The Harder They Fall

I didn’t see the left hand, the one that landed with a sickening thud against my kidney for what seemed like the millionth time. I just felt the searing pain traveling from my lower back and enveloping my entire body. My body told me to quit, yet my mind was still sharp, and a voice said keep going even as I wilted in the heat and kept getting blinded by midday sun. But for how long? I could see my opponent winding up for yet another left. This time I was ready. As I saw the blow coming I deftly moved aside and delivered a right counter that landed squarely on this jaw. I saw him stagger ever so slightly and used my last ounce of energy on a left, right, left combination, each landing on the top of his head with a sledge hammer’s force. I watched him go down in slow motion and the referee escorting me to the corner. “You got lucky, you bum,” a short middle aged man yelled in my ear as the crowd roared. The referee already started his count and hustled back to get on top of the fallen warrior. When the count got to 9, the warrior’s instinct kicked in as he tried to struggle to his feet. Too late as the referee waved his arms as a signal the bout was over. I felt a numbness grow over my body and everything moved around me is slow motion. My corner man rushing towards me, the crowd’s roar slowed to low pitched hum, my gradual descent into the stool in the corner. I could no longer stand.

How did I end up here? I remember my manager asking me to take the fight on short notice. It was an opportunity to take on a top ten contender for the middle weight crown and opportunities like this don’t come often. Especially for a 35 year old fighter who lost his last two fights. The opponent was Ron Stanley, a rising young middle weight, only 23, waiting for his shot at the crown. His scheduled opponent had hurt his shoulder and had to withdraw, and I had just two weeks to prepare. I didn’t want to take it. Sure it would be a decent pay day and a chance to get back in the top ten, but what chance did I have against a younger, stronger opponent and what if I got seriously hurt? Now I was wondering if it was worth it even though I won. Undoubtedly he will want a rematch and how can I refuse? Now he would be even more motivated and even more dangerous an opponent. What have I gotten into?

The press conference was loud and chaotic. My girlfriend Roxanne met me in the back of the studio just moments before. I saw the look of concern when she saw my gaunt face and she whispered “no more” in my ear as we embraced. Then the glare of the flood lights hit my face and I went into the studio and saw Ron scowl at me from his side of the stage. The conference was arranged by ESPN and the interviewer was making a last minute adjustment to his tie when the camera man said we were live. The interviewer was a short, wiry man with horn rimmed glasses who talked excitedly in a rather high pitched voice. I never saw him before, but his name and voice were familiar. I heard Ron say he wants revenge, that I had gotten lucky after he eased up. He learned his lesson and next time he would show no mercy. It was 7 days since the fight and all I was thinking about was going home and getting on with life. To do what? I didn’t know yet and my thoughts of home were interrupted by a microphone thrust in my face. What were my thoughts in the ninth round when it looked like I was shot? Where did I find the strength to come back? Would I give Ron a rematch? I gave the perfunctory, expected responses and waited for the next commercial break. When it finally ended, I bolted up and headed out the door into the stifling, August air. I didn’t care that the humidity was through the roof and still had on my wool suit in the heat of the day. I was done and I was not going back.

I ignored the incessant ring on my cell phone when I recognized the phone number of my manager. I had a flight to catch. In a few hours I would be in balmy Petaluma and out of the sauna that was the New York summer. Roxanne was waiting in the cab while I finished packing my suitcase. I took a final look at the full length mirror in my hotel room before walking out. I saw what looked like a middle aged man with a receding hairline and two red welts on his face. I could see a paunch beginning to form around my middle which I tried to hide by straightening up and inhaling deeply. It was no use. The mirror doesn’t lie. I dashed out the door when I heard the horn blast from my first story window.

The northern California air was a welcome relief as a gentle breeze blew in my face as I exited the terminal. My friend Barney was supposed to pick me up at the airport. He was late, so Roxanne decided to take the train home. She knew Barney and I were planning to have a few drinks on the home anyway, A black stretch limo pulled up in front to me and a bald man with mirrored sunglasses popped out. “Are you Steve Johnson?” he asked as the light from his glasses reflected back at me. I told him I was and he strode towards me and stuck out his hand. I shook it and he congratulated me on my big win. I did have a few fans and occasionally someone recognized me from my pictures in a local newspaper. I figured he was one of those fans, but then he said Barney had sent him to pick me up because he was not able to make it. Great, I thought, I never had the opportunity to spread out in a stretch limo. I got into the car and was a little suspicious that there was another man in the passenger seat who did not talk to me. When we got on the highway, I pulled out my cell and called Barney. “Hey, Bud,” I said. “Thanks for sending this limo.” Did you know a limo driver who owed you a favor or something?” “What are you talking about? I didn’t send anything.” I’m on the way now,” he said. I felt a lump in my throat as I hung up and looked at the two guys in front of me. They heard the conversation and are saying nothing. Who are they? I could barely see out of the tinted windows but I could tell we were not going to my house. They missed my exit and were headed further out into the suburbs. Now what? Should I dial 911 or would the guy in the passenger seat do something to me if I made an attempt? The answer came when the car swerved to the side and the man in the passenger seat got out, opened my door, and pointed a pistol at me. “Give me the phone!” he demanded as I recoiled in horror. I handed him my phone and he told me to get out. The location was a desolate road that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. It was so quiet all I could hear was my heart beating. No sooner than I asked “who are you and what do you want?” then I felt the metal of the pistol against my head and I blacked out.

When I came to the guy with the mirrored glasses took them off and there was a glimmer of recognition. Was this the guy I lost to in my last fight? It was some palooka from the Midwest. He had beady eyes like him and a scowl than now looked familiar. “I beat hell out of you last time and I’ll do it again,” he said. “Do you think you deserved the big shot after I knocked you down and you were crying for you momma,” he screamed with his mouth curling up in anger. I was so groggy I just noticed now that my hands were bound behind my back. “The game is rigged,” he continued. “Ya got some mobbed up manager who thinks he can jerk me around. He got his body guards. It’s too bad you got nothing.” I finally got a good look at the man in the passenger seat when he strode towards me, gun pointed at my heard. He was short, stocky, and muscular, and the veins at the side of his neck bulged out as I saw him start to squeeze the trigger. Sweat poured off my face as I closed my eyes and waited for the shot.

When I opened my eyes I was lying on a hospital bed with an IV unit in my arm. I heard someone say he’s coming to now. Apparently I was delirious due to dehydration. Roxanne leaned over and gave me a kiss on the check. “Honey, you gave it your best,” she said. “No one could blame you for losing on such short notice. You showed a lot of heart. The heat got to you and it was just exhaustion that made you go down.” “I didn’t win,” I said? “I remember hitting with a left right combination and he went down.” She looked puzzled. “No, those punches took the last ounce of energy out of you, and that’s why you went down afterwards.” I smiled and realized the demons were finally lifted from my shoulder. Losing never felt so good. It was time to go home. The weatherman said it would be a sunny day in northern California tomorrow.

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