There’s something I’ve got to get off my chest here. It’s an incident
that took place when I was in the ninth grade.
One summer evening, I was interrupted during dinner by a frantic
banging at the window. I looked up to find my pal Jerry Pierce, who
looked extremely distraught. “Come quick!” he sputtered. “Craig
Sheibal’s trying to make Jeff eat a tennis ball!” (In order to identify
the participants here, Jeff was Jerry’s twin brother, and Craig Sheibal
was your run-of-the-mill neighborhood bully.)
Frankly, I was surprised that my help had been sought. Though the
Pierce twins were a year younger than me, they were a couple of pretty
tough kids. But no doubt the age factor had helped them cast me in the
In any event, I leaped up from the table, ran outside and jumped on
my bike. Thinking back, I have no idea why I did that, being that the
incident was taking place directly across the street from my house. All
I can come up with is that I was literally — as any true hero must –
mounting my steed to ride to the rescue. (Ah, the power of myth!)
Moments later, we arrived at the scene, where a group of kids had
gathered. In the midst of them, sure enough, Craig Sheibal was sitting
on top of Jerry’s twin brother, trying his best to force a green tennis
ball down poor Jeff’s throat!
Clearly, our arrival signaled that the troops had landed, for the
fight ceased immediately. Sheibal looked momentarily confused. Then he
stood up and walked towards me. He was a big kid with a sort of pudgy
face, a pig-like nose, and nasty close-set eyes.
As he approached, I fortified my courage by reminding myself that
Sheibal was only in eighth grade while I was in ninth. However, I
couldn’t help but notice that in addition to being a good head taller
than I, Sheibal probably outweighed me by 40 pounds (or more). This was
one big dude!
Sheibal came up so that his nose was about an inch from mine and then
– without warning — he pushed me, so that I sort of fell off my bike.
I didn’t exactly fall, but my legs got all tangled up in the chain and
the bike clattered to the ground.
Not a very convincing entry for a hero.
Clearly, it was my move. I tried to think of something extremely
clever to say, but what came out was: “OK, buddy … you’ve had
it.” Whereupon, I hit Sheibal square in the face.
What happened next was straight out of a (very bad) movie. Sheibal
simply stood there. The next (and last) thing I recall is a huge fist –
traveling in what appeared to be in slow motion, moving — towards my
Then the lights went out.
Unfortunately, once I’d regained consciousness, my pals were all too
happy to recount all the gory details. Apparently, after I was KO’d, I’d
lain sprawled in the street, my left leg twitching rather curiously. To
add insult to injury, a car almost ran me over before my friends
dutifully dragged me out of the street and onto the nearest neighbor’s
For the next couple of days I hung around the house, nursing my
purple eye and my wounded pride. A day or so later, a sullen looking
Craig Sheibal, accompanied by his mother, came over and mumbled a
But I was having none of it. I was already full-tilt into my plan of
revenge. Which was, I thought to myself, beautiful in its simplicity.
I was going to kill Craig Sheibal.
There were no ifs, ands or buts about it. The guy was a walking dead
man. The fact that he’d come over to “apologize” (his parents no doubt
fearing a lawsuit) only sealed his doom.
Unfortunately, the fates — as is their wont — worked in their own
poetic fashion. Thus, I was never afforded the opportunity to extract my
pound of flesh. Some three months later, during an afternoon Little
League game, a fastball whonked Craig Sheibal smack in the temple. He
died instantly. It was a big tragedy in school and all, but — as you
might well imagine — I was furious. The crummy bastard had forever
deprived me of my just desserts.
But the fates weren’t done with me yet. Being (even at that young
age) of a rather obsessive nature, I decided to make myself into the
ultimate “tough guy.” Shortly thereafter, I signed up for my very first
martial arts class. My goal was to become a stone-cold killer. The next
Craig Sheibal that came along, I vowed, was going to wind up a
very unhappy camper.
Some four months later I was the possessor of a green belt in
Shotokan karate; I’d also begun a judo class. I practiced relentlessly,
flipping my sister all over the house, and using the Pierce twins to
practice my kicks and punches on.
Truth be told, for awhile, I became a bully. At least on the outside.
But on the inside, something awful had happened. I was terrified of
getting into a real fight. It wasn’t so much about pain, as it
was about humiliation. My black eye had never really healed, so I was
constantly reminded of what had happened. The hideous image of me lying
in the street with my twitching leg was never far from my consciousness.
