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Tag Archives: Carl Garcia

Getting Acquainted

Two Fridays past was the final event for Friday Night Fights for 2009. It was the first time I’d ever attended the event, which has been hosted by Church Street Boxing for the last 12 years. I had the rare opportunity to enter the venue with a press pass, which granted me access to the venue and the fighters prior to the fights. I was given access in order to shoot footage of Nathalie Fuz for a small film I’m putting together to document the retirement bout of this accomplished fighter. To add heat to the fire, Florina Petcu – a WKA champion – was fighting for the WKA Fly Weight title. As a small fighter like I am and admirer of Florina, I was eager to see her fight – something I had never even seen on video, let alone witnessed in person.

Held in the Hall at St. Paul, the venue is a surprising, and through the host’s set up and design, quite impressive space. As I entered pre-fight the ring stood in the middle of the huge room illuminated by hidden stage lights, its mat somehow emptier than all the other space around it. Folding chairs formed rows stretching back from three sides of the ring. It seemed somewhat intimate, in the way a small music venue permits one to feel close to the stage from any position in the room.

I spent my time scouting a good seat for the fights, shooting stock footage of people milling around – mostly staff, mixed with some antsy fighters, dressed in sweats and hoodies. Occasionally I passed by the doorway to the room where all the fighters gathered for medical check and weigh-in. Beyond the threshold the fighters laughed and joked with each other as they waited in line, while others already paced or rocked, heads down and deeply focused on the fight to come.

I stood against a wall filming two women who sat in chairs just outside the blue corner of the ring. One had bleach-blonde dreadlocks tied up in high pig-tails, the other sat somewhat hunched over, donning brunette corn-rows and simple wire-frame glasses, munching idly out of a bag of what looked like sunflower seeds or trail mix. I filmed the two of them like that for a few minutes, wondering if they might be officials, or family or fans. Just past their chairs I could see a woman, dimly lighted by the ring lights, waving to me from the dark middle rows of chairs. I walked over to discover it was Niramon Ross, a Thai filmmaker shooting a full-length film on Nathalie Fuz. We’d come in together and been quickly introduced at the door while there was some debate over whether another press pass could be issued for her crew or whether I might have to surrender mine, as there had been a bit of confusion as there often can be.

I had barely made it over to her before she was leading me back to the blue corner of the ring, talking as we went, advising me that she wanted me to do an interview for her, since she’d heard I ask clever questions. I innocently agreed, not sure of what exactly she had in mind until we were standing right next to the two women I had been filming and it dawned on me that the spectacled brunette was Helene Garnett, Nathalie’s opponent. Niramon introduced us and handed a clip mic to Helene, who politely gave the “one moment” hand signal while she deposited her snack in a bag underneath her chair and cleared her mouth before turning to me, indicating her readiness. Immediately I was struck by her gaze, which was indifferent and steady, confident and patient – not quite inviting, but tolerant. I began with a few questions regarding her experience with Muay Thai and her path toward fighting Nathalie Fuz. She’s been fighting since around 2003 and trains out of a big gym in the UK. It was her first time in New York and she was sure to note that she was rather enjoying the stay so far. I’d learned from Nathalie that the fight was arranged through email and Facebook, so I asked if this was a somewhat new phenomenon to her: to be able to Facebook someone and ask for a fight. She decided that, no, this was not entirely new as she’s always had a say in who she fights and, though her coach suggests that she fight this girl rather than that girl, or if she should add this one to the list, and that she has enjoyed a level of autonomy in her fighting career thus far. Then she waited, watching me reach for another question with complete stillness in her countenance – I marked her as a counter puncher. When asked why she had requested to fight Nathalie, Helene expressed the degree of notoriety of and admiration for Nathalie Fuz as a female Muay Thai fighter and it was clear that a fight between the two was meaningful, in the way that two fighters share something with one another that is a connection entirely unique to the fight itself.

When I ran out of questions I thanked her for her time and wished her a good fight. She thanked Niramon in Thai and then I added, to Helene, “Chok Dee.” Helene nodded a thank you and then paused for a moment before looking up – at nothing in particular – and saying, somewhat cheerfully, “I like that: Chok Dee.”

