by Orion Foote
had barely heard the bell signaling the end of the second stanza.
young boxer in the junior-novice grade, weighing no more than 48 kg and still
months away from his 13th birthday, glanced over toward his corner and could see
Mr. O'Brien mounting those three small steps to the ring apron, a blood-speckled
white towel lay casually draped over his firm, muscular shoulders, and he
noticed a look of concern and purpose etched into his coaches' smooth though
seasoned features. He had seen that expression many times before.
"Sit down son and listen to me!"
had only been aware of the rising crescendo of noise erupting from the crowd
after planting a sizzling left hook hard on the side of his opponent's jaw,
making the other kid stagger backward before toppling over, crashing downward
onto the cold and uncaring canvas. The wild howling and whooping that assaulted
his senses was something known only to the sport of boxing, he thought. Baying
for blood, they were...any blood. How delirious they were in their agitated
fever, as only spectators of this, perhaps the most basic and primeval of
sports, can be. One on One...Mano a Mano...Heart against Heart...Will against
had stood leaning back into the turnbuckle, with pale, sinewy arms hanging
loosely, draped over the third strand of rope, watching...waiting. He stared at
the referee with his hands held up high in front of the other boy, who stood
teetering on unsteady legs...blinking. The referee's fingers accentuated the
short, sharp staccato burst of his ensuing count, as it cut through the taught,
How did it happen? he wondered.
remembered wildly throwing that last left, more a result of sheer instinct and
muscular memory than anything else.
millisecond before, a hard straight right had slammed into the other Kid's
mouth. He had felt it jarring right through his arm, all the way up to his
shoulder. It had been one of his best shots of the fight, landing flush and
snapping the kid's head back suddenly and unforgivingly, the force and surprise
of the blow sending him into a backward stagger, momentarily losing all sense of
the canvas beneath him.
that follow-up arcing left had sliced toward its target and had done the rest,
and he watched as the kid toppled backward onto the seat of his slightly
oversized satin blue trunks.
Gimme some nice, deep, even breaths, that's it, don't think about
anything else except those breaths.
boy glanced over to the opposite corner and saw the back of the other kid's
coach. He wondered if the words were the same as the ones that Mr. O'Brien had
sucked the humid air deeply into his lungs as his coach leaned closer and
removed the mouthpiece from inside his mouth. Hell, that spray of fresh, cool
water on his face was even better than a drink from the school fountain on a
scorching-hot summer afternoon. He felt his breath become more regular, less
frenetic, more controlled, and he began to feel almost invigorated.
O'Brien spoke calmly as he met the boys gaze with a fatherly concern.
"You took everything he's got and he didn't hurt you. Listen to me. Just keep
moving and keep sticking that straight left into his face. He hasn't got an
answer to it; he doesn't know how to get through it; Left hand now, son!"
O'Brien had drilled him with the importance of the straight left hand. He was
always talking about it... and they had spent countless sweat-drenched hours
together in the old gymnasium where he trained.
"Not just a silly lil' flick, son, turn the shoulder in and snap it out hard and
straight...like a ramrod."
O'Brien sometimes loved to administer lectures, about the same left hand that
had been the hallmark of "all the great fighters." He would mention names such
as Jim Driscoll, Benny Leonard and some fellow they all called the Sugar Man,
back in the days when it really was the sweet science, he would say.
Sometimes he would give him a videotape to take home and watch. There was
something magical in those flickering images that had captured his imagination,
something that made sense to him.
"Joe Louis could put a man on his ass with his jab! That's right, son." Sure, it
looked easy, some boys made an almost nonchalant, casual flicking motion with
their left, but Mr. O'Brien had taught him that when it was executed with the
correct technique, timing, power, and precision, it could snap the head back of
any opponent with a numbing reality that a fighter knows only too well.
