To the Mecca of brutalism, a place that rivals Marbella for vulgarity, with sprawling marble-clad palaces, boxy condo blocks and concrete lumps in the place of old world, clubby wrought-iron and glass canopies. Clubs down here mean strippers and dancing poles, none of that all-white tennis garb and polite applause after a passing shot down the line. People order jumbo daiquiris in giant glasses and down them quicker than the girls shed their tops. Everyone holds large containers of liquids at all times, and lots of gold hangs from the necks of men as well as women. Tattoos cover men’s arms, torsos and legs, as well as those of some women, especially the uglier ones.
This is Miami Beach at its gaudiest, with traffic jams rivalling those of Los Angeles, and with young beautiful models walking to work and running the gauntlet of sex-starved Hispanic waiters and bus boys. Everyone speaks Spanish and most of the people are Cuban and — believe it or not — every person I came across was nice. From the Cuban waitress to the gay Cuban receptionist to the sexy Cuban girl who worked the hotel terrace as a greeter, to the countless young Cuban waitresses my team and I tried to pick up on Ocean Boulevard. Havana has come to Miami, and the latter has benefited. When Fidel took the capital back in 1959, every doctor, businessman and intellectual took flight. They were all white. Black, uneducated Cubans remained behind. A totalitarian regime 90 miles from Florida has been the reality ever since. But things will change the moment Fidel and Raul are gone. In the meantime, Cuban Miami is a great success, and there are no moustaches among their women, unlike back on the island. The person who imports waxing products to Cuba after Fidel will become a billionaire.
I am down here in the migratory pattern of the perma-tanned for the Grand Masters World Judo Championships. The last time I won the thing was in 2008, in Brussels, and I have medalled every time since. This was going to be my swansong, something I have threatened before, especially since an Austrian by the name of Marius Vizer bought the International Judo Federation and runs it like his fiefdom. What this wily Austrian corporal does is charge large amounts of money for registration and gives nothing in return. In Miami the organisers had volunteers doing the heavy lifting, which meant that there was total confusion. There were more than 850 competitors, at $150 per, so do the math. I was put in a younger age group because of lack of competitors in my own, and ended up fighting for a gold medal with someone twice my size and one who under his own admission had not been required to weigh in.
His name is Bo Svenson and he’s Quentin Tarantino’s favourite actor. He’s been in The Great Waldo Pepper, Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, and made his name in Walking Tall. And that he is, tall that is. When we met in the line-up to go in for the match I thought it was a joke. He’s 6’6” and looked to be about 220 pounds. I’m 5’8”, and 185 pounds. He is also six years younger. Bo was friendly and told me that he hadn’t weighed in. The volunteer lady responsible for registering him was so open-mouthed at meeting a movie star she forgot all about it. Once on the mat he felt much stronger than me but I had not one, but two secret weapons going for me. One is a professor at NYU, Mark Brennan, the other a student of his, Brian Pereira. They’ve coached me for eight weeks, brutally at times, but for once I was ready to go the full distance. Two days before, I had gone all out for three and a half minutes with Mark, which is the longest a match can last in my age group.
Thirty seconds into the match, while we were feeling each other out, Bo threw me with an expert move — he’s been practising judo since 1960 — gaining a wuko, but once on the ground I managed to stay off my back and got him into a head lock. ‘Get your leg out,’ yelled Brian from my corner, and that order sealed Bo’s fate. I held on to his head for dear life, trying to squeeze it out of him. The rules say one has to hold down an opponent for 20 seconds. I held Bo down for 27, which could have been an honest mistake by the timer as Bo is, after all, a movie star. But he could not have been more gracious in defeat, except for a remark later on to Brian that he could have hurt me but didn’t because I was a nice man. (I guess that’s Hollywood for you.)
Now here’s something I’ve never done before in the elegant pages of The Spectator. I will advertise my victory by indicating to Speccie readers how they can view the match, the greatest Greek victory since the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. All you have to do is go to takimag.com and click on the fight. Bo is the good-looking one in blue who is tall. I am the ugly one in white who is short. The commentary alone is worth it, and it’s Mark Brennan coaching the poor little Greek boy to a victory that will be remembered long after Miami Beach has been swamped by the Gulf Stream and its marble pink palaces have floated out to sea.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 17 November 2012