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Rated: E · Short Story · Experience · #2196410
A boxer's cuts man tells the tale of the tragic career of a taciturn pugilist.

Some say it was the threadbare padding on the floor of the ring that did for Jack. When Scammell unleashed the right hook that caught him flush on the chin, Jack's boots left the ground, and, according to the coroner, he lost consciousness. His listless frame rag dolled onto the deck, his head cracking the canvas

His dad, of course, blamed the medics, "Ringside, in the ambulance, at the Infirmary, all of them. Couldn't treat their granny to afternoon tea. If they'd have not been sleeping on the job, Jack would be world champion by now. I'll see them in court, I will."

It was a sweltering hot summer and that night was no different. Not a soul in the Gorton Club had on a stitch more than necessary. Even Scammell's girlfriend, who was playing the ring dolly between rounds in a bikini, looked overdressed.

I tumbled ice into a bucket seconds before we left the dressing room, but it was already sloshing around by the time the bell rang to start the bout. I had more cubes in the freezer in our little kitchen, but when I nipped back to fetch it during the second round, the door of the freezer was ajar, and the ice was already melting in the trays.

I got back to the ring apron just as the bell rang for the end of the round. Some of the lads in the crowd said Jack was already ahead on points as far as they were concerned, but I could see that the skin beneath his left eyebrow was swelling and starting to fray. He sagged onto his stool and I pressed the enswell around his upper eye while Eddie reeled off a list of instructions,

"Get inside and then feint later on and throw the hook. Use your jab, Scammell doesn't like that, it messes up his pretty boy looks."

I knew Jack would forget all of that the instant the next round started, but it wasn't down to me to give instructions. My job was to keep my fighter in the bout, to give him another round. The swelling had gone down a bit when I removed the enswell, but if Scammell landed a few decent rights, it would begin to peel open for sure. As it was, the third was a decent round for Jack, with Scammell covering up and holding on as he tried to fend off a series of the machine gun combinations that had become Jack's trademark over the years at the club.

*

I remember the first day he walked in, or rather, was shoved in by his dad.

"Lad's a bit shy," said his father, "Thought some boxing might toughen him up a bit and give him some confidence. Us Westby's aren't a timid lot, you know, and I'll not have him no different."

I'd be on a yacht in St Tropez if I had a pound for every time a disappointed father had dragged his son along to the club to "toughen him up a bit". Almost without fail, the lad wouldn't be cut out for the fight game. Not all lads are. Some will fight tooth and claw over anything, relishing the chance to dish out some punishment. Others just want go back to watching the telly under a blanket. Slight and wiry with a nose that looked like it would snap the first time he sparred a round, I'd have bet my life which option Jack would choose.

"Right so. Well, fill in this form and we'll get him some gloves." I said, and beckoned Jack to follow on. With another shove from his father, he trailed along behind me. His eyes were empty. Unless he was fighting, he never once looked anyone in the eye the whole time we had him at the club.

Jack looked a picture in the gloves. Hung down by his sides like lead weights they were. He was that thin, I reckon I could have played the xylophone on his ribs. After a bit of work with the heavy bag and the pads we moved on to the speedball, but he couldn't get the hang of it. To be fair, quite a few lads struggle at first. They've seen Stallone tapping it around like a balloon tied to a bit of string and they think it's a doddle. When they try it for themselves and it starts pinging in all directions at a rate they can't grasp, they learn it is anything but.

"Faster, Jack lad, faster," said his dad, but he was no help. He wanted Jack to be something he was not, something that would satisfy his ideal of what a son should be. Poor lad didn't have a chance of living up to what his old man wanted from him. Jack was destined to be a constant source of disappointment through no fault of his own.

Or so I thought.

At the end of a first session with any new recruit at the club, Eddie sticks them in the ring with the lad who joined last before them. It's a sure fire way of filtering out those who lack dedication. Some lads are full of it when they strut into the gym, but have overlooked the inconvenience that their opponent can hit back. Usually, they're never seen again. Nor are lads who don't really want to be there in the first place, who have been brought along by their dads to "toughen them up a bit".

I had no doubt Jack was headed the same way as he stood there limp while I fastened his headgear. The other lad, Richie he was called, had grown in confidence in the month or so he had been with us. He had a decent left hook and was beginning to move more cannily around the ring. Pacing up and down by the ropes he was, banging the tops of his gloves together, looking forward to unleashing what he had learnt so far on the cannon fodder opposite him.

"Keep your gloves in front of your nose and chin," Eddie told Jack, "And stay on the move."

