Three tired punches before the bell rings, leather gloves glancing off sweat-slick skin. The crowd jeers as “Mighty” Mervin Hale staggers back to his corner, trailing sweat and blood, wishing it was over. Wishing he was already lying on the mat.
He drops onto the stool, bodies crowding him with sponges, tape, advice, ice. A flashbulb pops, a reporter tossing questions through the ropes. Hale’s cutman jumps down from the ring, pushing the reporter backwards – the two of them scuffling until they’re pulled apart. The cutman isn’t normally so hot-headed but there’s 20,000 people in The Garden tonight, and the air’s greasy with violence.
It stains everybody.
“You takin’ a beatin’ out there boy,” says Hale’s trainer, Billy Dicks, patting him with the sponge.
They’re empty words, just bunting for the show. Hale’s opponent is slow as dripping molasses, and though he’s hurling concrete, every punch is being sent second class. Hale’s ducking the heavy ones and blocking the light ones, wincing for the cameras whenever the wind touches his cheek. Hale could dump this moose on the canvas in three punches, but this isn’t his fight to win. He’ll go down in the seventh just like Mr Valance told him.
Twenty years of hitting bags and jumping rope, and this is what’s left. Wasn’t much call for him to throw fights when he was young, when every punch came rushing out of an angry soul. These days, age is a weight on his back, it hangs off his arms and squeezes his heart. He’s old. Too old for fifteen hard rounds under the hot lights. Losing is a kindness, and he won’t have to wait long to indulge it. One more round, that’s all. Hands down, chin up, even this lumbering moose won’t be able to miss him.
It sounds simple, but there’s a craft to throwing a fight. There’s no point keeling over like a scarecrow on its pole, causing everybody to doubt the defeat in the morning. Mr Valance doesn’t like that sort of thing, too many people need paying off to make the questions stop. No, losing a fight is about losing the crowd. Get them booing and they’re blind, and when they hate you any defeat will do.
Without meaning to, Hale’s eyes climb the ropes, finding Mr Valance in his fur-lined coat. He’s sat ringside, laughing with a woman who isn’t his wife. Five different shades of muscle surround him, all of them crooks with guns and quiet eyes, each dressed in their savagery.
Mr Valance is here to watch the moose. Luckily, skill doesn’t matter to him. Mr Valance doesn’t care about fists, just faces, and the moose’s is worth a million bucks. It’s going sell tickets by the bucket load, but first it has to take a few punches. No audience will pay to see a boxer who isn’t willing to bleed for them. That’s where Hale comes in. He’s the doormat to fame and fortune.
Ten years ago, Mr Valance was lining up broken boxers for Hale to knock over. He remembers the older fighters raging about the indignity, though that’s not something Hale understands now. He gets paid to fight and he gets paid to fall, and pride’s got nothing to do with either. Far as he’s concerned, he abandoned his pride at ringside when he started hurting people to entertain strangers.
Course, this wasn’t always his thinking. Twelve years back, when he won the title for the first time and was still fool enough to think he’d earned it, he asked his trainer Billy Dicks to help him break free of Mr Valance. Big name, famous face, they could organise clean fights, earn more money, nobody could touch them, he’d argued. What Hale didn’t mention was a young son called Christopher who he’d only recently discovered and now yearned to be loved by – something which wouldn’t happen while he was still one of “Barney Valance’s boys” and had the FBI camped outside his home.
Billy Dicks, being a true friend, went straight to Mr Valance who drove Hale to an abandoned warehouse to better explain the situation. Mr Valance told him they weren’t fixing the fight, just choreographing it. The better boxer would still win, he’d just do it to a schedule. That’s business, he’d said. Schedules. Predictability. Trust. Hale had broken that trust. In return Barney Valance’s boys broke four of his ribs.
They made Christopher watch.
After that Mr Valance and Hale had an understanding. Hale knew where he fit in the world, and so did Christopher. A little boy who watches three men beat the hell out of his father doesn’t grow up believing that father can protect him from the monsters under the bed. He doesn’t believe he’s the strongest and bravest, or that good things happen to good people, and violence should be a last resort. At eight years old, Christopher saw the world for what it was, so he hacked a piece off and swallowed it whole. Daddy’s little boy grew up fast after that.
Billy Dicks apologised for the betrayal while Hale lay strapped up in a hospital bed, though he argued the lesson had to be learned and Hale was lucky Billy had spoken up on his behalf. Four broken ribs and Hale still left hospital believing he owed Billy a favour. That favour was his forgiveness. He never forgot though.
The board goes up for round seven, a dead-eyed woman with tail feathers carrying it around the ring. Billy’s got the sponge out again, dabbing Hale’s face with the cold water. Back in the days when Hale spilt more scarlet than he leaked, he raged at Billy for wiping his opponent’s blood off his chest. Hale saw that blood as a trophy, he wore it like a medal. Billy just tutted at him. “Crowd don’t like too much blood,” he said. “They like their pain clean.”
