VERSUS, an excerpt from The Laughter of Strangers
True sign of a manic mind: Moments before I’m confident and self-assured, only to pick up where we left off: doubt.
WHO DO YOU THINK I AM?
It’s those cursory signals, hearing the click and the boom of the arena lighting up with anticipation, that equally manic sense of anticipation:
I shadowbox to do something, to fill the time, to get my heart rate up in the 15 minutes, half hour before the fight. Really though, my mind is floating, my gaze nowhere near the glow of a focused fighter. I might as well be sitting down next to Spencer, next to the few paid-for crewmembers, including an extremely expensive cutman, because as Spencer said:
“Your skin tears like paper. Last thing we want is having the fight stolen from us via TKO.”
Really, I watch myself shadowbox, voyeur to my own actions.
The locker room is silent; brooding out from underneath the silence is the impending laughter and cheer of the audience.
I wish that were true.
I settle on the one-two jab followed by a right or left hook.
There it is: My strategy.
Other than clinching, I don’t have much else other than the buildup of psychological residue that I know isn’t working on someone like Executioner. It wouldn’t have worked on me back when I was his age.
We can here the ground shaking from the audience erupting in applause as the previous fight seemingly ends.
“Turn on the TV,” I tell one of the crewmembers.
“No,” Spencer shakes his head.
I want to see who won. “King Crown” Willem Floures or “Gallows” Willem Floures? It should have been a close fight. At that age, I would have been desperate for the KO. Anything to gain some regard. We’re all the same except that somewhere during their first 15 fights, their career took a wrong turn. Instead of climbing the league ladder, they stopped climbing.
They became journeymen.
Basic examples of who I am, plus or minus a few addictions.
I always had an addictive personality. It comes with the territory of being Willem Floures. In Gallows’s case, he got into painkillers. He got in them bad, real bad. I know the feeling of being pulled into the nonspace of relaxation and half thought. In that space, there is no such thing as poor thought. Nothing fazes you. It feels about as real as you want it to feel; everything else floats by as something fake, nonessential.
I’d love to float on by without any rhyme or reason for holding onto the professional identity I’ve fixated on for decades.
But I can’t.
Like the act of fighting, I am always inundated by the bothersome consequences.
I MIGHT LOSE.
There’s a large possibility that I’ll lose.
And as we get word that it’s time, someone with a headset knocking on the locker room door at the same time Spencer receives a call from one of the event producers, they give us word:
“Two minutes until you begin the walk.”
The producer holds up two fingers, “Two!”
Leaves without looking me in the eye.
It sounds exactly like what it is:
The locker rooms are usually recessed deep within the arena, far enough away from the action to provide enough solace from the energies that often ruin your mood, spoiling your entire fight strategy, but as a result, you have that longest walk to the ring. It’s a walk that usually centers a well-trained fighter and derails the fighters that are not ready for this.
Spencer with the expected:
A question with no real answer.
A slight sweat generated from shadowboxing, not quite out of breath but not quite fresh either, I stand in place, shifting my weight from left to right while Spencer checks my gloves, the lacing tight enough, covers me with my signature “Sugar Gold” robe.
I hide under the hood of the robe and as I take the first steps, initiating the long walk to the ring, I stare not ahead but at the ground.
Turning the corner, they wait for me. They wait for me wherever they can get the clearest shot. Flicker, within frame:
The media takes pictures, captures footage, tagging it all not in enticement of the future victor but rather as the man walking the long walk to his execution and his opponent the sworn Executioner.
Gaze to the ground.
I walk, separating sense from self.
In a dozen steps, I watch from behind, the steady rhythm of the walk culminated with the pressure of 12 rounds ready to end my career.
Fight. Stand up and fight.
Fight all of these negative thoughts.
There’s more to the fight than the minutes, the hour, in the ring. The fight began the moment the first picture was taken of me in relation to the rematch. The fight has been ongoing and I won a round while losing 3.
I won via lying about murder.
I won via the staging of a shattered cinderblock.
But together, I have lost more rounds than I’ve won simply due to the inability to control the measure of my thoughts.
If I lose, it’s because I can’t get outside of myself.
If only I could watch from where I linger, right at this moment, the rhythm affording the ability to watch from afar, my slumped over shoulders already projecting defeat.
If only this level of focus could be maintained.
But will I?
Again, I battle doubt and guilt and something else.
“Something else” is reserved for all that I cannot even begin to explain. You probably see it better than I do.
