The dressing room was an overcrowded sauna swarming with the wriggling bodies of family, reporters, and old white people from the Boxing Commission. An unholy roar filled his ears, like listening to music underwater. None of it made sense, and through it all, Ronny Lipton had only one question; Why was he so goddamned cold?
Manny gently slapped the young man’s sweat-smeared cheek. Just once, only hard enough to get his attention. “Hey, kid. Look here. You okay?” The trainer shifted his body between the fighter and the crowd as he cut the wraps off the fighter’s slim, quivering wrists.
Ronny looked up but focused on Manny’s veiny, lumpy, bran muffin of a nose, avoiding the older man’s red, hooded eyes. Even then, it only lasted a second. His gaze kept swinging back to the man in the suit—the promoter—urgently whispering into his cell phone.
“Hey.” This time the trainer grabbed Ronny’s chin and jerked it back towards him. “We’ll know when we know. Now hold still and let me get these off before I slit your damned wrists open.”
Ronny obeyed, like always, but couldn’t stop shivering. The icy metal of the scissors ran in a frigid single line against his skin until the gauze and wrappings fell away, exposing bruised, swollen knuckles. His fist flexed open and closed of their own volition as the purple, swollen joints popped.
The man in the blue pin-striped suit jacket had turned his back to everyone now, one finger in his right ear, phone pressed against the left. There was no telling if it was good news or not. Likely not.
“They should have stopped it.”
Ronny thought he’d said it out loud, but Manny wrinkled his brows and just asked, “huh?”
This time the words flew out, along with droplets of saliva and blood that spattered his trainer’s shirt. “They should have stopped it. He was out.”
Manny nodded, “And too fricking stupid to go down. Wasn’t your fault.”
“What if he—”
“He won’t. Keep thinking positive.”
“But if he does. Can they charge me? There was that guy in Boston, right?”
“This is Nevada. It’s all good.” The trainer’s voice trailed off. Then he added, “You’re not responsible.”
Maybe. Maybe not, but the young fighter had known something was wrong early. After that right cross in the fifth. The one that brought the crowd to its feet. The one that felt and sounded so fucking perfect.
Faces pressed against one another, Ronny’ d noticed one of Martinez’s pupils was twice the size of the other. Then the dumb bastard leaned back into the ropes, shook his head, grinned through his mouthpiece, and waved him on. Every fighter, broadcaster and internet troll knew it was pure bullshit bravado. That shot hurt. Bad. But that glove waving in the air and the cocky shuffling of feet was the universal sign for, “bring it.”
Ronny brought it.
In the sixth, sweet flawless combinations where one of every four punches actually landed, backed Martinez up. Then it was every other shot. Then suddenly every blow was landing clean, unchecked, his opponent’s limp body jerking back and forth with each punch. Especially the head shots. The crowd’s screams changed from excitement to a series of low “oohs” as the older man slumped against the ropes.
Ronny had looked at the referee to step in, honest to Christ he did. But the official in the blue shirt and bow tie stood impassive, hands on his knees just watching, waiting for Martinez to go down, take a knee, something.
After that, Ronny’d backed off a bit, after all he didn’t want to hurt the guy, just beat him. And the force of a punch was in his control, more or less. What had they taught him in school? Force equals mass times acceleration. It was the only physics most fighters ever knew because they lived it every day. Take ninety-five Gs to the skull and it’s a concussion. Slow your hands, it doesn’t cause as much damage. Unless it does.
He watched it on the movie screen behind his eyes. A ramrod jab, a silent plea to the ref, then a hook to the body, hoping to spare his opponent more trauma. Knock the wind out of him with a liver shot, get him to take a knee.
The ref had just looked on. The only words he said were, “Gotta show me something, Paco.” Martinez didn’t show him a goddamned thing.
That was his job. To protect the fighters, right? Why hadn’t he…
“Can I get your…. Hey, Christ’s sake. Listen up. Everybody. Come on. Huddle up.” The man in the pinstripes waved everyone over, calling for attention.
