Over the past few months, I’ve been to two Friday Night Fights, where we watch boxing and Muay Thai, drink beer and eat hot dogs. The biggest Friday Night Fight yet — their biggest lineup in their biggest venue — is coming up on May 2. Here’s what the past two have been like:
December 7: Basement of St. Paul the Apostle Church, near Columbus Circle
Before it starts, a priest ducks into the ring and takes the mic. He’s dressed in the traditional black outfit with the white collar. “People say to me, they say, ‘Father, aren’t fights too violent for a church?’” He turns to another corner. “Yes. They are.” And then people yell, so it’s hard to hear the other things he says, about coming back to the church for events that aren’t fighting, and something something something, and then he gives the mic back to the host — a handsome, youngish man in a natty suit, with huge, knee-length dreadlocks and a “let’s get ready to RHUM-bal” voice, and soon the bell dings for the night’s first fight.
The fighters are mostly men in their early to mid-twenties, heavily tattooed, representing gyms from the five boroughs and a few from the greater Eastern Seaboard. One from Ireland. The fighters’ trunks are beautiful — neon satin, glittery threads, cummerbund-style waists, words written in balloon-letter Asian languages, the name of their gym on their butts. Really pretty. Their heads often look the same: short hair, blunt faces. Occasionally there’s blood during the fights, but it’s hard to tell whose. In one bout, blood covers both fighters’ chests in broad red smears, coloring one man’s sloppy, toilet lid-sized anime tattoo. There aren’t any KOs tonight, so we get to see a lot of the ring girls, holding Round 2 and Round 3 signs, who wear tiny dresses and are appropriately hot and very, very tiny.
The crowd is made up of collared-shirt office workers, giant men in leather, friendly couples, an excited tween, her father, decorative girls, people speaking languages other than English. Normal-looking guys, mostly. A lot of people wearing black. There are hundreds of us, standing or sitting with empty cans of Singha under our folding chairs. (Cans of it, bought from a beer vendor with a tray or from the snack station in the back, are $5 each. Hot dogs, just the plain tubes of meat in white buns, are $3; popcorn is $2.) The fights last about two and a half hours, and by the end of the night I’m a little hungover, and hungry again.
February 22: A Financial District Lobby
A couple months later, Friday Night Fights hosts an all-Muay Thai lineup at the Broad Street Ballroom. It’s in the cavernous, marble-lined main lobby, where there’s a snappy blue-and-red ring and a DJ spinning bass-heavy hip-hop and dance, so loudly that when I go to the bathroom I can’t hear myself pee. It’s all standing room only, but we get there an hour and half early, to wait outside in the rain, second in line, so that when they open the doors we can secure a ringside spot. There’s some jostling at the beginning — from a trio of girls elbowing to get to the front so they can mouth along to the songs, jiggle and get photographed — but for the most part people are respectful of one another’s space, so there’s no horrible, slow, anxious push toward the front, and everyone has just enough room to calmly, comfortably surround themselves with empty cans of beer.
The man with the epic dreadlocks enters the ring and welcomes us, as a buxom young woman prepares to sing the national anthem. After that, the fights begin. When Muay Thai fighters approach the ring, and for the duration of their fight, the DJ plays the same twangy, jungly Asian-y track — repetitive, calming, restrained-adrenaline-pumping. Fighters often wear traditional head- and armbands when they enter the ring — a braided crown with a tasseled stick coming out the back, and braided bands on the biceps — but remove the headbands before the fight begins. Many of them pray and do an elaborate ceremonial Thai dance to each corner of the ring.
I prefer [watching] Muay Thai to [watching] boxing — I think the fights are purer; there’s punching and kicking and kneeing, and most of the fighters tonight are both shoeless and without headgear (which makes me nervous at first, but I get over it — except for the lone fight between two women, who punch each other in the head over and over, their faces swelling and turning an electric red, and I’m afraid they’re going to disfigure each other, but then they’re fine, and then one eventually joins us in the audience, and she’s tiny, she’s like 3’10”, and she’s wearing a cute little outfit, and she’s not disfigured at all.)
A dance team in baggy sweatpants and those strangely trendy keffiyeh scarves takes the ring during the intermission to breakdance, doing those moves where you grab your foot and jump through that circle with the other leg in vague synchronicity. The highlight is when it’s over and they throw free t-shirts into the crowd — cool ones in gothic font printed with the logo and the date of the fight. I get one, put it in my bag on the floor, and then someone tries to steal it. I turn around while she’s putting her hand into my bag, and I say, “What?” and she says, “Oh I thought it was just lying on the floor.”
The whole night’s a little shorter than the first (just under two hours, a perfect length); there’s a lot more blood; there’s an amazing man with smiling and frowning theater masks tattooed across his back, a girly sunburst tattoo around his belly button, and a wolf tattoo on his man breast; and in the last fight there’s a guy with a dramatically broken nose that he either relishes or doesn’t notice, and he’s wandering around the ring grinning into the crowd, a hook of blood sliding from his nose into his mouth, while people tape up his KO’d opponent’s eye.
When a fight is over, Muay Thai fighters remove their bloodied mouthguards and take sips from their opponent’s water — squeezed or poured from the opponent’s trainer’s hand. Then the two fighters meet in the middle and embrace — intensely. In one of the best fights, the losing fighter lifted up the winner as soon as the results were announced and yelled. It’s touching, for the way they respect the art, for the way they respect their opponent, and for the absence of trash-talking, muscle-kissing or sucker punching.
The biggest Friday Night Fight in their 11-year history is coming up on May 2: More than a dozen of their best boxers and Muay Thai fighters will take the ring. Tickets are $30, and it’s at the Lexington Ave Armory. The fights tend to sell out quickly:fridaynightfights.com.