Editor’s note: This is the first fiction writing I’ve done in quite awhile (which is one of the reasons the blog posts have been so sporadic lately). It’s not a perfect short story, but after going back and doing some editing, I’ve come to realize I like it very much. Fair warning: It’s long, especially for something to read on the Internet. Hope you enjoy it.
By B.W. Mathews
You wanna blame somebody, blame my corner. They coulda thrown in the towel anytime. But they didn’t, so there I was, swinging away with Johnny the Jet. Johnny was supposed to fight for the title next, right? And now he’s not fighting anyone ever again. That poor sonofabitch. I fucked up his career and mine, all at the same time. What I said before, about blaming my corner? Don’t do that. There’s enough blame to go around. Start with me. I ain’t much anymore. I fought my way up from a no-name prospect all the way to a fight for the cruiserweight title. When the champ laid me out clean with a left hook in round three, I shoulda learned my lesson right there. But I didn’t. Instead I went down to light heavy, and won a couple of fights. Even though I’d been KO’ed once, I still had some name value. They put me in with Harley MacGregor for the light heavyweight title, and I did a little better. I lasted seven rounds before MacGregor turned my lights out. That’s how I came to fight Johnny the Jet—Johnny McDaniel, if you don’t follow the fights. I’m still a name, right? “Black” Jack Harrison, but everybody calls me Blackjack. Two-time world title contender. But now that I’m past thirty and on my way down the ladder, I’m just a name. That’s what they call me behind the scenes—a name opponent. In other words, I’m a guy the up-and-comers get to face before they go on to fight for the title. A guy who won’t ever fight for the title again; a guy they expect to lose. I still got a little pride, though, and that’s why you can blame me for what happened. The Jet pissed me off—and that’s why he ought to take some of the blame, too. We came out in the first round throwing stiff jabs. The lights were hot overhead, and I’d already worked up a sweat on the way to the ring. The Jet had the edge on me in speed, but I had him in power, and I let him know that early on. He threw a lazy right cross that I picked off with my left forearm, and I sunk a hook right into his gut. Muscle memory, pure and simple—it was a move I’ve done a million times in sparring, and a million more on the heavy bag. I never saw a black guy turn green before, but Johnny backed off quick before I could follow up. I wasn’t gonna follow up, but he didn’t know that. When we engaged again, we went through the same sequence. His muscles gleamed with sweat, and his movement was like a fine Swiss timepiece—compact, with nothing wasted. He was something to see, that kid. This time I pulled my body blow a little, but Johnny flinched back and away again. He shook his head like he was confused. That’s when he got on his horse and started picking me apart with those quick, annoying jabs. I let my hands drift down a little, and pretty soon he got a trickle of blood from underneath my right eye. Sweat began immediately to sting the miniscule cut, and I knew my corner was going to have some work to do at the break. Right before the end of the round, the Jet pressured me against the ropes, and I tied him up. Johnny McDaniel was a dangerous fighter, and I was supposed to give him six good rounds of work. Getting knocked out in the first was a definite no-no. But the sonofabitch wasn’t having it. He tripped me and threw me over his side in some kind of rolling hiplock. I hit the canvas hard and popped up like a jack-in-the-box. “The fuck?” I yelled at him. “This ain’t WrestleMania.” The bell rang before I could get to him, and the ref stepped between us. “Motherfucker better come out to fuckin’ fight next round,” the Jet screamed at me. “I’mma fuckin’ kill you if you don’t.” I said something back to him, but by that time, my corner was in the ring and trying to lead me back to my stool. Eventually I let them. They looked at my face enough to know the cut wasn’t bad, and then went to work with a Q-tip and some Vaseline to try to stop the bleeding. Sally Ray, my trainer, put an icepack on my neck. The lights were hot and I was sweating. I could smell the crowd, that kind of good Vegas crowd that still gets dressed up to see the fights. The ring in front of me was blue and stained with blood—someone else’s—from an earlier fight. Everything was coming in focus. I felt good. I remember thinking If he wants a goddamn fight, I’m gonna give him one. At some point the ref came over and told my corner that he was