as he now thinks he should have—if she had the clarity of mind to conceive of such a solid plan, if it was so distinctly hers, then wasn’t that cause for some hope?

She bounced around clinics and institutions for a few years while Andre went to Concordia University in Montreal for a degree in athletic therapy. He joined Tristar, the gym that produced MMA legend Georges St.-Pierre, and tried to balance schoolwork with 15 hours of training a week. It was working. His academics complemented his training, and when he’d go home in the summer, he’d blow away the guys at Boreland’s with his improved Jiu-Jitsu. He even shocked Maurice one day—Maurice, one person who could still wrestle him to the ground every time—when he tapped him with a choke-hold. Twice. “I had to fight him again,” Maurice says. “I didn’t believe it the first time.” When he finally got that pro match, Stephanie was in a rehab centre and couldn’t leave to come watch him, but at that point, it almost felt like stasis. Maybe she wasn’t getting much better, but at least it didn’t seem like she was deteriorating.

He came home for a weekend in November for his nephew’s birthday, and on the Saturday, all five siblings, older brother and sister Philippe and Aimee included, went to Boston Pizza with the boys from Boreland’s to watch the UFC event that was on TV that night, and saw Georges St.-Pierre beat Matt Hughes for the Welterweight Championship. Stephanie was quiet that night, as she tended to be around some of the older guys from Boreland’s, but she was smiling, she was present; nobody felt like she needed the kid-glove treatment. Three months later, she was killed after lying down in front of a speeding train. It was the last time Andre ever saw his sister alive.

* * *

The tinny speakers at New Bangla Muay Thai Stadium peal out shrill strings and flutes as Andre approaches the ring. The Thai he’s fighting is rangy and toned and Andre can tell he’s done this before. Doesn’t matter. His plan tonight is to get through two rounds and not exert himself any more than necessary. Neung, one his trainers, instructs him in broken English to “Kick power, punch sure.” The theme of his training here has been “beautiful Muay Thai”—that is, his fighting has to look good, because if it looks good it sounds good, and if it sounds good it feels good.

He squares off against the Thai and just misses a kick to his opponent’s face. The two lean in and trade shin-kicks and Andre realizes, “OK, I can absorb a kick to the shin.” Useful information. Not everybody can take a shot like that. There’s a sense of satisfaction in taking a heavy hit during a fight—provided it’s not a knockout—for that very reason. If fighting is about control, be it physical or emotional, then the knowledge that you can eat a punch and not lose a step is vital.

Andre takes a kick to the cheek, shakes it off and starts to back the Thai against the ropes but, no, his training kicks in: Put him against the ropes and you’re giving him an exit. Andre pivots and throws a high kick to the Thai’s left, cutting off an escape route and catching him in the corner, which lets Andre set the pace. Fighting depends on creating and taking away space—the closer you get, the less force a punch can pack and the easier it’ll be to take, but open up too much distance? You might get flattened.

* * *

He was visiting friends in Ottawa when he got the call, and it didn’t matter that she’d tried it before and it didn’t matter that she’d been institutionalized and it didn’t matter that she wasn’t getting better—he felt like he’d been tricked. How could he ever comprehend never getting to see her again? How would that even work? He walked away from the semester with two months to go and withdrew and got away with it. People let him do as he pleased. Even when he came back to Georgetown, he would only show up sporadically at Boreland’s, and then he was particular about the people with whom he’d train. He went by one day to spar with Shaun Krysa, an old friend. “I loved that,” he told Krysa after. “That’s how it used to be.” He lied and said he’d come by more often. That started to become the norm. He didn’t want the condolences or the attention.

Maybe that’s why, when some friends from Montreal suggested he participate in a two-month Concordia-sponsored humanitarian program in Uganda, he jumped at it. He could do it in tribute to Stephanie, who had supported causes like these, but he could also do it for himself and get away from all the mourners and well-wishers. Being surrounded by strangers for a little while sounded good, no matter the location. They arrived in Gulu, a village near the Sudanese border, in May, and though he ended up knowing one girl, Jacqueline, she promised not to tell anybody about his sister.

What he found in Gulu was country with blood still fresh underfoot. Between long-running civil war and AIDS-related decimation, this was death immersion. The way he spent his days varied. Sometimes he worked on behalf of housing projects, which had him going hut to hut and gauging who was most in need of an upgrade in accommodations. Other days, he’d walk the grounds of Internally Displaced Persons camps with lists of people in need of medication or food or other supplies. He’d bring a family a basket of cooking oil and rice and fish and, my God, the way they’d smile. What he came to realize is he could tap a random person in Gulu on the shoulder and there’d be a good chance she’d lost more than one family member to AIDS, or war, or hunger. Maybe recently. Maybe she’d been alone a long time. But being alive, trite as it seemed, was enough of a reason to smile most of the time. And when the blond white boy came by with food and water and medicine? Made a person want to dance! If these people refused to be victims, then he sure as hell wasn’t going to act like one, either.

He also went from one IDP camp to another and saw people whose names weren’t on any lists, who weren’t getting rations and who weren’t getting well. He saw the sunken eyes and sallow flesh and open sores, and he saw they didn’t beg. He saw people who would be dead inside of 30 days and they’d take a handout, but they also knew their fate. They’d accepted mortality not as a theory but experienced it as an inevitability, witnessed death take a tangible form. It started to register that Stephanie was gone. She was dead every day. This was his new reality, and it was hitting him in the face.

Mixed martial arts teaches that when you’re getting pounded, keep moving. When you’re getting rained on, keep moving. As long as you keep moving, the fight’s not over. As long as you can keep your head up, you’ve still got a chance.

* * *

According to Andre, Muay Thai is a comparatively gentlemanly fighting style. You still fight to win, but, for example, he was trained not to throw an elbow during a fight unless an opponent throws one first. This doesn’t necessarily apply to MMA—not to say there’s a lack of gentlemen in the sport, but few will tell you to wait until the other guy strikes.

Andre came to Thailand five months after returning to Canada from Uganda, and he came for some of the same reasons, but he also noticed the void left in his life when he stopped fighting. This wasn’t just exercise and this wasn’t just fraternity: This was a medium for learning. And a few weeks from now he’ll be back in Canada, and a few months later he’ll be back at Concordia. Maybe a year from now he’ll have a degree, or maybe he’ll be training Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil. Maybe he’ll be a corner-man, or maybe he’ll find some sponsors and fight full-time. Sometimes you strike first, and sometimes you wait for a punch and try to react accordingly.

The Thai misses with an elbow and Andre becomes giddy. They bash shins a few more times and then Andre drills him in the jaw with a pickax of an elbow of his own. The native son crumbles. Knockout.

Keep moving.

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