art by Brendan Burrow
by Saira Viola
“Superman don’t need no seat belt.” – Muhammad Ali
The gut wrenching screech of a siren: emergency lights and a swerve of brakes. An ambulance pulls up on the West side of the street opposite a Shell garage. The pavement flooded with the crimson rush of human blood. It was a cut-throat Monday evening around ten thirty five p.m. in Streatham South West London, and Tony had just taken the very first beating of his life.
Six skinheads crocked on glue and racist yip were pummelling the neighbourhood gunning for hate. They stank of Thunderbird, B & H and too many white noise meetings.
“Oi you what you lookin’ at too dark to see too dumb to talk nigger coon flake!” A red haired thug with a fascist smirk, wearing groin busting denim and a Fred Perry tee, bashed the air with stewed spite.
“Fuck off!” Tony’s gutsy throwback landed him a steel toe kick to the stomach followed by a crow bar blow to the head. He sank to the ground. He could feel the leather strop in their voices as they held him down and mashed him to jelly. Now he was nothing more than a pulping mass of puss and wounded flesh: a requiem of gore. He had become a Francis Bacon skull mixed with the tortured splay of broken bones.
On arrival at St. George’s hospital, he had already been resuscitated three times. Lying on the gurney. His mother Elizabeth, an A& E nurse, stopped by to make a routine check on new admissions. As she peered closer her face blanched with terror.
“Oh Jesus, that’s my son,” She gasped.
“Oh my God, that’s my boy – my Tony – look at him, my Lord, my God. Dear God who – who did this to my son?” she surged.
A junior doctor rushed to the trolley.
“Elizabeth, please come away from there,” he spoke with clinical density and detached toughness cultivated after several months of practice, but Tony’s mother was shut down with shock, trembling and shaking, her insides raw and jagged like cut glass scraping on a wheel. Tears streaming from her eyes, she sobbed hard without any let up, a plateau of pain glutting her soul. Her heart staving a beat and her mind shrinking, with fear.
“Please leave me, let me be with my son I need to be with him,” she wailed, blue with anger.
“Please, just let me be close to him, I must stay with him.” She fell to her knees as the doctor tried to scoop her away.
Bang Bang pretty pretty, all the colours weep for a mother’s love that rocks you gently to sleep.
Tony had a nine-hour operation and for six months was force fed through a straw. His mother swore he would never be a victim again.
When Tony reached the second floor of the Half Moon pub in Herne Hill, the first sound that greeted him was the ding ding of the boxing clock chimed to go off every three minutes.
The main training area was rammed with fit young men, cut lean, muscle tight with firm brawn and plenty of gold ambition. It was a mosaic of rip and burn. Guys all over the gym were limbering up, doing stretching exercises, pulling, shadow boxing, or juicing the jump ropes.
Fifty Cent was blaring out of the sound system with speed bags and hand weights scattered over the wooden floors. Long line target mirrors and framed photographs of the world’s greatest hung regally from the bouncing walls. Hand wraps and dozens of pairs of boxing gloves were strewn on the ground. The air was thick with the crackle of energy. All of the boxers were sweating success and T wanted more than a mouthful.
“You must be Tony.” A tall good-looking black man of around thirty came towards him. He was Promax thin and chiselled to perfection. He spoke with a Jamaican lilt that hummed palm trees and tropical sands. A former heavyweight champion, he had the pretty- boy charm of a young Ali with the laid-back ease of Sugar Ray Leonard. He would be Tony’s mentor trainer and surrogate father for the next year of his life.
“I’m Clayton,” he put his hand out warmly, and T took it gladly.
“Confidence is what it’s all about, turns a boy into a man, son. If you want to make it in the ring you need focus, you need drive and a sense of purpose. Most of all you need that hunger, the fire in your belly, boy, to make somethin’ of yourself you has to catch that fire and do somethin’ you can be proud of. That comes with confidence.”
Tony had never listened to such inspired jabber, but he wanted to hear more and was glad he was there. Keyed up and ready to flip, but he didn’t want to make a fool of himself in front of so many sculpted Apollos.
“First off, let’s do some easy stuff. We’re gonna warm up, do some straight stretches, then later maybe we’ll try something more if I think you got that fire we talked about, boy,” instructed Clayton with a soft pedal tone.
Tony was relieved he had a chance to get used to the whole idea of boxing before working the ring.
“Okay now watch me Tony, knees bent, arms to the side, just follow my lead. This is a very simple basic warm up, now keep your body loose, keep focused, and look this way,” he signalled. Tony leaned into the routine with a natural fluency, and gently Clayton took him through his paces like a Prom date’s first dance; it was a gracious beginning.
