I rolled over, face on the canvas, and looked out at the crowd. It was only a couple dozen, mostly heading for the doors; of the ones that stayed, half were shaking their heads up and down, the other half side to side. A grid of faces, some happy and some disappointed. Plenty of money leaving plenty of hands. Only going back into a few. I felt blood running through my eyebrow and thought I’d better start getting paid better to keep making this shit look good.
After I was examined and given the OK to shower and go, Cameron, my trainer, if you could call him that, came up to me: tall and thin in a t-shirt that said CITY OF CHAMPYINZ. He looked at me like I was something he’d stepped in.
“What’s your problem?”
He handed me an envelope. “Here.”
I peeked inside. It didn’t look like enough. “Is this light?”
“More than enough for that kind of performance,” the cheapskate said.
“What the fuck’s that mean?”
“Means you’re becoming an even worse swimmer than boxer.”
Who the hell was this prick? Hadn’t I made him enough money? “I fight just as hard as anyone.” Immediately after I said that, I knew it wasn’t true.
“Nobody’s going to watch this garbage no more.” He said, starting to walk away. “You can’t be a pro loser without winning sometimes.”
“You think I can’t knock you down, Cam?”
“Why bother? Nobody’s betting on you.” He never turned around, just kept on down the hallway.
I stared off. He was right. Some trainer.
A couple minutes later one of the other fighter’s men came up, patted my back, and gave me another envelope. That one wasn’t light.
The shower in my room was broke, so I had to sink wash. I stuffed the envelopes in one of my shoes, under the insole. I locked it up and took my keys with me into the bathroom. The sink spigot was rusty, hard to turn. I dipped my head down and the cut on my eyebrow burned as the cool, brown water ran over it. Everybody’s talking about Flint, but I heard Pittsburgh got even higher lead than them. People’ll sell anyone out for some money. I was only hurting myself, but these motherfuckers were still greedy with me.
My lock was turned round—I always kept it facing one way—they must have had a copy of my key. I kept a picture of Emile Griffith—which I took to all my fights—stuck inside the locker. He gave me strength. Anyway, they peeled that back to see if I hid the money behind it. My jeans was gone through, my shoes was looked through, but they didn’t find the envelopes. They tried to put everything back how I had it, but the shit was obvious.
On my way out I saw a poster for the fight taped to the front door.
QUINN “THE KILLER” KILROY
“MAGIC” MALIK DAVIS
What kind of name was Quinn Kilroy? Sounded like an eskimo bad guy in a Stallone flick. His photo took up the whole top half of the poster, my picture wasn’t on it. Everyone knew I was another W so this guy could shoot for a big promoter. I’d heard Tyson’s people was there to scout him, even though his crew was about bankrupt, but that’d probably be enough to reach a national match in the next year if he got his numbers up in time. That’s all I was there for. They call it being a professional Opponent. A formality with a face— and they didn’t even bother putting my face on the poster anymore.
Back at my apartment—a sleeping room above a bar for $300 a month—I looked for food. I kept a lot of Chef Boyardee and energy bars, stuff already cooked. I had a jug of water I’d make protein shakes with, which I had to fill in the bar’s restroom.
I was cleaned out. I even checked the mini-fridge, like someone might have sneaked in while I was gone and placed something in it. Just a styrofoam takeout box with nothing in it. I went downstairs to see if anything on the avenue was open.
It was chilly out, but I was still wound up from before. Cameron used to actually train me; then the second he saw money in making me dive, he took it. I had no choice. But back in the day I used to fight on pure fire. I couldn’t remember a single fight I ever won, I was so locked in. It was the ones I dived that were ugly, having to recall when to fall back, how many times to aim for the gloves before it was too obvious. Always ugly.
Walking, thinking about that, I saw a woman putting an exercise bike on the curb. It looked brand new. I asked, “Are you throwing that out?”
“Plus the bastard that bought it.”
“You mind if I get on?”
“Have fun.” She went inside. I heard a crashing noise and a man shout, Jesus Christ!
I got on the bike and pedaled. I really got into it. A car flew by and the driver said, “You ain’t going nowhere, though!” By that time I was sweating. I picked up the bike and carried it down the street to my room. I rode for an hour before remembering I never got anything to eat. I didn’t care. All I knew was, I was done throwing fights.
Hank Revetic was the only trainer in town who didn’t fuck with divers— meaning he didn’t fuck with me. His gym was on 9th Ave, next to the firehall. He trained some folks who went on to have great careers; just one of those classic old white dudes, salty as hell that he never got a fair shake, but you’d never hear him complain.
I walked through his door. He said, “I can’t help you,” his back to me but staring at the mirrors lining the far wall. “I know what you’re about.”
“I don’t wanna be about that anymore,” I said, standing in the doorway.
“Say it again.”
“I… I’m not about that anymore.”
He waved his hand for me to approach. “Alright,” he said to a couple kids in the ring, “go dance.” They started shadowboxing in front of the mirrors. They looked good. Proud.
