by Norbert Kovacs
Mortimer Johnson realized the fight was going to be one big joke, except that he had to take part in it. Ruth Ann, his manager, told him all about it in her back office, well after she had arranged and took for granted the fight would occur. The match was to pit Mort against the large and over-bulky Joe McCurdley, a prize fighter in the Underground League. Joe McCurdley stood 6 feet 3 inches tall next to Mort’s five-two. McCurdley weighed 150 pounds more than Mortimer to boot. The two were to battle through 12 rounds in “ultimate fight” style. A complete farce, Mort told himself.
“Why have me do it, Ruth Ann?” he asked, darkening his brow at her across the desk in her office.
“Because the crowd will love watching the two of you fight,” Ruth Ann said in a serious tone, not flinching as she met his eye. “Think about the opportunity I’m giving you. As the underdog, you’d wow everyone if you could knock out that guy. Just think of it!” Ruth Ann broke into a wide smile for Mortimer. Her expression lifted rather than rounded the hard, gray skin of her cheeks. Ruth Ann’s forehead and cheeks were sealed in one hard, gray skin like on a rhinoceros. She gazed at him from dark, stony eyes, a black beret atop the dark curls of her head. Ruth Ann turned toward the photos up on the wall, contemplating them as if Mort’s possibilities lay there. However, a certain quiver in her lips told Mort she had faced away to keep from laughing.
“The crowd will cheer you on! They’ll love it!” she said.
“Uh-huh,” Mort replied flatly. He knew she was leading him only in form. Indeed, he knew too well what she really felt from the poster she had printed for the match and had shown him when he came in. A drawing in the poster’s top half showed what was meant to be the future fight. Mort, drawn on the left in the picture, was in profile with something like the dark locks that actually crowned his head. His profile face in the drawing, though, was scrunched up, without expression. His eye was a dot; his nose and mouth reduced to black lines. The Mort figure was muscled and had his arms raised in a fighting pose. Mort on paper appeared only half the size of McCurdley on the right. Huge, overly muscular, red, McCurdley of the drawing glared fiercely at the combatant bobbing before his abdomen. McCurdley on paper had great power and wanted the Mort figure to recognize it. The McCurdley figure was ready to smash in the Mort figure’s face.
Below this picture appeared these words:
Tiny Man Thinks He Can Beat This Giant
Yes. Beat Up.
Can He Possibly Last?
UNDERGROUND FIGHTING LEAGUE PRESENTS
“Shorty” Mort Johnson vs. Joe McCurdley
Knockouts, Butchery, Mayhem Guaranteed
FEBRUARY 15 ● 9 PM
Come to Sloan’s Tavern, ___th East Street
(3rd door down on the right in alleyway beside Aziz Convenience)
The poster all but told Mort he was being made a laughingstock in the fight. Mort was not consoled much when he considered how handily the usual spectators would take to the event. These men (and they were all men, no women) enjoyed shady, distasteful entertainments, as the Underground League’s overly violent (and illegal) ultimate fights could be called. They came for brutal, crude action. They sought whatever was coarse. Mort knew the men would be hollering when a small guy like him tried, as if naively, to knock out a man like McCurdley, whom they all would suppose would win. The absurdity of the event knawed at Mort.
“What if I don’t want to go through with the bout?” he asked Ruth Ann.
The brightness fell from Ruth Ann’s face. She surveyed the stacks of papers on her desk and the green mat that covered its top. She always appears so heavy with her head bowed and when she was wearing her green sweater, Mort thought. She was not obese however.
“Well,” she said, “you are certainly free not to if you like. Just go, leave: you’ll never have to fight again. I’m sure you can manage another job. You know, I heard they might want a night janitor down at Macy’s. What’s to keep you from applying?”
“Alright, never mind I said anything, okay? I’ll do the fight.” Both Mort and Ruth Ann understood the reason he said it. He in fact had no smart option except to consent. But he hated realizing it and promised himself this would be the last time he passively heeded Ruth Ann.
Mortimer Johnson had not always been a fighter. Three years ago, he had lost his job at the shipyards in New York and went searching for work. He sought months without any success (the economy had crashed in the late Bush years) and much discouraged, tired, and defeated, he went one day to a pub to drink himself into a happy, diverting oblivion. He slumped down at a table alone and ordered a scotch with whiskey. He was drinking his second glass when he saw a fluorescent puce flyer tacked up on a corkboard nearby. From his seat, he read its oversized headline: ARE YOU STRONG? LIKE TO FIGHT? Mort, who knew he was strong and could fight when he needed, went and read the flyer. He discovered it was an ad recruiting young men “to fight in a private competitive league.” He took a stub from the flyer bottom that listed a date and locale for coming tryouts and stowed it in his breast pocket. He left the bar warm, happy and cognizant.
