Thwap! Wap! Wap! Thwap!
Jabs and hooks flew like lightning into the punching bag. The room was dark, save for the yellowish pools of light coming from the rusty saucers dotting the ceiling. It was a rough old gym, its weathered plaster walls chipping away in great chunks, revealing rows of bricks underneath. Overhead, beams and pipes snaked their way in and out of the walls in a tapestry of red and gray. A train outside rumbled along the ground beneath a sky crowded with stars and a sleepy moon, all framed by the enormous, tall windows lining the walls. Fading posters from old matches were everywhere; Mac versus Hondo! Dempsey versus Firpo! Ali versus Frazier! Hundreds of men had trained in that room. Hundreds of dreams of fame, fortune, and glory.
Fwap! Fwap! Thump!
Mac was letting off some steam.
The pain in his ribs would be agony to most, along with his tight jaw and blackened body, but to Mac, there was something pleasing about the injuries, like pressing on a fresh bruise. Normally, the dull throbbing was a welcome sensation after a match, like a badge of honor. There was something about yesterday’s bout, though, that was gnawing at Mac. Something that wasn’t sitting right in his gut.
Wap! Wap! Wap!
Mac shot off a bevy of short straight-punches. His hair had become a mop of sweat beating on the bag. It had been at least an hour since he made his way to the gym, but he wasn’t quite ready to head home. Too much to think about. That match…
“Had a feeling it was you.”
The voice was deep and cheery, but tired. Doc Louis strolled forward through the pools of light and reclined onto the weight bench near where Mac was training.
Thwap! Fwap! Fwap!
“Doc. It’s late, what’re you doing here?” asked Mac, who kept punching away.
“Late? Shoot, we’re way past late, kid. I was fittin’ to order a new vacuum cleaner off a informercial before the alarm company called and said someone was poking around over here. You lucky they call me before they call the cops. Figured it was you.”
“Sorry. That stupid keypad always trips me up.”
“Best to take the gloves off before trying to type your code, Mac,” Doc said, smiling and chuckling at his own joke. Doc had been Mac’s trainer for years, but more than that, he was a friend. He leaned back further and slipped a candy bar out of his pocket.
“Doc, when are you gonna learn? That junk’ll kill you, man,” Mac groaned as he slugged the bag.
“Psshh, everything’ll kill you, these days, until some quack comes and says it won’t. How many times now they say that eggs are good, then bad, then good, then bad. I’ll take my chances.”
“Pretty sure Snickers bars have been on the ‘kill you’ list for a good stretch.”
“Ain’t nothing come along yet that can punch my time card, kid. ‘Sides, I do my fair share of sparring with you. Wouldn’t be Mr. World Champ all these times if I wasn’t there whipping you into shape.”
Thwap! Thwap! Wap!
“What’s eatin’ you, Mac? Ain’t seen you wound like this in, well, ever. It’s past midnight, what you doing here?” Doc asked between chomps of his chocolate bar.
“I don’t know. The fight, I guess. That idiot, yesterday.”
“Old Joe? Really? What about him?”
Mac stopped punching and sat on the weight bench opposite Doc.
“Just, you know, keep thinking about how many times I’ve beat him. Just thrashed him, you know? The guy keeps coming back no matter how many times I punch his lights out.”
“Well, you’re both boxers, Mac. Comes with the territory.”
“Yeah, I know, it’s just something about yesterday. It was… different.”
Warm night air was sliding in through the cracked windows. Cop sirens wailed in the distance. Mac was resting his chin on his glove as he looked over at Doc.
“Just different. Not him, I mean, Joe was doing his usual thing, acting all goofy and whatever. I was different, felt different, I mean. I just kept thinking, ‘How am I supposed to fight you for the thousandth time, man? How am I supposed to be OK with knocking you out in like one hit over and over?’ I guess I just can’t understand why he keeps doing it. Why does he want to do that to himself, Doc? It’s humiliating.”
Doc sat up a bit, working on the other half of his candy bar.
“Well, what are you saying? He should quit?”
“Yeah. I mean, no. I don’t know. I just feel wrong beating the guy, is what I’m saying. I don’t feel like it’s right.”
“Guilty conscience, huh? I get it. You feel like you’re embarrassing Joe and making yourself look like a bully or somethin’, right?”
Doc polished off the candy and stuffed the wrapper in his jacket pocket.
“It’s like this, Mac. Everyday, you get up, come train, and when the big fight comes, you go out and give it your all, no matter who it is you’re fightin’. Joe be doing the same thing. Been a boxer since back when I was a fighter. I tell you, he ain’t never been good. Never. Not once, I seen him ever win a fight. But it don’t matter to him. Sure, he acts like he’s out there on the end of his rope, but the truth of it is, he lives for the ring. He lives to fight.”
“But if he’s not good…”
“Don’t matter. Because, for Joe, it’s the thrill of competition, Mac. He looks at you and sees a rival, an example to set his self by. If he knew you were here, feeling pity for him, he’d be insulted. You do the man justice by agreeing to fight him, no matter how many times you put him down. Even if the record don’t look it, fighting Joe shows you see him as an equal.”
“So Joe doesn’t have a beef with me, thinking I’m making him look bad? He puts himself through this on purpose because he… he wants my recognition, or something?”
“Exactly. Your fights, win or lose, let him feel like a boxer. Like a contender.”
Mac had moved to the window and was looking down at the street. Even at this hour, a handful of cars could be seen darting along in the darkness.
“Hrm. I guess you’re right. I know I wouldn’t be happy if Joe kept beating me and he wouldn’t give me another shot. It would be like an insult, huh? Like I wasn’t worth his time, if that happened.”
“See? I knew my smarts would rub off on you one a these days.”
“Har har, Doc. Doc, I don’t say it all the time, but… thanks.”
“You know how it is around here, Doc. It’s a tough place to grow up, tough kids. I could’ve wound up like a lot of the knuckleheads you see out there, but instead I’m a champ because of you. I get to go out in the ring and fight and be somebody. Not everyone can do that. Not everyone has someone to keep ’em straight and level. So… yeah. Thanks, Doc.”
“Mac, a trainer’s only as good as his fighter, and you’re a heck of a fighter. A lotta guys wouldn’t give two seconds of thought to someone like Joe, and you’re here fuming about him in the middle of the night. Training don’t give a man heart, Mac. Can’t give a man heart.”
“You’re not gonna try to hug me or something, right, Doc?”
“Ha! You wish, kid.”
The two men smiled across at each other from their benches. Mac made his way back to the bag and began digging in once more.
Fwap! Thwap! Thwap!
Mac’s punches echoed through the room, as Doc rummaged for another candy bar.
“It’s a beautiful night, Mac.”
“Yes it is, Doc.”