One More Round
He was in a world of trouble. And if he didn’t already know it, he could hear the HBO commentator just below him shouting it into the microphone. “Tommy Morgan is in a world of trouble!”
Leaning against the ropes, elbows tight by his ribs, his gloves held protectively against his face, he bit down on the mouthpiece and tried to survive the hurricane the Russian was pouring down on him. A thudding left to the midsection, a right to the top of the head. A double left hook he could only partially deflect with his gloves. He grunted with every punch and waited for Anatoly Vashkov to run out of steam, at least for a moment.
A right cross whizzed past his chin, and, for an instant, the Russian was exposed for a counter left. He threw it, but it was a looping one, born of exhaustion, and it missed. Still, it was enough to make Vashkov pull his head back, a momentary chance to get off the ropes.
He couldn’t do it. Vashkov was on him again, pounding him to the head and body. He was dimly aware of the referee’s presence, hovering nearby, looking at him, considering whether to step in and end things.
From his corner, his trainer Richie McMannus was screaming at him, “Punch out of it, Tommy! Punch out of it! Whattsa matter with you?”
Another right bounced off his head, as he lowered his shoulder and dug a left uppercut to Vashkov’s groin area. It backed the Russian off a step, as he barked a curse word that Tommy didn’t understand.
“Low blow! Low blow!” The referee came between them. “Keep ’em up or I’m takin’ a point away.” He slapped the undersides of Tommy’s gloves for emphasis, looking into his eyes like he was this close to stopping it.
“Yeah, yeah, sorry,” Tommy muttered, hoping it sounded bright and alert. They were in the center of the ring now, which was the important thing.
The fighters circled each other, Vashkov’s eyes ablaze, Tommy trying to buy time, clear his head. He flicked out a jab and Vashkov walked right through it, hitting him with a left-right he could only partially block. The second one landed on his ear, and he heard a loud humming noise as he grabbed hold of the Russian and they went into a clinch.
It hadn’t been like this in a long, long time. No one had put a beating on him since he was ten years old, on the streets of the South Bronx.
“Thirty seconds, Tommy!” The voice was the man who’d taken him off those streets and saved his life, the only father he’d ever known, his manager Sam Bishop. Sam never said much in the corner; he left most of the talking to Richie. But here in Round Eleven, it seemed like he was saying even less.
“Break!” yelled the referee, busting up the clinch. Vashkov was immediately after him. Tommy danced away, trying to keep a safe distance, moving around the ring in a wide arc on legs that felt like spaghetti. The Vegas crowd that had been cheering and chanting his name were now a murmuring, uneasy assemblage, stunned at what they were witnessing.
During his rampage through the heavyweight division, Tommy Morgan had become a superstar, twice on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was the man who’d revived boxing, the Great American Hope. Twenty-seven fights, twenty-seven wins, all by knockout, including a brutal, two-round demolition of the number-one challenger, a man Vashkov, the champ, had barely managed to beat.
For this fight, Tommy was a solid five-to-one favorite. His coronation as the new heavyweight champ seemed only a matter of time. Until, somewhere in Round Six, time began to run out.
He jabbed again and missed, as Vashkov closed the distance, using his size and weight to move them both into the ropes. Just beneath them, the promoter Ray Grandison looked on intently from his ringside seat, the lights glinting off his shaven head.
“Punch out of it! Punch out of it!” Richie screamed again, as Tommy covered up and the Russian whaled away.
A left hand caught him flush on the jaw, just as the bell rang. It felt like it had gone off in his brain. The ref jumped between them, grabbing Vashkov, who didn’t want to stop. Tommy turned and staggered toward his corner, one arm draped over the top strand of rope.
Richie was out to meet him, splashing water in his face, throwing an ice-cold towel over his head as he guided him the last few feet to the stool. He sat down heavily.
“Move your hands, Tommy, move your hands,” Richie implored him, rubbing his head with the towel as Sam massaged his legs. “You’re quicker than he is. Don’t let him get off first.”
The referee put his head in. “You okay?” he asked, giving Tommy a long, critical look.
“He’s fine, he’s fine,” Richie assured him, kneading Tommy’s neck muscles with one hand, holding his trunks away from his abdomen with the other.
“I wasn’t asking you,” said the ref.
“I’m fine,” Tommy said softly.
“You better act fine, or I’m stopping it. You understand?”
