Waiting for that knock on my door telling me it’s time to leave is the hardest part. Still is. Even now, after all these times. Will it ever get easier? Probably not.
I sit on the edge of the bed letting the fight play out in my head, picturing it over and over again. See it the way it’s supposed to be; my twenty-seven-year-old body standing tall and strong over my opponent, Texas “The Hammer” Ray, laid out flat on the canvas.
In about thirty minutes my trainer, Max Delong, of the past two years, will be knocking on my motel room door letting know me it’s go time. He’ll say, “Time to show ‘em what you’re made of. Time to own that ring.”
Own that ring. What I’m made of. Truth is, that’s my only job in the ring—knock the guy in front of me flat on his face, go home and call it a day. That, and give the crowd a show.
Max tells me Texas “The Hammer” Ray is standing in the way of my rising to the top. I have to believe Max, trust him. He’s the one in my corner, the one to help keep me going if I’m down and bleeding. If things aren’t going my way in that ring, I need Max to help me fight my way back. He’s that higher power looking down on me.
Sitting alone in the room I fight to calm my nerves, keep myself in order. This isn’t the time to break.
You have to understand, it’s a mind game. You mentally break, and it’s all over before the first round is even started. The chance for glory is already destroyed. You let an opponent get inside your head, mess with it, you’re already starting to fall too far down.
That’s the problem with waiting. It’s what makes it hard. Your mind can drift where it shouldn’t. A little voice inside of you tries to mangle you. So you have to stay strong. Damn right.
The way a loving mother will bleed for her daughter, how a father will fight for his son, is no different than how the fire rages through me in the ring. That fire inside is what feeds me, consumes me.
Finally, I hear a sound on my door. Max has come knocking right on time. He’s always right on time.
When I answer the door, he asks how I’m feeling. I tell him I’m ready as I’ll ever be.
A grin of satisfaction grows on his face letting me know my answer is good enough for him.
I grab my gym bag off the bed. It’s time to leave the safety of my room. It’s time to leave the quiet behind.
During the drive over, we don’t talk. We never do in these moments. Max gets it. The quiet is my peace, the solace, before the ring beckons me to enter. Before the hits start coming.
We drive to the South Western Community Centre, park in the back lot, and head inside through the rear entrance. Not that it matters.
You see, I’m no prized fighter, no big name draw. My name doesn’t rest on the lips of others. No one screams out my name online, but that doesn’t dowse my fire. I won’t let it cut me deep and bleed me dry.
For a fight venue South Western Community Centre is nothing to brag about, but you have to start somewhere. You start at the top and there’s only one way to go—down. I’m starting lower, but I’m a ‘grinder’. I’ll push myself to the top.
We enter a change room off the gymnasium that holds a boxing ring ready and waiting for me.
I’m left alone to change. I strip down to pure black trunks, bare skin exposed on my upper body ready to feel the sting of the boxing gloves upon impact.
I sit on an old school wooden bench. Max comes back in and tapes up my hands and wrists, giving them that added protection. You sprain or break a wrist punching and it’s all over.
For the next twenty minutes Max holds the punching mitts. We work our combos, loosening and warming up my body. You can’t go in cold. Can’t afford to.
Now I’m ready to go. Ready for the show.
The time has come.
When I step out of the change room into the gym, there’s no splash, no light show, no energizing, rock-and-roll dance music to pump up the small crowd. It’s just a man in his 20s with a prayer and a dream.
I tuck in between the ropes passing from the outside to the inside. I meet Texas in the middle of the ring with the referee, who gives the standard rule book speech—keep it clean and no low blows.
Two fighters agree to play by the rules, tapping gloves. We head to our corners.
I look to my right, see the faces in the crowd, a sense of excitement consuming their faces, some of them lusting to see the blood spill.
Some call boxing and mixed martial arts bouts barbaric; human cock fighting.
I get it. I understand. They can’t see past the violence. They don’t see the beauty in the strategy, the physical chess. They don’t see the training, the sweat and the tears you drip fighting for it all. No, those people only see what they want to see. Fair enough.
It doesn’t matter. I’m not them and they’re not me. I’ll do what I have to do.