“Take a seat.” He motioned me towards the edge of the ring. I sat, feeling the bottom rope against my head. Hank was in a red leather chair with brass rivets, old ring canvas patching up the worn-out armrests. “You don’t lose well,” he chuckled. “I don’t think you want to lose.”
I rubbed my neck. “You’re right.”
“Your trainer is a piece of shit to put you over a barrel like he has. No offense.”
I was stunned. How did he know? “It’s just hard for me to get fights when—”
“What you do behind closed doors isn’t my business,” Hank put his hand on my shoulder. “If anyone else wants to make it theirs, then you just hit those bastards that much harder.”
He paused and looked me over again. “Let’s see what we can do.”
Hank had us train outside. He said the cold made your body work harder, which made a regular fight that much easier. I think he just didn’t have enough room for everyone.
We were at the playground next to the gym; while everyone was in the playground, Hank placed me at the fence outside. There was a rigged-up bag strapped to the fence.
“I’ll check on you later,” Hank said.
“What do I do?”
“Not sure,” he said. “You got a fire in you, I just don’t know where.”
He had a way of insulting you that made you curious.
I started light, getting a feel for the bag. It was hard paying attention with all the kids in the playground. Each time I hit the fence it rattled. Everyone stared at me. When I was a kid it was the same, only I was the one against the fence. In middle school I got caught with a boy in the woods by my house. His family moved him away. Mine took me to church until I was old enough to leave. After that I had to fight nearly every day. They were never fair fights. I could still remember the names they called me.
The fence rattled harder.
I began to sweat.
Kicking me in the ribs, spitting.
My hands hurt.
The rest of the kids staring, giggling.
Hank sauntered over. “There it is,” he said.
The bag was torn off from the fence, which was dripping with blood. I looked down: my wraps were completely red.
“I didn’t notice,” I said.
“You don’t have to pay attention to your opponent,” Hank said. “Just pay attention to what you want to beat.”
After a couple weeks of training, Hank lined up a match for me at an event called Brawl Under the Bridge. It was a five-fight charity event held at the underpass of the High Level bridge on 7th avenue. I was on the second undercard of the night, filling in for somebody that caught the flu. I was ten pounds heavier than the guy I was fighting. If it weren’t such short notice, and if Hank weren’t one of the people putting the event together, I know the other team would have never let it happen.
Dozens of people were wandering around the brick street of the underpass as traffic moved slowly down 7th avenue, drivers trying to catch a glimpse of what was going down. Most of the crowd was waiting in line for different food trucks and craft beer; maybe ten or fifteen people were watching the first fight. Two skinny kids were flailing against each other like kangaroos. At one point they were locked up and the white kid whispered something before they got broken up. He found himself on the ground a second later. I was happy about that. He ended up surviving the round, though; made it through three and lost on points.
An old-school DJ was spinning vinyl between bouts. Hank yelled at him to turn off a Kanye song. “This is family event,” he said. “We can’t have all that damn cursing.” The DJ shrugged and put on some Parliament. I asked if he heard anything about some new Frank Ocean yet. He just laughed.
I got in the ring and began warming up. I knew nothing about the kid I was fighting. He probably didn’t know anything about me. We were nobodies, but under the glow of the streetlamps and headlights, we pretended otherwise.
Instead of card holders, cork boards lined the ring. Hank had his youngest students tacking up info on the bouts. One side was blank. “Where’s the cards?”
The boy stationed there shrugged. “I lost the thumbtacks.”
Hank told him to hold the signs himself, then came to my corner. “Just fight your fight and, hopefully, it won’t be easy,” he smirked. “I’m gonna work the crowd for ya.” He walked away, nudging strangers and pointing to the ring.
“Hey bud.” I looked down and saw Cam, still wearing his CITY OF CHAMPYINZ shirt.
“Not enough for this fight.”
“Then you know where to bet.”
“Why chance the judges,” he opened his hand, a yellow thumbtack in his palm. “Tuck this pushpin away, use it in the third. Your cheek or wherever. Bleed some, lose your feet, collapse after a body shot. That’s the plan.”
I kneeled. “I don’t do that any—”
“Double whatever Hank pays, and beside,” he grinned. “The world’s come a long way, but do you think anyone’s gonna support you?” He pushed the tack under my wrist-wrap and walked away. The little boy holding the cards stared at me. I tried shaking the tack loose but couldn’t.
Hank came back, cockeyed. “What was that?”
“Nothing,” I stammered.
The other kid entered the ring and made some quick moves. He looked like lightning. My chest ached in a way it hadn’t in years; my ribs tightened in on me like a snake coiling its prey.
The ref waved me on. Hank said something I couldn’t hear. The other guy and me approached each other. This was it. He looked at me. I couldn’t do this. Our gloves touched. The rules, the nods, the bell.
I don’t remember a thing after that, but I know it was ugly.
Jessica Dunne is a San Francisco painter and printmaker. Her solo shows include the Frye Art Museum, the Fresno Art Museum, and the Flaten Museum, Saint Olaf College. She has work in the Oakland Museum of California, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and the New York Public Library. Jessica has received the James D. Phelan Award, a Kala Art Institute Fellowship, and a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant.