It has undoubtedly been a huge week in the world of fighting, thanks to the coming of age performance by Anthony Joshua in his epic Wembley showdown with Dr Steelhammer. To celebrate this changing of the guard we bring to you a wonderful short story by our very own boxing aficionado, journalist David Jarvis. This is ‘The Last Round’ …
And so with a glance from his father that begged but expected no forgiveness, the fighter tucked in his elbows and moved forward for the last round. His father stared hard at his back as he moved away realising what happened next would not be of his making. The fighter’s gloves were held high – so high they obscured his vision – and shut out opportunity more than danger. His torso tensed against what he had never previously feared – he crouched and shuffled towards his opponent. He bit down harder than usual on his gum shield – his movements were tense and stiff – he looked awkward. The punches did not flow. He suppressed his natural instincts for aggression. Nothing came naturally. He prodded and peeked. His punches carried no weight or conviction. The crowd gasped as his apparently fearful blows fell short and arced harmlessly through the air. His fastest movement was backwards into his defensive shell.
He seemed so scared of being hit he was incapable of throwing a meaningful punch – in case it made him vulnerable. To his father he looked like a man walking off a cliff and into oblivion. He was ignoring everything he had ever been taught by the old man. Kill or be killed. He was fighting half-heartedly for the first time in his life. To the old man it looked like he had given up. He allowed jab after jab from the man before him to spear his guard. Punches thudded full into his face with numbing force. But he did not fight back.
By his calculated movement he invited more of the same punishment, though the crowd, which understood little of the geometry or symmetry of boxing, did not realise it. They did not know he was losing on purpose. The pain fizzed through his brain and around the back of his head as if it was trying to find a way through his skull and reach out into the crowd. It was a pain that could ignite fury in any man. But he took it without response. His father’s keen eye could see that something subtle was happening inside the circle of violence. But he could not understand fully what was unravelling. In his eyes his son had never lost. He couldn’t be losing. The old man’s own strength of will had made him blind to that which was obvious to others. Yet each brief loss of balance induced by the collision of flesh and leather triggered a minor recovery. The crowd did not see this because it focussed on the pain on the fighter’s face not the movement of his feet. The feet padded two steps backwards as his features contorted on impact – then they repeated the slow two-step forward again and re-set themselves against the next meeting.
Imperceptibly, this losing fighter kept coming. The man before him, who the crowd now saw as his executioner, couldn’t put him away. He couldn’t break him. Both men shared this intimate knowledge of each other. The crowd didn’t. They thought it was a matter of time. It wasn’t. So they jeered at what they saw as one fighter’s inability or unwillingness to fight back. And they grew frustrated at what they perceived as the other man’s failure to finish the job. They knew nothing of the sport and less of the men they derided. Whistles and boos rang in the fighter’s ears as tears fell from his father’s eyes – his trembling hands clutching the bottom rope, his knuckles white with tension, his blue eyes bright with fear and confusion. “Fight back,” he screamed. “Fight back.” And at that moment the winning fighter looked out of a clinch into the old man’s eyes with an exhausted and quizzical look that said: “Don’t you get it?” The old man didn’t get it.
He couldn’t see beneath the surface. If he could he would have seen into his son’s soul for the first time and past his fighting heart. The man he had come to regard as a fighter instead of a man was standing firm but without throwing a punch. He had found a new way to fight. He had replaced his rage with quiet strength. He was searching his soul as the punches boomed in. The victory he sought tonight was with himself. Better to withstand this man before him than to lash out and risk losing the self-control that had always robbed him of himself. Those violent bursts had won applause but increasingly they had cost him not only in the ring but in life. He had turned the fight into a personal test – he needed to give victory away in order to be the man he wanted to be. It didn’t matter that his opponent had nothing left. He would surely get the verdict. “You’ve lost,” his father barked at him as he returned to his stool. “No I haven’t,” the fighter said. “That wasn’t even a fight. It was just a step. The first and hardest step.” “I don’t understand,” the old man said, unable to take his eyes off his son’s broken and battered features. “That was my last fight,” he said. “I have nothing left to prove. It’s time to be a good man instead of a great fighter.”
They looked at each other for a moment. The father still didn’t really understand. He only knew his son had tested himself in a way he had never done before and that it meant something. The crowd which had booed and hissed his passivity jeered him out of the ring. But the derision he had run from all his life now made him feel warm. Father and son left the hall together without waiting for the referee to raise the hand of the winning fighter. They didn’t look back. The result no longer mattered to either man.