As we stepped away from the corner I noticed that the blonde woman in Helene’s corner was taming a tiny, flame-haired boy, probably no older than two. He plodded about in a little radius the length of his own little arm, clasped by his mother’s hand and I marveled at how I’d not noticed him at all before this point. More marvelous was the way in which these two women, sitting ring-side in an empty venue, could stand out or disappear with one glance; maternal but not domestic.

A Crowd Comes

Ten minutes until the doors opened, a paramedic duo marched in through the double doors. They exchanged no words or even glances between one another as they approached the ring and slipped a gurney underneath the platform, taking care to tuck oxygen tubes and various supplies near the edge, where they would be at the ready. I stared at the gurney’s white sheet as the paramedics slipped away, the thing lurking under the ring like some ominous prop.

As the crowd filed in, filling seats and bringing much-needed body heat to the hall, the filmmaker, the photographer and I headed over to the green room, attempting to find Nathalie in a semi-subdued area. Instead we discovered a room bustling with male fighters, energetic and loud, warming up and getting rubbed down before the imminent show. Nathalie was within the room, but she kept moving around. She greeted people left and right and moved in and out of the room (mostly out) and disappeared into the crowd. She could be tracked through the sound of exaltation and cheers as she navigated the great hall, but she only became visible when she moved in the spaces between the large groups. It dawned on me as I watched her make her rounds that I have only seldom seen Nathalie walking; in general we have met, moved to a place to sit, and then sat. Watching her now as she moved confidently from one space to another, I said out loud to myself, “that woman’s got swagger.” There can be some peacocking in the movement of a fighter on the floor of a venue, but in the case of Nathalie Fuz it’s not a show. Rather, it seems like a cat with its whiskers on high alert, or an octopus with its tentacles out, feeling out and vibing on all the energy of the room and that energy dictates the posture. It makes one straighten one’s own back.

Hands Wrapped, Fights On

As it happened, Nathalie was unable to have her hands wrapped prior to the start of the show. Her fight was the co-main event of the night so she would not be entering the ring for over an hour. The man she’d asked to wrap her hands, trainer at Church Street Jason Strout, had fighters getting in the ring at the beginning of the show so he deferred his attention to getting them ready and preparing himself to corner. He pointed to a name on the fight card and told Nathalie he’d wrap her hands after this fight. With this I slipped out into the crowd and took my seat next to my husband with a great view from behind the red corner of the ring.

The first fight was a Western boxing match between two young men with drastically disparate experience levels. The first round was anxious, with the less experienced fighter coming in and taking countless shots at his opponent. The more experienced fighter moved fluidly, dodging blows and throwing practically none, just feeling out his opponent. By the second round the more advanced fighter knew the extent of his opponent’s power and he began striking back, delivering deliberate and powerful combinations. The greener of the two held his own and fought hard all the way to the end of the third round. But the victory went to the seasoned fighter.

The DJ waited for the boxers to exit the ring and for the next fighters to reach their corners; moments later the unmistakable Muay Thai music could be heard echoing through the entire venue as the fighters climbed into the ring. The two fighters (John Lancaster & Delvon Hodges) were not evenly sized: red corner seemed to stand 4 inches taller than the blue. by the time they were fighting his legs and arms stretched with impossible length as he kicked and punched. It was thrilling to watch a Muay Thai bout just after a boxing match – the difference of movements emphasized by their succession. The blue corner fought well, kicking hard and swift, but the bout went to the tall, consistent and steady red corner.

Then came more boxers: the super-heavyweights. I’d seen one kid warming up in the “blue room”. He (Nikko Diaz) was young and excited and huge, his father coaching him backstage and amping him up for what would be his first fight. As I watched his opponent (Elvin Vargas, a last minute replacement) enter into the ring – a giant boxer with arms the size of my legs – my husband expressed concern that at this weight, regardless of skill, injury was a serious possibility. I watched the kid bounce in his corner, barely containing his excitement, his energy filling the whole ring. He was too amped up, too eager. I worried that he would gas himself in the first round and this older giant would crush him. My hands began to clasp one another as the bell rang to start the match. The kid exploded, driving into his opponent with strong, clean combinations and then, the unexpected: he didn’t let up. He just kept plowing through, backing his opponent into the ropes and clapping his head back and forth between his gloves.  The red corner held up, however, and kept ducking and weaving through the attacks.  He seemed experienced.   By the end of the first round the more experienced opponent was winded; as the bell rang for round two, the kid flew in again, pinning his opponent to the ropes and throwing hook after hook into his head. We cheered him to keep the pressure, we hollered at him to stop head hunting and work the body, to just knock all the power out of his opponent and end the match. He wanted a knock out and, even with his considerable size, he wasn’t getting it. The experienced man threw out long, aimless uppercuts, which the kid easily slipped. I couldn’t fathom his speed – like the impossibility of linebackers darting down the field, refrigerators moving like gazelles. In between the second and third round the referee stopped the fight and the red corner, winded and sweating, did not contest. The kid leapt about the ring with excitement and pride, then hurried over to the red corner to check on his opponent and thank him. The more experienced man shook the kid’s glove with genuine respect and the crowd went wild. 

