by Jeremy Kaplan
In his dreams, Humberto overslept and was late. His alarm clock didn’t go off. The car wouldn’t start. Then he was stuck in traffic, movement obstructed in all directions by gargantuan cars, accidents everywhere, his abysmal timing hindering every attempt to change lanes. He was pulled over by the police. He tried to call someone for help, but the keypad evaded his fingers. He stood in front of the Mongoose Boxing Club, late and despairing. D’Andre had left without him. Somehow he made it to the venue in his moribund car, but Arthur was so galled about the tardiness that he ordered Humberto to do a hundred push-ups and a five-minute medicine ball plank, sapping him of energy so desperately needed for his debut fight.
Luckily, the fear which incited Humberto’s nightmares also incited him to bolt up at 4:00 a.m., an hour before he’d set his alarm, much as fear of losing had incited him to run at least five miles, every morning, six days a week, for two months, even when Diane urged him to stay with her in their warm bed.
Humberto unplugged his alarm clock and set his feet on the cold floor.
His girlfriend would not be attending his fight today, due either to her disinterest in, or fear of, the outcome. Fine. Her absence would make the experience that much more spartan, one more reminder that nobody else can protect you from reality. Whatever happened in the ring was on him.
He ate no breakfast, drank no water. He made his shower as hot as he could stand; there were several more pounds to shed. After showering, he donned sweatpants, sweatshirt, hoodie, and beanie. The evening before, he packed a cooler with his post-weigh-in meal, then placed it in his car’s passenger seat. Bedros and Arthur, his trainers, were bringing all of his equipment, except for the groin cup. “All of our fighters, every last one of ‘um, carry their own damn cups” Arthur had said, cringing as Humberto tried to hand him his protector. Humberto, less fastidious than his trainers, packed that in his cooler too.
Rather than focusing on all the things that could go wrong, Humberto stood in his kitchen and envisioned his fight plan, which worked well until he contemplated the forbidden food and drink in his refrigerator. He decided to leave early to meet D’Andre at Mongoose.
The car started and there was virtually no traffic between his apartment in Lincoln Heights and the gym in Atwater. Nor was there any music to listen to, as the speakers had been stolen from his car the previous week. He was, briefly, vulnerable to his thoughts. The flaccid part of his brain began to formulate excuses not to fight. Tell them you’re sick. Flu symptoms. Injured. Tore a labrum. What’s that, a shoulder? Car problems! Yes! Crash! Car’s worth more junked than alive. Or a family fucking emergency! Diane will happily fake an asthma attack.
No, Humberto answered himself. Not after all that training. And the Golden Gloves so near. He had to find out.
From there, he transitioned to magical thinking. Maybe the event will get canceled. Fire. Earthquake. COVID. Or maybe D’Andre’s car will break down on the freeway. Or my opponent won’t show. Can’t blame any of that shit on me.
By the time he pulled into the parking lot at Mongoose, Humberto was utterly disgusted with himself. D’Andre’s car was already there. D’Andre—a professional featherweight with a nine-and-one record—volunteered to wake up before sunrise and drive Humberto to San Bernardino for his debut fight. He’d sparred dozens of rounds with Humberto to prepare him for this day. And now you’re looking for excuses to quit? Turning off the engine, Humberto shook his head and growled: “No more equivocating, you fuckhead. You’re not quittin’ on your guys. You’re not quittin’ on yourself.”
D’Andre closed the windows and blasted the heat. Pausing in squinty contemplation, he glanced at his passenger, then pressed the button that locked his car’s doors. Humberto laughed at the blunt sound.
“What? You think I’m gonna jump out of a moving car, D?”
D’Andre nodded. “Forty-five minutes from now, when we driving through Rancho Cuco-fucking-monga, you sweating like a pig in the Sahara and we barely halfway there? Yeah. You be hallucinating Slurpee mirages on the side of the road.”
As they merged onto the 2 Freeway north, Humberto gazed at the sun rising over the San Gabriel Valley. D’Andre reached to turn on the radio, but hesitated. “What’d you do last night?”
