Sean fights in Europe and earns a shot at the heavyweight crown in Americs.
Part 3. The Fight Game
Sean completed his training during the ensuing weeks. Throughout it all Manny feigned total ignorance of Sean’s involvement with Vicki. Eight weeks into the training period Manny informed Sean and Bruno that Sean’s premiere bout had been scheduled in Wales. The main event would be a relatively small affair, and Sean's bout would be preliminary to that. But it would be a chance for Sean to experience the arena crowd and all that went with it.
Manny arranged for Rufus, the brother of the equipment room manager back at the athletic club in Brooklyn, to be flown over. Back stateside Rufus had the reputation of being one of the best cut-men in the business. Rufus and Bruno would act as Sean’s seconds.
Sean and Rufus immediately hit it off. Rufus seemed to be as blind to Sean’s deformity as Sean was to Rufus’ dark skin. As Sean’s prowess grew, Pat poured it on more and more intensely. As the end of the training period approached, Bruno told Manny that he was confident Sean would be able to protect himself in the ring.
"And of course there’s no better trainin’ ground than some real fights," Bruno added.
"Exactly," Manny concurred. "From here on out let’s have him spar without any head protection. Tell Pat to give him some good shots. Let’s see if he can take a punch, and let’s give him a taste of what’s in store for him."
Bruno nodded and the instructions were passed along. After a few sparring sessions without protective headgear, Sean had amply demonstrated that he could take a punch. When Pat gave him the first stiff headshot he saw stars. In instinctive retaliation he dropped Pat with a left hook. Even holding back, it was enough to send Pat tumbling across the ring.
"Hey! Hey!" Manny shouted from ringside. "What’re you tryin’ to do, kill your sparrin’ partner? He’s givin’ you a taste of what you can expect in a real fight. You don’t use a punch like that ‘til I tell you to, understand?"
"Sorry," Sean apologized, crossing the ring and helping Pat up. "You OK?" he asked solicitously.
"I think so," Pat answered, moving his lower jaw back and forth. Sean felt truly bad. For the first time he began to fully appreciate what power lay in his left hand.
"If I’d o’ given him a steer-stunnin’ shot, I’d o’ killed him!" he thought to himself with a worried frown.
Manny privately instructed Vicki to stay away from Sean two weeks before the bout in Wales.
"I want him restless and mean when he climbs into that ring," he told her.
Vicki nodded that she understood The weekend before the Wales fight she told Sean that it was her time of the month and that she’d be going to London to visit her mother over the weekend. Sean accepted the red light as gentlemen have down through the ages.
Sean, Manny, Bruno and Rufus took a plane to Wales and Sean got his first taste of a pre-fight dressing room. Even though it was only a preliminary bout Manny was agitated and hyper. He babbled pep talks to Sean while Bruno wrapped Sean’s hands in tape. It was contagious and Sean could feel the bloodlust rising within himself. Bruno remained silent throughout, and Rufus busied himself with towels and with Sean's robe.
Outside the arena Sean’s name was listed as Fiddler Crabbe. There was no picture of him, since his bout was only a prelim. Nonetheless the poster had excited him when they arrived at the arena.
AT 7 PM there was a knock at the dressing room door and a stranger told Manny it was show time.
"OK! OK! Here we go! How you feelin’?" he asked excitedly, tugging at the boxing gloves that Bruno had laced onto Sean’s hands. The left glove had been custom made to fit Sean’s mammoth left fist.
"I feel good!" Sean grinned. Rufus was holding his robe up. On its back was the embroidered image of a fiddler crab, and emblazoned beneath the picture was the name Fiddler Crabbe.
"Let’s do it!" Manny cried. "Remember … you box for seven rounds and drop him in the eighth."
"And if I get into trouble before then?" Sean asked.
"Don’t worry, you won’t," Manny cryptically replied. Sean thought he understood, but he felt slightly embarrassed and looked at Bruno and Rufus. Both men avoided eye contact. Bruno checked the tape around the top of his gloves and Rufus adjusted the collar of his robe.
Sean expected the crowd to roar when they entered the arena. But he was disappointed. For the most part the four in his group were ignored as they made their way to the ring. In fact people were still filing in, and the arena was only half full.
Manny sensed Sean’s disappointment.
"Relax!" he admonished. "This is only a prelim. Your day will come. First you gotta show the world who you are."
The four men climbed up into the ring. The crowd audibly quieted when Rufus helped Sean out of his robe. Few if any had ever seen a physique quite like Sean’s. He did the usual shadow boxing warm up in his corner, and people stared bug-eyed at his massive left arm and fist.
The ring announcer did his thing and the bell rang. Sean advanced as a southpaw, leading with his right. The other fighter was a good boxer and Sean began to enjoy himself. It was refreshing to be up against someone who wasn’t wearing protective headgear.
The other fighter was considerably more experienced than Sean, and tied him up regularly. When the referee told them to break, Sean would push him away with his left hand. The force he exerted was enough to make his opponent run backward to keep from falling over. It had an interesting effect. After a few such pushes Sean began to detect a trace of fear in his opponent’s eyes. The other fighter began to circle to the right, staying away from Sean’s left punches.
Occasionally Sean would throw a left, always being careful to land it on the other fighter’s shoulder or upper arm. Even though he held back, the force was enough to send his opponent reeling. Twice in the first five rounds it resulted in a knockdown. The crowd had never seen anything like it … one heavyweight knocking another down with shots to his arm and shoulder. They began to become rowdy. By round six a big, blue bruise began to emerge on his opponent’s right upper arm.
In round seven the other fighter came on strong toward the end. With eight seconds to go, he surprised Sean with a crunching right to the forehead. Sean dropped to the canvas, stunned. The crowd, now nearly filling the auditorium, hooted and jeered. As Sean picked himself up, ears ringing, he looked with dazed eyes out over the sea of humanity. Many of the men’s faces were red, and some looked inebriated. Most were sweating almost as hard as Sean was. Female faces, intermingled with those of the men, bore looks ranging from admiration for Sean’s strength to twisted cries for blood and mayhem.
Sean was not saved by the bell, although he might as well have been. His legs felt wobbly when he plopped down on the stool in his corner. Rufus’ face was grave, and he wafted smelling salts under Sean’s nose. They cleared his head immediately.
"You all right, lad?" Bruno asked with a worried frown.
Sean nodded and smiled weakly.
"He got to me!" he exclaimed.
"Welcome to the fight game," Bruno grinned. "Are you ready to take him out?"
"Aye," Sean nodded.
"Remember: knockout power, not killin’ power!" Bruno whispered hoarsely into Sean’s ear. Sean nodded as Rufus shoved a mouthpiece between his teeth. He stood up, pounding his fists together and the bell rang. The crowd was now at fever pitch. They seemed to sense that something new and major was imminent.
With the bell’s gong, the other fighter ran toward Sean. Sean’s knockdown had given him newfound courage. Although Sean couldn’t have known it, an agreement had been reached between both camps that neither fighter would go for a knockout in the first seven rounds. Such arrangements were routine. They gave insiders an edge in pre-bout betting. Starting with round eight it would be go-for-broke, may the best man win.
Sean’s opponent clearly thought the advantage was his. This kid he was up against had a dangerous left, but he himself had the greater boxing skills. He had murder in his eye as he approached Sean in a crouch.
Sean clinched with him and pushed him hard into a corner of the ring.
Wham! Sean landed a sledgehammer blow on his opponent’s upper right arm. The arm didn’t snap, but it was a paralyzing shot. The other fighter’s right dropped helplessly.
Crunch! Sean followed with a left to his opponent’s unguarded head. The other man crumbled to the canvas, out like a light. The crowd went wild. Flashbulbs went off like fireworks. The referee directed Sean to a neutral corner. He began counting. By the count of ten the other fighter hadn’t moved.
Manny and Sean’s seconds flooded into the ring. In seconds many strangers joined them.
"Is he all right? Is he all right?" Sean kept asking frantically. Then he saw the other fighter, on his feet but groggy.
"Thank God," Sean thought gratefully. Manny was mussing his hair and holding his right arm in the air. The ring emptied somewhat when a microphone dropped down on a long cord. The ring announcer grabbed hold of it.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he intoned in the classic ring announcer voice. "The winner by knockout in fourteen seconds of the eighth round: the bright new heavyweight from Ireland, Fiddler Cra-a-a-a-be!"
The story of Sean’s win in Wales was carried in the Welsh sports pages, and it received mention in several English papers as well. The gist of the news wasn’t so much Sean’s victory, but rather that the bull-killing steer-stunner from Ireland had put on boxing gloves and had done to a heavyweight boxer what he’d been doing to cattle.
Manny already had other preliminary bouts lined up in Hamburg, Paris and Rome. Sean won all of these by knockouts too, dutifully dropping his opponents in the rounds designated by Manny. Manny was making more money from pre-bout bets than they were getting for the bouts themselves. That was the rationale for prearranging the round that would end the fight.