What do you see?
Don’t talk to me.
I turn the last corner, the long walk growing shorter.
I can hear my entrance music.
As always it’s generic death metal. Predictable but that’s what “Sugar” walks out to and that’s how it’ll end.
IF THIS IS MY LAST FIGHT.
I watch as I stretch by back, throw a few punches, hopping in place as I stop momentarily at the curtain.
I crack my neck.
Center, find your center…
It is now or never.
All I see as I push through the curtain out towards the ring.
And I walk.
The longest walk of all.
The one to the ring.
The audience is a mixture of cheers and leers, curiosity and hatred for this old fighter, a fighter that will do anything to win. And they know it. Believe me they know it. The audience is smarter than you think. Question is, do they know that I deal in lies? Do they know what it takes to stay in the bright light?
My focus is the ring. I look nowhere else.
Throw a few punches, for effect. Tune into the music being buried by the boos and other rambling noise.
I see the banners hanging from above.
They used an older picture of me for the official fight card. Something in me cracks, wilts, a flutter of the nerves. Everywhere I look I can’t avoid what waits for me.
IF THAT’S HOW IT’S GOING TO BE,
THAT’S HOW IT’S GOING TO BE.
I strafe around the ring twice, raising my arms, posing for the cameras. Media afire with various shots, the arena rumbles, the air feels thick, hard to take in. Every inhale takes something out of me. The atmosphere of a fight. I stare at the other side of the ring, where Executioner will soon stare me down, waiting for his chance to send another uppercut right where it’ll end me.
My music stops, replaced by X’s droning hip-hop track.
The audience switches modes, negative to positive, as X runs to the ring alone. His crew about 2 minutes behind, walking slowly, not at all worried that X will be winded by the audacious sprint to the ring.
I would have done something like that when I was his age.
I didn’t, but I could have.
Easy to say that you “would” or “could” have done something but hey, hey, X has entered the ring. Need to not be in my own head right now.
He stands front and center, flexing his arms, snubbing me entirely.
The music dies down. The referee takes his spot and so too does the announcer.
Time for hyperbole…
TIME FOR INTRODUCTIONS
The announcer shouts into the microphone:
“Tonight, we are going to witness one of the most important matches in the history of professional boxing…
“Are you ready?
“Boxing fans, are you ready…?
“For the thousands in attendance, and the millions watching at home, ladies and gentleman…
“It’s time for fight night!”
“12 rounds for the proof of being the best of the best!
“Introducing first, fighting out of the blue corner, wearing solid black trunks with red trim … ‘Executioner’ Willem Floures!”
AUDIENCE UNANIMOUS APPLAUSE
“And in the red corner, wearing the gold trunks with white trim … ‘Sugar’ Willem Floures!”
Tune it out.
We step forward, the referee goes through the usual rules.
“Touch gloves,” to which we both choose to remain focused, gaze digging as deep into X’s eyes as I can.
Back to our own respective corners.
The tragic few seconds before the bell rings.
Soon it is here, and I can already see the fight a few actions into the future. I remain on the defensive. X wants me to create opportunities for him, testing me with the jab, which this early into the fight, I can easily absorb. His jabs graze my gloves but do their job at keeping me shelled up.
I look for opportunities.
I find none so I throw out the jab, hoping to create one.
The round progresses the same way:
Trading jabs, absorbing them; in my case, I maintain my defensive shell. X moves around the ring on the balls of his feet, semi-circling me with his arms down. He teases out an opening, just one opening is all he needs to send me to the ground and both know it.
I know what he’s thinking.
I know that he’s pissed about what I’ve done.
I’m not sure it was the greatest of ideas, but it’s too late now. What’s done is done. What makes it both good and bad at the same time is the fact that no one can expose the truth to the media without being hurt in the process. If X told the media the truth, that I never killed anyone, that it was a slanderous lie, he would reap the negative effects too.
This is why he wants to level me, send me down to the canvas early in the fight.
But not this round.
We return to our corners.
Spencer says something that I can’t hear because I’m way too focused. I can’t even look away from X. My gaze trained to him in his corner, never once looking away.
I remain in my shell, occasional jabs.
He gets his work rate up with a few jabs and some decent hooks to the body that I fail to block. I hear it in my breath, the pain, wheezing from impact.
He quickly notices that if he continues landing a few hooks, I am unable to do anything. I cannot even throw out the jab. With every hook, I become more and more tired, gassed.
