Marlon couldn’t breathe. He grimaced in agony as he clamped his hand to his ribs. His opponent’s fist had slammed home into its target, flipping the pain level from zero to searing.
He was used to fighting through pain, but for him to be this hurt was rare. Most people don’t know how a punch like that can shut down the body; it’s what fighters fear the most. Thousands of rounds of hard sparring builds a certain toughness and grit, but nobody is made of stone. That shot could have put down an elephant, let alone an aging 170 pounder.
Marlon dropped to the ground and turtled up expecting ‘Gypsy’ Jones to dive on top of him, but this wasn’t a Mixed Martial Arts bout; it was bare-knuckle. Jones, the undisputed middleweight king of the bare-knuckle boxing scene, swaggered back to his corner and the smart-shirted referee started the count.
“1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . .”
The crowd of five hundred or so roared in approval. “Go on, Jonesy, my son. Stay down, ya’ washed-up cunt.” As if some American homeboy could ever take their champ’s belt away.
It was as if someone jammed a pitchfork into his side. As a veteran of more than fifty fights, ‘Motown’ Marlon Greene had been there before, but each shallow breath was like another stab to the ribs. So much for never showing ‘em your hurt.
The thought of Tracy-Ann and the kids back in Detroit did nothing to ease the pain. It was just another Saturday evening for them, ordering pizza and watching a dumb movie together. Marlon didn’t have anyone in his corner that night. The promotion wouldn’t spring for an extra flight, and he needed the cornerman’s extra $250 anyway.
“4 . . . 5 . . . 6 . . .”
As Marlon struggled to his knees, he could barely hear the referee over the rabble. It was a sea of fading tattoos, bald heads, and strange accents. They weren’t the kind of guys that would shake your hand after the fight. He could smell their cheap cologne from inside the raised ring. Marlon would be going straight to the airport, or to the hospital — preferably the former. The pain was now an eight. Marlon blew out a sharp breath to reanimate himself. If he got on his bike for the next few minutes, he could get his wits back and would give himself a chance.
He had made comebacks in fights before. His greatest was a last minute ‘triangle choke’ submission of Scott Pickerman in front of a sold-out arena in Vegas. That was back in the big leagues. Once a UFC title challenger, he was now reduced to taking any half-decent pay-day: this one in some English town he’d never heard of. Still, a title would mean another fight, with money to help keep his Detroit gym open. His friends and family asked him to hang ‘em up, but you didn’t turn down the chance to earn $10,000 in one night. Now all he had to do was win.
“7 . . . 8 . . . 9 . . .”
Marlon looked at Jones parading along the ropes, already motioning for the belt to be put around his waist. He was a real animal: a shaved head, piggy eyes and cinder block forearms. He looked ugly, he talked ugly, and he fought ugly. During the previous rounds, the referee had ignored the illegal elbows and shots to the back of the head, but Marlon knew that fights on the road were unlikely to be fair contests.
Not today, thought ‘Motown’ as he hauled himself back to his feet. He thumped his chest with his right hand and stuck his mouthpiece out at ‘Gypsy.’
The noise level of the crowd dropped. They shuffled forward in their seats.
Jones, earlier so hungry for action, couldn’t hide his disappointment that he had more work to do that evening.
The referee peered at Marlon, who stepped toward him. “Can you continue?”
“Yes, Sir,” he barked. Marlon looked down and saw the punch had landed right on the scar left by a twenty-year-old stab wound. The pain was dulling.
The referee grabbed Marlon’s wrapped hands and shook them. “Ready?”
“Yes, Sir. I’m good.”
To have any chance, Marlon knew he would have to protect his body better, stick and move, and hope to land a good combination. Bare-knuckle sure was different to cage fighting — different distances, pace, and footwork. Rather than staying in the pocket, fighters leaped in and out of range, throwing fastball shots at each other. After that prolonged attack, Jones would be tired, but he was still dangerous. Marlon knew at 37, his chin wasn’t what it used to be, but he always arrived in good shape. Kickboxing, MMA, bare-knuckle: the rules didn’t matter. He was a fighter, and he had another chance to get back into the ‘W’ column.
“Fight.” The referee clapped his hands together and Jones walked forward to the middle of the ring, his head dipped.
