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No 3 Knockdown Rule.

The Box of Guts was full. Around the boxing ring, fists cleaved punching bags. Pab-pab! Poob! Poob! The bags swung like slabs of beef on hooks. Mirrors for walls multiplied the fighters, and each bobbing, weaving, panting boxer cast an army of reflections. Jump ropes stirred pools of sweat. Salt grains leapt from heads. In the ring, Harmon Sloan sniffed the air and slid his hands into leather mitts. The old man listened to his students. Ugh! Ugh! Ta-tat!

Thirty years ago, this old man was Harmon "Harmful" Sloan. He was one of the era's best, but it remains debatable if he was the best. Harmon never officially fought the man who many considered to be the best: Ricky "Dynamite" Sanchez. To maintain their marketability, and because the world was at stake, promoters and agents kept the pugilists apart. This conspiracy pushed the athletes to fight in secret. One morning, near the end of their careers, they met in Aomori. They walked from opposite directions of the city, among streams of people pouring towards Hirosaki Castle: a pillar surrounded by a black moat and a cherry blossom forest. The sakura danced for taiko drums: Thump-thump. Thump. Thump. On the red bridge to the castle, Harmon and Ricky dropped their duffle bags and shook hands.

Away from the crowds, hidden among pink trees, the shirtless fighters touched gloves and circled each other. Cherry blossoms scattered, gliding up, up toward the castle. High above the crowds, sunlight sliced the blossoms into hues of blue, purple, and red. The blossoms bowed and turned, floated then bobbed down, down toward the moat. Thump-thump. Thump. Thump.

Forty-eight minutes later, bruised, bloody, and broken, the fighters shook hands and limped towards hospitals. Ricky Sanchez became the spokesperson for a kitchen utensils company. In the infomercials he'd say, "It's not just cooking; it's design."

Harmon Sloan found and filled The Box of Guts.

"Let's go, kid."

Jacky Pelosa ducked between the ropes and pounded his gloves.

Harmon slapped Jacky's ribs. "Keep our guard tight, or you'll wake up on the canvas tomorrow. Double jab. Uppercut. Check hook."

The mitts barked, and the ring rippled. "Good. Tomorrow, give Rex Sosa hell. Punch that big mouth of his 'til it swells. Detach his retinas. Snap his head sideways. Make him see his shoulder blades."

Jacky punched the mitts. Pap-pap, pap! Pap-pap, pap!

"As long as he can, Rex will stand. Expect it. He'll stand and smile and fight. You don't just beat him. You remind him he's alive. He may be a son, a husband, a father, own a passport, vote for some party, or pray. Jab-uppercut-hook. Slip. Faster. Again.

"The man inside the ring is a remnant of truth. You beat his life out of him. Make him forget his social security number. Make him remember: first, I am. In the end he'll weep and kiss your cheeks."

Jacky jolted forward, bobbed, and weaved past Harmon's elbows.

"They say Rex Sosa has a bank vault for a jaw, wrecking balls for hands."

"He's a monster in there."

"Outside the ring, that thing can't exist." He swung the mitts.

Jacky ducked and ducked.

"Passion is a black hole. Not much left outside." He pushed Jacky against the ropes.

"There's something."

"What's left just hasn't been reached yet." Harmon snorted. "When you exit, keep your feet under you. Better."

"Don't blink tomorrow. You might miss me becoming better than everyone."

Harmon slammed the mitts. "You're not getting it."

Jacky darted backwards. "What?"

"Tomorrow, if the lights go out, remember where you went."

Jacky propped his elbows on the ropes and smiled at the boxer in the mirror. "I'll try. What's the difference between smiling and snarling?"

Tomorrow was Jacky's first title bout, but he was facing Rex "Demolition" Sosa. Fans frenzied at the idea. Sosa, the orphan who learned to fight, grew into a motherless monster in the ring. People said Sosa was a skinny kid who couldn't carry the flies on his head. Once, during recess, Sosa defended against two fifth graders. He punched those boys back and into the hospital, coma for one, paralysis for the other. Sosa pissed and spat blood for a week, but he had won. He won and loved the feeling, found his purpose. He trained, cracked, hardened, and grew his knuckles. Then he started to devour the hopes and dreams of opponents. But Jacky "Peek-a-boo" Pelosa was no weakling.

