"Payday!" shouted the caller. "Nationwide telecast!" In the background: crowd noises. A double-bumping bass line. Slurry, in-your-face lyrics.
"Cordell?" Roman muted his TV.
"We got us a payday!" Cordell said.
Given that Roman Carr, heretofore promising welterweight, had been laid off from his day job as a framing carpenter, which had in turn caused him to abandon his plan-B pursuit of a community college degree; and that Portia was due to deliver their first child, a daughter, in thirteen days; and not to mention that they were behind in the rent and both his truck and her car needed tires and that (humiliatingly) he was working as part time counter help at a Burger King in order to supplement her salary as a medical receptionist, you would think news of a decent money fight would have been the manna of salvation.
But not necessarily. The hang-up being the source of the news -- his manager/trainer Cordell Jackson.
"I'm having a tough time hearing you. Get away from that music. Who am I up against?"
"It's a TV fight."
"Great. Who is my opponent?"
"This ain't no 'o-pponent.' This a comer. A matinée idol."
"You know what I mean, Cordell -- my adversary."
"Devontae Hewitt. They calling him the welterweight Tyson. You win, you'll move into the top ten."
"Deadly" Devontae Hewitt, a former Olympic Bronze Medalist out of Philly, was zooming up through the rankings much as Roman had been a year ago. Occurrences of Hewitt's name were flashing in The Ring like cameras on New Year's Eve. A win over Hewitt would move him back into the limelight -- meaning larger purses, meaning an end to his insolvency.
"When do we fight?"
"Silver Linings Promotions is giving us a shot. They gonna pay us thirty grand."
"Not bad. What's the date?"
"It's a ten round undercard to the WBA Light Heavyweight title match in New Orleans at the Pontchartrain Center--"
"When, is, it?"
New Orleans, the mos' romantic town on earth. The Big Easy. Creole babies--"
"When, Cordell? Do you not hear me when I ask 'when'? "
"Gonna be on ESPN."
"Hewitt is fighting Moravsky on ESPN this Friday night."
"Not now he ain't. He was 'posed to fight Moravsky, but Moravsky tore a calf tendon in sparring and had to cancel," Cordell said. "Silver Linings Promotions just now called me. It's our big opportunity. Tommy Aldis is ringside commentator and Gene Tonetti is calling the rounds."
"What! I can't get ready for a match with an undefeated like Devontae Hewitt in five days. He has, like, eleven knockouts in sixteen fights. I need roadwork. Time on the bag. Sparring sessions. I need two months minimum."
"Can't get ready! Can't get ready!" Cordell said, huffing with disbelief. "You gots t'be ready for a guaranteed thirty grand!"
"I need time to train, time to get in condition."
"You in condition enough. You in the gym two, three days a week. Looka here, you win this one, the next payday will be a pay-per-view co-headliner for a hundred and fifty grand."
"But if I lose, it will drop my record to twenty-eight and three. Three losses is a black flag. I'll be stuck on the southern circuit for life. This is pivotal. I gotta think it over."
"Now you talkin' all negative, talkin' you might lose," Cordell said, his voice soaring two octaves. "That ain't no way for a champion to present hissef."
"I said, I gotta think about it."
"Silver Linings wants to know right away. They got fighters lined up around the block, don't even have to think about it. Muhfuckas out there be hungry to--"
"I'll call you back." Roman hung up and slumped into their couch, a leatherette hand-me-down from Portia's mom.
As it always was when he was home by himself, TV was tuned to the same twenty-four-hour news channel -- a newly acquired habit that he recognized as being as unhealthy as it was irresistible. He watched this channel like a castaway searching the horizon for the silhouette of a rescue ship. He watched it for a signal that his luck might change; watched it so much that, most of the time, he didn't know what the reporters or the news anchors were saying. He watched it the way a people chew gum.
He needed time to think, needed to get out of their stuffy apartment with its pinging radiators; needed to get away from the TV. In moments like these he turned to roadwork.
Roman locked his front door, trotted down the driveway, and headed for the Parkway. Januarys in Memphis were dryer than Decembers, but a wind blowing in off the Mississippi sent its frosty quills through his sweats.
