Before the Fight
by Alec Kissoondyal
You sit on a steel bench in the dressing room, hands taped, gloves on, Vaseline smeared on your face like war paint. You stare at the floor, ignoring your team’s hushed conversations and muttered prayers. Matteo, your trainer, kneels in front of you. Pale fluorescent light glints off his bald head.
“Remember, kid,” he says, “the only reason a warrior is alive is to fight, and the only reason a warrior fights is to win.”
You aren’t much of a reader, but you know it’s from “The Book of Five Rings.” Matteo quotes it like scripture before each of your fights. His trainer made him read it back when he was a boxer, and you suspect it might be the only book he’s ever read in his life.
“Christ,” you say, shaking your head. “Don’t you ever get tired of stealing wisdom from Musashi Miyamoto?”
“Here’s another,” Matteo says. “From one thing, know ten thousand.”
“What the fuck does that even mean?”
Matteo flashes a gold-toothed grin. “You must investigate this further.”
You give him a good-natured jab on the shoulder.
“You’ve got this,” he says, his knees popping as he stands up. “You know it. I know it. Your entire pit crew knows it. You’re going to cave that fucker’s head in.”
Pit crew—another Matteo-ism, a nickname assigned to your corner to make you feel more machine than man. Men hesitate. Machines don’t. You trained relentlessly for this fight, running, sparring, working the heavy bag, strength conditioning, fueling yourself with raw eggs and flavorless chicken breasts, using every ounce of willpower to stave off late-night cravings for pizzas and pies and cheesecakes.
You have come out of your training faster, stronger, more vicious than before; “a bona fide terminator,” Matteo claims. But despite the punching power and killer instinct, doubt still simmers beneath the surface, threatening to boil over the moment things heat up, like it is now. The same old chatter starts in your head: “Am I ready?”, “Do I still have what it takes?”, “What if things end up like last time?”
You shut your eyes and focus on your breath, observing your thoughts as they come and go, like cars on a highway. Some pass quickly, but others—whispers of inadequacy and defeat—stick around. You focus on your breath. In. Out. In. Out.
The door opens, and an official enters, flanked by the roar of the crowd.
“Thirty seconds,” he announces, then steps back into the hall, shutting the door behind him, muffling the crowd again.
“Showtime,” Matteo says.
You and your crew march into the hallway, where you are greeted by four black-clad security guards. They walk with you, two on each side. You can see the entrance ahead, a square of light at the end of the hall. The sound of the crowd funnels down the hallway, booming off the concrete walls, growing louder with every step. Your pulse thunders in your temples, and you feel indestructible and vulnerable all at once, equal parts executioner and sacrificial lamb.
You step through the entrance. A thousand rapturous roars fuse into a single, crushing wave of sound that shakes you to the marrow. The security guards swat away grasping hands as you walk to the ring, which sits at the center of the pandemonium like a sacrificial altar. Your opponent, Rob “The Mauler” Lawler, is already inside the ropes, pacing like a frothing pit bull waiting to be unleashed. You feel his piercing glare as you set foot on the canvas. Your neurons hum with frantic electricity, engraved with the memory of your last encounter.
Six months ago, you battered Lawler as he retreated, throwing punches that dug into his arms and grazed his ribs. But when you saw an opening and moved to finish him, something touched your chin, and the next thing you knew, you were lying on the canvas while a thousand cameras flashed like fireworks celebrating Lawler’s victory.
To prepare for the rematch, you watched the footage dozens of times, reliving your loss in high definition as Lawler drew you in with a false retreat, slipped your punches, and blasted you with a brain-rattling uppercut. You don’t remember trying to get up after Lawler dropped you, but in the footage, you leaned on the ropes and struggled to stand until your legs gave out and you crumpled to the canvas. You paused on that moment countless times and studied your vacant eyes, trying to figure out what faltered first in those lost moments—your legs or your will.
You still don’t have an answer. All you know is Lawler was better than you thought. Sometimes, in your lowest moments, you’re almost convinced that he’s better in general—a perilous thought for a boxer that crosses your mind as you stand six feet away from the man who beat you.
You catch yourself and go back to your breath. In. Out. In Out.
The cheering crowd, the encouragement from your crew, the announcer’s voice all become distant echoes as you focus on the only thing that matters—winning.
You and Lawler walk to the middle of the ring and stare each other down. Neither of you glance away for even a fraction of a second. To do so would be a small concession, a sign of cracks in the mental armor to be exploited when the punches start flying.
The referee steps between you two. He recites the rules and sends you both to your corners. You both back away slowly, maintaining eye contact. Lawler shadowboxes, his powerful muscles churning beneath sweat-slick flesh as he peppers the air with a flurry of jabs and hooks.
You square your shoulders and bounce on the balls of your feet, every atom of your being rattling with manic energy, ready to kill or be killed. You recall Miyamoto’s wisdom and wish you’d been born five hundred years earlier as a samurai, where glory was won at the edge of a blade, and defeat resulted in a swift death rather than lingering humiliation and self-doubt.
“Get your revenge, kid,” Matteo says, slapping your back with surprising strength. Even though his boxing career is long over, he still trains every day.
Breathe. In. Out. In. Out.
The bell rings. A fresh surge of adrenaline washes through your veins as you and Lawler approach the center of the ring and touch gloves. You circle each other, throwing jabs, searching for openings. Beneath the fear and the need for retribution, a sense of stillness emerges. Win or lose, the moment is all that exists, and you are exactly where you are meant to be. No need to investigate further.
Alec Kissoondyal is a Florida-based writer and a recent graduate of the University of Florida, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English. His fiction has appeared in several publications, including The Los Angeles Review and Cornice Magazine. He is also the winner of TEA magazine’s 2023 Palmetto Prize for Prose. You can find more of Alec’s writing on his website, alecauthor.com