The champion, inevitably, entered the room to the ghastly sound of rap music. Henry stared straight ahead in a manner which was ultra focussed, even though he looked gormless. So many times he’d wanted to explain that his features simply arranged themselves in a certain way and that his brain was in much better shape than that of most boxers. But it didn’t do to get into such arguments with the quick-witted ponces who appeared on TV and in the papers. Those were fights he couldn’t win.
This was one he could; he was sure of it. No matter what the ponces said.
The next few moments passed by in a blur. The champ preened and danced around, acknowledging his adoring fans with waves. The referee brought them together in the ring, and as always Henry refused to make eye contact. The ponces would have something to say about that too. Apparently it wasn’t enough to get in the ring with the heavyweight champion of the world – you had to look hard as well.
No matter. Henry didn’t value their opinions. It was nice when someone said ‘well done’ or asked him for an autograph, but he measured his worth according to his own conscience. If he knew he’d done a good job – or a bad one – nothing anyone else said made a blind bit of difference.
A quick conference with his cornermen, a slap on the back, and the bell rang. Henry skipped forward. He wasn’t going to get anywhere without coming forward. You couldn’t evade the champ for very long. Whatever flaws he had as a man, the champ was a superb boxer. He could fight on the inside. He had one of the best left jabs of all time – in any weight division. His hand speed was remarkable. He might not have been the biggest hitter to have held the title, but he could sting you to death with a flurry of punches.
Henry knew that pain was going to come, and it didn’t take long. The champ was all over him in moments, and Henry found himself against the ropes. Lip, nose and forehead were tattooed with blinding speed. The champ added a couple of digs to the ribs. If this was going to be a long night it was going to be an ordeal – one of the ponces had said that he hoped for Henry’s sake it didn’t go beyond three rounds. The champ knew how to punish a man as well as how to win a boxing match.
Henry clinched where he had to (there was no room for pride when you were up against the champ), loosed off a couple of half decent jabs, and tried to get inside. But it was incredibly tricky – hand speed counts at close quarters as well as at longer range, and Henry knew that the champ had the beating of him for quickness.
His trainer knew it too. George had been chosen above all for his honesty. Henry had no time for yes men or bullshitters. If he was going to win big fights, he needed people on his side who told him what he’d need to do. He didn’t LIKE getting up at 5 to break the ice and swim in a lake, but if that’s what it took to be champ, what did liking have to do with anything?
And that was the first round – Henry being made to look like a bit of a prat by the champ, but not that much of one. He’d been in with bigger hitters, and as long as he didn’t take liberties Henry reckoned he could go the distance. But that wasn’t going to be a barrel of laughs judging by the fight so far – and how the Hell was he going to win?
George told him he was doing fine, and to stick to the game plan. He had to fight his fight, no matter what the champ threw at him. Now was not the time to improvise or try something flash. Honest advice for an honest fighter.
The bell rang for the second round. This time Henry did look into the champ’s eyes. The champ grinned back. This was going to be an easy night for him. Another payday courtesy of the latest bum of the month.
They danced around each other for a bit, and the champ sent in a couple of zingers. The precision of his jab was unbelievable. The ponces reckoned that his five knockouts from jabs were evidence of his power. George and Henry knew better. The champ had knocked people out with his jab after turning them to jelly for several rounds. Then he’d picked out their temple like a smart bomb and sent them to the canvas. He wasn’t a powerhouse; he was a state-of-the-art weapon.
But Henry wasn’t afraid. Whatever happened, he knew he had to test himself by facing the champ. He wasn’t a loudmouth about it, but yes, he’d rather die in the ring with the champ than run away scared. He’d known cowardice as a boy, and he wasn’t going to know it as a man.
There was a distinction between cowardice and incaution though. Henry kept his guard up, he skipped away when he had to, and he tried to keep out of range of that jab. He didn’t fancy another spell on the ropes either. But he knew that his default setting had to be on Forward. Forward into the threshing machine, to have half a chance of breaking it.
The champ was delighting in his effortless brilliance and superiority. All week he had been lording it over Henry and everyone else. He wasn’t a gifted showman, but he had the arrogance down pat. And he’d just loved telling everyone that even the Brits were rooting for him and not Henry.
Now he was goading Henry again. Chuntering away nine to the dozen, winking at him, dropping his guard, dancing on his toes. Henry had to keep his cool and not be drawn into a brawl. There were plenty of cobbles fighters who thought they’d be able to smash up a boxer like the champ, but Henry was well aware that this was a dream.
So he stayed cool and he carried on fighting his fight. Just like George had trained him to do. Meanwhile, the champ taunted him, and acted the fool.
Then it happened - in an instant.
It was a solid left hook, but it didn’t feel like anything special. Henry had been throwing lefts like this since he was a lad. Sometimes they had an impact, sometimes they glanced off his opponent’s jaw with no obvious effect. This one sent the champ sprawling. Henry looked down. The champ was spark out.
The crowd was going berserk, but Henry was transfixed as the referee went through the count. He kept expecting the champ to get up. He didn’t. The crowd got louder. Someone careered into Henry’s back. It was George.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not in the second round. Probably - Henry had been unable to avoid admitting to himself - not at all. He wasn’t going to win on points in America, so he knew he had to try to take the champ out. But in the second round? He just hadn’t prepared for that possibility.
And now Henry felt something he hadn’t felt since he decided to punch one of the school bullies back. He felt scared. It was a scene of his own making, yet it was impossible to take in. He’d knocked out the champ. No – he’d knocked out the guy who used to be the champ.
Henry’s old life was over forever.