Fight Club has always been my favorite movie. Growing up in a Quaker pacifist household I've always had a sick obsession with violence. I did plenty of self-punishment via high school swimming, running marathons, and rowing crew in college. But still, I wondered somewhere deep in my soul what it would feel like to bash another man in the face. And get beaten to a pulp just like Brad Pitt's interpretation of the Chuck Palahniuk character. I've watched plenty of ultimate fighting on television but it doesn't move me. So I went out in search of the real thing.
I'm looking into Konstantin Selivanov's eyes. It's the third day of a three-day fight training camp in his studio on in Cambridge, Massachusetts. When we met at a party Konstantin seemed like such a gentle soul. We talked about his role as Ivan in Miss Congeniality, his screenwriting, and current passion for painting. But now I'm looking into the eyes of a man who learned to fight in Russia when martial arts were illegal. He's not a stranger to real life underground fight clubs. I move in for the left jab, right hook combination Konstantin has taught me. He blocks my punches and counters with a roundhouse kick. I see it coming too late.
Searing pain spreads across my solar plexis like I've been shot. In the world of ultimate fighting this is a love tap. But I'm bent over unable to breath. Konstantin has my head in his hands and mimes the knee that would break my skull if this was a full-speed fight. I try to say "uncle" through my mouth guard but no sound comes out.
At the start of the week I'd asked a well known biotech executive, who's a regular at the Konstantin's gym, what to bring on the first day since I had never been in a ring. "A nurse," he had replied with a knowing smirk. Now I know why.
Konstantin was born in Sochi, Russia. He ran the largest fighting academy in Russia. Ultimately he became a threat to both the KGB and the Russian mob because he welded too much power with his web of students and teachers, all of whom could kill with their bare hands. After coming home too many times with a grenade in his hand, ready to pull the pin if the KGB was waiting for him, Konstantin snuck out of the country with $300 in his pocket.
He came to the United States in 1991 with his wife Elena, a Ford model, to become head coach at the Olympic Martial Arts Club in New York and pursue his acting and screenwriting career (he was Ivan in Miss Congeniality). Elena and Konstantin now have a teenaged daughter and a baby son. The demands of family caused Konstantin to give up his dream of becoming the Sylvester Stallone of ultimate fighting and open his current studio several years ago.
"Hands up!" he tells me. I've learned to throw a jab, cross, and hook using my body rather than my arm; I've mastered front kick, side kick, and roundhouse; and I've learned how to try to block each of these blows as well as how to escape the clinch. But I'm still struggling to put it together in real time.
I throw my right cross and hear a satisfying SMACK as it lands. "Yes!" he responds. "See how you used your hips to line up your entire body weight directly behind the target?" It's the same body mechanics as Tiger hitting a golf ball or Manny swinging a bat. You have to follow through. Only in fighting the swing comes from arms, legs, knees, and elbows at any angle. And each fighter is in motion. That's why they call it an art.
An hour with Konstantin is an intense total body work-out and dance class all at the same time. After three decades of fighting, Konstantin has developed a "street friendly" style of training that attracts high profile executives and professional fighters as well as kids and women who want to learn self-defense. But with me he doesn't hold back. He keeps hitting me and, when I wince in pain, he laughs. I have gotten exactly what I came for. This is FIGHT CLUB for real. I know what it feels like to smack and get smacked.
Finally, Konstantin calls the match over. I have survived. He is once again the gentle soul I met at the party. His eyes are no longer the jet black saucers of an assassin looking for an opening. They sparkle with the laughter of a new friend as he slaps me on the back.