The fighter screenings happened on the East Side in a low, slate building whose basement formed a great pit outfitted as a gym. The pit’s center held a boxing ring just elevated off the floor. An unshaven man with a grey fedora was screening the candidates. He asked Mort to jump rope for him as an endurance test. Mort passed this handily. The unshaven man asked Mort next to pound at a punching bag. Mort did this for less than a minute and felt he was just warming up, when the unshaven man said Mort “had done fine” and to stop. The screening man next brought Mort to the ring in the gym where he fitted him with gloves and asked he fight with the fellow in the opposite corner. Mort’s opponent was a strong but not well-muscled man close to middle age, that is, considerably older than him. Mort only hit his opponent three or four times before chasing him into the corner. The unshaven man outside the ring cried out, “There you can stop. You did excellently. You’re hired.” Mort could not believe his luck. The whole thing happened so easily, he thought.
The unshaven man led Mort to a back office at the gym to meet his new manager, Ruth Ann Bixby. Ruth Ann struck Mort right off as the ugliest woman he had ever seen. She was certainly the only female professional in a fighting or boxing outfit he had ever met. On shaking hands with Mort, Ruth Ann said:
“Glad to have you aboard. Are you ready to fight?”
“I believe it,” he said, stifling his repulsion to her.
Over the next week, Mort was introduced to underground fighting. He discovered very early that it differed a lot from regular boxing. It had different equipment, for one. He would not wear boxing gloves; instead, he would fight with his bare fists, these bandaged only in some cloth to keep the hand tight. He would not wear the cushioned half helmets traditional boxers do for protection. He was not allowed a mouthpiece. Moreover, he would fight by a very unique set of rules. He could hit to the throat and neck. Referees would not interfere with the fight unless a fighter appeared close to collapse. He was allowed to hit an opponent when the fellow was cornered. Mort was amazed to think he must do combat by these rules and in these conditions. He wondered at the brutality that might ensue. However, he had agreed to fight so accepted the terms as he was asked.
When he started to fight in the official sense, Mort did rather well. Just in his first month, he won one of every three matches. But he discovered ultimate fights were much more violent than he could stomach. He first felt this during his second match. He was fairly beating his man that night and thinking to end soon, when Ruth Ann cried to him suddenly to “pound harder.” He did, somewhat in surprise.
Then Ruth Ann bellowed, “No, harder!”
Mort did, more and more, until his man buckled. It seemed the man now must be done.
However to Mort’s amazement, he heard Ruth Ann cry, “Now, lift and pound him.”
Mort did not move. Why should he keep punching, he thought? He would be killing the fellow.
“What are you doing?” Ruth cried to him as the crowd roared. “Go on! Go on, or you’re through!”
Mort looked at her then. Ruth Ann’s black, cold eyes glared back at him. Mort waited no longer. He hit his man, then kept hitting. He did it and kept at it. First, the man went bloody and crumpled. Then, Mort cornered him.
“Pound him, pound him,” Ruth Ann cried.
Mort did it automatically. He saw his man turn into a pulp. Mort backed off, tired of pounding and the match ended.
“Do that at all your matches,” Ruth Ann told him as they left the ring area. “The league needs the spectacle.”
Mort heard her, amazed.
Within weeks, Mort got the opposite side of the coin. His opponent while his size and build was beating him up, down, left, right on a certain Wednesday evening. Mort was bruised and cut all over. As he took hit after hit, he thought he must stop. His hands slackened. He backed from his opponent. He was ready to give in.
Then Ruth Ann came to his side of the ring.
“Stand up and fight him!” she yelled at Mort.
Was she serious?, Mort thought with alarm. Couldn’t she see his state? She kept yelling however, so he forced himself to rise. He no sooner did this than his opponent knocked him in the head. Mort fell against the ropes. Slumped, bleeding, he heard Ruth Ann say on and on, without any apparent regard for him, “Stand up! Stand up! Stand up!…”
It took only three months before Mort had tired of Underground Fighting. He increasingly disliked the fights and he hated Ruth Ann. He told himself he must do better than stay with the League. He held out hope that with experience he could switch somehow to traditional boxing.