The Muay Thai music played again and two men met at the center of the ring. One corner threw mostly punches (Ryan Peterson), while the other attempted the same four-set combination again and again (Carl Garcia). The boxer with a quick arm caught his oppenent’s right kick with growing predictability and repeatedly dropped his opponent to the floor with speed and power. The crowd called for a different approach, but none came. The same right kick preceded the same heavy drop to the mat. The fight lasted three rounds and finished without any turn around.

Behind the Scenes, Wrapping Hands

I realized the time and leapt from my seat, hurrying back to the dressing room to prepare filming the promised hand-wrapping. The room was quieter, the energy perhaps a little more somber. Victorious fighters waltzed in with coaches, the super-heavyweight kid disappeared behind hugs from family and supporters. And defeated fighters walked in confidently, but sat down with hunched backs and thoughtful stares down to the floor, trying to piece together the flaws they had betrayed or the strategy they’d neglected.

Nathalie sat quietly near a far wall of the room. Behind her a group of young men stand semi-circle and watch the only other female fighter in the room, Florina Petcu, as she stands still her eyes averted, while a photographer snaps pictures, her arms being rubbed down with oil before she warms up. The young men make remarks about female Muay Thai that make me turn my head and my mouth drop open slightly – they say them without lowering their voices – and I’m disappointed to see that I recognize the gym logos on their sweatshirts. Their gyms do not share their views, and yet, because these men are not exceptional, in some way the gyms do.

The kid from the first boxing match of the night came in, dressed in street clothes and his face punctuated by half-dollar sized bruises. After receiving a few congratulatory hand slaps, he informed the other guys that he was heading out to get something to eat and tacitly invited them to join. His spirit seemed good, not high, not low, but generally matching his seriousness and intensity prior to the fight; very even.

Florina began warming up, practicing speed and rotation, rather than full range motion. She paused periodically, moving chairs from her warm-up space and directing her gaze so that the fewest number of people took up her periphery. Jason from Church Street rushed in and after meeting his glance Nathalie flipped two chairs to face away from each other, back to back, so that she and Jason would face each other. With a few words of acknowledgment Jason laid out his supplies and began massaging Nathalie’s hands, her freshly painted red nails flashing bright between his own fingers as he loosened and relaxed her knuckles. And then he began wrapping, long strips of gossamer white taking on form as they looped again and again around Nathalie’s wrists and knuckles. Jason worked with the speed and care of a well-practiced hand, at once binding and protecting. There was a kind of contradiction in the action in that the tools are all medical – white sterile gauze and clean stainless-steel medical scissors and cloth tape – and yet the action is toward a decidedly un-medical end in combat. The bridge in this dichotomy was Jason’s repeated need to wipe his brow and shaved head, which were sweating profusely from both his concentration and from running from training room to corner and back, playing many roles at once, and with this sweat that he wiped from his own face he plastered down the rolls of gauze now layered over Nathalie’s fists. Like a painter licking the brush and the saliva becoming part of the art.

When the wrapping was finished Nathalie pounded her knuckles into each palm and remarked how good it felt, thanking Jason again for doing her this favor. He nodded and kept moving, the demand of the next 10 tasks already abuzz in his body. Nathalie started her shadow boxing warm-up and I slipped back out into the crowd.

