The One You Don't See Coming
A Boxing Short
RING! Round One. The bell clanged as Ethan shuffled toward me. His adrenaline must've been so high I could practically see his organs vibrating. He threw a few quick jabs, landing the last on my chin. I got my hands up fast. As usual, Ethan was coming in hot, but I had my own strategy.
It was dumb luck that we got paired against each other and even joked about it. But when Coach had tacked up the tournament brackets, we stopped sparring with each other to retreat to private spaces and readied for battle - out of the enemy's gaze.
He was coming at me hard again and landed his right cross. Damn, his whole body was in that one. He really rang my bell, and things got blurry for a second. I instantly regretted being the one who'd perfected that punch with him.
But Ethan's biggest weakness, as I already knew from training with him, was that he started way too strong. I knew he'd be gassing out by the middle of the second round. I was trying to hold back now, step and slide. He planned to go for pure power and put me in my place out of the gate.
"C'mon, Hugo - get him!" Mom cheered.
Whenever I was pissed off, Mom would say, "work it out on the bag." So since I was seven, I'd go down to our building's roach-infested basement where the crabby super had hung a big heavy bag. Much cheaper than therapy.
Xavier High was one of the few schools that still had an actual boxing team, and why my broke ass was even there in the first place. The alumni association recruited me with a scholarship during a big plan to build the boxing program. My mom was pretty pleased with herself for being ahead of the curve. While controversial, even NYC's elite families could see it was time to get these angry boys off the Xbox and teach them how to punch.
The tournament was a big deal for the seniors here, especially me. The winner took home a cool thousand bucks and automatically qualified for the Golden Gloves, the city's amateur tournament. You may not have graduated yet, but if you were eighteen and signed a few waivers, you were grown enough to get your teeth bashed in. Any neurotrauma was a whole lotta your problem, big boy.
Today the gym was electric with battlecries from all the high schools. Word on the street was that I was the favorite to win the whole damn thing. I'd clocked a couple of tacky Guidos with cheesy gold jewelry who took the ringside Golden Gloves Judges' seats, ready to scout the new meat. Better impress. I could feel hungry eyes on me.
Even though I was a hard-knock case graduating from Xavier High, I didn't give a shit about college. Every week I was still getting better. Boxing was my passion, my church, and my raison d'etre.
Yeah, I know. Look at me speaking French shit, but I didn't completely sleep through those preppy classes. Have to learn a few brainy sayings for my future press conferences. I didn't want to sound like an idiot like Adrien Broner.
When my pal's bloodlust stopped for a split second, I exploded into my best 1-2-3-2 and connected a nice hit at the end. Ethan recovered quickly and drove his fists hard again, going for quantity over quality. I did my best to keep my distance from him, but he was able to cut the ring and trap me.
For a split second, we met each other's gaze. I almost thought I saw Ethan feel sorry for the crazy kamikaze style unleashed on his best friend's face. But instantly, he froze back with a killer's eyes, determined to destroy.
Soon we were clinching, and the ref was pulling us apart. Then, out of the corner of my side view, I saw Ethan's mom step over people to get into the front row next to mine.
RING! Round 1 was over. We retreated to our corners. The round went to Ethan.
"Nice footwork Hugo," my corner man patted my sweating shoulders. I fought the urge to pull away from his old sandpaper hand. I still don't like to be touched, but he was trying to be nice. "He got some good hits, but you keep it even. Play the long game, remember?"
I spat out my mouthpiece and nodded.
"Oh shit, Mr. Morgenson is here! I gotta go kiss the ring," My corner man was already on the move before I could respond.
Mr. Morgenson? I looked over to where our moms were sitting. Now next to Ethan's mom also sat a big scowling dude with thick eyebrows still wearing his ear pods.
His mom sat erect as an ice sculpture, wearing massive sunglasses even though we were inside. I looked over at Ethan's corner. His shoulders heaved, and the killer's eyes were gone.
RING! Round 2.
Ethan was coming at me again, but I could see his focus drain like a post-practice Powerade. I knew he was as surprised as me that his dad was here. Now he was sloppier, and I didn't catch either of the big right crosses he threw at me.
"C'mon, Ethan!" Ethan's dad raged from his seat with a distinct growl that instantly grabbed his son's attention.
Ethan was a legacy, but he wasn't like the other rich douches. I guess we could smell it on each other that shit was bad at home. So freshman year, when we'd gotten to know each other and decided it wasn't gay to be friends, Ethan invited me to hang out outside school. So one Saturday, I took the train down from the Bronx. But once above ground, I saw his text:
Hey - let's hang another day?
