It was the fifth round of an uneasy fight and I was getting mauled by a welter weight in red tasseled shoes. He was an up and comer. Potential top ten. Maybe even champ someday. He had good hand speed. Good timing, too. Good at everything in the ring, including humiliating an old tomato can like me.
The ref didn't like me much, but that was well known. He didn't like me for what I had become. He knew me years ago as a hardscrabble fighter every bit as good as this Menendez hombre, maybe without the flash. Just a young poor kid known as the prototypical "Irish Bomber". I had a wide grin. I had a mean right uppercut. One night I dispatched a man to a lowly hospital to get a swelled brain checked out.
The ref had lost his son in some useless war, so he ended up loving and hating young people. Loved the ones who wanted to live up to their potential. Hated the ones who squandered their talent. In his eyes I was the later. There were the all night parties. The training sessions with booze and long legged dames. Then came the fixed fights to mollify mad mobsters in homburg hats with smuggled Cubans hanging out of the side of their mouths, their expensive tobacco burning up my life.
"You could of been something, Shipman." The ref says to me after he lets Menendez nearly bust another one of my ribs.
The round ended and the ref followed me to my corner. I could hear him through my bloody ears. See him through my puffed up eyes. I could feel his hurtful, truthful words pierce my armoured heart. "You're thirty-eight now, Shipman. You coulda been top ten. This is your last fight. You're bad even for a tomato can. After this fight you're gonna wish you were in hell. Because you ain't worth a puddle of bloody spit. Try tellin' otherwise to some boss."
My corner men dropped spongy water on my face and pressed my forehead with Endswell. I sat on the stool and looked at the ceiling lights through a haze of smoke. I knew these corner guys didn't give a damn about me. Their banter of jabs and leg work and using my big punch made me feel more hopeless than I'd ever felt. I could see Menendez the young bull in the opposite corner. His easy smile. His breathing unlaboured. He nodded his head menacingly. I knew he was blind to my past, maybe blind to his future. I wasn't quite ready to be his righteous kill.
Round six was about to begin. "I ain't callin' no TKO," the ref says. "Either they take you out on your back or you throw in the towel like a yellow loser."
The bell rang and Menendez moves in on me. He bulls me against the ropes and lays punch after punch on my body covered up with my forearms. But I feel his punches slowing down, his arms tiring. Somehow I break to the centre of the ring.
He makes another run, but providence came my way. The young welter weight slips forward on a patch of sweaty canvas. With his arms wide apart, his head bowed, I hit him with an uppercut that lifts him off his feet. He lands stone cold on the mat.
The crowd erupts, men go wild in rage. I was lucky to make it out alive. The only calm I saw was in a man in a homburg hat, his face unmoved. Then I knew what I should have known all along, that Menendez was one of their boys.
That evening I sat alone in a half-filled bar called the One Lucky. I drank cold beer through swollen lips when a radio announcer says the boxer Menendez dies, a brain hemorrhage kills him. An old journeymen fighter by the name of Shipman was his opponent.
Everybody in the bar knew what to do. The customers drank up their last drink fast, and rustled out into the night air. A lone bartender stayed behind, whistling plaintively as he polished shot glasses and washed out ash trays.
I asked for another beer. The bartender nodded and said quietly its on the house. I sat and waited for what I knew was coming. I hoped it would happen in a flash. Painless, in a back alley. But their are those who say I deserved worse. And that's what I got, a shiv just beneath my heart. My spirit now mixed with the hazy smoke that's a club fighter's dream.