The Women Bring It: Natalie’s Last Fight

After a few more bouts, one featuring a fighter with unbelievable knee strikes, the announcer took the mic with renewed vigor, introducing the title fight between two women vying for the WKA Fly Weight belt (Florina Petcu & Stephanie Stafford). The bout was very high energy with both women holding strong through the five rounds. Florina dominated the fight with her push-kicks, long jab and clinch; Stephanie fought strong and kept coming in on Florina – an attempt that seemed impossible and draining. In the end both women looked spent and Stephanie clapped for Florina before the results were even announced. The crowd in front of me went wild as Florina Petcu was named the winner and she flew to our side of the ring, pointing at the group in front of me and then at her heart. They were from her gym, Renzo Gracie.

There was another Muay Thai match between men, again with nice knees, and then I ran off to the blue corner of the ring just as Nathalie Fuz and Helene Garnett stepped in, the main event. I made my way to the side of the ring that was standing room only and wiggled my way to the front, just behind the judges’ table. My eye shifted between my camera and the ring as the two contenders began their Wai Kru /Ram Muay. Nathalie had told me that she was greatly looking forward to the two of them doing the Wai Kru simultaneously, something that is not really done regularly in the US and was clearly wanting throughout much of the night. At most only one fighter of the pair, if at all, performed the ceremonial dance prior to any of the fights before.

Now each woman moved with focused rhythm, eyes seeing into the distance beyond the ring. There’s something unique to the expression of the Wai Kru and Ram Muay when both fighters perform them simultaneously. When there are two it looks like a fight, but as if the fighters are blind to one another. One could not help but realize that these women were, in reality, dancing together, but not with each other, barely even acknowledging one another until Nathalie, in the final challenge of the Ram Muay, chased after Helene (whose back was turned, returned to her corner) and stomped right up to her. I’ve seen a number of different Wai Kru and I’ve learned that of my own master’s, so I know that this aggressive display can be an integral part of the Ram Muay. That said, I experienced a flutter of panic, a hint of suspense as Nathalie rushed Helene. I wonder if Helene felt it too.

Each fighter returned to her corner to remove the Mongkon (head charm) and put in a mouth piece. From my vantage point near the blue corner, a portion of the ring was obstructed by corner men and WKA officials stationed on the outside of the ring. As such, I did not see Helene approaching Natalie’s blue corner until she was already there – another charge of sorts – where she presented Kru Nat with an object, an offering, that I could not identify. Nathalie accepted it with a bow and it was handed to her second in the corner – her partner of over 10 years, Kelly. Then both women met the ref at the center of the ring, the sides of the mat cleared of all bodies except a few photographers in the corners, and the crowd hushed. The women nodded in agreement to whatever the ref asked them and then he stepped away. The bell rang and the women touched gloves.

The contact of their hands at the onset of the match was like two particles colliding and exploding out, rippling energy into the two opposing bodies which now bounced and hurled toward one another. I’ve witnessed Nathalie outside of the ring a number of times and had just spent a few hours observing her in wait of this event; I’d never seen anything of Helen prior to this event, but did have the opportunity to watch her and even speak with her for a few minutes before the fight. Neither woman is the same in the ring as she is outside of it, but the difference is not so great that it renders the woman unrecognizable – like Jekyl and Hyde or Clark Kent and Superman.  It is more like watching an amphibian that you previously had only seen walking on land suddenly slip into water and start swimming.  It’s the same animal with the same body, but every limb moves differently in order to be in each element.  It is a testiment to these fighters that they can contain both possibilities within themselves; the body in motion is navigated by the mind at rest, and the body in wait is postured by the potential and grace of the fighter’s mind.

Nathalie has an interesting tendency to jut her chin out, almost tauntingly, as she dances around her opponent. She keeps her body leaned far back, so her head is almost always out of range, and she locks her eyes onto the face of her opponent. She attacked with punches and beautiful kicks, and Helene seemed always ready, blocking and moving and coming in for counters. When I later looked at my footage, every snapshot of Helene blocking a kick was a poster-perfect example of what one should do. I can’t imagine how much training it must take to have such consistent and well timed reactions.

The fighters clinched repeatedly, whirling into the ropes with knees thrashing at each other. The referee grabbed the bowed ropes and yanked them in, launching the women back toward the center of the ring. At times Nathalie employed this method herself, leaning all her weight into the ropes to herself back, straight at Helene.

Between rounds I focused in on Kru Nat in her corner, as she sat semi-silhouetted and surrounded by her corners. She breathed evenly, nodded consciously as Mauricio – her first – couseled her.

