The forthcoming book “Brute” follows two Sacramento boxers: Mike Simms, a cruiserweight who trained with the Olympic team in 2000, who when I found him had lost five successive fights; and Stan Martyniouk, a young, Estonian-born featherweight, who when I found him had just fought and won his professional debut by decision, despite breaking his right hand in the first round.
Over the next few months I look forward to sharing the stories of these two fighters with the readers of the Sweet Science, and I look forward to hearing from any and all of you. –KS
Between the third and fourth round, Eric Regan was in front of Simms swinging a towel to cool his fighter down, but the referee noticed it and yelled for Regan to quit. Simms looked exhausted, and when he stood up for the fourth he appeared, at least by how he moved on his failing legs, as if he'd taken the majority of the punches. And throughout the fourth he did take all the punches. For two and a half minutes he did not punch at Harmon once. At one point he had his back against the ropes, and I thought of Ali in Manila guarding his face and ribs in the third while Frazier tried to cut him in a half. But whereas Ali, the preeminent showman, was toying with Frazier and bounced off the ropes with a combination of punches that in my rosy memory numbers in the hundreds, Simms just stood and got hit. “Way to stall, baby!” someone yelled. I would have scored it ten-eight for Harmon if Simms looked as if he'd been hurt by anything. But at the bell he looked better than he had at the beginning of the round.
In the lull before the fifth Niavaroni was in the ring, screaming at Simms and slapping him on the thighs. An older woman with blond hair and a straw cowboy hat came over and introduced herself to Martyniouk. “I wanted to say hello,” she said. “I'm Karen. I know all the boys. Mike, Otis. All of them.” Martyniouk shook her hand politely and then she went on, “I'm with the cowboy over there.” She pointed into the crowd. I did not see a cowboy. She looked up at the ring. Niavaroni was yelling through the ropes at Simms. “I could kick his ass,” said Karen. She was quite drunk.
The fifth began with a soft clash of heads. The fighters tied up, and after the referee separated them Harmon threw a few glancing shots. “Come on, Mike,” said Martyniouk. “Let it go.” I was glad to see that Martyniouk was supporting Simms, but it did not bode well for Simms that he needed instruction from the gallery. Simms started attacking Harmon's midsection, but he left his head exposed. That inspired Harmon, as one might expect, to hit him there. A while later Simms was back on the ropes, head hidden behind his gloves, taking whatever Harmon had to give. One of the round girls passed in front of us on the floor. The four of us—myself, Martyniouk, Mehrad, and Gerrell—all stopped watching the bout for a moment. Martyniouk called to her, and she turned. “You're at Tokyo Fro's during the week, right?” he asked.
“I wait tables there,” she said.
“Angela, right?” asked Martyniouk.
“Right,” said Angela. She sat down, then glanced back over her shoulder at Martyniouk, smiling. We all looked at Martyniouk, and he nodded confidently.
The round had almost ended while we were distracted watching Angela, but it was clear we hadn't missed anything. Simms finished the fifth plodding in his slow circles, as if his legs, which before the fight were empty casts, had slowly filled with bronze. He finished hard, but he was throwing sloppy punches. Suspecting Simms hadn't done anything sublime while I was preoccupied, such as knock his opponent down again, I gave the round to Harmon. Therefore, I had Simms trailing by one and needing ten in the sixth to achieve a draw.
Regan and Niavaroni were both kneeling before Simms during the interval. I supposed they were telling him that he needed the last round if he wanted any chance at a decision. Harmon's corner must have told him the same thing, and when Harmon came out he tried to get inside with Simms. But he got little done there, and swallowed a straight right as he disengaged. Simms followed that with a myriad of punches, many of which landed, and I did not know what reserves he was tapping for this energy. Perhaps he had discovered something about recuperation while meditating in the fourth. His head movement was good, and he used his jab repeatedly to set up a cousin of the left that had knocked Harmon down in the first. But the lefts in the sixth were, by some reversal of maturity, less fledged than they had been earlier. Simms got hit a couple times, but since the first, it was the only round he'd clearly won.