Mort learned then about the Underground League’s stigma. The law had forbidden his type of fighting years ago as being too violent, bloody, “and likely to bring serious, permanent injury to combatants.” As a result, the fights as the League’s name suggested went “underground”, held only at out-of-the-way places, the dark struggling taverns and pubs on Manhattan’s East Side. Fightgoers came now not just for violence, but for the excitement of a forbidden spectacle. These many circumstances started to sink the league’s reputation as Mort found. People said fightgoers were crude men who did not care the combatants were beaten up savagely, viciously. Pure butchery, they called it. Experts on the subject complained too that fighters seemed chosen deliberately for their awkwardness. On this point, Mort had to agree. He knew many fighters in the league smaller than himself, who, while strong and built, seemed too undersized to be fighting in any serious sense. For instance, four foot eight Will Sandton, a miniature knocked about like a doll in every ring he entered. Another class of Underground Fighters included very bulky fellows, too overbuilt to move agilely or hit adeptly. Huge Hugo was the most prominent. But worst of all were the disfigured combatants. Men with mangled arms. Men with horrific burns on their faces. Twisted, tortured legs. Mort did not trust at times they could fight or that the League would have them. But he had seen them at matches, lashing out grotesquely at fit and all too aggressive opponents.
Mort found the stigma around underground fighting followed him when he courted the world of traditional boxing. In the interview with the third regular boxing manager he met, Mort talked about his time in the Underground League, narrating it in the most exciting terms.
“They train me hard. Weight lifting. Lots of punching the bag. In the ring, I work. I pound at a guy. I go after him with all I have. I follow and pound him. You have to see this video of me going in a match last month.”
The manager heard him, asked an extra, insubstantial question or two, and said,
“You just aren’t our type, kid.”
Mort resisted. “Don’t you want to see me fight before making up your mind?”
“You just aren’t our type, kid,” the man repeated without flinching.
A few weeks later, Mort talked about his fighting background to another manager in hopes of getting a spot on the man’s circuit. When he had done, the manager straightened in his seat and smoothed the wrinkled front of his shirt.
“I’m interested in a guy with serious experience,” he said and pointed Mort to the door.
Mort realized he was stuck: no real boxing manager would touch an Underground fighter however much he promised in the ring. He figured no other quality employer would be eager about him either. At that, he decided to try to make the most of his current situation. He worked to get the respect of his spectators, however mean and low they were thought. He tried hard and did win a larger number of his fights. Men in the crowd applauded him more as he fought, it seemed. Now Ruth Ann sprung this fight with McCurdley on him. She had shown she cared nothing about his good name. He was a comedy to her. Well, Mort thought, he was not going to accept this lightly. He told himself he would show up Ruth Ann. He would train to beat Joe McCurdley.
Mort trained and exercised at the main gym the Underground League owned. Over the next few weeks, he made it a point to arrive at the gym early while his pep was up and jumped rope first thing. He jumped rope until he was coated in sweat. Just to warm up, he thought smiling to himself. Next he punched at the huge, leather bag in the corner until his arms tired. He scarcely could hold them up once he had beaten the bag out. The wear in his hands felt good to him. He stretched next and lifted weights, stopping only when exhausted. In the early afternoons, he booked the ring of the gym to practice fight. He fought a few rounds against a like-sized fighter from the league who was experienced as himself. Mort brought his trainer, Tom, to the practices to give advice. Mort kept at this regimen diligently.
As Mort kept showing at the gym, he found his fellow gym goers, usually men who backed the League with money or had other interests hidden from the police, paid him new attention as he pursued his beefed-up regimen. “How is it going at the good battle?” they asked, passing him at his bag. They all seemed impressed with his stamina and energy and came by to discuss his practice, even to ask tips at how to manage as well as he did. The kind reception ended however when a league manager told them about the coming fight. The gym goers dropped the respect. They avoided him. Then in the corners of the gym, they laughed, pointed, and smirked at him while he trained. Once or twice, they would call out to him:
“When are you putting on any weight so you can actually fight McCurdley?”
“How will McCurdley stand up to you if you’re so short, Mortimer?”
Mort found his own trainer, Tom, followed in the gym goers’ spirit. “You should not strain and pull as dramatically as you are,” he said when Mort hit his man during the afternoon practices. “It isn’t how you’ve fought.” Tom actually stopped Mort when he got pumping at a fellow. “Here Mort, take it easy,” he explained laughing one of these times. “Don’t make me feel ridiculous.”
“Why should you be?” Mort asked.
