“Ten minutes, kid. You ready for this?”
I nodded, not knowing how much I actually meant it. The stool was propped in the corner of the poorly lit locker room, and I sat facing the corner. Hunched over, elbows resting on my knees, I focused on the sweat dropping from my brow, collecting in a small pool in between my feet. My breath was too shallow, so I pulled in some extra air, and let my mind wander for a second.
Five years ago, my life had no meaning, no direction. It was then that I stumbled across Walt’s gym. I had busted through his doors in an attempt to flee the scene of another street fight I had gotten myself into. When the cop cruiser rolled around the corner, the small crowd that had gathered to watch the fight scattered. I shoved my opponent back, snatched the money that had been piled on the ground, and took off, putting the shouts to stop against my back. A few blocks and a couple of turns later, I was looking upon the ring that I had grown to call my home.
After Walt accosted me, and several minutes of me begging for him not to turn me in, we struck up a somewhat tense, but natural conversation. He had owned this gym for 35 years (since his wife had died at the young age of 29), and had gone on to train some of the city’s more famous fighters. He took an immediate interest in my situation, badgering me about my criminal history, my aim in life, why I ended up throwing punches at strangers for booze money. The truth is, it was the only thing I felt comfortable doing. I wasn’t your typical come from nothing story. My childhood had been pleasant, my home life, intact. Supportive family, no angst, about as normal as you can get.
Things went that way till after high school. College never felt right. The soul sucking office jobs didn’t feel right, either. The mindless labor jobs just felt like a waste of energy. Time and time again, I felt like a square trying to fit into a round hole. I would stop going to my jobs, quit paying my bills, removed every part of myself that was a normal contributing factor to society, and wound up on the streets. I never even turned to my family for support. Instead, I embraced the street life, the fighting, the stealing – feeling more alive in those moments than I had in months of sitting at a desk, pretending to function. Finally, something felt right to me.
That was five years ago. Five months ago, I was being slapped on the back, hailed as the next big thing to strap on the gloves. Fresh off an upset victory of a former champion, it was my name that slid in as the #1 contender. The past five years had been a blur. Working close with Walt, living at the gym, eating and breathing the sweet science. I worked the bags harder than I ever worked the keyboard. My focus was more in tune with the speed bag than it had ever been during a test. My hands more sure than they had ever been working with tools. My mind was more clear than ever.
Walt had saved me, and I owed him everything. I was never able to get close with my family, just felt like they were roommates more than flesh and blood. “Fine” was my go to response whenever I was asked how my day went. I never opened up to them in the way I opened up with Walt. He saw that self destructive path I was taking, that chaotic energy, and he honed it into something worthwhile.
That something was a force to be reckoned with, or so they say. My style was to pressure my opponents. I didn’t step into the ring to let them throw punches at me, and I would come forward over and over again, unafraid of getting hit in the face in exchange to land a couple shots of my own. I was touted as fearless, relentless, and the comparison was made that a fight with me was like getting thrown into a cage with a pissed off badger. These lavish words and high praise made me grin when I would read the paper, but I didn’t do this for the approval of some Joe at the sports desk. I did this for me.
That was five months ago. I was calm, collected, feeling like I was finally doing what I was supposed to do. That was, until five minutes ago.
“Five minutes kid, let’s check your gear.”
Walt came over and grabbed my gloves, turning them over, inspecting the tape job. I sat, void of emotion on my face, but inside, everything was starting to churn. My gut was in my throat, my head was throbbing, my breath was shallow and weak. I had never gotten like this before a fight before. I was starting to panic, and I didn’t know why. The sweat turned cold as it trickled down my forehead and, looking up, I was met with Walt’s piercing gaze.
“What’s wrong.” Less of a question, more of a statement, the old man’s brow was more furrowed than usual, the lines in his face like trenches as he squinted at me.
I shook my head. “Fuck Walt, I don’t know. I feel like I’m going to be sick.” He stood and walked from view and I slowly sucked wind, trying to keep my stomach from jumping out my mouth. The cold, moist ice pack made me jump when Walt slapped it against the back of my neck.
“Jesus kid, just calm down. Breathe.” He turned my stool so I could face him, and sat down on the bench across from me. “I’ve seen this before,” He started, looking me over. “You’ve worked for years to get to this point. Busting your ass in here day after day, making this your life. Now you’ve got the chance to accomplish what you set out to do. It’s right in front of you, and you don’t know what to do.”
I rubbed my gloves across my thighs. Was that it? Was winning this fight really what I’ve set out to accomplish? Is this where I wanted to be? Was I just nervous that I’d lose and fail to become the champion?
Walt’s voice came back in. “Don’t second guess yourself. I recognize that doubt. Look, you came to me those five years ago, whether by chance or fate, I don’t know. What I did know is that you were cut from the cloth of a champion. You had heart, you had grit, and you weren’t afraid to get dirty. You know what you said to me all those years ago?”
I brought my eyes up to meet his. His look had softened, his concern measurable. I slowly shook my head.
“You said fighting was the one thing that made you feel alive. That made you connect with the world around you. That’s when I knew what I had with you. You were born to do this, and you had finally realized that. Look, your life doesn’t end when you step out of that ring tonight. Win or lose, you’ve found what gets you up in the morning. You went from being the kid in the corner, working the bag over for 6 hours a day on your own, to one of my most trusted coaches. The other kids around here look up to you. They give you those same eyes you gave me those years ago, when I told you I would work with you. A sense of purpose.”
Walt stood and placed his hands on my shoulders, leaning in as he said, “Win or lose, you’ve got a home now. You’ve got a family. You have somewhere you belong. Win or lose, you have a life to live. No one can take that from you.”
Warmth came flooding back to my skin, the tears testing the edge of my eyes and I stood and embraced this old fool. “Thank you. For everything.” He stepped back, nodding his approval at my words, before asking, “I just need you to do one thing for me.”
“Anything, Walt. Name it.”
“I need you to keep your hands up. You know he likes to lead with his left. Tap your forehead, remind your right that that’s where it needs to be.”
The grin exploded across my face, glad to have the focus back on the task at hand. I grabbed my towel and followed Walt as he turned to lead me out the locker room. He stopped at the door and turned back to me.
“And kid, quit being so emotional. You’ve got a fight coming up. Two minutes.”