A boy short, scrappy kid–sixteen I guessed–stood on the far side of the ring, landing punches on a speed bag. His timing didn’t vary: wappity-wap, wap-wap, wappity-wap, wap-wap. His hands moving so fast they blurred.
“Is he as good as he looks?”
“Better than you.” Coach Sacconides let his fists shadow the kid’s movements. ”Best I ever coached but he’s too small. Even fighters his age out-weight him. The boxing commissioners take one look at him and say call me when he grows up and puts on twenty-five pounds. They won’t even give him an amateur bout with some plodder or trial-horse.”
“Uncle Charlie died, left me RobotWorks. Think he’d fight a robot?” My question snapped Coach’s head around.
“Robots ain’t boxing.”
“It will be when I’m done. Introduce me.”
“Hell no. You ain’t no promoter.”
“Not now, but with his ability I can create robots that beat all contenders. They always have a human in the exosuit-controller.”
“Then climb in the ring and fight him. If you win, ask him. If you lose, we both know you know how to walk away.” His words stung. A dozen years ago, Coach picked me off the street drugged up and hustling johns. Dad was in jail for laundering drug money. Mom was living with a drug lord. I was thirteen and an evil, self-destructive kid. Coach Sacconides put me in a ring and gave me purpose. I was good, real good but I sabotaged my career by walking away.
“You still hold that against me.”
“Damn right.” Coach frowned and folded his arms. “If you could teach those robots on your own you wouldn’t be here.” He was right. When I tried to program the robots, they turned into worthless brawlers. I needed a puncher, an out-boxer, a stylist to provide the finesse to my muscle.
“I’ll need trunks,” I said. Coach pointed a thumb toward me and yelled at a weightlifter.
“Hey Mickey, get him ready. Be his second.” Mickey Muscles scowled and motioned to follow him to the locker room. I’m pretty buff for a businessman. Not buff enough to Mickey. He had muscles everywhere and wanted more. We called them Sausage Boys back in the day. He opened a locker to show me a collection of old trunks and shoes.
“Pretty Boy going to fight Kieran?” He struck poses, mocking me.
“Coach said fight and I fight, sausage boy.
“Got insurance cards?” Mickey snorted.
It was a long time since I taped my hands and pulled on gloves. Memories of my abandoned career filled my mind: some good, some bad. Mickey tied my gloves and laughed. I tried to wiggle my t-shirt over my head, looked real stupid like.
“Give my t-shirt a yank,” I asked. He ripped it off my body and tucked it into his belt.
“It’ll make a nice white flag for me to throw when you’re getting the shit beat out of you.” He picked up a small bottle. “You going to need the smelling salts.”
“You’re one helluva second?” I said, pissed.
“I don’t see no one else. No worry. This here sausage boy knows what to do.”
Coach waited in the middle of the ring with Kieran, the kid I saw earlier.
“I’m fighting that pudge?” the kid didn’t even attempt to lower his voice. He shifted his sweatshirt and stretched his neck. “He’s a blimp, a piece of meat on a butcher’s hook,” he said.
“I’m two-twenty and all muscle,” I said, flexing to intimidate.
“Meat.” The Kid folded his arms, rested an elbow on the opposite fist and rubbed the side of his face with a glove like he was philosophizing.
“I got a couple trophies in the case over there.”
“And a palooka come back to brag.”
We raised our gloved hands. Coach gave us the stink eye and stepped between us.
“Stow it. I know you both know the rules. I taught them to you. This is going to be a gateway match, understand? Now shake and go to your corners.”
Back in my corner, Mickey Muscles opened a clean mouthpiece and shoved it in my mouth. Coach introduced us and the gymrats oohed once and made me feel old with their roundabout praises.
The bell rang fast and the kid was at me, dancing, a feint with the right and a quick left-right combo to my face that left me blinking stars. Nobody told me the kid was a fucking southpaw. Damn was I rusty.
