Before they made use of their flight lessons, most of the 9/11 hijackers lived in South Florida. Mohamed Atta himself lived in Hollywood, a Broward County city sandwiched between Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Atta’s apartment building on Jackson Street has since been demolished; Shuckums, the nearby bar he was seen drinking in, closed long ago. Atta reportedly argued with the manager over the bill on September 7, 2001, storming out and saying, “I can afford to pay, I’m a pilot.”
Six miles from the shuttered Shuckums, there is a hotel built in the shape of a guitar. This is the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, venue of Triller Fight Club Legends II, a four-fight boxing event headlined by 44-year-old MMA fighter Vitor Belfort against 58-year-old boxing great Evander Holyfield. (A week earlier, Holyfield replaced Oscar De La Hoya—48 years old, for those keeping track—who had been hospitalized with Covid.) Boxer Shawn Porter and rapper 50 Cent are on main commentary, though an alternate play-by-play feed is available for all those watching: Donald Trump (plus Trump Jr.). Legends II begins 7 PM eastern on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. It is my Saturday evening.
Two decades prior, after my north Bronx middle school classmates and I had gathered around a tiny CRT television to watch the second tower fall, a kid in my grade turned to a classmate—a Persian Jew of Iranian heritage—and said, in a voice so snotty in my memory I wonder if I’m recalling instead a badly acted bully from some ‘90s movie, “Your people did this.” I did the worst thing, and laughed: not at the girl accused, but at the speedy ludicrousness of the accusation leveled at the nearest person with the swarthiest looks, by someone as idiotic as he was nasty.
Maybe it’d have been different if the TV’d been bigger and in color, the sky blue and the fire orange instead of variants of the gray billowing out of the towers. I was scared, of course, ambiently. Downtown Manhattan was an ambiguous concept to a child living at the opposite end of the 1 train. But equal to whatever welled in the pit of my stomach was the conviction that things were and would be stupid, brutally so.
I wasn’t wrong. My classmate was prescient in his idiot’s antagonism, I was prescient in my insouciance, and there you have 9/11 culture over the past twenty years: unrelenting aggression, unrelenting flippancy. A populace worn down by the ritualized injunction to never forget, by a twenty-year war, by jet fuel memes, FBI entrapment of Muslims with mental illnesses, Giuliani’s gnashers, a bar called Shuckums and a Hard Rock casino in the shape of a guitar hosting the previous President, who had briefly dropped by an NYPD precinct earlier that day to criticize other politicians’ memorial speeches for failing to mention the Afghanistan withdrawal. (The two tendencies have gone global and often reach a unity, e.g. when, following Canadian objections to human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, a Saudi agency tweeted a crude Photoshop of a plane flying into Toronto’s CN Tower overlaid with text reading, “Sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong!”) Even if I hadn’t slept past that 8:46 AM marker and through the afternoon this year, missing the roll call of the dead and the moments of silence and George Bush’s condemnation of violent extremists abroad and domestic as “children of the same foul spirit,” the truest way to remember 9/11, as I knew it then and have known it since, was clearly to listen to Trump’s commentary on the spectacle of old men hurting each other for $50 a pay-per-view.
It’s difficult to remember what combat sports video packages looked like before the current standard, the rapid-fire edits and the Hans Zimmer braaaaams feeding back on my laptop speakers. A light show like a computer screensaver plays out on the hotel’s “guitar strings.” Helicoptering synths chop up James Brown vocal samples: I’ve got soul, and it’s Holyfield, his face gargoyle-set by age. I’ve got soul, now Belfort, who started fighting at 19 as “The Phenom” and described himself later in mid-career as a “young dinosaur,” hitting pads. And I’m super bad, cut to fellow MMA elder Anderson “The Spider” Silva lit a perturbing green as he glistens at 46 in a sauna, braaaaam, there’s his opponent, the equally aged Huntington Beach Bad Boy Tito Ortiz, a thirty-four-fight MMA veteran and MAGA anti-vax ex–mayor pro tem of said Beach. He resembles the yellow M&M, but angry. Watch me! A 40-year-old David Haye appears, footage of him now accompanied by footage of him then, reminding viewers of Haye’s bonafides as the only boxer besides Holyfield to unify the cruiserweight titles and also become a heavyweight champion. His opponent, Hey, unh!, is one Joe Fournier, an English fitness celebrity turned club promoter with a 9-0 record in boxing who received an eighteen-month doping ban after testing positive for the appetite suppressant sibutramine. At 38, Fournier is the resident spring chicken.
