Fiction by Teddy Atlas
They wait in line to see the doctor. This makes them nervous, not because of fear of a needle, but the reminder that the moment is growing closer.
It is a large room, stripped of make-up, only the essentials, some scattered chairs (the uncomfortable kind), a table, and of course the scale. Shirtless men pass the apparatus that check weight, glancing at it as if too long a look might invoke some sort of retribution. The building is in a forgotten part of the Bronx, where travel could only be for a couple of reasons, none whimsical or touristy in nature. Walking in, your thoughts are of survival—not like the television show, but primitive, instinctual, like this building, the only one on the block still standing. As you walk up the stairs and smell the walls painted in urine, those words still standing stick in your head.
Finished with the doctor, they moved to the scale. Each one approached it carefully, as if it were something they did not like yet needed to respect. Some would get on with a cocky arrogance. Others would step on cautiously as if they were crossing a field of mines and this was the last yard. Many would take a deep breath like they were about to dive into a pool, breathing again only when the head behind nodded that the weight was okay. With those rituals out of the way, everyone separated into small groups.
If these were young enlisted men, this would be the battlefield, and the groups would be the small troops. Like the Army, each packet of people had a strong young male and an older man who seemed to be in charge, the soldier and the officer. As the younger man sat, he stared at the older man as though orders would be coming, or as if they had done this before. This young man looked as if what was about to be said was the most important thing he would ever hear.
The atmosphere of the room had changed. It compared to the climate at a wake, relaxed talk in the lounge area, but stricter and less conversation inside. People knew why they were here.
Those young men were here to fight. Twenty or so young amateurs would be paired off in boxing matches. They were all here for different reasons. Some to become world champions and to claim the rewards that came with that, others wanted to better armor themselves for the private wars they were facing in their neighborhoods, or their homes. Some were looking for help, and the one-on-one attention and demands that came from their trainers. Still others came on dares from their peers, and some, well, they weren’t sure; they seemed to be lured by a primal calling to arms, a need to know what they could do and what they actually would do when put into a threatened position with no guarantees.
The process now was to match the fighters according to weight and experience. Officials from the Amateur Boxing Federation would do this; it is not an exact science. Although the weight categories are controlled by the scale, properly matching the experience of each contestant depends on two components: the honesty of the trainer and boxer, and the accuracy of the boxer’s passport. The passport is a license that theoretically records all of his bouts. This way you can evenly and fairly match fighters. In reality, not all bouts get recorded. Some kids fight in places where passports are not needed, and here people do not interpret honesty as moral truth but instead as the Holy Grail of Survival. It is not measured in volume but in physical moves, and, like war, whatever it takes to ensure survival become acceptable—of course, within the boundaries of enforcement.
As the aspiring warriors wait to be matched the first enemy shows his face—fear. The weapon of choice is imagination, and the bullet time. There will be a wait of a couple of hours before a punch can be landed, and it is during this period that many a casualty can take place. Some are lost before leaving their foxholes. Now it is a time to think, and that battle can be larger than anything real, simply because it is not. There are no parameters, no fences to keep the mind from going. Only experience and discipline can keep the soldiers of the imagination from storming the walls. You are alone. For some it’s the first time. Without alcohol to fuel them or numbers to secure them. Without hate and anger to propel them or weapons to insure them. Like a person at the end of life’s travels, you have only yourself, and for some, they don’t even know who or what that is, not yet.
As the bouts are being made, time is like a destroyer storming through the sea, using minutes like depth charges. While you wait, you can only think and that can be a bayonet to the belly. They say a drowning man will grab for a razor blade—well, an inexperienced fighter will look for hope and reassurance anyplace available as he sits waiting in that war room called a dressing room. He will look to size up potential opponents as they walk about the room. He’ll look at the one who seems to be his size and start to analyze his strengths and weaknesses. But being new to this battlefield, he does not recognize the sniper whose only order is to exaggerate so as to avoid a battle by scaring his adversary away. Now, as he peeks at his potential opponent he notices every move he makes.
How he walks with confidence or without. He watches as he shadowboxes, looking for any flaw he can find and noticing anything that he can recognize as talent, matching it against his video memory of past greats and remembering the things he heard his trainer emphasize; shoulder snap, combinations, leverage, control—and sure enough, this guy has all of it! Yes, if there was a reincarnation, this was Sugar Ray Robinson, back again. As he watches this re-born Sugar Man snap off brilliant combination after combination, he realizes the room has gotten warmer and most of the air has been removed.