He was that lost looking, it was hard to know if Jack was listening, but when I rang the bell, it was like a rainbow appeared before his eyes. His gloves shot up, he bounced around the ring on his toes, and, unlike any of the other lads who had been dragged along to the club over the years, he advanced towards his opponent at every opportunity. Richie looked flabbergasted as he struggled to lay a glove on Jack. He was forced to go on the defensive, fighting on the retreat as he tried to maintain his balance. Luckily for him, Jack didn't have any of his lightening combinations back then, but he could pick a punch and had enough speed and power to suggest that with a spell of training he could deliver serious damage.

"Knock him out, Jack lad. What are you waiting for?" said his dad. Jack's guard dropped, not for long, less than a second, but it was enough for Richie to land his left hook flush on Jack's chin. Down he went. Eddie already knew he wanted him to come back for another session, so he ended the round before Jack had a chance to get back up.

"You're not stopping it there are you?' said his dad, barrelling towards the ring, "He needs to get back in there and show that he's a Westby, not a pansy."

Eddie barred his dad from training sessions not long after that. Jack couldn't focus with his old man bawling him out all the time. He had no clue how to nurture the lad, no warmth to sustain his son. Jack's mum had died when he was a toddler. Rumour was Jack was the first one to find her hanging from his swing in their little garden early one morning. Note said she could no longer bare the shame of his dad's womanising and the pain of his drunken fists. With Jack and two older brothers to keep, his dad had less time for carousing after that. His brothers, by all accounts, were 'proper' Westbys, in that they were wild and violent and thought nothing of locking little Jack in the coal shed for hours on end in the wintertime for their own amusement.

*

As soon as a round of sparring finished, Jack would slope back to the corner with his head hung down. He hardly ever said a word to anyone, but he quickly became the star fighter at the club. Other lads used to stop their training and watch when he was in the ring. He'd learnt fast and was now going toe to toe experienced middleweights who'd been fighting for years.

Within a few months he'd seen off all the local lads and was ready to challenge for the British ABA under 12's title. It was held at the time by a Glasgow lad called Saltern and he was a tough little sod. When the bell rang to start the fight he shot up off his stool like someone had stolen his wallet. Jack covered up, held firm and chipped away at Saltern until he ran out of steam. Then he put him on the deck with a fierce right hook. Jack had him down in the next round as well, but Saltern wouldn't quit. After a third knockdown, Saltern was pawing the ropes to try and get back to his feet when his corner threw in the towel. He was furious, but Jack had the title. Later, holding the belt but eyeing the floor, he stopped on his way out of the dressing room and opened his mouth to speak. What words he had went unsaid as right then his dad floundered in with his beery entourage in tow.

"There he is. My son. British champion!" he said, grabbing Jack's belt and lifting it up above his head. His pals, crowding the dressing room door, cheered their appreciation.

"Your mother would have been so proud," he said, "so, so proud." He began to well up as he pulled Jack's head to his chest. Jack's free arm remained by his side.

There was no little surprise among the lads at Jack's school when the Manchester Evening News ran a full page spread on his triumph in its 'Up and Coming' feature. I know that Jack was quiet as a mouse at school because once, when we had to ask if we could take him out of lessons early one Friday for a fight in Bristol, his head teacher hadn't a clue who he was. One of the headcases in Jack's year tried to take him on after that bit in the 'paper came out. He didn't come back for more once Jack had broken a couple of his ribs.

Jack held his title right up to the under 18's. He'd left school by then and was working as a postman. It wasn't his first job. The day after his final exam, his dad got him a start at a used car dealership. That only lasted a few weeks because Jack could barely communicate with the customers. More than one potential buyer had voted with their feet while Jack cowered in the toilet cubicle. Postman was much further up his street. He barely had to utter a word. To make sure that continued he took to arriving at work long before his workmates and brought a flask instead of going into the canteen for a brew. He ran his round from start to finish so that he was in and out of the depot before anyone else returned.

Hauling that bag of letters around on his shoulder mile after mile each week improved his stamina no end. Coupled with the work we were doing with him at the gym, going the distance was not a problem.

*

If Jack had any mates, we never saw them, either at his fights or anywhere else. When I asked his father about this, he said,

"I don't think he's ever had any. Far as I know, when he heads out he goes to the pictures on his own. At least two or three times a week. Odd way to carry on, but then he's an odd lad is our Jack."

Turned out Jack's reasons for heading to the ABC in Hyde weren't all linked to the delights of the silver screen. One Saturday in the late spring, after an early gym session, Eddie called me to the window overlooking Mount Road.

"Well I'll be damned." said Eddie, "Jack's got himself a lady."

"Stone me," I said, "So he has. He's a right dark horse that one."