He needed guidance.
But Malvin was dead.
Six years earlier, Roman's pro debut was a losing four-round prelim at the Omni New Daisy Theater on Beale Street. Roman was in the dressing room icing his cheekbone when Malvin strolled in and introduced himself as the proprietor of the Martin Luther King Memorial Sports Academy. Said he had a heavyweight booked in the main event. Said you have talent but it is an unpolished talent. Said you have heart. Lifting his chin, he said that he was a great detector of heart. Said that he could use a tough white boy in his stable to show racial diversity and if Roman wanted a career in professional pugilism to drop by -- that was, if the South Memphis location wasn't too scary. He left a business card.
Malvin turned out to be a serious coach but an uncomplicated man, and, for Roman, a father figure. Under Malvin's tutelage, Roman won his next twenty-five fights.
In late March, while walking his dog, Malvin had an aortal aneurysm. In the space of an afternoon, Roman's mentor was gone.
Cordell Jackson worked for his brother as a general factotum around the gym. During bouts, he served as an assistant cornerman, hauling equipment, fetching ice, holding the spit bucket.
When Cordell inherited the gym, the stable began to unravel. The middleweight and the lightheavy quit coming in. One of the heavyweights was killed in a dice game robbery. Besides Roman, this left a featherweight with a glass jaw, a too-heavy heavyweight, and a fourteen-year-old training as an amateur.
The leap his career was poise for faltered. Memphis was not a Philadelphia, not an L. A. There were no other fight gyms. Roman stayed with Cordell because, financially, he was stuck in Memphis.
In May he fought Enrico Esparza in San Antonio. Esparza had come in seven pounds over the weight limit. A month earlier, Cordell had signed a contract that failed to set a penalty amount in the advent of an overage. Pre-fight, the two camps negotiated. Esparza's manager, aware that Roman had traveled farther, stoned Cordell into signing off for $250 -- a hilarious pittance. Weighing in at three pounds under, Roman was now left to fight a seasoned pro who was bigger by nearly a weight division.
Unlike the meticulous Malvin, Cordell had not done his homework, had not reviewed one word of reportage on Esparza's previous fights, never bothered to search for a video. He therefore could not warn Roman of Esparza's street-fighter's inclination to rush in with his head low behind a looping right hook.
In retrospect, it had been predictable. There was a third-round clash of heads resulting in a mouse above Roman's left eyelid. Cordell had forgotten to pack the end-swell. Esparza pounded the increasing puffiness until it burst. Between rounds, Cordell applied epinephrine but could not stop the bleeding. The ringside doctor halted it in the sixth after blood spray freckled his sullen girlfriend's cleavage as she watched from the second row.
Roman reached the Parkway and turned north.
Nine months had passed. Cordell had not come up with any fights. Roman could feel the ring rust setting in. His wallet was flatter than a fritter. He worried that to the Boxing Establishment -- the fight game's collective consciousness that included the TV networks, the writers and commentators, the fight promoters, and the fighters themselves -- he was becoming irrelevant.
Money and Visibility: these were the reasons to take the fight.
On the flip side, a third loss would relegate him to the journeyman class -- that lower-middle-pay limbo between up-and-comers and "opponents" -- where you traded your health for hope and wound up with marmalade for brains.
But he had to have the money. A child was coming. He was kidding himself if he thought there was a choice. He stopped running and, misgivings aside, fished in the pocket of his sweats for his phone.
On a gray Thursday morning, they boarded Amtrak's City of New Orleans, the two of them. Cordell insisted that he could treat any cuts himself or that they would find a cutman in New Orleans. He'd also said he would bring the amateur kid as assistant corner help, but this -- Cordell explained in hurried-up, mumbled-up detail -- had fallen through. Roman suspected Cordell of skimping on overhead. Now that Cordell was a man of property, two ex-girlfriends were hounding him for child support.
Worried and fuming, Roman sat by himself on a table in one of the Pontchartrain Center's smelly locker rooms. He was dressed out except for his handwraps and gloves. The bout was sixty minutes away. Cordell entered accompanied by a middle-aged black man with a milky eye. The wreckage of his face said: ex-fighter.
