I worked as a bouncer for nigh on a decade and I have to tell you that real violence ‘ain’t like the stuff you see on the telly’. Fronting nightclub doors taught me many valuable life lessons, not least the futility of violence. Bouncing is a thankless and often life-threatening employ, but facing hostility on a nightly basis for a quarter of my life left me with a lot more than pronounced knuckles and a flute-flat nose. It was an apprenticeship in human kind and a forging ground for a steely mentality. The lessons learned became reference points for future dilemmas and gave me the courage to negotiate a life less ordinary. I know abhor and refrain from violence but it was facing physical threat that enabled me to develop what now I consider to be the only true, authentic power; control of the self.
When life imitates war and your back-up starts to crack-up self-control might be the only thing that enables you to keep your head when all around are losing theirs.
A particular incident, one in which I nearly got killed, taught me this lesson hard and fast. It was my first major run-in with the Bell Green Crew, an infamous Coventry gang that brought regular mayhem to our city centre. In the past I’d faced down most of their major players but this was the first time that I actually fronted them en masse as it were – the whole team. It was Christmas, a busy time on the door and I’d been covering a couple of shifts at T’s Nightspot, a recently refurbished shit-hole in he heart of Coventry. They were short of doormen for a couple of nights and asked me if I’d fill in. I needed the money so was keen to oblige.
The first shift, Friday, went without incident but the Saturday proved to be a night I’d never forget. One of the Bell Green boys – a nipple if ever I saw one, this guy could nipple for England – was on his stag night and T’s, their local, was the last port of call. In every pub they frequented that night, about a hundred of the crew all told, they created havoc by attacking doormen, smashing windows (skimming the broken glass at other customers) and drenching people – the police included – in beer fights that quickly became fistfights. For these boys this was all in a night’s work.
I didn’t much care for the Bell Green Crew, in fact I despised them. As individual fighters they were little more than bullying amateurs, but as a team they didn’t fuck around. During their ten-year rein they stabbed, slashed, beat and bashed just about anyone that dared to cross their path; and, not long after my run-in with them, they murdered one of my good friends, a fellow doorman.
When they arrived at T’s the revelry was already at full throttle and they quickly colonised the whole upstairs area. The place was absolutely steaming with bodies. I was on edge from the word go. They already hated me to pieces so the very fact that I was in – what they considered to be – their club would be a catalyst of explosive proportions. A lot of them spoke and shook my hand as they entered but their tactile salutations didn’t reach their gaze; and nothing empties your stomach quicker than a smiler with death in his eyes. You could have cut the atmosphere with a spoon. A little voice in my head offered quivery counsel; ‘beware the Ides of March.’
It’d be nice to give you a build up to how the affray started, but there wasn’t one, they just came into the club and within minutes it all kicked off. Sometimes that’s how it works, no precursor other than the fact that low-lifes have entered the building. They were fighting from the second they came in until the end of the night, and every time I tried to stop a scrap, my back-up for the night disappeared under the table looking for his bottle. Every man in the room would eventually be throwing either punches or glasses but it was the Stag (or ‘slag’ as he was later described to me) who started the inevitable riot with a racial attack on an amiable guy who ‘got it’ because of his skin shade. The black guy fought back and beat the head off the groom causing the whole lot to kick off when the boys – not happy at one of their own getting a beasting – came to his rescue. This is when the place erupted. As I ran across from my lookout post by the DJ consul and tried to break up the fights my fellow doorman made like Houdini and disappeared again, this time up his own arsehole.
Initially there were about twenty people fighting on the dance floor and, as I tried to separate two of them I caught a Judas punch in the side of my head. I was momentarily stunned. It was me and the stars. My spontaneous reaction – developed in Flight Simulation classes where ambush training is high on the agenda – was to turn and instantly attack my attacker. In live encounters you can forget the block and counter, and totally ignore the simultaneous and innovative ‘trap and attack’, in fact 95% of what is taught as martial art is best left exactly where it was found – in the archives. At this stage in the juncture, where the dance floor is your arena and only the winner gets to keep his consciousness, the pre-emptive attack is the only constant you can rely on. The stuff from the Karate Kid type films falls apart like a paper umbrella in a hurricane.