“Okay that’s good, now one of the most important things I’m gonna teach you is how to wrap your hands before you go into a fight. Even before you enter the ring or any of that stuff you have to know how to protect your hands. You must know what to do to keep your hands safe and prevent any snapped bones or violent breaks, understand? Your hands are your weapons. Inside the ring they’re capable of killing a man, and you yourself could be knocked out by a man’s hand so you gotta keep them safe wherever you are, d’ya get me? Outside, inside, wherever, man, you gotta shield them from any kind of danger or harm. Think of them like the crown jewels of your body – know what I’m sayin?”
“Yeah,” Tony nodded with secret awe.
“Okay, so first wrap ‘em like this” Clayton demonstrated.
“Strap the hook around your thumb and your second finger then move the cloth back to the outside of your hand like this,” he continued.
Tony slowly wrapped the bandage around his hand until he had formed a distinctive criss- cross shape the rest of the bandage slipping nicely over his wrist.
“Good that’s good, now you gotta check that it’s tight enough so it won’t slip off.”
“Yeah fits good,” agreed T, switched on and alert. He was fast on the draw, sapping up knowledge like a starved sea sponge.
“It should fit solid all the way around, you know real snug.” He flexed his hand over.
“Right, now if you were jammin’ the ring you could strap on your gloves and protect yourself, but first let’s see you on the jump rope and then we’ll check out your position you get me, I mean your boxing style.” He threw Tony a skipping rope.
“Ever done this before man,” he asked with a foxy grin.
“Nah” T replied with buttered-up shyness and looked away. He had the classic gaze of Snow White’s Bashful with the whopping frame of Vin Diesel.
“Okay let’s do it without the rope first, just step lightly from side to side and keep your wrists loose.”
Tony deftly play-skipped without the rope. He was surprisingly nimble and had the natural agility and elegance of a young Darcy Bussell. Clayton knew within seconds that T was a champ in the making.
“Good that’s good now let’s bust some moves.”
“Okay, let’s work out a regular boxing position. Your shoulders should be above your knees and your left hand should come smooth near your cheek, okay now copy me,” he signalled with his hands pointing to his eyes. “Just do the same as I do. Good, now take a swing from there.”
Tony took a shot.
“Not bad Tony, not bad at all.” Clayton could see he had a powerful left hook. He moved to his right and placed a speed bag in front of him.
“Now Tony I want you to aim for the ball just like we practiced.”
Tony pounded the bag with his right fist. He was too close and it slammed back at him with whizzing fury.
“Think of it as close to your chin son,” Clayton explained.
“Right step up – not too close, Tony – now step away a little more, one two and jab, one two and hit, that’s it. Now move your hands to the centre of the speed bag and on three get into the flow.”
Tony hammered the bag, first with his left hand then with his right. The lyrical symmetry of his footwork mirroring the beat of the one-two jab.
“Now slide up, dip and drag. That’s it drag with your feet, good, slide dip and drag, this is a three beat rhythm son.”
Tony’s body was moving like a jet stream throwing left jabs and right hooks, while all the time his head was a perfect union of bob and weave.
“Okay that’s great Tony, you got your footwork tight, now let me see you throw a few punches. Come over here by the mirrors and watch me.” Tony stood aside as Clayton showed him which way to move his head, punch, and pace his footwork all at the same time in unbroken harmony.
“These head target mirrors show you exactly where to move your head, you got to cover yourself you know, in the ring you got to duck your head and attack so now you try. Step to the side and step in. Keep your knees bent. Now go back so you won’t get hit so much inside, see.”
Tony was dipping in and out, dodging and diving.
“That’s great, you do your damage and then step back to protect yourself.”
Clayton beckoned him over.
“See this, it’s your best friend – the heavy punch bag. Your punches need to be fast but firm, you know, close, from the body. You’re a heavy hitter but your punches shouldn’t loop. The way to do it is to hit from the shoulder and keep the punches close and tight then step away out of range of your opponent – you slam it now.”
Tony was sonic-burst happy he wasn’t a try–hard now. He was a contender.
Every day it was the same routine. Up at five with a three mile jog to the gym and six-hour training session. He would fuel his body with whole grains, yams and beans, overdosing on chicken and tuna and eggs and steak. A protein shake during exercise bouts added to the general gash and mend body regime he had adopted. He would eat six small meals a day and run solid, a deluxe build up for the Southern Counties Heavyweight tournament. In the shadows of Ali, Tyson, and Lewis, T was on his way to championship glory.
T’s professional debut was held at the legendary York Hall, Bethnal Green, the “spiritual home” of London’s boxing elite. All of the world-class fighters had graced its hallowed ring and jacked its golden ropes with meat and muscle. T was on the under card playing handmaid to the pros and the undefeated Cuban Alexi De Morra.