It hadn’t always been this way. As a kid I’d always kind of liked
fighting. I wasn’t very big, but I was fast, and I had a knack of going
for the kill. In fact, up until the Sheibal incident, I don’t recall
ever losing a fight. But now — green belt or no — something had
I’d become a coward.
In order to combat this, I practiced my martial skills even more
relentlessly. I joined the wrestling club at school. In addition to judo
and Shotokan, I enrolled in a Wing Chun kung fu class.
As long as I was in a controlled situation — I didn’t experience the
fear. But the demon inside had taken a firm hold of my heart. Whenever I
imagined facing down some guy in the street, the panic would immediately
Time passed. I ultimately achieved a black belt in Shotokan and was
now full-tilt into learning as many forms of martial arts as possible.
Thus far, I’d not had the opportunity (thank God!) to test my skills in
a real street fight.
But one other significant change had taken place in my psyche. In
addition to learning an assortment of fighting skills, I openly began
cultivating relationships with a class of people I can only call “tough
guys.” No matter what social class (surfers, greasers, preps) I only
sought out the baddest of the bad.
At the time I was unaware of my motives; in retrospect my rationale
was clear: I must have felt that if I hung around these people long
enough, I’d absorb — as if by osmosis — some of their inner courage.
Subsequently, I shucked “regular” karate (after I saw my
sensei get knocked cold in a bar fight by a simple left hook). I
replaced that with an artform called Muay Thai. (These days it’s
simply called “kickboxing.”) I studied under the tutelage of a 5’4″
terror named Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. Benny — who never lost a
professional fight during his reign as the World Lightweight Kickboxing
Champion was — and still is — as far as I’m concerned, the
baddest cat walking the earth. Over the course of the years, I saw
him take out guys three, four times his size. Partially it was his
consummate skills. But more than that, another factor was at play. Quite
simply, Benny didn’t know the meaning of the world “fear.” You can
imagine then, why I glommed onto him.
Prior to learning the martial arts, Benny and his six brothers and
four sisters were all members of some of L.A.’s toughest street gangs.
They brought their “street fighting” techniques to their martial arts
classes. No fancy stuff. No spinning jump kicks. The object was quite
simple — to disable your opponent — to take him out — in the most
expeditious way possible. If fists and feet wouldn’t do the trick, we
were taught to use a brick, a board, or whatever else was within reach.
Though Benny and I became pals (as the editor for Inside Kung
Fu magazine I traveled all over the world with him, writing pieces
about all of his matches), my closest friend among the Urquidez clan was
Benny’s brother-in-law, Blinky Rodriguez. Before he retired, Blinky held
the title of World Middleweight Kickboxing Champion. Blinky’s wife Lilly
(Benny’s older sister), held the women’s titles in her weight class in
both kickboxing and boxing.
In addition to the Urquidez clan, I began to do stories on assorted
other “tough guys.” They were a colorful lot, to put it mildly. Over the
ensuing years, I’d hang out with bouncers, bodyguards, bounty hunters –
even a real, dyed-in-the-wool hit man. I loved every single minute of
Though he never became a household word, one fellow who stands out in
my mind was a private investigator/bodyguard named Dick Berg. A small,
rather nondescript character, you knew immediately that Berg was nobody
to mess with.
Berg’s love was weaponry. He always carried a .45 auto in a shoulder
holster (“.38′s are for sissies,” Berg told me), as well as a derringer
in his boot. Additionally, somewhere on his person Berg usually had a
pair of brass knuckles or a beavertailed sap (an extremely nasty weapon
carried as standard-issue by the LAPD, until they were outlawed during
In his car, Berg carried a retractable baton, a pair of hard-metal
nunchucks, as well as a massive assortment of stun guns, mace and
tear-gas canisters. But the real goods were in Berg’s trunk. Upon
popping it open, he proudly displayed an M-14, an AR-7 sniper’s rifle
with a 3:9 variable scope, a Taser, and “my baby” — a .12 gauge riot
shotgun with the barrel sawed off as far as possible.
Ever the dutiful reporter, I asked Berg why he felt the need to carry
“I like to keep the advantage on my side,” he replied. The logic was
After getting an assignment from the L.A. Times to locate
“L.A.’s baddest bouncer,” I met a man simply known as “Big John.” There
was a near mythology about John in Los Angeles. Literally everybody you
talked to had a story about him.
Like many of the men I’d interviewed, John was highly nonverbal (real
tough guys feel no need to brag). After a good bit of prodding, John
consented to show me some of his “favorite moves,” one of which was
palming a roll of quarters in your fist before hitting somebody. (Having
small hands, I get by quite well with a roll of nickels).
