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Russia Breaks My Brain
I don't understand this place, I just live here.
#17: Kicking and punching but not enough fighting.
April 10, 2004

Hi everyone time for more fun from Bizarro-world, as I attempt to catch up on the last month with a bit of email-spring cleaning. Spring has finally started to show itself in St. Petersburg, which means that we all missed the Badfight pre-season training...not that it'll make a difference in the end.

Unfortunately, we can't all be national Badfight champions overnight. Some of us need to actually compete with someone first. So unlike Louis, my friend from Switzerland, or Sandra, from Sweden, at some point I'll have to challenge Owen in order to become the 2004 U.S. National Badfight Champion. But before that can happen, I think we'll have to get better about keeping score, and maybe learn the rest of the rules to the game.

Why is this a concern? Is there any chance the U.S. would give me, as a National Champion, a free cow like Louis may receive from Switzerland? And what the hell is Badfighting anyway?

A few weeks ago I wouldn't have had a clue either. While I knew of people playing soccer and occasionally basketball around town, it was looking like the world of Russian sports was going to completely pass me by this year (since I suck at both of those sports.) But finally, one day at school, a Russian girl named Valeria was talking to Louis about "Batfight". Or possibly "Buttfight." It was hard to tell through her accent. But of course, something that might be called "Buttfight" was not to be missed, and so I tagged along to a practice.

We walked to the University Geology building, which naturally housed the room where Judo, wrestling and of course, Badfight were practiced. The building only added to the mystery of the sport, as the structure itself was so dark and dusty it looked like we arrived in the middle of an archeological excavation rather than an active University department. The "gym" itself was tucked away in the back, accessible only by a route that has taken us a few weeks to learn ourselves. Once inside, we were looking at a two story room, no larger than a small basketball court. Half of the upper portion was taken up by offices, and there was some indication of a changing room off to one side. There were a few dusty windows along one wall and, most importantly, the floor was padded.

We were a little late that day, so Badfight practice was already under way. There were about 10 Russian students in the room, all passing to each other in a circle, and then setting up a net in order to have a few practice games. It was sort of hard to tell how things were working, as nobody was holding any equipment, but a badminton birdie was getting whacked back and forth over the net nonetheless.

For the most part, Badfight really is very similar to Badminton, hence the name. The key difference is that instead of using rackets, you wear little squares of foam-rubber, around 5x5" in size, on the tops of your feet and the backs of your hands. On each volley, you're allowed to hit the birdie with one of your feet, one of your hands, and possibly (we're still not completely sure on this part) with your shirt, by suddenly pulling the bottom taught so it bounces the birdie back up. If you're playing with doubles, your partner is then allowed the same number of hits, and often one person will set the other up, like in volleyball. The only other real change is that when you serve, it has to be with a kick.

We picked up most of these rules by watching people play, although some was explained to us by Valeria and a Russian guy from school named Roma. The rest was explained, roughly, by the little pudgy man in a judo uniform who waddled over to us part way through the practice. He asked who we were, where we were from, etc., before explaining that Badfight was his invention, and that it's been an officially registered sport in Russia for the last 10 years. But for whatever reason, he seemed to be having a little difficulty getting it to catch on anywhere outside of St. Petersburg State University. They don't even play it in Moscow, as far as he knew. Most other Russians we've mentioned it to haven't heard of it either. Because of this, he was interested in having some foreigners try it out, and joked about us being able to be National Champions from our various home countries, since we'd be the only players representing those places. (Quite similar to the way our field hockey team was the State Champion every year in high school by default.) Well, most of us could be instant National Champions. There was apparently some girl from Boston that had beat me to being the first American player, but she wasn't around now so I still had a shot at this year's title.

So we gave it a try, and found it to be a very, uh, goofy experience. Most of your movements feel kinda awkward, especially big swings that are only targeting a tiny Badminton birdie. The primary movement seems to be something that I can't help but compare to say, a back-handed pimp slap. You can also kind of punch the birdie, but that doesn't work terribly well for how hard you have to hit it. The kicking is fun though, and since the floor is padded for judo practice, you can make big dramatic kicks or dives and just flop on the ground (which always amuses the hell out of everyone.)

The final touch of goofiness comes from the fact that this seems to be a very, well, nerdy sport somehow. To the point where the word "sport" seems a little extreme, to be honest. Sure you break a sweat and all, but somehow it's just hard to take it really seriously, especially after we were nearly as good as most of the other players by the end of the first day. Most of the other players wouldn't really be called "athletes" per se, which wouldn't be a problem at all if it weren't for Louis.