deducting a point from the Jet for the illegal throw. When the bell rang, I was off my stool and charging for the center of the ring. I hurt the Jet bad within the first thirty seconds. It was that right to the body again, followed up with a pair of left hooks—one upstairs and one to the liver. Johnny sagged, but I didn’t let him fall. I clinched and bulled him backwards into the turnbuckles. As soon as I was sure he wasn’t gonna fall down, I threw a flurry to the body. None of the shots would have even broken an egg, but they came so fast that they looked good to the crowd. The Jet recovered quickly, taking the last few on his elbows and upper arms, so I circled away. He came after me then, and for the first time I understood why the kid was so good. He was mad, but he was in control. He put a mouse under my left eye, to match the one on the right. Then he got a trickle of blood from my nose, and my vision started to blur. Ever been hit in the nose? The tears are hot and immediate, and there’s nothing you can do to hold them back. The Jet backed me into a corner and kept the shots coming. I had my guard up, but he was relentless. One of his hooks missed my face, but the elbow that followed it was right on the money. It laid my cheek open in a shower of blood. The whole time he was hitting me, the Jet was talking to me. “You think you gonna throw this fight, motherfucker? I’m gonna fucking kill you in this goddamn ring. I don’t need you to throw no fucking fight. I kill you all night long, you honky piece of shit.” I didn’t say anything back to him. I didn’t have anything to say, and I didn’t want to waste my breath. The longer I stayed in the corner, the better his odds of knocking me out. I did the only thing I could think of to get him off me. I hit him in the groin as hard as I could. Johnny screamed and clutched at his crotch, jumping up and down in frustration and pain. The ref stepped between us—just like he should have—and started to admonish me. He directed me to a neutral corner, and I stood there to catch my breath for a minute while the Jet made sure the family jewels were still in the safe. They were, and eventually the ref restarted us, this time deducting a point from me. He warned us both about dirty tactics and told us to fight. We did, each of us working to our strengths. He stung me with jabs, but I bulled in and worked the body with half-speed hooks and straight rights. They weren’t doing any damage, but they were exposing the flaws in the Jet’s defense. In other words, I was pissing him off even more than I was earlier. When the bell rang, neither of us wanted to go back to our corners. Johnny the Jet was set on murdering me right there in front of eight thousand spectators. All I wanted to do was make sure I earned the thirty grand his manager had offered me to throw the fight and look good in the process. I sat down on my stool and watched the slow drip of blood from my nose to the canvas. All I was supposed to do was give Johnny McDaniel six good rounds. Then I could drop my hands a little more and let him find my jaw with a nice overhand right or maybe a left hook. I’d fall, take the ten count, and move on to the next payday. The Jet would get a shot at the title. Maybe even win it. He was good. The ten-second buzzer sounded to tell the cornermen to get out of the ring. I pushed to my feet and met the Jet head on. Tried to think about what my corner had said, but couldn’t remember a word. Flashbulbs were popping behind my eyes, and I knew Johnny was landing some good combos. I was so deep into the fight that I couldn’t even feel it when he hit me. I kept seeing openings, but I hesitated to let my hands go. The world weaved around me, and the only thing that I understood were Johnny McDaniel’s fists. I was having trouble breathing, but in a little while it wouldn’t matter. Eventually I had to punch back. If I didn’t, Johnny was gonna make good on his promise to end me right there. He swung a wild hook that he was sure would land. Why wouldn’t it? Everything else he threw was landing. But this time I ducked and drove to the body again. A four-punch combination scored, and I knew I had him hurt. I went to the head with a right cross and a left uppercut that didn’t have a lot on it. His head snapped back anyway. He was dazed. I clinched again, and this time it was my turn for some trash talk. “Think you’re gonna be the champ? MacGregor’s gonna eat you alive, kid. Your defense is awful. You’re soft in the gut—” I backed off and went to the body two more times, and then clinched again. “—and the head.” I cuffed him hard on the ear and watched his knees buckle. The bell sounded and I went back to