With each win, Sean’s fame spread. By the time Manny made a move to set up a fight in London, the promoters were clamoring to make it a main event. For it was clear to all by then that Sean would be the evening’s major draw.
The gates had steadily increased with each fight, and Sean’s cut correspondingly grew. As the main event in London loomed, he already had more money in three London banks than he’d ever dreamed possible.
Back stateside Tony Skopelli watched Sean’s climb through the ranks with mounting excitement.
"Keep dat left under wraps," he warned Manny during one of Manny’s trips back to New York.
"Oh yeah," Manny promised, "he seems to have a good feel for doin’ that … for holdin’ back just the right amount."
"Dose bums in Europe … dey layin’ down for him or what?"
"Actually, we ain’t had to play that card," Manny answered. "All we been doin’ is agreein’ on six, seven … maybe eight rounds, and then it’s open season, best man win."
"You layin’ off any personal bets?" Skopelli asked innocently.
"No, No," Manny exclaimed. "You know I never do that."
"Uh huh," Skopelli grunted. "I t’ink we get him five … six more matches in Europe … Get him to contender rank. Den we bring him over."
"How many fights over here, you figure, before he gets a title shot?" Manny asked.
"Maybe none," Skopelli shrugged. "Carbino might want to arrange somethin’ right off."
Manny nodded, unable to conceal his excitement. In the year or so that he’d been working with Sean in Europe, Rocky, had won the heavyweight crown. Of course he did this as a member of Vito Carbino’s stable, and Skopelli and his people got nothing out of it.
"We teach your punk friend, Rocky, a lesson, huh?" Skopelli grinned wickedly.
"Oh yeah," Manny nodded somberly. "If I tell our boy to do it, he’ll definitely ice the Rock."
"But not kill him!" Skopelli added nervously. It was clear that, while one part of Tony wanted vengeance for Carbino’s seduction of Rocky, another part of him didn’t want to arouse Carbino’s wrath.
"No, no way!" Manny remarked. "But it’ll definitely be payback time for Rocky leavin’ us, if that’s what you want."
"I want," Skopelli growled, obviously relishing the prospect of Rocky getting his lights punched out.
Sean’s main event in London was a sellout. Many of the old photos from his pre-boxing days were dusted off and run by the media in the weeks before the fight. Manny’s very tentative feelers for any kind of pre-bout arrangement fell on deaf ears. For reasons unknown, the opposition camp was having none of it. Perhaps Sean’s apparent lack of true killing power in his left, up until then, had convinced them that their boy could take him.
The night of the bout Manny was particularly hyper in the dressing room.
"What round?" Sean finally asked him.
"No round," Manny murmured. "We got no understandin’. This guy is comin’ after you from the openin’ bell. Understand?"
Sean, sitting on the dressing table’s edge, nodded agreeably. The prospect didn’t seem to alarm him. Anxiety about Sean’s confidence started alarms ringing in Manny’s head.
"Listen! Listen!" he urged, pulling on Sean’s gloves. "This guy can hurt you! He outweighs you by thirty pounds! I think you should go for a quick knockout!"
"Is that an order?" Sean answered, looking Manny steadily in the eye. Manny felt wariness course through his body. What a difference a few professional bouts had made! Sean’s innocence had disappeared. He had changed into a dangerous animal … a promoter’s dream!
"Eye of the killer," Manny thought, returning Sean’s gaze.
"No, not an order," he answered, slapping Sean on the shoulder. "Follow your instincts. I ain’t worried. Bruno trained you good. You know how to take care of yourself. But don’t get caught, OK? This is a must win, understand?"
"Aye, understood," Sean answered, punching his gloves together savagely.
When they filed into the arena Sean couldn’t help contrasting the present scene with his first preliminary bout in Wales. The London arena was filled to capacity and the noise was deafening. It was blood stirring! Sean’s opponent was a brute of a German heavyweight. Sean was clearly the favorite with the British crowd. The noise in the arena doubled when they entered.
"Knock his bloody block off, Fiddler," men screamed at him. Women clapped wildly. One exceptionally well endowed one jumped out of her aisle seat and rushed back toward them. A police officer headed her off, but not before she made eye contact with Sean and smiled seductively.
"Welcome to the big time," Manny shouted in Sean’s ear. "I can probably get her for after the fight if you want her!"
Sean looked at Manny with amused eyes. Manny was grinning from ear to ear and sweating. He obviously reveled in moments like this.
"You want?" Manny shouted again in Sean’s ear.
Sean shook his head no. Manny nodded agreeably, understanding why but revealing nothing.
Once both fighters and their handlers had entered the ring, Rufus helped Sean out of his robe. The crowd reacted more wildly than ever at Sean’s extraordinary physique. When he shadowboxed and threw his left in looping hooks the crowd roared. Sean and the German met at mid-ring and the referee gave his usual instructions. When Sean held out his gloves for the customary ‘shake,’ the German arrogantly slapped them aside.
"Touchy, touchy," Sean smiled to himself as he returned to his corner.
It was clear from the opening bell that the German had been schooled to avoid Sean’s left. He circled nimbly to Sean’s right, firing savage shots at Sean’s face. Some of them got through. Two minutes into the first round Sean could taste blood in his mouth. The German’s eyes brightened malevolently at the sight of the cut opened in Sean’s upper lip.
At round’s end Rufus went to work on Sean’s lip while Bruno squirted water into Sean’s mouth and sponged his face.
"How we doin’?" Bruno shouted. "You know you’re cut?"
"Aye, I can taste me blood," Sean answered.
"I think you better end this!" Bruno yelled into Sean’s ear. "Next round this bum’s gonna go to work on that cut big time."
Sean nodded. It was the first time he’d actually shed blood in the ring. The thought of his face being transformed into a lump of scar tissue horrified him.
At the bell for the second round he moved quickly past the ring’s center and landed a pile-driving left hook on the German’s shoulder. The crowd roared as the German staggered from the crushing force of the blow. Although it didn’t seriously damage the big man, the sheer force of it was enough to strike fear in his mind. His worried eyes reflected the certain knowledge that he couldn’t survive a shot like that to the head. Instinctively he raised his right hand, dropping his left. Sean sensed the opening and swung his right with everything he had. It felt wonderful not to hold back! The shot caught the German square on the tip of his jaw and the big man crumbled to the canvas. He tried to get up at the count of six, but his legs collapsed like spaghetti beneath his massive body. It was all over in Round 2!
Manny swarmed into the ring with dozens of others. He and Bruno hoisted Sean onto their shoulders. Sean grinned, spitting the mouthpiece out into Rufus’ upstretched hand. He raised his right glove in victory, grinning out over the sea of screaming faces. He felt great! It was as if this was the first real fight he’d ever had … the first one he’d won legitimately! No pre-arrangements, no freak of nature stuff. He’d dropped a major European heavyweight with his right! The normal half of him was a fighter that could slug it out with the best of them!
The media throughout the United Kingdom had a field day with Sean’s victory.
"Fiddler Crabbe’s Right A Killer Too!" the London Times blared. Back in the states several ring magazines carried spreads on Sean’s rapid ascent. The tide had definitely shifted, and Manny’s job got a whole lot easier. Other camps now began contacting him, seeking bouts. It was clear that Fiddler Crabbe had become a major draw, and anyone who fought him would walk away with his share of a very handsome gate.
Back in New York, Tony Skopelli put a call through to Vito Carbino.
"Whadda yuh t’ink?" Tony asked respectfully. "We make some money?"
"Absolutely," Vito answered quietly. "Come to dinner tomorrow night at my place. Six o’clock. We discuss."
"At your restaurant?" Tony asked nervously. Carbino looked into the mouthpiece of his phone. What … this fat slob thought he was getting invited to his house?
"Yeah … at the restaurant," Vito answered in a friendly tone.
"OK!" Tony exclaimed in a voice unmistakably eager to please. "See you den, boss."
That night Tony tossed and turned in his bed. How was it going to play out? Would they have Crabbe take the crown from Rocky, and then have Rocky recapture it in a rematch? Would they make the first match a draw, and have Sean win match 2, with Rocky winning in match 3?
"Whatever makes duh most bucks," Tony mused, rolling over and punching his pillow. The money thrilled him. Finally, one of his boys was getting a title shot!
Suddenly the unsettling thought that Vito might try to steal Sean away from him, as he’d stolen Rocky, coursed through Skopelli’s mind. He started to sweat. His breathing became labored.
"I swear I’ll whack Vito personally if he tries dat again," Skopelli railed in his mind. "Fair is fair!"
Tony couldn’t help curling his toes as he thought about what they stood to make. Twenty million easy by the time the whole thing played out! Manny did good work. This was the best fighter he’d ever brought into the stable. Tony decided that he’d have to reward his ace talent scout with a bonus. Maybe a new Lincoln. Why not? He knew where he could get a loaded one for next to nothing!