The first live voice I hear is Mario Lopez, who I remember only from Saved by the Bell reruns. Nearly 50, he looks astonishingly good as he welcomes viewers to the stream. There will be musical performances, Lopez announces. “Snoop achieves the impossible by performing with Marvin Gaye.”
I check my phone to make sure Gaye hasn’t been resurrected by Triller. I also google Triller. I learn that the company is not simply a fight promotion but an app and TikTok competitor founded by Ryan Kavanaugh, a media mogul whose “new age” production outfit Relativity Media folded in 2016. Triller gained prominence with a 2019 press release claiming to have users equal in number to TikTok. Its profile was certainly bolstered the following year, when Trump threatened to ban the Chinese social media network. Triller attained a $1.25 billion valuation in April 2021. I don’t know anyone with a Triller account.
In November last year, Triller acquired the broadcast rights for Mike Tyson’s Legends Only League’s debut, a bout between Tyson (54 at the time) and Roy Jones Jr. (51). The undercard featured YouTuber–turned–celebrity boxer Jake Paul knocking out former NBA pro Nate Robinson, thirteen years his senior. Paul then began his current tour of fighting washed MMA figures, sparking the former Olympic wrestler and noted dogshit striker Ben Askren—again, thirteen years older—in the first round of a Triller main event. The company claimed over a million pay-per-views sold for both Tyson and Paul cards; like Triller’s user count, those numbers are disputed.
I haven’t watched any of those fights. I know Ben Askren can’t box. Paul is off-putting, both cartoonishly virile and seemingly possessed by some sort of physical rot. I have watched various Verzuzes, the “battle” series acquired by Triller, where musicians go cut for cut from their catalogues. Verzuz has been a nostalgia tour through the rap of my youth: Scott Storch with mirrored aviators on, smoking cigarettes indoors and plinking out the chords for “Still DRE”; RZA sleeveless with what look like weightlifting gloves on, the TV behind him playing anime; Dipset getting mollywhopped in Madison Square Garden by the Lox. (My hometown, I realize, was not regaled with Lox member Jadakiss’s 2004 single “Why,” a series of lingering questions, most importantly, “Why did Bush knock down the towers?”)
I wish the nostalgia tour didn’t work in combat sports. You don’t want them so fresh-faced that you worry about brain development, but you do want your athletes young, younger than 40 certainly, in their athletic prime with bounce to their step and pop in their hands. Silva, Ortiz, Belfort—these are the names of a bygone era of mixed martial arts. The three emerged around the turn of the millennium, following the primordial early ‘90s period of “guy in pajamas versus a boxer with one glove on.” As such, they are forebears of the value-added mix of disciplines that has evolved into the sport of MMA, finally singular. Accordingly, they have mostly been left behind. Younger fighters have steered away from Belfort’s spectacular blitzes, Ortiz’s bulldozing wrestling, and Silva’s single blows of death, emphasizing pace and volume in both grappling and striking. Fights today might look to the MMA fan of twenty years ago like they’re being fast-forwarded.
MMA is a young sport. In September 2001, there had only ever been thirty-six UFC events, and Tito Ortiz was light heavyweight champion. Any nostalgia for the sport’s early figures is equally newborn and stumbling. It’s strange that we now watch them box rather than cage fight: veterans of one sport playing at another, their takedowns and elbows and kicks and joint breaks pared down to only punches, four-ounce semi-articulated gloves replaced with the bulbous curve of twelve-ounce boxing mitts.
But this is fight promotion by way of venture capital. The nostalgia is the roughest approximate thereof, meant to secure the next injection of capital rather than be enjoyed by fans. What do I care for seeing these legends (insofar as MMA even has “legends”), in a sport not their own, at ages that seem criminally old? It’s sadder than any strung-out rocker strumming bloated and hoarse-throated to a braying audience. You can’t, in good conscience, want these men to play their hits again.
The evening’s Trump handler is a salt-and-peppered sports reporter and professional wrestling commentator named Todd Grisham. “From the Oval Office to the squared circle,” Grisham begins, before stopping himself from getting too excited. It is 9/11 after all, and so: “Before we talk about boxing, I know as an American President as a former New Yorker—current New Yorker—this is a very special day to you as it is for the entire country.” I expect a machine-gun rattle of 9/11 classics from Trump, at one of his first broadcast re-emergences since getting deplatformed, but he plays none of the fibs I remember. He doesn’t repeat his day-of claim that, the towers gone, his building was the tallest in Manhattan. There’s nothing about seeing Muslims in Jersey City cheering the collapse, nothing about predicting Osama Bin Laden’s orchestrations in his 2000 book The America We Deserve.
I realize then he hasn’t been paid for a rally, just to ramble on mic. He repeats “We love our country” bromides. (There is a mild jab about Afghanistan: “thirteen great warriors and many injured and many people killed in these final few days, and it was just a shame.”) Trump is low-energy, drowsy Donald, listing the fighters and insisting that he’s known each of them, despite mispronouncing their names. Anderson Silver. Veeter, no last name, “Veeter is tough.”
They throw back to Mario, who demands that “We need to get this place jumping,” apparently to live reggaeton. It is 9/11 in South Florida, after all, and Gente de Zona takes the stage. The group had run afoul of conservative Cuban Americans in Miami for praising Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel, barred ultimately from a 2019 New Year’s Eve concert after being criticized by Miami mayor Francis Suarez. I realize they’ve changed their tune when I see an S.O.S. CUBA sweatshirt on whichever is the bald one of the two. The sound is terrible, like listening to a double-parked car’s sound system from the sidewalk.
I start tuning out. Most any fight broadcast is tedium—video packages, advertisements for cryptocurrencies and nutrition supplements, jock banter between Joe Rogan and other burly bald men—but it is especially difficult to pay attention to Haye and Fournier as they explain that they are friends who are now fighting because Fournier remarked off-hand that he could take Haye.
Eventually I hear the Winston Churchill “We shall fight on the beaches” speech mumbled through the speakers, and look up to see Fournier in a beige poncho and a gold sombrero that catches on the ring ropes. When he finally makes it into the ring, he drops the sombrero on the ground. Churchill ends; “La Bamba” begins. Haye comes out to what sounds like two songs playing at once. They’ve gotten Michael Buffer of “Let’s get ready to rumble” fame to MC the proceedings, and the first fight is on. Haye and Fournier spar more than fight. Fournier tries to brawl his way in as the smaller of the two, punching in bunches until he ends up clinched, head laid on the chest of the taller Haye. Haye slips well for a big retiree, relying entirely on his jab and pivoting easily out of the way.
Commentary is often irritating because of its hyperbolic excess, and I am unused to listening to tan men talk to each other wanly. The sole jolt of energy occurs when Trump Jr. expectedly clambers for his father’s attention: When asked if he’s a billionaire yet, the son answers speedily that “there’s only one billionaire in the family.” He sounds both eager to please and scared of his father, who seems contented in the way one does when one isn’t working.
During the rounds and in between them, Trump himself wanders through his boxing memories like he’s opening and shutting doors in a hallway. The greatest left jab was Larry Holmes. Holyfield was always underrated, and had zero percent body fat. Tyson Fury, that English heavyweight champion who I will admit looks like a shaved orangutan, is “a good fighter, and he’s got a very different kind of body.”
A woman waves a sign saying Bring Back #45 behind Mario Lopez. I feel as if I’m at a very sad party, so I go out for beer. Corona, like I drank in middle school in Riverdale Park, throwing empties at the tracks running along the Hudson, wondering if you could drive a train into a midtown building.
An Irish imp named Jono with a beard so trimmed it appears CGI walks out in another poncho-sombrero combo. His hat also proves an obstacle at the ring ropes. Jono’s last name is Carroll, and he and his opponent Andy Vences were left off the video package, despite being actual pro boxers. (They are, I discover, the only real fight on the card, the rest being exhibition matches.) They are 30 and 29. I’m finally older than someone in the ring. In his commentary booth, Trump has been joined by Junior dos Santos, the former UFC heavyweight champion, a hairless smiler whose face seems encased in rubber. Trump remarks on dos Santos’s arms, asks about a fight between the two of them. He somehow doesn’t sound as if he’s joking, though he also doesn’t sound like he’s interested. It’s just indolent speculation. “Would people believe it if I knocked you out?”
The boxers fight with just enough professionalism that the crowd becomes restless, and Trump again retreats down his hall of memories. He speaks of Jack Johnson, the great Jim Crow–era Black heavyweight arrested and imprisoned for having a relationship with a white woman, essentially. Trump pardoned Johnson in 2018. “He was treated badly,” Trump says, noting Sylvester Stallone’s presence at the pardoning.
I feel as though I have been sucked into an alternate dimension where 9/11 is celebrated with boxing matches, like Thanksgiving and football. In this world I am hallucinating, I am related to the Trumps, their family including a number of Hispanic and Latino fighters—in-laws, maybe, or adoptees. Every year he praises their physiques, their warrior spirits. All celebrities must box, in this dimension, and out-to-pasture fighters continue until their mouth guards must be fitted over their dentures. On the couch, during Conor McGregor vs. PewDiePie, Trump holds forth to his specimen relatives. He wants them to work smarter, not harder. Watching a sexagenarian Manny Pacquiao beat up Andrew Yang, he tells them, as he tells dos Santos in the actual world, so much obviously more admiring of the Brazilian Junior than his own son, “You gotta do this. Pick a nice weak celebrity.”
