January 17, 1988
“Don’t knock him out too early,” Neil said.
I sat on the stool in the corner of the ring. Neil knelt before me and tightened the laces of my gloves. He had brown hair, a fat face, a pointy chin, and close-set eyes.
“I don’t think that’s going to be a problem,” I said.
The fighter across the ring looked serious and strong. He was Hispanic, with short hair and a mean sneer on his face. He had to be six-feet-five or -six and weighed two forty or more.
“He outweighs me by a good twenty pounds.”
Neil looked over his shoulder. “He’s a pussy. Just don’t go too hard too fast. That’s the only thing I’m worried about.”
“What about losing? You might want to worry about that.”
“Confidence, Joseph. Confidence.”
“Why don’t you call me Joe?” It was a back-and-forth line between Neil and me. He never called me Joe.
“Okay. . . . José.” He patted my cheeks on both sides and gave me a broad grin. “My bet is as good as won.”
“I haven’t seen that dude around campus. Have you?”
The boxers were supposed to be students of the university. My opponent had tattoos that ran from inside his gloves to his shoulders. They were flames of orange and black.
Neil looked again. “Yeah, he might be a ringer. Maybe that’s why I got the two-to-one odds against you.”
We were the last fight of the night. Fight Night was a charity event run by the fraternities at the University of Texas, Arlington. The ring was official size, centered in the ballroom of the Worthington Hotel in Fort Worth. Four hundred spectators, mostly men, occupied the ballroom. They had paid a hundred and fifty bucks a seat to eat hotel steak, drink table wine, smoke cigars and watch amateur boxing. It was between fights, and nobody paid us the slightest attention.
“Have you seen Rose?” I asked.
“Stop worrying about that chick, will ya? You’ll see her later at the house.”
“She said she might make it. I gave her a ticket.”
“Don’t even think about it. Focus on boxing. Try to knock him out in the third round. I have a side wager that the fight will go three rounds and another that you’ll knock him out.”
“I can’t stop thinking about her.”
Neil looked right in my face.
“Shut up. We can talk about that later . . . all night. Right now you need to concentrate on kicking this guy’s butt.”
Hot lights shined down on the ring, leaving the round dinner tables in relative darkness. A cute co-ed in a swimsuit stepped through the ropes and circled the ring with a sign that read “1.”
“How much did you bet?”
“A thousand dollars . . . and I can’t afford to lose it.”
We were up. As the announcer went through the drill, the fighter looked right through me, no emotion, no anger, nothing.
And then we were at it, dancing around each other in the ring, trying to gauge skill level, strengths and weaknesses. He came at me soon, quick jabs at my face, trying to get in close enough to land something real. He’d had training; I was certain of that, probably a year or two in a gym like Frankie’s, the place where I had learned. But he wasn’t a pro. That much I knew within fifteen seconds.
He threw two jabs and followed with a straight right at my head. I rocked back and felt the air on my face as his punch missed by an inch. I countered perfectly with a right hook to the side. The punch landed hard enough for people at the tables to hear. A chorus of “whoas” sounded from those who watched. We had the crowd’s full attention now.
We were both good enough to know the score. He was stronger, but I was faster and had better skills. Barring something unusual, I should win. Based on those factors and my knowledge of Neil’s bets, I developed my plan for the fight. Fight Night matches went three rounds maximum. I would dance around the ring for the first two rounds, taking his jabs and counterpunching when a clean opportunity presented itself. In the third round I would crank up the pace in hopes of winning.
My opponent wore bright orange silk pants to match his tattoos and had a hairline scar over his right eyebrow. He had a big flat nose and brown eyes that ran angry. His footwork was good, up and back, side to side, always moving, but he telegraphed his punches.
I stole a quick glance at my fraternity’s table. Rose’s seat was still empty. A few of my frat brothers stood to shout encouragement.
“Come on, Joe!”
“Knock his head off.”
A left hook came hard, and I dipped my right arm to block it. Whew. Too close.
The bell rang to give us sixty seconds of rest, and then we were back at it. The second round unfolded much like the first. I scored me with a slight advantage, just where I wanted to be going into the final round.
In the break I sat on the stool while Neil wiped my face with a damp cloth. My eyes strayed back to the table. There was still no Rose.
“Hey! Stop that.” Neil slapped me. “Now look, Josephina, it’s time to ditch the wimpy act and crank it up. You need to knock this guy out.”
“I’m not trying for a knockout.”
“Are you crazy? You can kill this guy.”
