Short Story: Benigno Fights the Bear by John Wesick

Leaving a sweaty, unwashed judo gi to ferment in a locker for a week was lousy discipline. Why couldn’t students wash them? Even after taking a shower, Benigno’s hands would stink of the big guy’s sweat. Cooper moved in for a hip throw. Benigno blocked it with a tai sabaki, stepped around, and executed a hip throw of his own. He landed on top of Cooper and moved into a scarf hold called kesa gatame. The big man tapped out.

“I’m going to take a break.” Cooper did a standing bow.

“How are you going to compete with Wisconsin State if you don’t train?” Benigno asked.

Cooper walked away, so Benigno sat cross-legged at the edge of the mat, the back of his sweaty gi sticking to the concrete wall. He turned his attention from the randori to his broken toe that buddy-taped to its neighbor. The sticky wrestling mats were murder on bare feet. Canvas or tatami would have been better, but the judo club was lucky to have this space at all. Benigno had no worthy opponents here. Don Levine used to have a killer uchi mata, but he’d lost his fire after knee surgery. With no one to replace Levine, Benigno couldn’t see how they’d make it to the nationals. The instructor, Arto Virtanen, a graduate student in Eastern European languages, clapped his hands to end class. The students knelt facing the teacher and bowed out.

“Ever seen one of those wrestling bears at the county fair?” Cooper asked Virtanen after class. “How could judo win against an opponent like that?”

“I know!” Benigno jumped to his feet. “When the bear rises up on his hind legs, I’d turn into a shoulder throw just as he comes down on top of me.” Benigno dropped to his knees and demonstrated a seoi nage. “Yeah, fight the bear! Fight the bear!”

No one else chanted, so Benigno jumped up and down in front of Levine while shouting, “Fight the bear! Fight the bear!”

A few others joined the chant. Virtanen shook his head and bowed out.


“Who is brave enough to challenge Harold the Horrible, master of Greco-Roman wrestling?” Flatty Gaff pointed to a black bear who looked like the cartoon character in Hamm’s Beer commercial. As for Harold’s trainer, Gaff wore a ballcap, denim jacket and had a patchy beard shot with gray. “It’s just ten dollars to play for a chance to win five hundred. Who will be first?”

Benigno held up a ten and walked to the stage.

“Fight the bear!” Cooper shouted. He couldn’t wait to see the guy who’d dominated him in every practice get creamed. When he noticed Levine hadn’t joined in the chant, Cooper elbowed him in the ribs. The two then clapped and stomped to their chant, and the audience joined in. “Fight the bear!” 

In martial arts, they say a ten-pound weight advantage is worth one degree of black belt. Harold the Horrible weighed three times as much as Benigno. Even Kyuzu Mifune wouldn’t have beaten the black bear. Well, maybe the judo master could have won, but Benigno’s strategy went wrong from the start. Instead of rearing up, Harold stayed on four legs, forcing Benigno into a referee’s position. Benigno reached under the bear’s chest for the opposite foreleg, pressed his face against the fur, and pushed but he might as well have tried to push over a bulldozer. Harold rolled on top of him. Benigno struggled to breathe. He tried to lift his hips or scoot his legs out from under the animal but all he could do was smell the vodka and breath mints coming through Harold’s leather muzzle. Then he gambled on Harold being a wrestler. Benigno shimmied and twisted until he was face down on the mat, a move that would get him killed in a real fight. However, wrestlers had to pin an opponent’s shoulders to win, and lying face down prevented that. The bear got off him. 

“Let’s go, Benigno! You’ll get him this time.” Cooper suppressed a snigger. “Fight the bear! Fight the bear!”

On his feet again, Benigno heard laughter from the spectators. When Harold approached on four legs, Benigno stepped to the side. In the hot sun, the bear’s fur smelled like a thousand of Cooper’s rank judo gis. Benigno side-stepped another lunge and raised his arms in an attempt to get Harold to copy his motion. It worked. 