“Worked, bro. Need that tip money. Ain’t gonna lie, though. It was torture watching all the customers eating pasta, drinking beer. I was thinking, if only there were some legal way for me to punch someone in the mouth without getting arrested. You know. Anyone.”
“I’ll let you know if anything comes to mind,” said D’Andre. “When’s the last time you drank water?”
“Last night at five,” blurted Humberto. “I was a buck-thirty-five before I went to bed.”
“Good. Bedros and Arthur want you at thirty-two today, but they think you can make twenty-five for the Golden Gloves.” Humberto nodded. D’Andre said. “Feeling strong?” It seemed less a question than a challenge.
“Never felt stronger. Best shape of my life. I thought I was fit when I ran cross country, or tested for my black belt. But bro. That was nothing.”
“Now you know.” D’Andre glanced briefly at Humberto. “Nervous?”
“Only when I think,” laughed Humberto. “But I’ll be okay. You know what really makes me nervous? Watching you or Enrique fight. Maybe anxious is a better word than nervous.” D’Andre squinted at Humberto, like he was talking too much. “Anyhow,” Humberto shrugged, “when I’m in the ring I got control, y’know, a say in the outcome.”
“That’s right,” D’Andre nodded. “You got hand speed. Good chin. Heart too.”
“Thanks, D. Your words mean a lot.”
They drove in silence for a while, Humberto buoyed by the manly chitchat. When that feeling began to wear off, somewhere east of Pasadena, he was left to joust with his anxious thoughts. He asked D’Andre to turn on some music. He put in an old Motown, one of those groups with choreographed dance moves, like The Temptations. All the time you spend in the ring with a guy, you think you know him inside out. But D’Andre liked oldies. Who knew?
Humberto expected Arthur to grill him about what he ate last night. Or the quality of his stool this morning. Or at least to say something vaguely wise and overtly intimidating. But his manager appeared uncommonly serene and sunny when they met in the parking lot outside the venue.
“There they are,” Arthur beamed. “The Champ and Future Champ. Where’s your groin cup, Hum?” Humberto nodded at the cooler he was carrying. Arthur frowned. “So where’s your damn food?” Humberto tapped his crotch, gingerly.
The brothers, Bedros and Arthur Arakelian, were co-owners of Mongoose Boxing Club, where Humberto had been training for a year. Bedros, the older brother, was head coach, ran most of the classes, and constructed strategy for his fighters. He was a burly ex-pug, intimidating in his reticent way. Arthur was the manager. There was nothing reticent about him. Though he lacked his older brother’s bulk and professional fighting pedigree, he had a reputation as a fierce street fighter. Arthur’s primary function was to schedule and promote matches for fighters who trained at Mongoose.
On a subliminal level, Humberto responded to Arthur’s blunt, vehement manner, which was reminiscent of Humberto’s father, his first instructor in martial arts. Humberto had been raised on unsparing critiques and commands, which contributed, he thought, to his past successes as a karate fighter. However, he resented his father’s inability to compliment him, and a reluctant resentment toward Arthur lurked beneath the surface as well.
Bedros was also similar to Humberto’s father, in that both men were skilled at imparting knowledge. Bedros, however, possessed superior boxing acumen and a far more generous manner. When Humberto boxed correctly, Bedros praised him. When he boxed incorrectly, Bedros cajoled him into correcting himself. “Your double-jab is beautiful,” he’d say, even when Humberto was throwing one jab at a time, “That’s what I need, Champ. That beautiful double-jab.” Though it felt dishonest, Humberto preferred Bedros’ style over his father’s do you even know what a double-fucking-jab is, yuh bonehead? With a lifetime of his father’s reproachful voice crowding his head, Humberto was mortified to discover that he responded positively to approbation. It almost seemed a sign of weakness.
As the trainers and boxers convened in the San Bernardino parking lot, Arthur set a large hand on Humberto’s shoulder. “Nervous, buddy?”
“No, coach,” he answered. “I’m good.”
