Robbie let slip a resigned sigh as the final fight on the undercard ended with a resounding KO in the third round. The match had been a one-sided demolition job by the higher-ranked seed, who was basking in his well-deserved glory by waving enthusiastically at the raucous crowd. It was no wonder they roared in approval – the fight, while short, had been a most entertaining spectacle.
Robbie wished he could share in the sentiment, but such a thing was beyond him right now, for his match was up next.
As the commentators on the small TV inside the locker room started dissecting the match, he tuned them out and tore his gaze away from the screen. There was nothing more to gain by listening to them babble on about crap that had nothing to do with him. Instead, he occupied himself by tightening the straps on his gloves – a present given to him by his late father when he’d won his first professional bout.
After ensuring the gloves were one hundred percent secure, he rose from the rough wooden bench he was sitting on and began cycling through some warm-up exercises. He’d already warmed up more than enough during the fight he’d just witnessed, but a bit more couldn’t hurt. Anything to take his mind off the nerves coursing through his body.
He first stretched his biceps, opening his palms and laying one atop the other before pulling his elbows past his ribs, and extending his arms in the same direction.
After five reps, he switched things up by placing his hands behind his back and linking them together – left from above and right from below. He held the stretch for five seconds, momentarily relishing the tension in his shoulders, before switching his hands’ positions.
Five further reps later, he brought his arms back to a neutral position, and raised his right leg until the heel was touching his arse. Using his right hand, he grabbed the foot and held the stretch for five seconds, instantly feeling the burn in his quad. Following this, he did the same with his left leg, again managing the same number of reps as before.
He next stretched his abductors, then his quads, then his hip flexors, and despite the immense pressure bubbling up in his gut, he felt himself relax. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough to be noticeable.
Then the announcer declared that the next match was almost about to start, and whatever composure he had regained from warming up evaporated on the spot. His breathing picked up and his palms started tingling, making him feel as though he’d slapped a wall of pins and needles.
Furrowing his brows and clenching his fists, he started shadow boxing on the spot. Two left jabs were followed by a right cross, then a left liver blow, and a right uppercut to finish off the combo. He weaved under a retaliatory cross, then leapt to the left to avoid a quick jab. He went on to dance around his imaginary opponent, peppering them with jabs of his own while bobbing and blocking to avoid their counterattacks.
And yet, despite his best efforts, the tingling never went away. It just got worse.
Screeching to a halt, he stormed up to his open locker and ripped out a thick white towel. He then shoved it in his mouth, grit his teeth, and let loose a muffled scream into which he poured his rage, frustration and self-loathing.
All this did was make his vision hazy, so he flung the towel back into the locker and shuffled over to glare at the wall. His lip curled at the sight of the sickly yellowish surface, which was made even more garish by his newly induced sluggishness. Still, he fought down his queasiness.
Raising his fists in an orthodox guard, he landed two soft jabs at the wall, and followed through with a right cross, taking a marginal amount of comfort in the sensation of hitting something solid. If shadow boxing with an invisible partner did nothing to help, then maybe this would.
A left liver blow was next.
Then a right uppercut.
Three jabs hit their mark.
Two consecutive liver blows followed.
Then two jabs.
And three power punches.
Then a couple of wild hooks.
Eventually, the patterns he’d spent hundreds of hours practising until exhaustion devolved into an uncoordinated barrage of haphazard blows.
But he couldn’t bring himself to care.
With each resounding thud against the wall, Robbie felt his knuckles sting, but he refused to back down because the bloody tingling wouldn’t go away. It was infuriating.
He couldn’t succumb to it. He wouldn’t. Not now, of all days-
One pair of arms wrapped around his waist from behind and pulled him away from the wall, while another grabbed his wrists from the front and shifted his hands to eye level. “Stop that! Stop that right now!” Coach Mac ordered, his tone a mixture of anger and worry with a tinge of despair.
Robbie grit his teeth so hard his jaw started aching, and shut his eyes tight before reopening them. Upon doing so, he was met with the concerned, charcoal-coloured irises of his wise, grey-haired mentor: the person who’d given up everything to support him on this decade-long journey.
The last thing Robbie wanted to do was disappoint the coach. Swallowing thickly, he unclenched his fists and regulated his breathing – inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth, then repeating the process several times over.
Coach Mac’s eyes drooped. “Remember who you’re fighting for,” he added sombrely. “They’d want you to beat up the other guy, not yourself.”
Resisting the urge to wince as two images flickered through his head, Robbie nodded in agreement while Lou, the coach’s assistant, let go of his waist. His vision stabilised and the tingling tapered off, but didn’t go away entirely. That was fine, though. He’d fought like this before and come out on top. There was no reason he couldn’t do so again.
“You ready?” Coach Mac asked gently. “They’re waiting for us.”
Robbie took another deep breath, then nodded. He felt Lou place a towel around his neck. “You got this, kid,” the coach’s assistant offered.
Robbie had nothing to say to that. Coach Mac’s moustache bristled, probably in apprehension, but he still made for the room’s exit and beckoned the boxer to follow him.