"You're moving nice and making him look for you...that's exactly what I want you
to do...Listen! ...when he does try to come in tight, I want you to make him
miss...We need more three's, son...Make 'em hurt! Don't stand there and slug
with him...I want to take you back home to your mum tonight looking just like
you did when we left there this afternoon."
smile broke slowly across the boy's face momentarily. He thought about how she
would smile lovingly when she saw him later that evening—her boy—and hold him
close to her while stroking his hair. He hated her doing it when his friends
were around, but he never felt as safe when it was just the two of them, and she
would cuddle him for a few moments.
father had been gone for more than five years now and was barely a distant
memory. He wondered what he would think of his boy boxing, and sometimes
imagined the grainy figure in his mind standing at ringside, shouting his
approval and turning to someone next to him loudly, and excitedly exclaiming
that the lean young tiger from the MYC club in the red corner was none other
than his son, a boxer just like he had been, a bright young prospect and,
without any doubt at all, a champion in the making.
"That's right! Just look at the way he moves, will ya! Like a ghost with two
legs, snapping out that snaky left lead like Cassius Clay himself! That's right,
Mam, that's my own flesh and blood in there; a chip off the old block if ever
there was one!"
name was hardly ever mentioned in the house; not unless his mother was angry or
upset over something, and then it was usually only in passing. She hardly ever
cried anymore, but how he remembered lying awake on restless nights, listening
to her faint sobs through the thin walls of his bedroom until he couldn't stand
it anymore and would cover his ears with a pillow until sleep overcame him. She
said he wasn't worth it anymore.
pictured her turning the small engraved cup proudly in her small, soft luminous
hands before placing it alongside the others on the dark stained mantle above
the fireplace. Perhaps the many visitors that came to the house to visit during
the weekends didn't take too much notice of them, but he knew what they meant
and how he had got them; they were his! His reward for keeping his soft crepe
hand wraps clean and tidy, just like Mr O'Brien had told him to. His reward for
going to the gym two nights per week and learning his lessons in this, the most
though most unforgiving of all sports.
had learned to skip like the other boys did, and had even learned a few little
rope tricks that they had taught him. He always skipped at the beginning of
every training session, sometimes for nearly half an hour. Next they would go
through their floor exercises, and then he would work the pads. Bam! ... Bam Bam
! ... Bam Bam Bam! He could throw the different combinations with more fluidity
and power than he could ever have imagined two years ago.
would pound the heavy bag while Mr. O'Brien held it firmly in place and made
helpful suggestions. Sometimes he would try to punch holes through it until it
felt like his arms would fall off. And then, the sparring! Sometimes he would be
allowed to spar with boys a little older and more experienced than himself. He
enjoyed it because the older boys would let him walk right in, unloading those
combinations that he had practiced with such care. He knew they weren't going to
tear him apart limb from limb. They would just lazily flick out their left hand
while he would get in close and just let it all go.
Sometimes he could even make them wince a little from a digging lefts to the
midriff - just a little. "Hey! Good shot, kid. You got some good shots there.
But keep that right hand up a little higher, or next time, I'm gonna make you
wish that you'd remembered."
sharp clang of the timekeepers bell jolted his nervous senses back to the here
and now. Last round, the home stretch....90 seconds to go! He rose from his
stool and walked toward the other boy in the centre of the ring, extending his
gloved hand in a gesture of respect that Mr. O'Brien said had been a tradition
for as long as the game had been in existence. For a split second they locked
eyes......each knowing that anything can happen inside the square circle. Get
tired or careless, lucky or unlucky,
anything can happen....boxing was always like that. He wasn't sure if he could
remember everything that Mr. O'Brien had calmly but carefully implored him to
do. He knew that so much of what had been, and what would follow, was about
making millisecond decisions and reactions....everything he had learned was in
ingrained into his young fragile psyche; the movements his feet made while
keeping his eyes fixed on his opponent; seeing the openings that would suddenly
appear and then disappear just as quickly.....anything can happen. It always
watches as the the kid presses forward toward him....Just let him come on in! He
circles left, eyes fixed on the shiny 10oz gloves of his opponent that shift
rapidly before his eyes...oblivious to anything else; only those minute and ever
shifting irregular little patterns of darting movement....he watches, waits. Ah,
the feint!......trickery and deception; "what a marvelous game" it was, as Mr
O'Brien would say in an undertone, as he stood on the ring apron watching the
other boys spar at the gym...caressing each word. He had heard those words many
times before...yes!...what a marvelous game!
