“Okay, now I’m nervous,” Charlie said to Zach as they stood in the middle of an old warehouse. It was near some old railroad tracks just outside of town. It was nighttime, and they had no idea where they were—Smitty had informed them that a car would drive them there and what time to be ready.
The warehouse was old, dark and sweltering. There were crates stacked up all around them. At least seventy men were taking bets and exchanging money throughout the large room. In the center, there was a cleared area where the fight was to be held.
“Ya okay?” Zach asked.
“I think I’m gonna be sick.”
“Well, just try to hang in there,” Zach said feeling a little nervous. “Try to relax.”
Relax? Charlie thought.
Graziano and Smitty appeared from the darkness and were heading towards Zach and Charlie. They were nicely dressed, most likely arriving from a previous engagement and going to another function after the fight.
Graziano always hustled from one business deal to another. Even when he attended dinner parties or drank cocktails with friends, it was always about business, and now they arrived to conduct more business. They looked enthusiastic when they approached Charlie.
“How are you feeling, Charlie? Are you ready?” Graziano asked.
“I think so,” Charlie said. He was trying not to reveal the fact that he was scared to death and wanted to vomit.
“What are the rules?” Zach asked as he fanned Charlie with a towel.
“Rules?” Smitty said. “There ain’t none ... except biting, no biting allowed. The man that don’t get knocked out or quits wins.”
“You should be able to take this guy,” Graziano said, “but he’s no stiff, he’s been around for a while. He has a pretty good chin and a decent punch. We have to start somewhere, and he was available at such short notice. We want to see how you do, so Smitty knows what you need to work on.”
Smitty asked Charlie if he had any last minute questions. Charlie shook his head no.
“Well, I need to attend to some business,” Graziano said. “I’ll see you after the fight. Be careful out there Charlie and good luck.”
Smitty gave Charlie a reassuring wink and followed Graziano. They approached some men standing near a stack of crates and began to negotiate. Then Graziano removed a wad of cash from his breast pocket and handed it to one of the men.
Zach climbed up on the crate that Charlie was sitting on and started massaging his neck. “Keep moving and keep your hands up to protect your face,” he said. He recalled seeing fighters do that on the news reels on fight highlights that previewed in movie theaters before feature films started. Sometimes the theaters would show short subject films or “Shorts” with The Three Stooges, which Zach loved, but the last fight highlight he saw was from the James Walter “The Cinderella Man” Braddock fight against Max Baer for the World Heavyweight title.
Across the open space Charlie’s opponent was warming up. He looked to be in his mid-thirties. When he removed his shirt, he had a good athletic build. He began to throw jabs in the air to loosen up.
Zach suggested to Charlie that he should start warming up too. When Charlie stood and removed his shirt it was soaked. Between his nerves and the sweltering heat of the warehouse, he already had a good sweat going.
Charlie stood silently. His muscles were large and defined. He studied the other fighter until a familiar face caught his eye. Clifton Mydland from the town fair appeared. He was still wearing his straw boater hat. He worked his way to the center of the room.
“Gentlemen, please approach me,” Mydland said with an authoritative tone. Evidently, he took these fights a lot more seriously than the ones at the town fair. There was a lot more money at stake, much more than just ten dollars.
Charlie and the other fighter approached Mydland. Then he asked if they were both ready. When they answered, yes, he asked if they had any questions. They both shook their head. “Okay then,” Mydland said. “Please shake hands and take a step back.”
Charlie and the fighter shook hands and took a step back. This is it, Charlie thought. He was terrified. Everything was happening so fast as though he were in a bad dream. Only nine more fights to go, he kept repeating to himself.
“Ready, begin,” Mydland shouted.
The two men started circling each other as the spectators began to cheer. Suddenly the other fighter swung with a left hook that just missed Charlie’s chin. Charlie leaned back out of the way in the nick of time. Whoa, that was a close one, Charlie thought. His opponent immediately followed up with a kick to Charlie’s thigh. He could feel the residual sting even after the kick had landed. It left a burning sensation in his thigh.