Sam had finally spoken, not looking at the referee but directly at Tommy. Underneath Sam’s thick, white, sixty-five-year-old eyebrows, were what Tommy called “no-bullshit eyes.” They commanded your attention and respect.
Richie put an ice bag to the back of his head as the referee looked at him a moment longer, then moved away. The cut man Pete Samos leaned in and smeared coagulant over his left eyebrow on a gash he’d picked up in Round Nine. It was the least of his problems.
Sam leaned in. “Box him, goddamn it, box him. He’s getting tired. He’s desperate. Stay away from him.”
Tommy nodded, reflexively.
“He needs the knockout, not you. You’re way ahead. Three more minutes and you’re the champ. Can you give me three more minutes?”
He nodded again.
Sam had been saying “box him” for the last ten months. Speed and movement, speed and movement. Vashkov was big and slow, take advantage of it. Outbox him, pile up the points. If you can knock him out in the later rounds, so be it. It was unnatural for Tommy to fight that way, but he had the skills to do it, so he applied himself. And he’d changed.
For the first five rounds, it was a thing of beauty. Vashkov was off balance, expecting all-out aggression, and, instead, getting picked apart by a fast, smooth tactician. Tommy was making him look foolish, and the crowd, once they caught on, went nuts. “Tom-eee! Tom-eee!” they chanted, rocking the arena.
Then, in Round Six, Vashkov decided there was nothing to fear, or at least nothing to lose. He began to power his way in, taking two punches to land one, but making it count. Making sure Tommy felt it.
Tommy felt it. And as the rounds wore on, and Vashkov landed with greater frequency, he felt it more and more. Now, here he was, a worn-down, exhausted fighter on the brink.
Richie had stopped talking. Tommy knew he hadn’t been comfortable with the new strategy, but Richie believed in Sam as much as he did. Sam was always right, and, in his own words, “You don’t mess with success.”
Tommy probably would have been dead by now if Sam hadn’t come into his world. He was a sixteen-year-old punk, running in the urban jungle. He’d committed almost every crime but murder, and that was only a matter of happenstance.
A friend who ran the boxing program at a juvenile detention center told Sam about him. Tommy was doing one of his many stretches there, in isolation because he was a danger to the others. The friend said he’d never seen an angrier kid in all his life.
Sam decided to check it out. Even a hard case like Tommy was impressed by the sight of the world’s most famous boxing manager descending into this shit hole to take an interest in him.
In the ring, Tommy’s raw power and athleticism convinced Sam that this kid could be something special, someone he could train to put all that rage to good use. And Tommy turned out to be a quick learner.
Sam became his legal guardian, got him early release, took him out of the Bronx, and gave him a home at his sprawling estate in Vermont. He brought in the best private tutors. Ultimately, he legally adopted him.
As Tommy advanced through the heavyweights, it didn’t hurt any that he was good looking, or that he had a soft-spoken manner and a shy smile. These were attributes he’d picked up from working the streets, but no matter. Once the American public saw him, they fell in love, made him the feel-good sports story of the decade.
Richie smeared Vaseline on his cheeks, as he looked across at Sam and then glanced down at the HBO microphone intruding into their corner. There was one in Vashkov’s corner too; it was part of what the folks got for their money. Right now, Richie didn’t feel like giving it to them.
He put his mouth to Tommy’s ear, the one opposite from Sam, and whispered as softly as he could, “I don’t know, Tommy, maybe it’s ’cause Sam’s got a lot on his mind, but he’s wrong. You’re not way ahead, you’re losing. You gotta knock this bum out now, Tommy, right now! Forget what Sam told ya. Follow your instincts, Tommy, follow your instincts!”
He drew his mouth away and reached down for the water bottle, as Sam shot him a questioning look that he pretended not to see.
Tommy showed no reaction. He stared ahead as Richie put the water bottle to his mouth and gave him a swig. The ten-second warning sounded, and Sam reached over and put his mouthpiece back in. Tommy stood up and gazed across the ring at Vashkov, who was raring to go.
“Stay away from him, Tommy, box him,” Sam said in his ear. “Three more minutes and you’re the champ!” The bell sounded for Round Twelve.
Follow your instincts. For the last seven years, his instincts had been to follow Sam.
He moved to the center of the ring, where the ref had them touch gloves. The crowd was on its feet now, screaming, anticipating a big finish, wondering what it would be.
