“How does that feel, Jimmy?” asked Jimmy’s trainer, Carlos, after finishing taping his hands.
“Good,” said Jimmy, stretching out his fingers and then making fists. “Yes, good.”
“Ready to lace up?”
“Yes – yes, I think so,” he said looking up at the wooden ceiling of the locker room as Carlos began lacing up his gloves. The roaring from the thousands of people gathered in the stadium above them made the single, grungy light bulb swing gently from the rusty chain it was attached to. “I wonder how many there are,” he said softly. “None of them are cheering for me.”
“Listen Jimmy, this is a title fight. All those people want to see is a great fight. And just think about how much money you’re going to make if you can go the distance with Ray.”
“No one’s ever gone the distance with Ray,” he said looking upwards, apprehensively, as the crowd roared again.
“Yeah, but you’re not ‘no one’, Jimmy. You have never been in better fighting form. You’re going to knock Ray right out of that goddamn ring tonight!”
“Carlos, you’ll never hear me say this ever again, I promise, but… but I’m scared… I’m really scared.”
“You’d be crazy not to be scared, Jimmy! Don’t forget, every act of courage comes out of fear. Listen to me – take that fear and harness it – convert it into pure rage and go out there and beat the living shit out of that guy.”
A head popped suddenly through the locker room door. “Just about time boys. The wife and kid are here to wish him luck.”
“He’s ready,” said Carlos. “Let them in.”
Jimmy’s wife, Cindy, and 7-year-old daughter, Emily, stepped through the door and approached him. Jimmy’s face lit up with a broad smile. “Hey Em!” he said, tousling her sandy brown hair. “How’s my champ?! Can you give us a second, Carlos?”
“Good,” said Emily quietly as Carlos left the locker room. “Daddy?”
“Are you scared?”
“Are you kidding?! I bet I knock that punk out in the first!” Turning to his wife, wearing the modest white dress she had been wearing the day he met her, her face a mask of anxiety between the long curls of jet-back hair, he sucked in his breath. “God you look beautiful, Cindy.”
“I wore it just for you. For luck. This is the last fight, isn’t it, Jimmy? You promised.”
“I promise, baby, this is the last one. And remember, if I can go the distance tonight, you’ll never EVER have to work in that place again.”
“Time to go, Jimmy!” said Carlos, bursting through the door.
“Okay,” said Jimmy. Hugging his wife and daughter he said: “See you after the fight!” As they walked away towards the door, Emily looked over her shoulder at him and blew him a kiss. He caught it in his glove and blew it back.
Ray had him up against the ropes. His ribs were broken and he could barely lift his hands to block the blows. Both of his eyes were so swollen shut they were barely slits beneath his eyebrows. Blood trickled from both ears and his right cheek. The crowd heaved like a churning ocean and screamed in frenzied excitement as the blinding lights blazed down upon the smoky ring. Ray, exhausted himself, paused for a moment from the terrifying beating he was administering, breathing heavily. Jimmy waited, slumped against the ropes for the final barrage. There remained only 30 seconds left in the fight.
The right upper cut caught him under the chin, snapping his head back. A left hook blasted the side of his face, further tearing the cut already there. I right hook opened up a gaping wound on his left temple that sent a jet of blood into the crowd. Another right to the middle of his face crushed what was left of his nose. Many in the crowd were now crying out in abject horror. The blows to the head came relentlessly and blood flowed freely down his buckling legs. Two fresh gashes opened up on his forehead and another on his left cheek. Ray paused one last time, gasping for air. And then it came, almost in slow motion, the fist though the mist of blood, sweat and cigarette smoke. Smashing him square on the side of the jaw, a plume of bits of broken teeth and ripped gums showered the ringside seats.
The last thing Jimmy heard as his rigid body fell towards the canvas, rushing up towards him like a slab of concrete, was the sound of the final bell.
11 years later – the conclusion of Emily’s Valedictorian speech at West Virginia High
“…and finally, I would like to dedicate this honor to my father. You see, my father never had a chance to stand where I am today. He had to drop out of school at the age of 12 to work and help support his family in the Depression. When he was drafted into the army he learned how to box and, as most of you know, turned pro. As most of you also know, he was killed in a title fight when I was still a little girl. He told me and my Mom that if he could go the distance in the fight, even if he lost, he would be able to buy us a house… my Mom wouldn’t have to work again… and… and he wouldn’t have to fight anymore. And he did it. He went the distance. For us. He sacrificed his own life for us – for his family – that’s all he ever cared about in his whole life. I love you, Daddy”.
In the audience, Cindy proudly sobbed, wearing her modest white dress.