An air horn sounds from cage side. The fighter feels his opponent roll off of him and stand. He can feel the boom in the canvas from his opponent's footsteps. The fighter rolls onto his hands and knees and stands, too, slowly, swaying slightly once he is upright. His hands shoot out to counter balance a backward fall and he feels the cage. He grabs it and begins to pull himself along. He knows if he follows the cage, he will eventually end up back at his corner.
His feet waver like they aren't his own, sliding along the canvas in stilted arcs. The last elbow he took to the forehead filled his eyes with white and his ears with a high, steady scream. As he reaches out for the next handful of rubber-coated chain link fencing, a hand grabs his hand out of the air. He can feel the callouses on the thickly muscled fingers. It is his coach's hand, and coach pulls him a few more feet before guiding him down onto his stool.
The fighter can feel cool hands on his face. He can feel the ice bag sliding back and forth across his neck, the moisture mixing with his own sweat and running in long, tickling streams down his spine and into the seam of his fight trunks.
“Water,” he says. He thinks he says it, with the ringing in his ears he can't be sure. He opens his mouth to reinforce the point. “Water.”
The rounded plastic rim of a water bottle touches his lips, and he takes two hard pulls in between wheezing gasps for air.
The fighter knows his coach is kneeling. He knows the hands on his face are his coach's hands, knows his coach must be wiping the blood from a battered face. Most of the fluid dripping down his face and neck, and even down on his chest, is sweat, he knows that. Blood feels different. Blood has a weight to it, a pace to it, something just a little bit different from sweat. The fighter reaches up instinctively to wipe the warmer running liquid from his forehead and brow, but coach smacks his hand away.
He remembers the first time he felt blood pouring from his forehead. He'd reached up to see what was running down his face then, too, even though he knew. He didn't know how or why he knew it was blood, he just knew.
Third grade wrestling tryouts can be tough.
He can feel his coach's breath on his face. Coach is most likely yelling directives about sprawling harder on the opponent's double leg attempts. He'd always been a sucker for the double leg. Water splashes on his face and flows down over the top of his head. Another wipe from a towel and then the cotton swabs hit. One is jammed into his left eyebrow. It's a deep cut, he can feel it. It's been pouring blood down the side of his face since early round three. Must have been a good shot that opened him up because he can't remember what did it.
Sound, a voice. It's in the distance, a voice shouted from a pool deck down into the water. Into the deep end.
A hand slaps the fighter's face.
The fighter nods. The ringing is fading. There are other sounds now: a low rumble; rasping, frantic breaths; another voice.
“...doctor in here... yes, the doc!”
It's the referee, Alex Sandoval. The fighter knows his deep, throaty voice. He's heard it yelling out commands for almost ten years now. Sandoval has been the fighter's referee at least a dozen times, and this isn't the first time the fighter has heard the question:
“You okay, champ?”
The fighter nods, working hard to force his breaths deeper into his lungs. He pulls the air in with a hiss and holds it in for a three count. Another long pull, and another. His rib cage isn't expanding normally. After taking heavy body shots, he is usually able to take four hard and deep breaths and reset any tightness in his ribs and diaphragm. Something is off. He can feel it now, a heat and a tension spreading out across the right side of his abdomen, curling around to his back.
“Doc is comin' in.” Coach's voice is lower now, quieter, but closer. The fighter feels their heads touch. “Look at me, champ, you still in this? Can you hear me? They are going to stop this fight if you don't snap to. You want this?”
The fighter nods.
“Devon! If you want this you better wake up, you hear me? Wake up!”
Devon, that's right.
The white out is fading. As the ringing in his ears begins to give way to the pulsing noise of the stadium, dark shapes emerge in the bright, shining blindness. Inch by inch, a dark round mass pixelates, distorted by spiraling rings of light from the overhead lights and from the cage-side cameras. The dark round shape is suddenly clear enough to be familiar. Devon knows his coach's head.
But coach is moving aside for another dark figure. It must be the doctor.
The rings of light are suddenly swallowed by a single burning brightness. Devon winces into the burning sun, then it disappears, then it returns.
Then everything is dark again.
“Follow my finger.”
The doctor's hand is over Devon's right eye. He realizes the doctor wants him to prove he can see out of his left eye. Devon can feel the doctor's hand pressing into the slightly swollen right side of his face. He can feel the pressure, feel his own pulse. He can't feel anything on the left side. If he can't find a way to convince the doctor that he can see well enough out of his left eye to continue, he knows the doctor will stop the fight.
“He's fine,” coach says. “He's fine, doc, let us work on him.”
The light returns, burning hot and absolute.
“I'm fine, I'm fine,” Devon says.
The test is coming. He will need to show he can still see out of his left eye. He can't, it's swollen nearly shut and is full of blood.
“I need to get in here,” coach says. He has a cotton swab soaked in adrenaline chloride. He jams it into the cut on Devon's forehead. Devon jerks his head briefly away from the pain. He is awake now.
“How many fingers do I have up?” the doctor asks.
With his right eye still covered, Devon has no idea. But this isn't the first time he's lied in the cage.
“Three,” Devon says. He is correct, three fingers, and having answered audibly and correctly, the doctor nods to the referee. The fight can continue.
When the doctor asked how many fingers he was holding up, Devon felt coach's hand on his thigh. The first time they ever pulled this trick, the doctor had been holding up two fingers. Two taps were easy to feel and remember. But tonight, with three fingers, by the third tap on his thigh, Devon had forgotten if there had already been two taps or three. Then he thought, Well maybe it was only one tap. Maybe the first contact I felt was coach simply putting his hand on my leg. Should I count that as a tap? The buzzing room and the blinding switch from dark to light to dark to burning bright light twisted Devon's sense of time and touch. But his first instinct was three, so he went with three.
“Good work, champ,” coach says, pressing another cotton swab into the gash over Devon's left eye. Twenty-five seconds, breathe deep for me.”
The swabs help slow the bleeding. Three globs of Vaseline go from the coach's thumb to the cuts – over the left eye, on the forehead, and across the bridge of Devon's nose.
“How's the vision?” coach asks.
“I'm fine,” Devon says.
“Don't tell me you're fine, can you see?”
Devon's right eye is recovering but he still can't make out details. He can see the outline of coach's head, the top ridge of the cage, lights, and a mass of shapes shifting and morphing in his opponent's corner.
“How does he look?”
“He's tired. I think he punched himself out at the end of that round.”
Punched himself out? I think you mean he punched me out.
“Are you listening to me?”
Devon wasn't listening to him. It is getting harder to distinguish the sounds he is hearing.
Another slap hits his face.
“Stop playing around. Can you fight?”
Devon nods slightly.
“Can you fight? Tell me yes or you're done. Tell me you're ready or you're done.”
Coach said that before, in one of the Devon's first amateur fights. He said it earlier, too, during Devon's high school wrestling career. He'd never taken coach up on the offer. He'd never quit. Not since third grade.
Third grade wrestling camps can be tough.
Especially when the coach is your father.
In the fifth match of that day in third grade, Devon drew the best wrestler on the team, Gavin Haynes. Haynes was the son of an Olympic alternate. He was bigger, stronger, and simply a better wrestler in every way. The fatigue and emotions of a tough day of training camp and the accumulated pain and fear of four tough matches pushed Devon to a breaking point. Knowing he was bruised and tired and would have to face the best wrestler on the team made him want to quit.
“You ready?” his father asked. “Championship match. You fought your way here and now it's time to see what you're really made of.”
Devon didn't want to wrestle. But he found it impossible to say that with his father's hand on his shoulder. Every time he opened his mouth to begin, “I don't want to wrestle anymore,” he could feel the finger tips digging in deeper. At the moment he felt he might have finally worked up enough courage to say something, it was too late, and his dad was smacking him on the back as the referee called him out to center mat.
Devon knew he wasn't going to win the match. He had decided he wasn't going to win, convinced himself that he didn't want to win, that he just wanted to be done so he could go home. He knew Gavin Haynes liked to drop on a single leg and run the pipe. In the transition from standing to the ground, he liked to bind his opponent's legs in his own, crawl up the back, and then secure a deep half nelson before rolling his opponents onto their backs for the pin. He'd used this technique in three out of his four matches that day.
As he faced off with Haynes, he saw the intention for the single leg. He knew he couldn't make it look too easy. His father's wrath would be greater if he obviously quit. So when the referee blew the whistle and Haynes changed levels and shot, Devon sprawled and worked for an under hook. He wasn't sprawling hard, and he wasn't cranking on the under hook, but someone watching from the outside might have believed he was truly trying to defend the leg attack.
