How I feel tonight is how I felt three fights ago, when I'd shed the fifteen pounds I'd gained to fight in the Light Heavyweight division, back to one-sixty to qualify for the Middleweight class. Where my career started.
"Jab, right," Sam says. "Jab, right."
My wife Michelle, she left me six months ago, the day I signed for this fight with DeCorey Sims to get my title back. She took a few bags, the Navigator, and our daughter, Asia, to the cabin in North Carolina.
Why she left, it's what we've been fighting about since the first loss. The standing eight count of my career.
"I had to tell our daughter her daddy wasn't going to die," she told me, after my last defeat. "Though, to be honest," she said, "the way your head bounced off the mat, I wasn't so sure myself."
And since the scar tissue forming around my eye sockets, since I've started to open up every time a glove grazes my face, she told me anymore, I'm not so handsome.
"Your face," she said at dinner one night, "it's starting to look rough."
I smiled and winked at Asia, her eyes barely reaching over the plate, and said, "That's okay, real beauty's on the inside."
"As deep as those cuts are," Michelle said, getting up, "they're hitting inner beauty, too."
Sam, starting to sweat, says, "Jab, jab, right," and I tap, tap, hook. Sam says, "Duck, duck."
Since training started, I've heard from Michelle twice. The first time was a response to a letter I'd written her from the gym. What I said, I reminded her I was a Golden Gloves winner in '86. A silver medalist in the '88 Olympics. That, according to the HBO boxing commentators, I had the best right to the body in the last twenty years. I told her I came in at the bottom. I didn't want to go out that way.
One afternoon during a sparring session, her reply came in the mail. On it was a crayon picture of our cabin with the lake stretched silver behind it. On the porch steps, three stick figures were smiling and holding stick figure hands. At the top were three questions:
What about what the doctor told us?
What about Post-Concussion Syndrome and brain damage?
What about going out a father and a husband?
The second time I heard from her was this morning, when her lawyer handed me a manila envelope at the front door and walked away.
Snap, jabbing Sam's hand, I stop and bounce, rolling my neck left to right. Outside the dressing room, the Fed Ex Forum grumbles deep and Sam grabs my gloves and says, "Are you ready?"
"Are you ready?"
The papers, they said: Irreconcilable differences.
They said: Seeking custody of our daughter.
"Are you ready?" Sam is saying, and the dressing room door cracks open, the noise of the crowd rushing in. The cut man sticks his head through, looks at Sam, and says, "It's time."
Coming through the entrance tunnel, I hear the booming roar swell around the black arena. The puddle of spotlight catches me and pulls me along, excited but scared shitless.
Childbirth from the baby's point-of-view.
I bounce down the aisle and the faces in the spotlight are screaming and cursing at me. White spit webbing off their lips. Sam once said you can tell your career's on the ropes when your fans scream at you instead of for you.
What used to be cheers, now I hear "Paper champion!"
Now I hear, "Go home!"
Glass jaw. Has been.
Anymore, people don't want heart, they want perfection.
Climbing the ring steps, I hear George Foreman telling the world I seem to be intimidated by the crowd's response. Larry Merchant, he says, "Coming off two devastating knockouts, I'd be intimidated, too."
In the ring, I bounce around to stay warm. Throw a few jabs. Roll my neck. DeCorey Sims' music keys up and flashbulbs turn the forum white. He won the title from the nobody that caught me with a left hook. Coming out of the tunnel, he's dancing around the aisle and Sam nods toward him and says, "Looks good tonight." He leans over and says, "Whatcha think?"
I slip my robe off and ask Sam exactly what is "irreconcilable differences?" "In a dictionary sense, I mean." Sims ducks into the ring, staring me down, and over the noise I yell in Sam's ear, "Really, is it something I have a chance of working out?"
The ring announcer slides through the ropes with his note cards and catches the microphone spidering down from above. He yells something about the Middleweight Championship of the World and the walls vibrate around the roar. He introduces me as the former IBF/WBA champion etc., adding my record of thirty-eight wins, one draw, and two defeats.
