Daly snapped the wicked jab that had made him both famous and feared. It was the weapon that had held so many others at bay. Damned if Bartoni didn’t walk right through it. And the sonuvabitch was smiling.
The kid was tough. Slow, but tough. He walked in constantly, had little to no lateral movement and barely any defense to speak of. But he could take a punch.
Daly had landed the 1-1-4-8 in the third. He’ knocked out Carter and Taylor and Hess and Vincent with less. Bartoni hadn’t even staggered after the combination.
He was starting to gas. He’d thrown nearly nonstop for six rounds, but Bartoni still looked fresh as a daisy, like he was biding his time. He had no skill, but he had heart. It was almost as if he were destined to win.
But they both knew that was not the case.
They’d gone over it in Granziano’s uptown office yesterday. Middle of the seventh, Bartoni would throw a wild right haymaker. Daly would slip it, counter with the 6—the right hook to the body—and turn him, backing him into the corner. Bartoni would drop his hands just enough to make it look like he was hurt; just enough to let Daly to fire the cross and finish with the uppercut.
Bartoni would take the count and drop a few ranks, but he’d make an additional thousand above purse. Daly would be assured of a title shot at Konstantinov. Within six months, he’d have an opportunity to become the heavyweight champion of the world. Fame, money, dames—it was everything he’d worked for, for nine long years.
But first, he needed to get through the seventh, and make it convincing. Most of that depended on Bartoni. He had to hand it to him; so far, the kid had put on one hell of a show. He hoped he could act as well as ate leather.
He popped Bartoni with another jab as he bell rang. There was light swelling over his left eye. About time, Daly thought as Max drug the rickety stool in through the ropes. His cut man was there before his butt was on the seat, but there was no damage to repair. The kid had popped him good a handful of times, but he was sticking to the script.
“Alright, this is it, Jimmy,” veteran corner man “Magic” Max Conner, assured his fighter. “’Just like we planned it. Wait for the big one, then go to work,” he said, tipping the water to Daly’s lips. “And don’t worry about him making it look good. Hit that sonuvabitch so hard there’s no doubt about it,” Conner instructed his fighter. Daly shook his head in recognition; it was easier than formulating speech at this point. He cracked his jaw wide enough to allow Conner reinsert his newly-rinsed mouthpiece, clinched it tightly, and took a deep breath. He stood as the bell sounded.
Here we go.
Daly led, naturally, with the jab. Bartoni weaved right. Daly fired it again. Bartoni pulled his glove high, parrying it and countered with a punch of his own. But it was no jab. It was a straight right that crashed through Daly’s nose. His head snapped back, eyes and nose instantly leaking in unison.
Daly circled left, taking an extra step backward to regain a portion of equilibrium. He swiped tears with the back of his glove and reset, sending a lead right toward the brash youngster. It was heavy, a solid punch that would prove quite unhealthy for an opponent on the receiving end. He needed to reassure this upstart of his prowess.
He needed Bartoni to know that he didn’t need him to take the fall. He’d tried to convince Granziano of that, but he old man insisted it was for the best, all the way around. Conner had convinced Daly to abide Granziano; crossing him would be much dangerous than going toe to toe with Bartoni in an up and up brawl.
But Daly’s punch missed. Understandably so. He had been aiming for the fat, slow kid who had plodded through the first six rounds.
That kid was gone.
He had been replaced by a lightning-like, slippery bumblebee that flitted and danced away from trouble and dealt retribution with bruising vengeance. Before Daly could chamber his right, Bartoni crouched and sprang up, unleashing a sledgehammer uppercut that rattled the favorite’s teeth, despite the leathery armor of his mouth guard. An unseen left hook followed, catapulting the rigid bit from Daly’s mouth.
Daly wobbled, his feet tangling under him as he tried to backpedal. Confused, he instinctively pulled his gloves high trying to protect his head from another blow. Bartoni was definitely off script now. He wasn’t trying to make the fight exciting. He was trying to win.
When he saw Daly guard high, Bartoni dropped levels, peppering him with a pair of right and left hooks. True to form, Daly dropped his guard, but not before flinging a jab at Bartoni’s exposed head to try to create some distance for an escape. Bartoni’s onslaught had Daly of his wind. The jab that he had invested all his championship hopes and dreams upon had wilted. It barely made Bartoni blink.
Bartoni popped out a jab of his own, sending Daly’s vision skyward. The blinding lights swirled there, quickly going hazy. Luckily, they stole his attention long enough to prevent him from having to see the massive overhand right heading for his cheek.
In his ascendancy toward a title shot, he’d read reporters’ descriptions of his fights. They’d sometimes used words like freight train or cannonball to describe his knockout blows. He’d sometimes wondered what it must be like for the other guy to be on the receiving end of that kind of punch. Within fifteen seconds of the seventh round, he got a first-hand taste of that what they must have experienced.
He’d never been acutely aware of the mechanics of the human jaw; he didn’t think about it really. It opened to speak, closed to swallow, bounced up and down to chew. It operated on the most basic of anatomical hinge systems, only working in two directions—up and down. But the sheer force of Bartoni’s punch had rewritten the physics of Daly’s jaw function, pushing the mandible so far sideways that Daly could have eaten an entire ear of corn without ever sliding it back and forth across his lips. Ironic, considering that attempts to ingest anything other than liquids over the next six weeks would likely prove disastrous.
Daly never saw the canvas rushing up to catch him. Perhaps mercifully, he never felt it either. He crumpled into a heap, landing just inches from his own corner. Bartoni backed away as the ref delivered the count. He lounged in the neutral corner, his arms outstretched on the top rope. Confident of his eminent victory, he scanned the audibly astonished crowd. Two rows back, behind the scribbling news hacks and the fancy fat cats, he spotted him. Fat Anthony Granziano. It looked like there was only half a cigar in his mouth. Bartoni was pretty sure he’d chewed through the remainder while watching the last round.
The mobster’s stare almost made him wish he could trade places with Daly.
The tape was always a bitch to get off. Gus taped tighter than most trainers; swore it made for a more solid impact. Bartoni couldn’t argue, especially based upon tonight’s performance. He winced when Gus snagged his skin with the scissors, struggling against the sturdy adhesive. He thankfully finished cutting the final few strands when the locker room door slammed open.
Anthony Graziano’s abdomen entered the room prior to the remainder of his bulk. The buttons of his black suit struggled. He removed his tando once completely inside, revealing oily, equally dark locks. Two bruisers followed in toe.
The fat man scrawled erratic hand motions through the air, motioning back and forth between the fighter and his goons. Bartoni watched, perplexed. After a few moments, he interrupted.
“Anthony, what the hell are you doing?” he asked.
“Oh my God!,” the mobster exclaimed, stopping his gestures in mid-stroke. “He can speak! That means he can hear!” he said, throwing his hands skyward. “It’s a miracle!”
Bartoni grinned, sliding off of the trainer’s table. “I get it, I cost you money,” Bartoni said, bundling his robe and tossing it to Gus.
“Damn right you did!” Granziano boomed. His olive complexion immediately reddened with the outburst. “More importantly, you broke our deal. You gave me your word, and you didn’t hold up your end. Most people who even think about doing that to me don’t ever walk again afterwards.”
The fighter sat, unlacing his boots. “Good thing I ain’t most people there, Uncle Anthony,” Bartoni replied.
Fat Uncle Anthony sat on the bench beside his nephew. He paused intently and allowed his blood pressure to equalize. “No, Paulie, you are definitely not most people. And God help you, if you weren’t Mary’s baby boy, I would’ve sicced Vinnie and Angelo here on ya’ already.”
“Look Anthony, we both know I’m better than Daly. I couldn’t flop for him. I know he was your stud but I deserve that title shot,” Bartoni said.
“Screw Daly; I could care less about that Irish bastard. Mooks like him are a dime a dozen. This is about you. You do deserve a title shot, but it can’t come against Konstantinov.”
“What are you saying Anthony? Why not? I mean if it’s about the dough, I mean forget it. I don’t need a payout. I’ll fight for free. I just want a shot—”
“It’ ain’t about the frickin’ money!” Anthony yelled. Again, he paused, toweling his brow with the handkerchief from his pocket.