His father didn't.
“No, no, you get that under hook! Sprawl and hook! Sprawl and hook!”
Devon dug the under hook a little deeper and flexed. He knew he needed to look like he was struggling against a bigger, stronger opponent. He needed to show how much better Haynes was.
But Haynes wasn't stronger. In his previous match, while shooting in for a single leg, he'd over-extended his right arm and injured his shoulder. Then when he tried to trap Devon's leg against his own chest, Devon felt the weakness of Haynes' grip. He wasn't the same wrestler who had been running through guys all day. By the time he realized the weakness, he'd already made the choice to let Haynes take him down.
Two points for the take down. Devon knew he'd need to resist the half nelson a little and then it would be over. But the shoulder weakness was even more pronounced on the ground. Haynes didn't have the strength to drive his arm up under Devon's armpit and around the back of his neck. Devon knew he could resist it if he wanted to. At first, he didn't want to, he just wanted the match to be over. He just wanted to go home.
But then he reconsidered. If Haynes' arm was that weak, could Devon reverse the position? He wondered if he would be able to get the upper hand. He considered the possibility of lasting through the entire match, of losing on points or maybe... the thought flitted in quickly...
Maybe he could win.
But he didn't win. He caught his father's eyes and read the insanity, the need his father had for him to win. In that look he felt all the work he'd done in the gym and at practices, all of the techniques he'd drilled and refined, were for someone else. His father wanted to win. His father needed the win, for himself.
When Haynes slid his hand under Devon's armpit, Devon didn't resist. When Haynes gripped the back of Devon's neck and started applying pressure, he barely fought it. The turn came, and Devon watched the referee lie down for a better view of his shoulder blades and the mat they were about to touch, and he didn't resist. His father watched him go limp. His father watched him drop the fake tension in his muscles and exhale. Devon closed his eyes as his shoulders touched the mat. He wanted to be done.
The referee slapped the mat and blew his whistle, pin. Haynes leaped to his feet and raised his good arm into the air in triumph. The crowd cheered. They cheered the cheers of a crowd in awe of a dominant competitor. Not the insane, passionate cries of a crowd witnessing an incredible performance, or an amazing comeback, just a simple, polite acknowledgment of the tournament winner.
Once Devon gave in and closed his eyes, the tears appeared. The roar from the crowd made the tears worse. In the moment between quiet relief from pain and competition and the realization that he'd quit against a wrestler he could've beaten, he felt peace. He felt peace for about one second. Giving up in front of this crowd, in front of his team, and in front of his father, turned any sense of relief and peace into shameful regret. There was no reason to give up in the match, even if he'd been outclassed. He realized no one cared if he lost, not if he showed the will to win. But he'd quit because of the burning eyes of the man staring back at him from the side of the mat.
He'd quit because he thought he needed to quit. He'd thought the control over the decision would feel good, thought it would feel better than following one more of his father's screamed orders. But it didn't. Quitting made him feel weak. It made him furious that his father was right, that only cowards quit. He felt like a coward.
He chose to never feel that way again.
“Hey, do you know where you are right now?”
His father's voice, back in the cage.
“What round is it, Devon?” he yells.
A five floats by. It is the clearest thing Devon has seen in the minute between rounds. Red number five on a white background, floating along the edge of the cage. The number is floating over a brownish orange blob. The curves slide into focus.
“Okay, that's it. I'm calling it.”
It's Brooke, one of the ring girls. She is stepping down the stairs from the elevated cage to return to her seat. The round is about to start.
“Round five,” Devon says, taking one final gulp from the water bottle.
His father reaches for one of the white towels in his supply bucket.
“No. You're done,” he says. As he lifts the towel and goes to stand, Devon grabs his wrist. He pulls his father close.
“Championship round,” he says, ripping the towel from his father's grasp. “It's time to go get that belt.”
“Oh, so now you're listening? Now you can hear me? Okay, what are you going to do when he shoots?”
His father's lips tighten. He turns to look across the cage. Devon's opponent is taking deep breaths. His head is hanging over his knees. He looks almost as bad as Devon.
“Uppercut, that's right, sprawl and uppercut, sprawl and uppercut. You wobbled him in the third with that, now I need you to finish him with it. This is the last round, champ. This is it. Show me somethin.”
Show me somethin.
