A Fighter

14.07.04 - By Matthew Hurley: He sat on the wooden bench in front of his locker with his head in his hands. His hands… His hands were swollen and bruised. Without warning he hit the red metal locker with a clenched left fist and then shook his head in disgust.

Douglas Carpenter had just suffered through a brutal workout in which he had been knocked to the canvas four times in three two minute rounds. He felt inadequate. He felt humiliated. He felt less than a man.

“Did you see that sonofabitch?” he asked through a swollen lip. “I’m twice the size of that little prick and he clobbered me.”

I nodded. “He can fight,” I said, trying to sound reassuring.

Doug stared straight ahead at his locker and shook his head. “He’s all right,” he sighed. “Maybe I just can’t.”

I looked down at my notebook and then back up at the aging fighter who had just received a healthy dose of ring reality. “Why do you want to fight?” I asked. My pen was ready but I didn’t really need it. Everything this middle aged man did and said felt so familiar. There is a sadly euphoric feeling one experiences being around a man who puts on boxing gloves and steps into the ring. Sitting alone with a fighter you can sense the quiet desperation that enlivens the spirit within the man. There is a sense of pride mixed with anger and resignation.

Douglas is not a young man. He’s not a man training for gold in the Olympics. He’s not even a man training for a title shot. He fights in local clubs for money. He fights because the local drunks like to watch two men pound on each other; and the drunks like to heckle and spit and throw trash into the ring. He fights because he needs the cash but he also fights because every so often he throws a combination that works and he feels like a champion.

“I knocked this guy down once with a left hook,” he says, running his bruised hand through his thick black hair. “A perfect left hook. It was so perfect I didn’t even know I’d thrown it. It just happened. Splat! Down he went.”

“A knockout?” I asked.

Douglas shook his head and chuckled. “No. Damn sonofabitch got up and knocked me out. Can you believe that?”

“It happens,” I replied.

He nodded and rubbed his thighs. “It happens to me a lot. Too much.” He paused and then asked, “You ever been knocked out?”

I nodded. “Once.”

He smiled. “It’s not that bad, is it? I mean, you don’t really feel anything.”

I laughed. “Until the morning.”

Douglas nodded and smiled. “Yeah, until the morning.”

“Why do you fight?” I asked again.

He stared at his locker and then rested his head in his hands again. “All those things. Everything. The money. But I love it. I love the gym. I love the sport. I ain’t any good, I know that, but I’m in there. I’m in there. Every now an then I let go with a good one, you know? Like that left hook.”

Douglas shrugged his shoulders and then headed for the showers. He looked every bit the broken down fighter but there was a dignity to the man. There was an aura of nobility about him. It was something that he couldn’t articulate with words and could barely justify with his fists but it was there.

I walked back out into the gym and watched young kids and older men hit the heavy bag and the speed bag and jump rope and shadow box. All of them harbored a dream of being a champion but all of them seemed to have a rather haunted gaze in their eyes that spoke to their mediocrity. There were no diamonds in the rough here and they all seemed to know that. And yet it made them train with even more resolve. They hit everything in their path as hard as they could. There was a palpable sense of needing to belong and perhaps they could only achieve that sense of belonging when one of their own was hitting them with a gloved fist.

A sadness permeated the gym, but there was also a sense of community. Amidst all the sweat and anger and violence there was a definite love for both the sport of boxing and amongst each fighter who trained so diligently.

Douglas eventually came out of the locker room with his gym bag slung over his back. He kept his eyes to the floor and then looked up quickly, spotting me. He waved and then walked out of the gym.

I watched him leave and then wrote down the only words I transcribed that day.

“Douglas Carpenter – A Fighter.”

Article posted on 14.07.2004

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