I like fights. I think they are great.
I don’t however, like fighting.
I grew out of scrapping some years ago. I was never particularly good at it and other (harder) people seemed to enjoy it a damn sight more than I did.
Don’t get me wrong; I was alright in a rumble if forced. Fast hands and an eye for a quick getaway are usually enough for survival. I just didn’t excel in the discipline, that’s all.
Fights between other people though? Hell, that’s different. That’s still cool.
To ask any fight fan for his opinion as to which was the greatest bout of all-time, is to invite the opening of a pugilistic Pandora’s box.
Many would plump for the iconic Ali v Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” when Muhammed Ali, the former champion, by then the underdog and challenger, snatched an unexpected victory from his bigger, younger opponent with a display of great guile and tactical nous.
A purist might side with 1985’s title showdown now known as “The War”, when undisputed middleweight champion “Marvellous” Marvin Hagler destroyed the upcoming challenger Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns with a display of ferocious punching power.
In a domestic context, who could overlook the volley of classic supermiddleweight bouts of the mid 1990’s some of which ended in glory, others in tragedy?
All of these were great fights, but each is quite literally overshadowed by a fight I was able to witness one night in Jogjakarta.
To say this fight was an epic would be a great understatement.
Spending a day exploring the Sultan’s Palace (or “The Kraton” as it is known), which we reached via horse-pulled cart, we got to witness some fine traditional gamelan playing by an orchestra of musicians clad in ceremonial batik.
The percussion-dominated sound of gamelan is as ubiquitous in and around Yogya as are the repetitive strains of “Om Mani Padme Hum” along the backstreets of Kathmandu. Clearly one for the tourists and not a sound the local youths are into judging from the number of busking guitarists who serenade at every opportunity as one travels on public buses.
As well as getting to hear the Gamelan tunes, we also explored the palace grounds and managed to eyeball numerous dagger-armed guardsmen
who by their age and friendly demeanour posed as menacing a threat as the utility knife wielding Swiss Army guards of The Vatican
Fortunately these guards and their sharpened daggers played no part in the epic fight I refer to.
Indeed, not a drop blood was shed, for the fight I watched was enacted by puppets.
Shadow puppets to be precise.
Wayang Kulit is a traditional art form of the region and involves classic plays being told through the medium of leather puppetry, music and song.
Some full-length humdingers can last upwards of eight hours, but playing by the Queensbury rules as we are, it is decided to limit our rounds to a still substantial sixteen episodes spaced over a two-hour performance.
The action in the opening rounds is rather slow and with the narrative been in Indonesian, it’s hard to follow what the hell is going on let alone mark my scorecard.
Switching position between the main viewing stage upon which shadows of monster-like characters are cast through the use of a strong backlight and the dexterity of the puppet masters actions, and the stage rear where the ambient lighting makes it easier to follow the movements and character selections, I find myself entranced by both the act and the gamelan ensemble which accompanies it.
Minor skirmishes appear to take place (cagey jabs in ring speak) with no clear talking point until the 5th episode “The death of Prahasta”, when it all kicks off between Anila and Prahasta, the puppets swoop and slam as the action becomes feverous.
The puppeteer switches between character voices as both parties rain down blow after blow.
In the blue corner, the larger outline of Prahasta seems to be carrying a weightier punch as the Puppeteer uses his knees to crash symbols when each ferocious attack hits the mark.
The red corner must have feared the worst for their smaller man, but like they say, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog that counts.
Anila comes back strongly; his smaller size must be lending itself to fleet footwork as he dances shadows around both the stage and his opponent.
He is finding his range and getting through the defence of the bigger man.
Then suddenly, BOOM!
A crescendo of percussion as the haymaker arrives and Prahasta falls.
There is no count of ten. The referee doesn’t need to step in. The one thing I clearly understand from the title of the episode is that Prahasta is dead.
This truly was an epic battle.