I don’t want to do what I know to do.
It is the reason for fights to turn ugly and dull; however, it is the exploitable tactic of the tired fighter in denial.
I clinch, grabbing him, pulling him in, landing a few punches to the kidneys whenever I can get away with it.
X mutters, “You fuck!”
As I land a nice sharp one to his left kidney.
The referee breaks the clinch.
Shouts in my face, a warning not to keep clinching. We’re all seeing the fight a number of moves ahead. That’s exactly what I’m going to do.
He tries for a combination but I grab his arm, pulling him in for another clinch. Three more like this and it’s the end of round 2 and you can hear the audience:
Spencer splashes water in my face, “The hell you doing?! Ease off the clinch. Vary it up with combinations! Save your energy!”
Sound advice but I’m still not listening.
Still staring at X, I mouth the words “I… will… kill… you.”
Psychological mind games.
Whether or not it’ll actually work, it’s worth it. It works for me. I feel like I have some control over the fight and as I clinch my way through rounds 3 and 4, much to the audience’s dislike (everyone disgusted with such an anticlimactic fight) I begin to fall into a groove, one that vouches for doing whatever it takes to win.
To remain where I am.
It doesn’t start now. It’s already begun. I will do whatever it takes.
Don’t you get it?
By round 5 X is really frustrated.
This is where I get the warning from the referee, “If you clinch again, I will end the fight!”
X with a sly grin. That damn mouth guard that says “DIE” on it.
Taunt me all you want.
In this moment, I am confident.
I break through my shell with the jab.
X blocks, using fanciful footwork to stand just out of reach of my strikes. He turns to the audience, flexing and shouting.
They are all on his side.
For all they care, I’m a “nobody.”
He is Willem Floures.
I’m some article from a different era.
I land a shocking hook to his face. It surprises him.
He switches to the defensive as I continue jabbing, thrilled to have caught him with the sort of punch I no longer knew I had.
Not a signature. Not anymore.
I’m just throwing punches, running on fumes.
I am gassed but the experience of so many fights carries me on through the onslaught of this round and the next.
X unloads on me, combination after combination.
That cuts and stuns me harder than any of his strikes when he lands a straight shot to the body that sends me to the ropes, bouncing back, flying right into another shot.
He hasn’t landed the uppercut yet.
I know him.
Not a whole lot of patience unless it’s recognized that everything is on the line. I think of what I might do to psychologically toy with him and give me another nudge in the right direction, the direction of a centered mind.
There is an idea brewing in this brain of mine.
I go back into my shell.
I think about when it might be the right time.
Not now, next round.
X unloads throughout round 7 and at one point I start tasting copper, blood now oozing from my mouth.
Unpleasant but not unexpected.
Shell, condensed, losing on the cards.
I settle on the idea and take a knee.
The referee jumps between us, holding X back.
I expect the whole world to be in shock, wondering what did it. What stunned Sugar?
I have the one knee down, gaze to the canvas, waiting until I reach the 6 count to stand back up. The referee grabs me by the gloves, holds them, looks into my eyes, “You okay?” is what he’s saying but not really meaning. This is just another day at the office. For him, he’d rather I stay down.
Why waste any more time?
I wait until the end of round 8 to fake a low blow.
I do my best to act like I’ve been hooked to the groin. X shrugs his shoulders, shaking his head, shouting, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!”
This is so unlike me.
Well, how about that –
I can change too.
I do what needs to be done. I have my values but winning is everything. If I don’t win this I won’t be myself anymore.
Distantly I recognize that I have already let that one go:
Being true to oneself.
I would never fight dirty.
It’s not over yet. I start with the jab again. X is irritated and annoyed which helps me win on the cards during this round.
STRAIGHT TO THE FACE
My shots might not be as quick or as punishing as his but X has lost his strategy. I’ve successfully derailed his linear path towards knockout.
40 seconds left in the round I fake another low blow.
I keel over, mocking him even more as he turns to the audience, shouting “WHAT FUCKING BULLSHIT!”
But I’m not so sure the audience is on his side anymore.
WHERE IS IT AIMED?
I’m okay and the referee makes sure that I’m okay before letting the clock run out on the round.
Spencer in the corner asking me curiously, “You know what you’re doing right?”
He’s calm, an indication that he sees that something working.
The fight isn’t a pretty one.
BUT IT’LL DO.