I danced back, adjusted my stance, blocked the kid’s next flurry of punches. When my right slipped too high, he slipped his head under my fists and pummeled my gut. I clinched so Coach would break us. I danced back letting my longer reach do the talking while I played “stick and move” for the rest of the match. Size wasn’t an advantage against this kid’s speed. One good roundhouse and I could launch his skinny ass over the ropes but he knew that and he kept slipping away if I pulled back my arm to send him into oblivion. What his punches didn’t have in power was made up by accuracy. I hurt when I sat down.
Mickey Muscles smirked as he toweled the sweat dripping off my body and rubbed the soreness from my shoulders and torso.
“You look like a plodder out there. I warned ya the kid’s got whisker’s. If you got speed, use it. If not jam him into a post and batter him,” he said.
Round two and I let my reflexes take over. I brought back my old form. The kid might be good but I knew the boxing styles of old times. The fight became a flurry of jabs and hits, an outside game of strategy. I battered the kid, forcing him to bob and weave, keep away from facing me toe-to-toe. I felt the victory in my grasp, hot and arrogant. I pushed him around the ring with jabs and hooks, cementing my victory with time rather than a single roundhouse punch that would lay him on the mat. As the bell rang he stared at my fist inches from his face. He gasped for air–weak, unable to dodge or duck and we both knew that punch was the punch that never landed, deliberately.
I wiped the floor with their favorite and swaggered back to my corner. The gym patrons muttered to themselves.
I swaggered into the ring for Round Three, cocksure, taunting and full of myself. There are many forms of victory. A knockout is one. A dive is the other. I fought flamboyantly, prancing around, daring the kid to hit me. A minute into the round, the kid blocked my jab, I let a hand fall, and the kid landed his best to my jaw. Birds sang. I ducked mechanically, neglecting his lack of height. A right cross turned my head and knocked the mouthpiece from my teeth. A left hook snapped my head back. The room spun. A good uppercut and I slipped to one knee. Coach immediately stepped between us.
I spit blood and bile, waited for a shameful eight count and put my hands up to fight the last two minutes. Blood drooled from my clenched teeth and I played rope a dope. He battered at my upraised fists with no effect.
When the bell rang, Mickey Musclehead had some vile bite plate that stopped the bleeding. He put a towel around my neck and gave me a pat on the shoulder as he pulled off my gloves.
The gym-rats and muscle-heads cheered when Coach raised the kid’s hand. Mercifully, it ended quickly and I could climb out of the ring and crawl back to the locker room. My eyes were blackening and red bruises covered my torso. Work tomorrow would involve interesting explanations. I stood at the locker rubbing my bruises and Coach brought a muscle-T with the gym logo on it.
“It’s nice you support this joint with big bucks but you can do more. What you did in that second round was good stuff. These kids need an older fighter who has the moves. Come back and spar sometime.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Want I get ice for your face.”
“It’s not the face that hurts. It’s the ego.” I unlaced my shoes, pulled off my socks.
“His name is Kieran Kenar. I’ll tell him you want to talk. Be gentle, he’s a ward of the State and he’s still not got it together. I’ll make sure you’re alone.” He blushed, set the muscle-T on my clothes, and left.
I texted his name to Uncle Charlie’s lawyers. Nice guys Uncle Charlie’s lawyers. Uncle Charlie owned them. He kept their manhood in a safe deposit box. I inherited the key and the box. Death doesn’t obviate a debt like that. They promised a dossier in 30 minutes. I stepped out of my trunks and protector, and walked into the communal shower.
When the kid came into the showers, I was covered in soap. My soapy hands were doing clean things to my privates and I blushed. He started the shower across from mine. The kid was a twig. Hard to believe that much ability lived in that scrawny five foot two body. He’d never be a sturdy oak like Mickey Muscles. Worse, his body bore the scars of a rough life.
“Coach said I should talk.” He hung his towel on a hook and turned on the shower two away from mine.
“You even break a hundred pounds?” I asked. He turned and flexed his chest and arms.
“Hundred fifteen pounds soaking wet and fifteen of those pounds is hanging where it counts.” He made sure I saw his goods. Wicked, wicked boy. I was impressed but not tempted. I let the hot water run over my head.
“You know how robot-fighters are programmed?”
“Never thought about it. A dozen nerds hacking away?” That’s what most people thought but it wasn’t the way things were done.
