He remembers going to bed, tired after a long day of training, and he remembers noises in the night, the rush of cool air over his bared body, but he doesn’t recall how he got here; wherever here may be.
A still, small voice whispers to him that he is dreaming. That can’t be right; when he dreams, colors are flat, objects all have soft edges and everything smells as if he has cotton stuffed up his nose. Here, everything is bright, sharp and crisp.
But if it’s not a dream, then why is he being taped for a fight, by some pimple-faced kid? He hasn’t been allowed to box for nine months, not since the day last April he refused the oath of induction into the Army because of his beliefs.
“I believe in the religion of Islam,” he told them. “I believe in Allah and peace.”
They want to send him to prison, over those few words, it seems, but his lawyers tell him that won’t happen.
“You’ll never serve a day, Champ,” they say. But when he asks when he will get his title back, they look away and clear their throats.
And that is what he cares about; he takes no pleasure in the fighting and he hates the training; but he loves to hear the people chant his name, loves to win. In eight years of professional bouts, he has never been defeated. He will not be beaten now; one day he will fight again.
“I am the greatest,” he says. Whispering.
“What’d you say, Champ?”
“Just keep taping.”
“You’re the boss, Champ.”
If this is a dream, then he is certain that he has had it before, waited in this same locker room, sat on this same table, had his hands taped by this same kid. More than once, too; for he can call to mind the lines of the Chevrolet logo on the calendar taped to the wall behind him, and he knows that locker four will not latch and he grins, recalling the joke scrawled upon the green plaster over the urinal in the bathroom.
The door opens and a fat man rolls in, black as a stick of licorice; crowd noises try to squeeze in, too, until the fat man slams the door on them.
“Hiya, Champ!” the fat man says. “Ready to go to work?”
He nods, but not in response to the question. He has seen the fat man before, too, but he can only remember the face, not the name.
“Who am I up against?” he asks. Buying time.
“Fellow named Tyson,” the fat man replies.
“I don’t know no heavyweight named Tyson,” he says. “Only Tyson I ever heard of sells chicken.” The fat man chuckles at the sorry joke.
“Don’t worry, Champ,” the fat man says. “The squeaky-voiced bum can’t hold a candle to you.”
“All done,” the kid with the tape says. And they lace the gloves and wrap him in the white satin robe, with the black trim and his name embroidered on the back, and the fat man opens the door again. The sounds of the crowd rush in, pressing at him and he pushes into the noise, drawing nourishment from it, like a pup suckling at the tit.
The fat man takes his elbow and steers him into the hall, where a white man leans against the wall; all moustache and sunglasses.
“Child,” his mother used to say. “Don’t trust no one won’t show you their eyes.”
“Is he ready?” the man with the moustache asks.
“Like always,” the fat man replies. “Just like always.”
“Good,” the man with the moustache says. “This last jump was rough on him.”
“You talking about me?” he asks. “What did I jump?” They ignore him.
The man with the moustache slaps him on the shoulder and the fat man has his elbow again, steering him to the call of the crowd. They are chanting his name.
He and the fat man pass a wall poster. The light is dim and the fat man is hurrying him along, so that he can’t absorb it all; but like the Chevy calendar, he has seen it, or others like it, often enough before. Bits and pieces of it float before his mind’s eye, teasing him with meaning.
Time Jump Productions… Face-Off Boxing … 2073 … Ali at 26 vs. …
“What’s that about?” he asks.
“Nothing you got to worry about, Champ,” the fat man replies. “Focus on the fight.”
And they are into the arena. It is bigger than any he has ever seen and the odd lights are blinding, so that he can only make out the shapes of the thousands of faces turning toward him, all attached to the same imaginary string he must be clutching in his hands. He feels the excitement swelling within him, greater and greater, until he is not certain if he can contain it, and the chants become an avalanche of noise.
“ALI! ALI! ALI!”
“I am the greatest,” he says. No longer bothering to whisper, no longer concerned if he is dreaming or not.
And he slips through the ropes and stands upon the canvas; one more time.
K.C. Ball is a retired newspaper reporter and media relations coordinator. She lives in Seattle, a stone throw from Puget Sound and she writes because if she doesn’t, she’ll just burst. K.C. blogs at nowplayinginseattle.blogspot.com.