Undercard

DAVID WHIPPMAN

The bell rang. I trudged back to my corner, slumped on the stool, and wished I had trained harder. From a few feet away I could hear the voice of Jim Fletcher, a drinking buddy of mine. Jim was at ringside as sports reporter for the local radio station.

“…and if you’ve just tuned in, fight fans, the cruiserweight clash between Paul Owen and Jimmy Chandler has one round to go. These guys may have been around a long time, but what a contest they’ve given us tonight! By my reckoning, Paul is trailing on points, and he needs a big, big finish. I guess the crowd will be right behind him, as he’s the local boy, born and bred in this great city of ours. One thing’s certain – the last round will be as thrilling as the other nine!”

Maybe he’d been watching a different fight. Good old Jim. He was wasted as a sports correspondent. He should have written poetry. Or war propaganda.

“As we wait for the last crucial three minutes, I’m joined at ringside by Buddy Salini, that fine middleweight of the eighties, a man who’s been in the ring with the very best. Great to have you with us, Buddy. How do you see the scoring so far?”

But Jim was only telling half of it. Yes, Buddy had been in with the best, first as a trial horse, then a walking punch bag, and his face and mind were witnesses.   A doctor told me once that an old, punchy fighter would sometimes try to disguise the damage by using words of three or four syllables in an attempt to sound eloquent. The trouble was that a limited vocabulary led to one such word being overused. From somewhere, Buddy had gleaned the word ‘basically’.

“Uh, well, Glen -yeah, I mean Jim – basically, uh, I see Chandler ahead right now, but basically one punch from Evans could turn the whole, uh, fight basically around. Oh, yeah, it’s Owen…”

I was almost pleased when the bell rang.

If I didn’t want to tell the truth, I could make things a whole lot more exciting. I could tell you that as I moved out to the centre of the ring, I caught sight of my beautiful but loyal wife in the crowd, with our beautiful but sick child on her lap. That in the final round, I took enough punishment to kill a platoon of marines, and was down for a count of nine, but recovered to knock Chandler out. That in the seconds before I was mobbed by a hysterically cheering crowd, I hugged my wife and said: “I did it all for you, honey – and the kid!”

Bull, of course. My son wants nothing to do with me, and if my ex-wife was in the crowd she’d have been wanting me to get my lights punched out. Chandler and I had just about enough left to throw a few jabs and lean on each other. That left the formality of the scorecards being read, and his hand raised.

Like most of my fights, it had been untidy  and unexciting. I wasn’t worried. I always say, if you want excitement and neat endings, watch wrestling.

I had showered, dressed and collected my money. On the way out of the building, I caught sight of myself on a promotional poster, one of those bits of paper that stays on the wall years after the event it advertises, because nobody can be bothered to take it down. The promoters had pushed me in those days, and the local press had played along. Paul Owen, an exciting newcomer to the fight game. A hometown boy who could go all the way.

You can advertise people the same as anything else. But it won’t work if the product’s no good. It hadn’t taken a Muhammad Ali to end my undefeated record. Pretty soon, it was obvious to everyone that at best I’d be a journeyman, a supporting act for the real prospects. These days, only the most ardent boxing buff would know who I was.

I thought: at least I still recognize myself. The face on the poster was still what I saw when I shaved. Except the jaw line wasn’t as firm, the face less tight, the nose a little flatter and lumpier. And most of all the eyes. Something in the eyes.

The knowledge that you can lose more than a fight.

It was a mild evening. My usual post-fight resolve to live right and train right was, again as usual, fading. I walked the couple of blocks from the arena to Freddy’s Place, which is where I do most of my drinking. As regards to the décor, it has much in common with the city sports hall, but I like the atmosphere. It’s a kind of neutral ground where businessmen, students, artists, blue collar workers and pretty well anyone else can drink and co-exist.

Freddy himself was working the bar. “Hey, here comes the town’s answer to Dempsey. I was disappointed, Paul. I wanted you to land the big punch in the last round.”

I grinned. “I did, but somebody shoulda told Chandler. He didn’t feel it. Wish I could say the same when he hit me.”

“Well, at least you get all the money for the pain. Smart move of yours, managing yourself.”

I shrugged. “What would a manager do except set me up for some golden boy to knock over?”

Freddy put a beer in front of me without being asked. “Drink up. At least you’re a cruiserweight. You don’t have to watch the calories.”

“That’s his trouble,” said Jacko, another regular. He was in business – he owned a landscape gardening firm. Between fights, I sometimes did labouring work for him. “See, Paul here is too big to be a light-heavy but too small to take on the real big guys. It’s a shame, kid. Nature made you exactly the wrong size.”

“What’s with this too small?” asked someone else. I knew him vaguely, I’d seen him in there before, but I couldn’t recall his name. “It never stopped Marciano.”

“A vastly overrated boxer,” yelled someone else from the direction of the pool table – and the old, endless discussion started up, the hypothetical fights between men of different eras and styles. The old controversies: Tunney’s long count, did Johnson take a dive in Havana…It flowed over me as I sank the beers.

“C’mon, Paul.” I realized Freddy was talking to me. “You’re the expert. Let’s have your opinion.”

“Eh? Sorry, I wasn’t listening.”

“The greatest heavyweight of all time. The best ever. Who’d get your vote?”

Of course. All bar-room boxing conversations end with this question.

“Me, of course!”

“Hey, yeah, but seriously. Let’s have your choice.”

“OK then, I’d have to pick -”

A blank. I see the face, I know who he is, but the name has disappeared, as if wiped from a slate in my head.

“Yeah, Paul? Make up your mind”

“The guy…the guy who beat Braddock. And that German – he beat that German in one round.”

“You mean Joe Louis. Well just say so!”

“Louis, of course. What’s in this beer?”

The bar closed an hour later. We spilled on to the pavement, the conversations rambling by now, the friendly arguments unresolved. I began to walk the three blocks to the brownstone building where I rented a room.

The best ever. You might as well talk about religion. People believed what they wanted: Sullivan, Dempsey, Ali, Marciano. And Louis, of course. I said his name again, as if afraid it might not be there.

Any of them, the greatest. But not me. I thought of that poster. The night and the alcohol made it seem like a graven image.

Paul Owen could never have been a contender.

David Whippman is British writer of poetry and fiction.

Advertisements