Water splashed over my face as the bell sounds.
The fight can stand to look a little dirtier. When I clinch I make it look like X is doing all the clinching.
X goes silent, slows down, pressure placed on the act of fighting rather than the true expression of the fight, renders him confused.
He has never fought like this before. He has never experienced a fight where it isn’t just the cards but rather the weight of each intended block that might turn the fight.
The fight is more or less directionless and yet there will be a winner.
There will be a winner.
I clinch throughout the round, throwing some punches right before to make it look like X is doing the grabbing.
The referee pulls him aside.
Think about what the commentators must be discussing.
I glance over at their table situated at ringside.
They wear straight faces. Very little is being said.
This round will go down as the turning point in the fight.
I punch him low enough to hit his groin but high enough so that it doesn’t appear to be an illegal shot. The referee doesn’t see it. The audience doesn’t see it. The cameras don’t capture it and therefore it didn’t happen.
It is legal.
And X falls to the ground.
I get a 9 count.
You get punched in the groin hard enough and it’s stunning, really, to see a man make it in time to keep fighting. I nearly had it won.
The rest of the round he isn’t very active. What can he do other than rely upon recently obtained anger?
I toy with him. A clinch whenever he tries anything more than a jab.
The round ends and its mine.
Spencer laughs, “Wow, just wow. I don’t recognize you out there. You are fighting as someone else.”
His would-be compliment comes off as a threat.
What does he mean I’m fighting as someone else?
Who am I if not someone familiar?
X goes all out, flurries of punches and more than a few stun me.
I shell up, mind elsewhere, focus fractured, preoccupied with Spencer’s comment. The round doesn’t end well. Stunned, he gains a knockdown.
I take my time getting back up, 8 count.
I stand there, glaring at him, and it’s captured on camera. The look on my face reads: “Not impressed.”
With a minute left I do my best to send a hook low enough to land another shot.
X applies pressure using a traditionally effective combination:
He doesn’t land the uppercut.
When I see the opening coming, I lean in, letting the jab hit me, and I say to him, “Hey… I know you…”
And this time, I send the uppercut, but not before landing a low blow.
The cameras only see the uppercut, the one that sends him to the canvas.
Saved by the bell?
Not in this league.
The referee starts the count.
THE AUDIENCE IN APPLAUSE
In this moment, I feel content.
I forget what I had to do in order to remain in contention. I feel like myself. I repeat it over and over, “I’m Willem Floures,” while watching part of me stumble around the ring, legs knocked out from under him.
But he stands up.
The referee looks into his eyes.
And that’s the end of the fight.
Not a knockout.
We wait for the judges’ scores but already I see it all falling back in on me. I feel a great numbing pain in the back of my throat, unaware that I am biting into my tongue, my molars shredding it, all too consumed with what I know to be the conclusion.
WINNER BY SPLIT DECISION
The name given, it isn’t mine.
Figure the X on the marquee paid handsomely for the betting crowd, the warm wads of green bribery handed under the table, passing hands between one opportunist to another, bookie to judge and vice versa.
Who am I to judge the already judged?
What isn’t dirty, what hasn’t been lowered in order to leap higher?
And in this moment, I no longer have any standards.
It has always been personal.
But now –
I will create the laughter.
I will create the momentum.
I will become the exact opposite of everything they know about themselves. I will change what it means to be Willem Floures so much that they will be fighting in in a league entirely their undoing.
Not just you X, but every single one of you.
Every part of me will be confused.
I will infuse a new identity, one that is about winning.
For so long, I have taken the personal as professional.
For so long, I looked at myself as a leader, best of the best because there was always something left to reinforce, to further understand and define.
For so long, that was how I treated my career.
I looked for the true identity, unaware of the fact that the identity of Willem Floures was always shifting and changing.
They were applying their own textures.
Well now I change us.
I turn us into everything the world cannot help but watch.
I TAKE IT PERSONALLY
And Executioner, I know you…
Do you know me?
Because if you did, you would see what’s happening next.
MICHAEL J SEIDLINGER has been in the ring long enough to experience the sting of a perfectly timed power punch. He’d like to think that every novel represents a fight its author has both fought and won. Some of his fights include The Laughter of Strangers, My Pet Serial Killer and The Sky Conducting. He serves as the Reviews Editor for Electric Literature as well as Publisher-in-Chief of Civil Coping Mechanisms, an indie press specializing in innovative fiction and poetry.