“Are you Lou’s son?” mumbled the old flat-nosed pug.
The young middleweight, annoyed, looks up from bandaging his hands. “Nope.”
The old pug shuffles over to a welterweight. “You Lou’s son?”
The welterweight, lacquered with sweat, stops his shadowboxing. “What?”
“You Lou’s son?”
“Nah,” frown the welterweight and continues punching the air.
The old pug shuffles on to a heavyweight. “Are you…”
That’s why I quit fighting. I didn’t want to end up like that old punch-drunk fighter, looking for Lou’s son.
I hated fighting. But that’s exactly why I fought. Figure that one out. I never did.
Lou’s son is the promoter’s son. There’s always a problem at these boxing shows.
Maybe a fighter is over-weight, under-weight, or doesn’t show. Happens all the time. I wasn’t a bad fighter. I threw a decent left hook and I trained hard. I won a few bouts. But my parents were happy when I quit and entered college. That’s when I started hitting books instead of people. Now, 25-ish, I’m happily retired. No more black eyes, no more bloody noses.
No more cheering crowds.
I must admit, after quitting, I was relieved. But my blood has never pumped as fast. I’ve never been so exquisitely exhilarated. It’s like something has been subtracted out of my flesh. Now I am just a face in the crowd.
I still attend fights. I can’t pry myself away. It stays in your blood. That’s why I’m backstage, watching the fighters loosening up in the dressing room. Tonight it’s New York vs. New Jersey, an amateur fight card in Totowa, New Jersey, promoted by Lou Duva.
I’m watching all of these nervous, young thugs and seeing myself. Some are swiveling their thick necks, some are escaping into sleep and some are thwapping loud punches onto their trainers’ punch-mitts. All of them are camouflaging their fear. Waiting in the dressing room was the worst. Too much time to think. You ended up imagining things. The thought of a punch in the nose always hurt worse than the actual punch.
I spot a sleepy middleweight in the corner, sporting the young felon look. He’s wearing a black porkpie hat and black leather jacket. Violent clothing. He’s chewing a toothpick. That was me. I secretly wonder if I could beat him. Bet I could.
On the table are boxing gloves. I slip one on and tap my jaw. Eight-ouncers. Hard as a rock. I clench my teeth and tap my jaw again – harder. I lost my last fight. Maybe I should get back in shape and have one more fight. If the promoter needs a quick fill-in tonight, I wonder if I could do it. Bet I could.
Suddenly, someone taps my shoulder. The old pug. “You loose, son?”
I break into a cold sweat…
…How did this happen? I’m actually stepping into a pair of white satin boxing trunks, getting ready to fight. My boxing shoes are already laced.
“You 165?” mumbles the old troll.
I nod. Well, the last time I looked I was.
“A little soft,” he mumbles, pointing to my belly.
“Who am I fighting?” I whisper, looking around the room. A trickle of sweat slides down my side. My heart is beginning to thump.
“Don’t know,” he shrugs. He throws me a stick of gum. “Here.”
My gum theory was this: chewing before a fight saps energy. Chewing was okay only after a training session, after my jaw muscles had been punched raw – chewing stretched the sore muscles back.
“No, thanks,” I say, waving him off. But I start, nervously, chewing the skin on the inside of my cheek.
What did I get myself into?
A certain black fighter, sitting in the corner, is scowling at me. He’s, obviously, emotionally sick. He’s just sitting quietly in the corner, seething with anger and hate, just staring at me. What did I ever do to him?
I always comforted myself with the bizarre thought that, even though a black fighter might live in the ghetto, I was a ghetto. I prided myself on my emotional sickness. My mental sickness, somehow, counterbalanced his physical talent. But that was four years ago. In college, I read Thoreau and Kant and worked hard to lose my emotional sickness. I wish I had some of that sickness tonight – it’s gasoline.
“You sure you’re loose, son?” asks the pug, tossing me dirty handwraps.
“Yeah,” I said, swiveling my neck. But was I?
I had sex two nights ago. I wasn’t properly pent up. Sex is death. At least for a fighter. He should be celibate two weeks before his fight. Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier – all celibates. Last week, I masturbated. Twice. I could kick myself.
I look down at my hands. Damn. My nails are much too long. My theory was by clipping my fingernails as short as possible, it made my hands much quicker. Less weight. More aerodynamic. I clipped my toenails, too.
“Excuse me, you have nail clippers?” I ask the pug. “I need to trim my nails.”
“No time for that,” he scoffs. “Wrap your goddamn hands.”
I start wrapping my hands. I’m yawning with nervousness and I notice my fingers trembling. “Who am I fighting?”
“Dunno,” he shrugs. “Stop askin’ me.”
I spot a white fighter sitting in the far corner, quietly seething. I don’t appreciate the way he’s glaring at me. His bulging muscles are making me nauseous and I sense I don’t want to be here anymore. I want to go back home and hop into bed.
The crowd outside is cheering. Probably a knockout.
“You sure you’re loose, son?” asks the pug. “You look squirrelly.”
“I’m good,” I say. But my testicles are shriveling up into my belly. I hate when that happens. I’m sweating bad.
“Here,” he says, grabbing my shoulders with his gnarled hands, “I’ll rub you down.”
“No, thanks,” I say, pulling away. I always refused rubdowns before a fight. My thinking was a rubdown might, somehow, break down my muscles and confuse my muscle memory.
“Okay,” he grunts, “have it your way.”
I sit back and try to relax. But my socks are sweat drenched. This room I’m sitting in is infested with monstrously muscled middleweights, angry light-heavies and seething heavyweights. Each kid is wallowing within his own pungent anti-social delusion. Each kid is itching to explode. It’s difficult to relax.
The pug points with his whiskered chin, “That’s you’re boy.”
Sitting next to me is a muscular, white thug smirking.
“Who’re you smirking at?” I want to say, but I don’t want to get him angrier than he already is. I remember when I enjoyed fighting a white fighter. I always liked punching someone who reminded me of myself. But that was years ago. Now, my left eye is twitching and my head is throbbing.
“Wood and Johnson! You’re up!” yells a voice.
My blood is racing; the crowd is cheering.
I’m finally walking down the aisle…up the steps…I slip through the ropes into the ring.
…Suddenly, I’m lying on the dressing room floor. The faces bent over me look distorted. “Son, you okay?” asks a voice.
“Someone get the doctor!”
A hand is slapping my cheek.
Another hand is shoving smelling salts up my bloody nose.
My head is pounding. Did I get knocked out?
“What happened, Jake?” asks a voice.
“I dunno,” shrugs the pug.
“What the hell did you do?”
“Nothin’, Lou, I swear!” blurts the old pug. “The kid’s eyes just rolled back and he fainted dead away.”
“Jesus! What did you do to him?”
“All I did wuz ask him a question!”
“What did you ask?”
“Are you Lou’s son?” mumbled the flat-nosed pug.