"Here's our assistant," Cordell announced gleefully. To the man he said, "Step to it," indicating Roman with a backhanded wave.
Roman nodded to the man. "How's it going?"
The man walked past him.
Already tense, this snub irked Roman further. "Cordell, who's this guy?"
"He's gonna do your hands. I gotta alert the media that we've arrived." In high spirits, Cordell made for the door. The man shuffled over to their duffle bag and began to rummage through it.
"Cordell, are we going to discuss a strategy?"
"I'll be back."
"What 's this guy's name?"
"I dunno. I call him 'Bucket' -- ha, ha," Cordell called over his shoulder.
The man found the handwraps and shuffled back. In a practiced manner, he started on Roman's left hand. Hook the thumb in the wrap-loop. Wrap it round the wrist three times; spiral the wrap higher up the hand on each turn; up and over the knuckles; build layers of padding over the knuckles. Roman smelled the heavy warmth of whiskey on his breath.
Roman said, "What's your name?"
"'Bucket' is good," he said. "Tomorrow I'll be something else." He threaded the wrap between each finger and the base of the thumb. And now over the finger tops for a second area of padding.
Bucket seemed disinclined to talk, so Roman stared at the wall and tried not to breathe Bucket's exhalations. He set his mind to a battle plan of some sort.
Finishing Roman's left hand, Bucket secured the hand wrap with its Velcro strip and started on the right.
Ten minutes later, a Louisiana state boxing commissioner entered. He inspected Bucket's work, felt for hardening agents, and then signed each wrap with a Sharpie.
Bucket began massaging Vaseline into Roman's face. He looked closely at the scar tissue above Roman's eye and mumbled, "I knows you for a bleeder." When he finished, Bucket retired to a folding chair in a corner and appeared to fall asleep.
Where had Cordell got off to? Imagining Devontae Hewitt before him, he shadowboxed himself into a drenching sweat. Hewitt was tall and lanky; he possessed a four-inch reach advantage, he was a stylist. No way could Roman box him from long range. He'd have to be the aggressor, the puncher, work his way in, bang his way in. Would Malvin have agreed?
Finally, Cordell returned. He was all smiles. He'd been conversing with the famous commentator. And Roman thought: humph, Tommy Aldis, your famous commentator, is just another glib media slicker, a slinger of far-fetched metaphors, whose opinions were mostly biased toward Yankee and West Coast boxers.
Then Cordell said it was fight time and he hollered at Bucket to earn his pay by shouldering the equipment and to bring up the rear.
And as Roman would remember it, from that moment on and until it was over, the sequencing of events would take on the fractured quality of a collage.
Time went bipolar on him.
They were leaving the locker room and, presto, it was as if a hand snatched him up like a chess piece and set him down in the middle of the ring one arm's length away from the glowering "Deadly" Devontae Hewitt. The referee stood between them, finishing his formal instructions."… Obey my commands and protect yourselves at all times," he said. "Touch 'em up."
They touched gloves.
Before he could take another breath, he was back in his corner and Cordell was talking his rah-rah gibberish and the bell rang and Roman stood up and Bucket said, as he cleared the stool from the ring, "Gonna swarm."
Before Roman could step away from his corner, Hewitt sprinted out of his own and blitzkrieged him with punches from every angle. He hit Roman with a right hook over the ear, a left hook to the kidney, a right to the jaw. Roman dropped into to a peek-a-boo crouch, but Hewitt threw an uppercut that split the defensive barrier of Roman's gloves. Roman reeled backwards into the ropes. Hewitt continued to wing away, catching Roman with a straight right to the temple. Roman slid off the ropes. He managed to dart beneath one of Hewitt's haymakers and back into the center of the ring. Hewitt pursued. In an effort to clear his head, Roman tied Hewitt in a clinch. Hewitt struggled to break free. The ref broke them. Hewitt got in another shot; Roman clinched again. Hewitt rabbit punched him. The ref broke them again; warned Hewitt about hitting behind the head; warned Roman about holding.