"He just had," I tell Sam, "to bring that up."
Sims is introduced and his manager slips my old belt from around his waist and holds it above his head.
I look up at the Megatron above the ring and, on the angled screen, I can see the Vaseline streaking down my chest.
We're called to the center of the ring. Sims and I are face to face, our eyes locked, with the ref between us giving us the rundown. Standing like this, it reminds me of the wedding ceremony. The priest between us. Michelle and me standing the exact same way, each looking deep into the other. Everything around us barricaded out. Just two people, sick with nerves and excitement, stepping into a bond no one else can be a part of.
We touch gloves and then we're the only two in the ring, our trainers yelling out last-second instructions from the floor.
Sam says to stay under his jabs. He says to destroy the body and the head will die. "Tonight, you get back what's yours," he yells. "You ready, baby?"
"I'm ready," I tell him, and with the bell ringing I ask, "But do you think Michelle will at least catch the fight on TV?"
In the center of the ring, with the glove-on-glove hissing sounds of the first punches, the last six months of sparring, the video clips, the fight strategies, it all fades away, leaving a combination of mechanics and instinct. I once told Michelle there's no way to describe this feeling. This elevation. "How can something that feels this good possibly be a bad thing?" Without looking at me, she said to check alcoholicsanonymous.com. She said to call 1-800-SEX-HELP. "I'm sure they can tell you."
I met Michelle on JAL Flight 1031 to Kyoto, Japan, for a string of appearances that would take me to Tokyo. She was a flight attendant. I was 25-0.
It's that simple. She gives me my in-flight meal and three months later we're married. I knew I loved her when, on the plane, I told her I was a boxing champion. "I'm kind of a celebrity," I said, and she smiled and said, "But that doesn't tell me if you want the club sandwich or baked chicken."
In the ring, the first few jabs that snap my head back are already giving me a headache. After two concussions and several physical exams, these headaches became Post-Concussion Syndrome. A slight brain injury.
Symptoms include: headache, dizziness, and poor memory. Tinnitus, arguing, and double vision. Also included but not limited to is: photophobia, a worried wife, and sensitivity to noise. There's fatigue and divorce. Regret.
In the dark exam room, the doctor told me and Michelle PCS may eventually lead to brain damage. Looking at the x-rays of my skull glowing on the wall, Michelle said, "Great, Asia just learned to eat by herself, and now you're gonna forget."
I tried telling her I'm a fighter. "You knew that when you married me." And she said, "My father was a factory worker. But when his back went out, he knew the gig was up."
The crowd rises like a dark wave and in the center of the ring, Sims is on one knee. His head down, his mouthpiece half out. I look up at the Megatron and in slow motion, I'm knocking him down with a right to the solar plexus. From another angle, I do it again. A close-up of his face, twisting and knotting, his eyes clenched before he drops down.
Humiliation in High Definition.
After a few more slo-mos, Sims is on his feet, taking a standing eight count. Ten seconds later, the round's over. Slipping my mouthpiece out, Sam says, "See how easy it is when your heart's in it?" He squeezes a sponge of water over my head and I tell him, "Surely Michelle caught one of those replays."
The bell sounds and I shuffle back into the ring. The pump inside me is through the roof, like the day Asia was born. Michelle's hair black and wet and matted to the side of her face after six hours of labor. I picture them wrapped in blankets at the cabin, a large bowl of popcorn balanced on their laps. With the cameraman on the outside ring apron, I let Sims work me back in that direction. Dancing around, I turn my right shoulder toward the lens and imagine, over the crunch of popcorn, my "Michelle & Asia" tattoo filling the TV screen.
In the corner, I look at the ring-girl circling the ring, all smiles and legs. According to her round card, we're in the sixth. "I really can't remember the last couple rounds," I tell Sam, "but I'd like to think he's in trouble now."
Sam wipes my face with a towel, pulls it back red, and says, "I do remember the last couple rounds, and the only thing he's in trouble of is breaking his hand on your head."