my stool. He staggered to the wrong corner. His seconds had to lead him back to his seat. “Blackjack, you sure you know what you’re doing?” Sally Ray said to me while the cut man worked on the laceration on my cheek. Sally Ray knew about the thirty K. Hell, he’s the one who set it up. “You don’t wanna piss this kid off. He’s hitting you a lot.” He gave me some water to rinse. I spit it out into a big plastic bucket. “Fuck him,” I said around my mouthpiece. My face was swollen, and I knew it would hurt the next day. It always did. “You hear him in there? He wants a goddamn war.” Sally Ray wouldn’t look me in the eye. “Don’t do it. You want to fight smart with this one.” Translation: We’ve got a lot of money riding on this. Don’t blow it. “He don’t want it,” I said. I wished I could spit my mouthpiece out. But that’s usually a bad idea in the middle of a fight. Sally Ray shook his head, showing me he understood that the Jet didn’t want me to throw the fight. “I don’t care what this motherfucker wants,” he said. “You fight smart. You do not go to war. You understand me? Fight smart.” Translation: Stick with the game plan. Drop in the sixth round, just like we talked about. Goddamn it. “I can take him,” I said. “He can’t defend for shit.” “Watch the overhand right.” Translation: Let him hit you with his big punch. The buzzer sounded and my cornermen scrambled outta the ring. I went back out into the middle of the canvas and let Johnny the Jet McDaniel beat the hell out of me some more. Fixing a fight is easy. There’s a million ways to do it. But the easiest is this: A fight promoter approaches your manager and says “My fighter is looking for someone who can give him a good workout.” Your manager, if he’s smart, might answer “I got a guy could give your boy five or six rounds.” The promoter will say “Six sounds good.” And from there on out, all they have to negotiate is price. The other fighter might not ever know the fight was fixed. In fact, I can tell you that the Jet didn’t know until I took it easy on his gut after that first hard shot. After that, he was pissed off. Sally Ray got the money up front, which could be a problem. The way the Jet was going at me, I had to defend myself. He was landing some hard shots, but I’m a hard-headed Irishman who doesn’t have the sense to know when he’s been hurt. So he kept pouring it on, and I kept doing just enough to keep the scorecards close. I wanted it to be respectable before I took the dive. There were other fights out there to lose. He threw another hook and followed it with his elbow again, the dirty bastard, and this time he caught my nose with it. The bone crunched easily, just as it had done the other four times it was broken. But now I was the one that was pissed off. He was already beating me. He didn’t have to play dirty. Ah well, as Sally Ray used to tell me when I was on the way up, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I took the Jet’s lead left on the shoulder and bulled in close. I managed to step down hard on his instep. Instead of moving my foot away, though, I kept it planted on top of his boot. There was nowhere to go. A tall, rangy kid like the Johnny the Jet liked to keep his opponents on the outside. Trouble was, the higher you get up the card, the harder it is to dictate where the fight stays. And the kid wasn’t good enough to keep me off of him. Somebody once called the art of infighting “like fighting in a phone booth.” They don’t have many phone booths anymore, but the principle is this sound. Every movement takes place within an eighteen-inch radius. My punches were short, sharp, and vicious. He hated being hit in the body, so I unloaded there. When his hands came down, I went left hook and right cross to his head. The cross split his eyebrow, and the sight of the Jet’s blood cascading down his face made me kick things into overdrive. Back to the body, back to the head. I could see the kid’s hands drop, so I teed off. I didn’t hear the bell. Didn’t know the round was over until the ref and my cornermen dragged me away from the Jet. Sally Ray was in my ear the whole time I sat on the stool. “Whaddaya doing?” He said. “Ten-round fight. You’re gonna punch yourself out. It’s only the fourth round. You’re on the wrong side a thirty to be doing that shit.” Translation: You dumbass. You better come out tired in the next round. Dance around. Let the kid jab you a few times. “I can take him out,” I said. Or that’s what I think I said. My jaw was sore and my nose was laid flat against my cheekbone. It’s a miracle Sally Ray could understand me. I could see the fight doctor—the guy hired by the athletic commission to make sure the fighters