They move closer together, now within striking distance. He pops out a hard left
lead toward the kid's face....and again. Double 'em up, nice and quick...step
inside with the second one...make it straight and hard. He anticipates the
return counter left, then leans forward ever so slightly toward his left and
inside the path of the incoming glove, and lets go with a hard looping right
over the top, aimed directly at the boys unprotected chin, remembering to
transfer his body mass momentarily onto the front
foot. He had practiced this hundreds of times in the gym. It was what Mr.
O'Brien often referred to as a "peach"....perfectly timed and executed with
deadly accuracy. If that hadn't found favour with the judges, then nothing
would, he thought, as the other boy quickly regained his composure and came
lunging forward with barely concealed anger and humiliation....Bang! BANG!....he
snapped that hard straight left toward it's target again, and once again it
landed with methodical precision. He felt the gods of pugilism smiling down on
him....Driscoll and Sugar Ray, and knew it was his night! The final bell
chimed....intrusive though welcoming in its presence.
"Nice goin' kid....smart fight." He peered at the opposition coach through moist
eyes as the elderly fellow tore the Velcro strap that help his snug fitting
headgear firmly in
place, and savoured the relief as it slid easily from his damp face and drenched
sandy tousled hair. "You keep at it kid....If you stick at it, things
happen.....and things will
happen for you, kid !" He could see Mr O'Brien in the opposite corner talking
excitedly with one of the assistant trainers from the club where he boxed, who
kept nodding and whose grin resembled that of the elder man. Making his way
wearily across the ring back to his own corner, he passed the other kid, and
reached out his still-gloved right hand toward his. For a moment the two smiled
and nodded at each other.....a silent gesture...one void of any semblance of
animosity between them. This was how it was in boxing......"What a marvelous
O'Brien lent forward and placed a steady hand on the boys shoulder. "That was an
absolute peach son......I haven't seen any other kid throw a right like that for
a long time." He watched and listened to the adhesive tape as it quickly unwound
from his gloves, and slightly faded white laces were loosened and untied. The
hands breathed again as a soothing coolness enveloped the pores of his fingers.
"Hey, the Ref's waiting for you son...listen, whatever happens... I'm damned
proud of what you did in there tonight." Standing next to the referee moments
later, he thought of the hotdog
stand they had passed on entering the hall earlier that evening, and smiled as
he remembered the promise..."After the fight son....I'll get you one of those
'Mega Hotdogs'....the one with everything on it...might even get you a nice cold
drink to wash it down as well" he chuckled. A voice boomed with importance and
authority through the large speakers as he looked over in the direction of his
corner where Mr.
O'Brien stood.....then closed his eyes....and waited.
exhaled loudly with relief....the decision had been unanimous with all three
judges in his favour. In the centre of the ring, the cheerful though stern faced
man in cream
coloured slacks, crisp white shirt and black bow tie, clasped his hand in a
relaxed grip and smiled approvingly at him, before raising his arm in the time
honoured signal of victory. It was a feeling that he had experienced on a few
other occasions, and yet one like he had never experienced before; like finding
something deep within that he had always known was there and had suddenly awoken
inside him. Those first few seconds of pure and untarnished elation, one born of
courage and determination, and one which belonged as much to the man who stood
over in his corner, his arms resting comfortably atop the ropes, watching with
bemusement and a barely disguisable
admiration. Moments later, he clasped the small handsome figurine of a boxer in
fighting stance that sat atop a gleaming silver coloured base inscribed with
words that he would only read while sitting in Mr. O'Briens car, as they made
the long drive back home later that evening. He strode over toward the man who
stood waiting with his left foot pushed firmly down on one of the rope strands,
while lifting another to make an easy exit for his young boxer. The boy's grin
seemed in some way to echo that of the man holding the ropes apart. Their eyes
met.....though no words passed between them, both silently sharing the
Finally it was he who broke the silence.
"They sure don't get any easier !", the boy mumered, as he ducked under the
ropes and quickly descended the wooden steps.
Dedicated to the memory of Private Ernest Foote, 35th Battalion, 2