I bet ten bucks on a sentimental favorite to win. Sure, he’s old, and reports say he didn’t train as hard as he might have. But he’s been my boxing hero since childhood—when he won the gold at the Olympics. I’m sure there’s another moment of glory waiting to explode on an unsuspecting world. He just needs to land that one magical right.
As the rounds wear on, though, I can feel it. I’m not tense and fidgety. Just the opposite. My cheeks feel heavy. I can feel my eyes when they move. My beer tastes bitter. The TV announcers sound like they’re holding back some news.
The color commentator says a lot of good things about the opponent. “Young.” “Sharp.” “Quick.” “Never lost a fight that went past the fifth round.”
I know it’s not really the opponent in the ring beating my guy. It’s the years. It’s the comfort of wealth. It’s the long breaks between fight, the soft living, the ice cream and cheeseburgers.
When my champ was young and broke, he had something to prove. He was angry. A chip on his shoulder and fire in his eye. He stared at opponents like he was thirsty for their souls and hungry for their hearts. He lived at the gym and, sometimes, pushed himself too hard.
In those days he was like a new rock band full of angst and energy. Eager to change the world with their lyrics, to make the world dance to their beat.
What’s this? The opponent slips. He twists into a solid left and reels backward.
My champ advances. He smells blood. He tastes victory. His terrifying right hand rolls cocked and loaded for the kill.
Tooohhhh! he lands a left on the kid’s fresh cheek.
Thwack! a right hook catches the kid’s shoulder and ricochets off his head.
The kid steps back into the ropes, his right foot twisting, searching for something solid.
And there it is! The famous right cross from hell catches the kid square on the jaw.
The champ straightens a bit.
The kid covers.
But he doesn’t go down.
Champ throws a left-right combination. Both get through. And the kid keeps standing.
And then I know: it’s over.
This kid isn’t Superman. He’s just a good boxer.
The champ gave him his best shot—a punch that put down legends. It rocked the kid, but didn’t topple him.
The bell rings. The fighters retreat to their corners. Both sit.
The kid’s corner is loud and angry. Men with faces like catcher’s mitts scream at the young man, smearing Vaseline on his swelling face.
In the champ’s corner, though, it’s quiet. Men go about their business quickly. The trainer speaks carefully. “Keep moving in. Keep the right up. High. Close to his chin.”
The champ’s eyes are focused on another era. Maybe the fight in New Jersey when he won the belt the first time.
Now they’re up. The last round.
The announcers say the champ needs a knock-out to win.
The final round is only a formality. The kid took the champ’s best and lived to answer another bell.
I’ll have to find a new favorite boxer, I guess. But they don’t make ‘em like they used to.