John’s favorite move was a forearm smash, a trick he’d learned when
he played ball for the Minnesota Vikings. “You hit a man with a
forearm,” John said, “and you can open up his whole cheekbone. We call
it ‘boning a face.’”
Back in the Urquidez camp, Blinky kept insisting I get a taste of the
“real thing.” Which meant getting into the ring with him. It wasn’t
quite like a street fight; still, I felt the old Fear Demon
kicking up a storm. No way was I going to let Blinky see this, so –
stomach in a knot — I donned a mouthpiece and headgear, I climbed through
the ropes. “Don’t worry,” Blinky smiled, “I’ll take it easy on you.”
By the end of the first round I was wheezing like a madman. During
rounds two and three Blinky pounded me mercilessly. I kept looking for a
way to climb out of the ring, but every time I’d try, Blinky would whack
me with another one.
It was three rounds of pure torture.
Afterwards, I sat in the sauna, gingerly touching the tip of my nose
– which I was sure had been broken. A moment later, Blinky sauntered in
and slapped me on the back.
“Hey bro,” he quipped, “ya gotta keep moving. It’s all distance and
“Yeah,” right,” I muttered.
Next, I met Mike Stone, another former martial arts champ who divided
his time between doing stunt work and bodyguarding. Stone (who at the
time was in the midst of an affair with Priscilla Presley) always seemed
a tad “paranoid” to me — it was only later I understood why. Elvis had
put a hit out on him.
Stone evidenced the same quality all my new tough guy pals had; he
was absent of fear. But he had something extra. Stone enjoyed
hurting people. I never saw him in action, but it was evident from the
way he spoke, from his entire manner. I always thought to myself that
Elvis was lucky he’d never made that middle-of-the-night phone call. …
After Stone, I met the famed bounty hunter “Pappa” Ralph Thorson
(Thorson had been immortalized in the movie “The Hunter” starring Steve
McQueen). Pappa was the exact opposite of Stone. A huge man, Pappa was
the most gentle soul you’d ever want to meet. He once told me he “hated”
his job because he didn’t like hurting people. However, when he had to,
Pappa could do the job.
True to character he gave me a very wise piece of advice: “The best
way to beat a man from the get-go is to intimidate him,” Pappa told me
over a warm coke (his favorite drink). “Slap him in the face …
preferably in front of his girlfriend.” I hesitated to mention that at
6’1″ and well over 300 pounds, it was a lot easier for Pappa to pull off
this little stunt than I; nonetheless I filed it away in my mental
Soon thereafter, I interviewed my first professional hit-man, a very
large, one-legged gentleman with a beautiful head of all-white hair,
known as “Harry The Greek.” Harry was straight out of Damon Runyon.
Harry loved to talk. He was his own favorite subject. During our first
meeting, he happily recounted an incident where he’d cut off a man’s
finger at the racetrack, in order to collect a debt.
As soon as the interview was over, I called my agent and told him I
thought we had a book. Whether Harry’s stories were true or not was
irrelevant. I could either write fiction or nonfiction.
I called Harry and proposed a 50/50 split. He agreed.
Over the course of the next month I amassed over 50 hours of tape on
Harry. I never got tired of listening to him. The man was a natural born
However, a slight problem arose when Harry — who always seemed to be
“a little short” on cash — started hitting me up for “loans.” After the
first few hundred dollars, I informed him that this could not be part of
our relationship. “Well, then, gimme my half of the advance on our
book,” he rasped in a suddenly not-so-friendly voice.
“You don’t understand Harry. You don’t get the advance until you make
a ‘sale’ to a publisher. I’m still in the phase of gathering
information.” Harry took in the information, but it must have gone by
the wayside. The next day he called me and told me I needed to give him
$2,500 by 5:00 p.m. the following afternoon.
There was a long ugly pause on the other end of the line.
When Harry spoke again, his voice was a notch lower. “Look punk,” he
rasped, “I know where you live … ya know what I’m sayin?”
Indeed I did.
I knew my book deal was dead (and maybe I was too, unless I did
something quickly). I decided to go for the bluff. When Harry called the
next day, I told him that I’d made a copy of all my tapes — which
contained enough incriminating statements to put Harry away for several
lifetimes. I told him that I’d put the originals in a safe-deposit box,
and the copies had been given to my wife, who had orders to turn them
over to Harry’s parole officer if anything happened to me.
Another long (and extremely painful) silence.