Still wobbly, Roman backpedalled, zigzagged, covered up. Hewitt chased him, landing shots. Two minutes in, Hewitt threw a hook that glanced off the top of Roman's skull. Roman responded with a stiff right cross that caught Hewitt coming in, a reflexive punch, a lucky punch, but solid. Hewitt's head snapped backwards in a corona of sweat. This got Hewitt's attention and he became cautious. The final minute of the round slowed into a thrust-and-parry exercise. Roman had survived, but the first round would go to Hewitt on the judges' cards.
The break roared by like a freight train at a rural crossing. He heard Cordell yapping about "working behind the jab." He felt Bucket massaging his neck and shoulders. He heard the bell. Then he was center-ring. He was unfocused, but Hewitt did not seem to recognize this and remained content to throw popping left jabs, most of which connected. Roman threw jabs that fell short. It seemed the second round was over in twenty seconds.
And now he was back in his corner but only long enough to realize that Cordell and Bucket were arguing in voices like the chatter of cartoon squirrels. A bikini with a girl in it wafted by. The girl held a big card that said "3." A bell rang. He was back in the ring.
The third round started the way the second had ended -- circling and feinting, Hewitt winning on stiff jabs. The crowd fell to muttering. Some guy yelled "Borrrring." The ref suggested that they either mix it up or go find a nancy bar in The French Quarter.
Hewitt took the hint. He measured Roman with a slow left followed by an overhand right, and thud -- spinning, spinning, the arena tilted and then tipped over on one end. Overhead, the ring lights were a carousel of suns; the canvas scraped like gravel. Get to your feet! Get to your feet!
Now came a gap, a lapse for his future memories of the past.
Sitting in his corner. Time slowing down by the same degree that it had been racing ahead earlier. He was relaxed even though the world around him seemed not so relaxed, especially Cordell and, his name again? Bucket. Bucket was a funny name. The referee questioning Cordell and Cordell saying, He's fine, he's fine. And Roman saying, I'm fine.
Here came the round card girl again. She was sloe-eyed and olive complected -- a tribute bearer in an ancient Egyptian tomb painting. Whistles and catcalls. Her hips swayed boomalaboom as she held up the number of the round. Six.
What had happened to rounds four and five?
A bell clanged; Cordell was pushing him off the stool and saying to "get in there."
He was in there. Moving forward. Boring in. Hewitt was hitting him, sure, but not really hurting him, he could handle it.
Jellyfish-like, his mind blossomed open and he comprehended each aspect of his environment in minute detail. Hewitt was in the abstract, an item among many.
He was on autopilot.
He heard a woman in the crowd say to her companion, "Yass, I lost $238 at the Grand Isle in Biloxi last night, which was better'n this white boy is doing against Devontae."
Hewitt hit him with a left hook. Roman reeled back loosely, a reed in the wind.
Off to one side, he could hear ESPN's sportscasters, Tonetti, the announcer and, Aldis, the commentator.
Tonetti said, "Carr is still on Queer Street."
Tommy Aldis's Jersey-inflected recap: "In case you just joined us, Roman Cah had his bell rung in the first round and barely survived a knockdown in the third. He's been on spaghetti legs ever since. I'da know what's holding him up."
"Carr is known for his ability to take a punch," said Tonetti.
"Cah has a chin like a rock," Aldis opined.
"Hewitt with a left hook to Carr's ear."
"Swelling over Cah's left eye. Reddening around his right eye."
"According to our records, Carr was stopped on cuts in his fight with Esparza last May."
"Cah needs to put those eahmuffs on," suggested Aldis, "needs to protect that vulnerable eye from the pugilistic turbine that Hewitt has become."
It now registered that they might be talking about him. Yes, cover up; protect your face with your gloves -- your earmuffs. He knew this. Amateurs knew this. He was being tagged, sure, but the blows were registering far away.
"Hewitt with a left on the inside and then a right that Carr deflected with his gloves."
"Cah is taking a lotta punishment. But he's a journeyman, and a journeyman knows how to go rounds."