could safely ply their trade—talking to the Jet and examining the gash I’d put in his eyebrow. His corner was working feverishly to stop the bleeding while the Jet was talking to the doc, trying to keep him from stopping the fight. Eventually I was the doctor nod to the jet and climb out of the ring. I blew out a deep breath. I didn’t realize I’d been holding it in. We were going to be allowed to continue. “I don’t care what you think,” Sally Ray was saying to me. “Remember your camp. Remember, goddamn it. We trained for ten rounds, and you’re gonna punch yourself out by six. What the fuck is wrong with you? You don’t chase a guy younger than you. Let him come to you.” Translation: Remember the deal. You’re going down in six, no matter whether you can beat the chump or not. Let the Jet dictate the action in the upcoming round. The only problem was now the Johnny the Jet McDaniel was scared. He knew what I knew. He knew what I’d showed him. He might be the better boxer, but I was the better fighter, and he didn’t want anything else to do with me. He wouldn’t come at me, and when I came to him, he circled away. With a minute gone in the fifth round, neither one of us had landed a blow, and the crowd was getting restless. I had no choice. If I was gonna let the kid win this round, I had to walk him down. Walking a guy down in the ring is sometimes difficult. It’s cutting off the ring gradually, backing an evasive fighter into a corner where you can unload on him. I didn’t plan to unload on the Jet. Just the opposite, really. I was gonna give him his confidence back, only he didn’t know it yet. Sally Ray didn’t know it either. He was shouting from my corner, but I didn’t pay him any attention. I flicked lazy jabs designed to do no more than back the Jet into a corner. Like any good fighter, he had ring instincts. He could sense when he was getting near the ropes. He thought I was coming to finish him, and it was fight or get knocked out. To Johnny’s credit, he fought. He caught me solid in the ribs, and I bent just a little so that the uppercut that followed caught me in the chest rather than the chin. I wobbled backward, and he came with an overhand right that landed on my forehead. Good enough. There are places you’d rather take a hard shot, and the forehead is one of them. The arch of your skull is probably the strongest bone in your body, designed that way by God or whomever to keep precious brain matter from leaking out. But I could’ve won an Oscar. I went down to one knee, then slowly rolled onto my side. I had to beat the ten-count, but that was easy. Or it would’ve been if the Jet had kept his composure. The ref pointed him to a neutral corner and then turned back to me. I was on my hands and knees, ready to lunge to my feet at six or seven, ready to take the standing eight count. The Jet wasn’t having any of that. Quick as his namesake, he flashed around the referee and launched a boot right into my side. I felt the ribs give way and tumbled over onto my back, trying to get my breath. The Jet was on top of me before I could do that, though, hammering hard shots to my face. He straddled me and rained punches down on my unprotected head until someone—his corner, I think—pulled him off of me. Thank God someone did. They saved my life. My corner got me to my feet and somehow maneuvered me to my stool. I don’t know how they did it. I wasn’t any help. The ref followed us to the corner, which is never a good sign. “I’m stopping it,” he said. “Disqualifying McDaniel. You got a problem with that?” Sally Ray is a lot of things, mostly a sonofabitch, but he’s also a quick thinker. “Hell yes I got a problem with that,” he said. “My guy’s kicking his ass. The Jet wants the fight thrown out. He don’t want to get knocked the fuck out. We’re here to fight, goddamn it.” The ref wasn’t having it. “Your guy’s hurt. He can’t even fucking breathe. How’s he supposed to fight? I’m stopping it. He goes down in the record books as the winner.” Sally Ray shook his head. “You get the doc over here,” he said. “If he clears Blackjack, let ‘em continue. I want to see that asshole flat on his back.” The ref looked more than a little dubious, but finally relented. He motioned for the doctor. Sally turned to me and whispered in my ear. “I know you’re hurt, kid, but you gotta come out for the next round. You do what you gotta do, but you make sure that doc lets you continue.” I nodded. I couldn’t really say anything, not with my ribs hurting the way they were. The doc—an older man in a sharkskin suit and rubber gloves on his hands—came over to me. “You sure you want to continue?” “Yes, sir.” I squeezed the words out through tight lips. “That