The Boxer sits on his stool in the corner of the ring. He sits hunched, eyes closed. He can’t hear the crowd, though they must be near. All that his ears register is the rasp in his throat and the thunder-boom of his heart.
The Boxer’s arms lie heavy across his legs, and the legs tremble from the weight. He wants the shaking to stop but the legs are past the point of listening to such commands. He thinks about water then, and wonders for a moment why he doesn’t have a manager. Shouldn’t someone be offering him a drink and wiping the sweat from his face? Those thoughts soon fade to be replaced by more important ones.
How long until the bell sounds again? How long until I have to get up? Again.
It can be only seconds now. The interlude between rounds isn’t long. It’s never long enough. He wishes the bell would never sound, that he could sit here until time itself turned to amber around him. That boon is not to be his.
The bell rings.
The Boxer opens his eyes. Brightness explodes like shrapnel in his face; tears fog his vision. He blinks rapidly, then reaches out and grasps one of the cables that define the ring and levers himself to his feet. Without looking for his opponent, he shuffles toward the center of this combat zone while the ringside commentator spews verbal fireworks in a voice engineered for drama.
What round is it? the Boxer wonders.
The fight is scheduled for fifteen rounds. Surely this is the last one. He just has to stay on his feet a little longer.
Three more minutes and I can rest.
Then words register from the referee: “Round Thirteen!”
Almost, the Boxer’s knees give out. Not just one round to go. Three!
He hasn’t the strength for three.
He sees his opponent stalking him then, coming quickly. His foe is big, big as life, and seems fresh. It’s as if all the blows the Boxer landed in early rounds have done nothing. The Boxer lifts his arms, though it is agony. He takes the first blow from his opponent on his left forearm. More punches rain in; the Boxer is pummeled around the ring. In earlier rounds he’d grunted each time he’d been hit, and had often sent his ripostes flying back into the big body of his foe. He no longer has the strength for any of that. In silence, he takes his beating, with no chance to strike back.
With only a few seconds left in the round, a blow sneaks through the Boxer’s guard and caroms off his skull. He is down. For a few seconds he doesn’t even realize it. The referee’s count is already at three when the Boxer understands what has happened. Four and five pass as he lies thinking.
I won’t get up. Could never last two more rounds anyway. Thirteen. Made it almost through thirteen. Surely that’s enough.
But the voice, the voice he has heard rasping in his ears all night…all his life. The voice doesn’t agree that thirteen is enough.
“Get up,” it rages. “Giving up is a sin. Get up or you’ll regret it. A man would get up!”
“No,” he whispers from a throat so dry it feels seared.
But he knows the voice is right. And he won’t be the only one who regrets it. Others depend on him.
He flops his gloved hands in front of his body. He starts to push.
“Eight!” the referee counts.
The Boxer rises to his hands and knees. His breath comes like a bellows. His arms shake like willows in a storm as they try to hold up his weight. Sweat and blood comingle as they drip from his body to the canvas. The resulting pattern is almost artistic, he thinks, a surreal image scrawled by a sadistic painter.
Not going to do it. I can’t do it.
The Boxer is on his feet somehow. The bell signals that the round is over. The referee catches the Boxer’s gloves, holds him while he looks him in the face. The Boxer tries to make eye contact but his vision is blurry. ‘Two’ referees study him, or so it seems. Finally, the Boxer just stands there, his whole body aflame as his many hurts weave themselves into one.
The referee releases the Boxer’s hands and nods that the bout can continue. The Boxer staggers to his corner, falls onto his stool. His opponent’s manager is talking to the referee, gesturing wildly as he protests…something. The Boxer thinks the man is telling the referee to “call it.” The referee is shaking his head.
The Boxer wonders if the referee gave him a long count on that last knockdown. He can’t be sure, and he doesn’t know whether he would be grateful for such consideration, or would be filled with intense hate for the person who prolonged his agony. Right now, he is capable of neither emotion, nor of any other.
The bell rings, though he doesn’t know how a minute could have passed already. He struggles to rise, struggles to rise. Then he hears the referee declare:
The Boxer blinks. He knows he is not thinking clearly but he remembers, or thinks he does, that the last round was thirteen. Now it’s fifteen? How could he have lost a whole round? But even his blurred vision sees his opponent coming at him, huge, shadowy, like a shark in darkened waters.
The Boxer makes it to his feet. The thought that this is his last round pours a bit of strength back into his arms. He knows he must use it wisely. He can’t throw it away. His opponent looms, so confident in his dominance of the fight that his own arms aren’t even in defensive position.
For a moment the Boxer stands toe-to-toe with his foe. The other seems to be measuring him for a final blow that will stretch him cold on the canvas. In that instant the Boxer throws every regained ounce of strength into a one-two punch—a left into his foe’s solar plexus, a right to the chin.
Twenty years ago the fight would have been over, with the Boxer lifting his hands in victory. Ten years ago the punches would have given the Boxer needed time to recover. Now, the opponent only staggers back with a look of surprise, a look that quickly flares into anger. Quick as a riff of lightning, the foe surges forward, raining blows from thunderous fists.
The Boxer goes reeling against the ropes, is beaten along them. His nose crunches. A tooth breaks and cuts its way out between his lips. Any one of these heavy blows should have sent him to the floor, but the combined storm of them actually works to keep him on his feet.
The opponent makes the mistake in anger of stepping in too close. The Boxer flings his arms around his foe in a last defiant gesture. He clinches, holds on. There is a moment of frenetic dance as the other fighter tries to break free and finish the Boxer before the last bell sounds. He doesn’t quite manage it.
The Boxer hears the bell, knows the fight is over. He made it to the end. The relief in that thought is exquisite. He lets go of his opponent, turns a wobbly head to see the stool waiting for him in the corner. He lurches toward it like a skid-row drunk, a thin bloody smile creasing his lips.
Barely, he summons the strength to climb onto his stool. The ropes support him as he collapses back against them. In the center of the ring, his foe is congratulated on a victory. That doesn’t change the fact that the Boxer made it all the way through the match without being knocked out. A sense of pride fills him.
The Boxer looks up. The light overhead is bright and shining, like a burnished shield. But it doesn’t hurt his eyes. He nods toward the light, mumbles a few words through torn lips—“Thank you!” He is smiling when the bell rings. That smile dies when he looks at the referee standing like a whirlwind of dark smoke before him.
“Round one!” the referee says.