Still dizzy from the headshot I turned and grabbed my assailant by the neck of his jumper as he tried to leg it, and released six rapid-fire, very scruffy, uppercuts that smashed his sneaky little face in. I hated these Judas types. I despised the treachery and cowardice and hit-and-run tactics of those who only want to fight a blind target. I felt good to have actually caught one in the act as it were. My blows landed in about two seconds and by punch number three he was unconscious and trying to fall, the next three shots helped the lad on his way. When he hit the floor he was as comatose as they come. I gave his head a hoof just to make sure he stayed that way. Didn’t want to be fighting the same man twice. As I booted his face his nose exploded up the instep of my sock like a popped-boil and he spun on the dance floor like a break-dancer.
The fight spread rapidly throughout the room. I spotted the fuel that was feeding the fire. It was Mr S and he was punching and glassing everything that moved. I raced towards him, sparking anyone that got in my way. They fell over easily and I left a trail of bodies in my wake. ‘Bang’ – one right cross and MR.S was history. I loathed him. When he hit the deck and disappeared under dozens of stamping feet I allowed myself a smile.
By now the whole pub was fighting and the other doormen had arrived on the scene. They were trying to protect the black guy from a lynch mob.
‘Kill the nigger,’ came the racist cries.
Beer glasses, both full and empty, were being thrown randomly, some at him, others at the ceiling so that spears of broken jug shattered on the heads of those below.
Women were screaming, and the sound of breaking glass echoed over the background music. We eventually got the black guy out to safety and this seemed, temporarily, to cool the situation. ‘If the black guy has got to go,’ I said to myself, ‘then that wanker Mr S. has got to go too. And if he doesn’t like it then we’ll have to do the park.’ Mr S. was already off my Christmas card list because a year before, him and ten of his team had smashed up a mate’s pub – and the staff – with baseball bats. I was about redress the balance. I’d been looking for an opportunity and now I’d found one.
I grabbed Dave, the only doorman who stood by me that night, and we went upstairs to remove Mr S. I scanned the room. He was nowhere to be found. He’d obviously spotted me, though. Whoosh! A Judas punch just missed the back of my head. It was Mr S trying to get his revenge for the plum job I’d done on his eye. His punch missed me but it sparked a stampede. Him and the rest of the crew ran at me.
This is where, if your training is right, instinct takes over and you switch to automatic pilot. I normally train for the one shot, the line-up, but in circumstances like this it’s all down to spontaneity and your training needs to reflect that.
Sumo wrestlers have a saying, ‘cry in training, laugh in the arena.’ So many people practice martial technique without the injection of fear or pain and then wonder why their arsehole goes manhole when it kicks off outside the chippy. If you don’t feel fear and there isn’t at least the threat of pain how the hell are you ever supposed to get used to it? You’re not preparing for reality, you’re performing a dance. Training for realism is conceptually easy; just subtract as many rules as you dare and see what happens. If you want to practise for reality you have to recreate reality, and in every detail – right down to the spitting, stomping, biting and swearing.
I call it Flight Simulation. Pilots practice for flight adversity in a simulator that is identical in every tiny detail to a real flight. They recreate danger scenarios and then practice survival techniques sure in the knowledge that it will prepare them should they ever have to face a real emergency. Off course the conscious mind knows the simulation holds no real danger, but the mid-brain (the part that deals with fight or flight) doesn’t, it believes the simulation to be gut-bustingly authentic and it prepares you accordingly. Massive amounts of adrenalin are injected and all the uncomfortable bodily reactions that we associate with terror are triggered. To all intents and purposes the simulation is the real deal.
Fortunately my training all took place in a simulator, in fact my gym fights were often more frightening than the real thing.
As the faceless wall of bodies shot into me I fired out short, straight punches and hit everything that moved. I felt a couple of bodies drop by my side so it’d be fair to say that I was connecting well. I couldn’t see any individual faces. There were so many they seemed to blend together like bits of rice in a crispy bar. The action was mute. Adrenal deafness is a common by-product of fighting for your right to a pulse – it was violence with the sound switched off – and the claustrophobic weight of my attackers made me feel like I was fighting underwater and drowning. Punches rained in at me like flying hammers and glasses bounced off my head leaving rivers of blood along my scalp.
Crash! They ran me backwards into the crowds of drinkers and I was down, surrounded by screaming, spitting, stomping strangers. Even people who were not involved stuck the boot in, some of them I’d actually chatted and laughed with earlier in the evening. I’ve stopped being disappointed by people. When you mix blood and alcohol and then stir in a little nightclub ambience nice people metamorphose into the most despicable creatures. It’s not personal. It’s human nature, they can’t seem to help selves, they see a head at their feet and they just have to kick it.