kick looked like it hurt.” “It did.” I got some breath back. “But it’s mostly embarrassing. I don’t want to stop like that. If I win, I want to earn it.” The doc watched me breathe—or mostly pretend to breathe—for a moment, then stepped back and conferred with the referee. After that, he climbed down out of the ring again. Must have been a lot of exercise for a guy his age. The ref came back over to my corner. “Doc says you can fight. I’m deducting a point from McDaniel, but I’m gonna have you on a short leash out there. Rules say you get a five-minute recovery period after a foul like that. Already used about three minutes of it. When I call for you to come out of your corner, we pick up where we left off—about a minute left in the fifth.” I nodded and spent the rest of the recovery period trying to breathe while my corner worked on me. Sally Ray told me to keep my distance, which I thought was pretty obvious advice. But I was getting madder and madder while I was sitting on my stool trying to catch my breath and never really being able to. When the ref called for the fight, I shrugged off my stool and crouched low, my left arm down low over my broken ribs. I even switched stances to southpaw, to keep my left side father away from the Jet. You ever see a cat playing with a bird whose wing has been broken? That’s what the Jet was like out there in that last minute of the fifth round. He had me hurt, and he knew it. It was a good time to him. He jabbed me a couple of times, danced around a little, threw a light combo here and there. There wasn’t much I could do about it. What the hell. I was going down in the sixth round anyway. About six seconds before the round ended, he clinched me up and tried to go back to my ribs. I clubbed him as hard as I could in the balls and watched him turn away and puke in a neutral corner. Take that, showoff. The bell rang as the ref signaled that he was deducting another point from me. “Do it again, and I’ll DQ you,” he said, but he was grinning. Under his breath, so just I could hear it, he said, “It serves him right.” My corner didn’t say much, just made sure I knew the sixth round was coming up. My breath was tearing through my lungs in staggering gasps, and sweat was pouring down my body in sheets. “Gonna need the doc after this,” I heard somebody say. It took me a minute to realize it was me. That sixth round. I still don’t know what to say about it. I don’t know where I got the balls, but I met the Jet head-on in the middle of the ring, still standing southpaw. I tagged him with the right, but he was younger and for all of the damage I’d done to him, he wasn’t the one with the broken ribs. His shots came quicker and quicker, and I began to wilt backward. “Oh no you don’t,” he mumbled through his mouthpiece. He clinched me and shoved me into the corner, throwing bombs. I tried to slump down, but he pressed his weight against me, keeping me upright. He wouldn’t let me fall. I was ready to take the 10 count and get out of there, but the Jet was fueled up on anger and adrenaline, and he was ready to go. I took most of his punches on my arms and shoulders, but the occasional blast got through. I could hear the roar of the crowd as they sensed the end was near. The ref was watching us closely, and I thought he might step in at any minute. He didn’t, though, and the crowd’s buzz began to peak. The Jet went downstairs, then, ripping away at my left arm, trying to get me to move it. He knew I was hurt, but he wanted to inflict a little more pain before I got away to the safety of the canvas. When one of his shots got through, I felt myself turning green and empty. The world tilted, and I didn’t have to fake the fall I was about to take. But something in my body wouldn’t let me fall. To tell the truth, I don’t know what it was. Anger, sure. Heart? Maybe. I doubt it, though. I’d sold out on my heart a long time ago. The Jet fight wasn’t the first one I’d agreed to throw. Maybe it was something else. In the ring with Johnny the Jet, I realized that he and I were two sides of the same coin. And that coin gets tossed up, up into the air, but it always comes down again, doesn’t it? The Jet was on his way up, and I was on my way down. He wasn’t good enough to win the title. And pretty soon he’d find himself in the same situation as me. On the downside of a career, taking less and less money to throw fights and build new contenders. So I hit him. I hit him hard, an uppercut to the throat. The Jet stalled. I hit him in the same place, and again. He was frozen in place. And one more time. I felt his Adam’s apple collapse and heard his windpipe close. It was the only thing I had left in my tank, and