By the fourth round both women had made adjustments to the other’s skills and tendencies. I knew the fight was five rounds, but had forgotten that each round was three minutes; from where I was neither woman betrayed any wear on their bodies – either through injury or fatigue. Near the end of round 4 Helene backed Nathalie into the blue corner and flew into her with high, strong kicks. Nathalie fought her way out and managed to drop Helene to the mat at the side of the ring. Nathalie stood over her as she oriented herself and got up, jumping immediately back into the fight. When Helene was struck she blocked and looked utterly unphased; when Nathalie got hit, she smiled with total joy.

Between rounds a ring girl – one blonde, one brunette – circled the ring with cards indicating the number of the upcoming round. This had occurred all night but, for whatever reason, these girls entering the ring between rounds of a female fight felt completely different than during male bouts. The role of these girls is essentially that of eye-candy and to inspire the crowd; really hot, really silent cheerleaders. But during the female matches, the girls felt different. Not out of place or even especially unnecessary, but more curious and slightly at risk. At one point I joked with my husband by play yelling to the ring girls: “Get out of the ring, it’s dangerous in there!” This was, in some sense, an effect of female-on-female violence, possibly inspired by the obvious disparity between the primped appeal of a high-heeled ring girl and the attraction of a trained and pumped-up female fighter. But the contrast between the two is also really interesting and itself a little appealing, in that the two sides of women, although dichotomized by the extremes of princess and warrior, are simultaneously represented in the ring and, even if only on a surface level, are mutually supportive. On the other hand, the purposeful eye-candy of the ring girl, coupled with the incidental sexualization of female fighters seems to collapse the two into a single image, almost forcing a heterosexual gaze to discriminate between the two.

The fifth round began with a flurry. Both women had burned into their stores of energy, but showing not the slightest indication that they’d already completed four rounds. The strikes were fast and powerful, both women dodged and blocked with accuracy and kept their feet light. The crowd cheered and held its breath; I looked across the front rows on all three sides of the ring and saw some cupping hands over their mouths, others throwing their fists up over their heads and shouting. The fighters covered every inch of the ring, keeping in range as if tethered to one another. When at last the final bell rang both women halted, smiled wide enough for it to be seen even in the back rows of the crowd, and they embraced. Helene literally lifted Nathalie up and carried her a few steps in the ring before planting her back down in celebration, both women keeping their arms around each other as they did a lap around the mat. The crowd stood, applauding and a few visibly weeping.

The After Fight

The judges scores were read and Helene was announced the definitive winner; while her hand rose as the victor, Nathalie nodded, smiled, and clapped her glove against her held hand. The MC announced that this was Nathalie’s retirement fight and first gave the microphone to Helene, who in a calm, almost soft voice she thanked the audience and Friday Night fights for the opportunity to fight. She announced that it was her first time in New York and that she was having great time, and then she expressed her gratitude and appreciation for Nathalie Fuz, how happy she was to have fought her. The mic was then handed to Nathalie, who gave her thanks and spoke words of sincere admiration and respect for Helene. She thanked Justin Blair for hosting her final fight at Friday Night Fights, where she’d began; and she thanked her partner, Kelly, her corner and training partner, Mauricio, and her trainers for more than a decade at Five Points.

The two women stood with their arms around each other’s shoulders, at times their heads bowing together as photographers snapped them and the announcer gave his final thanks to the crowd and sponsors and the lights went up.

The crowd dispersed rapidly in the next 20 minutes, while a glob of supporters gathered outside the blue corner of the ring, hugging and congratulating Nathalie. A crew of men set upon the ring, dismantling it with impressive speed and in the odd light of the house lights a number of the night’s fighters could be seen milling around.

I ran into Wendy Lao, a current student of Natalie’s, who said she’d gotten a bit choked up at the end of the fight, but looked inspired. She said that Nathalie and others would be meeting at a pub/restaurant down the block and invited me and my husband to join. I went to find my husband, ran into Florina in the women’s restroom, surrounded as she was by a flock of what seemed a dozen women all buzzing and giddy. Florina looked ecstatic and gave a hug as I congratulated her on her performance as we walked back out into the main hall. The last time I’d seen her she’d taken a small hiatus from Muay Thai training to focus on Jiu-Jitsu. She looked relaxed and revived, like someone stepping out of a hot spring after a long soak; I can only imagine what that fatigue and elation must do to the spirit.

