THE KID HAD PROMISE
For three months after Donnell Robinson knocked him out in the gymnasium of DePaul Alumni Hall, Miguel lay in bed for an hour each morning and relived the fight. Now, since he'd married Magdalena, gone to work at his cousin's garage, fathered a son, and left boxing to younger men, he only thought about it when he was drunk.
The last Sunday in August is a time of year when people are bored of heat and leisure. Miguel sat in the little walled-in yard behind the three-flat, sagging in a lawn chair with a sixteen-ounce Miller High Life balanced on the arm. It was his third since church. His son Nicolos was cooling himself in the plastic wading pool, singing a song he was making up as he went along:
"There was a man and he had a plastic ball and he threw it at the moon and the moon exploded in a million pieces," the boy babbled.
Nicolos looked tensely at his father.
"Don't be singing so loud. I gotta go back to work tomorrow and I wanna relax. I'm tryin' to think."
Miguel was back in the third round of the Robinson fight. He was punching Donnell Robinson in the face, and the thousand fans in the bleachers were on their feet, cheering every time Miguel's glove thumped against the nigger's head. Miguel was Chicago. Robinson was a 6-0 welterweight in from Detroit, so everyone wanted to see him hit the floor. From behind, Miguel could hear the screams of his father, his mother, his four sisters, his cousin Arturo, and his girlfriend Rosa, sitting in folding chairs at ringside. Once he knocked out Robinson, they were all going to a restaurant for dinner and good times.
Miguel caught Robinson on the temple, and his rival slumped against the ropes. His mouth gaped. His arms swam around, flailing for something to hang onto. Miguel landed an uppercut to the jaw, and Robinson stumbled forward.
"That's all he can take," Miguel thought, as the crowd chanted his name. He backpedaled to a corner to wait for the count, but Robinson only fell to his knees. In eight seconds, he was on his feet again. In another ten seconds, the bell rang.
At the end of the round, Miguel's trainer, Lupe, swabbed him with a clammy towel and screamed, "Why didn't you hit him again? If you'd hit him again, he never would have got back up. Next time, pound him 'til he's on his back."
The bell clanged for round four. Miguel tried to maneuver Robinson into a corner, but his opponent had recovered the spring in his legs. Robinson's glistening face was fierce and vengeful. He pinned Miguel against the ropes and battered his head until the referee pulled them apart. With nothing to support him, Miguel fell flat on his chest. Salty blood trickled over his tongue. He dragged himself woozily across the mat. His arm jerked forward once, probing for a rope, a chair -- anything to lift himself with. Then his exhausted body subsided. As the referee counted, Miguel could hear the life fade from the room. There were no more cheers, only bored, disgusted murmurs.
"Do you know why that nigger beat you?" Lupe lectured him in the stale, humid locker room. Miguel was sitting on a bench, cinched up in his robe, pressing an ice pack against his lip. "He hated you, and you didn't hate him. How come you didn't put him away in the third round?"
"I thought I did. I knocked him down."
"You shoulda beat his face in 'til he was unconscious. You gotta be thinking, 'If I don't kill him, he'll kill me.' That's what that other kid was thinking. He wanted you dead."
"Sorry," Miguel mumbled through his swollen mouth.
"How many older sisters you got?"
"I seen how your whole family comes out to the fights, treats you like a little prince. Man, you're a great athlete, but I can't teach you to be a killer. Either you are or you ain't."
"Hey, Nicolos," he called. "You be careful. You better not break that thing."
When Miguel returned to the gym a week after the Robinson fight, Lupe was giving his attentions to younger boxers, teenagers who might turn out to be assassins. Miguel considered switching trainers, but his record was now 4-2, which meant he'd never be anything more than a $200-a-night club fighter, a workout bag for boxers on their way up.
Rosa wanted him to keep fighting.
"You just gotta do what your coach said, and beat the next guy's ass," she told him.
But Lupe had called him soft and weak. Miguel took that to heart, and he descended into a sullen depression. He stopped training, watched TV all day, and gained thirty pounds. Boxing, he convinced himself, was for guys with nothing better. He'd seen some of the addled men sweeping out the gym, and he decided his brains were worth more than $200 a fight, especially since Arturo had offered to train him as a mechanic. When Rosa dumped him, she told him he was a quitter and a loser. Months later, he started dating Magdalena, a friend of his sister Cecilia's who had come to see some of his fights. Magdalena was much more loyal, but not nearly as pretty. Miguel still thought about Rosa at night, when his back was turned to his wife.
A year ago, Miguel had finally been able to turn on the ESPN friday night fights. He stopped watching the night he saw Donnell Robinson fighting for the International Boxing Federation welterweight title at Caesars Palace in Atlantic City.
Nicolos was crying. Miguel looked up, saw water sloshing out of a rift in the plastic pool.
"You broke it!" Miguel stood and kicked over his chair. "You little bastard! I told you not to break it! You think I got forty dollars to buy you another pool?"
Miguel lifted the sobbing boy out of the water. He whipped his belt out of its loops and lashed Nicolos across the back with the brass buckle. Miguel's father had only used the strap. Magdalena ran onto the porch, alarmed by her son's screams.
That was as much as she dared to say, and the porch was as close as she dared to come.
Miguel hit Nicolos one more time, behind the ear, then pushed him into the grass. Snuffling and choking, Nicolos curled up and clamped a hand to the green smear on his cheek. Miguel walked away. He righted his chair, sat down, sipped his beer, and watched Nicolos climb to his feet, with a hurt, betrayed glare in his brown eyes. That was just how a fighter should look.
Ted McClelland lives and writes in Chicago. He is author of Horseplayers: Life at the Track, an a nonfiction portrait of full- and part-time Chicago horseplayers, from those who haunt the track to the OTB parlors. McClelland also writes frequently for the Chicago Reader.