Every eye turned to him. All but the figure in the bloody, sweat-soaked, blue shirt slumped on a chair in the far corner. The ref wasn’t listening to anyone. He just rocked back and forth with his shaved head in his hands. His whispered prayers were barely audible over the muttering and shuffling of feet.
“Okay. Just spoke to the hospital. They’ve got him on a respirator and he’s in a medically induced coma…”
The collective groans drowned out Ronny’s quiet, “oh, fuck.”
There was more news, but none of it made sense, so Ronny crawled back inside his own head. Unwelcome, unbidden questions ricocheted off the inside of his skull, drowning out the surrounding madness. What if he died? What if I killed him? The line between knockout-of-the-year candidate and manslaughter was thinner than he ever wanted to believe.
A callused palm gripped his shoulder. “No, this is good. Medically induced means they’re knocking him out so the swelling on his brain has a chance to heal.”
“Really?” There was more hope than belief in the question.
“Yeah. Remember that guy last year in Montreal?” Every boxer knew that story. They also knew about the others, but the good news carried more weight.
Manny bit his lip and nodded, running his hand over Ronny’s scalp, ruffling his hair. Both of them agreed to believe for the moment.
“I should’ve backed off.”
“Bullshit. They should’ve protected their guy.”
Ronny lifted his head. “Would you have stopped it?”
There was a shriek and a flash of sequins as two dark arms surrounded Ronny. He found himself enveloped by two sequin-encased bosoms. His mother’s soft arms crushed his face to her. “Are you okay, baby? Oh Jesus, Lord, I was so scared.”
Manny tried pulling her off. “Loretta, honey. Give him some space.”
His words just inflamed her more, and she clutched her son tight again, rocking her twenty-year-old roughly side to side. “Oh, my baby. God kept you safe. Thank you, Jesus.”
Ronny wanted nothing more than to burrow in there and never come out. Did Martinez have a mother too? Or a God, for that matter? If he did, the Big Guy was either off duty or an asshole.
A shadow passed over mother and son. The promoter ran his hand through steel-grey hair. “You okay, son?”
The young fighter knew the correct answer. “Yes, sir. I’m good.”
“Good. Good. Hell of a job tonight. I’m proud of you.”
Ronny looked up at him. “I get that title shot now?”
They’d had the conversation. That had been the deal—put on a show and move to the front of the line.
Fans love knockouts.
Kid’s all flash and speed but now power.
You’re a good kid, but you don’t know how to close the show.
How about now?
An EMT sidestepped between the young man and his trainer. “You ready to go?”
The promoter gave a tight-lipped grin. “Go get looked at. Manny and I’ll talk in a couple of days.”
“Ready for what?” Ronny’s mother demanded.
He sighed. “To the hospital…”
“To the what? What’s wrong with you, baby? What’s the matter with my boy?” She waved a finger in Manny’s face. “You said he was fine.”
“He is, Loretta. Just a precaution. Gonna get him checked out, get some fluids in him. He’ll be home for breakfast.”
“Yeah, ma. I’m good. It’s regulations.” Disbelieving, she nevertheless stepped aside, and the boxer rose unsteadily to his feet, gripping Manny’s arm for balance.
The paramedic draped a blanket over his shoulders. The young man asked, “I can check in on him, when I’m there?”
“I guess so, That’s up to the hospital. Not my call.”
Not for the first time tonight, Ronny wondered who ever decided. Besides himself.
Once outside in the cool night air, Ronny, Manny and the EMT stood in the flashing red light. “Get in, but don’t forget to buckle up back there.” He put one hand on Ronny’s behind and shoved gently, lifting him into the back of the ambulance. “Safety first.”
Ronny Lipton pulled the strap over his chest and snapped it in place, then turned to his trainer. “For realz. You’d have stopped it. If it was me, right?”
“Let’s get you looked at, kid. Come on people, out of the way, for God’s sake. Let them through. I’ll see you there, kid.”
Ronny kept his eyes trained on Manny, unable to breathe. Air froze in his lungs until he heard the words.
“Yeah, kid. I’d have stopped it. Course I would.”
Then the ambulance doors slammed shut.
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