“We rig a man with sensors and record his movements. The computers and mechanicals in the robot’s body mimic human movements.”
“You want me to train your robots? Shadow boxing isn’t the same as a fight and I won’t be a sparring partner for hunk of metal weighing a thousand pounds.”
“Of course not. You’d be my sparing partner,” I said. He stared at me with water pouring over his body.
“A robot fighter takes a team. I got two brilliant engineers working on new metal shells. One built Mars Dome, the other created the alloys for Sargasso City in the Atlantic. My computer nerd can do amazing things for a virgin without a social life. You can fight small and compact. I fight big. Together, we might make a champion.”
He still wasn’t convinced. I turned the water off, brushed the excess from my body, and went to dry and dress.
“What’s your offer?”
“We both know, no regulator’s going to give you a match. You’re too short, too small, and too young. A brute like me lands a punch and you’re dead.” I said as I sat to put on my socks. The kid stomped out of the shower, anger written on his face.
“I put you on your knees, old man.” He yanked the towel off its hook and held it in front of his body.
“I put myself on my knees. Think about that second round. You didn’t land a punch worth crap. How many punches did you take in the last thirty seconds? Did I look tired? Why didn’t I connect with that one mighty punch when you were tired? You saw it. You saw the knockout punch and you ignored it. But we both know the truth.” I pulled my jeans over my hips and buttoned the fly without taking my eyes off of his eyes. I could see his mind replaying the round punch for punch. His pupils dilated when he saw the truth. Three rounds and his career gone, three rounds and unwanted tears filled his eyes. He never even suspected that I took a dive in the last round.
“Damn you! Damn you,” he said and slumped on the bench, naked in the new knowledge, alone with the understanding of how he’d been defeated. Every fighter knows when he’s done but he fights one last fight with himself because he knows that he’s got the will. The will isn’t enough. The ultimate truth of the ring; there is always someone stronger, harder, better, coming up the ranks. Even the best fighter won’t be enough to hold or regain the title. His time has passed.
That’s why I left boxing. Coach knew. I knew. The kid didn’t know what washed-up meant. I wasn’t an upstart but a trial-horse. I saw the man who was my better and rather than step in the ring with him, rather than take a shot at the title and lose, I turned my back and walked out of the gym.
I sat next to the kid and tried to put my arm around his shoulder. He pushed away.
“Look kid,” I started to say. He landed a fist across my chin. I grabbed both his hands, pulled them behind his back, held him tight against my chest. I could hear the panicked quickness of his breaths; his heart beat too hard, the hurt and pain filled his eyes. I knew that despair from when I left the ring. “Don’t punch me again. I’ll hurt you back. Understand?” He stopped squirming. I released him.
“No just facing reality. No promoter’s going to put you in a ring with an opponent even twenty pounds heavier. ‘Roids and growth hormones won’t make you tall enough or anywhere near the size you need to be. My robot won’t care about your size. It’s an empty vessel waiting for championship moves, hot-shot mojo, brutal punches, and skills worthy of a champion.”
“You want me to give up and die,” he said, getting dressed in ragged jeans and worn hoodie.
“I’m not here to pick up a boy with adolescent dreams. I want the best fighter in the world. You’re hungry. You got ambition and best of all the talent and ability. Coach said you’re the best he ever trained. It doesn’t have to end. It just has to change. I want you to be remembered as the best exosuit-controller there ever was and ever will be.”
I felt his heart slow and his breathing become regular. He eyes still showed a broken heart and a lost dream.
“We all come to this end,” I said.
“I’m not ready.”
“It’s your time. My offer is fair. It comes with all my good intentions. I’ll give you a signing bonus, a no release contract, and a home.”
“I never even had my own place to live.”
“About time you made a home for yourself,” I said. Kieran nodded and stood, drying himself, dressing. I pulled on the muscle-shirt from Coach. Kieran looked at me and smiled, gave me a thumbs-up. We left the gym. There was much to do.
Biographical statement: Dave Fragments retired to the countryside of Western Pennsylvania amid the deer and squirrels to write short stories and an occasional poem. He has published over 40 short stories in online publications and print anthologies plus poetry. For many years he did research into coal liquefaction and heterogeneous catalysis.