I roll my shoulders, shake out my arms, roll my head from side-to-side. The ring is no place for tension in the body to slow you down. You have to drain that crap out of your system.
The bell sounds.
Here we go.
We move in; two fighters fresh and ready. We both fight with our left foot forward.
I block out the crowd, pretend they don’t exist, my focus is a one-way street.
We circle around the ring sizing each other up, analyzing one another, seeing how each of us moves. Who strikes first? Who defends first?
Texas makes that decision for me. He starts throwing high jabs making my face the target.
I slip and duck. Punches zip past my head, missing the intended target, but only by an inch. That’s good. That’s the way it should be. Keep my defense nice and tight. Move too far away from the attack and you put yourself out of range, your ability to efficiently counter-attack becoming hindered.
I let him keep punching, keep feeling him out, getting a sense of how he moves. I told you, I’m playing physical chess.
We keep circling around the ring.
I make sure to keep my body nice and loose. In this game where seconds count, body tension is your enemy. It only slows you down.
He shoots out another high jab followed up by a high cross. No problem.
I slip the high cross and execute a smooth high lead hook. It lands nice and clean on the target, strong and true. My boxing glove slams into his right jaw.
I expect him to waver for a second or two giving me time to execute my own high cross, but my expectation is wrong. Texas doesn’t falter. The second my high lead hook lands he fires out another high cross, strong and fast. I try to get my gloves up to cover my face in time, but time isn’t on my side. Remember, boxing is a game of split seconds.
His high cross slams squarely into my nose making it erupt. Upon impact, I feel wetness under my nostrils. It leaks down. A drop of red hits the mat. My eyes start their water works.
Texas throws out a three punch combo: high jab, high cross, high lead hook.
This time I manage to get my gloves up. I feel the pressure of his gloved fists slamming into mine. It’s okay, I remind myself. I’ve been here before, feeling the blows land, taking the hits over and over again.
With my hands up protecting my head Texas goes for the opening. A low rear hook slams into my rib cage. I hear and feel the sickening contact of a boxing glove flush against skin. The impact makes my teeth bite down hard into my mouth guard. No problem. No lower ribs are broken. If they were, I’d feel it, my body letting me know the reality of the situation.
I pull back moving, away from him. I need space, breathing room. I need to reassess my strategy.
Texas is tough, stronger than I had planned for. Strong and quick. It’s a dangerous combination to have to face. I underestimate this guy and it’s all over. I quickly realize that now. My bloody nose and sore left side are nice reminders, telling me to ‘wake the hell up and get it together’. I need to get my head in the game.
Texas “The Hammer” Ray isn’t someone to go head-to-head with. I see that now.
The rest of the round I make use of the space in the ring keeping my distance, not letting him get in too close.
Truth is, Texas carries more physical weight than me. He’s stronger, faster, has a longer arm reach. I have to remember that. I’ll have to pick him apart bit-by-bit, get inside his head and break him down.
The bell rings to signal the end of the round.
We go to our corners to catch our breath.
A small applause comes from the crowd.
I sit down in my chair and Max comes my way.
One could ask why I put myself through all this shit. This pain. Some might think it’s for the love of the sport.
Truth is, it’s all I know. It's my only way.
I don’t get to walk in pretty pastures. There’s no born with a silver spoon in this mouth. That reality for some doesn’t hold true to me. It’s not a part of my life. Never has been, never will be.
People like me get to be born into a world of hell. That’s our story. We get to eat garbage each day. We get a front seat to watch a life of anger and brutality day in and day out. College and university for my kind, I don’t think so. Wipe that off the table. It ain’t happening. A father figure long gone. Never was there. A mother who has to bust her ass working three minimum wage jobs. It’s a shit deal. The street teaches you. Hardens you. It’s the ugly world you get to know. It lives in your bones.
This square ring is my home. My way out. It’s what the streets will never give me. So here I am taking down one opponent at a time. It’s all I got. It’s what can pull me out of the wreckage and that bitter hell.
And there’s that sound, that familiar bell telling me to get back to work. Time to sweat and bleed some more.
This gutter rat is back in the game.
