DAVID BASSANO - EMPTY-HANDED
David Bassano is a History professor at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. He is a human rights activist, an author of academic and literary works, and an avid hiker and cyclist. Trevelyan’s Wager, published by Harvard Square Editions, is his first novel. You may learn more about him and his work at www.davidbassano.com.
By David Bassano
I watched Bill trying to lure out a green belt. It was easier to beat someone confident because they would come at you. Once they fought Bill, they were less confident, and at least remembered to keep their hands up when they kicked. The green belt turtled up and planted his feet. Bill attacked tepidly, dropping his hands and backpedalling when the green belt attacked. Bill kept working him until the green belt must’ve figured he could get Bill if he could just get close enough, because he lunged with a punch but leaned forward to make it reach, exactly as he’d been told not to. It’s hard not to do it when you’re excited. Bill grabbed his wrist and gave a little tug as he twisted his body. The green belt pulled his fist back, but while he was trying to keep his balance, Bill pulled a punch to his head, slowly to make his point, and that ended our sparring for the night. The eight of us lined up at the front of the dojo and bowed to the photographs of the school’s ancestors on the wall above the mirrors, then took out the brooms and mops and cleaned the dojo.
The dojo was an old dance studio on a wooded lot off a state highway. The building was long and low with white siding and a leaky roof that forced us to put out buckets when it rained, and we had to be careful of tripping over them when we sparred. It had a hardwood floor, fluorescent lights, and full-length mirrors along one wall, as well as dressing rooms. We had only to take down the balance bars and put up a pegboard for the weapons. There was no air conditioning and no windows. Even with the door open, the only breeze you felt in the summer was when the sensei walked past you, and your cotton gi was soaked like you’d worn it in the rain. The heating wasn’t good in the winter but we didn’t mind that so much. It’s just that the floor was cold on bare feet.
It was a small and very traditional school. Our sensei had learned karate on Okinawa when he was stationed there in his Navy days, then stayed on after his tour to train intensively. He didn’t talk about his time on Okinawa very much but, given the way Okinawans view Americans, he must have gone through hell to get them to take him seriously. But then he was a serious man. He was about fifty, balding and soft-spoken with an intense gaze. He was a teacher in a local elementary school. He was fiercely intellectual and an atheist and I think karate replaced religion for him. He was disciplined, professionally polite, curt, thoroughly uncompromising, and rather harsh. I didn’t always like him, but I knew I could always trust him.
He was also an outstanding fighter and I couldn’t have hit him with a handful of buckshot. One of the things he’d told us about his years on Okinawa was that, in his school, the black belts did nothing but spar. They didn’t even need to warm up; everybody warmed up before class, usually by jogging to the dojo, he said, so they just spent the whole class fighting. Four hours of sparring a day, four days a week. He made it look like nothing until you tried to fight him. He’d throw his punches so they somehow snaked around your block, or else changed direction like a breaking ball and slipped under your guard. It was confounding to fight him because it took so long to figure out what he was doing. He’d teach by fighting you, not through explanation. He rarely explained anything, so you had to give it your full attention to learn from it. He’d just hit you and then back off a bit to let get ready again, then he’d keep doing it until you understood what was happening and learned to defend yourself. Then he might say something about how to attack and let you figure out the rest. It was all body-teaching.
As we cleaned the dojo, Sensei sat in the tiny visitor area, reading the local paper.
“Hey, Bill,” he said.
Bill trotted over to him. “Yes?”
“Ever fight in an open tournament?”
The older man tore something from the paper and handed it to him. “Colbretti is holding one at his dojo. Go sign up for it.”
Afterward, Bill and I went to the Driftwood for beers. We hung out a lot together in those days. He was twenty-three and a black belt and I was twenty-one and a brown belt. Like Bill, I’d been training in the dojo for several years, but Sensei wouldn’t advance anyone to black belt until they were at least twenty-one years old. Bill and I had been through the same high school although two years apart. Most of our friends from high school had gone off to college and few chose to return our little farming town in New Jersey when they finished.
Bill was my closest friend but he was also a mystery to me. He was friendly, polite, and forgiving. It just felt good to be around him. On the rare occasions he got angry it was because someone else had been hurt. He’d help you out with anything, a lift, place to stay for a couple of days, whatever. What confused me was that he seemed to care about almost nothing, just the most important things. His friends and karate were about it. He didn’t own a TV because he never liked what was on, he said, and people would try to talk to him about popular shows and he didn’t know what they were talking about. I guess people thought he was a snob or an inscrutable intellectual until they learned he was an electrician. They didn’t mind him, because he was good company, but I think they thought he was a little odd, and the last thing he cared about was what people thought of him. I couldn’t understand how someone could be so friendly and so detached at the same time.