“It’s about you, okay? Look you’re a good kid. You fight hard and you got heart. But you’re not ready for that Ruskie. He’s a killer, Paulie. When we picked him up, he’d just gotten out of a gulag. You know what that is? It’s the Commie labor camp prison system where they work you ‘till you die. They don’t bother wasting bullets on you, they just let you starve to death but they make sure they get their use out of you before you keel over.
“No matter what they threw at Konstantinov, he survived. Killing him would have made them look soft. So they created this bogus story that they relocated him to another camp. Truth is, they just turned him loose. Somewhere along the line, he hooked up with that crazy-ass doctor that manages him and wound up stateside. He doesn’t even have a regular trainer like a normal fighter, just that kooky nutbag doctor of his.
“He was fighting out in Detroit when we first found him. Signed him on the spot and six fights later, he laid Turner out cold in the second to win the title. Undefeated in six more since. I’ve seen headhunters before, but this guy’s an animal. God help me, Paulie; you’re my own flesh and blood. I can’t send you in there with him,” Anthony finished.
Gus spoke up. “With all due respect, Mr. Granziano, you have to,” he said. “Paulie won tonight and the winner was guaranteed a title shot. You go back on that and every two-bit newsman in the country is gonna’ call you out. You won’t be able to sign a kindergarten playground scrap afterwards.”
“You’re a smart man, Gus,”” Granziano agreed. “That’s why I wanted this knucklehead to take the dive, ‘cause now he’s practically ruining my business,” he said.
“But you’re assuming he’ll lose. The kid’s tough, you said so yourself, Mr. G. Give him the shot, and give us two months and he might surprise ya’,” Gus said.
“Two months? I could give you two years and it wouldn’t help,” Granziano said.
“Then what does it matter? One way or another you figure I’m gonna’ lose. So let me have the shot. Look if I lose, I lose. I just want a chance. Hell, if he starts beating me too bad, I’ll take a dive,” Bartoni pled.
“You proved tonight you didn’t know how to take one,” Granziano fired back.
“That’s because I didn’t need to,” Bartoni countered. “Come on, Uncle Tony. I’m begging you. Give me the shot.”
The fat man shook his head, realizing that like Daly only minutes before, he’d been cornered by the younger man. “Christ, Mary will never forgive me if he kills you,” he said.
“Geeze Gus, any tighter and my fingers are gonna’ fall off.”
“Then club his skull in with your stump,” Gus instructed, never looking up as he continued taping. “You’ll thank me afterward, Paulie. He hits harder; you’ve got to hit harder. The trouble is he’s stronger. ‘Tighter we can get your hands, the more ground we can make up,” Gus said.
Bartoni’s training camp had passed like a whirlwind. He had trained non-stop for eight weeks. Road work, bag work, rope skipping—the only down time came with sleep. When he wasn’t working he was resting, doing his best to let his body recover from the punishment.
He’d wanted to bulk to even the scales against the bigger champion. Gus objected. There wasn’t enough time to put on quality muscle, he said. Instead, he whittled Paulie, sacrificing weight for speed. By fight night, Paulie had cut more than fifteen pounds. Faster hands meant more punches and potentially, more power. And if Paulie couldn’t knock Konstantinov out, maybe he could outpoint him—if he could weather the Russian’s onslaught.
Gus did his best to keep Paulie away from the papers. No need; had already accepted his role as the underdog. Gus’s overprotection was unwarranted. No reporter in the country was writing about the fight; as far as they were concerned, there was no contest of which to speak.
Details of Konstantinov’s camp had been cagey, as always. Press was banned, per edict of Dr. Alexander, just as it had been since the Russian’s debut in Detroit. No sportswriter in the country had ever seen Konstantinov train—none of them even knew where to find him. Supposedly, he held camp at a clandestine facility somewhere in the Ozarks. He was rumored to fly in a constantly revolving stream of sparring partners. Former champion Lucius Evans was brought in to prep Konstantinov for his first title defense. According to legend, Evans quit the camp after three weeks, claiming he’d never absorbed as much punishment in his twenty-year career as he had in less than a month of training with Konstantinov. Following his return from the camp, Evans allegedly never again laced his gloves."He’s tough as nails, so you’ve got to hit him with everything you’ve got every time, you understand?”