The fight teams make their way out of the cage. Sandoval takes the center to announce that they are entering the fifth and final round. He points to Devon:
“Are you ready?”
Devon nods once, long and slow.
“Are you ready?”
The opponent take a final deep breath and nods, too.
“Let's do it!”
Devon knows the strategy. He knows what all of the coaches and analysts in the room are thinking: Devon will land the significant blows that lead to his victory, or his opponent will secure a take down and use punches and elbows to earn a ref's stoppage or find a submission. The same people think Devon is the weaker fighter, that it is much more likely for the opponent to force his will on Devon. When the opponent drops for the shot, Devon loads up his right hand and looks to sprawl. This is what the opponent wanted, and his fake wrestling shot turns into a huge over hand right to Devon's face. It connects to the left eyebrow and immediately opens the cut and increases the swelling around Devon's eye. The pain tears through his body and he stumbles, dropping to one knee. The opponent throws a follow up right hand, then a left hook. The punches graze Devon's forehead, accentuating his backward stumbling, until his back finds the cage. He knows he should circle off to his right, away from the cage and away from his opponent's power hand. It's what the analysts would say he should do. It's what his dad is screaming at him to do.
It isn't what he does.
Devon uses the force from backing into the cage to rebound and move forward a few steps. His opponent is on his way in, so Devon loads up his right hand for what looks to be a wild swinging right hook. The opponent sees the wind up and drops for a shot, the normal reaction to a desperate haymaker. It is what any good wrestler would do, try to duck under the punch to secure the take down.
Devon does not throw the hook. His wild wind up made his punch look like it would be a hook, but as he drops his elbow, the opponent can see the mistake. He closes his eyes just before Devon dips his hip and drills a perfect uppercut into the opponent's jaw.
The blow doesn't stop the opponent's forward momentum. His head twists violently to the side but his arms reach out and slam against Devon's thighs. Devon pushes his dazed opponent down and slips out of the clumsy grasp. He puts his left hand on the opponent's head and begins cracking him in the side of the head with right hooks. His ribs are screaming now. They are definitely broken. But it doesn't matter. His hand is hot and each punch sends electricity down his forearm all the way up to the shoulder. The hand is most likely broken. But it doesn't matter. He kneels down and changes to elbow strikes. This hurts a little less. But it doesn't matter.
Sandoval lifts him up and off of his unconscious opponent. The crowd is cheering, chanting his name. But it doesn't matter. He is the new light heavyweight MMA champion of the world. Soon, the announcer will call his name, heralding him as the new champion of the world, and he will feel the belt around his waist. But it doesn't matter.
He could've stopped. He could've told the truth and let the doctor stop the fight. He could've let his father pick up that towel and throw it into the center of the cage. He could've waved the fight off, himself, and simply walked out of the cage. He could've quit before the fight, claimed an injury or illness. He could've stop fighting months ago, years ago, and become a PE teacher and wrestling coach.
Like his father.
Like everyone expected of him.
But it doesn't matter. He didn't. He didn't quit. He didn't take the easy way out. Not since that day in third grade. Not since then and never again. As the belt goes around his waist, Sandoval takes Devon's wrist. He goes to raise his arm, proclaiming the new champion. Devon pulls his hand free and raises both arms up over his head. He roars. He balls up his fists and flexes every muscle he can still feel. He lets the pain build up and surge through his hands and arms, through his legs, and feels it claw at his ribs. The ringing in his ears grows under the pressure of his screaming. He still can't see out of his left eye, and his right eye is fading. He stands, the champion, with no one holding up his arms, no one hoisting him on their shoulders. He stands free, dismissive of the pain, until he falls to his knees. When people try to help him back to his feet he waves them off, pushing at their hands. He kneels and the sound in his head grows and his vision goes and the part of him that rose up to carry him through the final round goes quiet. When he collapses onto his back, they call the doctor into the cage. When they bring a stretcher in and carry him out, his mumbles to himself.
“It doesn't matter now.”
As they run him to the waiting ambulance and the EMTs help slide him in, he mumbles to himself.
“It doesn't even matter.”
On the trip to the hospital, before they have to charge the paddles to try and restart his heart, they hear him mumbling.
“Matter... matter. It doesn't matter.”
Before the last lights in his eye go out, and before the ringing slips into the echoless depths of his ears, he smiles at the knowledge that whatever happens next, it doesn't matter. He won.