At Skopelli’s order, Manny scheduled six more bouts in Europe, the last to occur in Dublin. Six more wins, coupled with Sean’s international acclaim, would legitimize a shot at the heavyweight crown in America. All of the bouts were booked in big European cities, and Sean’s fame grew with each victory.
After the fourth bout, Manny quietly told Vicki that he wanted her to break off with Sean and to disappear.
"I don’t want him nursin’ a broken heart when we go to America," he told her. Vicki nodded that she understood.
"Whadda yuh think? Is he gonna be tore up?"
"I don’t know," Vicki answered pensively. "I think maybe not."
Manny grinned at her impishly.
"I thought he was totally smitten by your charms."
Vicki smiled back.
"At first, I think he was," she continued. "But lately … I don’t know. He might be tougher than we give him credit for."
Manny pursed his lips and nodded agreeably. The last thing he wanted was for Sean to sink into a deep funk.
"How you gonna break it off?" he asked.
"Oh, I thought maybe a letter," Vicki answered.
Manny nodded his agreement with that.
"Let’s do it this Saturday morning," he told her. "Pack up and I’ll drive you into London Friday night."
"Shall I slip the letter under his door or …?"
"No. We’ll let Mrs. Gruber hand it to him at breakfast Saturday mornin’. I want we should all be there to lend him moral support."
And so the whole thing was done. Saturday morning Sean joined the others at the breakfast table. Just as he began to wonder where Vicki was, Mrs. Gruber quietly handed him an envelope.
"What’s this?" he asked, but then noticed the writing on the envelope. ‘To Sean, From Vicki.’
"Excuse me," he told the others, rising and walking over by the door. Manny candidly watched his face while he tore the envelope open and read its contents. He was relieved when Sean smiled and gave a little snort.
"Well, that’s that," Sean muttered, returning to the table.
"Wha Wha What that’s that?" Manny asked with innocent eyes.
Sean seemed to be lost in thought for a moment, but then handed the letter to Manny.
‘Dear Sean,’ it began. ‘We never really got to know much about one another, and maybe I should have told you about Jack. Before meeting you, I was divorced from him. He went to Australia and returned a couple of weeks ago. We saw each other again, and the old feelings were still there. We’ve decided to get married again, and I’m going back to Australia with him. I’ll always have fond memories of the good times you and I shared. I know you’ll be a great success. My best wishes are with you always. Vicki.’
Manny carefully folded the letter and handed it back to Sean.
"Well I’ll be," he murmured with sad eyes. "I didn’t know …"
Sean nodded back at him.
"I kind o’ gathered," he answered. "My hunch is you’re the only one who didn’t."
Sean looked at Bruno and Rufus.
"Both o’ you knew, didn’t you?"
Bruno and Rufus both nodded gravely. Sean held the letter out to Bruno, but Bruno declined reading it with an upraised hand.
"She’s gone then?" he asked.
"Aye," Sean answered, "gone for good, I’d say."
"Well then. No trainin’ today," Bruno said. "Let’s all take the day off!"
"What are you gonna do?" Manny asked Sean.
Sean thought about it, and at length said that he might go into London and get snookered.
"Now you talkin’!" Rufus exclaimed. "Mind if this nig … if this African American tags along?"
"No … no I’d like the company!" Sean smiled. "Have you seen London?"
"Man, I ain’t seen squat since comin’ over here," Rufus complained.
"Well then, let’s get cleaned up and make a day of it!"
Sean looked at Manny and Bruno.
"Any other takers?" he asked.
Bruno shook his head.
"Son’s birthday party this afternoon," he smiled. "But thanks!"
"Not me," Manny stated. "I’m flyin’ back to New York this afternoon.
So Sean and Rufus drove into London. Sean showed Rufus some of the sights … Big Ben, Parliament, Buckingham Palace. By dinnertime they had landed in a large pub in the East End. Rufus was enjoying himself immensely. The attitude in England was decidedly different than in America. From the first time he had met Sean, Sean had been completely color blind to Rufus’ heritage. They had been mates from the get go.
"That little gal don’t seem to have hurt your feelin’s much," Rufus allowed, taking a long pull on his mug of stout.
"She didn’t at that," Sean answered. "Our relationship had been coolin’ down of late."
"Shoot, Irish, you gonna have your pick of the bunch once we gits to America."
"You think so?" Sean smiled.
"I knows so! And dat’s a good thing. A man fightin’ in the ring needs a liddle company now an’ den."
Sean nodded, sparking a mischievous idea in Rufus’ head. Why not get Sean set up with some pretty little thing tonight? Rufus scanned the room for prospects but saw none. He did spot a well-dressed black man at the bar. One might think that someone with Rufus’ background would not be quick to prejudge, but the truth was that he immediately assumed the man at the bar was a pimp.
As soon as Sean excused himself to visit the head, Rufus ambled over to the bar.’
"How you doin’?" he asked casually. The other man looked at him a little surprised.
"Pretty good," he answered.
"Say, man, I’m from America, and I ain’t too hip about dis London scene. You know what I’m sayin’? But I got dis friend who could use some female company tonight. Can you help him out?"
The other man studied Rufus with amused eyes. It was clear what Rufus thought his profession must be. He nodded back at their table.
"Your friend is Fiddler Crabbe?" he asked. Rufus gave a little start.
"Yeah, dat’s it!" he exclaimed. "You know him!"
"Well, I’d wager everybody in England knows him."
"Yeah, o’ course, o’ course!" Rufus babbled.
"I’d like to meet him. By the way, my name is Malcolm," the stranger smiled, holding his hand out palm up. Rufus slapped the hand and grinned toothily.
"Right on!" he said. "Come on over. Dey call me Rufus."
Sean returned to the table and Rufus introduced him to Malcolm.
"Actually, my full name is Malcolm Boyd," the stranger said. "I’m a sportswriter for The Times."
Rufus, who was drinking from his mug, gave a little choke.
"Of course!" Sean smiled. "I’ve read your column many times."
The three men drifted comfortably into sports talk, and after a couple more stouts Sean suggested that they order some dinner.
"So, what brings you two into London?" Malcolm asked. (The location of Sean’s training camp, out in the countryside, was by now common knowledge.)
"He’s showin’ me the sights!" Rufus exclaimed.
"Good for you!" Malcolm said. "But it’s getting dark now. Did you have anything in mind for this evening? Perhaps I can be of help."
Sean grew pensive and Rufus shifted nervously in his seat.
"You know what I’d really like to do?" Sean murmured. "I’d like to visit The Fighters’ Home. I’ve wanted to do that ever since readin’ an article you wrote about it."
"Perfect!" he cried. "I can introduce you to some of the old boys there. I know most of them."
The three men took a cab, and on the way Malcolm mentioned that ‘The Home’ had fallen on hard times. Sean pressed him for details.
"It seems they’ve fallen behind in their mortgage payments," Malcolm sighed.
"How far behind?" Sean asked.
Malcolm rubbed his lips.
"Six months, I think," he answered. "Truth is I’ve been putting together another article these last few days. Scare up some contributions, don’t you know?"
The cab delivered them to their destination, and Malcolm introduced Sean and Rufus to many of the retired fighters who were assembled in the home’s large common room watching TV. Everyone knew who Sean was, of course, and they were all thrilled to meet him. In due course the resident manager sauntered in and was introduced. At an opportune moment Sean quietly asked the manager if they could have a word in private. The manager nodded and led Sean out into the kitchen.
Sean related what Malcolm had mentioned about the mortgage situation.
"It’s true, sad to say," the manager mumbled. "Actually we’re now seven months in arrears. I got the first eviction notification in Monday’s post."
"How … much are your monthly payments?" Sean asked.
The manager looked at Sean cautiously but engagingly.
"Twelve hundred pounds," he answered.
Sean reached into the inside pocket of his sports jacket and took out a checkbook.
"I’d like to help out," he murmured, scribbling in the book.
The manager nodded gratefully.
"It would be greatly appreciated," he said. "Much of our help comes from fighters still active in the ring."
Sean tore the check out of the book and handed it to the manager.
"Fifteen thou …" the manager stammered, staring bug-eyed at the check. "Bless you, Fiddler. We thank you from the bottoms of our hearts!"
"Glad we could help out," Sean smiled, squeezing the other man’s forearm.
They rejoined the others in the TV room and chatted some more. After a while Sean told the others that it was getting close to his bedtime and that they’d have to be going. The old fighters nodded their understanding to a man. All of them knew the rigors of training, and remembered the bliss of a good night’s sleep.
Sean and Rufus took their leave of Malcolm once they were outside.
"Thanks so much," Sean said, shaking the sportswriter’s hand. "That was a real treat."