Stepping into the hallway, the trio found themselves in a long, narrow corridor with a grim, grey floor and the same puke-like consistency on the walls. Small but uneven holes dotted both surfaces, making for a rather foreboding aesthetic that was only accentuated by the raucous roars of the distant spectators. As if that wasn’t enough, the faded lighting cast a faint darkness over the area that seemed uncannily in tune with Robbie’s mindset.
His entrance music blared over the many loudspeakers placed inside the arena, but he paid it no heed. He was too busy trying to drown out the sound of the crowd’s cheering; their voices, booming and boisterous, assailed his ears like a cacophony of white noise from a TV that had been turned all the way up. Coach Mac said something, but Robbie couldn’t make out what, so he just nodded as though he’d heard it. It’d set the coach’s mind at ease.
The further down they went, the louder the noise became, and the more Robbie fought to not break out in a cold, vicious sweat. What the hell kind of message would that send to everyone in attendance – especially his opponent?
This distressing thought plagued him until he reached the end of the tunnel, when the spotlights hit him like nuclear powered laser beam and the roar of the crowd reached its crescendo.
The only thing he could do was steel his features and put on a mask of stern indifference. It was something he’d been doing all his life, so he was fairly adept at it by this point. It didn’t make the furious thumping of his heartbeat any easier to bear, but at least it wouldn’t draw any unwanted attention. Or pity, which would’ve been even worse.
A quick glance at his surroundings showed the audience blending together in a gruesome mix of brown, black and grey, but the sight proved overly nauseating. Shaking the thought from his head while disguising it as a cracking of the neck, he turned his attention straight ahead and focused entirely on the ring.
The commentator’s enthusiastic appraisals reverberated through the arena, but Robbie tuned him out. He could make out a few things, like his own name, the name of the champion – Rick Steele – and a few buzzwords here and there to rev up the crowd, but the bulk of the speech was largely ignored.
His steps were slow and measured, and his gait sturdy and unyielding. It was the same calm, confident façade he’d put on for dozens of matches, and with any luck, tonight would be the last time he’d have to put on such a front.
The thought then struck him like a stake to the chest: how in the name of all that was holy did he end up facing the unbeaten champion of the world in a title fight? It was absurd!
He was led inside the ring and shepherded into a corner to wait for the champion to make his appearance. Coach Mac gave out some last-minute words of advice, but they went in one ear and out the other. It was taking all of Robbie’s focus to not break down then and there; he feared that losing concentration for even a second would snap the last tether of rope reigning in his rampaging emotions.
The champion’s music played, and after a few tense minutes that seemed to stretch on far longer than normal, the man of the hour made his appearance.
He was tall and imposing, the strength carried in his broad shoulders clear for all to see. His hair was cropped short and his beard non-existent, denoting a no-nonsense approach to his craft. Most alarming of all, however, were his cold, calculating eyes, which locked on to Robbie’s the moment he stepped foot in the ring and never broke contact.
Against his better judgement, Robbie gulped and averted his gaze. The champion’s intense aura was overwhelming, and was threatening to break his barely-there composure.
His gaze lost itself in the crowd, his eyes darting to and fro as they sought the only two people on the planet who could calm him down. He’d done well keeping himself in check thus far, but now that the match was finally upon him, he was at his limit.
Where the hell were they? Their tickets were for the ringside seats, right? Right?
Before he could blow his top, a calloused but nonetheless comforting hand patted him on the back. His eyes bulged.
Exhaling deeply through the nose, he mumbled a quiet thanks to his mentor and resumed his search.
This time it only took a few seconds to find them, sitting ringside just as they were supposed to.
His eyes first met with his wife’s, her warm, chocolate-coloured orbs gleaming with unshed tears. Was he making her cry? He couldn’t have that!
Suppressing the mountain of guilt in his gut, he flashed her a tiny smile and nod. Beth’s eyes widened imperceptibly at the sight, but her lip quirked in kind.
A new wave of confidence washed over him.
His gaze then trailed lower, to the seat beside the love of his life, and his heart melted at the sight of his daughter leaning against the barricade, taking in the sights and sounds with a look of awe and wonderment only a child could radiate.
Nicky was just four years old, but the wild, grandiose setting wasn’t bothering her in the slightest. When her eyes – so much like her mother’s – caught her daddy’s, her little mouth split into a breaming grin and she sent a jubilant wave in his direction.
Moving on pure parental instinct, Robbie waved back, and little Nicky burst into a fit of adorable giggles that sent his heart racing once more, but for a far more pleasant reason. He could only watch, entranced, as his daughter leaned against her mother and wrapped her tiny arms around her waist.
Beth just laughed.
Robbie did too, and after half-a-minute of muffled guffaws into his glove, turned his attention back to his opponent. The commentator was finally wrapping up the introductions, and the champion was now shooting him a full-on smirk, brimming with the kind of confidence only a man with thirty-two straight victories could exude.
This time, though, Robbie really couldn’t give a damn. Whether he won or lost, he’d still be a champion in the eyes of the only people whose opinion truly mattered.
That being said, the shiny golden belt around Rick Steele’s waist would be a fine bonus to go along with it.
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