A strong left and I’m down. Stars sprinkle around me and just for a second I could’ve sworn I was punched into the afterlife. I land on the mat with a thud. My belly aches and my arms feel like broken twigs. I can feel fresh blood drain down my face. My forehead smarts like never before and I wonder if my ears still remember they exist. My lips are big red balloons. I open my eyes and all I feel is my brain exploding from the bombardment of bright lights around me. God, that was one helluva left hook.
The ref bends down on one knee to see if my eyes still live. He starts waving his hand at my face and his mouth moves in unison. He’s counting to ten. I can’t hear the ref, my ears are still shot, but I know those words; no one but a baby enjoys being told how to count, and I ain’t no baby.
I grit my teeth, steel my hands, and crank my legs. I got to get up. This isn’t a fight I’m aiming to lose. It took 12 years to get here, I’m not going to let 12 rounds rip that to shreds. My hands push hard against the mat to straddle myself up. I ain’t losing. My right elbow gives and I fall back on the mat. I catch myself just in time, but I can tell the ref is wondering if I can still fight.
I look up at my opponent. God’s blessed him well. Long arms the size of tree trunks and a granite chin. Not to mention he happens to be taller than anyone in the arena. I ain’t so lucky going against him. But he ain’t no villain. Each bead of sweat and blood on his face is well earned. He stares with calm eyes at me in his corner, panting and oblivious to his trainer’s yells.
He earned his right as champion. He fought long and hard and earned every victory. He knows what those scars mean. His right cheek bleeds red with crimson. I can tell his dreams are as golden as mine. He’s the toughest I’ve had and I’m the meanest he’s faced. Tonight, one of us will be king. It will be me.
I’ve lost fights in and out of the ring. I’ve hurt the people I care the most. I’ve let booze and drugs be my therapist. I helplessly watched through metal bars as my wife got sick and died. I watched my daughter grow up with a different father. I’ve done very stupid things. I was a fool, and here I am fighting to change it all.
I win this, I’ll show them I can change. I’ll show them I’m strong. They called me old, they called me washed-up. I’m a criminal, a junkie, a bad influence. I’ll show them too. I’ve already wowed everyone by surviving this long, I’ll show them I can still win.
With every muscle in my body, I spring up. I let out a roar as I feel a lightning strike of pain through my body. My feet wobble but I stand. I feel dizzy but I know who to hit. The ref stops counting. My opponent braves his face and prepares to enter the tiger’s den. He’s been hurt in life too, just like me. He’s trying to change, just like me. I give him a smile of my blood red teeth. He smiles back with his own crimson whites.
“Good luck, champ.”