"It’s been my pleasure. I’m so glad you liked it," Malcolm answered.
Sean and Rufus took a cab back to where they’d parked their car, and returned to the farm.
When Malcolm arrived back at his flat, there was a request on his answering machine that he call the manager at The Fighters’ Home. It was late, but he decided to chance catching the manager still awake.
In breathless tones the manager told Malcolm of Sean’s contribution.
"Fifteen thousand pounds?" Malcolm repeated in disbelief.
"Believe it or not," the manager answered.
Malcolm rang off and sat down at his PC. Twenty minutes later he transferred a file to the newsroom at The London Times.
"Did I make the Sunday edition?" he asked the editor on the phone.
The editor studied Malcolm’s article on his computer screen.
"Oh sure," he reassured Malcolm. "Even if you didn’t, we’d hold the presses for this one. Good article!"
Malcolm thanked his boss and crawled into bed.
"What a world," he mused happily as his head sank into the pillow. The next morning the lead article on The Times sports pages carried the headline, ‘A Heart As Big As His Punch.’
Back at the farm, Sean sat reading the Sunday paper.
"How do you suppose Malcolm knew?" he asked Rufus. "Did you say anything to him?"
"Did I … Irish, I ain’t know ‘til this minute that you do such a thing! Fifteen thousand pounds? Man, how many dollars is that?"
Sean smiled across the table.
"Who knows," he thought aloud, "someday I might end up there."
"Say what?" Rufus laughed. "No way! You gonna be the champ, man! And dis boy gone be your cut man!"
"That you are," Sean smiled over his coffee cup.
Rufus grinned hugely at his friend.
"Oh man, Irish, wait ‘til you sees New York! We gonna live high!"
"First there’s Madrid and Dublin," Sean reminded.
"Oh yeah," Rufus answered, his face turning serious. Then he brightened again. "But we ain’t sweatin’ that, is we? You the Man, Irish, you the Man!"
The London Times story about Sean’s generosity went out on the wire services and was in newspapers worldwide by Monday. When Manny met with Skopelli on Monday morning, Skopelli was reading the story.
"What’s wid dis guy?" Skopelli barked. "Is dis our money he’s givin’ away?"
Manny, who had already read the story, winced uncomfortably.
"No, it’s from his earnin’s," he answered. "He’s had four main events so far. And as far as I know, he spends next to nothin’."
"Fifteen t’ousand pounds! It says here dat’s over thirty large," Skopelli challenged. "I t’ink maybe we’re payin’ Mr. Manhattan Gandhi too much."
"Well," Manny answered cautiously, "we’ve been givin’ him the standard cut. And you know, he’s pullin’ in record gates over in Europe."
Skopelli nodded shrewdly.
"And dis kind of publicity can’t hurt," he grumbled.
"Exactly!" Manny confirmed.
"OK," Skopelli said. "So what’s next?"
"Two more main events in Europe, and then we come stateside, right?"
"Right. I had a preliminary meet with Carbino. It looks like we’re gonna get a title shot. Crabbe KO’s Rocky in the first match, and Rocky recaptures the crown in the second."
"Wow!" Manny exclaimed. "Wow Wow Wow! Major bucks!"
"Big time major," Skopelli grinned back. "Stick around. I’m takin’ you to lunch."
Manny was slightly stunned. This was a first for him!
"We get outta here at noon," Skopelli continued. "You like Italian?"
"I love Italian!" Manny beamed.
"OK. Scram for now. I got calls to make."
Manny retreated to his desk and tried to think of something to do. At length he began rummaging around on the Internet, looking for boxing regulations. He couldn’t find anything that precluded Sean’s eligibility to fight in America. The time passed quickly and he was jolted from his reverie by the sound of Skopelli’s voice.
"You ready?" Skopelli barked.
Manny jumped. "Wow! Twelve o’clock already?"
Skopelli smiled and Manny followed him out to the elevator. Once down in the building’s garage, Skopelli waddled over to a new Lincoln Town Car. It was a gorgeous machine. Manny thought wistfully that one-day maybe he’d be able to afford one like it.
Skopelli took a set of keys out of his pocket and handed them to Manny.
"Here," he said, "we take your car."
Manny looked at Skopelli with confused eyes.
"Your car, Dumb Dumb," Skopelli grinned, nodding at the Lincoln.
"I don’t get it," Manny answered weakly, looking at the keys.
"Dis is yours … a bonus!" Skopelli said. "Press dat right button on duh remote. It unlocks the doors."
Manny stared bug-eyed at the Lincoln.
"I … I don’t know what to say, Tony," he murmured.
"So you say nothin’! Let’s go! I’m starvin’! You know where La Trattoria is?"
"Yeah! Yeah, I do!" Manny answered. He opened the doors and slid in behind the wheel. The seats were soft leather. The car smelled new. He started the engine. The odometer read 34 miles. The big car floated like a dream, up the garage ramp and out into the street.
"You like opera?" Skopelli asked as a formality, punching the CD button without waiting for Manny’s answer.
"I love opera," Manny answered.
"You sure you ain’t Italian?" Skopelli grinned.
Manny smiled back and blushed.
"I’m feelin’ more and more like it," he answered humbly.
"Dat’s good," Skopelli said. "You know, us Italians are very big on loyalty. And we take care of our own."
Manny nodded but couldn’t think of anything to say. Skopelli began to hum along with the music. By the time they pulled up in front of La Trattoria, he was singing along in Italian.
"I shoulda took lessons," he grunted as he opened the passenger door. "People say I got a good voice."
"Oh yeah, you do!" Manny answered enthusiastically. He slid out of the driver’s seat and handed the keys to a carhop.
"Brand new! Be careful, right?" he glowered at the young man.
"Yes, sir!" the carhop smiled. "She’s a beauty!"
Skopelli pushed Manny ahead of him toward the restaurant’s entrance. Manny walked into the elegant establishment feeling grandiose. The Maitre ‘D smiled up from his lectern, obviously recognizing Skopelli.
"Right this way, gentlemen."
Tony bought the two of them the most sumptuous lunch Manny had ever had. It was 3 PM by the time they finished with a round of cordials. Manny’s head was swimming from the two bottles of Chianti they’d split. Back in the garage Skopelli had Manny drive him around to his car.
"Dat’s all for me for today," Skopelli said. "I need a nap." He looked at Manny.
"You look like you could use one too," he added. "I see you tomorrow."
Manny felt a rush of affection for Skopelli as he pulled his new car away. He still couldn’t believe it! What should he do with his Cadillac? Sell it? His mother was having him over for dinner Wednesday night. Maybe he’d give it to his old man. Wouldn’t that bowl them over though? Yeah. That’s what he’d do.
Now Vito Carbino had no intention of letting fat Tony Skopelli get his hands on the kind of money a couple of matches between Sean and Rocky would bring in. The truth was that, although Skopelli was part of his organization, Carbino despised him. The night he’d had Skopelli over to his restaurant for dinner, it was a stretch for him to maintain a cordial and friendly face while Skopelli wolfed down the Italian food. Skopelli, on the other hand, had been feeling as elated as Manny did at their luncheon. He took Carbino’s dinner invitation as a signal that Vito wanted a more intimate relationship. It seemed obvious to him that he was moving up in the organization!
Carbino decided that the solution lay in wooing Sean away from Skopelli’s camp, much as he had wooed Rocky away. However, he knew that doing that twice in a row would be politically unwise. His peers were all willing to cut one another some slack for an occasional go at larceny, but no one condoned greediness. And of course no capo wanted another one getting too much richer than himself. Money was power.
Vito decided that the best course of action would be to have his representatives approach Sean anonymously at first. If Sean were interested, then he’d work out a deal with a capo in Chicago. Technically, Sean would join the Chicago camp, but off the books Vito would retain half ownership. Everything would of course be handled discreetly, and the New York mob would be none the wiser.
Although Skopelli had been careful to conceal Sean’s true power from the world, Carbino knew the facts. When a title shot had been tentatively arranged with Rocky, Vito had instructed his legal staff to do a full background check on Sean. After reading their report, he had no doubt that Sean could take any heavyweight out with one devastating punch. Indeed in his own mind he decided that, once Sean had been wooed away from Skopelli, Rocky would not win the title back in the rematch. Rocky was only one heavyweight champ among many. But Sean had worldwide appeal. Rocky would never approach the earning potential of Fiddler Crabbe.
Vito arranged for a threesome of his most diplomatic legal people to travel to Madrid for Sean’s scheduled bout. They were all astute and polished men.
"Remember … a fishing expedition only," he instructed them in his conference room. "Strictly anonymous for openers. If he’s interested, we seal the deal in Dublin."
Everyone nodded that he understood.
While Carbino was busy with these machinations, Manny flew back to England and shared the possibility of a heavyweight title shot with Sean and the rest of the team. He felt it was important to motivate them. After all, everything hinged on Sean winning the bouts in Madrid and Dublin. And Manny wanted no slip-ups at this stage of the game.
