Saturday, 5 April 2014

Why Winning Really Matters When You're Born To Lose

So, she won. Fallon Fox came out of her comeback fight against Heather Basset last month with a submission victory forty-four seconds into the second round. I didn’t see the fight live, because I live in England and needed to get some sleep before taking part in a writing marathon the next day, but when I woke up at about six that Saturday morning (the pressures of maturity are conspiring to turn me from an owl into a lark, much against my will), the result was the first thing I looked up when I picked up my phone.
Which was not, however, the first thing I did. The first thing I did was to look over at the clock on the display and do a little mental calculation.
‘Six a.m. now,’ I said to myself, ‘New York is six hours behind Chicago another hour?’ Even if it was, that would still make it eleven at night in Chicago by then, I figured. And that meant the fight would probably be over by now, and I could just pick up my phone and find out the result.
Part of me, however, didn’t want to. Part of me was afraid to do something as simple as picking up the phone. Because...well, what if she’d lost?

I was in bed when I found out Fallon had lost the fight before this one, but I wasn’t getting up in the morning: I was getting ready to go to sleep after a gig I’d done in Plymouth. It had been a great gig – I’d performed well enough, but more importantly I’d got to be on the same bill as one of my favourite poets, the brilliant Joelle Taylor. Joelle and I had then spent the night wandering around Plymouth with one of the other poets on the bill, former Birmingham Laureate Stephen Morrison-Burke, before we’d headed back to our respective hotels. For reasons too complicated to go into here, Joelle was staying at one of Plymouth’s two Premier Inns while Stephen and I were staying at a B&B just up the road from Plymouth Hoe. It wasn’t the worst place I’d stayed in but I’d be lying if I said it was the best. Still, after the long day I’d had, even the brick-hard mattress of this B&B was a welcome resting-place, and I pulled my phone out, checked Twitter for one last time before I plugged the thing in and kicked back for hopefully as much as four whole hours of sleep...and read Fallon having to respond to the fact that not only had she lost to Ashlee Evans-Smith, but that the woman who beat her was dishing out some transphobic hate and saying Fox should not be allowed to compete in MMA at all, whether she won her fights or not.
That took the glory out of the night for me: it felt like a kick in the teeth. It wasn’t just the loss – it was the fact that the loss was compounded by the familiar calls for trans people to be excluded, to not be accorded equal space with cis people. But to be honest, the loss hurt too. I find it hard to handle losing, even vicariously. As a poet I’ve won a lot of slams, and only lost one – and even then I came second, which is pretty acceptable really, from a logical standpoint. But emotionally it hurt. The loss sent me on a binge of self-questioning, self-loathing, and self-laceration, all, to my chagrin, recorded on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, as I railed against myself for not being good enough, for playing it too safe with my material, for wasting the time I’d had on stage trying to win instead of trying to say something real – and so on. It took me a long time to come back from that loss, and I know why: because someone from a reasonably comfortable background, someone with more privilege, someone starting from a more secure base, can have the luxury of shrugging off a loss and saying that it’s all about the game, old chap; but when you spend pretty much every day of your life losing – coping with open insults in the street and more subtle shade in the workplace, struggling against bureaucracies and authorities for the right to call yourself a woman, not being able to turn on Twitter or Facebook most mornings without seeing another example of a cis ‘journalist’ saying you don’t really exist, saying people like you shouldn’t be allowed to teach children, or insulting a woman like you to their face in a supposedly ‘friendly’ interview, reading every day about women like you being hounded out of bathrooms, or workplaces, or even to their deaths – well, when that’s the life you live, finding a space where you can win means a lot. And seeing someone like you winning, in her own way, means a lot too. And so when you lose, or they lose, the fall is a lot further and the crash-mat of privilege isn’t there to break that fall. When you’re born to lose, it matters much more if you win. Or if you fail.

So when I lay there that Saturday morning, holding my phone and wondering whether I really wanted to look for the result, the butterflies in my stomach were wielding pneumatic drills and throwing bangers at the lining. I literally felt sick with worry. Did I really want to do this? I’d been getting increasingly nervous about the result since coming back from a gig I’d done in Edinburgh, when I’d seen one of the first online posters for Fallon’s comeback fight. Her opponent, Heather Bassett, was much younger, and presumably therefore much fitter – and it was the lack of fitness caused by not having any testosterone in her body that had seen Fox lose to Evans-Smith in her last bout. Worse than that, Bassett was reported to have won her previous match by kicking her opponent in the head. For some reason this last fact scared the crap out of me. I found myself feeling genuine anxiety as I sat on that train: my head swam, my stomach turned somersaults (an impressive feat for such a large tummy, frankly), and I tried to think of something to do, some way to cope with the anxiety. And I decided to do it by turning cheerleader.

I’d written a poem about Fallon the day after I’d heard of her loss. I’d sent her a link to me performing it on my blog via Twitter, and she seemed to like it, which was, frankly, some of the nicest feedback I’ve ever had in my career. I decided to embark on a campaign of sharing the poem a lot online, and performing it at every gig I did between that train journey and the fight – partly on the grounds that it might boost her morale in some way (after all, the effect of having the North East spoken-word scene on your side is a little-known but possibly crucial factor in pugilistic history. Consider this: Muhammad Ali visited South Shields in the seventies, because as a convert to Islam he wanted to visit that town’s long-established Yemeni community. It’s statistically almost an absolute certainty that at least one of the people who saw Ali travelling down Ocean Road in an open-top bus might have been a Tyneside poet. George Foreman did not visit South Shields, and therefore did not receive the adoration of anyone even vaguely involved with verse in the North East in any way. And who won the Rumble in the Jungle? Exactly.) but mainly because it would give me a way of handling this mounting anxiety. The campaign climaxed the Thursday night before the fight when I got the audience at a gig to do a massive pre-fight cheer for her, by which point it had been a success in at least as much as it had made me feel less of a nervous wreck. But that morning, as my finger hovered over the screen of my phone, there was nothing I could do to stop the nerves hitting me. Except to stop being such a damn coward and look up the damn result, whatever it was. I was going to a writing marathon later that day, for God’s sake: if the news was bad I would have a ready-made opportunity to power through my anger on a wave of righteous trans rage. Just do it, already, I told myself. So I did.

And...she won. Literally the first Facebook status I saw that morning was Fox expressing gratitude for her victory. It feels absurd to compare the way I felt then to the way I felt the morning I discovered that Barack Obama had been elected, but in a way that was how it felt: not because the question of who wins in a cage-fight is the same as the question of who wins in US politics (cage-fighting is, on the whole, a more honourable and dignified business than electioneering, after all), but because I’d spent the night nervously awaiting news from America, and, when it finally came, the news was good. Because when you’re born to lose, the losses that really hurt, hurt like a punch in the stomach; but the wins? The wins feel like a sunrise, or the last bars of Beethoven’s Ninth. The wins are Heaven.

And so, smiling, I got out of bed, and got on with my day.

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