Fans said when Peek-a-boo punched a bag, sand shot through the leather, through the mirrors and walls. Harmon held needles in front of him, and Peek-a-boo threw threads into their eyes from across the ring. Peek-a-boo attacked when you blinked and therefore teleported. He moved so fast he occupied multiple spaces at once, ensuring a perfect record. How do you beat someone who commanded his own atoms like that? Unlike most pugilists, Peek-a-boo didn't seize his opponents' rhythm. Peek-a-boo let them keep their music. He just drummed their ears, deafened them, between the notes, learning the truth of the self in growing silence. Everyone knows there's truth in a myth.

"What's the difference between smiling and snarling?"

"Focus." Harmon wanted to say, "The fight gets easier," but that was a lie.

Ten thousand seats in the stadium were filled. Banners bobbed among the crowd. Chants and cheers rose in tides. The people incessantly moved. Their mass swelled and shrank. Harmon pointed at the crowd. "A lot came to watch a physical chess match. Many came for senseless violence. Some came to witness the foreign. You listening?"

"Create opportunities. Hit without being seen." Jacky adjusted his red trunks and gazed across the ring at Sosa, the titan in black trunks.

"Use his teeth as a xylophone. He called me senile."

An old announcer narrated the event: "Ladies and gentlemen, the hype is over. The main event is about to start. Above the blue canvas, the lights are hot enough to melt mannequins. The fighters touch gloves. The ref calls, 'Seconds out!' The bell rings. The fighters launch. Two jets orbiting each other. The circles grow smaller. They're in striking distance now. A flurry. A dual exchange. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a fight, the start of war!"

Two minutes into the round, Jacky landed his signature hook. The force rippled through Sosa's face, every atom rattled, shot into one another, and almost split. Every cell shook dry, and his pores exploded sweat in floods. His head was blasted sideways, into a blurry spot in reality. Sosa staggered into the corner, but he ducked and shot forward. Blood dripped down his neck. His eardrum had ruptured.

Harmon pounded the ring. "He can't dance with you."

Jacky pushed an uppercut through Sosa's guard. His head jumped, but Sosa chopped Jacky's body. "Come on. Come on," Sosa's gloves said.

Sosa alternated his targets: ribs, stomach, sternum, sternum, stomach, ribs. Before the bell rang, Sosa landed a counter right cross. For the first time in his career, Jacky was knocked down. Blood ejected, pulsed, spewed, and drained from his nose in twin storms.

"Ladies and gentlemen, a hellacious right! With three seconds to go in the first round, Pelosa is down."

The referee screamed, "One."

"Two!"

The referee counted "Eight" before Jacky stood, shook his head, and smiled.

The bell rang.

Jacky jogged to his corner and shrank on the stool. "I'm good."

"Bullshit." Harmon lifted Jacky's head and pinched his nose. "It's broken."

Harmon wiped Jacky's face with the towel, and he pushed large q-tips up Jacky's nostrils. He tapped Jacky's ribs and grimaced. "Damn body shots."

"I'm good."

"Tighten your guard. Don't follow him into the corners."

"I pushed him there." Jacky smirked and blood squirted out of his nose.

"Stay in the center."

"I'm just warming up."

"Of course."

"He's strong. He's taken my best shots."

"You're just warming up."

"Seconds out!"

Jacky glanced at the ring girl. She carried a large sign that said: Round 4.

What?

Sosa flew at him, but Jacky parried, stabbed his neck, shuffled, and slashed his face with broken bottles.

"Sosa's in a bar fight, ladies and gentlemen. But he responds with a sharp right. Pelosa's left eye is gushing blood. There's blood everywhere!" The announcer kept glancing at Harmon's face. He caught squints, smirks, and frowns. In the ring, bruises, cuts, and blood revealed skill sets, but the boxers remained stoic. Coaches, however, pantomimed. They showed joy and pride, anger, shock, or helplessness. Eyebrows raised, eyes fully opened, lips pulled back: Harmon Sloan was afraid.

The doctor might stop the fight, so Jacky chased Sosa into the corner, where Sosa swung an axe and gutted him.

Jacky felt his ribs splinter, his intestines spill. His head strummed the ropes and bounced on the canvas.

"Pelosa is a pile of flesh and blood."

"No!" Harmon grabbed his hair. "Get up!"

"Three!"

Jacky gripped the ropes.

"Five!"

"Six!"