Tommy moved to his left, in a slow, cautious circle, pumping his jab. Vashkov, for the moment, was sizing up his condition, not rushing in just yet.
Then Vashkov feinted a left but pulled it back, exposing his chin for an instant.
Tommy saw it. He launched a right cross, and the world exploded.
He hadn’t heard “One!” He was on his back, staring up at the ring lights, which were swaying. Just like the movies, he thought hazily. It was the first time in his career he’d ever been down. He had to get up. Had to get up.
All he could do was roll over onto his hands and knees. He stared where his sightline took him, to the ringside seats, and the shaven head of Ray Grandison.
His was the only head in the crowd not looking at Tommy. He was looking in the direction of Tommy’s corner, toward Sam, and he was smiling. Smiling?
Grandison looked back at the ring, and their eyes met. The smile froze.
What the fuck was happening? But he already knew, didn’t he? It had been creeping into his thoughts lately, something he’d never really acknowledged.
Sam had been training him to lose. He’d changed his style, after years of preaching “don’t mess with success.” Then he’d lied to him just now in the corner about being way ahead. Why?
Richie said he had a lot on his mind. Well, Sam always did, what with alimony for three ex-wives, and supposedly losing in the stock market lately. Tommy never paid attention to shit like that, but…
…now he knew. He was a five-to-one favorite, and Sam had sold him out. For how much? he thought. What was he worth? Tears came to his eyes as he stared at Grandison, who was looking away.
I saw you, motherfucker, he thought. I saw you smile at him.
Seven years evaporated within that second, as if they’d never been.
He rose from the canvas, a snarl twitching at the corners of his mouth. The ref grabbed hold of his gloves and wiped them off on his shirt, looking into his eyes, expecting unfocused disorientation, seeing something quite different.
“Where are you?” he asked, as he always did in this situation. “Where are you, Tommy?”
Tommy was looking past him, at Vashkov in the neutral corner. “I’m in a fight,” he growled. “And if you stop it, ref, I swear, I’ll find where you live, come to your house, and rip your fuckin’ heart out!”
The referee’s breath caught in his throat. He let go of Tommy’s gloves and stepped aside, as Vashkov sprang out of the corner, anxious to finish it off once and for all.
It was now a tumultuous half-hour later. The lead HBO commentator stood, on camera, at ringside between his two color commentators, a former middleweight champ and a venerable sportswriter.
“Our hearts and prayers go out to Anatoly Vashkov,” he said grimly, “who, we’ve been told, has been taken to Las Vegas General Hospital and remains in a coma. As to the fate of Tommy Morgan, that is uncertain. But this much we do know: We have a new heavyweight champion, and he is under arrest.
“He’s facing, at minimum, charges of assault and battery, and since he’s a professional boxer, I assume it would be with a deadly weapon.” He turned to the man on his right for further input.
“That’s correct,” said the former middleweight champ. “Depending on what develops, the charges could be upgraded to manslaughter or even murder. This is very sad.”
“Sad and inexplicable,” put in the sportswriter. “We still don’t know why he did it. At first, no one even noticed the seriousness of Vashkov’s injuries because of Tommy’s strange behavior. It stunned everyone, including his trainer Richie McMannus, who tried to restrain him and suffered a broken elbow in the melee. He was at a loss to explain it.”
“Ordinarily,” said the lead commentator, “we’d be showing you the tape but we’ve elected not to, out of respect to the family of Sam Bishop.
“At last report, his condition, as a result of this unfathomable attack by his fighter, was described as extremely grave. Our hearts and prayers go out to him as well. What we’ve witnessed tonight was brutal and shocking beyond anything imaginable.”
“Amen,” said the former champ, as the sportswriter nodded his agreement.
“And now, unfortunately,” the commentator continued, “I’m afraid we have to sign off. This tragedy will continue to play out over the next several days and weeks, and all we can hope is that, someday, we’ll understand why this happened.
“In the meantime, we remind you that, two weeks from tonight, HBO Boxing will return with the WBC Super Welterweight Championship bout between Eduardo Diaz and Rico Casita. It should be a great one. Until then, we wish you…a peaceful good night.”
The images of the three men faded, replaced by the HBO logo and the words “Up next, an HBO Special: The Making of Rocky Twelve.“