His first punch caught me full in the mouth, spun me around, and painted white spots across my vision. The crowd roared and shook the chain-linked cage encircling our concrete arena.
They might have been cheering for my opponent, but I thought they were cheering for me. My opponent was a head taller than me, but I was still standing. In truth, I gave him that first swing. Not for any macho reasons, like you see in the movies; I wasn’t trying to prove how tough I was, to him or to the crowd. But I was trying to prove it to myself. I had to know that the Iron Body techniques I’d spent years learning were more than just mysticism. Oh, we lie on spears and sword-tips, but that’s more physics than personal durability. Those moves are just for show—anyone could do them with a little preparation.
But I was still standing, and all of my teeth were intact. I felt him rush at my back and sidestepped, watched him charge into the wall of the cage and bounce off. He landed on his back like a turtle on its shell, and I could have stomped on his soft underbelly then, but I let him regain his feet. The Russian fightmaster had made it clear to me at the start of the match that this was to be a fight without honor, with no holds barred and nothing off limits. But I chose to hold on to mine.
My opponent—a big southern bruiser, bald-headed and broad-shouldered, with a face like a bull—jumped back to his feet and roared at me. He charged again, knowing his superior size and strength would give him an advantage in any grappling contest.
I was sixteen years old and had been raised on a diet of rice and lentils. My beefy opponent was almost twice my size, like an ancient oak tree: too massive to fell in a single stroke and too sturdy to wrestle uproot.
In the courtyard of Shaolin temple, there are trees with hundreds of finger-sized holes in their trunks. Holes we put there over the years by repeatedly stabbing our fingers into the bark. The Shaolin call it finger-punching, and masters of the technique develop index fingers so strong that they can do one-fingered pushups and two-fingered handstands.
I am a master of finger-punching. My opponent rushed in; I sidestepped again, but this time I struck him twice as he charged past. Two finger-punches to his left bicep, deep into the muscle. His momentum carried him to the cage and he roared again, but when he turned to face me, his left arm hung limp at his side.
I put my right fist into my open left palm and bowed slightly, a Chinese gesture of respect. The match should have been over. Even in cage-fights, one combatant may tap out if he is too injured to continue. But the Texan brawler refused to admit he was beaten. He charged at me again, his one good arm outstretched.
It was here that I realized the consequences of cage-fighting. I could have easily crippled or killed him if I’d wanted to. Most of my training had involved developing my striking surfaces into weapons—fingers, hands, skull, knees, feet, elbows—and any one of those strikes to a vital area would have ended the fight with a 911 call. Or, given the nature of the illegal match, it might have ended with him dying alone in an empty warehouse.
All of this flew through my mind in the seconds it took him to bounce off the wall and charge me again. I didn’t want to kill him, but I needed his submission. I caught his outstretched wrist in both hands, clutched it to my chest and twisted, letting his momentum pull me off my feet. My legs came up across his chest, one over his arm, the other under it, trapping him in what the Japanese call a jūji-gatame—an armbar. We both fell to the ground, him screaming, me wrapped around his arm like an octopus.
“Tap out,” I said in English.
His free arm was still paralyzed by my finger-punches. His legs kicked uselessly, but he had no leverage to reach me. His good arm was trapped, and with the slightest pressure, I could hyperextend his elbow. He tried to bite me.
“Tap out,” I said again, pulling his wrist even closer to my chest. A tendon popped in his forearm. Another inch and he would be in physical therapy for months.
I felt his whole body relax in surrender. “I can’t,” he mumbled. “Can’t move my arm.”
I released him and rose to my feet. He did not rise, and I heard the Russian say over a microphone, “Two men walk in, only one walks out! Let’s hear it for IRON MONK!”
The cage swung open. I pushed through the crowd in a daze, hardly seeing or hearing the people around me.
Someone shoved a roll of bills in my hand—my winnings—but I barely noticed. I needed air. I was almost to the door when someone pressed a hand to my chest, stopping me cold.
It was Bao.
“Brother, why have you done this?” His eyes went to the roll of bills in my hand and he did the math. “You mean to leave us? To leave me?”
I blinked away the post-fight haze and tried to think. “No. Not yet. Not until I’m 18.” I waved the roll of bills in front of him. “I want to come back to America. To live here. But I need money for the trip. If I do a couple more of these, I’ll have plenty—enough for you to come with me, if you want.”
Bao hesitated for only a few seconds before asking, “What will we do here?”
“Whatever we want, Bao. In America, you can do anything, as long as you have money.”