Bang! I felt my lights go from a kick to the jaw. The world tunnelled grey and cloudy and slurred. I’d been here before, in training. It’s not about physical at this point it’s about fortitude, bloody-determination, the indominatable spirit. All the techniques in the world aren’t going to help if you haven’t developed the steely-reserve to take disproportionate amounts of fear and pain. I got back up like a staggering drunk and lashed into my attackers. Crash! Down again, through tables full of drink, glasses shattering off my head and slashing at my body. This time I fell on my belly and for the first time in the fight I felt panic, I couldn’t see the people attacking me and for some reason this added to my alarm. But fear and panic were the usual suspects. They’d been my cerebral sparring partners for the last twenty years and I was no longer afraid of them. I still hated the caustic presence and the scared feelings adrenalin produced, off course, that never goes away, but I’d been here so many times before that it was just like another training session.
More punches, more kicks. I was the proverbial mace-ball. My lights went again but I wouldn’t let myself stop. I found my feet and got back into the fight but it took everything I had left in me. Bang! I was back on my belly. I felt naked and vulnerable. I wanted to give up but, again, my training clicked in and instinct took over.
To build a strong spirit you must learn to be knocked down seven times and get up eight. It’s back to Flight simulation again. The only way you can learn the art of getting up after being knocked down is to actually get knocked down in the first place. It’s hard to imagine why anyone in their right mind would want to endure training sessions that are like real fights. When you are there in the thick of it and the instructor says ‘one more fight, knock out or submission’ you doubt even your own sanity for engaging in such madness. They say that the iron ore feels itself needlessly tortured as it passes through the furnace but the tempered blade looks back and knows better. When you’re belly down on a bed of broken glass with a team of Neanderthals trying to stamp your head into the décor you certainly do look back and know better, and what’s more you thank God for the training because it is only the self-control developed during ‘such madness’ that enables you to get back up – and for the eight time.
Later, violence renounced and greener pastures found, I learned to employ this indominatable spirit to any situation where fear lurked and risk threatened. My experiences offered a great perspective on business, health or relationship problems. After going through my own personal furnace everything seemed so easy by comparison. Once you have forged the proverbial blade you can use it to cut through any obstacle.
I was on my belly with the panic flooding in because I couldn’t get back up. Shards of glass stuck to my face as it was crushed into the beer-sticky carpet by the disembodied heel of somebody’s boot. I dug deep and pressed all negativity aside. I grunted and pushed back to my feet, punches and kicks hitting me in the back of the head. I was being crushed but managed to force my way up to fight this faceless foe. I even grasped at a jagged beer glass and used the sharp edges to ‘cut’ through my mountainous foe. Neitche (no he wasn’t one of the Bell green boys) said that we should be careful when hunting the dragon that we do not become the dragon. Oh yea! He obviously never did a shift at a Coventry nightspot.
Just when all seemed lost and defeat was at its closest I felt an arm around my waist pulling me from the affray. Dave risked his neck and placed himself between the baying mob and me. ‘Do you want some help, Geoff?’ he asked.
Does a one-legged duck swim in circles?
Mr S. was at the front, pointing and threatening. The aggression came at me in chunks but I was still raring to go. He was tattooed and lanky, his front teeth were missing. I hoped, rather un-Christianly, that they might be on the floor amongst the smashed-glass. Another wanker, another worthless bastard that couldn’t fight the tide in the bath without the appendage of twenty mates. What a piece of shit. I caught his eye.
‘Me and you then,’ I drilled my challenge into him and watched as he buckled like a kerbed wheel. He backed off, still pointing and shouting. I offered again, ‘me and you. Outside. One on one. The park.’
He pretended that he didn’t hear and melted into the crowd. Without a leader, the rest quickly followed.
I was breathing heavily, my shirt completely buttonless, my face swollen from many blows and every muscle and bone screamed with ache. Blood was gushing from the glass wound in my right hand and my sliced-and-diced head bled into my hair and shirt collar. My body was battered but my mind was still fighting fit. I peeled off my shirt and wrapped it around the gaping hand wound. I took stock of the situation.
My attackers had retreated, for now leastways, but there would be other bloody encounters with these men, on other bloody days. Some enemies are for life not just for Christmas. The room was a bombsite of broken glass, smashed bottles, blood and fractured furniture. Victims were being helped back to consciousness and weepy girls cried into manly shoulders, all to the backdrop of siren-wail that forewarned of imminent police presence. Late as usual.
Just another night in Coventry city centre.
Napoleon Bonaparte once said that the sight of the battlefield after the fight inspired princes with a love of peace and a horror of war.
I didn’t know the guy personally, but I have to concur, it definitely ‘ain’t like the stuff you see on the telly.’