Can you experience visions by overdosing on ongoing low-grade annoyance? A fever breaks when I hear the opening saxophone to “What’s Going On?,” my screen now displaying footage from a 1972 Marvin Gaye performance, the camera focused on a pair of clapping children and then a wide-shot of the musicians. Actually, even Marvin looks like the backing band, because Snoop Dogg has been green-screened into the foreground, his tuxedo’d mirage smeared onto the film stock in After Effects. Snoop winks at the camera, the vision goes from palliative to saccharine. He eventually gives a verse so smoothly banal it approaches something like rap muzak. (“1960s, 1970s, 1980s,” he begins, “pray for the babies.”) Gaye segues into “What’s Happening Brother.” He asks the titular question. “It’s Triller night, Marv!” Snoop exclaims. Horrifying.
Still, “What’s Going On?” remains a gorgeous demand to gaze at the horrors of the Vietnam era. Is there any such document in response to September 11? I think of conspiratorial English songwriter Martin Noakes “9/11 Building 7,” which I remember as the apex of the mid-2010s 9/11 meme overload. “The building fell with such precision, free fall speed, no reasons given.” That video shows Noakes singing, green-screened himself against cartoons of the hijackers and Matrix-style green numbers running like rain and the Goebbels misquote that goes, “The bigger the lie, the more people will believe it.” It is almost certainly someone’s “What’s Going On?” I have to go out for more beer.
Though he still weighed in five pounds over, Tito Ortiz lost forty pounds in four weeks. He looks hungry—not metaphorically, just empty bellied. His shorts say “Punishment” on the front and “Punishment.com” on the ass. He waves a multi-tool of an American flag: regular stars and stripes on one side, black and white on the other with a thin red-blue combo line. Like the sombreros, the flag is defeated by the ring ropes, draping Ortiz’s massive head as he tries to clear it through.
Silva walks out to DMX’s rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” as he did for many years in the UFC. He is an all-time great, a rubber-limbed highlight reel. I begin to feel actually nostalgic, though it’s a drag to hear another Trump alternate son join commentary. A Cuban American MMA fighter, Jorge Masvidal calls himself Street Jesus and did a “Fighters Against Socialism” Trump bus tour last election.
Ding ding, and Ortiz walks slow and angry towards Silva, throwing weak blows as Silva easily gets out of dodge. Ortiz plods after until Silva’s in the corner. Otiz pitter-patters little punches, Silva whack-a-mole pops up and down. He smashes Ortiz with a right hook, the follow-ups leaving Ortiz bent over against the ring post like he’s looking for something he dropped. Silva retreats to the opposite corner, unbothered. Ortiz eventually keels over, unconscious and clammy with sweat in front of his favorite politician. Trump: “That was pretty good, that was pretty good. . . . Were they expecting that result?”
Michael Buffer announces the day as one of the darkest in American history. “We pay tribute to the heroes,” Buffer says, and it cuts to Trump, smiling, looking much less weird standing up. Buffer asks the crowd to remain silent as they ring a memorial count of ten. Trump makes his serious face, where every feature seems to purse toward the point of his lips. After the second bell, a woman screams, “Feel that, fuckers.” Someone else screams at her to shut up, she yells back, gets yelled at again. The camera alights on ringside medics looking downwards, trying to maintain decorum, then Trump Jr., doing the same. “Feel it,” the woman keeps screaming. (Later I see a video of her getting carried out, wearing a “Cancel Big Tech” shirt and yelling, “This is not Venezuela.”) The tenth bell finally rings. “May they rest in peace and never be forgotten,” goes Buffer. The crowd chants “USA.” A disarmingly talented child sings the national anthem. The crowd chants, “We want Trump.” The man himself stands and pumps his fist. “We love our country,” he keeps repeating.
The fight was supposed to take place in Los Angeles, but the California State Athletic Commission wouldn’t license Holyfield—the right choice, given his age. “Not sure you’ll find a more in-shape fifty-eight-year-old on planet Earth,” says Grisham. Holyfield looks like hardened clay. Someone helps him get his robes off. He has gloves on, so it’s legitimately difficult, but it all adds to his appearance as a very old man who just happens to be jacked. The young dinosaur across the ring doesn’t look in better shape than Holyfield. 44 is not 58, though, and I worry I’m going to see a murder.