On our second visit to Badfight (an hour and a half each Tuesday), there was an informal tournament. Because the room gets very crowded (maybe 8 people on each side of the 15' net), the coach/inventor/judo instructor broke us into pairs for a little tournament. I was paired with Valeria, and we lost every match. But I didn't really care of course, as I was more occupied with trying to communicate with folks in Russian. The next day at school though, I didn't see Valeria in the hall at one point, and she became worried I was mad at her for playing badly since I didn't say hi. She asked Louis about it, and while at first he said he didn't think she was mad, he later reversed that prognosis as a joke, telling her that I actually thought she was terrible.

He kept me informed about all this, but since I hadn't seen her for a few days, there was no way to reverse the damage. It was ridiculous. Hell, it was ridiculous she was worried in the first place. We've since explained to her that it was a joke, and she sort of got it, I think. By now I'm pretty sure she gets it, as we've taken the running gag in various directions since then: she only goes on Fridays to Badfight, instead of Tuesdays, and so we asked her if she hated us. (She assured us she doesn't.)

Actually, who goes on what day has changed things up a bit. I invited Owen, my American quasi-roommate, since he was looking for some physical activity to do other than wrestling. (He had wrestled in high school, gave it a shot here but then pretty much spent all his time being ground into the mat by guys from the Caucasus, which is where Russia gets all its Olympic level wrestlers. He figured Badfight would be something to do that wouldn't leave him with bruises all over his face.) But in the last two or three weeks, the number of Russians that were there when we first went has dwindled a bit. I'm not sure if somehow our little squad of foreigners has become a nuisance to the other kids or what, but I can't really complain. Aside from having more space to play, there's also nobody to freak out saying "meow" a whole bunch.

One week attendance was limited to our little group plus three of the better players. These three guys seemed to be big Badfight geeks, and were probably considered geeks or nerds in other walks of life as well. But for whatever reason, they were sort of the Kings of Badfight, and took many opportunities to remind everyone else of that fact. Usually this was just by being simultaneous players and referees, enforcing rules amazingly arbitrarily ("No, that's not a point! You reached over the net that time!") But one of them also starting getting, well, just really worked up about the game. He was playing on my team (of three people) but I think we were more worried about him than the other team. A number of times this kid whacked us in the head while flailing for the birdie, all the while screaming, shrieking and then finally, meowing if there was an error. At the end, after hitting his head on the wall for a minute, he just sat on the ground and watched, thankfully. Since then he's been conveniently absent from Tuesday's practice, although he's still around the gym from time to time.

So when is the final championship? I dunno. We've taken to playing rather informally, so it may never come, although I think that before I leave town, I will have to challenge Owen for the title of US Champion. Should be a good match up, for those of you who need to call your bookies. I'll let you know when the award ceremonies will be held.

And as sort of a non-sequiter to all this, in case there wasn't enough "fight" in this Badfight thing, here's a quick little tidbit about a real fight I saw recently. It was around 11pm, and I was waiting for the subway when all of the sudden there was a 3 person brawl happening about 20 feet away. These guys were really wailing on each other, punching, falling on the ground, and then kicking each other. A few people tried to break it up, but then they instantly became a new target, to the point where you really didn't know who originally started the fight anymore.

I was watching for a minute or two until it occurred to me that two of the fighters were drifting my way, and that I was the only young male in the vicinity. Judging by the way things had been going, it seemed pretty likely that I would look like a pretty good punching bag to them (despite being a lot taller than one of the guys and just sort of taller than the other). My options were pretty bad: either walk, very quickly, towards the exit of the station, or hide behind the old babushka I was standing next to. Something about hiding behind an old lady just didn't seem right, you know?

Fortunately the train arrived just in time, everyone got on, including the people who had tried to break things up. They had a few bruises on them, but seemed ok. The original fighters also suddenly stopped, got up and just walked away. It was pretty confusing, and didn't seem to really bother anyone.

Pretty soon our Badfight team is going to have to find an excuse to have some sort of victory party or
whatever, (which I guess means somehow having a victory over someone.) I think the real reason in the end would just be to have an excuse to have a party at my new apartment, since the housewarming shindig was such a success. But I'll save that for next time, which will probably be called "Kiss Kiss Meow: Bringing Truth or Dare to China" or "The Pimpin' Pad Near Petrogradskaya."

-Angry Giant