“Well you better be fucking nervous!” Arthur barked. “Know why? Cause you’re about to engage in a fucking fist fight! You wanna know who’s not nervous before a fight? Conor McGregor, and fucking morons. Which is redundant. Nervous means you know what’s at stake! And you fucking care!”
“Then I’m nervous, coach.” Humberto grinned, happy to see the return of cantankerous Arthur.
“Yuh know what I used to do before my fights?” asked Bedros. “Tell him, D’Andre.”
“Puke,” said D’Andre. “Coach puked before his fights.”
“And not on purpose,” added Arthur. “This was after the damn weigh-in.”
“Everyone’s got their own process,” said Bedros. “You’ll find yours. All that nervous energy ain’t nothing but adrenaline. Take control of it and focus it on your opponent. You know what we’re here to do. We’re gonna kick ass today, champ. What’s our fight plan?”
“Fight to my strengths,” said Humberto. “Fast hands, straight punches. Keep my jab in his face. Double-jab if he’s tall or retreating. Finish with a straight right either down the pipe, or sit down and shoot it to the body. After every combo, my footwork creates a new angle.
“Intelligent aggression,” said Bedros. “Anything else, fellas?”
“When the fight goes inside,” said D’Andre, massaging himself beneath the ribs with his right hand, “use the Tyson combo. It ain’t no joke.”
“And none of that hippety-hoppity crap,” snarled Arthur. “This ain’t one of your damn karate tournaments, Humberto.”
“That about covers it,” said Bedros. “We take care of the rest. Been here a hundred times, champ. Now let’s go inside and raise some hell.”
Humberto was a little relieved when he found out that his opponent hadn’t shown up, but also a lot disappointed. “Happens all the time,” said Bedros. “Guys get cold feet and stay in bed. Not everyone’s got your heart, champ. Still. Don’t eat or drink yet. Art’s exploring options.”
Bedros walked away. Humberto turned to D’Andre and said: “What’s that supposed to mean?”
D’Andre squinted. “Don’t eat or drink, yet. Options.”
They stood in the vast gym and waited. The space was much larger and brighter than Mongoose. There was a ring set up in the middle of the room. Beyond the ring was the requisite gym apparatus’: heavy bags, speed bags, double end bags, treadmills, stationary bikes. The floor between the ring and entrance, where Humberto and D’Andre abided, was empty, though there were many folding chairs stacked against the walls. Young, lean men, some of them apparently teenagers, loitered about, waiting. Some looked calm, some agitated, some just sleepy. Arthur emerged from a door on the east wall and gestured for Humberto.
They entered an office where several older Latinas sat at a table, completing paperwork, while a queue of stalwart, flat-nosed, middle-aged men waited patiently. Next to the table stood a tall, old-fashioned scale. Arthur directed Humberto to stand at the front of the line with Bedros. An impassive woman summoned them to her table. Bedros presented her Humberto’s fight passport.
She opened it and said: “Debut?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Bedros. “A buck-thirty-two.”
“We’ll see,” she said, tilting her head at the scale. After he’d stripped to his underwear, Humberto stepped on the scale gingerly, like he didn’t want to provoke it. “One-thirty-one,” she said. “I got a kid at thirty-five. You want?”
Bedros said: “I’m told he’s had, what? Two fights?”
“One, two,” she counted. “This will be his third.”
The official moved across the room, stopping at a white board on the wall. There were more than a dozen rows of names on the board, and a number in parenthesis beside each name. Some rows had one name, others two. With black marker, she wrote ‘Humberto Jimenez (131)’ to the right of the extant ‘Elias Lopez (135).’
Bedros tapped Humberto’s shoulder with his fist. “Hungry, champ?”
He wasn’t sure if he meant for food or victory. He nodded.
“Don’t forget to see the doctor,” said the official. “For his physical.”
Though his stolid expression remained set in stone, Humberto felt a toothy smile manifest beneath the surface. Seeing his name on the board meant it was real. The four pound weight discrepancy, even the previous experience of his opponent, excited him. Subsequent to several years away from the martial arts, he’d taken his chubby, uninspired self to the Mongoose Boxing Club, because he’d desperately needed something important in his life. To be good. A challenge. Here it was. He began to prepare his body and spirit for violence, both given and received. His vision narrowed and his mind conjured a humming sound not unlike a monk’s om. His stomach rumbled.