Tom took him aside then and said, “I don’t think practices will help you that much, Mort. McCurdley is that much bigger and stronger that he’ll probably win regardless of how you train. Why not take it easy from here on out? Just forget the rest of practice for the day.”
Mort brushed off these challenges from his trainer and the gym goers. He ignored the hecklers who called out to him as he punched at the great leather bag at the gym. Who the heck are they anyway?, he told himself. They aren’t hitting like me. He found was happy to make his efforts though the men continued to rail him. He realized in fact that despite everyone else’s ill predictions he was progressing. He was lifting more weight. His body grew stockier. “I’ve gone jacked!” he said out loud once, flexing before the locker room mirror. As for his trainer, Mort decided to practice without him and his discouragement. I know what I’m doing without him, thanks, he thought with finality. Mort practiced on against fighters about his size, even some larger. He did not attempt anyone McCurdley’s size though, however the experience might have benefited him. He was not as brave as to risk a pummeling before it was necessary.
The evening for the fight finally came. Sloan’s Tavern, the location, had outfitted its red brick interior for the event. The tables and chairs had been removed from the tavern floor, a corded boxing ring set up where the combatants would spar. An alleyway was marked around the ring where the League staff could move during the fight. The spectator bleachers right next the alleyway were stacked high along the tavern’s back wall and the fight goers filled them row on row. They formed a contingent of the regular crowd at the Underground League events. Amid the group were many crude, gruff men. Men who cussed nearly as much as they breathed. There were many cold eyes in their number, dark and dull; lips, stony or loose with indifference. As a group, the men were keen observers. Their hard eyes had watched Mort in his past Underground fights captured by his violent motion. They showed their enthusiasm at his spectacle and other fights in the League. Mort had heard them holler, yell, encourage, demand, snarl, and cheer. On the walls behind the men’s fedora-hatted heads, signs that said “Sloan’s” and “Underground Fighting” flashed a fierce blue and green.
While Mort knew the fight goers believed he would lose, he thought only of debunking their expectations. Wouldn’t it be something if I did, he told himself. There would be definite glory in it. He imagined tussling with McCurdley, punching him, and sending him reeling into a corner. If I could it. I can wish it easily, but if I could, how great it would be. Maybe some from the crowd would come and carry me off on their shoulders. His arms tightened and he waited on edge for the fight to start.
The fighters posted to their corners of the ring, Ruth Ann and McCurdley’s wire-thin manager, Sam Riley, stationed in the alleyway. The crowd waited on the referee to start proceedings. A pale white light fell on the ring in the darkened tavern. For the first time, Mort looked at Joe McCurdley who stood in the corner opposite him. Joe was as large as Mort had heard. The fellow stooped with his great head bowed at the neck, so that straight cuts of blah-blonde hair hung over his forehead. Fat slabs of muscle covered his chest and arms, more chunky than seemed possible on a body. He kept hard, tight fists by his side. His legs like his torso were overdeveloped; their bulk showed beneath his cartoonish, bright red fight shorts. Joe’s form ended in two severe, oblong, black shoes. Joe’s face was a contrast in itself. His frown and the dull color of his cheek said he was a brooder. He may have wondered why he did what did but had never discovered any good answer. But his eyes, with their bloodshot tinge, cast defiance at the world and he seemed ready to wield violence when his way was challenged. Mort realized he would have to seize every advantage fighting him.
No sooner had the referee called the men to the ring center and the starting bell rung than Mort launched in fury at McCurdley’s chest. He punched and pounded the thick pair of muscles. The crowd, who did not seem ready for this, let their initial cheers fall quiet a second or two. Joe held stock still. As he landed more of the punches, his face tight with enthusiasm, Mort heard the crowd beyond him break into laughter. Cracks of false applause and cheers erupted from the dark. Mort knew the ridicule was for him. He pushed away the thought of it however. He went on punching and the crowd laughed the harder. At last, Joe gave Mort a strong knock on the left side of the chest. Mort did not flinch. McCurdley punched again. This second hit sent Mort reeling and he landed butt first on the canvas. “Wahoo!” came a cry from the stands. The crowd hooted and cheered.
Shaken but unharmed by his fall, Mort got up from the canvas and flew again at McCurdley. He attacked McCurdley’s solar plexus, his fists pumping like engine pistons. Do it like a machine, he told himself sending his arm hard into the man. A hard machine. McCurdley brought his fists down several times into Mort’s head as it bobbed below him. Mort reeled, his head pounding, and had to step aside. When he re-approached, he punched at McCurdley and forced him back a few steps. Mort became excited at this advance and his fists sped up their work. McCurdley scowled and plowed his fist squarely into Mort’s chest which had pressed forward. Mort fell back and stretched on the floor. He got up, winded, and went for the ring side opposite. He surveyed Joe across from him. He discovered bruises on his opponent’s abdomen, large and black, and a gash over a left rib. Damage, he thought proudly. He returned to McCurdley and pounded once again.
