by Joe Davison
(Swans - January 2, 2006) He's standing right in front of you, only three feet away. He seems much bigger, much stronger than he did from a distance. Now he's almost in your face and this is it.
You concentrate on remembering the times in the past when you've been in the same situation, when you've been face to face with another man, about to go ahead with your fists. Maybe those past experiences can help you now. After all, they say it's just like riding a bike -- once you've learned how you never forget.
He's thrown a punch and it only missed your face by inches. While you were daydreaming he's already begun.
Another jab. This one makes contact. Your head snaps back. Your brain feels numb and you're dazed.
Fucking move! Get out the way!
You step back but he follows, stalking you. It's as if his feet are tied to yours. He senses you're already in trouble and he wants to finish it, finish you, as soon as possible. Time stands still. You stare into his eyes, scared now because you know what it feels like when one of his punches connects. One overriding thought keeps bouncing around inside your head, branding itself on your brain:
"Don't get knocked out! Don't let him knock you out!"
He smiles at you. He thinks you're easy meat. He does this for a living and it's nothing to him.
Here he comes again.
You close your eyes and lash out with a wild swing before he throws another combination. His right hand catches you on the shoulder, but your wild one-two knocks him back. The smile on his face vanishes. You've surprised him. You've made him think twice about how easy this is going to be. Instantly you feel a wave of confidence washing through your system. It produces a fresh surge of energy. You edge forward now, taking the fight to him.
You notice the beads of sweat on his face, the in-and-out movement his nostrils make as he takes in extra oxygen. A squashed nose and an abundance of scar tissue round the eyes tell you he's been here a hundred times before, taking and dishing out punishment. His eyes seem to be staring right through you, looking inside your brain to determine just how confident or scared you really are. You just stand there, rigid, deciding at the last second not to commit yourself in case he picks you off.
BOP! BOP! CRUNCH!
You stagger back, instinctively trying to escape the barrage of punches he's just let fly. If you were more experienced maybe you would have stepped to the side and come back with a counter-punch. But you're not experienced; in fact, you don't have any boxing skills whatsoever.
Each time he comes forward you hit out with big, angry swings in a desperate attempt to keep him back. Look at him; he's smiling again; he's regained the initiative and he knows it. This is as much a mental contest as it is a physical one. He's winning, and you begin to regret getting yourself into this.
"Where's the bell?! Where's the fucking bell?!"
You will it to ring before he comes forward and hits you again. You're tired. You feel your chest heaving up and down as you try to manufacture more energy from somewhere -- anywhere. Your shoulders ache with all the effort you've expended in keeping your hands up to protect your chin. Your movements are slow and stiff.
And your stiffness is in direct contrast to his loose-limb flexibility.
His whole body moves as one unit in graceful, studied motion. Each time you think about throwing a punch he reads it. With a slight bend of the knee, or a sudden head movement, he makes you miss a target which, only seconds before, stood right in front of your glove. He's beginning to play with you. He's prolonging your suffering in front of this willing audience -- all participants in your destruction.
The bell rings. For you it couldn't come quick enough. With a big, beaming smile he saunters over to his corner. You stagger towards yours. From the other side of the ring he waves to you in a genuine gesture of goodwill. There's no animosity on his part. He does this every night of the week. It's nothing more than a job. Remember, you were the one who challenged him.
Before the accident you were a completely different person. You were confident, mentally strong, and you felt capable of anything. But then you changed; it was as if a metamorphosis took place. Instead of feeling at ease and comfortable with who you were and your place in the world, you felt disorientated. You felt as if part of you had been stripped away, leaving you exposed and vulnerable. Nobody told you or warned you this might happen. You had no reason to believe that, after you'd been passed medically fit and discharged from hospital after all those weeks, you'd ever feel like a different man from the one who went in.
In your determination and impatience to make a physical recovery from injuries sustained in a car accident you neglected the mental and emotional consequences.
And because you'd always prided yourself on your physical and mental strength, there was no one for you to confide in.
The doctors advised psychiatric counseling as part of your recovery. Naturally you turned it down. If you hadn't you'd have given the game away, revealing a weakness that might be used against you in the future. No, this had to be kept bottled up. You'd handle it yourself, on your own, like the other obstacles and problems you've ever come up against.
You didn't realize how much you'd taken your strength for granted before. There was never any need to think about it. It was always there, as much a part of you as the hair on your head or the nose on you face. But now it was gone and you need to regain it, this sense of manhood and masculinity. Not only do you need it, you need it more than you've ever needed anything in your entire life. Because without it: How can you go on?
Your family and close friends could all see that you'd changed: Wouldn't anyone who'd been through what you've been through? They all thought it would pass with time; that eventually you'd forget about it and get back to normal. This was their way of dealing with your physical and emotional weakness.
But you didn't care about anyone else; you were only concerned with yourself and how you'd been affected.
In situations where you were once assertive you felt hesitant. In crowds, on the street, in any situation where before you always felt completely at ease, now you felt uncomfortable and timid. And in the company of strangers you felt vulnerable. Within yourself you missed the old fire and aggression which used to drive you. Self confidence was now a distant memory, part of your past like an ex-girlfriend. You wanted it back, couldn't imagine living the rest of your life without it, and the only way to get it back was to prove yourself to yourself and conquer this fear.
An innocent visit to a large Funfair abroad provided you with the opportunity to test yourself. Sprawled out on a narrow strip of land lay a mass of caravans, lights, and color. The various rides were jam-packed with groups of excited teenagers and older couples reliving teenage memories. You made your way through the crowds, happy just to soak up the lively atmosphere. It seemed as good a way as any to pass the time on a hot, August night.
Then you saw it.