He remembers one of the older fighters from the gym had told him to take deep breaths. As he steadies his respiratory system, the nervous system acts up. His left leg begins to jump. He tries to hold it still with his closest arm, so as not to bring attention. But now his whole left side is bumping up and down, arm and leg. Aware that his opponent or his opponent’s camp may see this, he immediately begins mouthing words to the involuntary beat he is keeping. Running out of words, he remembers advice from a trainer, “Motion relieves tension.” The trainer told him that is why waiting fathers pace up and down the hallways of the maternity wards. “It is nature’s way of relieving the tension.”
Immediately he gets to his feet and begins to bounce up and down. He walks, mimicking fighters he’d seen, now understanding it is not a tradition dance but a Heimlich maneuver for fighters. It seems to work; his body begins to idle at a slower pace. His heart jumps a couple of beats as his trainer yells to him, “Time to wrap up.” He moves to the corner of the room, where the trainer has two chairs, one turned backwards facing the other. The one turned around has a folded towel on the top of the wooden back. As he sits on the forward-facing chair, he places his arm on the top of the chair with the towel. His trainer stands in front of him and tells him to open his hand and extend his fingers wide and stiff. The trainer takes a roll of gauze and begins to wrap it around the boxer’s wrist. After several loops he brings it up in a crisscross motion around the hand. After several layers the trainer carefully curves it around the thumb before going up top, where he goes back and forth, creating a pad over the knuckles. As the gauze moves in and out, disappearing each time it goes under the hand, the fighter begins to fall into an almost peaceful trance, broken only when the trainer tells him to make a fist. Now his teacher takes thin strips of adhesive tape that has been cut on the wall earlier and places each one on the fighter’s wrist and runs it one at a time between the knuckles, pulling the padding on the knuckles tight, creating an almost cast-like feeling.
“How does it feel,” the soldier is asked by the general after each strip is secured. Now more white tape is put over the gauze and around the wrist. Once both hands are done the trainer smiles at his work and barks, “Now use them!”
Understanding that he is another step closer to what lies beyond that door the boxer tries to block out the vision of a long-ago story he’d read about Captain Hook and his practice of walking men off the plank of a ship. But as hard as he tries, he can’t shut off his mind’s projection of eight-millimeter riddled bodies dropping off into a dark sea. He suddenly feels a deep coldness that seems to spiral down his body. The ground feels almost loose as he orders himself to swim to the surface. He shakes his hand to the side, noticing the light in the room, for a moment happy to be there. Then he sees the boxer he had sized and his opponent. Instinctively, he moves his eyes down to the other’s feet. What kind of shoes was he wearing? If they were the expensive yellow ones, the choice of top amateurs. That would probably mean he was an experienced fighter. But if he only wore sneakers, what a reprieve that would be: the tools of a beginner. As he directed his eyes down, he turned his head slightly so as not to make it obvious. Before he fixed onto his target he stopped for a moment, acting as though he were looking at a crack in the wall; how reasonable he thought it would seems to anyone watching him that he would be staring at this; also it brought him time, time to think if he wanted to know what were on those feet. He turned like a man half looking at the roulette wheel as his last hope for a win bounced through the slots. With a sudden quick glance he saw what he had hoped not to: yellow shoes. The feeling in his lower chest reminded him of a day as a young boy when his mother drove away as he stumbled into the concrete block called school. He reminded himself of how that must not have turned out too bad since he didn’t have any other thoughts of it.
With that hope he remembered there was another piece of equipment that could offer information on the caliber of his opponent: the mouthpiece. If it were the white rubber one that could be bought in the store for two dollars, there would still be hope that he was dealing with a novice. What he did not want to see was that form-fitted piece made by a dentist, usually in bright colors. Only a fighter of merit with people backing him could afford such protection. As he looked up he saw his opponent smile, and there was nothing white, just a piece of hard red rubber.
All sound seemed to leave the room. Only a familiar light tone remained. It was the same sound he’d heard as a kid when his father put that horn-shaped seashell to his ear. Only this was in both ears. As he swung between shades of black and gray, he tried to remember how he’d gotten there. Why had he allowed himself to get into this situation? His mind traced a map of the subway system. Never clear on which trains led to where. Now he realized the No.5 or No.6 trains would take him into Lower Manhatten, far from here. The temporary shaking of the building reminded him of how close the station was. How easy it would be to say he had to go in the bathroom. Once outside, he could rip the hand wraps off and he could buy other clothes or go home in his trunks.
