He walked tall into the glowing green MGM casino from the grey, dawning strip.
The early morning air smelled good. One of the few times it was nice to inhale, deeply.
Sometimes it felt like he hadn’t breathed since the ring rollover three years before. Today was one of those times.
It hadn’t been a fix, but he’d known what it meant back then when he took the fat advance from Ramon’s cousin. Go nice and easy in training; the rest will take care of itself.
It did. After that he went from prospect to reject. As if morality and fate could be intertwined. He definitely drifted in the wrong crowd, sniffing now for his blood.
Now, he was going to get out of the downward spiral, one way or another.
He passed guys by the tables smoking stogies they didn’t appreciate, fear, or cut the ends off of properly.
Two beautiful women, thinly draped in soft faux camouflage, drifted by him going the other way as he and some slot machine goober glanced vacantly in their wake.
He tried not to gawk and briefly looked away, scanned a gambling problem public service plaque, on a freshly papered wall with an 800 number. He looked back at the girls, similar backside tattoos departing in a precious panorama of visible gluteus perfectos.
The plastic surgeon generals might as well put a warning sticker right there, he said with a grumbled laugh that made him feel older. Warning: contact with underlying flesh may cause extreme irrationality, heartache, or public humiliation. Men prone to following their gonads should always consider restraint.
He wished fairer game were all he had to worry about. He studied the sportsbook odds board through eyes that stung from a night of contemplation.
He held an envelope full of wadded of paper that really wasn’t his for more than hope and a moment. He repeated the proposition number.
For a little while, the buzz was almost worth it again.
One siren’s song held the temptation of redemption.
Barrera by decision over Juarez.
That was his sure thing, as long as Barrera played it smart.
The plan was pretty basic. He would either cash in or cash out. If Barrera stayed old pro it was as safe a bet as you could get against a young charger like Juarez. There were really only two checks, what Juarez was capable of and what Barrera would do about it.
Would Barrera try to please the crowd and stay true to the roots of his career and erase any doubts from the first fight, or would he take the most likely scenario to win and employ the defensive tactics that had helped Barrera’s career last this long.
But it was Diez y Sies de Septembre. Another theme park Vegas weekend. The stands would rock like Barrera’s hometown Mexico City. If Barrera distained caution and Juarez fought as tough as the first time Barrera could get outgunned. Gambler’s ruin in the ring.
Therein laid the axis of the wager. Juarez had to be strong enough to convince Barrera to avoid trading, but not good enough to catch Barrera effectively after that.
He tried to envision the fight. Old Marco and he were the same age, except he hoped Barrera felt a lot fresher.
He wished the football crazed sportsbook lines were shorter so he could buy the ticket and get on with it.
The longer he held the cash the more likely it was something would happen.
An accidental headbutt can cost the utility bills. A judge he thought could see made him abandon his last known address.
Could Barrera play it safe enough?
He wouldn’t watch any broadcast from a safe place to find out. He would wait near the wide, Grand Garden walkway of expense for the result, by loitering fans that couldn’t get tickets. Superstition told him to stay out of the sportsbook until he was either cashing his ticket and reporting to the taxman, or saying goodbye to the wind.
Barrera by decision meant he had a few payoff errands to run. Apologies and interest. Anything else and there was only one task ahead.
Stroll through the casino crowd, thinking about family, friends, women, and a 13-5 pro record. Too many parties. Too many ill-advised wagers.
He’d figure a way around the skywalk guardrails between New York, New York and Excalibur. No way he could even go six rounds any more, but he was still in good enough shape for a scramble to a farewell swan dive. Keep the arms locked back. Head first at the right flow of traffic, splat onto Tropicana Blvd and hopefully a better gig after that.
Another Vegas casualty or another big winner, folks.
The undercard took forever. Finally, an early bettor or two emerged with a payoff face and told him the results of Israel Vasquez stopping Jhonny Gonzales or Joan Guzman edging out Jorge Barrios.
A split on his gut feeling picks so far. Signs mean everything. Signs mean nothing.
Drunk guys in Texas and Spurs jerseys stomped out of the arena cussing. A couple more small groups followed. Timewise it seemed way too early for twelve more rounds. That meant problems.
He knew when the fight had started from a caterer leaving the media center.
More characters emerged from the arena mall. He knew it had barely been half an hour. Ten rounds at best.
“Relax,” said a familiar voice he wasn’t thrilled to hear. “They’re leaving because Barrera is spanking him, slow, from outside. You got about three rounds to go. Don’t look like nothing. The crowd is booing, but Barrera’s doing what he has to, easy. You do have the right side, huh?”
Breaker. Must have been following him.
So, he wasn’t wrong about the depth of his situation or the begged and borrowed wager. Anything but Barrera by decision and he probably would have been luckier with the pavement and an SUV blanket.
Close. The buzz was almost worth it.
After collecting on the bet he bought his menacing post-fight escort a drink in the latest lounge. Business. He’d handed Breaker much of the cash, but he could go home and keep the lights on.
They toasted mutual acquaintances, in town and departed. Breaker wasn’t such a bad guy for somebody who would have wasted him by now if the Barrera bet hadn’t called so clearly. Share a shot with the reaper and gain new life, he concluded.
Outside the emerald Plexiglas doors, tourists and amateur drunks exited the friendly facade to hit the haze of another pre-dawn morning.
No bodies, at least not his, would be ground into the Strip in what remained of this night.
Before, in the press conference ballroom, an unmarked Barrera apologized to fans and media.
“I want to say to all the people, sorry for this fight,” said Barrera to those who would rather see him bruised. “I fought different. People are used to seeing me in explosive fights, but this is a sport where you’re supposed to hit and not get hit. I’m nobody’s fool.”
He didn’t hear any of Barrera’s unnecessary regret. Outside the casino, MGM’s huge neon fight marquee looked like a stairway to heaven.
”Gracias Marco,” he smiled toward the high definition image.
“We’re all fools,” he announced to his fine looking fellow citizens of the Neon City.
There was plenty to ponder in the immediate future. The odds on Mayweather opened around a fairly safe seven to one over Baldomir. Pacquaio was better than two to one over Morales.
He took a deep breath, paused, then joined the soulful sidewalk stream.