Matthew McConaughey on One Fight He Couldn’t Back Down From

"I stand up, I point at him, I point at myself, and I turn and go to the pit."

Matthew McConaughey on One Fight He Couldn’t Back Down From

"I stand up, I point at him, I point at myself, and I turn and go to the pit."

What hasn’t Matthew McConaughey done at this point in his career? In over two decades, the smooth-talking Texan and car pitchman has starred in legal thrillers, teen movies, romcoms, action tentpoles, comedies, sci-fi epics, and, yes—courtesy of the great McConaissance of 2014—Oscar fare.

This summer he adds a new genre to his already ironclad résumé: a fantasy epic. The Dark Tower, released in August, is an adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name and stars Idris Elba as a gunslinger seeking to find the titular tower and save his dimension from destruction by a villain called The Man in Black, played by McConaughey.

In real life, of course, McConaughey is seriously good guy. He’s got three kids with wife Camila Alves—which, by the way, he nailed his proposal—and has put forth considerable resources into his charity, the Just Keep Livin Foundation. But that doesn’t mean he shies away from a fight. Here, the Oscar-winning Interstellar and Dallas Buyer’s Club star espouses on the one event—a wrestling match in the African desert—that taught him the importance of rising to any challenge.

“I’ve had a romance with Africa for a while. Still do. Believing in evolution, because it’s the mother country, because I love its music, I dream about it a lot. I went back to Mali 3 weeks before I filmed [2005’s] Sahara. I’d been there once before, and this time I did the exact same trip, visited the same villages, met the same chiefs, met my friend Isa, who was the same guy I met on the first trip. I told people I was a writer and a boxer. Well, nobody seemed to care about the writer half. But some Malian guys were interested in the boxing half.

“Actually, Malians like to wrestle. That’s what they do. So this one night, word has spread about a strong white man named Dowda. In their language, Dowda’s my middle name, David. At sundown, these two kids, like 22, come up and start jabbering at me. I go to my friend, ‘Isa, they jacking with me?’ Isa goes, ‘Yes. They say they are the best wrestlers in all the village. They want to challenge Dowda.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’ Isa goes, ‘Yes, but I do not think they really want to challenge Dowda, because they talk too much.’

“Now these two have built up a little following. People have gathered around to see the evening’s entertainment. They laugh a lot over there; they’re a good-natured people. Just curious. So there’s a group of about 40 people, and they’re laughing and going on. All of a sudden people start yelling, and these two kids, zoom, take off running. Why? Because who just showed up? Michel, the real champion of the village. Boom, boom, boom, he walks over to me. He’s shorter than me, but real stocky, like a tree trunk. He points to me, then points to himself, then points over at this big sandpit. When he did just that—that was the challenge­ everybody scares going, Who-o-o-a-a!

“My heart starts beating, dude. I go, ‘You gotta be kiddin’.’ Over there you can speak English to yourself, because they don’t understand what you’re saying. But then I thought, This is perfect. So I stand up, I point at him, I point at myself, and I turn and go to the pit. Everybody goes nuts!

“I’ve got no shirt, no shoes, I’ve got these beads hanging out of my beard. I don’t know what I’m about to get into. But I’m on the trip now, dude! You can’t say no to anything like that, If you don’t do it, you’d always wonder, you know?

“So we get in this dirt pit. People are circling around us. The chief walks out and places us in the middle, standing in front of each other. The champ puts his right hand on my left hip and looks at me. So I put my right hand on his left hip. Then he puts his left arm on my right hip, and I put my left arm on his right hip. Then he lowers his head really hard, wham, right into my right collarbone and starts rubbing his forehead against my shoulder, so I rub my head on him and we’re in this scrum. The chief comes in and puts his hands on both our heads, says something, then backs away.

“We went for about 2 minutes. I didn’t pin him, he didn’t pin me. I got hold of his leg one time, but he had these big ol’ tree trunk legs. And I noticed after that first round, all right, this has a lot to do with leverage. Well, the chief splits us up after one round. Now one of the beads I got in my chin has been ripped out, my chin’s bleeding, my ankles are bleeding, my knees are bleeding, and I’m dripping sweat. The chief walks up and holds number two in the air. I look over at Michel. He’s just standing there stone-faced, looking at me. Not a whisper of perspiration on him. I’m like, Oh shit. Here we go.

“So we grab each other’s waist again, get into the scrum, and we’re off. We spin around, flip over. I finally get on top of him. I’m trying to keep my head from getting locked up, and we go for about 2 minutes. The chief comes in and calls it. I get up, and now I’m soaking wet. Talk about physical and mental perspiration. So the chief raises my hand, the crowd roars. Chief raises his hand, the crowd roars. He turns to me, shakes my hand, and looks me in the eye, then takes off. So I’m walking out of the pit and people are going ‘Dowda! Dowda!’ And I’m like, I gotta sit down, man.

“So the next day, Isa and I are walking. I go, ‘Isa, how’d it go last night? How’d I do?’ He just starts laughing and says, ‘You did very, very well.’

“‘I thought I did well, too,’ I said. ‘Definitely held my own, you know?’ He says, ‘No, no. Everybody believe Michel have Dowda on back in 10 seconds.’

“I’m like, ‘Really? He’s big and stocky, but I—’

“‘No, no, no,” Isa says. ‘Michel not only champion of this village. Michel champion of this village and four villages back.’ He starts laughing. ‘Ye-e-e-s-s, Dowda. You come back, we make some money!’

“Good-hearted people, man. And here’s the thing, as Isa and I kept on talking about it. How I got absorbed into that culture, by that tribe, was not because I ‘handled’ Michel­—that’s a specific word they use to describe wrestling. I got respect over there as soon as I accepted the challenge. It did not matter if I got slammed on my back in 10 seconds. As soon as I turned to the pit when Michel challenged me, I was fuckin’ in.

“See, they’re not about win or lose, in the same way that Malians say this: ‘It is not about right or wrong. It is about, do you understand?'”

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