He was the dojo’s top student and everyone pegged him to take over from Sensei someday. It seemed that the sensei was grooming him for this, letting him teach beginners’ classes that we nicknamed “Bill’s Boot Camp.” Eventually, though, he felt that the practice wasn’t taking him where he wanted to go. Like anything worthwhile, the deeper you go into it, the more it requires from you. It was supposed to be a lifelong commitment at our school, like it is in Japan. But we weren’t Japanese and Bill went on to find other things in life worthy of the same attention. He wouldn’t keep going simply to save face because he felt the only really unforgivable sin is dishonesty. It was an ugly break with our sensei when it came.
We didn’t know all that yet. We shared our practice and our experiences in the dojo and we were good friends in a lifeless little bedroom town where we had no other friends. We worked our jobs and trained together and hung out together and our lives were simple, so simple.
“Pretty strange for Sensei to tell you to sign up for that tourney,” I told Bill as we drank at the bar.
“Yeah,” he said. “He hates ‘em.”
“Ever been to one?”
“Once, in Philly. It was one of the big nationals.”
“What was it like?”
“Huge. Five hundred fighters, about two thousand people in the audience. There was a thousand-dollar purse and people were beating the hell outta each other for it. It was a bloodbath.”
“Sounds great. Sorry I missed it. Watching, I mean.”
“Yeah, you can have ‘em.”
“So what’s Sensei sending you to Colbretti’s tourney for?”
“Who knows? He never says why. He’s probably just trying to put me in an unusual situation. But this tourney won’t be bad. There’s nothing to win but a trophy.”
“Didn’t you go to school with Colbretti’s son?” I asked.
“I think so. Joe Jr., right? I never met him but I think he was in my class.”
“He’s pretty good. I’ve seen him in demonstrations.”
Joe Colbretti Sr. owned the largest and most popular dojo in the county. The dojo gave demonstrations at the county fair or at the mall or on a float in parades. The demos were flashy, featuring katas, sparring, and of course board-breaking. The students at the demos were sharp. Colbretti Sr. emceed the largest ones. He was a natural showman and directed the demos with relish as his students circulated through the crowd in their gis, distributing the school’s promotional flyers.
Joseph Colbretti Sr. was a tall man, rotund in middle age, with thinning brown hair, a thick beard, and a ruddy complexion. He had a broad smile and a loud voice. His son was tall, like his father, with short brown hair. He was a good-looking guy, about Bill’s age. He was a black belt in his father’s dojo and ran most of the demonstrations. Back in school everyone knew who he was and he always had people around him, mostly students from his dojo and a girl on his arm.
I spoke with him only once, when we were both in high school. Rob’s parents were on vacation for a week the April of my junior year, and Rob threw a big party at his place while they were gone. I went with a friend named Wayne.
I came out of the house with a beer in my hand and at the bottom of the steps were Joe Colbretti Jr. and his entourage. Wayne was talking with them about various karate teachers in the area.
“Hey, Matt knows karate,” said Wayne, gesturing at me with his beer. I gave him a look to shut him up.
“What dojo?” asked Colbretti.
“Okinawan Goju,” I said.
“Never heard of it.”
“Most folks haven’t.”
“Who’s your teacher?”
I told him.
“Funny I don’t know him,” he said quietly without looking at me. “I know all the karate teachers around here.”
“Matt’s a great fighter,” said Wayne.
“Put a lid on it,” I told him.
“Hey, I’m just sayin’.”
“What tournaments you fight in?” asked one of Colbretti’s entourage. I could see where it was going and there was nothing I could do about it. The alpha male had already passed judgment. I turned and went back in the house and heard the snickers behind me and “He don’t know karate” and Wayne trying to protest. It’s hard as hell to walk away from something like that when you’re sixteen but I knew nothing good could come from it. I didn’t think Colbretti would have mixed it up with anyone in an argument. I thought all the provocations were part of the white middle-class posturing I saw in school, and that none of it had any consequences. That’s why I was so surprised years later to read in the paper that Joe had been convicted of manslaughter stemming from an altercation and sent to Leesburg Prison.
