“Wait, punch out, c’mon, punch out!”
I hear the referee’s words faintly as I try to sneak in an uppercut that’s probably illegal but what the ref don’t see, don’t happen. “The Shark” finally shoves me off and as I jump back, I feel the blood running down my cheek again. I thought it had stopped bleeding, damn. The cut is deeper than I figured it was. It had come from a wicked right-cross in the fourth round that glanced over my left eyebrow and opened up some old scar tissue. Coach told me to keep my hand up, but I guess I just got a little cocky. We all get a little cocky sometimes. Somehow we always end up paying for it, too. Ever since then it’s been an uphill battle. I know I won Rounds 1 and 2, but I’m in this asshole’s backyard. Chances are the rounds are closer than I believe them to be.
“Oh! Time! Go to your corners.”
I jog over to my corner, hoping the crowd and the judges don’t realize how tired I actually am. Coach brings my stool out and I haven’t even finished sitting down before he starts on my eyebrow.
“What the hell was that, Lights?! You gave that round to him!” Coach spits at me, bringing the water bottle to my lips.
“Didn’t…didn’t see nothin’, Rich,” I say, taking in a deep breath after a quick sip.
“Well you better start seeing something, its Round 8 coming up and you’re LOSING. You hear what I just said? You’re going to lose everything.”
￼Not an overstatement. This is my comeback fight, my return to glory. A 43-year old light- heavyweight contender ain’t much to get hyped about, but my 52-2 record earned me this title shot. You can’t tell me nothing. Sure, I’m not George Foreman, but I can hold my own. And I’ve held it, too.
My left hook is the stuff of legend. Or was.
I’d taken a three-year hiatus before the fight to help Emily out. The world thought I had retired. I don’t blame ‘em, though. I came off a knockout loss that almost put me in a coffin, so…yeah. I relinquished my belts and traded a ring for a hospital room. I only started training again after they offered me the shot at the title, around the same time Emily went into partial- remission. They put me in five consecutive fights with a bunch of punch-happy rookies to make my comeback.
I blew past ‘em like a hurricane.
Now, standing across from me, rolling his shoulders, there’s Henry “The Shark” Walker. The IBF, WBC, and RING 175-lb champion is a hulking beast of a man who is pushing
27-years old while I’m knocking 44’s door down.
But this is my chance, my last hope for Emily. Can’t let something like age be a factor. These days, the boxing world figures I’m just a poor, washed-up old wolf that had won a few battles in his day but has to hang up the claws sooner than later. But I can’t. I won’t. Those hospital bills, man, can’t have Emily worrying about that shit. And as I look from my stool at the flashing cameras and blinding lights and hear the deafening jeers and cheers inside the Mandalay Bay Arena, all I can think about is how at home I feel here.
My wife is dying in a bed nearly 800 miles away and I’m here. But I’m doing what I have to, to save her.
￼So then why do I feel so guilty?
Is it because I’m enjoying it just a little bit too much, this comeback?
Is it because I jumped at the chance for one so that I could go out with glory?
Or maybe it’s because the stress of me fighting might have caused Emily’s cancer to come back?
So go ahead. Call me selfish. The truth is, some people are just born to do things. You can’t just expect them to up and surrender the only thing they know how to do just because they’re not doing it well enough, just because they’ve reached that time. And compound it with the chance to save my wife?
No, no, I am not done. I am not giving it all up just yet.
The wolf has returned to reclaim his den. The smell of blood and sweat is my aromatherapy. The ring is my playground.
I wonder if the young Walker feels the same.
“So…so did you find out how much it’ll all cost?”
“At least thirty-grand to stay. That’s if we’re lucky. God knows how much more on top of that these bloodsuckers wanna add,” I said.
Emily sighed. She placed her hand on her balding head and massaged her brow. God, that ring was so cheap. I’ve seen vending machine-joints shine brighter than it does. I wanted to buy her another one. If I won.
“Ugh…we don’t have money to spend like that! What about the insurance?”
￼“Didn’t even cover half. We’ve got no choice, babe. It’s not like we have chemo pills lying around at home.”
“There are cheaper treatments though,” she said. Her eyes were watering. “Other alternatives and stuff-”
“No. I said I would get you the best. Nothing else.”
“Okay, and how do you expect us to pay for all of this?”
