Thankfully, my blood was clean and I was cleared to fight. First I had to spend an entire day traveling to and through Canada. I was flown out of Chicago east to Toronto, had about a four-hour layover and then flown west to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I had left Chicago Tuesday morning but arrived at the Saskatoon airport in the evening. There was a driver there waiting to meet me and drive me to the hotel — the first time that had ever happened to me and, for the record, seeing someone hold up a piece of paper with your name on it is less cool than awkward. More Night at the Roxbury “Me? Him? Me?” than jetsetting luxury.
It was only then that I discovered that we had two more hours to drive from the airport to Prince Albert, the city where I’d be staying and fighting. I was exhausted and hungry but conversation with my driver kept me awake and engaged. He was an interesting and interested man with a life story that fascinated me, though it is probably a typical one.
He had just spent his first winter in Canada and was working for a car dealership that somehow was connected with the fight promotion and had arranged for fighters and coaches to be picked up. He was originally from the Philippines but had spent the past several years working in Japan as a musician. He loved cars and racing and I learned about the best racing spots in the province as well as how to custom a car for “drifting.” I also learned that he had a young son back in the Philippines that he’d only met twice before, skype notwithstanding.
The mother had the child after he moved to work in Japan. She left the child and him for another man. His parents, the child’s paternal grandparents, had raised him since. He clearly wanted to be a part of his son’s life, but he was in North America, he believed, out of necessity. He was saving money to one day soon bring his son over to live with him.
Back in Chicago teammates and coaches had expressed some shock that I’d go all the way to Canada to chase a fight. It had never really fazed me — I thought it would be a good thing to experience and get used to, as many fighters had to learn to deal with time zone changes, hostile crowds, etc.
But getting to know the man who drove me to the hotel really underscored how not a big deal my little traveling was. I was, essentially, traveling for fun, and incorporating my work into it because I could. A few layovers, a long car drive, little sleep and food for a couple days before a fight. Talk about first world problems. At the end of it, I could and would go home to my loved ones. I wasn’t out here fighting for my survival and the survival of my family. He was.
I checked in to the Prince Albert Inn around midnight and asked the front desk workers where I might be able to get some food. The inn was attached to a small casino and had a house restaurant. The casino was open but the diner was not. So I headed across the mostly empty parking lot and onto the main road, on foot, to a Chinese restaurant I was told was open late.
In the dark of night the road seemed grimy and run down. Just walking a few blocks to the restaurant I was approached on two occasions by fidgety young people looking to hustle or do worse to me. As I ordered my food inside the restaurant, two of them stayed outside of the restaurant, perhaps waiting for me to exit after I had brushed them off on the road.
If this was one of the main commercial districts of Prince Albert, it seemed like a poor, rough place. Only in the light of day could I see how truly blighted it was. A nearby mall was ostensibly open but two thirds of the store spaces I saw inside were vacant as I shopped around on Wednesday for snacks and to kill time. I also encountered the most poorly equipped Subway sandwich shop I ever had before. No veggie patties, no tuna salad, two kinds of bread, and two kinds of cheese. Parents brought their kids with them into the casino as they gambled away their pay checks. More importantly, lots of young people just wandered around, apparently jobless, visibly dirty. I didn’t do much demographic data research while there but most of the poor-looking people I saw in Prince Albert appeared to be American Indians. This is a minority group type that I had little experience with in Chicago. The legacies of genocide and current impact of reservation living were things I didn’t come into much contact with where I was from.
Inside the restaurant, a drunk but friendly middle aged man who had seen me inside the hotel and asked if I was a fighter on the card saw me again and greeted me. “This guy is fighting at the event Thursday,” he told the restaurant owner, who hadn’t asked. He seemed quite interested as did she. At first a town as small as Prince Albert and with a struggling economy seemed like an odd place to try and host and sell a relatively expensive MMA card to. The event was taking place at a local hockey arena, The Art Hauser Centre, that seated thousands — a big arena to try and fill. But these PA folks, like working people everywhere, really got into the fights, it seemed.