“Just don’t ask me how many people I’ve killed.” Konstantin’s cloudy gray eyes glint in their sunken sockets, fixated on the grotesque dummy standing motionless before him. He thrusts out his left leg and slams it into the rubber man’s distorted, torn-up face. The dummy wobbles on its black base—threatening to tip over—but then quickly regains its posture. The sound of the impact rumbles through the empty gym, bouncing off every discarded exercise machine and foam mat that litters the floor of the American Martial Arts Center, a whitewashed, concrete warehouse in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Konstantin Selivanov looks, to put it simply, scary. He is the type of man that, when sauntering down the street in his worn leather jacket and low-slung jeans, a cigarette hanging off the side of his thin lips (his signature look even as a middle-aged father in the suburbs of Boston), prompts mothers with strollers to skirt him and skittishly peek over their shoulders long after he is gone. His gaunt, sun-spotted cheeks sink into his face and his narrow nose leans slightly to the left—the victim of too many hits. Konstantin has no hair to soften his harsh features; instead, his bald head, snaked with blue veins, only intensifies the aura of threatening energy surrounding him. Konstantin’s client, Cliff, stretches on the floor to his left, warming up for their kickboxing lesson. “Okay!” Konstantin claps his tattered, red-and-black strike pads together and hops into a raised boxing ring surrounded by frayed rope. “Time to kick some ass!”
He narrows his eyes to focus on Cliff bouncing up and down in front of him. “Control your energy! Zis is key,” Konstantin bellows, bending forward and raising the boxing pads to cover his face. His collarbone protrudes from the ropes of muscle that coil on his shoulders, giving him a hunched, bat-like appearance. Boom. Cliff’s right arm rams into the pads. Hard—but not hard enough. “Niet! More power,” Konstantin barks. Cliff tries again, this time squaring his muscular shoulders before striking his arm forward. Cliff’s glove slams so forcefully into the pads that he knocks himself off balance. He repeats his punch. Bam. Konstantin shifts the pads to his hip and Cliff kicks them with his left leg. Pow. They circle the ring like tigers closing in on their prey. Kick. Punch. Block. Punch. Duck. Punch. Cliff hesitates for a millisecond, his arm wavering in the air. “Gotcha!” Konstantin exclaims. Taking advantage of Cliff’s falter, he strikes Cliff’s forehead with his pad. “And you’re down!”
The boxing ring stands alone in the center of the cavernous, run-down gym that Konstantin rents out by the hour to teach his clients. Piles of dummies lie like corpses in the corners of the warehouse, their broken bodies cast aside next to stacks of gloves, cardboard boxes, and rusty weight machines. Wheezing overhead, the near-broken air conditioner pumps freezing air over mats already cold from lack of use. The scent of disinfectant partially masks the reek of sweat and body odor that permeates the gym, but even the chemicals smell old and musty, as if the days of exhilaration and excitement left the warehouse long ago, leaving behind the naked stench of wasted labor.
Konstantin blends right in with his decrepit surroundings. He resembles a weathered version of the sculpted men on boxing posters: chests glistening with sweat and gleams of victory in their eyes. His expression reflects a similar fierceness as he recalls his earlier, more violent days competing in the Russian underground fighting rings: “Ve vould just come and fight. No gloves. No protection. No rules. Just fighting to fight.” He gazes off into the distance before furrowing his wiry eyebrows and leaning forward, the smell of his spearmint gum mixing with the stale dust of the warehouse. “I not particularly violent person, but if someone touches me, vell, it’s not good.” He chuckles softly, but his eyes remain hard and expressionless as he resumes his usual distance. He turns his attention back to Cliff. “100 vith each leg!” he orders. Cliff immediately drops down to the floor to complete his pushups.
Facing a cracked, floor-to-ceiling mirror, Konstantin looms above Cliff’s shaking muscles waiting for him to complete the exercise. Only the thin beams of cold light that shine from fluorescent fixtures attached to rusting, crisscrossed metal bars on the ceiling illuminate the windowless gym. The walls are white and grimy, decorated with banners boasting slogans like “Never Quit!” and “Confidence, Respect, Discipline,” and two flags, one Russian and one American.
“I came to America for, um…vell…Hollyvood!” Konstantin stutters, darting his eyes around the room. “You know, oh, how zey say it, ignorance is blessing? I think, oh, I just come here, sell my screenplay. Ta-dah!” He laughs under his breath, the wrinkles in the corner of his eyes deepening. “But no, it not vork zat vay. Still, I’m glad I come.”
