Dr. Yang’s Fight Club
(Page 2 of 9)
Those who could not be discouraged he allowed to submit a formal application, which included 16 essay questions (“What qualities do you possess which guarantee that you will endure the intensity and boredom of this training?”). Those who completed the application Dr. Yang invited to take a seminar with him. If they survived that, he invited them to California, to the mountain, to test their true character in situ. Even candidates who fared well in the studio, he found, revealed weaknesses on the mountain. Gradually, Dr. Yang’s initial list of 140 candidates dwindled until he was left with only a handful.
Mike DiMeglio was not Dr. Yang’s first choice. In fact, when Dr. Yang first met him at one of his Boston seminars, he quickly dismissed him as “looking for new heaven.” At 21, Mike was a mess just to look at. His unhealthy pallor and bruised eyes suggested a bad diet and interrupted sleep. His gaze was blurry, his delivery slurred, and his slouched, guarded posture gave him the look of someone who had grown up under a porch.
In fact, Mike grew up in Wilkes-Barre, “the armpit of Pennsylvania,” as locals call it. His mother died from rheumatic fever when he was 1. Around that same time, the babysitter turned his father on to crack, and he’s been an addict ever since. The day Mike turned 18, his stepmother kicked him out of the house; they’d never gotten along. When he came by later to pick up his stereo, she told him he’d have to fight his four stepbrothers for it.
The weight of all this could be felt in Mike’s beaten aspect. Even so, there was something appealing about him. Feckless, grubby, uncoordinated, uncouth, he was, in a way, the ultimate underdog. In the world of martial arts, underdogs have always enjoyed a peculiar status. Kung fu movies are premised on the injustices they suffer and the certainty of their final triumph.
Mike might have been Dr. Yang’s least likely prospect, but he was also the one with the most to gain. “It would be devastating,” Mike said, “if I didn’t get picked.”
On my first visit to the mountain training compound, there were four semifinalist candidates under observation, Mike among them. They were eating dinner in a cabin not far from the rotunda when I arrived. A woodstove sat in the corner beneath a clothesline slung with dish towels. Fresh fruit hung in tiered baskets from the ceiling.
Mike had by then been living there just a few weeks, and I was surprised by his transformation. His matted hair had been shorn to a crew cut, his face was flushed with color, and his eyes had somehow become unsunk. The new diet probably helped: pancakes with scallions, roasted rice and pork in bamboo leaves, sautéed greens from the garden, and abalone from Dr. Yang’s neighbor, a fisherman. Mike inhaled it all. He joked and laughed throughout the meal, transformed from sad-sack punching bag to class clown.
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