Journeyman! Roman thought. I am not a journeyman.
"Hewitt with a flurry. Carr covers up too late."
And then the bell.
Cordell applied the frigid plate of the end-swell to Roman's left eye. "Keep yo left hand up. Fuck'sa matta wit'chu? Hit the muhfucka!"
Bucket held the water bottle up to Roman's lips and told him to take some and spit some. Roman heard Bucket say to Cordell, "You usin' that end-swell like yo mama ironed a pair of pants. You cain't mash that mouse under a rug. Ease up and let the cold do its work."
"Don't tell me what to do, nigga. I'm his trainer. Keep yo mouf shut and do yo muhfuckin' job."
Roman spat bloodwater into the bucket. A bell opened round seven.
Back in the ring, Time yawned. He was being hit but he was pretty sure he was rolling with the punches.
"Hewitt is sharpshooting that hematoma over Cah's eye, trying to open it."
"Hewitt caught Carr again directly on that eye, this time with a right hook over Carr's lazy left jab."
Roman remembered the year-old scar over his eye and that his corner had been using -- yes -- the end-swell… on that eye. What if he lost on cuts again? He'd better get busy. He walked through one of Hewitt's jabs to land a left to the midsection and to miss a right hook. Hewitt danced backward and called him a sissy.
"Hewitt just opened the swelling above Cah's left eyelid into a nasty cut," Aldis told the TV audience.
Roman chased Hewitt, eating jabs. One-eyed now, he could not see Hewitt's right hooks coming.
"Even though he's cut, Cah is showing signs of life -- probably out of the realization that the ref might stop it at any time."
Roman pressed forward but could not connect.
And a bell.
Roman headed for his corner. But where were Cordell and Bucket? Where was his stool? Some sort of commotion down on the floor behind his corner. People shoving, arms waving, Someone held his stool above the melee; it flashed in a downward arc. The holder of the stool was Bucket. Full force it struck Cordell's forehead! Down went Cordell. Bucket had just laid Cordell out cold with the corner stool! A big white guy in a "Security" T-shirt ran up to Bucket and demanded the stool. Bucket swung the stool again, a knight with a mace. Mr. Security caught the blow on his upraised forearm and howled. A circle of would-be restorers-of-order backed away as the security guy grabbed his injured, perhaps broken, arm and retreated.
Bucket climbed up onto the ring apron and placed the stool in the corner. Legs aquiver, Roman plopped down on it. "Wha' happened?" he asked through his mouthpiece.
"Tell you later," Bucket said. He smeared epinephrine above Roman's left eye. "This a bad cut. If it opens anymore, the ref'll stop it. You other eye swellin' up, too. So you prolly got this round to do sumpin'."
"Wha' round ziss?"
"Eighth comin'. Listen to me. He too tall and his arms too long to chase him like you been doin'. Let him come in. Then you get up under and bang that body. Left hook underneath. You understand?"
Roman nodded that he understood.
"Good luck, kid."
The round bell clanged clear as a fire alarm. As he move to center ring, he felt his fog lifting. Roman overheard Tonetti say, "Never seen that before: a trainer and a cornerman getting into a brawl. Incredible."
"It's not as if Cah doesn't have enough to contend with already. His corner is as empty as a moon crater."
"Hewitt follows a left jab with a straight right to Carr's eye. Carr responds with a left hook that Hewitt blocks. Carr ties him up."
"Cah's eye is looking bad. The coagulant has already rubbed off and blood is streaming down into it. No way can he see out of it. The ref is watching closely."
"Another cut opening over Carr's right eye. I think it was caused by a clash of heads in the last tie-up. Hewitt still headhunting, flicking that jab and scoring."
"Cah still has powah, but Hewitt is outsmarting him by not giving him a chance to use that powah. Cah needs to step back and let Hewitt make mistakes."
At this moment, Roman made a magical connection -- two strangers, Bucket and Tommy Aldis had manifested themselves as reincarnations of Malvin Jackson. They were giving him instructions: Do it our way!