“Earl!” Harold said as he reared up on his back legs. Benigno stepped in for a shoulder throw but couldn’t overcome the bear’s low center of mass. Harold simply turned to take Benigno down, and the judoka spent the rest of the match pinned under five-hundred pounds of fur. After watching Benigno’s defeat, neither Levine nor Cooper tried.


Beningo and Cooper handed their tickets to the tattooed man at the gate. He was wiry, his skin aged from heavy drinking, and he wore a grubby T-shirt with a pack of Marlboros rolled into the sleeve. In other words, his appearance did not inspire confidence that he could maintain dangerous equipment. Nevertheless, Cooper had insisted they ride the Kamikaze. It consisted of a pair of counterrotating pendular that swung their occupants in three-hundred-sixty-degree arcs.

The two sat side-by-side in the gondola. The motor roared, and the pendular began to swing, slowly at first and then building up amplitude. Near the top of the arc, Benigno felt weightless as the gondola paused.

“Next one is the big one!” Cooper said.

The gondola swung back, gained amplitude, and climbed again.

“Woo!” Cooper pumped both fists in the air.

Benigno saw the world spin much like when someone threw him for ippon. After several more loops, the gondola slowed and came to rest.

“You gave it a damn good try.” Cooper slapped Benigno on the shoulder. “Want to get a beer?”

“Thanks. I think I’ll stick around for a while.” Benigno had other plans.

“Okay. See you at the dojo.”

Benigno bought a barbecued turkey leg and watermelon slushy. He wandered the fair but didn’t play any games. Eventually, he made his way between the trucks and vans to where the bear lived. Harold paced back and forth in a space the size of a kitchen that stank of urine. This was no way to treat a champion. Benigno slipped the turkey leg between the iron bars to his former opponent. It was the least he could do.


Harold ambled to the cage door and took a French fry from Benigno’s hand. Even past midnight, the air was warm and humid. The only sounds were crickets’ love songs and the distant bass of reggae coming from a carny’s trailer. Benigno cut the padlock’s shackle with bolt cutters and unchained the gate. 

“Earl!” Harold greeted him with a bear hug.

“Quiet.” Benigno held a finger to his lips. “This way.”

Harold followed Benigno past the rides, cotton candy tubs, milk bottles, and skeeball stands and into the parking lot. It was a tight fit getting him into the passenger seat of Benigno’s MGB convertible. The seatbelt was too short, and the bear’s face stuck out a foot above the windscreen. A scally cap, muffler, and pair of goggles made Harold look jaunty on the ride back to the dorm. Halfway there, Benigno let the bear drive. Bad idea! Harold couldn’t get the hang of the stick shift.  

They parked behind the dorm, and Benigno smuggled the bear in the back door. While waiting for the elevator, he worried that the students in the lobby would notice that Harold was a bear, but the scally cap fooled them. The elevator arrived. Benigno led Harold inside and pushed the button for the twelfth floor.

“Wait up.” The resident assistant blocked the door. He entered, pushed the button for three, and looked at Harold. “No pets allowed.”

“He’s not a pet,” Benigno said. “He’s my cousin from Ulan Bator.”

“Cousin, huh? What’s his name?”

“Earl,” Harold said.

“Kind of hairy. Isn’t he?” The RA asked Benigno.

“On a cold Mongolian night when you’re alone in your yurt with no woman around, you might reach for a yeti, too.”


“How do you think Genghis Khan conquered half the world?” Benigno asked.

“All right, Earl. Just keep the noise down. You might be on vacation, but others need to study.” The RA exited on the third floor. 

Benigno realized Harold might be hungry. After turning on the TV, he made marmalade sandwiches, but Harold wouldn’t touch them. 

“Earl.” Harold pointed at a bag of cheese curls.

Benigno poured them into a bowl, and soon Harold’s snout was covered with orange powder. 

“Have you seen this bear?” The announcer showed Harold’s picture on the TV. “A few hours ago, Harold escaped from the Monroe County Fair. His owner is offering a two-thousand-dollar reward for his capture. Call 555-1975 if you have any information.”