“You shouldn’t have made the knockout bet. This is Fight Night. We throw a few punches, have a few laughs, and everybody goes home.”
Neil looked over his shoulder at my opponent. “You think that’s how he’s playing it?
The fighter didn’t look tired, and if anything, he looked meaner than he did at the start.
“Maybe not, but that’s how I’m playing it.
My feet were comfortable, the shoes a perfect fit. I sped up my footwork. The fighter noticed. I worked in closer, throwing a few jabs of my own to keep him busy.
I worked in a left hook to right hook combination that caught him by surprise. Slam! His eyes winced at the pain, and he shook his head to clear it. I backed up to let him breathe a little.
“Hit him, Joseph! Go on. Knock him out!”
The ringer came at me quick and threw a southpaw roundhouse punch that I easily slipped to the outside. I countered with a straight right to his head. The punch landed just above his eyebrow and snapped back his head.
He was fundamentally a street fighter. If we had been in the alleys of south Dallas he would have beaten me, no question. He would have used his superior strength to throw me to the ground and kick me senseless. But we were in the ring, and there were rules.
He came at me with another wild swing, a nervous look in his eyes. I blocked the punch and countered with a solid uppercut. A loud crack rang through the room. The crowd gasped. They sensed my victory at hand, but I backed away again.
I gave him a second to recover and stole another glance at the table.
There she was, my beautiful Rose. She wore a white dress that showed off her dark complexion. The frat boys around her cheered, but Rose stood quiet, her shapely figure compelling, and her brown hair falling around her shoulders. On her face was a look of serious concern. I wanted to tell her I was fine . . . everything was going to be okay.
I turned my head back with an instant to spare. There was no time to put up a glove, barely enough time to lift my shoulder and scrunch my chin behind it before the wild punch slammed full into my temple.
I was on the canvas. I don’t remember putting my arms up to break the fall. All the sound shut off. The lights went off briefly and came back on again, but everything was out of focus. Time slowed to a crawl. I blinked and faces appeared, cheering faces, screaming at me, but still no sound. I lay still and breathed. I counted my breaths: two, three, four. Still no noise.
There it was. The referee’s first count. I kept breathing: five, six, seven breaths. All sound returned. The cheering continued for me to get up.
It was a slow count, a lucky break for me. The ref was as surprised by the knockdown as I was. I inhaled deeply: eight, nine, ten breaths.
The referee continued counting out loud. “Three . . . Four . . . Five. . . .”
He sped up the pace. I stole a quick glance at the clock, just under two minutes. I’d have to work fast. I intended to use every instant of the count to recover. I flexed my feet and hands to get ready.
“Six . . . Seven. . . Eight. . . .”
I rose to my knees and then to my feet just before he finished the count. Breathe in . . . breathe out. The referee studied my eyes to make sure I was lucid. He looked surprised.
My opponent almost ran at me, dying to finish me off. I side-stepped the charge and punched him hard in the ribs. It pushed him sideways. I bounced on my feet, faster than before. He turned to face me and ran into a left-hook to right-uppercut combination that snapped at his face. His gloves were out of position. He shook his head and came at me again.
He threw a quick jab in an attempt to recover his momentum, but I slipped it outside, stepped to the right and hit him three times in the side.
WHOMP! WHOMP! WHOMP!
He took a couple of hesitant steps to his right and tried to pull his gloves up to face me. I danced in close and feigned a punch at his middle. He took the gloves down, and I came back with a straight right to his head, followed by a hard hook to his left ear.
His eyes grew bleary. He lost control of his legs and took two side steps that were off balance. I threw one more punch to the right side of his unprotected head. It wasn’t even a hard punch. He took one last step, and his knees buckled.
He was a strong guy and remained conscious, but he couldn’t stand any longer. He fell to his right knee and put an arm out for support. The referee was on time with the count, but it didn’t really matter; he could have counted to thirty. My opponent kept sinking until he lay on his stomach with his legs and arms flat to the mat.
I stood tall over him, my gloves at the sides, staring, breathing heavy.
The crowd screamed on and on. Neil ran in and lifted my arm high while the ref lifted the other. I stood flat-footed and continued to stare at my opponent.
First, I had been stupid but lucky. After that, his overconfidence had made it easy for me.
“You won, Joseph. You won! I’ll clear four thousand bucks.” Neil’s mouth was at my ear to be heard above the noise. “Friends forever, Joseph. Friends forever!”
Originally part of the prologue to Hill Country Rage, this Joe Robbins clip was deleted during editing. – P. K., September 18, 2016