The assistant trainer squeezes up under my ribcage to help me breathe. The cut man's packing a cotton swab soaked in adrenaline chloride above my left eye and I know I'm cut again. The cut man, he says, "If this gets any worse, we may have to stop the fight."
Sam gives me water and I slosh it around in my mouth and spit red into the bucket. He presses a mouse under my right eye with a stop-swell and says, "With defense this bad, that might be something to think about."
The cameraman hovers above us, filming into the huddle where the cut man's jamming more coagulant into the cut. Pointing at the camera, I tell him to clean it good. "My little girl might be watching."
Outside the ring, George Foreman says, "He's gonna have heartburn with all the jabs he's eating."
Sam says, "Stay busy, now. Throw punches in bunches, baby. Drop this guy."
The bell rings and my legs are jelly. I step toward the center and Sims fires a combination that backs me up, pinning me against the ropes. I look up at the Megatron--my hands are blocking my head and he's ripping off shots in flurries. By the look on my face, they must be hurting.
Sims throws a bomb and I see my wife driving away.
A left upper cut and Asia's waving goodbye over her mother's shoulder.
I'm trapped in the corner, and Sims wails on my sides and shoulders, and I'm grunting with each pop. The ropes burn lines in my back. The crowd is deafening, on their feet, and at the HBO table, I hear George Foreman screaming, "He's hurt! He's hurt!" He's yelling, "Ladies and Gentlemen, you are witnessing the end of an era!"
I brace myself against the turnbuckle and I'm suddenly holding Asia for the first time. I'm walking her to kindergarten.
The blows rock me back and forth, but behind my gloves I'm with Michelle, making love to her on our honeymoon. I'm proposing to her all over again.
On the Megatron, Sims feigns right, then unleashes another barrage of body shots. And on the screen, my hands are slowly dropping. Behind each shot, I'm losing my titles again, feeling the emptiness of having everything you've worked so hard for being taken from you before you ever wake up on the canvas. I'm hearing Michelle kiss my swollen eye after the first loss, saying, "Part of being a king is the fall."
The crowd and referee, together they're counting, "Six!"
I know how this works. It's really a science. A fighter takes a shot on the point of the chin that causes the brain, floating in cerebral fluid, to smash against the skull wall. The cerebellum and medulla oblongata systems at the base of the skull catch the impact.
This is called putting a fighter to sleep.
It's starting to be a regular thing for me.
The crowd and ref count "Nine!" and sound as if they're two rooms away. Then, with a muffled bell ringing somewhere, I'm on a muddy road cut open by deep wheel ruts. Tall leafy oaks are bowed over the road, latching in the center.
My own unconscious entrance tunnel.
The road winds and circles, then I see the end starting to open out. Suddenly, a bright light hits my right eye, and all the arena noise rushes inside my head. The light is from the ring doctor squatting over me. Other faces hover beside himóDeCorey Sims, the cut man. Sam. They all float in a circle around me, talking in echoes.
The medic asks if I can hear him, and Sims says, "He's gonna be alright. My man's alright."
"Can you hear me?" the medic asks, and then I'm fading again.
Sam, he shakes his head and says, "It's over, son. We're done."
My eyes roll back and my tongue is thick and meaty on the top of my mouth. The voices are far off, and slipping out, I try to tell Sam it's not over yet. I didn't sign the papers.
Then, I'm back on the road, at the end of my tunnel, and it opens to a clearing with our cabin. The lake is flat and silver in the back, and the sunlight snaps off its surface like a flashbulb. On the porch step, Michelle and Asia are holding hands and smiling. I reach out and climb the steps. I take their hands and say, "I lost," then I'm back in the ring again, on my back under the huddle of floating faces.
Sam snaps his fingers and, outside the ring, George Foreman is talking to me through the camera. He says, "Please, listen to me. It's time to call it quits. Every great fighter has this fight."
The medic sits me up and the applause rattles my mind.
"Do you know where you are?" he says, and I think of a small muddy road in North Carolina. I think of Interstate 40 East and tall leafy oaks. "Do you know where you're at?" he says.
"No," I tell him, "but I think I know where I'm going."
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