Paulie shook his head, signaling his comprehension. The dim locker room lamplight glinted off the sheen of perspiration on Bartoni’s forehead.
“Do you think I can beat him Gus?”
“Kid, it doesn’t matter what I think,” the corner man said. He wound the tape around for a final pass, tearing it off just below his fighter’s wrist. “The only thing that matters is what you think. I ain’t gonna’ blow smoke up your ass, it ain’t gonna’ be easy. But it can be done. Fight your fight; be smart. Don’t get suckered into going toe to toe. Stay off the ropes. And whatever the hell you do, don’t give up.”
“Now,” Gus said, reaching for his focusing mitts. “Show me you’re ready for this Commie sumbitch.”
Paulie didn’t hear a word the referee was saying. He couldn’t even hear the cheers of the capacity crowd. That’s because of the resounding voice in his head reminding him of how ridiculous they must look. Standing face to face in the center of the ring, the Russian dwarfed him. Paulie was certain that spectators seated behind Konstantinov had no idea whether he had even made it into the ring yet. The man was so massive, Paulie almost missed the squirrely Dr. Alexander. He stood mere inches behind his champion, Konstantinov’s satin robe draped over his arm.
As the referee explained the rules, Paulie kept his eyes on Konstantivov’s face. There was nothing there. It was as if the man was half a world away, maybe back in the prison that had been his home for years. He showed no hint of nerves or emotion. He simply stared with empty eyes through his challenger.
Paulie returned to the security of his corner once the instructions were done, catching the sparkle of his uncle’s cufflinks in the front row. Fat Anthony was characteristically dressed to the nines, the coppery points of his lapel pressed as sharply as ever. But as their eyes met, Paulie noticed an emotion he’d never seen on the gangster: fear.
“Alright, listen up,” Gus commanded, leading Paulie to the turnbuckle. “Don’t forget the game plan. Stick and move. Pace yourself. Let him wear himself out. Carry him into deep water and turn it on in the later rounds. Be smart,” he reminded once more.
Paulie nodded, bit down on his mouthpiece and slapped his thin leather gloves together. He turned to look at Fat Anthony.
He was crossing himself.
The Russian strode out slowly at the sound of the bell, as if he had all day to dispose of the smaller man. Paulie held his gloves high, staying on the balls of his feet. He circled left, firing off two quick jabs. They landed on the Russian’s chin. The champion didn’t flinch. Paulie immediately slipped the opposite way, sending another jab over the Russian’s brazenly low-lying guard that connected flush, albeit impotently. Feinting left, Paulie winged a blistering right hook into Konstantinov’s jaw. It made the one he’d KO’d Daly with look tame.
He would have done just as well slugging the Russian with a throw pillow.
Konstantinov didn’t budge. Paulie drew his punch back quickly, wishing that he’d let Gus tape his hand tighter. He didn’t want to feel his fingers anymore. He was pretty sure if he turned his glove upside down, he could pour them out, powdery onto the canvas.
He tried to shake the sting out of his hand, backpedaling instinctively. Straight backward. Mistake. No lateral movement left him an easy target.
Konstantinov threw a huge left over Paulie’s quivering guard. It was obvious, but hard to avoid. Paulie rolled with it. It saved him from being the quickest knockout of Konstantinov’s career—and his first official decapitation.
Paulie stumbled. He lost sight of Konstantinov. The ropes, the crowd, the mat—they all flashed in front of him. But he didn’t go down.
He righted himself just in time to see Konstantinov’s follow-up. Smelling blood, the charging champion shifted his lead foot inside Paulie’s, corkscrewing down to deliver a left hook to the body. Paulie crouched, painfully blocking the blow with his elbow. He popped Konstantinov with a body shot of his own—not nearly as powerful, but stiff enough to thwart the advance. He turned, peppering a jab to the champ’s chin on the escape.