The strategy seemed to work. Bruno became even more focused on polishing Sean’s skills, and Sean trained like there was no tomorrow. Manny had offered Mrs. Gruber a generous increase in salary if she could save him the trouble of hiring another housekeeper. She gladly accepted. Indeed the extra work was, in her mind, more than offset by getting that other female out of the house.
The Madrid bout was scheduled for November. Manny, Sean, Bruno and Rufus flew to Spain a week before the fight. By now Sean rated a private suite in one of Madrid’s best hotels. Three days before the fight Manny called a halt to all training and took Sean down to the Costa Brava for some rest and relaxation. He wanted to keep close tabs on his boy, steering him clear of booze and females and making sure that he ate well. They returned to Madrid the afternoon before the bout.
After dinner, Manny personally escorted Sean back to his suite.
"Get a good night’s sleep," he smiled. "Two more wins and we fly to New York."
Sean assured him that he’d turn in after winding down watching an English language movie. At 7:30 he was roused by a knock on the door. Three well-dressed men greeted him from the hallway.
"Good evening, Mr. Crabbe. We wondered if we might speak with you for a few minutes."
"What about?" Sean asked, wondering if these three were from the media or what.
"Frankly, about money," the spokesman answered. "About how to maximize your earnings in the next few years."
"Well … OK, come in then," Sean invited. He was skeptical and not particularly money-oriented, but he figured it couldn’t hurt to listen to their pitch.
"I should probably ask my manager to join us," he said, motioning for them to take seats.
"Ah-h-h, we’d like to talk with you alone for a few moments if you don’t mind," one of the others suggested.
Sean shrugged and told them to go ahead. Within minutes it became clear to him what their agenda was.
"You mean bail out on Manny?" he asked. All three lawyers sensed Sean’s loyalty and began to backwater immediately.
"Not necessarily," one of them said. "I’m sure our … clients would be happy to have someone with Mr. Liebowitz’s abilities also join their organization."
"Just who do you represent?" Sean queried.
"Well, we’d like you to think about this privately for a while, and talk with you again before getting into details," another one answered. "Of course you have to do what you feel is best. But we recommend that you not discuss anything with Mr. Liebowitz, or with anyone else, until we have an opportunity to talk again. If it’s convenient for you, we’d like to get back to you in two weeks. If you want to look into this further after we talk again, then we’ll be more than happy to get Mr. Liebowitz involved. Is that agreeable with you?"
"Aye, I suppose it is," he murmured. "Roughly speakin’, how much better d’ you estimate we’d do in your organization?"
"Roughly speaking, we estimate your share of future gates would be double what you’ll get in your present arrangement."
Sean pursed his lips and nodded appreciatively. He had never met anyone in Manny’s organization, and didn’t feel any loyalties beyond those for Manny. If Manny came along as part of the deal, and also realized a lot more money, where was the harm?
"I’ll give it some thought," Sean promised, rising to signal the end of their conversation. "I have to be turning in. Big day tomorrow."
"Oh, yes, we’ll be watching!" the men agreed, smiling and shaking Sean’s hand.
"Let’s see," one of them continued. "You’ll be back training outside of London in a couple of weeks. How would you like us to contact you?"
"Ah! I have a private line in me room there," Sean exclaimed. He jotted the number down on a piece of hotel stationery and handed it to the men. "You can reach me there weeknights after 7 PM."
The three men told Sean what an honor it was to have met him and took their leave. After they left, Sean decided to forego the rest of the movie, and turned out the suite’s lights. He settled into an easy chair with a view of the city. The suite was on the hotel’s fourteenth floor, and the lights of nighttime Madrid stretched out to the horizon. Sean sighed happily. Madrid, or any city on earth, could be his place of retirement. In a few months he’d be a millionaire. He resolved that he wouldn’t let the money slip through his fingers like so many chumps had done down through the years. He’d get some expert financial advice. Maybe the three from this evening would be able to steer him toward a good firm. They were obviously successful in their fields.
"Should I tell Manny?" he mused. He decided that he wouldn’t, at least not right away. Best, perhaps, to wait and see what the strangers had to say next. But then he’d insist that Manny be included.
His thoughts drifted back over the past three days. The south of Spain was truly beautiful out on the coast. Maybe he should think about retiring there on the Costa Brava. Or why not a villa here in Madrid, and another one there? He’d be able to afford it.
Did a pair of Spanish eyes lie in his future? Would this turn out to be his island? With a sigh he rose and got a soft drink from the wet bar’s refrigerator. Ordinarily there would also have been wine and beer, and several bottles of liquor on the shelf behind the bar. But he knew that Manny had had all but the soft drinks removed.
"No strong drink for you tonight, Fiddler," he chuckled. And of course no feminine company. He personally thought that the age old fight world axiom … that a woman robs a fighter of his aggressiveness and weakens his legs … was the purest form of malarkey. But, Manny was calling the shots. There’d be time aplenty for partying after he gained the crown.
Sean’s bout in Madrid took a bizarre turn. His opponent was a big, swarthy Spaniard with hair like a poodle’s. It had been prearranged that he and Sean would go six rounds, and starting with the seventh it would be best man win.
For some reason the big Spaniard began to tie Sean up constantly from the opening bell. By the end of Round 4 Sean could hear the crowd booing. Partly because of that, and partly because he wanted to box, Sean decided more aggressively to break out of the incessant clinches without waiting for the referee to intervene.
At the start of Round 5 the other man tied Sean up with Sean’s left arm pinned between them. Sean swept his arm out, away from his body, thinking to push the other fighter away. But somehow the Spaniard ended up hanging onto Sean’s outstretched arm, completely out of contact with the mat. When Sean looked into his eyes they were wild with terror and disbelief.
Sean literally waved his massive arm up and down in an attempt to shake the other man loose. This man weighed 223 pounds, and Sean was shaking him up and down like he was a rag doll! The crowd audibly grew silent with wonder.
"Diablo!" the Spaniard yelled, and bit Sean’s massive forearm. Sean could scarcely believe it. He gave his arm a mighty swing toward the ring’s center, and the Spaniard lost his grip. He sailed through the air, completely upside down. The small of his back hit the top rope and he flipped over it. For a moment his feet caught on the ring apron outside of the ropes, but then he pitched forward and crashed into the photographers and spectators at ringside.
The referee ran to the ropes and stared at the tangle of bodies. Then he seemed to regain his composure and began to count. Technically it was a knockdown.
Down on the arena floor the big Spaniard’s handlers pulled him to his feet and pushed him toward the ring apron, screaming in Spanish.
"No mas, No mas!" he screamed back at them, pushing them off and staring bug-eyed up at Sean. He was counted out and Sean won the match by TKO.
Back in the dressing room everyone was howling with laughter as Rufus applied ointment to the bite marks on Sean’s forearm.
"You had that crazy Spaniard scared nine ways inside out!" Manny roared.
"Did you see the poor devil’s eyes?" Bruno laughed.
"Dat boy didn’t want nothin’ more to do wid duh Fiddler," Rufus yelled.
Sean laughed so hard that tears squeezed out of his eyes.
"I’m not gonna get AIDS, am I?" he asked Rufus. Rufus’ eyes lost some of their merriment and he bent over and looked closely at Sean’s forearm.
"Nah, I think you gonna be OK," he said. "He give you a good nip, but he not break the skin."
The next day one of Spain’s leading matadors dispatched a particularly aggressive bull. When he was awarded one of the dead bull’s ears, he held it up to the crowd and then bit it.
"Ole! Ole!" the crowd chanted hysterically, rocked with waves of laughter.
Sean and the rest of the team returned to England and, after a few days of rest, got back into the routine of training.
"One more to go, back on the old sod," Manny grinned at breakfast. "Will any of your old crowd be there do yuh think?"
"Aye," Sean answered. "I know for a fact that me Da’ and a few of his friends will be there."
"Maybe after the fight, you take a few days and visit back home before we leave for the states," Manny suggested.
"Good idea," Sean agreed, buttering one of Mrs. Gruber’s incomparable cheese biscuits.
Two weeks after the Madrid fight Sean made a point of returning to his room every evening by 6:30. But his phone never rang. After ten nights with no call from the three strangers, he wondered whether he should tell Manny about the strange visit in Madrid. Sheepishly he realized that he hadn’t even gotten the men’s names. And, Manny would probably be peeved and want to know why he hadn’t been filled in from the start.
"Best to say nothing," Sean thought to himself. Evidently they, or the organization they represented, had changed their minds. Sean wasn’t unduly upset. He was still going to earn a ton of money.
Back in New York, Vito Carbino had indeed rethought his strategy after listening to his three lawyers.
"We don’t think he’s going to make any change unless his manager, Liebowitz, is included in the deal," they told Vito.