That was several years in the future. What I knew that night at the Driftwood was that Joe Colbretti Jr. was a great fighter, that was clear from the demos, and that Bill was a great fighter, and I knew that first-hand, and that it was likely they would end up fighting each other at the tournament. I didn’t tell Bill why I wanted to see him beat Colbretti in his own dojo. He wouldn’t have cared anyway.
I drove Bill to Colbretti’s dojo the evening of the tournament. It was a beautiful building, modeled after a Japanese temple, on a few acres of land about five miles from the center of town. The building was surrounded by rock gardens, and poplars lined the driveway and surrounded the parking lot. There were a few inches of snow on the ground and the poplars looked like they were dusted with powdered sugar. The lot was starting to fill up.
It was a large dojo with a high ceiling and brightly-polished wood floor. Over the mirrors were trophies won by the school’s students at tournaments. The spectator area was wide and decorated with signed photographs of Colbretti Sr. with national karate personalities. Bill paid his entrance fee at the registrar’s desk and went into the dressing room with his old Everlast bag.
The spectator area was already full so I took off my shoes, bowed onto the floor, and joined those who were already sitting cross-legged along the wall. On the floor were students from, I guessed, all the dojos in the county, warming up and stretching. Their gis were of various styles and colors and looked exotic to me. Some of Colbretti’s black belts were marking the boundaries of the tournament area on the floor with masking tape. As more people arrived it got louder and warmer. A photographer from the local paper was there with two cameras and a press pass around his neck. After Bill changed into his gi we sat together along the wall to watch the beginning of the tournament. The black belts always go last. Bill kept stretching and didn’t say much.
About fifteen minutes late, Joe Colbretti Sr. strolled onto the floor without bowing and, with a big smile, announced the beginning of the tournament and the rules. Everyone had to wear armor, shin pads, and gloves. The first contestant to reach two points wins the bout. Clear hits in the armor worth half a point, decisive hits or intended takedowns worth a full point, with the head judge, Colbretti Sr., making the final call. Forcing your opponent outside the boundary worth half a point. Black belts only can make light contact to the head. Nothing below the belt.
The young kids went first. It was fun to watch them. They flailed away at each other and only landed a blow by accident. Next came the older students, all ranks below black belt grouped together. They were much more proficient, and sometimes you’d see a green or blue belt beat a brown belt. It took an hour and a half for all the ranks below black belt to spar. The photographer shot a few of the kids with their trophies, which Colbretti presented to the winners with jokes and anecdotes for the benefit of the crowd. Many of the parents took their kids home at this point, but the place was still crowded with constant movement and noise as the boys joked and laughed and the adults fanned themselves with the school’s promotional flyers and complained of the heat. The door was open, but it didn’t seem to cool the place. Finally, Colbretti Sr. announced in a booming voice, “And now for the grand finale!” and called out the names of the contestants in the first elimination of adult black belts, including his son.
“Isn’t that a conflict of interest?” I whispered to Bill.
“It’s against national tournament standards. But nobody said we were following them.”
I was surprised at how hard the black belts fought. Light contact to the head, in the heat of a fight, sometimes turned into full contact. Their friends, families, and students were in the room, and I guess they figured they weren’t going down easily. Americans think it’s a big deal to be a black belt. Our teacher told us that it’s nothing in Japan or Okinawa. In Japan, they say that a black belt means you’re ready to become a real student, and even then you might still be a fly-by-night. Before you’re a black belt in Japan, the teachers look right through you, and even new black belts are nobody. But that night, the black belts were fighting like they had a lot to lose.
Joe Colbretti Jr. had shiny, bright red armor with matching gloves and shin guards. The mouth protector he wore distorted his face. He was extremely fast, with a wicked side kick. He dispensed with his first opponent in under a minute.
“Bill Hudson and Marty Baumgarten,” said Colbretti Sr..
Bill stood up and I tied the old padded rattan armor from our dojo behind him as he held it to his chest. “The judges need to see a clear hit,” I mumbled over his shoulder. “Don’t go easy like you do in the dojo. Pound ‘em.”
I helped him put on the shin guards and fingerless gloves, all borrowed from friends. The armor was black, the shin guards blue, and the gloves red, all against the white of his fraying gi. He looked down at himself, then grinned at me.
“Good luck,” I said, slapping him in the armor.