it staggered the Jet backward toward the center of the ring. I slumped down onto my ass in the corner, watched Johnny the Jet struggle to the ropes and try to keep his feet underneath him. He couldn’t breathe, and his body was clamping up, trying to vomit, trying to do anything to just fucking clear the dead air in his lungs. The ref didn’t see what kind of trouble he was in. Neither did his corner. By the time the referee counted me out and called for the bell, the Jet was on the mat and turning gray. That’s when the ring became more of a circus than it had been all night. The Jet’s corner was working on him, the ringside doctor was trying to clear people away, and the TV cameramen were getting in the way as much as they possibly could. The doc finally got the scrum pulled away, but by then it was too late. Johnny the Jet was declared the winner of the fight, even as he lay on the canvas dying. We got out of there. Sally Ray led me up the aisle and my cut man followed. In the dressing room I collapsed on the floor. My ribs weren’t just broken. They were shattered. Sally Ray called for the EMTs, but they took their time coming. Everyone was working on the Jet, trying to get him airborne again. That was a flight everyone was going to miss. Eventually I got to the hospital. The ribs required surgery, and it was a good long time before I could take a deep breath without wanting to scream. For months, I was the most serious person on the face of the planet. I couldn’t afford to laugh. I got a visit one time from the Jet’s manager, a slick thin black man who wore Armani and constantly combed his mustache with his fingers. He came to my hotel room, a little beige box where I laid my head and thought long thoughts about where I could go now that nobody wanted to book a fight with me anymore. The guy wanted his thirty thousand back. “It’s only right,” he said. “You kill my meal ticket.” “Fuck you,” I said. “I did what I said I’d do. I went down in the sixth.” “I was afraid you’d see it that way,” he said. He took his hand—the one that wasn’t busy with his mustache—out of his coat pocket. There was a knife in his hand, and he clicked it open with one smooth move. I don’t remember when I started carrying the gun. I guess shortly after I left the hospital. It wasn’t much. Just a cheap Sig-Sauer knock-off. I’d bought it for less than three hundred dollars, but it looked like a serious piece of work. And it was loaded. There was a round in the chamber. I took it out of the little clamshell holster and clicked off the safety. I didn’t point it anywhere. Just held it so he could see it. “You think that gun make a difference?” Now I pointed it at him. “Yes, I do.” He put the knife away, and I lowered the gun. “Where’m I gonna get another meal ticket?” “You manage fighters,” I said. “You got somebody else waiting in the wings.” He grinned a little at that. “I do, in fact.” “You better make sure he’s better than the Jet. McDaniel was never gonna win the title.” It took him a few minutes to answer. “I know that,” he said. “But you gotta know that’s not the point. The title fight was the money fight. He make it past you, he get a million or three for MacGregor. That where you make the money.” “MacGregor would have killed him.” “I know,” he said. “You hadn’t done it, the champ would have. But I’d still have the money.” I thought about that a long time after he left. The hotel room felt smaller and smaller to me. I sat on one corner of the bed and pulled the gun back out. Like before, I didn’t point it anywhere. I just sat there, feeling its heft in my hands. After awhile, I clicked the safety off and put the barrel in my mouth. I could taste the gun oil. I took the gun out of my mouth, wiped the saliva off on the bedspread, and holstered it. Not yet. That’s not the way I wanted to go out. I still see Johnny the Jet’s face in my dreams. I see him stumble back away from me, fear rising in his face as he claws at his throat. There’s that one moment where he knows he’s dying, and he knows nobody can help him. Terror. I wake up to that face sometimes in the middle of the night. I killed him, and I did it on purpose, to keep him from killing me. Nobody blames me, of course. They all saw him, saw how out of control he was. But on the nights when the Jet’s ghost won’t let me sleep, the gun in my hand is a comfort. It doesn’t matter anymore that I can’t get a fight. I fight for my life every night, and every night so far I’ve won. But I know there’s a night coming where I won’t win. Where the lure of the trigger will be too strong. I gave the Jet six good rounds. On the night I finally lose, one round from that gun will be all it takes.