But by then Vito had heard about the hot car that Skopelli had given to Manny. His instincts told him that Manny wouldn’t consider jumping ship, particularly since it would mean a move to Chicago. And in any case no capo in Chicago would trust Liebowitz.
"OK," Vito said. "No further action on this. I’ll figure out something else."
Vito slept on it for a couple of nights. The existing plan … to have Crabbe win the crown and then to lose it back to Rocky … would be a big money maker, no doubt about that. But could he trust Skopelli to keep his end of the bargain? And did he want him getting his hands on that kind of money? He rightly sensed how his theft of Rocky had stung Tony. After they had the championship, what was to prevent Fiddler from punching Rocky’s lights out in the rematch, and go on from there to rake in hundreds of millions?
Vito knew that the public’s image of the mafia, as a monolithic and disciplined army, was a myth. At best the mob was a network of warlords, with money largely determining its hierarchy. The more money a boss or capo had, the more soldiers he could afford to retain on his payroll. He knew how quickly Skopelli’s allegiance could evaporate if he got his hands on some really big money.
On the Friday following the weekend in Madrid, Vito summoned Rocky to his office.
"How you doin’, Champ?" he greeted. "You gettin’ everything you need?"
"Oh yeah!" Rocky grinned. "Life’s never been better!"
Vito told Rocky about the tentative arrangement with Fiddler Crabbe’s people. He noted Rocky’s dismay at the prospect of lying down for another fighter, even though he’d recapture the crown a few months later.
"You don’t like that, do you?" Vito asked.
"Well … " Rocky shrugged morosely. By now he had no illusions about how the fight racket worked. "Frankly, no. But if that’s how it’s gotta be."
"But it isn’t," Vito said quietly.
"Uh uh. I don’t trust them to play it straight on the rematch."
Rocky shook his head up and down vigorously, obviously relieved.
"So how do we really play it?" he asked.
"You think you can take him?" Vito answered.
"His head ain’t no different from anybody else’s," he said. "If I get in a clean shot … scramble him … I can definitely take him out for the count."
"I don’t care if you take him out for good," Vito said. "I want his boxin’ career to end permanent in that first match."
Rocky nodded soberly. He had often thought that he could disable another fighter, if not actually kill him, under the right circumstances.
"They expect it to go ten rounds, and then for you to lie down in the eleventh," Vito continued. "Crabbe won’t be expectin’ anything before then. I think you should ice him in the ninth."
"It’s done!" Rocky nodded. "If he’s not expectin’ anything, I’ll nail him, no sweat. The power in his left ain’t even gonna be a factor. If I don’t kill him, he’ll be sellin’ pencils for the rest of his life."
In the time remaining before the bout in Dublin, Sean mailed four tickets and dressing room passes to his father. He also reserved two double rooms, for Lester and his friends, in the same Dublin hotel that Manny had booked him and the other team members into.
One week before the fight, Manny told Rufus and Bruno that he’d like a private word with Sean. Rufus and Bruno beat a hasty retreat from the breakfast table, and Manny freshened Sean’s cup of coffee.
"Whadda you know about this guy Smythe?" Manny asked.
Sean arched his eyebrows.
"Well, I know he’s English and he’s tough. And I know he’s a contender."
"More than that. Did you know that the winner in Dublin gets the next title shot at Rocky?"
"No … no, I didn’t know that," Sean answered.
"Well, I just found it out myself," Manny continued. "So you see what the stakes are. And we got no deal with his camp … nothin’! It’s gonna be best man win from the openin’ bell."
"Aye, a crack at the crown does up the ante, doesn’t it?"
"Big time!" Manny muttered. "And lemme tell you somethin’. They don’t call this guy ‘The Compactor’ for nothin’!"
"What’s his record?" Sean asked.
"Thirty two main events. Twenty-seven knockouts. No losses."
Sean was silent. He didn’t look scared. But Manny was relieved to note that he didn’t look cocky either.
"We’re takin’ the wraps off o’ your left," he said in a low voice. "Assumin’ we win Dublin, the fight with Rocky is already a done deal, so we don’t need to hide anything from here on in."
Sean’s face relaxed visibly.
"So I can unload on him if I have to," he mused.
"You will have to. Count on it!" Manny snapped. "I want you to take him out in the first round, understand?"
"Aye," Sean nodded. "The first round it is."
The team traveled to Dublin two mornings before the fight. On arriving at the hotel, Sean found that his father’s group had already checked in and were all waiting for him down in the hotel pub. Sean unpacked and went down to join them.
Lester and the three other men greeted Sean raucously. They had already been quaffing stouts for about two hours and were in high spirits. Everyone nodded understandingly when Sean declined Lester’s offer to buy him a pint, and ordered iced tea instead.
"No Irish sorrow until after the fight, right?" one of them teased.
"Aye," Sean smiled. "But I promise we’ll lift some jars back home after the bout."
"You’re comin’ home then?" another asked.
"Didn’t I tell yuh?" Lester interjected. "Seanie’s gonna spend some time with us before leavin’ for America!"
"Jolly good," the other men chorused, promising to do some proper partying back home.
By 6 PM everyone was hungry. Sean ordered the biggest steak on the pub’s menu, medium rare. When he offered to pick up the tab after the meal the others would have none of it. To a man they insisted on buying him dinner.
All of them were twenty or more years older than Sean, and by 8 PM it was clear they were running out of steam. Everyone looked relieved when Sean rose and announced that he had to get a good night’s rest.
Sean didn’t see them again until he was in his assigned dressing room at the big Dublin arena. When Lester and the others came in, Sean introduced them to the other team members, and then they lined up against the wall, out of the team's way. It was a new experience for them, and they remained quite subdued and even reverent as Rufus wrapped Sean’s hands and laced on his gloves. When Bruno held up his hands and Sean banged away at them with a few shots, they puffed their cheeks out and looked at one another in awe. At fight time Manny turned to the four and suggested they return to the dressing room after the bout.
"Oh yes," they chorused, hurrying toward the door. At the last moment Lester turned back toward Sean.
"Good luck, son," he said, giving Sean a hug. Sean was shocked at how small his father seemed to have become. And Lester, in turn, stepped back and looked with shining eyes at Sean’s torso.
"They’ve made quite a man outa yuh, haven’t they?" he marveled.
"Aye, they’ve worked me hard enough, they have," Sean smiled, glancing at Bruno.
"You’ll do well … I know you will," Lester said with a worried look, and hurried out the door behind the others.
"OK," Manny said, rubbing his hands together, "here we go. You remember our little discussion?"
"Aye," Sean answered as Rufus helped him into his robe.
"No need to hold back, that’s the main thing," Manny repeated. "You do whatever it takes. This is a must win!"
"But not kill him," Sean grinned.
"Well …" Manny shrugged, "whatever! Just win! Don’t mess with this guy. He’s a mauler!"
The arena erupted into pandemonium when they entered it. It was an all-Irish crowd, and Sean was the clear favorite. He scanned the sea of faces once he’d entered the ring. At length he saw four hands waving at him frantically from a dozen rows back, and he could even hear one of his father’s friends yelling.
"Do him proper, Fiddler!"
The bell for Round 1 sounded and Sean met ‘The Compactor’ in midring. Smythe was being very cautious, and somehow Sean couldn’t bring himself to unleash the power of his left and end things as Manny had instructed. They boxed one another, and Sean began to enjoy himself. The Irish crowd was the noisiest he had ever heard, and to a man it seemed that they were rooting for him.
Two and a half minutes into Round 1 he heard Manny screaming at him from ringside.
"What’d I tell yuh? What’d I tell yuh?"
Reluctantly Sean decided that he’d have to end things as he and Manny had agreed, and he launched a roundhouse left at Smythe’s head. As it turned out, Smythe was backpedaling at that moment, and the shot roared by a fraction of an inch from his chin. He looked startled, and before Sean could pull his left fist back, Smythe caught him with a vicious left hook to the cheek. It knocked Sean flat. At the referee’s count of four, he heard the bell ring.
"Get up! Get up!" he heard Manny screaming, as if from a far distance. Then it hit him: the bell wouldn’t save him! With all the will he could muster, he pulled himself to his feet on the count of eight. He looked around in a daze for his corner. Finally he saw Rufus, waving a towel up and down to attract his attention.
He made his way to the corner on spaghetti legs and collapsed onto the stool. Rufus pressed the white towel against his cheek below his right eye. When he pulled it away it was soaked crimson.
"I’m cut?" Sean slurred thickly, looking with bleary eyes at Rufus.
"Yeah, he caught you good," Rufus mumbled, going to work on the torn flesh.
Manny rushed into the ring and knelt at Sean’s side.
"Stupid! I was stupid, wasn’t I?" Sean cried, tears squirting from his eyes.
"No you weren’t," Manny scolded. "You went for him like we planned."