Charlie sensed his opponent was just starting to get his timing and distance down. Suddenly he saw a right cross coming straight at him. He fainted left, causing the punch to graze off his ear. His opponent became frustrated when he couldn’t hit Charlie and decided to charge at him, but he made a critical mistake that would cost him the fight in the process, he dropped his hands as he attacked. Charlie threw a hard right cross that landed square on his opponent’s nose. The force made his head snap back, and blood gush from the bridge of his nose. He stumbled back a few steps and then fell to the floor. He was out cold.
Everyone couldn’t believe their eyes. Charlie had knocked his opponent out with one punch. Zach ran over to Charlie with tremendous enthusiasm. “Holy crap, Charlie! Ya really clobbered him!”
Charlie didn’t respond. He didn’t enjoy hurting people and Zach could read it on his face. His excitement for Charlie’s win was immediately extinguished. He didn’t mention another word about the fight. He thought Charlie’s feelings of displeasure would soon pass if he were left alone.
Suddenly Graziano and Smitty appeared with smiles on their faces. Zach hoped that Charlie would be able to remain composed while they complimented him. “Great job, Charlie,” Graziano said. He was grinning as he removed a cigar from his mouth.
“Yeah, ya busted his nose real good,” Smitty said. “You’re a real natural. I don’t think we have much to work on, but I wanna go over a few things with ya just the same.
Charlie put on his shirt without saying a word. Graziano and Smitty noticed something was bothering Charlie.
“He just needs a little time,” Zach said. “Being this was his first fight and all.”
Graziano reached into his vest pocket and handed Charlie fifty dollars. “Here Charlie,” Graziano said. “This should cheer you up. You deserve every dollar. Well done.”
“Ya mean he gets to keep the whole fifty?” Zach asked.
“Sure, that was our deal wasn’t it?” Graziano said. Zach was stunned and delighted at the same time.
“Well, I have an appointment to keep,” Graziano said. “I’ll see you gentlemen soon. Smitty will contact you for your next fight. Have a good evening.” Then he slapped Charlie’s shoulder. “Great job, Charlie. We’re going to make lots of money together.”
Charlie watched as Graziano and Smitty disappeared into the darkness, leaving a trail of cigar smoke behind them. Nine more fights to go, he thought.
Later at the hotel, Charlie didn’t say much. He hardly said a word in the car either. Zach couldn’t take the silence anymore. He wanted to say something, but he didn’t know what to say that would make Charlie feel better. “Gee, I’m surprised Graziano didn’t deduct the food we charged to the room. Maybe I had him all wrong. What do ya think, Charlie?”
“Yeah, he’s okay,” Charlie said. He spoke so low Zach barely heard what he was saying.
“I broke that man’s nose,” Charlie said feeling ashamed.
“C’mon, Charlie, he’s a fighter and fighters get hurt sometimes. He’ll be all right. He’ll be fighting again in no time. A broken nose ain’t nothing to these guys.”
“Ya think so?”
“Sure, don’t let it get ya down. That guy’s been fighting a long time. Ya gonna tell me he never broke his nose before? Did ya see it before the fight? It was bent way to the left like this.” He took his finger and bent his nose exaggerating the bend. “I think it looks better now to be perfectly honest.” A small grin appeared in the corner of Charlie’s mouth and then a little chuckle escaped him.
“C’mon, how bout we get us some thick juicy steaks?” Zach said. Zach always had funny ways of saying things that made Charlie feel better, and mentioning food usually helped.
After Charlie’s second fight, he became more callused and realized injuries were part of the game. It was the price they all paid and gambled on.
He began training with Smitty a few days a week and soon Charlie had become a good defensive fighter. When he fought, he would let his opponents exhaust themselves by letting them throw punches. Then he would finish them off one-by-one using wrestling moves. He wanted to avoid hurting anyone with his thunderous punches.
Everybody was happy; Charlie was winning fights without seriously hurting anyone, Graziano was making money hand-over-fist, and Zach finally had money to finance.
Charlie won his next four fights with ease. Smitty thought he was a natural and learned extremely fast. Graziano thought if things kept going the way they were and if Charlie ever fought legit, he could easily become a top contender, if not boxing’s next World Heavyweight Champion.
Over a few weeks, Charlie started to like his workouts. He liked the way his body felt afterward. He enjoyed skipping rope and working on the heavy-bag and speed bag. He was becoming lean and fast. He was a wrecking machine, but he still didn’t like fighting. He just couldn’t get passed the idea of hurting people for money.