“Everyone loves Evander,” says Trump. His son calls Holyfield a “great, God-fearing guy.” The MMA fighters all profess their love for this man who should not be in there, pawing with his jab slow as molasses. Vitor throws a wide left to the body, which seems to glance but also sends Holyfield stumbling. Belfort follows in with a flurry. Evander’s attempt at a counter throws himself so off-balance he ends up half out of the ring, hanging on the ropes.
“Yeah, it’s looking a little tough out there for Evander right now,” Trump says, the closest I’ve ever heard to sympathy from him, in any context. Belfort flurries again upon reengaging, seemingly landing on the guard and elbows but sending Holyfield wobblingly back once more, arms windmilling. Belfort rushes after him, clutching and punching as MMA fighters like to, mostly hitting glove until a good one slips through and catches his opponent. The ref waves it off, and Holyfield is annoyed, protesting, still standing, but he can’t do anything about being as old as he is. No point in murdering the man. The tickets were already bought, the views paid for.
Triller’s Ryan Kavanaugh takes the mic and congratulates Belfort on showing the world that MMA and boxing can be equal. 40 and 50 are the new 20 and 30, “That’s the way this world works,” which, sure, we live in a gerontocracy. Fittingly, then, Trump ends things, mic in hand, finally addressing the crowd. The queeny carnival barker is back, somewhat, spinning less shit-colored shit out of shit. “Your stock is so high,” Trump tells Belfort, for beating Holyfield. “We love Evander,” he says, “and we love Florida.“ He asserts the evening’s success, the towers and his supposed contributions to the relief efforts and the virus and Afghanistan and the man in the White House who beat him unmentioned, just a happy patriarch, all of South Florida his Mar-A-Lago. “I hear it’s going crazy over the internet.”
I go out to empty my recycling, burping up Corona by the trash bins in an undershirt and gym shorts. I can make out the spectral towers, lights punching out of lower Manhattan, 110 flights up and more, confusing birds, drawing tourists, haunting survivors, marking the 9/11 Museum. Drunk, I run through my own hall of memories. A friend’s mother ran that museum’s gift shop and oversaw the selling of the infamous cheese plate, the one shaped like the continental United States with hearts dotting the attack sites. A high school classmate went to middle school across the way from the WTC and saw everything as it happened. Her father died of cancer from exposure, as did another friend’s mother, living as close as they did to the wreckage.
I think back a week prior, to a picnic with a friend who just started working as a therapist with emergency responders and clean-up workers. She herself had to walk home that day from her middle school, in Gramercy Park, to Bleecker Street, her parents at work and cut off from her by the city’s cordon. When she had left that morning, she could see the towers; when she returned, nothing but an off-tinge to the air that she smelled for months. Now she works with EMTs and NYPD and those you’d think of, but also the Verizon workers who facilitated communications and the fire department engineers assigned to operate machinery and the transportation department metalworkers who volunteered in the bucket brigade. She has patients who were construction workers hired by the city to torch through steel to get to what was left of those in the buildings, sorting through body parts on conveyor belts to decide where to send remains. It is worse than it’s ever been for the patients, her supervisors have told her, what with the news yakking constantly about Afghanistan and Covid dead and the anniversary itself. After fighting endlessly for workers comp and disability, they’re distrustful of the government, though many love Trump.
I had no idea how to respond, so I tried to relate. I certainly failed, but: my parents couldn’t pick me up either. They were stuck in Manhattan. A teacher with a son in my year took the stranded students to their home in Tuckahoe. We played video games in the basement and waited for word from our cell phone–less parents.
Last year my mother told me that the teacher who cared for me that day had been charged with molesting a 7-year-old girl in 2019; the Feds also found images of child pornography on his phone. I hear rumors that he was turned in by his son, a Taekwondo black belt who once spin-kicked me unconscious in Riverdale Park after I picked a fight. Nothing happened to me in that house, nor to anyone I know that I know of, I told my friend at the picnic, and then I laughed dumbly, since now that day is for me as much unwittingly playing Sonic the Hedgehog in a pedophile’s basement as it is the actual 9/11, as much about cheese plates and drunkenly watching Martin Noakes as much as it is planes hitting a building and thyroid cancer, #45 lying about jeering Arabs as much as it is Holyfield getting saved from himself, a concatenation of tragedy and jokes, unrelentingly serious, unrelentingly stupid, spinning out into a world where for the past twenty years anything and nothing is 9/11, underpinning American life to such an extent that it’s often meaningless to say so—unless you remember sorting remains from debris and disassociate any time you pass through lower Manhattan. In which case you wouldn’t laugh, and I shouldn’t either, so I shut up then, I vomit a little now, I’m back in my apartment, the phone showing me it’s past midnight, 9/12.