He prepared for a blow and let Hewitt hit him. He staggered and allowed his knees to buckle. Hewitt came on like a windmill. Roman ducked and then slammed a left hook into Hewitt's liver followed by short right to the solar plexus.
Liver shots produce a delayed reaction, and for two seconds Hewitt appeared to be unaffected. But he went to one knee and then crumpled to the canvas. Writhing, eyes bulging, he hugged his midsection while his cheeks bellowed in and out, fish-like and sucking for air. Roman retreated to a neutral corner. The ref picked up the count. Two. Three. Four.
Roman checked his own corner. Empty. At floor level, an EMT hovered over a motionless Cordell. Two uniformed cops were escorting Bucket, handcuffed, up an exit aisle.
Hewitt thrashing around on his back.
Hewitt rolled to one side and propped himself up on one elbow.
He struggled to one knee.
Ten! The ref waved end of the fight.
Hewitt's shoulders sagged. His trainer and cornermen clambered over the ropes to help him.
A surprised crowd shouted its approval. It was cheering that would die quickly, though, as they hurried for refreshments before the main event. Two EMTs were securing the unconscious Cordell to a gurney.
The ref held Roman's arm aloft. Victory! He was the winner! His left eye was completely shut and his right eye -- open to only a slit of light -- was closing. There was no one to celebrate with, no one to help him remove his gloves or the stanch the rivulets of blood that trickled the length of his body and onto his shoes.
Hubbub surrounded him. Hewitt's people were helping their fighter to his feet. Summonsed by the referee, the fight doctor tilted Roman's head up toward the ring spotlights and prodded his eyes with a gloved finger. "Where's your cutman?" the doctor asked.
"I don't have one."
"I can't open your eyelids wide enough to check for damage to your eyesight. Your people need to get this swelling down. You need stitches. Where the hell is your manager?"
"Getting stitches?" It was a bad joke.
Bright light -- a camera light? -- shone through the hairsbreadth opening of his right eye.
Someone tousled his hair and said, "Good fight." He recognized Hewitt's voice. Someone else, he assumed it was Hewitt's trainer, congratulated him, too.
Further away now he heard the doctor talking to the ref -- something about retinal injuries, something about goddamn irresponsibility.
He heard Tommy Aldis near his right ear. Aldis said, "First of all, let me congratulate you on a great come-from-behind win. You showed the heart and determination that we often see here on Friday Night Fights."
"Thanks, uh," distracted by his predicament, Roman couldn't think of anything intelligent to say. "I didn't want to disappoint my fans," he blurted.
"And your commitments in the face of... say, can you see me?"
Tommy Aldis stepped off-camera and called to Hewitt's corner. "Hey, wilya gimme a towel heah?"
Next minute, a wet towel was dabbing at his eyes. A voice -- Hewitt's trainer, he guessed -- said, "Man, you need to be on the ambulance. Where's your team at?"
He didn't know. The towel went away. Odd, but suddenly he felt very sleepy. And Time started doing its slow-down thing again, like trying to run underwater.
Aldis stepped back in and said, "As I was saying, your commitment in the face of adversity carried the fight for you. Another thing: I've never seen a fight break out between cornermen. Any idea what happened?"
"Nosir. But I reckon they'll be back," Roman said.
"I'da think it'll be anytime soon. Congratulations on a great win, Roman." Tommy Aldis turned toward the cameraman and began hyping the main event.
Roman wiped his eyes, but nothing was registering in either one of them now, not even light. He felt his way forward until ring ropes caught him.
Aldis came back to his ear and said, "You got a management problem, kid. I know someone who can help. Call this numbah if you decide to stay in the game."
Roman felt fingers stuffing a business card beneath the wrap of his right hand. "Thank you," he said, "I'll read it real soon."
There he stood, alone and holding on to the top rope. What was he going to do next? All he could do was stand. Water. Ice. Bed. So sleepy. Time was a fog, a gelatin. And the voices in the stadium were growing garbled and ambivalent, receding in Doppler circles away from the ring, away from him; bobbing and weaving, circling and feinting.
For Eddie "The Flea" Freeman
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, R.A. Allen. All rights reserved.