A note about a chokehold

I associate mastery with quiet. Neophytes will jabber and brag, but true experts don’t have as much to prove. Those who know the most, speak the least.

In a judo club where I used to train, though, the most proficient player (we call ourselves judo “players” or “judoka”) also had the biggest mouth.

He was the kind of white guy who kept his hair in a samurai-style top knot. Not out of any Japanese fetish, I don’t think, but more because because he didn’t want to pay for haircuts. Top-Knot smelled like a heavy smoker, or like he lived with one. He didn’t exactly look well, but he was quick and he was lean. Part of why he was so good.

He knew it, too. More than once I saw him strip himself down to the waist and walk around the club floor, marveling at his own six-pack.

“Look at me!” he’d say, gesturing at the v-muscles pointing down to his groin. “I’m fuckin’ forty!”

Our sessions were 90 minutes long, and I’d ballpark that Top-Knot would talk for 60 of them. Almost none of it would be normal, conversational, hey-how-are-ya kind of stuff.

Within minutes of my meeting him, for instance, he told me that the reason he joined judo was because his mother was murdered — stabbed to death in her own home — and that if he hadn’t joined judo, he supposed he probably would have murdered his kids, for all his pent up frustration.

Top-Knot had lots of stories about street fights he’d been in, people that had regretted messing with him, men that were lucky his kids were around, etc, etc.

I hope you sympathize when I say: this guy kinda scared the shit out of me. It wasn’t just the violent streak in his talk, either.

He and I didn’t spar together too often. Whenever we did, the outcome was invariable.

I’m a full head taller than he is, I outweigh him by at least 60 pounds, but every bout we had ended with me on the floor, helpless, trying — and failing — to peel his jaundiced, smokey-smelling forearm away from my throat.

I always tapped out, because I couldn’t breathe.

One time after class was wrapping up, Top-Knot told another one of his stories. This time about a student who used to be in our club. A 14 year-old Black teenager.

He’d said that this teen was clearly talented, but he had an attitude problem. Didn’t take to instruction.

Even worse, the teen was “mouthy.” To illustrate what he meant, Top-Knot did an impression of this teen that, if I typed it up here, would make you call me a racist.

According to Top-Knot’s story, this teen mouthiness got to be too much. The teen had said something vaguely threatening (I don’t remember what) and had turned his back on Top-Knot to leave the club. And Top-Knot had sprung over to him, wrapped him up in a choke-hold, and choked this teen until he passed out.

That was the punchline to Top-Knot’s story. He told it smiling. The lesson, Top-Knot told us, was to never turn your back on someone after you “run your fuckin mouth.”

A lot of the other guys in the class were smiling and nodding with him.

What I wished I’d said was: “So, you assaulted a child, because you didn’t like the way he talked to you.”

And what I also wished I’d said was: “I wonder if you would have felt differently if this child wasn’t Black.”

But what I actually said was — nothing.

As I said, this guy scared the shit out of me.

If it’s not already painfully clear, I’m a white guy. As was almost everyone else in the class.

And the other men in the class? The ones nodding along to Top-Knot’s story? A good percentage of them were cops.

I didn’t speak up then. If I had said something, I’m not convinced I would have changed Top-Knot’s views, or the views of the assenting cops in the room.

But it might have, at the very least, added a little friction to the atmosphere. Would have made sharing that kind of story a little less fun for Top-Knot. Which, while not a huge difference, would have been a step in the right direction.

I think my silence is what people mean when they say “silence is violence.” And I regret it.

Black Lives Matter. Obviously.