The Opponent

“Left, right, left, right, left hook, left hook, left hook,” barks Harry. “Good, now, let’s mix it up.”

It doesn’t matter what he throws at the kid, he keeps up and, more often than not, is ready for another onslaught before Harry has time to get his brain to tell his hands where to put the pads.

After a few more rounds Harry is breathing out his backside and the kid has finally broken a sweat.

“You’re improving every day kiddo, keep it up and you will go even further than I managed.”

Trophies and pictures and belts all lined the gym that they are standing in, all Harry’s. Remnants of a career long forgotten by all but those who attended “Haymaker Harry’s Boxing Gym.”

“I wish, I’d give anything to go toe to toe with Ali for five rounds,” was the little man’s retort.

Harry couldn’t help but smile at him. It was more like toe to toe for one and a half rounds, the rest was just him trying his best to not get knocked out, but he saw the spark in the kids eye whenever Harry was with him and didn’t want to take away the kids drive for success, so he bit his tongue.

“Keep going the way you are and you’ll be fighting the equivalent of him in no time. In fact, see if you can squeeze out a little bit more of yourself and YOU will be your generations Ali, probably even better,” Harry lectured.

The boy would be fourteen in a few weeks and then he was out of his hands. Harry didn’t take on professional fighters any more. Not that the kid was a pro yet but with his skills and mind set it was best to get him training in a proper gym for the next few years to soak in as much as he could.

The adult class is just starting to gather up when he ushers the boy to go cool down and go home. Twelve showed up this time. Harry had been seeing increased performance from his fighters but a gradual decrease in numbers. For the past six months he had been eating into his savings from his career just to keep the gym open. He had to think of something to keep it running or he’d have to retire.

I hear Spain is nice, he thinks to himself.

The black, solid iron safe nestling under the floor boards in his office creeps into his mind as quickly as he brushes it away. Too risky.

Just when the adults are ready to go and the kid is leaving the doors come flying open with an almighty thud where metal meets concrete. Two massive wall-punchers closer to seven foot than six lumber through them. The one on the right is a massive man with a shaved head and a scar across his left cheek from ear to mouth, on the right is a man with skin like onyx and cornrows on his head, on further inspection Harry notes that he has tattoos of tally marks on his robust shoulder.

I don’t even want to know what he’s keeping tabs on.

They wear the worst scowls Harry has ever seen on someone’s face, then a smaller — still rather muscular — tattooed man steps through them with a scowl that puts theirs to shame. The thug swans about looking all of the fighters up and down and invading their personal space. Greg — his biggest, baddest and boldest fighter — is biting his lower lip. He looks ready to decapitate the little idiot. His knuckles are as white as bone and they look ready to burst through his skin. He must see something Harry can’t as usually he is unable to show restraint.

The smaller man has jet black hair styled with spikes, baggy jeans and a tank top to show off his green dragon tattoo. The beast coils around his arm with its tail snaking up his neck and its jagged, fiery maw ending on the back of his hand. On his other arm is a tribal tattoo that covers all of his arm, neck, chest and his shoulder blade. Harry recognises the man as Luca Esposito, a well-known criminal from around these parts. He made his fame around here by coming from nothing and starting a — still ongoing — war with the powerful crime family that owns the territory. He is now setting up all sorts of illegal operations, his favourite being gambling dens and drug rings.

Luca starts spewing nonsense about how this is his town and that he is being conned out of protection money.

“Conned!” Greg laughs. “And how is that?”

“Well…” he starts.

“Can I help you?” Harry blurts out to intentionally drown out his shrill, nasal voice. Luca whips his head around to see Harry standing in the ring, a balding, sixty something man with a big gut.

“Are you the owner?”

“Yes,” Harry answers.

“And have you ever had anyone come in and try to rob you, hurt your fighters or steal from you?”

“No,” Harry replies.

“Well, then, it seems you lot have been under my protection for quite some time and haven’t showed me a fucking penny.” He turns to Greg, “seems like a con to me, you troll looking motherfu-”

At this point Greg finally snaps and lunges for Luca. Before he can shift his huge weight towards him the massive scarred man knocks him down with a single punch. That’s when all three of them produce pistols from under their shirts and point them in every direction.

“I’ll let that one slide, since emotions are running so high right now. The next person to move will get a bullet between his eyes,” grins Luca.

Seconds feel like hours, time crawls to a standstill. He eyes everyone in the room, then points his gun towards Harry and cocks it.

“Now, old man, where is my money?” His hand is trembling, his breathing getting heavy. “Say, oh, I don’t know, $1000 in back payments, then $200 a month.”

Harry’s thoughts go back to the safe. He’s not getting a dime from me, I’ve worked too hard and gave too much blood for a thug to come and make things worse.

“Tell me, are you a gambling man?” I know you are. “I’ll fight you for it, in the ring, and if you win I’ll give you $2000 right now. Then $400 per month. You lose and you turn around and never come back here.”

The sound the three men make is like the hysterical laughter of escaped mental patients, genuine bemusement mixed with a little bit of crazy.

“And why shouldn’t I just shoot you and take everything?” Luca says.

“You could, you’d maybe get a few hundred bucks, but that safe in the back couldn’t be cracked if you dropped a nuke on it.”

The thug’s eyes light up.

“Then why don’t I torture you until you tell me the code??” Luca grins.

“I’m an ex-boxer, son. I have little to no feeling left anywhere, and you’d have better luck drawing blood from a stone. What’s wrong, scared of getting your ass handed to you by an old man?”