Benigno bowed before stepping onto the mat. Harold did the same. When Benigno had searched the Goodwill for disguises, he’d found a size-9 judo gi and decided his new friend should share his hobby. Rit dye turned Harold’s belt brown, which gave him enough rank to compete without anyone asking him to teach.

“Who’s our guest?” Virtanen asked.

“My cousin from Ulan Bator,” Benigno replied.

“Arto Virtanen.” He bowed and offered his hand.

“Earl.” Harold took Virtanen’s hand in his paw.

“You played judo for a long time, Earl?” Virtanen asked.


“Sorry,” Benigno said. “He doesn’t speak much English.”

“Maybe you can translate for him,” Virtanen said. “Glad you can join us, Earl.”

After bowing in, Benigno partnered with Harold to practice o-goshi. The bear mimicked stepping in with a one-hundred-eighty-degree turn, reaching around Benigno’s waist, and throwing him over his hip. Harold kept up as the class moved on to taiotoshi and o soto gari until it was time for randori when Harold tossed Benigno around like a sack of Nerf balls.

“Dozo.” Virtanen bowed to the bear when it was time to change partners.

The two struggled for a dominant grip on each other’s gis. Virtanen went for a simple armbar, but Harold sensed the trap. Virtanen then dropped into a taiotoshi but Harold stepped over his leg, pivoted, and attempted a hiza guruma knee wheel. Virtanen stepped over Harold’s extended leg and countered with his own hiza guruma. Harold turned his hips away to stop the throw and swept Virtanen’s feet from behind.

“Hey, you’re pretty good!” Virtanen said as he got up from the mat.

After more randori and ending the class, Virtanen approached Benigno.

“You know, if your cousin registered for a continuing-education class, he could join the judo team. Then we might have a chance of showing up Dan Hickenlooper at Wisconsin State.” Virtanen’s rivalry with that coach had gone on for years.

“Damn it, sensei!” Cooper shouted. “Can’t you see he’s a bear?”

“Oh, yeah.” Virtanen squinted at Harold. “Well, the NCAA has rules about athletes accepting money but nothing about them being bears.”


Harold stepped onto the mat and bowed to his opponent, Darrell Hades, a judoka from Faber College whose three-hundred pounds compensated for a total lack of skill. To qualify as a student, Harold had registered, under the pseudonym Earl Oso, for a music-appreciation class. The instructor assigned no homework. An essay at the end of the semester would determine his grade.  No one on the judo team knew how a bear would write an essay, but the national championships would be over by then, so the question was moot. 

“Hajime!” yelled the referee to start Harold’s first tournament match in the state semifinals.  

Hades bellowed an earsplitting kiai and rushed forward like a Viking berserker on his way to a Texas barbecue. Harold did the same, and the two collided like two freight trains, one leaving Pittsburgh at 6:12 AM traveling at fifty-nine miles per hour, and the other departing Kansas City at 8:04 AM traveling forty-three miles per hour. Their clash was enough to bring joy to overburdened algebra students everywhere. Harold took Darrell down and cleaned the mat with him, literally. Using Darrell as a gi-covered washrag, Harold wiped him back and forth over the mat in a raster pattern. The judge declared Harold the winner.

All was not salmon and picnic baskets, though. Disguised in a trilby hat and fake mustache, Wisconsin State’s coach, Dan Hickenlooper, watched from the bleachers. As a professor of wildlife biology, Hickenlooper suspected something about Virtanen’s new judoka wasn’t right.


  With a gold medal around his neck, Benigno watched Harold straighten his gi and step onto the podium to wait for Mr. Choi to present the awards in the open-weight category. An eighth dan who wore a red-and-white belt, Mr. Choi intimidated everyone with his six-foot-nine-inch height. Not only was he huge, but he was aggressive with flawless technique. When discussing being thrown by Mr. Choi, Levine had said, “He made me one with the mat.”