It seemed he took my advice to heart. He was far more aggressive than I’d seen him before and poor Baumgarten looked like Bill had him surrounded and outnumbered. After that, it was just a matter of waiting for Bill and Joe to fight each other. Bill sat next to me during the other bouts with the armor on but said nothing, responding to my comments with nods and grunts. There were a few black belts who gave Joe and Bill trouble, but the outcomes were never in doubt. Bill was having fun with the boundaries of the tournament area, which we never used when we sparred in our dojo. He’d force his opponents outside the boundary with a lunge, or hip throw them over the tape, and the boys sitting along the wall would scramble to dodge the falling body. He kept it all very simple, with short, tight techniques and nothing flashy. Finally, there were only two contestants remaining.
“Hudson and Colbretti.”
They stood face-to-face in the middle of the floor with Colbretti Sr. between them. Joe Jr. was slightly taller than Bill and looked down his nose at him. I knew the very last thing he wanted was to lose to someone he’d never heard of in his own dojo in front of his father, his friends, and his own students.
Colbretti Sr. tucked a black silk handkerchief in the back of Bill’s belt to designate him the black fighter. Bill and Joe bowed to each other, then to the older man. The three black belt judges formed a wide circle around them.
“Fighting stance,” said Colbretti Sr.. They put their fists up and the crowd leaned forward and so did I, and it was completely silent in the room. Over the years, the thing I’ve remembered most clearly about that night is the single image of two fighters with their hands up, perfectly still, staring at each other.
“Fight!” The boys roared for Joe and Joe went straight at Bill like a freight train.
Bill let him come, giving ground slowly, always keeping himself safe from Joe’s attacks, and Joe was throwing them like he meant it. There are no points for effort in a karate tournament the way there are in boxing; you can throw a hundred punches and kicks but the only one that matters is the one that goes home. Joe tried a spinning back kick. I saw it as soon as he started to turn his hips, and so did Bill, who stepped aside and punched the moment that Joe’s foot cut through the air where Bill had just been, and Joe on one foot and Bill got his hips behind it and put the punch in the armor over the ribs and BANG and the crowd’s reaction and all the judges’ hands going up with a shout as Joe went down.
Joe got to his feet; the punch couldn’t hurt him through the armor but had knocked him off balance. His father pointed to each judge in turn to receive the call.
“Half point black.”
“Full point black.”
“Full point black.”
“Full point black,” said Colbretti Sr.. “Fighting stance…fight!”
The next few minutes were like a course in sparring. Joe, like a centurion in his bright red armor, fast and aggressive, with a wide stance and side kick that could beat your forearms raw; Bill with a relaxed stance, standing tall, never wasting a movement, appearing unhurried. Even the most inexperienced in the crowd could see that these were the best fighters of the evening. Joe tied it with a full point, then Bill got a half point, and then Joe tied it again at a point and a half each.
“Next score wins the tournament,” said Colbretti Sr.. “Fighting stance.”
Joe bounced lightly on the balls of his feet like a boxer, leaning slightly forward, glaring at Bill. Bill stood calmly, shoulders relaxed, and maybe it was my angle but he seemed to have a slight smile on his face. I had a pit in the bottom of my stomach.
Joe again went on the offensive and again Bill let him come. Bill countered with a quick combination of kicks and punches but then Joe went right back on the attack. Joe tried stepping on Bill’s leading foot to pin it but Bill was too quick, picked up the foot and almost got Joe with the kick. Joe went in again with a whirlwind of punches that were so fast I couldn’t see them all, but among them was a pop.
“Point!” They came back to the center.
“Half point white.”
“Half point white.”
“Half point white,” said Colbretti Sr.. “White wins.” The crowd loved it.
The two fighters bowed to each other, pulled off their gloves, and shook hands. With teary eyes and a big red-faced smile, Colbretti Sr. awarded his son the trophy for first place; then he politely awarded Bill the medal for second. Bill came over to me and I helped him take off the armor.
“That was great fighting,” I said.
“Thanks. He’s awful fast. I didn’t even see the punch that got me.”
“Let’s go for a beer.”
“I need a shower.”
“Let’s go for a beer.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
People were congratulating Joe, who was still in his armor. I could barely see him through the crowd. He had taken out his mouth guard so he could talk. People were slapping him on the back and lining up to shake his hand. A few of the fighters, the older black belts in particular, came over to quietly compliment Bill and ask about his teacher.
The photojournalist made the crowd form a semicircle behind Joe, who looked sweaty, disheveled, and profoundly relieved. He held up his trophy, the crowd cheered, and the white flash lit their faces.
Bill watched as he removed his shin guards and smiled sadly as he turned for the dressing room.
“Poor Joe,” he said.