Undaunted, Konstantinov pressed. He jabbed. Paulie caught most of it on his gloves, but enough got through to snap his head back. A left body hook, right cross combination followed. Again, Paulie blocked the hook, but ate the full leather of the cross. The punch sent him reeling into the ropes.
“Get outta’ there dammit!,” Paulie heard Gus scream. It sounded like he was screaming under water.
Konstantinov flurried, winging haymakers. Paulie bobbed, taking the brunt, mercifully, on his shoulders. Panicked, he tangled his arms under the Russian’s, clinching the bigger man. He held on for all he was worth. The ref commanded them to break just as the bell sounded.
Paulie shuffled toward his corner. It felt like it took a life time to get there.
Gus was waiting on him, guiding him to the stool.
“Way to stay on your feet,” Gus encouraged, snatching Paulie’s mouthpiece. “Another three rounds like that and you’ll wear his knuckles out,” he said, giving his fighter a brief sip of water.
“I think he’s already ahead there too. He’s got a concrete jaw,” Paulie said, between labored breaths.
“That’s why we’re gonna’ attack the body this time. Soften up his ribs,” Gus said, shadowing punches to Paulie’s gut to illustrate.
“Don’t let him square up. You’ve got to beat him to the punch. If you see his hip square to you, you’re too late. Get off before he throws, then get the hell outta’ there,” Gus said, replacing the mouthpiece.
Paulie had hardly gotten off the stool when the bell sounded; Konstantinov had already crossed his half of the ring. He was starting the second much more rapidly.
Paulie got his hands up quickly, turning away from a lead right. He kept bobbing side to side, making Konstantinov miss. Turning, he scored with a straight left, right hook combo to the Russian’s body. It must have been made out of the same stuff as his head, Paulie thought, bouncing away before he could be countered.
Circling, Paulie threw a head-high feint, then dove in for another one-two to Konstantinov’s ribs. Paulie had put some mustard on the shots, but the champ was not impressed. He kept coming straight forward. Paulie tapped twice, up and down keep away jabs, and turned again.
He realized his mistake when he felt the ropes against his back. He’d been so focused on scoring that he’d overlooked Konstantinov’s ploy. He’d distracted Paulie by letting him land; slowly, deliberately cutting off the ring in the process.
Paulie felt the punch in his spine. As if to demonstrate what a true body shot should feel like, Konstantinov had planted a left uppercut so violently into Paulie’s midsection that it lifted the challenger’s feet.
As Paulie began to fold, he clutched Konstantinov, tying him up. He regained his wind quickly and skirted off the ropes on the break. Learning from his first round mistake, he retreated at an angle. Konstantinov smelled blood, rushing toward him. Seeing an opening, Paulie threw caution to the wind. He swept an arcing hook into Konstantinov’s exposed nose. Thankfully, it seemed to be less dense than the head it called home. For a split second, it seemed to give the champion pause—and hope to Paulie.
It was short-lived.
Konstantinov shook off the shot and strafed left. Moving with an unexpected speed that belied his bulk, the Russian struck back with a vengeance. It was another body shot. It tore into Paulie’s breadbasket. He winced and covered up, trying to get out of reach. Konstantinov swung again. Paulie got his gloves up, but the punch still rattled him. A split second later, he felt his chin shake all the way into the top of his skull as the uppercut rocked I into numbness. He heard a bell, but wasn’t sure if it came from ringside or his cerebellum. When the ref stepped between them, he got his answer.
Paulie found his corner by following the sound of Gus’s screams. He crashed blindly onto the stool. As Gus splashed water on him, his vision began to clear. He looked past Gus at the opposing corner. Konstantinov looked as fresh as if he’d just stepped from the locker room shower. Paulie was surprised he didn’t see bits of his own brains and guts on the champion’s gloves.
Gus was shouting at him; Paulie was aware of that much. The exact details of the corner man’s tirade, however, were undecipherable. He was pretty sure there was something in there about sticking jabs and avoiding hooks, but he couldn’t swear to the rest.
When he looked out into the crowd (weren’t they cheering a little while ago?), he remembered that Fat Uncle Anthony was out there, somewhere, though he couldn’t locate him any longer.