The two men fought with renewed furor. A punch to the jaw left Mort bleeding out a corner of his mouth. Bruises colored his chest like dark blue medallions. His shoulder received a scarlet gash from a punch that had torn him. Mort strained to stand up under McCurdley’s new blows. He had to tell himself to fight. Deliver, he thought. Hit. He lunged and swung. He meant to hit well. However, his arms were tiring he could feel and his punches came with less force. His strength was slipping.
After a hard knock, Mort splayed against the ropes. McCurdley kept by mid-ring, standing ready for him to return. Just then, Mort heard Ruth Ann speak to an attendant just outside the ring where he had crashed into the ropes.
“Do you suppose the stupid will give up?”
The attendant, a large-bellied man, laughed loud and roundly.
“He’s being ground into hamburger,” she pressed, a smile in her tone, “and still he acts like he’ll beat that behemoth.”
These words fired Mort. He bound from the ropes for mid-ring. Ruth Ann was no manager to insult and dismiss him, he thought. He was not listening to her any longer. The fight was his affair and he would succeed or fail as far as he would manage. She would not decide it for him. He lunged at McCurdley and forced him from the ring center. His arms moved quickly and his fists met McCurdley’s vulnerable mid-section many times.
As Mort went on, the crowd became much louder. He heard in its cries a new, genuine excitement. There was seriousness in their voices, both for him and McCurdley. Mort picked up on this and pounded the harder for it. He felt he was making progress for the first time. As he hit, he spied a brilliant opportunity to plow into his opponent. McCurdley, tiring with Mort’s punches, had let his hands slip and left his front unguarded. Mort drew back his curled right arm quickly, drove it into McCurdley’s left side, and felt a rib crack under his fist. With a bellow, McCurdley doubled up, half crouching, and Mort hit his lowered chin. McCurdley stumbled back into the guard ropes. Many in the crowd fell quiet. But then a few roared louder. Mort heard his name called with enthusiasm for the first time that night.
When he lumbered forward again on the canvas, McCurdley’s mouth had screwed painfully and he spit out a wad of blood onto the canvas by his feet. McCurdley studied the red blotch stilly before he turned a pair of fierce eyes toward Mort. McCurdley, inflamed beyond what was right, gathered himself, scowling, and charged. With one tremendous thrust, he drove a level, square punch right into Mort’s forehead. Mort was sent backwards, hitting the canvas flat with a thud and did not rise. He lay prone, bleeding from the corner of the mouth, too weak to move. The referee came, did a ten count, and called the fight for McCurdley. The giant had won the bout.
Ruth Ann clamored onto the canvas and came beside Mort. She crouched beside her fighter and patted at his cheeks, pretending she meant to revive him. Despite his poor condition, Mort turned his head from Ruth Ann. He had tired of her shows of care. He knew her too well to be fooled again.
The crowd in the tavern made to leave. Several looked down into the ring from the bleachers as if to determine whether Mort, still stunned on the canvas, was okay in fact. As they left without receiving any sure answer, McCurdley’s manager Riley stalked up where Ruth Ann squatted beside Mort. He was livid.
“We’re through with our series, Ruth Ann!” he said into her face.
“What? Don’t you see Joe got Mort like we planned?”
“But Joe’s all busted up now. Your fighter wasn’t supposed to do it.”
“Oh, but Riley!”
“Forget it, Ruth Ann. I won’t have my fighters match with your guys anymore.” Riley stalked off. Ruth Ann as if beside herself went after him. “Riley, why don’t we talk this over,” she said. “Riley!”
Mort where he lay heard and warmed with a dim happiness. He thought proudly that he had gotten into the ring and fought McCurdley when everyone only said he would fail. He had pummeled the guy harder than he or anyone else reckoned he would. And now he knew he had undone Ruth Ann’s scheme to pit the other fighters like him in any more mismatched fights. The crowd even had cheered him as he had managed it.
Norbert Kovacs is a short story writer who lives in Hartford, Connecticut. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Squawk Back, Corvus Review, Ekphrastic, Down in the Dirt, and Scarlet Leaf Review.
(Paintings by Fyodor Bronnikov and George Bellows.)