The boxer took long walk to the ring alone; his trainer, manager, and corner guys forgotten for the moment. At the end of the long dark tunnel, he could see the blisteringly bright kleig lights that flooded the ring. In his gut, he felt the butterflies slowly turning to lead and settling down into one big cold lump in his belly. He could just barely hear the hysterical ego-boosts and reassurances of his crew over the thundering of the blood in his ears.
The walk ended sooner than he expected. Emerging from the darkness of the tunnel, he looked around the arena and saw more empty seats than filled. If this sort of thing kept up, he would have to find a second job - maybe as a bodyguard for some government man or something. At this level, how much the boxer made depended entirely on how much the promoter raked in. Low ticket sales meant a smaller pot; sometimes smaller than could pay for all the painkillers. But what could a boxer do? He slammed his fists together unconsciously, reminding himself of the only thing he could
do. The few people there thought it meant eagerness to rumble and responded with a straggly cheer.
On the ring, the boxer felt the springy boards under his feet - bouncing around a few times to check the responsiveness of the planks underneath the tarp. Too much bounce or too little would tire his legs and slow him down. He wondered how fast his opponent would be; how hard his punches; how tough his jaw. The bastard looked confident. Hell, the boxer thought, if I were six years younger than my opponent, I'd be confident too. All of sudden, he felt the age of his bones.
He took one last look around the ring and saw the usual faces: the local boxing commission rep, fanning himself with the programme, bored to tears; the has been sports reporter still looking for that flash of brilliance in the ring that he could write about with his florid prose; Manolo, the old promoter who first found him scrapping with other kids in the alley behind the old gym. The boxer wished Manolo hadn't come today; but Manolo always came. And then there was a kid he had never seen before, and wouldn't have noticed either if it hadn't been for the wide grin plastered across his face like it was painted on.
The first round came and went: the getting-to-know-you round. His opponent surprisingly mature, not rushing in to mix it up, but keeping his distance, getting the range of the jabs and sticks, bobbing and weaving with annoying energy. The boxer got in one good punch, tagging his opponent on the side of the head. But his opponent just shook it off and smiled. Is that the best you've got old man?
The second round brought hell into the four cornered ring. The boxer could barely see the punches coming - left, right, over, under, and across. The bell came just in time to save him the embarassment of showing the crowd that his knees had turned to jelly. He looked around the arena and saw the kid again; that smile unnerved him.
He almost didn't hear the bell for the third round had it not been for his manager practically pulling the stool out from under him. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, like swimming in syrup. His opponent leered at him and came in for the kill. He saw the fist coming and decided he wouldn't dodge. Instead, he forced all the muscles in his neck to relax and waited for the punch to connect. Whatta way to end a career, he thought.
Undercard ... local golden gloves champ ... regional ... olympian ... turned pro and became world welterweight champion in three years ... moved weight classes and made world bantamweight champion in a year ... national hero for a day and five years ... and now, canvass kisser for the first time in his life.
I'm just too old to keep on doing this,the boxer thought. Then the punch came, and the rest of the world went.
The boxer woke up in the empty locker room, an ice pack on his head, and a paper bag on his chest. He looked around and saw the kid again, only this time, there was no smile. "Good fight," the kid said, flicking a cigarette into some dark corner of the room. "Mr. Cruz won big because of you tonight." The boy moved to the exit and pointed at the bag. "He says thanks," the kid smiled again - wide, cheesy, and complicit. " Thanks, Manny."