And as soon as you did you felt your heart beat step up a gear. Your skin tingled with sensation and your brain immediately blocked out all other thoughts. From that moment on there was nothing else -- nothing which had been, or would ever be as important. A Boxing Booth. This was it; the physical challenge you've needed since recovering from your injuries.
You began to move forward, towards the front of a crowd which had gathered below the stage. Four men were standing up there waiting to be challenged by the crowd, waiting to be challenged by you. You didn't know why but this was personal. Standing to the side of the stage, another man began shouting through a megaphone to the men in the crowd. He was baiting them and he seemed to be looking at you, addressing you personally. Even though he was shouting out in a language you didn't understand, it didn't matter. You knew exactly what he was saying. He was saying that if you didn't challenge one of these men standing up there on the stage then you were a coward, you weren't a real man.
Without even being conscious of doing it, you put your hand up. The megaphone man drew the crowd's attention over to you and there was a buzz of expectation. He gestured to the four men standing on stage beside him, inviting, defying you to point out the one you'd like to take on. All four of them stared down at you belligerently as you scanned along the line. The short, stocky one looked too awkward, too short, so you immediately dismissed him. That left three, out of which only one looked about your height and weight. This is the one you chose.
The announcer threw an old pair of boxing gloves in your direction. You couldn't be sure but you sensed a certain amount of respect and admiration from some of the other men, possibly guilty at not having accepted this test themselves. On the other hand, perhaps they were just amused at someone -- you -- being stupid enough to have actually taken the bait.
The contest was announced and everyone made their way up a set of wooden steps to the stage. Behind the stage, through a curtain, was where your chance for masculine redemption lay.
A dark dingy room, walls made up of corrugated iron sheets, was the venue. Stuck in the middle of this place was a makeshift ring, made out of thick lengths of rope crudely tied round four stone pillars. There was a damp smell and a sticky atmosphere, made worse by the bodies which had crammed into every available space to watch.
This surge of fear -- this fight or flight adrenalin rush -- was like a narcotic. As you watched your opponent sitting on the other side of the ring psyching himself up, you began to feel proud. You began to feel like a warrior-king. The primordial instinct of combat had come rushing back to you after being torn away. It was then you remembered your injury -- a broken neck from which you'd just recovered.
So what?, you thought. You need this. Fuck the risk.
Taking off your shirt, you stepped through the ropes into the ring. There was no protective headgear, no mouthpiece, and no medical checks of any kind.
If there was you wouldn't even have been allowed to fight. They didn't know you weren't supposed to be here. They didn't care and neither did you. All you were concerned about was conquering and controlling the fear.
The two of you sized each other up, subconsciously probing for weakness and strength. He looked fit, lean but fit. His muscles appeared long and sinewy, honed for endurance.
Next you looked into his face, studying it like a map, soaking up each and every contour. He did the same. The referee stood in between, about to start the contest. Every bodily function, every sensation became magnified, primed and ready for the test to come.
As you stand in your corner, catching your breath after the first round, you look round at the crowd. Some of them are smiling and some of them are laughing. All of them are there to see two men trying to knock each other out. They're not interested in your fear or your reasons for being there. They're only interested in the fight. And you know that in this place, if you lose, there won't be any sympathy.
The bell rings for the start of the second round. Here you go again. You've hardly recovered from the first round. You realize they've started the second round in a hurry to try and tire you out. This realization gives you confidence. They must be worried.
You move forward towards your opponent. It's strange but now you feel relaxed, almost relieved -- similar to the way you feel after getting the first, uncomfortable date with a new girlfriend out of the way. Now you know this man, you know his capabilities and, most of all, you're confident that he won't be able to knock you out.
You're determined this round is going to be your round. Every time he moves in you keep him back with wild swings. A couple of them catch him -- one square in the chest which knocks him back against the ropes, causing a cheer to go up from the crowd. Now he hesitates before launching an attack. He's not as cocky in his movements as he was in the first round. Tonight he's earning his money.
Two punches come at you from nowhere. Both of them connect and you immediately feel warm blood trickling from your nose. While you were congratulating yourself, you'd let your guard down. Now you're on your back foot, trying to recover as quickly as you can from the shock of being hit so hard. Your skull feels numb. He steps forward to finish you off and you feel your strength slipping away.
Here he comes. You've retreated as far back as you can. Now you're on the ropes and there's nowhere else to go. His eyes are wild with anticipation; the anticipation of winning this fight. As he steps in, about to unleash his final barrage of punches, you close your eyes and lash out as hard as you can with your own final, desperate flurry. Your whole body is rigid and stiff with the expectation of his blows.
They don't come.
Opening your eyes, you have to readjust them. He's not standing in front of you as you expected. Instead he's on the floor, on his knees. The bell sounds for the end of the second round. They've stopped the fight.
It takes a few seconds for you to realize it's finished, longer to realize you've won. Faceless people rush over and pat you on the back. One of them hands you an empty plate to collect money from the crowd. You give the plate back. Money's got nothing to do with this.
Your opponent is already back on his feet. He's okay. You walk over and the two of you shake hands, in a perverse way united by the pain which you've just inflicted on one another. As you look into his face you feel sorry for him. Sadness and resignation to a brutal fate of fighting for a meager living is written all over it.
Stepping through the ropes, you shakily make your way out of this horrible place. The warm breeze hits you like a tonic and, still feeling numb and dizzy, you head for home. Putting your hand up to your face, you feel for the bruises which will appear the next morning. Tasting the blood in your mouth, you spit it out. Every part of upper body is alive with pain and muscle fatigue.
But it doesn't matter. Nothing matters.
You've proved yourself. You're still a man.
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