Jacky rolled on his side and slowly, slowly crawled on grass. He was crawling on the wet grass of a garden, a beautiful, successful garden that could keep a tribe alive. His hands were dirty, up to the elbows, and wrinkled. His chest was throbbing, burning from within. Jacky reached under his shirt. His trembling fingers traced stitches and a ticking, whirling device in his chest, matching the footsteps running towards him.

"Grandpa," a little girl shrieked. "Dad, grandpa's dying again."

"Dad. What are you doing out here?" The man lifted Jacky, carried him, and gently dropped him on a daybed. "You can't keep doing this. You have to heal. You have to keep still."

"I have to go," Jacky murmured. "Back."

"I'll take you when you're stronger."

"These hands," Jacky stared, "aren't mine."

"You're confused again. No, Dad. Lay down. Stay down."

"Get up, kid!"

"Seven!"

"Eight!"

Jacky sat up. He stood, and the crowd shook the stadium.

The bell rang.

"Sit and breathe."

"I'm good."

"You're dragging your feet." Harmon massaged Jacky's purple ribs.

"This isn't over."

"Where are you?"

"Right here." He heaved blood into the bucket and stared at the blurry crowd.

Tears filled Harmon's eyes. He wiped Jacky's chest and wringed the bloody towel.

"We already had this conversation."

"You might be bleeding inside."

"I can't see on this side."

"You stopped sweating three rounds ago."

"Three rounds ago? What round is it?"

"Nine."

"Close the cut again. The doctor might end this."

"What round did you think it was?"

"Close the cut." Jacky solved Rex's strategy. The corner prevented him from flanking Rex. He lured Jacky into the corners. Smart. "Coach, what would they say if I died here?" He spit blood into the bucket.

"It doesn't have to be this way." He pressed cotton into Jacky's eyebrow and filled the cut with a glob of Vaseline.

"Seconds out," the referee screamed.

"Nobody's blinking, Jacky."

Peek-a-boo slowly stood. His legs shuddered then steadied. "I want that belt."

"Seconds out!"

"Wait a second. Let Sosa wait one long second longer."

The crowd simmered.

Sosa ran, teleported, and pinned Peek-a-boo against the ropes. Peek-a-boo's head kept snapping backwards. His torso repeatedly jumped. Sosa was demolishing him. The referee was about to stop the fight, when, for a moment, the ring looked circular. Peek-a-boo leaned against the ropes until they arched. He flew forward, swung a wrecking ball, and popped a bank vault open. Sosa was blasted off his feet. His shoulder blades slammed against the canvas.

"A gruesome turn. We're witnessing history, ladies and gentlemen. Greatness emerging. This is boxing."

"Three."

"Four."

I expect you to get up, Peek-a-boo mumbled. Get up and step your game up.

"Seven!"

I still have some life in me.

"Eight!"

Maybe you do, too.

"Ten! "The referee waved his hands, Peek-a-boo lifted his, and the audience roared.

"We have a new champion!"

While janitors picked up litter and mopped puddles, Harmon guided Jacky through the narrow hall. Sosa's trainer walked up to Harmon and shook his hand. "Close one."

"Sanchez. I've seen closer."

Neither man blinked.

"Next time, Sloan."

Jacky wobbled and leaned on Harmon's shoulder. Paramedics waited in the dressing room, and an ambulance waited outside.

"They got what they paid for. You almost died in there. You refused the stretcher, but you walk like you're not the one who won. Hurry a little."

"I didn't get to thank him."

"You broke his jaw. They rushed him to surgery, where you might be headed. He'll want a rematch. You can thank him after that." Harmon chuckled. "You guys are advancing the world of medicine."

"Hey!" Jacky heard a familiar voice behind him. "Jacky!" He stopped and turned towards the voice. There, under the burning lights of the ring, stood Peek-a-boo, resting his elbows on the ropes, wearing the championship belt over his shoulder. "I'll be here with this," Peek-a-boo grinned and growled, "Mine!"

"What is it, kid? What's the matter?"

"I won't fight him again."

"That fight was as incredible as the night sky. We found you a nemesis.

Think about it. Not right now. Live your life but think about it."

Jacky nodded. "I will." His voice rasped like Harmon's. "I am."

Harmon elbowed his pupil.

"Illegal hit. Point deduction for the senile corner."

"Did you do what I asked? Do you remember?"

"I do."

"Where did you go?"

"Beyond my hands."

"What did you see?"

"A ceiling without lights."

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Author:Sarmiento, J.G.
Publication:Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature
Date:Mar 22, 2017
Words:2230
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