"But too late! Stupid!"
"It’s never too late," Manny shouted into his ear. Bruno waved smelling salts under Sean’s nose and the acrid fumes began to clear his head.
"Can you go on?" Manny asked anxiously.
"Aye," Sean answered, his vision clearing and his voice settling down.
"Finish this thing, then! Finish it now!" Manny urged.
Rufus had stemmed the flow of blood and the ring doctor approached, motioning for Sean to stand up.
"How are you feelin’, lad?" the doctor asked.
"Good!" Sean exclaimed. The doctor studied Sean’s eyes carefully, and pulled on his wrists.
"Want to continue?"
"Yes! Yes I do!" Sean answered.
The doctor pursed his lips and shook his head up and down. The warning whistle sounded and Rufus scooped up the stool, stepping through the ropes.
"Make us proud, Irish," he grinned.
"Now or never!" Manny shouted into his ear. And then the bell for Round 2 rang.
Smythe charged out of his corner with homicide in his eyes. He had both gloves to the sides of his head, and immediately unloaded a vicious right at Sean’s head. Sean easily picked it off with his left, and then clinched. He felt Smythe struggle to break free. But propelling himself forward with his massive left leg, he managed to stay tied up with Smythe long enough to raise his left and land a devastating blow to the back of Smythe’s ribcage. Sean put everything into the blow, and he could feel something give when it landed. Although he couldn’t know it at the time, his sledgehammer fist broke three of Smythe’s ribs.
With a terrible animal sound, Smythe lurched forward. Sean backed away with upraised hands as Smythe sank to one knee.
"Neutral corner! Neutral corner!" Manny yelled from ringside.
Sean retreated and the ref began counting. At the count of four, Smythe’s face blanched white and he coughed. Pink, frothy blood bubbled from his lips. From the corner his handlers threw in a towel. The bout was over!
The Irish crowd went ballistic and flashbulbs were going off everywhere. It was one of the few times a heavyweight bout had been ended with a body shot.
Sean fought his way through the mass of bodies that flooded into the ring.
"Are yuh OK?" he asked Smythe, who sat gasping in his corner.
Smythe looked up and forced a wan smile.
"It looks like you cracked a few o’ me ribs, Fiddler," he wheezed.
Sean’s eyes went limp with remorse. He couldn’t answer. Smythe seemed to understand.
"A tough game we’re in, eh what?" he grinned.
"Aye," Sean answered softly.
"Good luck in New York," Smythe added "Give Rocky more o’ the same."
"Thanks," Sean said hoarsely, and then he was pulled away by a jubilant Manny.
The microphone descended from on high, and once again Sean heard the magical words.
"Ladeez and gentlemen-n-n. The winner and top contender for the heavyweight champeenship of the world: Fiddler Cra-a-a-be."
Out in the crowd, ruddy-faced Irishmen were pounding each other on the back. Sean couldn’t find his father in the seething mass of humanity. Nine rows back a fight broke out. Bare knuckles were flying and beefy men were going down. Women were screaming and squirming out of the way.
"Erin go bragh!" Manny yelled in Sean’s ear. His eyes were as bright as a fox’s and filled with exultation. Behind Sean, Rufus struggled to get him into his robe.
"So, we’re learnin’ a bit o’ the Gaelic, are we," Sean teased back.
"Aye, me boyo, that we are," Manny trumpeted, hoisting Sean’s right arm aloft and signaling ‘Number 1’ to the TV cameras.
Sean and his entourage were nearly mobbed on the way out of the arena. Although Manny and the other team members were jubilant, it was only with an effort that Sean managed to smile at the throngs of well-wishers. He could not shake the specter of Smythe coughing up pink froth.
Lester and his friends bulldozed their way through the mass of humanity and followed Sean and the others into the restricted dressing room area. When they arrived at the dressing room door, Manny waved Sean, Bruno and Rufus inside, but motioned for Lester and the others to wait in the hallway.
"How is he?" Lester whispered hoarsely.
Manny quietly pulled the dressing room door shut.
"I think he’s fine," he said to Lester. "The fight doctor should be along any minute. My hunch is that they’re gonna want to take Sean to the arena infirmary and put in a few stitches."
Manny sensed that Lester seemed anxious and unsure of what to do next.
"Why don’t you wait here until the doc’s had a look at him," he suggested gently. "Then you can see him."
Lester and the others nodded vigorously, eager to do the right thing.
"Ah! Here he comes now," Manny exclaimed, giving the fight doctor a little wave and opening the dressing room door for him. The doctor smiled at Lester and the others as he entered the dressing room with Manny.
"Friends o’ yours?" he asked Sean, nodding at the door.
"Aye," Sean replied. "It’s me Da’ and some o’ his cronies."
The doctor gave a little laugh.
"Well, let’s have a look at that cut," he exclaimed, bending over and staring intently at Sean’s cheek.
The doctor put on a pair of disposable gloves and gingerly pressed the swollen flesh around Sean’s gash. Sean couldn’t help but wince.
"Good job," the doctor grunted to Rufus. Sean smiled at Rufus, and Rufus broke out into a toothy grin.
"OK," the doctor said. "We need to clean this up a bit and pull it closed while the wound is fresh. Shall we do it right here?"
Sean nodded and the doc looked at Manny and the others.
"D’ you know where the arena infirmary is?"
"Sure do," Manny affirmed. "I checked it out before the fight."
"OK, I’ll be waiting for you there," the doctor said. "Feeling all right?" he asked Sean.
"Aye, I’m feelin’ fine," Sean smiled. "How’s Smythe?"
The doctor shook his head up and down, pleased by Sean’s concern.
"He’s going to be fine," he said gently. "He’s on the way to the best care possible, even as we speak."
"Cracked ribs?" Sean asked timidly.
"Aye," the doctor answered. "But he’s in no danger. There’s no need to worry about him. Let’s concentrate on getting you fixed up."
Sean nodded lamely, and the doc left. Manny poked his head out the door and suggested to the men in the hallway that Lester step inside.
"Oh, absolutely!" the other men chorused, stepping back while Lester followed Manny back into the dressing room.
Once inside, Manny retreated to a corner and made a call on his cell phone. Bruno and Rufus were similarly occupied, and Lester seized the opportunity to talk privately with Sean.
"How are you, son?" he asked softly, squeezing Sean’s forearm. Sean looked at Lester and tears welled up in his eyes.
"What is it?" Lester whispered, leaning close to Sean. "Are you in pain, boy?"
"No, it’s no that," Sean whispered back. "I just can’t get past the sight o’ Smythe coughin’ up his own blood."
Lester nodded soberly, guessing at what Sean must have witnessed in the ring.
"I could o’ killed him, Da’," Sean whispered in distress.
Lester searched his mind frantically for the right words.
"I’m beginnin’ to see what a terrible business this is," he murmured carefully. "Frankly I’m thinkin’ you should quit it right now, and come home with me. You could continue your education."
Sean looked at Lester gratefully. Trust his Da’ to place his welfare above all else.
"It’s basically over," he muttered softly.
"You mean you’ll not be goin’ to America?" Lester asked brightly.
"No, no, I’ll be goin’ there all right. But…" Sean glanced at Manny and the others.
"We’ll talk about it in a few days," he whispered, clearly not wanting anyone else to overhear. Lester nodded understandingly.
"Will we be seein’ you again while we’re here in Dublin?" Lester asked.
Sean thought about that for a moment.
"No, I think it’d be best if you all went back home," he answered. "I’m bone weary and will be sleepin’ in tomorrow. I’ll rest better if I know you’re not waitin’ on me."
Lester looked at Sean with sad eyes. He stole furtive glances at the gash in his son’s cheek. The whole side of Sean’s face was puffy and swollen. He was thankful that Emma wasn’t here to see her boy in this kind of shape. Sean seemed to guess what was on Lester’s mind.
"I’ll be fine, Da’," he reassured his father. "Tell Ma I’ll see her in a couple o’ days."
"Aye, I’ll do that, son. You get some rest."
On an impulse Lester hugged Sean.
"Love you, boy," he whispered.
"Love you too," Sean whispered back.
Lester walked stiffly out of the room and rejoined his friends. Sean could hear them asking about him as his father walked out the door.
"OK!" Manny exclaimed, once Lester had left the room. "Let’s get you over to the infirmary!"
"You need us?" Bruno asked.
"No," Manny replied. "Let’s pack it all up. Bring his clothes over to the infirmary when you’re through. I think we’ve done all the damage we can do here for one night."
It took nine stitches to pull the wound on Sean’s cheek closed.
"This will knit nicely," the doctor said after finishing up. He was clearly pleased with his work. "I expect nothing more than a hairline scar."
Sean nodded gratefully.
"The stitches should come out in six or seven days," the doctor continued. "If you’re here in Dublin, I can do it at my office. Or, if you’re out of town, another doctor can do it."