“I heard that,” said Bedros. “Time to feed the beast.”
Humberto sat on a bench at the back of the gym and ate an unadorned chicken breast, a banana, and drank his first bottle of electrolyte solution. Halfway through Humberto’s second bottle, Arthur gave him a parfait purchased at a market next door. Humberto was shocked to see other fighters consuming cheeseburgers, fries, and soda purchased from McDonald’s. By their trainers! He was glad to have trainers with sense, discipline, and high expectations. It increased his confidence. Two more advantages. Superior trainers and superior diet.
Volunteers began to set up chairs on the floor, and a ticket booth at the entrance. A rudimentary program was passed out containing bout information. All the fighters were listed–by name, weight, and home gym–in the order that the fights would take place. There would be twenty-five bouts. Humberto would be twenty-one. As the gym began to fill up with people, it wasn’t difficult to differentiate between fighters and spectators. It was a rough-looking crowd, with many steely-eyed, muscular, tattooed tough guys strutting about. It was the excess weight that gave away the non-boxers. He had seen plenty of intimidating guys enter Mongoose, but if they carried any flab, they were useless in the ring. Easy pickings. Even the muscular ones. A trained fighter, who carries no excess weight, will destroy the out-of-shape, wannabe pugilist.
After the physical, Humberto and D’Andre visited the bathroom, where the former changed into his blue Title trunks and black tank top, while the latter squinted at a wall. Humberto sat down and tied the laces of his white boxing shoes. They returned to ringside and sat to watch the fights.
With teammates, family, and friends cheering them on, the anxious boxers fought aggressively. The spirited, competitive matches thrilled Humberto. He was proud to be a part of this event and eager to display his skills. But when there was a wide disparity between contestants, a mismatch, he felt queasy. That could be him trapped in a corner, overwhelmed and humiliated as the crowd clamors for a knockout. No, he told himself. Not today. I will command the center of the ring and take charge. I will give everything of myself.
Bedros wrapped Humberto’s hands, gloved them, and supervised the deployment of his groin cup. D’Andre donned a pair of punch mitts and commandeered a small area alongside the ring. While two young men battled inside the ring, D’Andre guided Humberto through light defense and punching drills. They practiced head movement and parrying punches. Humberto threw combinations called by D’Andre. When Humberto began to overexert himself, his more seasoned teammate reminded him to save it for the ring. “Easy on the mitts,” he said, shaking his hands as if they hurt, “hard on your opponent. Loosen up. Instigate muscle memory.”
Humberto stretched his muscles, rolled his neck, and re-initiated the calming hum in his head. Bedros took the punch mitts as his bout drew nearer. “Hand speed,” he said, then calling off: “One-one-two! One-one-four! One-two-three! One-three-two! One-two-three-two!” At the end of each combo, Bedros swung a mitt in a hooking motion at the head of his charge, who ducked, side-stepped and pivoted before firing the next combo. “Outstanding,” said Bedros, dropping his hands. “Relax. Slow breathing.”
Humberto spotted his father nearby, leaning against a wall as if it were the only thing keeping him upright. Humberto smiled at him, and Dad reciprocated with the most terrified smile his son had ever seen. Remembering how nervous he’d been watching D’Andre fight, Humberto wanted to shout at his dad: “I think I know how you feel, Pops, but I’m good!” It reminded him why it was better to be in the ring performing than outside worrying.
The man in the ring spoke Humberto’s name into the microphone, and he stepped up onto the ring apron and between the ropes. Arthur and Bedros followed directly behind him. As they stood in the corner, Arthur said: “Do not touch gloves. Punch him in the face. You make nice after the fight.” Humberto looked across the ring and saw his opponent for the first time.