“Ya got balls, kid,” Harry finally said. “I like you.”
“I like you too Harry,” I said. “Don’t ever call me again.”
The phone clicked dead.
My list of tough guy pals continued to grow. And the cool thing was
that — they really all were my pals. Early on as a writer, I
developed a way of endearing myself to the people who I interviewed
(that is, the ones I wanted to do this with). I can’t say exactly
how I did this — but I knew how to turn it on, and how to turn it off.
It’s because of this “talent” that my rolodex includes the private phone
numbers of a wide assortment of people who had told me I could call them
at anytime, night or day. That’s another thing I learned: tough guys
I now had a list of names — a veritable army — who I could call on
in a time of need, should such an occasion arise. But there was one
little problem: no matter how many names I amassed — it never touched
that fear that’d taken hold of my gonads ever since I’d been KO’d by
Craig Sheibal back in the ninth grade.
One day, while I was in training over at the Jet Center (the
Urquidez’ gym), I felt a little bubble of something go off in my head.
It was very short, but I knew an opportunity awaited me.
“Hey Blink,” I said. “You wanna go a few rounds?”
A man of few words, Blinky simply nodded, slipped in his mouthpiece,
and climbed into the ring.
I followed suit. A moment later, the bell rang, and I was
backpedaling like a madman as Blinky came at me, throwing power lefts
and rights. Whonk! Whonk! Whonk! they came. Sure, I had some
skills now; I could bob and weave, duck and parry; nevertheless I was
taking a beating. Even the punches that I caught on my forearms caused
bright lights of pain to shoot upwards into my skull.
And then during round two, the magic happened. As Blinky came at me,
I stepped inside an overhand right and delivered a short, choppy hook to
his jaw. I saw his eyes roll back, felt his legs buckle, and I knew I’d
The next second, Blinky had regained his composure and was pounding
me all over the ring again.
Still, when it was over, I knew I’d tagged him good. I could still
feel the punch — how absolutely right it was. The shifting of
the weight, the body torque, the corkscrewing of the fist at the final
moment and … bing! Oh man, what a feeling! Nothing –
not sex, not playing a great chord on your guitar, not writing the
perfect sentence — could compare, at least not for me.
Later, as I sat in the sauna, Blinky came in, clad in a towel. As
always, he was economical with his praise.
“Little bit better today,” he said.
I looked up at him. “Just distance and timing, pal,” I smiled.
But a lot more than just connecting with Blinky’s jaw had taken place
in the ring that afternoon. It took me awhile to realize it. At first it
felt like an “absence” of something. Then I recognized what was missing.
I’d kicked the old Fear Demon! No doubt about it. He was nowhere in
sight. And that I figured, was nothing short of a miracle.
Oddly, over the years, I’ve never gotten into what you’d call a
“real” streetfight. Oh, I’ve had my share of altercations, but they
usually end pretty quickly. (Looking down the barrel of a .38 tends to
do that to someone.) But most important, I think, is that fear has a
smell to it. Fear attracts the vampires, the bullies, the predators. And
that day in the ring, I was cleansed of that stench forever.
Still, every so often, I’ll catch myself replaying the Craig Sheibal
incident in my head again. Maybe I’m testing myself, I dunno. But
whenever I replay it, I don’t get that sick feeling of humiliation that
I used to.
But I’ve gotta be straight with you. It’s not simply confidence
(i.e., lack of fear) I feel. Alongside that, I guess I feel just a
little, well … cocky.
Sure — I had a “cosmic moment” in the ring that day. But it’s not
that. In fact, I kinda think that the extra-added sense I have has
something to do with my rolodex.
What can I tell you? It’s a good feeling to know that if things ever
get rough, I can simply make a phone call. I mean, how many guys have a
massive list of hunks, lunks, thugs and muscleheads of every size, shape
and variety at their beck and call? Guys that’ll break your kneecaps or
rip your lungs out of your chest without batting an eyelash.
And with pals that, well … a guy can afford to feel a little
cocky … y’know what I mean?
S.L. Goldman is the editor-in-chief of The Tongue, which boasts the web’s largest collection of
“counterculture” books. The Tongue’s online storefront
books and videotapes on a wide array of subject matters including:
weaponry, changing your identity, esoteric forms of self-defense, doing
business “off the books,” personal freedom, military science,
locksmithing, computer hacking, espionage and undercover investigation
– to name just a few. For those interested in the topic of this essay,
Goldman’s book, “Tough Guys”, is currently available
from Harsh Reality Press.