I replied, I'm here - it took me an hour.
So he met me on his fancy townhouse's stoop. I could tell right away he was shook up. His face had a bruise I hadn't clocked on Friday. I knew we wouldn't be going inside, so I suggested some shitty Marvel movie. He had obsessively checked his phone and fell asleep before Captain America saved the world. Like I said, we could smell it on each other. Shit was bad at home.
Ethan's dad never came to school stuff. He was some big finance bro, the type that flew to Singapore for a day, the kind that never took his ear pods out (even on a Saturday) because he was waiting on a call from a CEO or the head of the SEC or probably a call with them both. I may have been from the Bronx but going to Xavier showed me exactly how the sausage got made. Real power is only on one side of that equation. Fuck college and fuck Wall Street too.
Too bad for Ethan because the distraction was perfect for me to finally land a killer liver shot. My glove sank into his body, and I sensed the bolts of pain coming out of him. Ethan pulled back and forgot to keep his hands up, so I took full advantage.
Round 2 was mine.
As we retreated to our corners, Ethan was visibly thrown. His dad was screaming all kinds of crazy shit, and I could see his neck bulging inside his Brooks Brothers shirt.
"I didn't come here to watch you get your ass kicked!" he thundered.
Ethan's mom timidly placed a delicate hand on his forearm, but he roughly shoved it off and pulled out his phone to read something now instantly more important than watching his boy get his clock cleaned by the ghetto scholarship kid.
My cut man was saying something in my ear, but I wasn't listening. My eyes were back over at Ethan's corner. He looked like he might throw up but refused water. He just sat there biting on his mouthpiece with a blank expression. He was going to that place you have to go to so you don't cry. The cave in your head that's made up of blackness, no emotion, no words, just silence.
Ethan was my only real friend at Xavier. Jesus, he was my only real friend ever. I never asked him about his parents because I didn't need to. I knew the dude got beat on the regular whenever Daddy's deals fell through or if Ethan left his gym bag in the foyer. So in four years, I'd never been inside his house, never even met his dad - he just loomed over like one of those Marvel baddies (who, of course, if they're telling it right, you never see until the last showdown).
Sitting on my stool, I watched as his dad verbally spanked Ethan in front of the crowd. But something began to come over me. It was rage. White-hot rage. Today is the day this joker comes to a fight? And when he finally shows up, he shoots this bullshit at my man? Even the Guido Gloves judges were looking. I knew Ethan's dad was already planning to pick up right where I left off the minute those fancy-ass mahogany double doors closed.
I thought about the money. The Golden Gloves' first high school contender. The next superstar. Mom had hidden a cake from Artuso's in the fridge. But I knew there was another tournament in a few weeks and we'd eat that cake even if I lost.
My father was dead.
Thank God for that.
RING! Round 3.
As he approached, I could feel Ethan's energy shift into "let's get this over with." The frenzied blasts were more robotic, and now he was the one dancing back. I knew he was bracing himself for what I still had in my tank, plus whatever was going to happen later.
I was the favorite to win. Time to leave it all on the floor, and show the Guido Gloves crew that I would be the one to watch all day, all season, for the rest of their lives. I could practically hear them sending the Mortal Kombat "Finish Him!" cue.
I swung into my signature left hook. My hand had thrown this one more times than it's written my own name. Any lefty boxer has perfected it, and Ethan knew I'd be saving it.
What he didn't know was that I'd miss.
Not only would I not connect, but I also dropped my right hand. I hoped Ethan wouldn't be so discouraged he'd miss the opportunity. I couldn't make it obvious.
But Ethan hadn't given up. Not yet. He returned a big shot as he snapped out of his trance, making my teeth rattle. I pulled back but telegraphed with my right hand, so he was ready with another jab to my face. I could feel him not quite believing his luck.
The clock was winding down - I got in a few jabs—time for the finale.
Throw your best right cross, man. Give it to me. Show your dad what you're capable of.
Ethan delivered. I made sure to go down hard, slamming into the mat like a sack of bricks. The ref was counting 10, 9, 8…I wasn't getting up. I wished I could open my eyes to see Ethan's dad's reaction. Of course, I couldn't hear what he was saying either, now that the crowd was going insane.
Did I think Ethan's knockout would make his dad a changed man? Probably not. But something always shifts when you win a fight in front of another man. One thing was for sure, Ethan wasn't a boy anymore. He could lay out a guy in one punch. So daddy would at least think twice when he looked at his son now.
Today, that was enough for me.
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