Konstantin moved to America with his wife, Elena, in 1991 with “no language, no papers, nothing.” They spent their first few months in New York City, where a kind Russian lady gave them a rent-free apartment and a little boy living in a synagogue supplied them with food until they got on their feet. Eventually, Konstantin found a job coaching in a Russian boxing club. He has been teaching martial arts ever since.
Konstantin divides his kickboxing lessons into three major elements: “chit-chat, warm-up, kick-ass.” Since he and Cliff have already completed the former two categories, they progress to the third and most exciting stage—kicking ass. Konstantin unzips his black duffel bag and pulls out a larger pad—one used exclusively for roundhouse kicks. He secures his left hand in one of the straps before using his teeth to rip the Velcro off the second one and fasten his right hand in the holder. “Now ve focus on kick. Twenty each leg,” he instructs, assuming a crouched stance in the center of the ring. The methodical pounding of Cliff’s leg mixes with the Kanye West song blaring from Konstantin’s portable speaker: “Do it better”—Boom—“Than anybody you ever seen do”—Bam. Cliff’s leg crashes into the pad, sending Konstantin stumbling backwards. “You found your energy!” Konstantin exclaims. “See. Sim-pli-ci-ty.” He draws the word out and spreads his arms wide, as if addressing a large audience.
“I use energy in my fighting, so I teach clients do same,” Konstantin explains. He believes his clients should channel their energy to reach the right “state of mind,” but for him, energy is a weapon. “I have certain technique vere I can place my arm on you and through energy waves, I damage your organs or something.” He shrugs casually, as though this explanation is the sort of thing one hears every day. “It’s not like zose mumbo jumbo no-contact energy balls you see in ze movies. Zis real stuff.” He leans back and the corners of his thin lips turn up into a small smile. “Zis is secret. I can vork with energy—zat's all you need to know.”
Konstantin started learning Martial Arts and the ability to “manipulate” energy at the age of seventeen, but he admits to having “played around” with combat his whole life. Just after moving to St. Petersburg, Russia for college, he got into a bar fight. “Aftervards, zis guy came up to me, and says like, ‘Oh, you fight very good. Do you vant to learn more?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’” “Alex the Spirit” taught Konstantin both the practical techniques of fighting and the more elusive method of “energy manifestation.” A recent incident, however, persuaded Konstantin to forswear the art of manifestation because it is “too dangerous a power.”
Five years ago, when Konstantin’s family desperately needed money, $50,000 to be exact, he decided to ask the universe for help through the manifestation process—“controlling ze universe vith meditation.” A month later, he received a call that a car had driven directly through the window of his boxing club in Cambridge, destroying everything. “I came to ze club and it’s–it’s not possible how zis car end up in my club!” he exclaims. “I mean, ze car drove straight through ze window—only inch on either side!” At first he worried that he had lost everything, but then the insurance company agreed to repair his club for free and award him $50,000 for damages. He shakes his head, “After that, I vas little bit careful. You send signal and the universe give to you. But not always how you expect. You can say, ‘I want zis to come through zis door,’” he points at the front door of the gym, “and it may come,” he pauses dramatically, “but through zat door!” He spins around and directs his gaze towards the emergency exit. “And in different form. Scary stuff. Like zey say, be careful what you wish for. I think if I can control energy I can protect myself from fate. But, vell, it not always work zat way.” Konstantin stares down at his hands and fiddles with the Velcro of the boxing pad.
When Konstantin lived in Russia, spiritual learning and martial arts were banned, forcing him to train secretly underground. “You know Communists, zey vant things—” he holds his callused hands up parallel to each other, mimicking a straight line. “Well, zey like things very certain way.” Konstantin shakes his head to reveal a pulsing blue vein directly above his collarbone. “For some reason, government thought if you could lift your leg and kick, you vere dangerous.”
He positions the pad on the side of his sturdy hip and tilts it down to an eighty-degree angle. Cliff lunges forward and arcs his leg into the pad, the front of his shin hitting the side of the target. He repeats this motion three more times with his right leg—Slap. Boom. Bam—before Konstantin hops backward out of Cliff’s range and bellows, “Niet!” He paces around the ring, eyes locked on the shiny, red polyester below his feet. “See, ze mistake you’re making,” he hesitates for a second, thinking. “You’re letting your energy go everyvhere.” Cliff looks at him with bewildered blue eyes, but Konstantin just peels off his hand straps and tosses the pad on the ground. “Watch,” he orders. He takes a step back and, with the grace of a ballerina, shoots his sinewy leg high in the air, clearing the top of Cliff’s six-foot-two frame. “See? It’s centrifugal energy. Your energy all ze way over here,” he waves his arm erratically around the ring. “My energy more focused. Focus your energy.” Cliff kicks forward again—and this time his leg squarely connects with the target.