After placing the silver medal on the second-place winner’s neck, Mr. Choi stepped in front of Harold and stared as if remembering folktales from his childhood on Cheju Island. Bear and man bowed, and Mr. Choi placed the gold medal around Harold’s neck. This clinched it. The seven judoka that Virtanen had molded into a team had outperformed all the others. Levine won gold, and Cooper had even washed his gi. They were going to the nationals.

Benigno took a seat in the bleachers to watch. As the odd man in his weight class, he’d advanced automatically to the second round. The eliminations took place on four mats at once, so Benigno had placed himself close to the 160-pound competition to study his opponents. The crowd roared. Benigno looked up to see Harold step onto a far mat. Then the crowd gasped. Harold’s opponent was not a human but a rhino, not a moderate Republican but an actual member of Rhinocerotidae diceros. Wisconsin State hadn’t even tried to find a judo gi big enough to cover the fifteen-hundred-pound animal. Instead, they’d wrapped his torso in white cotton. A yellow tennis ball covered his horn, and a seeing-eye bird called an oxpecker sat on his shoulder.

“Time out!” Virtanen went to argue with the referee. 

Judges surrounded the pair and, after much gesturing and hushed voices, ruled that while no rules forbade a rhino from competing, the bird could not join him on the mat. 

“I’m going to sue under the Americans with Disabilities Act!” Hickenlooper shouted.

When the referee called “Hajime!” the rhino pawed the mat, lowered his head, and charged. Lacking the oxpecker bird to give directions, he set off the wrong way. Momentum carried him into the front row of the bleachers occupied by Mrs. Tiergarten’s first-grade class. After paramedics cleared the injured, the referee called a penalty against the rhino for stepping off the mat.

When the match resumed, Harold let out a roar to give his nearsighted opponent a direction. When the rhino charged, Harold stepped aside and stuck out a foot to trip the horny beast. Keeping to this strategy, Harold accumulated yuko after yuko, but he didn’t want to win by partial points. As the timer ticked down, Harold baited his opponent into one more charge. When the rhino got close, Harold tricked him into a turn. Harold stepped in with a hip throw and added a leg sweep to make it a harai goshi. No throw against an opponent that massive would be perfect but the referee called “Wazari!” earning Harold a respectable half-point and the match. The crowd cheered and then hushed as a grizzled man in a ballcap and denim jacket rose from the second row and pointed at Harold.

“That’s my bear!” Flatty Gaff yelled.

As the police led Harold away in handcuffs, he gazed at Benigno and whimpered, “Earl.”


“Which of you is brave enough to challenge the amazing fighting bear, master of Greco-Roman wrestling, judo, taekwondo, and krav maga? It’s just ten dollars for a chance to win five hundred. Who will be first?”

“I will!” Benigno held up a ten-dollar bill and rushed to the stage.

He stepped onto the mat, bowed, and the match began. Harold rushed in on all fours and reaped Benigno’s leg in an o soto gari. Benigno kept his legs between himself and the bear to avoid a pin and scrambled to his feet. He danced around the bear with ankle props and foot sweep and then pulled his earlobe. On the prearranged signal, Harold reared up, and Benigno pivoted, dropped to his knees, and tossed the bear over his shoulder. It was mostly show. Harold didn’t take a dive, but he didn’t resist either. Benigno scrambled on top for a kami shiho gatame pin.   

“Winner!” Flatty Gaff handed Benigno a roll of ones with the twenties on the outside. “See! Everyone’s got a chance. Who’s next?”

Of course, as the shill, Benigno would give the money back. That was the deal Flatty Gaff had insisted on to drop the chargers. Leaving college to join the fair beat going to prison. At least Benigno got to spend time with his ursine buddy and keep a third of the take. Besides, with enough practice, his shoulder throw might get good enough to take down a bear for real.

About the Author

Jon Wesick is a regional editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. He’s published hundreds of poems and stories in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, New Verse News, Paterson Literary Review, Pearl, Pirene’s Fountain, Slipstream, Space and Time, and Tales of the Talisman. His most recent books are The Shaman in the Library and The Prague Deception.