As soon as those words are uttered Luca is across the gym and in Harry’s face, his breath reeking of smoke and beer. He hands his gun to his lapdog and dons a pair of red gloves, the old man wears black. Harry notes that he doesn’t wear wraps under them, never mind warming up. Just as well the kid got me warmed up.

Shit!!!

The kid! Harry looks over to see the youngster standing behind three of the on looking adults, they had the common sense to hide him when the ominous trio had first entered. He winks at Harry and gestures a left haymaker. That was his signature move in his prime.

The kid then throws up ten of his fingers, then eight. Harry has to consider this for longer than he probably should, then it dawns on him. Twenty-one total career K.O’s. Seventeen of those by left hook.

Before long everyone is huddled around the ring — except the kid who was forced out of the building by Greg for his own safety — the big man with the scar on his face hits the bell with the butt of his gun. The fight begins.

Staying true to his old tricks, Harry rushes out with his right hand in the air as if to touch gloves with the disrespectful youth. When Luca looks up Harry swings a half-hearted left hook that catches him by surprise. This enrages Luca so he starts swinging aimlessly. Harry ducks under the first, making the wild man expose his back and puts his guard up, absorbing the blows one by one and pressing forward. Every now and then Luca drops his guard and is punished for it, not too hard, mind you, as that expends too much energy. Luca is clearly a street fighter, which in the realms of boxing is no use. He does manage to land a punch or three, but Harry chalks that down to his old age. Back in my day I’d have checked every one of your advances, blocked every shot, and countered every blow. Old age or not, he knew how to read an opponent and use their shortcomings against them. There is almost too much to note; he over extends. Is overly aggressive and doesn’t guard nearly enough. So Harry lets him tire himself out and just leans against the ropes, saving his own energy while forcing Luca to over extend even further with a careless right jab.

Harry retaliates with his own right jab, sending Luca flying across the ring.

One of his men can be heard smacking the canvass and screaming for Luca to ‘take his fucking head off.’

He tries.

Harry bobs to the right and devastates his mid-section with a rib crunching left. The noise the Italian pony makes is a mixture of shock and all of the air escaping his lungs.

The bell rings.

Luca stumbles off to his corner while Harry swaggers back, enjoying himself a bit too much. Remember what’s at stake, old man.

There’s a fair bit of commotion going on over at the challengers corner. A few ushered words here, a few encouragement slaps — from his walking bag of steroids — there and the bell is ringing once more.

Luca comes out more gingerly this time. Ensuring to keep his ribs protected, giving Harry free reign of his face. After a flurry of combos Luca takes a page out of his book and bobs one, then counters with a blow that bursts Harry’s nose.

“That’s it, old man,” Luca mocks, “another one of those and you’re done for.”

“Let’s see if you can land another, then, amateur.”

Luca doesn’t hide the fact that his wrists are killing him very well. Every other second he is rotating them, trying to flick the pain away. That’s why we wear wraps. Harry has a handicap also. His nose is gushing and he’s starting to feel light headed. The coppery taste of blood is invading his taste buds, the distinct smell assaulting his nose.

A few more rounds go by where they trade blows, insults, and — involuntarily — blood. Harry, after landing more than a couple of rib-shots, notices that Luca is grunting before everything he throws. His shoulder muscles give away which hand is being swung and what type of punch will be used.

He throws, Harry ducks.

He throws again, Harry ducks again. This time he comes up with an uppercut that sparkles the intruder. Luca must be used to being hit as he regains composure in the few seconds before Harry can follow up with a single punch. In those seconds, however, Harry notices that he has a teardrop tattoo under his right eye. Let’s make you cry for real, son. His right shoulder contracts all the muscles that tells Harry that he is throwing a hook. He flings his hand up to his temple to block the hit and the red glove slides away, leaving the spiky haired wannabe with no protection. Harry bends his knee ever-so-slightly and drops his shoulder. With a rotated hip he puts all his weight behind his left haymaker that sends his opponent to the ground like a sack of potatoes. Luca tries with everything he has to get back up but his legs have turned to jelly and he goes to sleep.

That’s it, fight over.

After a few minutes the two herculean body guards scoop their boss off the floor and leave, cheers and hollers fill the hall and Harry lets that familiar feeling warm his bones. He tells Greg to take the class today and retires to his humble home a few blocks down, a victor, once more.

The next day he is woken up by the youngster, in the early hours of the morning, rattling his front door. He’s keen, isn’t today a rest day? All he says is its urgent and there’s no time, so Harry pulls on some clothes and follows him to the gym.

Well, the smoking ruins of where the gym used to stand. By now a few of the locals have gathered and are staring at Harry to gauge his reaction, but he can’t help but smile.

“Why are you grinning, Harry? We’ve lost everything!!” The kid is visibly trying to hold back tears. “What are we gonna do now?”

“Well it looks like you’re going to be going to the pro gym a little prematurely kiddo, as for me, I’ll be fine,” Harry realises he is still smiling from ear to ear.

When the crowd disperses he sends the kid home and tells him he will come round to visit in a few hours.

Harry rummages through the rubble and finds the charred solid iron safe sitting under some smouldering floorboards, he puts in the code — the year he had a shot of beating the world’s greatest — and pulls out a warm piece of paper. He hears a police man screaming about how this is a crime scene and he could be arrested, then when Harry turns around he stops his racket. Harry folds up the paper and puts it in his pocket. He is told about how CCTV footage from the shop across the road identified Luca Esposito as the arsonist. He was found in one of his “safe-houses” with multiple illegal firearms and drugs, enough to put him behind bars for a long time.

After the officer leaves Harry allows himself a peek at the insurance document in his pocket he took out on the gym a few years back.

I hear Spain is nice.