It was a ripe, spanking night, the wind slapping the skin of the trees and hurling the leaves from top to bottom in a spin rush, shading the Autumn sky with thick brush strokes of colour, a post impressionist hue of twilight beauty.
Tony stared with wide-eyed wonder at the commanding edifice and extensive red frontage of the plinths and cornices made from Portland stone. It was a voracious testament of prize fighting history. From Charlie Magrit to Terry Spinks and beyond, they all had a similar story starting out as amateurs from local boxing clubs to claim their place on the world stage.
T’s supporters were out in full, a chopping symphony of friends, family, fellow fighters and street kids all hoping to goose his punch. York Hall was battered with press and product sponsors ready to net some fresh talent. The major event that night: a headline fight between Alexi De Mora and Russian explosion, Sergi Olov. The air was fever-pitch-high spitting excitement and bubbling with testosterone. Would this be victory for T? Would he secure his professional ranking in the mighty York Hall? All eyes were on him and his rival, twenty five year old Joss Bullie, known for his deadly right hook and big hitting style. As T stepped up to the ring in his flash spot trunks he was all sparkle and shine. He boogied down the aisle to the hardcore rap of Slim Thugs: Like a Boss. Joss strutted forward; listening to Ozzie Osborne’s Paranoid. Together they weighed more than five hundred pounds. It was gonna be a pow- wow night full of split and slit. Their ref was in a cream coloured mood, inscrutable but composed.
“In the blue corner weighing in at two hundred and twenty five pounds we have the London Truncheon Tonyyyyyyyyyyeeeee T…and in the red corner hitting the scales at just under two hundred and twenty three pounds the Belgian Messer Joss Bulllllllllie!”
“Now gentleman touch gloves, I want a good clean fight and above all protect yourselves at all times.”
Tony came out slam-bam hot with a left right left turning his body to flex, jab and swing curving from his cheek nice and tight. He was bruising his way to a comfortable first round. Straight long punches, working a waltz: slide-dip and drag, all the time bob and weave bob and weave. The pace getting faster and faster. Duck! Tony blocking the socking thump of Bullie’s right hand. Even paced and pushing for a hard left off T’s rib cage the Belgian was not giving in. Tony was gliding around like a figure skater, his footwork smoother than a Pink Floyd bassline and twice as chilled. Clayton at ringside was steaming guts and fire, chomping out positivity and pepping him up, while his drill coach gave him a much needed shoulder rub and pat down.
Why’s he doing that, doing what I’m doing he asked himself with crushing anxiety. Then, T missed several punches and Bullie took maximum advantage of his growing nerves. Bullie pressed, barred and finally sandwiched him to the ropes. Their heads locked like two butting rams. T with an open cut to his cheek showing extraordinary strength by doing his utmost to stop, block and defend. This was an epic challenge and T was caving in, run over by Bullie’s defensive grit – but still it was game on. An inspired right hand-left hook combo’ on Bullie struck the closing bell. Now Tony’s eye was popping. In the fifth, the Belgian took the lead, T’s eye swelling up like a globoid balloon. Clayton was rightly stressed.
“His eye is growing a mouse,” he said quietly.
“We have to get him out of there,” he sighed, ready to give up, but T was spunked to the max rapping Bullie with a blitz of body shots and head knocks.
“I wanna stay,” he rushed, his words dropping, as he chunked for air.
“I wanna go on – don’t get me out I’m staying.” T refused to break.
Bullie had the upper hand in round six, Tony’s eye softening his rhythm and wearing him down. Then his gum shield dropped out. He scrambled to replace it, but within seconds, Bullie had launched an impressive volley of punches on T’s chest, head and chin. T was now in massive trouble. A final double right hook thrust him to the canvas. Limping to his feet like a wounded animal, he was a drowning reflection of a Herman Nietzsche liturgy. More than blood was on the line. This was a battle for a man’s soul. Tony lay slumped on the ground, he was finding it hard to breathe and his eyes were blurred and addled with pain.
“I don’t feel my body, I don’t feel my legs,” he choked. The medics laid him to one side so he wouldn’t swallow his tongue, but there was just nothing, no response. Blacked out and bloodied to the bone, his dreams of a better life now a shattered pastiche of severed glory. It was worse than a bad break. it was a Broadway Tragedy.
Tony suffered a detached retina and a fractured cheekbone. A botched operation followed, leaving him permanently blind in one eye and killing all hope of a future comeback.
I got a fist full of misery and a chain of suffering he surmised with sterling poignancy.
Copyright © 2012 by Saira Viola
All rights reserved.