He felt someone pushing his back. He stood and saw the huge man coming after him. When the big man swung, he ducked. Paulie’s left hand punched the big man quickly in the face. Jab. Yep, that’s what Gus had been talking about. The lights were brighter now. The cheers were getting louder. The big man tried to punch him again. This time, he weaved around it, launching two punches to the attacking man’s torso. He felt the jarring impact through his wrists and arms, the jolt helping to bring him reawaken his senses.
He was fighting an undefeated champion for that champion’s belt to become a champion himself. He was hurt and overmatched and outgunned, but he was still alive. That may have been the best he could hope for.
Nah. Screw that. He could do better.
Paulie stepped forward, right in the line of fire, and cracked a straight left to the Russian’s ribs. He dodged a counter hook, peppered another straight and a hook to the champ’s breadbox. It crashed with a loud slap, and for the first time, Paulie felt like he’d made substantial impact, though Konstantinov’s blank face showed no sign of concern.
Paulie danced sideways, his head now clearing. His legs felt strong again, and he could suddenly hear the crowd.
He may have been mistaken, but he could swear they were cheering for him.
He’d better give them something to cheer about.
He unleashed a looping overhand right and a slicing hook to the body—both connected fully. The Russian had suddenly become a non-moving target. It was too early to assume he was taking the round off. Maybe he’s just testing me to see what I’ve got, Paulie thought. He was determined to show him. Dam the torpedoes; he was going to fire away.
Paulie pressed; for nearly the next forty five seconds he landed a flurry of relatively unanswered shots to the Russian’s body and head. He could hear Dr. Alexander screaming at Konstantinov in a language that may as well have been Martian as far as Paulie could tell. Paulie didn’t let up. His wheels were good, and his wind was pumping heavy, but controlled, thanks to Gus’s workouts.
He had taken advantage of the Russian’s inactivity for the near entirety of the round. He couldn’t let Konstantinov steal it. With less than half a minute left, he saw his opening.
Konstantinov shot a sloppy, looping left. Paulie saw that rolling shoulder, and knew the punch was coming before it was ever thrown. He dropped low and threw a smashing uppercut right to the champ’s jaw.
For the first time, the Russian staggered. Paulie smelled blood; he saw it too. His punch had opened a nasty gash below Konstantinov’s eye.
The crowd went crazy, spurring Paulie on. He swung a right cross straight for the wound, splattering blood when it connected. It was his main target now; both men knew it, as the champ tried to cover it with his gloves. Paulie knew time was running out, and he wanted to land at least one more good shot to that cut before the bell. But the Russian wouldn’t allow it. Hurt, perhaps for the first time in his professional career, he sank into survival mode, grabbing Paulie and drawing him into a tight clinch.
Forehead to forehead, Paulie could feel the heat from the Russian’s breath on his face. He could smell it too. It was like something he’d never smelled before. At least not among the living.
It was then that he saw it. Pressed tight against the cut, he caught a glimpse of something rubbery; felt its rigidity pressed near his temple. It was a tube of some sort. And he swore it was coming out of something shiny, like metal.
Konstantinov pushed him off. Paulie hoisted his gloves, but not nearly high enough to protect his obviously flabbergasted countenance.
The Russian unleashed a straight right hand that Paulie felt crush the frontal bones in his skull; his nose exploded as well, thanks to the champ’s Goliath-like hands.
Ringside flashbulbs erupted. Paulie saw them for a slit second; then everything went black, despite the fact that his eyes were open.
As his head crashed into the canvas, he knew he wasn’t getting up. He was never going to get up. He could accept that, like he’d accepted his place as the underdog. Hell, he could even accept that he’d been retired—permanently—by whatever the hell that was. At least it had taken something…inhuman…to put him down for good.
What he couldn’t believe was that Fat Uncle Anthony hadn’t been concerned with protecting the money. He had actually been concerned with Paulie’s welfare. He was trying to protect him.
“Sonuvabitch,” Paulie thought to himself, as he drew his final breaths. “Didn’t see that one coming.”