At the bell there was nothing much to cheer. The decision promised to be a close one, which always keeps a sectarian crowd quiet, and for the few neutral observers in the room, after the first round, and until the sixth, the fight had not been an entertaining one, especially in comparison to the preceding bouts. On my card I had the thing a draw, 57-57, and when the announcer read the first judge's decision 57-56, I decided he must have given my even round to Simms. I expected, for some morbid reason, that the other two would move in favor of Harmon.
“The other judges both score the bout 58-55,” said the announcer, “for the winner, by unanimous decision, The Famous Mike Simms.”
I felt relieved. I would have thought I'd be elated, but for those who take competition seriously, for whom there is little qualitative difference between a man's victory in a boxing match and a political race, seeing your fighter win is tantamount to hearing from a doctor that your sore throat is bacterial and not viral. It is a small success because the pain of anticipation is still there unless the fighter is retiring that night with a glorious record. At such a point both the fighter and fan can sigh contentedly. Until then it is a chain of horrors.
I told Mehrad and Gerrell that I would return momentarily, and went back towards the dressing room to speak with Simms. As I walked I thought that the decision had gone Simms' way because we were in Sacramento, and if we'd been in Chicago or Germany or Russia, he would have lost 57-56, despite the knockdown. But we weren't in Asia or Europe or the Middle West, and Simms had scraped through. After the knockdown he'd fought almost irresolutely, showing less skill as a boxer, and more his ability to stand inside with an opponent, without fighting back, all the while without getting hurt. It was almost marvelous.
I found Simms in one of the small conference rooms that had been converted into dressing quarters for the fighters. He was on the floor, knees up, elbows on his knees, head between his thighs. “How are you doing?” I asked. I used the tone of voice I might have used to greet a friend's child who had spent the night in the hospital after losing his appendix. It was a patronizing tone, and I felt embarrassed to have used it.
“Dehydrated,” said Simms. “Cut weight too much at the last minute.”
“You got through it, though,” I said. “How do you feel? I mean, how did you feel in the fight?”
“I was feeling strong. At times I was feeling cramps, like I couldn't bend my legs the way I wanted to, to dig down.” That didn't sound particularly strong, but I didn't want to interrupt him. “In the fight I really wanted to focus on the body, as well as, you know, box. I knew going in I was gonna take one of those rounds off. And the round I did take off—”
“The fourth,” I interrupted.
“I think so,” he said. I had broken his train of thought and he did not get the cars re-coupled.
“At least in one judge's opinion,” I said, “coming out in the sixth round, and pushing like you did, was the difference in the fight. The others had it more in favor of you. But man, you were this close.” I put my left hand up with my index finger and thumb an inch apart to show, in linear terms, how far he'd been from knocking Harmon out. Simms nodded gravely. He would also have liked to skip the other five rounds. I went on, “You said you were gonna come out firing, and you almost had him in that first round. You dropped him.”
“I didn't think he was gonna get up,” said Simms.
“I don't think any of us did. We thought it was gonna be a three knockout night. Almost three first-round knockouts. There were three first-round knockdowns.”
“I hurt Harmon with a small, left uppercut to the midsection,” said Simms. “Right in the belly. And he went, 'Oooh.' But I didn't dig it. I just shot a quick little shot. Just touched him there.”
I wasn't sure what that comment was related to, but I could see how exhausted he was, and as if he'd just come out of anesthesia after surgery, I wanted to let him get back to sleep. “Well, Mike,” I said, “You got the win.”
“Yeah,” he said. He was exhausted. His hands were still wrapped from the fight.
“I guess you get a few days off from the gym.”
“Yeah,” he said, and at that he smiled.
I shook his hand and walked out of the dressing room. I was fatigued, much less, of course, than Simms, but tired from the week. Otis Griffin was still scheduled to fight, but I had little interest in that outcome. I went, nonetheless, into the ballroom, and stood waiting for the bell.