“He’s a master at what he does. He just has this sixth sense about what you need to correct. It’s crazy, but I never question him,” Cliff marvels, a tinge of awe lacing his coarse voice. Cliff has been one of Konstantin’s most loyal clients since October of last year, when Cliff returned from college and decided to compete in kickboxing. “It’s funny,” Cliff comments, running his hand through his blonde hair, stringy with sweat, “because he’s like this tough, macho, Russian guy, but he’s actually really nice and warm-hearted.”
Konstantin’s approach to his relationships with his clients and, more generally, everyone he meets, stems from his years of studying energy. “It’s somevhere, nobody knows vere, but we all linked to each other through zis energy web. Combined human knowledge, you may call it,” he reveals in a hushed tone, as if divulging a well-guarded secret. “Our spirits, our wisdom, our thoughts—it’s not disappearing.” He pauses and his eyes catch the muted light reflecting off the red mat. “It’s energy.” Konstantin’s belief that everyone in the world connects to each other is the reason he loves his job. “Ze best part of one-on-one personal level is zat I can know people and they can know me. Ve are connected,” Konstantin explains, winking at Cliff panting in front of him.
Konstantin suddenly tosses the pad outside of the ring, and it thumps loudly on the concrete. “Throw your body through me,” he commands, planting his bare feet shoulder length apart. Cliff hurls his weight forward and collides with Konstantin head on. They grapple for a moment—an unidentifiable mixture of arms and legs—before Konstantin sidesteps Cliff with the casualness of a man avoiding a hiker on a mountain trail. Cliff topples to the floor. Konstantin slaps him on the back and Cliff hops up, drenched in sweat but smiling. “Alright. Good job today.” Konstantin slides under the rope and hops off the ring. As Cliff unravels his black hand wraps, Konstantin picks up his iPhone and squints at the screen. “I just texting Elena. Sasha out of school I have to watch her,” he says distractedly, then looks up and changes the subject. “Thursday, same time?”
Cliff nods and gathers up his workout gear. “Thanks, boss. See you soon.”
Outside the gym, Konstantin slides into his shiny, black Hyundai Genesis and plugs his phone into the car charger. The screen flashes to life, revealing a picture of him with his two daughters, Nikita and Sasha. “Zey are so sweet and small. Sasha only eight and Nikita seventeen,” he remarks, running his rough thumb over the screen. Konstantin gazes at the picture for a moment longer, then takes his glasses out of the glove compartment and glides them up the bridge of his nose. The presence of spectacles perched on the edge of his nose does little to detract from Konstantin’s intimidating demeanor. Konstantin glances in the rearview mirror, his skeleton-like face reflecting back at him. “In ze beginning I can come across as scary, I know zat.” He shifts the car into drive and laughs to himself. “My neighbors, you should see zem when I leave house. Zey are like, ‘Oh shit, it’s him,’ but, in reality, I am very nice.” Konstantin shrugs, the black cotton of his shirt scrunching as his muscles tighten underneath. “Zis good zey are afraid, means zey won’t do anything stupid.”
Even Konstantin’s wife, Elena, notices that people are sometimes a little “freaked out” by him. “When we first moved to the area, we had a hard time making friends,” she recalls, her Russian accent almost completely undetectable because of years working as a saleslady at Nordstrom. “I just wish everyone could see what a caring husband and father he is.” She chuckles, her blue eyes twinkling with amusement, “But I mean, it’s not like he gives people a lot to work with. He’s not exactly friendly…”
Unlike Elena, Konstantin enjoys his ability to scare people and takes pride in his menacing appearance. “Back in Russia, I was walking with zis pretty girl in ze park and we see about ten guys, all very big and tough,” Konstantin recalls. “Zey circle us; we are surrounded in ze middle!” His eyebrows arch and his lips curl up in a devious smile. “You see, in zis situation you have two steps. First, eliminate ze ‘mouth’—ze small one zat talks too much—then ze biggest guy. Everyone will be afraid,” Konstantin instructs matter-of-factly, as if recounting the steps to an algebra problem. “So, what I do? I kick ze mouth and he flies in the bushes,” he exclaims, his usually hard features animated with youthful excitement. “Then I punch ze big one and he falls. They all run away and say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, man.’” He smirks at his reflection in the side mirror with obvious delight. “Zis is how it works, just have to be crazy all ze time.” Konstantin snickers lightly, but his hands have a steely grip on the steering wheel.