As he didn't appear to have any friends, we never gave a moment's thought to Jack having a girlfriend. But there she was: slim, long dark hair, pretty summer dress, chatting away to a lad we'd heard no more than a handful of words from in the past six years.

We soon discovered her name was Kimberly and she worked in the ticket kiosk at the ABC. Jack had darkened their door that often that she had actually started to notice he existed. When Kimberly opened the Evening News and saw Jack all sweat and sinew in a photo from one his fights, she stopped charging him admission. Jack must have used the money he saved to say it with flowers, as there was very little chance of him saying it himself. She began to turn up at training every now and then, but she was never any bother. We were pleased to see Jack with someone, to see him smile.

As Jack approached his 18th birthday, his dad began asking us when his son would turn professional. We had no doubt he could handle the step up, but it was for Jack to make that decision.

"But he's the best in the country," said his dad, "He should be getting his wedge."

"What about the Olympics next year?" asked Eddie, "That will raise his profile a lot faster than building his career one fight at a time."

"How much can he make at the Olympics?" said his dad.

"Nothing." I said, "Expenses only."

"For crying out loud," said his dad, "What's the point of that?"

"It will get hours and hours of coverage on the telly," said Eddie, "The viewing figures will be enormous. You can pretty much guarantee at least a few million will be watching at any one time."

"No," said Jack's dad, "If my lad is on the telly, he's getting paid for it."

That meant the Scammell fight was set be his last as an amateur. If Jack won, he'd be undefeated in the junior ranks, having held the middleweight title for his age group for seven years. Not many managed that, and of those that did, most went on to have at least a half decent pro career.

*

"Scamell's tiring, his gloves are lower," said Eddie at the start of the fourth round. For all his charisma and chin music, Scammell had struggled to make the weight that afternoon. He had to skip for an hour wrapped in black bin liners so the fight could go ahead. Now sweat was sloshing off and he was dehydrating fast.

Jack never tired. His day job saw to that. He won so many fights in the latter stages because his opponents were running on empty. This one looked to be going the same way until Jack's dad stood up on the other side of the ring jabbing his finger in Kimberly's direction, shouting,

"He'll go to them Olympics over my dead body!"

Jack glanced towards the commotion. That was all the invite Scammell needed. He let loose a powerful right hook plumb into Jack's left eye, opening up the fraying skin above the 'brow.

I had a hell of a job stemming the streaming flow of blood at the end of the round. Claret soaked swabs were piled up on the floor around us. I quickly washed the torn skin, threw in some Avitene and slapped on a load of jelly.

"Scammell's not got a decent round left in him," said Eddie, "Keep your left up to protect your eye and just wear him down. If you can keep him at it for another couple he'll be there for the taking at the end."

Scammell knew he was fading because he battered Jack's wound from the bell in the fifth. Jack kept his left up, but Scammell's right jab was pushing the glove into the eyebrow and the jelly began to rub off. After about 30 seconds, Jack couldn't see out of the eye there was that much blood was seeping into it.

In the last minute of the round, Scammell emptied his tank. He knew he was a dead man in the sixth if he didn't finish it right away. Over and over he set Jack up with a sharp little jab with his left and then powered his right hook into Jack's jaw.

"See it out! 45 seconds!" Eddie yelled from the corner.

For the first time in his career, Jack was backpeddling in a bout. His footwork was uncertain in reverse, and he wasn't far off falling over his own feet. Scammell continued to attack, but he was blowing out of his arse. Jack went in for the clinch, but as the ref got between them, Scammell launched a haymaker from Jack's blindside which caught him on the chin before he'd had a chance to set himself. Jack's head pitched at a right angle, taking the rest of his body with it and lifting his feet from the floor. He smashed his head on the canvas, his whole body limp.

The ref only got to a count of three before the bell went. Scammell was that knackered he actually sat down in the ring. When we got to Jack, we could see he was struggling. His breathing was shallow and there was saliva dribbling out of the side of his mouth.

"He's swallowed his tongue," I told Eddie after checking Jack's airways, "We need to get it out of his throat."

"How?" said Eddie, ashen faced.

Jack's dad, flanked by his two brothers, stood opposite, Kimberly to one side.

"I'll get it out," said his dad, ripping out the gum shield and thrusting a couple of fingers down his son's throat. He prodded around for half a minute, but had no success.

"You try," he said to the brothers, but it was no good. None of us had a clue. I learnt later that trying to fish the tongue out with your fingers is the worst thing you can do. Lifting the chin unblocks the windpipe, but none of us knew that. Jack was turning blue.

When the ambulance finally arrived, there was no delay in lifting Jack onto the stretcher and hitting the siren. Kimberly climbed in with the paramedics and his dad came with us in Eddie's car. Nobody said a word on the way to the Infirmary.
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