A minute in I can feel my right eye starting to swell. It’s been taking a beating. Even with Vaseline on my face making my opponent’s gloves slip and slide off the target, the hits still add up. I pray the skin around the eye doesn’t open up spilling blood. If it goes that way it could be game over. Stop the fight. Lose by points.
I still have to admit Texas “The Hammer” Ray is a tough S.O.B. I’ve got my work cut out for me.
I try not to go head on with him. One solid hit could end it all. Rattle my brain and put me down to the mat for a ten count. The referee waving his arms saying it’s game over. It’s time for the gutter rat to go home to his crap one-bedroom apartment.
So I make Texas come to me. I make him move here and there. Make him keep on swinging. He wants to play offence; let him play offence. Let him keep swinging, while I keep blocking.
I can feel his gloves smashing into me. He fights to bust through my protective barrier, shattering it into nothing. Bust my arms up so I can’t hold them high anymore. Sorry Texas, that ain’t happening.
Time means nothing now. Minutes. Seconds. Who cares? I don’t even know what’s left on the clock, but time only goes one way. It ticks away until the end.
Texas has me up against the ropes. It’s not the best position to be in. I get it.
From my corner I hear Max telling me to get the hell out of here. Get off the ropes! It’s easier shouted than done.
But Texas is just like me. I get it. We’re two young men punching it out, wanting to make more of ourselves in this messed up game called life, wanting the ring to make us something more in people’s eyes.
The savior comes. The bell rings.
I think: Thank God.
Feeling the beating real deep, I drag my broken body back to my corner.
Max doles out the advice. He tells me how I need to play the next round. I’m listening, but I’m also staring at Texas who is staring right back at me.
I can tell he’s not the same guy who stepped in the ring before the punching all started. He’s starting to break. His energy level is depleting. I can see it in his eyes, in the way his chest heaves up and down. He wants to knock me to the mat, finish me off with a single, solid blow. I can feel it. Sense it.
I’ll play his game.
I hear the sound of the bell one last time.
Here we go.
I’ve always liked movie trilogies. Three parts. It works. It’s a nice number. A nice fit. It makes sense. The story has a beginning, middle, and an end, but doesn’t drag on for too long if the storyline plays out right.
Now it’s time to create my own story.
I let Texas come to me again. I let him punch me back up against the ropes. I know Max is freaking out right now. I’m doing exactly what he didn’t want me to do. It’s alright Max, I tell myself. I have this.
I feel the blows starting to lighten.
Texas still wants to take me out with one final blow. He’s still gunning for it.
Will I be in a world of hurt tomorrow? Physically? Mentally? Damn right I will be. Been there. You get used to it.
The blows against my body are weakening.
He gets close enough that he can clearly hear my voice. “Come on big guy, is that all you got?” I ask him.
Texas doesn’t take kindly to those words. He does exactly what I want pushing himself that much harder, emptying his tank that much faster.
The impact of the hits is softening very quickly now.
Texas’s breathing is becoming labored. He’s sucking wind. His arms probably feel like they weigh a hundred pounds each.
It’s a perfect storm.
The starting pistol in my mind goes off.
I push him back a little, giving myself some space to go to work.
Here I go. High jab, high cross, high jab, high cross. Back and forth. I keep going.
Texas stumbles backwards. His hands go up to protect his face, but the guard is weak. It’s failing, the hands lowering. His shoulders are burned right out.
My high cross makes solid contact with his face. I notice a partial glazed look come over his eyes. His body is starting to crumble. It’s obvious.
He manages to get his hands up again when I throw another high cross. My glove contacts hard against his. It’s perfect. His torso is wide open. So I go.
My low rear hook hammers into his mid-section, making him drop his gloves. Here we go again, one last time.
I send a high lead hook into his jaw. Now, his eyes really glaze over.
My right arm is quickly put to use executing a high rear uppercut.
The moment my glove makes contact with his jaw, Texas’s legs give out. He succumbs to the mat.
The referee jumps in between us as I step backwards. In the ring hitting a helpless man on the ground is a coward’s move. It’s not how I play the game.
I head back to my corner as the ten-count is carried out.
On the count of ten the referee signals that the match is over. I hold my hands up high.
You see, this is what I am, a man in the ring fighting his way through. It’s the only reality I have.
I’m a gutter rat on his way to becoming a gutter king.