My husband and I headed out into the cold and took a table at a diner just a few doors down from the church hall, hoping to get some food before meeting Nathalie and her friends at the pub. There was already another group from the venue – one of whom took a belt – sitting at a long row of tables across a short partition from the table where we had landed. We’d just gotten our food when Helene Garnett and her female corner with the tiny red-haired boy, and a man I hadn’t noticed before all walked in and took a table next to the other table of fighters, separated by a pillar the width of a large man.

It took a while for the group to get settled in their seats. The toddler must have been asleep in the stroller because there was no fussing with him at all. When the waiter came over to their table he asked if Helene was a fighter, pointing to the next table and stating that the guys over there won a belt. I could barely hear Helene, even though we sat only 10 feet away – she’s quite soft spoken – as she pulled out her trophy she explained to the waiter that she’d received the wrong one. Apparently she’d gotten a trophy that read “pin weight” (she’d just fought near 140 lbs) and “second place” (she’d won the main event). She didn’t seem upset about it; she seemed flatly aware of the mix up and found it either amusing enough to share it with this total stranger.

We headed back out into the night after my Greek Omelette and moved toward the pub to meet Nathalie. On our way down a dark, long Avenue block we passed the Thai filmmaker, her photographer, and a woman I’d not seen earlier in the night. We walked right by each other not registering who we were and I had to turn around and sprint up the block to catch them. We shook hands and expressed pleasure to have met each other. I stated, somewhat anecdotally, that Helene was at the diner up the block. Niramon wanted us to show her and we all walked back over together. She hurried in to get Helene to sign a legal release – we watched through the window as she approached the table; Helene looked perplexed for a few moments before smiling, wide, and putting her head down to sign the paper. Outside we chatted with the photographer and the woman I did not know, who it turned out, was his wife. She’d grown up outside of Lumpinee stadium but had never seen live Muay Thai until tonight, in America. My husband expressed surprise, which I too felt, but I commented that we live pretty near New York City and I’ve never seen the Yankees or the Mets in person. It would, however, be something if my first live baseball experience took place in Thailand with Thai players.

We said our goodbyes and parted ways, our new Thai friends heading down to their homes in Queens and we finally made it down to the pub. The intention was to go in and say thank you and quick goodnight. We had two dogs at home that’d been alone for many hours already.

Inside the pub we found a good, warm crowd, all huddled around dark-wood tables lighted by tea-light candles. Nathalie sat in the far corner, looking relaxed and joyous. There was a slightly disjointed feel to the group, likely due to the organization of seating all in a long row. When Nathalie saw me, however, she gave a huge smile and reached her hands – her lacquered nails blood-red in the candlelight – over the table and grasping mine. I thanked her for the evening, for letting me film her, offering her congratulations, explaining that we had to get back up to our dogs. She nodded and told me to call her regarding finishing the interview for the film. I said hello and goodbye to Wendy who sat directly next to Nat and then moved down the line to say goodnight to Kelly. She popped up from her seat and clasped my hand in hers as she led me through the pub to meet her two brothers, who live up by me in a town so small that one expects to know everybody in it or nobody at all; for me it’s the latter. We stayed a bit longer due to the good company chatting away before venturing one last time into the night and heading back home.

The ride is long and dark and wearily unwinding. The straight road, illuminated only by the narrow head beams and very few other cars, allows one to drift inward. I replayed images in my head from the night, recalling the echoes of excitement and the bodily aftertaste of anxiety during a fight. I felt inspired and exhausted, which seem symptoms of anticipation and compassion. I wondered how many others from the audience went home feeling like this – if it is part of the bargain in going to see an event like this, or whether it is a gift of the opportunities I’ve been so fortunate to be offered. This was the final fight for Nathalie, one of the best for both her and Helene, and the last fight of the year for Friday Night Fights. The event will resume in January, pulling together more fighters, introducing new audiences and loyal fans. In short, it goes on. With all I experienced in one night, it is one ripple on the surface of a rushing river. For the thousand people who glimpsed, it stands alone, if even for a moment.

[For more photos from the event to go Friday Night Fights Facebook page, hereAnd my album, here]

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