The doctor handed Sean his card and applied a bandage.
"That’s it. We’re done here," he smiled. "Still feeling OK?"
"Aye, I’m feelin’ fine!" Sean smiled. "I’m just a wee bit tired."
The doctor nodded knowingly.
"To be expected," he said softly. "It’s been a rough night for you, both physically and emotionally."
He looked into Sean’s eyes and pulled on his wrists.
"Listen," he added, "I don’t want you to worry about Smythe, understand? He’s going to be all right."
Sean frowned but didn’t answer. His eyes were full of contrition. The doctor placed his fingers under Sean’s chin and raised his face, forcing him to make eye contact.
"Not to worry!" he repeated. "He’s going to be fine. It wasn’t your fault. This is a hard game you men chose to play. No worrying! Deal?"
"Deal," Sean smiled weakly. The doctor gave Sean’s shoulder a little squeeze and turned to Manny.
"Good night’s sleep," he ordered. "Big breakfast when he awakes."
Manny, who had been through all this before, nodded agreeably.
"Thanks for everything, Doc," he smiled.
"OK!" he said to Sean, once they’d exited the infirmary. "Let’s get you to bed!"
The ride back to the hotel was a quiet one. Everyone sensed that Sean wasn’t in a talkative mood. Back at his suite, Sean left his clothes in a heap on the floor and sank gratefully into the large and comfortable bed.
"Thank You, God," he murmured after turning out the bedside lamp. He wasn’t quite sure what he was thanking His Maker for. The novocain that the doctor had administered was beginning to wear off, and the right side of his face was starting to throb. With a sigh he rolled over and laid the left side of his face on one of the bed’s downy pillows.
"Two more bouts," he thought. "And both of them rigged. It’ll be a walk in the park."
But Sean felt both guilt and relief about the bouts’ pre-arranged outcomes. Part of him despised the dishonesty of it all. Yet another part of him was grateful that he’d not, in fact, actually have to do battle with the current champ. It wasn’t that he feared for himself. What he dreaded was getting into another situation where he might instinctively do more damage than he’d done to Smythe.
"Only two more to go," he repeated to himself. For he’d decided weeks ago that he’d retire after ‘losing’ the crown back to Rocky. Manny wasn’t going to like it. But he and his partners would really have nothing to beef about. They stood to make millions on the two fights.
"No mas," Sean thought, remembering the bout in Madrid. He drifted off wondering what he was going to do with his share of the gates. He decided not to mention his retirement to Manny until he’d been paid for the second bout.
Sometime during the night Sean had a terrible nightmare. He dreamed that his punch to Smythe’s back had literally driven several broken ribs through Smythe’s heart and completely out through his chest. Smythe fell to the canvas, blood gushing in spurts from his rended chest.
"It looks like you’ve killed me, Fiddler," the fallen gladiator gasped.
"Uh-h-h!" Sean screamed in a guttural cry, sitting bolt upright in bed. For a moment he didn’t know where he was. He sat in the darkness, heart thudding in his chest. His body was soaked in sweat. Then he remembered that he was in a Dublin hotel, and became aware of his throbbing face.
He gingerly felt his swollen cheek. It was hot and puffy. He pressed gently through the bandage, on the wound, but thankfully there was no pain there. With a sigh he turned on the bedside lamp and made his way into the bathroom. Sean opened the small container of painkillers that the doc had given him and took one with a glass of water. His watch indicated that it was 2 AM. Guessing that he wouldn’t sleep anymore, he shuffled back to bed and turned out the light.
"Thank you, God," he whispered again into the darkness. This time he understood why he was thankful. He was grateful that he hadn’t actually taken another human’s life.
"It was only a dream," he repeated to himself over and over. His worries that he’d not sleep again proved to be without basis. Within twenty minutes the pill he’d taken not only dimmed the throbbing in his cheek, but caused waves of relaxation to sweep over his body. He slept soundly until 10 AM, and this time it was happily a sleep free of unsettling dreams.
When he awoke he dialed Manny’s extension.
"Well! That was a good sleep!" Manny boomed over the phone line. "How are you feelin’ this mornin’?"
"Not bad," Sean answered groggily. "What’s the plan?"
"Big breakfast for everybody, my treat," Manny replied. "Then I’m sendin’ you home and we’re flyin’ back to London."
"I need to get cleaned up. See you in the restaurant in half an hour?"
"We’ll be there," Manny promised.
Bruno and Rufus were both unabashedly happy to see Sean when he entered the hotel’s dining room. They all made small talk through breakfast. Oddly enough, no one seemed interested in discussing the previous evening’s fight.
"Any word on Smythe?" Sean asked at length.
"He’s fine," Manny answered. "I read about him in this mornin’s paper. Three cracked ribs, but they expect a full recovery. That was some kind o’ punch you gave him!"
Sean shook his head and looked down at the table.
"All I can see is him coughin’ up pink bubbles," he murmured.
"No sweat," Manny answered. "I read that the broken ribs lacerated his lung a little. There was some minor, localized bleedin’ in there, but no big deal."
"You the man, Irish," Rufus murmured, pressing Sean’s forearm. Sean looked at his friend gratefully.
"I’m just happy that it wasn’t more serious," he said.
"Oh yeah," Rufus agreed with round eyes. "If you tagged him dat hard in de head, you’d killed him for sure."
"Now, now," Manny chided, "let’s not blow things out o’ proportion."
Rufus ducked his head submissively.
"He’s right," Sean said. "Thank God I only broke his ribs."
"Well, no worries with the two bouts in America," Manny continued. "The only thing there is for you and Rocky to put on a convincin’ show."
Sean nodded, privately noting for the first time that Bruno and Rufus knew about the arranged bouts. It made sense that they would know … particularly Bruno. Yet it embarrassed Sean a little bit that they did. He gave Rufus a mortified glance, but Rufus avoided eye contact, only pursing his lips and nodding his head up and down almost imperceptibly.
After breakfast, Manny jotted his cellular phone number down on the back of one of his business cards.
"Call me as soon as you know what flight you’ll be arrivin’ in New York on," he told Sean. "I’ll meet you at the airport."
"I’ll do that," Sean promised. "Are you stayin’ around for a bit, or…"
"No, we’re headin’ back to the farm this afternoon," Manny answered. "But I’ve booked you here at the hotel through tomorrow. Get some more rest, and give my best to your folks, OK?"
"Aye, I certainly will," Sean promised.
"How long you figure before comin’ over to the states?" Manny asked tentatively.
"Oh, I expect I’ll be spendin’ no more than a week with the folks."
"Great!" Manny grinned, holding out his hand. "We’ll be seein’ you after that."
Sean shook Manny’s hand and turned to Bruno and Rufus.
"Be seein’ you, Bruno," he smiled, shaking Bruno’s hand.
"Enjoy your vacation, champ," Bruno smiled back.
Sean held his hand out, palm up, to Rufus. Rufus grinned and slapped it.
"Stay out o’ trouble," Sean grinned.
"You too, Irish," Rufus grinned back at him. "Don’t forget dem stitches."
Sean went back to his room and stared at his face in the mirror. The swelling had already lessened considerably. The angry redness was turning purplish. He carefully lifted the bandage and studied the stitches in his cheek. He marveled at how a rip in the human body could be sewn up quite like a torn jacket.
Sean carefully pressed the bandage back into place and stretched out on the bed. Surprisingly, despite having slept nearly around the clock, he dozed off again. He awoke at 2 PM, hungry as a bear, and went back down to the dining room. The place was all but deserted. He ordered a big hamburger and a milkshake. The cold, rich drink felt unbelievably delightful sliding down his throat.
That afternoon he took in a late matinee and then had a light supper in one of Dublin’s better pubs. The other patrons recognized him and greeted him, but for the most part respected his privacy.
After finishing dinner, he joined the crowd at the pub’s bar. In no time at all a pretty woman approached and wiggled in between him and another drinker. She struck up a conversation and Sean bought her a couple of drinks. It was clear what her evening’s agenda was. But even as he enjoyed her company, Sean knew that they’d be parting there in the bar.
After a while he kissed her lightly on the cheek, and whispered into her ear.
"I’m goin’ to get a night’s rest. It takes a while for us pugs to come back from a fight."
She nodded that she understood.
"Are you sure?" she smiled. "I can help you relax."
"I know. Here!" he said, taking a fifty pound note from his wallet and laying it before her on the bar. "I’d like you to buy yourself somethin’ pretty."
The woman looked at the note with disappointment tugging at her eyes. But, she accepted Sean’s decision gratefully enough.
"Good luck in America, Fiddler," she murmured, pulling Sean’s head down and bussing him on the cheek. With a smile, she put the note in her purse and walked away toward the powder room.
Sean watched her shapely form withdraw, and wondered if he’d made the right call. It had been quite a while since Vicki and he…