The celebrity ref, a local precinct captain with a Caesar hairdo and an Irish brogue, separated us. “None of that now, lad,” he said to Ward. “Next warning, a point deduction!” he yelled to Ward’s corner. “You want to quit, son?” he asked me. “I could stop it for your lip.”
I hadn’t realized the head butt had cut my lip. There was a sweaty streak of blood along my forearm. “Lip’s just a boo-boo,” he said, “but you’re not defending yourself.”
By using the word quit, he’d made quitting impossible. I shook my head, raised my gloves, and Ward charged in swinging, his flurries pounding my reactions into that familiar slow-mo, two rounds earlier than usual. Instead of backpedaling, I circled to his left, throwing pitty-pat jabs. He chased, looping 180-degree right-hand bolo punches across his body, and as he pivoted to square up, I caught him with a lucky straight left, a punch we both stepped into at the same instant, so perfectly timed it seemed rehearsed, one of those moments sport offers when it appears as if opponents have collaborated to choreograph a beautiful catch or a goal. It was the best punch I ever threw in my life and it knocked his mouthpiece flying.
“Go to your corners, lads,” the ref said, signaling time-out. He turned his back to retrieve Ward’s mouthpiece, and Ward attacked, driving me against the ropes with head shots, mashing my ear, and when I ducked behind my gloves, he pummeled my ribs, going, “Bang! Bing! Bam!” as if narrating comic book action. Or maybe it was “Bean! Bean! Bean!” My ear ignited; my brain went blank. A reeling disorientation dulled the impact of the blows, but I remained aware of Ward’s trash talk. Minus his mouthpiece, it was nonstop like his fists: “Gonna fuck you up, Bean, gonna show your cracker fat-ass father you’re a bitch.”
That fuckhead’s not my father, I wanted to say, but Ward caught me in the gut and I sank to one knee, unable to talk or breathe while the ref pulled Ward off, yelling, “Fight’s over. You’re disqualified, lad.”
It had been not quite three minutes.
I sat doubled over on my stool in my corner, woozy with deafness and the flame spurting from the mangled left side of my head. I wanted them to get the gloves off so I could gently press my ear back in place before it fell to the canvas. Through my remaining good ear, from the muffled buzz of the crowd, I heard the rusty-haired dad holler, “Bean, way to take one for the team!”
By the time the bus reached my stop, the elation of watching the wet neon shades of Western Avenue that welled up in me after I’d learned my ear was still attached to my head was fading. My ribs ached and stiffened up. I could barely drag my sax case off the bus.
That night, my ribs woke me from a dream in which blood and brains leaked from my ear, soaking my pillow. The pillow felt sticky with blood, but it was sweat. I crept in the dark to the bathroom and pressed a cold washcloth to my throbbing ear and then flicked on the light just long enough to be sure I hadn’t pissed blood like the boxers with lacerated kidneys I’d heard about. In the kitchen, I sneaked a Popsicle from the freezer and, back in bed, pressed it to my blue-black, swollen lip. I worried the fight had ruined my sax embouchure for good. I alternated pressing the Popsicle to my lip and to my ear, until the Popsicle began to melt, and I unwrapped it. It was cherry, my favorite flavor.
The next day, when third-hour U.S. History paused for the 15 minutes it took for announcements to be read over the PA, I was credited for having won my fight at the tournament. My classmates hadn’t been there to see the debacle, and they applauded.
I never bothered to officially quit the boxing team, just stopped showing up to practice. Coach Cross didn’t bother to call me into his office to ask why. I retired undefeated.