A photographer squirms through the throng, exploding a camera in Hale’s face. That’s the picture in tomorrow’s newspaper, he thinks. The former champion of the world washed up and punch drunk, sweating under the hot lights of The Garden. Old, slow, fat, tired; that’s what they’ll write – that he should be ashamed of spilling his no-good blood for them. Truth isn’t any of that. Even old, slow, fat and tired men can still fight if they’ve something worth fighting for. They might even win if they’re afraid enough of losing.
Billy takes a gum-shield out of the water and drops it on the floor, only to pick it up and stuff it into Hale’s mouth, grit and all. Superstition takes every fighter eventually – there’s just no beating something that never tires.
Ding, ding, ding.
The crowd roars as “Mighty” Mervin Hales gets to his feet, pounding his gloves together. Their voices are a wave at his back, pushing him forward.
He sees them beyond the ropes, 20,000 people leaping up from their seats, faces twisted, enflamed, desperate for him to hurt this man, or break himself trying. It’s not just them. There’s millions more listening by the wireless, talking about it over their brooms, or under their engines as oil drips on their faces. They call themselves fans and ask for autographs, then boo him for being tired, for being old, for not being the man he was ten years ago. They need this, and he hates them for needing it. He hates himself for giving it to them.
The moose is circling, loading punches onto trains.
Hale covers up, taking the wild swings on his gloves, their power slipping through the leather to rattle his teeth.
The crowd rises in acclaim, begging the moose forward, and like an idiot he listens. Unloading punch after punch, his breathing quickens until he slumps within himself.
Hale sighs, clinging to his man, giving him a chance to recover. At this rate, he’ll beat himself.
His chin pressed to the moose’s prickly shoulder, Hale finds Mr Valance – who’s whispering into the woman’s ear. His gaze drifts to Mr Valance’s muscle, watching on impassively.
Suit, red tie. He’s sat behind Mr Valance’s men, that same expectant look in his eye from when he was a boy. The one he gave Hale as Mr Valance’s men held him fast and beat him blue. The look demanding he do something to stop it.
He’s wearing the red tie.
That’s the sign.
Hale spins the moose into the ropes, loosening his shoulders and bouncing on his toes. He sheds the old man he’s become, leaving his skin on the mat to be trampled underfoot.
Even old, slow, fat and tired men can still fight if they’ve something worth fighting for. They might even win if they’re afraid enough of losing.
The punches come screaming out of that forgotten place in his soul. A place long quiet, but now heaving with purpose. Two jabs meet the moose’s face as he steps forward, rocking him backwards. A body shot, an uppercut. The moose is bleeding, dazed. He came for a parade, not a fight.
He lets loose a wild swing, Hale ducking easily to punch him in the ribs. He buckles, and with one final uppercut, Mighty Mervin Hale puts the moose on the mat.
The Garden erupts into wild cheering, with only two voices of descent. Billy is ashen, staring across at Mr Valance who’s standing by the ring’s edge, his hands on the mat, the woman finally forgotten. Fury burns in his eyes, but it’s not his approval Hale wants.
Christopher is sat exactly where he was, and as the referee raises Hale’s hand into the air, he stands up and begins clapping.
Locker rooms all smell the same. Old sweat, urine, liniment and fear. This one’s empty except for Hale, who sits slumped with his hands dangling between his knees, a dressing gown draped over his shoulders.
The Garden’s emptying out, reporters being held by police at the far end of the corridor. There’s no point them coming down here. They’ll ask Hale about a future that doesn’t exist. There’s nothing for him beyond tonight. Not that it matters. For the first time in a long time, he’s happy with the present. His son’s proud of him.
It was the red tie that did it. The last time Hale saw it was a year ago, Christopher had worn it to his mother’s funeral. Hale and his wife had been divorced for years, but Christopher had invited him to come along anyway. They’d sat together in a church, listening to the priest talk about the Old Testament, about an eye for an eye.
This was the god Hale understood.
And so did Christopher.
When Christopher was a boy Mr Valance had taught him the value of violence, and Christopher had proved an apt pupil. Over the next dozen years, block by block, business by business, he grabbed himself a small empire. Having bribed the right officials and made the right friends, he was now ready to move up in the world.
But he needed his father’s help.
He needed his father to right an old wrong. To lure Valance away from his guards. The tie was the sign.
The door bangs open, Mr Valance bursting into the locker room, stupid with rage. His bodyguards are five steps behind, but they might as well have a river to cross.
Hale punches Mr Valance on the nose hard enough to drop him to the floor, before locking the door on the bodyguards. Christopher appears from the bathrooms, two of his own men in tow. They move quietly, bundling Mr Valance into a sack as the bodyguards hurl their shoulders at the metal door.
“Ready to go dad,” asks Christopher, laying a hand on his father’s shoulder. “Ain’t no coming back.”
Nodding, Hale follows Christopher out of the locker room and into the night, handing himself from the care of one gangster to another.