Marlon bounced around the outside of the ring, getting his legs back under him. While Jones rushed in with wild haymakers, Marlon kept his cool and danced left and right, altering his movement. After a few rangefinding attempts, Marlon landed some stinging jabs on Jones. According to the pre-fight prediction, the fight should have long been over. Jones was blowing and came forward at a slower rate. Perhaps he had punched himself out. He definitely hadn’t taken Marlon seriously — running his mouth, missing weight, and showboating to his fans — and now he was breathing heavy, stuck in forward drive like a broken tank. Marlon ducked a desperate overhand right and parried the wrecking ball of a left hook that followed. He was feeling fresher and kept up his output of staccato bursts of punches. With one minute until the end of the round, Jones was slowing.
Now he was recovered, Marlon allowed his mind to wander. Sure, there were easier ways to earn a living — ones that didn’t involve you shaving years off your life and dreading the next set of medical bills — but fighting was simple: your enemy stood right in front of you, and you did your best. Marlon craved attention and fight week always delivered it. Being recognized, being interviewed, and being part of the business made it all worthwhile.
Jones plodded forward and Marlon played the matador, bundling him into the ropes. The crowd, robbed of their expected finish, jeered in frustration. Jones, now stuck in the corner, covered up and tried to put his legs back into gear. Marlon took his time, keeping his man trapped, backing off then jumping in with uneven combinations to upset his defense — right hook, right upper, left to the body, right straight. After fifteen seconds, the referee approached, looking for a reason to intervene.
The shouts of the spectators faded, and Marlon felt a lightness: a sort of elation. It was the same emotion he sensed in the seconds before the end of every one of his fights. This was where he lived — in the ring, or the cage, or anywhere where the crowd was on the outside looking in. This was where he was free to express himself. The last few years had seen his record slide from ‘contender’ to ‘journeyman’, but he was still ‘Motown’ Marlon Greene, and this would one of the good days.
“Keep your punches up, fighter.”
‘Motown’ continued with accurate shots like a vulture picking meat off a carcass. He stepped back and shot in with a thunderous straight right to the sternum. A shock wave of pain shot through Marlon’s hand into his forearm.
Jones clutched at the ropes and fell to the canvas in stages. He rolled on the floor in agony.
“No knockdown. No knockdown.” The referee waved his arms in a low crossing motion. “Low blow.”
Was he kidding? That punch was to the chest. The guy was holding his damned ribs. Marlon hung his head. It didn’t matter what he said. This official was going to do his darndest to keep the belt around Gypsy Jones’ waist.
The referee grabbed Marlon by the wrist and marched him around the ring. “One point deduction. One point.”
A group of thugs in the front row made throat-slitting gestures and threw their plastic cups. “Fuck off back to Niggerland. Cheating spook.”
He didn’t expect a fair fight, but now he had a reason to get this over with. He couldn’t wait to get on the plane home — back to the gym, the kids, even the debt. Normality.
The referee gave Jones the full five minutes to recover from the ‘illegal’ blow, and he came out for the last few seconds of the round refreshed.
Gypsy Jones removed his mouthpiece. “Get the fuck off my turf.”
Marlon awoke to a bright light shining into his right eye. He was lying flat, looking up at two paramedics and the fight official. Fuck. His right hand was broken and his jaw felt like it had been hit with a tire iron. He tried to sit up, but the official holding the flashlight pushed him back down by the chest.
“Unlucky, fella,” said the official. “Fight’s over. He got you.”
A weary Marlon raised his head a little and looked around the sports hall. He caught the same smell of cologne and stale beer and saw the fans moving around in a buzz of activity. Some of them were still chanting. God damn it. Marlon wanted to be sick. Now he faced the hospital forms, the painkillers, and another long layoff. Why did he let himself believe? Just for a few minutes, he had thought about that leather belt around his waist; imagined the calls from the sponsors; signed autographs for the first time in a long time.
The paramedics carried the stretcher out of the ring toward the double door. You had to take your losses and move on, but this loss somehow felt final. Marlon closed his eyes and eased his hands up behind his head. He wasn’t ashamed of his performance, but he was tired of the nauseating losses and ‘I told you so’s’. Why did he continue to put himself through the pain and ridicule? That phone call to Tracy-Ann wasn’t going to be fun.