He looked big. Stocky. Bigger than thirty-five. He looked like a welterweight. The face was indistinct under his blue headgear. Humberto touched his own headgear and frowned. “Our headgear and gloves are the same color,” he said. “How’ll the judges tell the difference?”
“Easy,” said Bedros. “He’ll be the guy in the blue headgear with the bloody face, and you’ll be the guy with the bloody, blue gloves.”
When the bell rang, Humberto shuffled to the center of the ring, the droning hum now emanating from his belly, and he landed a jab on the mouth that elicited an “oooh” from the audience. D’Andre had promised him that punching with ten ounce gloves, in contrast to the twelve-ounce gloves they sparred with, would be a revelation. He was right; he could practically feel his opponent’s teeth rattle.
The kid retreated. Humberto pursued with another jab lead, but this time it was parried by his counterpart. So Humberto double-jabbed. The first was parried, but the second slipped between the guard and snapped back the head. Registering this reaction, Humberto slid forward to throw a one-one-two, so when the second jab lifted the guy’s chin again, he’d hit the exposed target with a straight right. But this time, the kid rolled away from the initial jab and Humberto felt a sudden explosion across his left cheekbone.
Fuck, he thought. Ten ounces.
His opponent looked at him for a sign of weakness, and Humberto returned his gaze, thinking: I’m gonna get that back.
Humberto stepped left to create a new angle, then feinted a left. The kid turned his lead shoulder away, looking to, once again, roll and counter, but when Humberto’s jab failed to materialize, the kid relaxed and Humberto tattooed his face with a rapid one-one-two. Humberto was surprised by how easily his right hand landed.
He began to alternate between jabs, feints, and double jabs, then throwing combinations whenever Bedros called for them. Largely he felt in control, as his well-trained body performed the bidding of his brain. He was commandeering the center of the ring and landing the right far more often than he ever had when sparring with D’Andre or Enrique. There were moments, however, when he was countered effectively–usually with a straight right, left hook combo–and he’d suddenly find himself brawling in the middle of the ring. Though he sensed that this was a scenario which gave his heavier opponent–if not an advantage—then at least a better chance, he enjoyed these chaotic exchanges no less than he enjoyed being in control. The swelling approval of the audience; the thrill of another’s gloves striking his ribs and his own gloves returning the favor; the mutual chaos of combat. Who does this? Who has the nerve? Even as he fought to vanquish him, Humberto was filled with admiration for his counterpart.
It was during such a skirmish that Humberto connected with a classic Mike Tyson combo–left hook to the liver, left uppercut–causing his opponent to stagger into the ropes. Buoyed by the shouts of his corner, he pursued with a flurry of five punches, then stepped back to speculate. His opponent’s eyes were clear. His weight was coiled on his left hip, ready to counter. The bell rang.
The Arakelian brothers hustled into the ring with stool and bucket. Sedentary in his corner, Humberto was stunned at how heavily he was breathing. Best shape of his life, running five miles a day, and it still wasn’t enough. Next time, I’m running six miles. Arthur had him sip from the water bottle, and then began to apply ointment to his face.
“Breathe slowly and listen,” said Bedros. “His left is low. You can’t miss him with the one-one-two. But you want to nullify his counter right, so place the first jab inside his lead shoulder, and he won’t be able to roll.”
“And he doesn’t bring his jab back to his face,” said Arthur. “So when he leads with it, parry his jab and come over with your right. It’ll work, believe you me.”
“Looking great, champ. Timing’s perfect. Feels good, right?”
Humberto nodded. Then he gave it a thought. His legs felt strong. Taking a deep breath, he felt his second wind. He stared hard across the ring at his dance partner. What had made him think that this guy was so much larger than himself? He was just a kid, really, likely as scared as himself. Maybe more so. Did he prepare like I did? Is he better than me? Does he want this more? Well, thought Humberto, rising from his stool and humming, let’s find out.
Jeremy Kaplan co-owns READ Books, a used bookstore in Los Angeles, with his wife. He is a reformed LAUSD special education teacher, and taught martial arts to minors for almost two decades. Many of his articles have been published in NELAart News.