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SO I HAD A FEW THINGS on my mind come fight night. I usually do. Hell, what's the point of stepping into the ring unless you've got troubles that need fixing. But all this was a problem well beyond what punching someone in the nose could solve. Here I was standing in my corner, bathed in flop sweat, trembling too, and ring announcer Mel (Mellifluous) Mankato was giving the introductions. I barely heard my name, just his barely legal catchphrase, "Ladies and Gentlemen, let's get prepared to tussle!" The crowd noise keened like a 747 at takeoff. The photographers--I'd never fought with someone so legitimizing as a photographer in attendance--were creating a dangerous strobe effect. And the ring was crowded with semicelebrities, the cast from Different Strokes, all grown up now, a color guard and a lesser Jackson to sing the anthem. Tito, Tonto? La Tonto, maybe?
These were conditions that were likely to create a hallucination in any case, but on top of everything else, including whatever I'd injected, I was more or less undergoing an out-of-body experience.
I couldn't trust my senses at this point so I was forced to disregard some odd signals. Pop leaned back on the ropes in his corner, his leering mug looking like a jack-o'-lantern. Why was he so cheerful? My cutman, Ace Bondage, was whistling a dirge. I didn't remember that as part of his shtick. Doggy wouldn't meet my eyes. And the referee! "Did he just wink at me?" I asked Ace, who wouldn't meet my eyes either. I looked down at press row, but the writers were all laughing among themselves. I only recognized the top-hatted and intermittently sober Rudolph Roberts, whose whiny Wring Ropes column had been running in decreasingly circulated papers for 40 years now. He was a gloomy guy, always poking you in the chest with his shaky fingers, saying, "Kid, it never ends pretty." Still, he was one of the few hardcore boxing writers still working. I looked down at him, and it looked like he was starting to say, "Kid, it never...." when the bell rang.
The chance to engage in a little hand-to-hand combat usually has a clarifying effect on me, and normally my muddled head would have cleared in that instant. But my confusion lingered like a bad hangover. The ringside gallery ought to have faded, but instead I found myself picking out Considine, Cheryl Sue, Ma, all the TV guys. I was distracted, I suddenly didn't believe I could lift my arms, I found myself wondering if I'd locked the door on my way out, I thought about....
Next thing I know I'm on my knees, scrambling for my mouthpiece. I never saw the left hook he'd nailed me with. I got up at eight but couldn't do anything but clutch Pop, an embrace we'd never had occasion to enjoy up to this point. How I ever made it through that round, I can't say.
Sitting on my stool between rounds, I knew I was in bad shape. "Cut me, Ace." I said.
Ace looked at my swollen eye, and then at Doggy. "It ain't that bad, Kid. More like a bruise."
Doggy leaned in to have a look as well. "It's more like a mild discoloration."
Ace looked again. "I'd say an abrasion."
I told them to do whatever they had to do to get me out of there, but they just retreated behind the ropes. I suddenly realized everybody was arrayed against me--Ma's injection another bit of sabotage, like Considine's ploy, Pop's phony sob story. I even doubted Cheryl Sue's news. They were all in on it. My instincts for paranoia, sharpened by the fight game, were paying off. All. Against. Me.