Everything seemed reasonable, perfect, except the word would get out about how he ran, how he had punked out. There was no escape from that.
There was still time. It was an old building—reckless, even dangerous people lived there. How many times had a fire begun in places like this? That would not be an impossibility. He thought about it almost as if his thoughts could make it happen, like gathering kindling for a flame. He was brokering a deal with whatever powers that controlled such things, a thought not completely selfish: after all he clearly said in his mind that he would not want anyone hurt. Just a pass, a temporary obstruction of time and place, a postponement. What he didn’t realize he had gotten was a bridge, a passage of time, a distraction to carry him forward. The moment was here, the clerk in charge of handing out the gloves yelled his name: “You’re up!”
His trainer walked toward him with one glove tucked under his arm and the other extended forward. He noticed how his trainer had already spread the laces wide so could fit his hand inside. As his man held the glove low with his arms stiff, he sunk his left hand into the first glove. As his trainer’s voice mingled with the other sounds in the room, he heard, “Left hand first.” His trainer was reminding him that they had always that in the gym, so he wouldn’t forget that the jab started everything.
He tried to concentrate now, squeeze out the things that were crowding him. Try to leave only what he thought of when the fight was still in the distance. Remember how proud he felt when he envisioned his hand being raised and his father hugging him, as he did his roadwork in the dark of morning. His hand hit the bottom of the glove as he moved his fingers, grabbing at the soft leather for something to hold. The trainer now told him to hold the glove against his stomach as he pulled the laces together. “Push,” the trainer said, so he could keep his hand set firmly in the glove. Inch by inch the trainer pulled at the white laces, putting a thumb over the drawn string so it wouldn’t escape. The fighter noticed that, and tried to know his own resolve; he was not going back, and for a second he felt stronger than ever before. His trainer tied the knot, then turned tape over it. One of the other fighters from his gym brought over the robe; the tournament supplies them for any boxers that don’t have their own. Earlier he had frowned at the colors, now they had no meaning. His handler asked if he wanted the robe open or tied. He didn’t care. As he was told to loosen up, he wondered why his arms were so heavy. Like when you have gum stuck to your shoe and you try to walk. He pushed his arms forward, but they seemed to pull back toward his body. The locker-room door was now open. He looked down the hallway and was surprised at how long it seemed to be. As his trainer rubbed the back of his neck, another official from the Federation came over to the trainer. As they talked he felt his breathing come easier, but at the same time he thought this could be another trick played by his body.
He asked his trainer what had happened, and he repeated some of the words he had overheard. The opponent had pulled out, he was sick, there would be no fight today. It took him some time to realize how easily his arms slip up and down as he threw a punch against the wall. He felt very strong. “I was ready to go,” he yelled to his team, surprised at how firm his voice was. He said he was disappointed; after all he had worked so hard in the gym, all for nothing. As his people removed the gloves he marveled at how quickly they came off. As he returned the robe he looked at how faded and worn it was. When he turned to walk toward the front of the room, he saw the fighter that he thought was his opponent. He was just getting his gloves on. That wasn’t even the guy I was going to fight, he laughed to himself. He waited for a moment until the boxer was being gloved. He watched the fighter warm up. He was shocked at how much slower his punches were now. There were no combinations. The sharp snappy jab looked rubbery. The footwork looked awkward. Just what his trainer had told him not to do. The confident smile that the reborn Sugar Ray Robinson wore earlier seemed to have been replaced by a nervous, almost sickly look.
It was like when he went to the movies and someone gave him those 3-D glasses, he suddenly saw things that he had missed before. He whistled a tune as he dressed. While he was packing his gear he thought about his opponent and wondered if he were really sick. For the first time, he realized he had not been alone. The guy felt the same as him. As he headed down the hallway he wondered if he’d come back next week. As he got to the end of the hall he stopped dropped his bag, and looked back shaking his head at how short that walk was.
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(Permission granted by Teddy Atlas to reprint “Shadows of a Room” which appeared in the September 2002 issue of Penthouse Magazine).
Teddy Atlas is currently the “Color” Commentator for ESPN2 Friday Night Fights. He has been training fighters since 1976. Champions with whom he has worked include: Michael Moorer, Michael Grant, Tracy Patterson, Joey Gamache, Simon Brown, and Barry McGuigan. He recently received the Boxing Writers’ Association Award for Best Television Commentator.