He turns the corner and drives down a side street, stopping the car in a barren parking lot surrounded by concrete buildings and piles of gravel. He pops the trunk of his car to reveal a disorderly jumble of mini punching bags, kids’ toys, kneepads, and other boxing equipment. “Elena be here any minute vith Sasha,” he mumbles to himself, as he grabs his bags and makes his way towards the metal door of the gym where he will train his next client. Inside, the space feels cramped and dingy. A red, wall-to-wall mat covers part of the floor but ends abruptly three quarters of the way across, leaving the gray concrete exposed on the other side of the room. A mop leans against a metal sink attached to the wall; paint-splattered, plastic buckets lie haphazardly next to it. Konstantin saunters over to the far right corner, then unloads his weathered Under Armour duffel and his canvas tote, adorned with an embroidered American flag, onto the ground.
Konstantin’s Russian heritage emanates from every aspect of his being—from his thick accent and broken English to his boxing career and brawny frame—but, contrary to his outer image, Konstantin calls himself “a proud American.” He refers to “Russian know-it-alls” as a demographic completely removed from himself, and he complains that all Russians just “assume zey know everyzing.” He scrunches his eyebrows, contorting his face to look even more frightening than usual. “My friend on Facebook says on my picture, ‘Konstantin, are you a real American? Because real Americans hate Russia.’” He clenches his fists and hisses through his teeth, “It pissed me off. I’m American and I’m proud of it.” But just as quickly as the anger consumes his facial features, it washes away. He smiles and waves his hand, dismissing the problem. “Just some idiots, you know.”
Konstantin jolts his head to the loud thump of the door shutting across the gym. Sasha darts into the room, her small feet racing to cover the space between her and Konstantin. She hops into his arms, pink jacket billowing behind her, and wraps her pudgy hands around his wrinkled neck. “My darling!” Konstantin exclaims. His eyes brighten as he leans forward and kisses her tenderly on the cheek with his rough lips. He sets her down on the floor and she beams up at him, her chubby cheeks flushed. Checking his watch, he offers, “Ve have ten minutes. Vant to practice to fight?” She nods eagerly and trots over to Konstantin’s duffel bag lying in the corner of the room.
Konstantin pulls a set of hand wraps out of the bag and shakes them, the black spandex unwinding in the musty air. Holding the wraps in one hand, he lifts up her small hands in the other, dwarfing them in his own hardened palm. The dim light in the gym bounces off the red walls and basks Konstantin in a bloody hue. He wraps the base of the spandex around her thumb, then tugs on the material softly to make sure it won’t unravel. The ridges of Konstantin’s spine disappear down his tightly fitted Reebok Combat t-shirt as he peers down at her hands. Three loops around her tiny forefinger. Two around her index finger, middle finger, and pinky. Then he crosses her palm twice and finishes with three wraps around the thumb. He repeats this procedure on her other hand with great care: not wrapping them so tight that her hands are in pain, but not so loose that the material won’t effectively protect her.
“You see, Russia, it vas very tough environment. It vas brutal—constant fight for domination. Everyone needed protect themselves,” Konstantin whispers, as he gently envelops Sasha’s tiny hand in his and shapes it into a fist. He smiles down at Sasha. “Go get ze gloves.” He watches her as she gallops away towards the bag of goodies, then he pauses for a second, letting the patter of her feet consume the gym. “You see, actually, Hollyvood not ze only reason I come to America,” Konstantin admits slowly, an indistinguishable emotion passing over his features and hardening them. “I had some issues in Russia. I felt zat if I stayed I just going to die. Many of my friends go—killed. Died.” He gazes at his fragile daughter eagerly rummaging through his duffel bag. “Scary, scary stuff. The energy in ze universe, vell, it’s not all good.” The fluorescent light flickers, casting a shield of darkness over Konstantin’s hollow face. But even the protection of a shadow can’t hide the flash of fear that dances, just for a moment, in the Russian fighter’s eyes. “I protect myself by intimidation. But not everyone can do ze same—zis is why I teach people to fight.”