Damn it. I didn’t want to talk about it. Not right then.
“I…I was gonna tell you—” I took a deep breath. Even fragile in that too-white, too-clean bed, she still scared the hell out of me. Only woman I’d ever been afraid of. I loved that about her. “—I got a title shot. Two-mil with the win, $850,000 guaranteed with an L. That’s more than enough.”
She stared at me for awhile, like I had just told her how many days she had left.
Then she grabbed my hand and manically started massaging my knuckles.
“A fight? No! No, you told me you were done. Don’t you remember what happened the last time?”
I couldn’t handle the pleading in her voice, the look on her face. I knew what she was thinking. Our roles were reversed three years ago, when it was me lying in a bed not unlike this one, holding onto her hand.
“I…I know, I know. It’s…it’s just this one last time. This isn’t about me anymore, this is you. I’d fight anyone and anything for you. You have to let me do this.”
Her grip squeezed on my hand. She was still strong, still strong. “Just promise you’ll come back to me. I won’t die alone.”
￼“You’re not gonna die. Not while I can still throw a decent punch. Not while I’m still standing.”
We stared at each other. I tried to smile but my mouth was being a bitch. A large part of me was really, truly in it solely to get her the money. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t dying for a chance to get back in the ring. I stared at her, wondering if she knew. Wondering if she knew that I had already accepted the fight months ago. Wondering if she knew I had been training at night, when she was sleeping. Wondering if that’s why we there, in that hospital room, in the first place.
“Promise me,” she said again.
Rounds 8 through 11 had felt a dream. Walker had kept trying to open up the cut again and I hit him and ran, ‘cause that’s all I could do. The last thing I want is a TKO because of a goddamned cut. Can’t let Emily see me lose like that. Oh yeah, I know I’m losing. I’ve spent too much time trying to counter while protecting my eye than actually putting up a fight. I’ve never heard Coach scream at me so loudly.
“Lights, this is it. The 12th round. You knock this motherfucker on his ass or you lose! That’s all I can tell you.”
I love this man.
Three chimes, the start of final round. Why does the ringside bell sound like military trumpets?
￼I swear I think I see Emily’s face in the crowd, but that’s impossible. She’s lying in a hospital bed, hooked to a machine and watching me get washed in Las Vegas.
No, I won’t let that happen. I’ve been through too much shit over the past three years to come back and lose like this. I’ll fight to the last even if my eye goes blind from the blood.
“The Shark” smirks at me as I start throwing feeler jabs. He keeps moving away. He knows the fight’s in the bag, so why does he have to keep fighting? He can just cruise. Pussy.
I won’t let that happen. No.
I charge him, pushing him into the ropes, employing every ounce of dirty boxing I had ever learned. I want him uncomfortable. I want him angry.
Angry boxers make mistakes.
There’s ninety seconds left in the round and I can tell that now, finally, he wants to fight again. Perfect, because I want to make it a fight. He may be bigger, but he’s not faster.
He learns this when I hit him with my left-cross.
He learns some more when I rock him with a big right hand over the top.
And he can’t deny me when I duck under his lazy right hook and come back around to fire the hardest left hook I’ve ever thrown.
That left hook could cure cancer.
The referee’s 10-count takes almost ten years, but when you’ve been doing this for as long as I have, you pick things up, like knowing when a man is knocked down and when he’s knocked out.
Their eyes tend to look toward Heaven when they get knocked out. But Walker’s don’t.
￼He rises just as the ref reaches the end of the count, stumbling as he does so. But he raises his hands. And the fight is over.
The fact that I’m not leaving the new champ takes me a second to comprehend. I’m still high off my own adrenaline, high off my own power. It’s a problem among pugilists. I’ve gotten my guaranteed money, more than enough to pay for the treatment but I still start to feel the air of failure creeping up on me.
But then Coach and the rest of the team lift me into the air and I realize that maybe, in some way, I’ve won. No, not the title, not the fight, but I don’t care about that. I’ve made my point. I can make out the crowd’s roar thanks to my good ear, and I know that they’re cheering for me. Only for me. A sick compound of tears and blood is streaming down my face and I can hardly see it all, but I know now. My training camp knows now. Henry “The Shark” Walker, even in victory, knows too.
Everyone in the world knows. Emily knows…yeah. She knows.