This story is by Doug Spak and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Cedric Mustafa sat in the musty locker room of the Palisades Arena. He stared at the image looking back at him from the upright mirror. In 22 years, he’d never took the time to study what 132 heavyweight fights did to a man’s face. He could hear the chants of “Cedric, Cedric, Cedric.” He thought he could also hear someone yelling:
Behind his right shoulder, a clock read 11:23. He was certain the fight began at 10:45. Must be running late. Didn’t matter. Soon he’d walk to the ring for 133rd time. What wounds would this fight leave on his ragged face, his tattered, exhausted spirit? The face looking back was much older than its 39 years, 74 wins, 49 losses, 9 draws. Haunted by a photographic memory, Cedric recalled every punch absorbed and trauma inflicted. His fragile soul felt every blow rained down against him. It was a savagery only a boxer understood and accepted. Wins and losses become academic, immaterial. A punch is a punch, regardless of the outcome. The only difference was the size of the paycheck. A decision in his favor or, better yet, a knockout meant a few extra drinks that night. And the drinks promised a few hours of sleep without the nightmares.
Cedric’s head throbbed as he looked at his reflection. It was unusual to have a headache before a fight. Shake it off. Looking at his most prominent scars, he allowed a self-satisfied smile. Victories earned those scars. The two-inch gash over his right eye recalled the decision over Spider McShay in 1999. Over the left, another earned in a ninth-round knockout over Jose “El Diablo” Juarez. Two scars. Two memorable victories. Cedric looked at himself pleased, nodded approval.
At the same time, Cedric wondered, if he’d ever been handsome. Somehow, his photographic memory betrayed any attempt to recall the younger Cedric Mustafa. All he could remember is this face, battered, tired, old beyond its years. Did he look like this when he first strapped on the gloves at 17 to fight Lester “Manhunter” Jackson. Jackson was an ex-con with cast-iron fists fueled by rage and resentment. “Manhunter” knocked Cedric through the ropes onto the judges table. A smarter man would have found an excuse to walk away that night. He would find a job packing groceries, washing dishes, dealing crack. Cedric wasn’t stupid. He knew he couldn’t walk away. He’d been fighting this fight, looking for redemption, for clarity his entire life.
Cedric Sr. taught junior the importance of fighting to survive. He schooled his son on the need to use one’s fists or baseball bat or Glock to settle scores. Cedric Sr. needed to correct the indignities leveled upon the black man. Senior held class late at night when he came home drunk and filled with self-loathing. He was an excellent teacher, his son, a reluctant but worthy student. Cedric’s mother was gone. She walked out on the terror years earlier, exhausted and in search of order, some level of sanity. Cedric envied his mother. He loved her courage, yet hated her for abandoning him to deal with her husband’s brand of urban psychosis. Cedric realized he hadn’t thought about his father in years. Is that why the reflection in the mirror looked sad and heavy?
Cedric also realized something interesting about the face looking back at him. It was something he hadn’t seen before the previous 132 fights. It was serenity, the absence of fear. Fear was a primordial companion in the minutes leading up to each fight. Cedric’s was a private fear. He didn’t share it with his entourage for he knew that fighters needed to appear fearless. But all he’d ever known was fear. It wasn’t fear of losing. And it wasn’t fear of dying. It was the fear that he might not die. That somehow, he would survive, but not be able to function, to eat, walk, fuck. He needed to fight to purge himself of Cedric Sr. Win or lose. Somehow, he found solace in both pain endured and punishment inflicted. He didn’t want to be helpless, paralyzed. What if his mind was intact, but fists impotent? What if he had to live the rest of his life through a fog of tortured memories? Cedric needed to fight. It was the only way to defend himself against the legacy of his troubled, abusive father?
Cedric noticed something else as he continued to stare into the mirror. Quiet. An almost eerie solitude, uncommon in the moments leading up to a fight. Where was everyone? No manager, trainer or cut man. The locker room was dark except for one, lone, overhead bulb. The bulb emitted an almost intense, blinding light. 132 fights in 22 years and Cedric couldn’t recall a moment such as this. Strange indeed. They must be giving him space, he thought, a few moments to reflect before making the solitary walk to the ring. He looked down at his hands. No tape. No gloves. Odd. Did they cancel the fight? Someone would have told him by now. But why would they still be chanting. Didn’t matter.
Cedric’s gaze left his hands and returned to the mirror. At first, he didn’t recognize himself; his face seemed to be changing. It must be this old mirror, he thought, cracked, stained, deceptive. The mind does crazy things in the minutes leading up to a fight. But his face seemed less tortured and exhausted. It was somehow softer, the scars less prominent. His face seemed to morph into something younger, more vibrant. Lighter. In fact, he felt stronger, more confident than he’d ever felt before a fight. This was going to be his fight, he could sense it. Tonight he would win for the 75th time. He knew he couldn’t lose. He felt a power surge through his entire body. His muscles felt energized. His eyes no longer sunken and lost, but focused, bright, with a fire he hadn’t seen in years. The aches, an enduring part of his life, now, ebbed, the familiar tightness in his joints subsiding. Over the right shoulder, the clock still read 11:23. Somebody should fix that shit. He needed to get out to the ring, but for some reason was not able to move. His eyes bore in on the reflection of the fighter looking back at him. Strong. Powerful. Hungry. This was his day. His fight. Cedric nodded to the boxer. The boxer returned the gesture.
Cedric Mustafa, Jr. was dead before his head slammed into the canvas. Moments earlier, he won for the 75th time in 133 fight. He survived 11 savage rounds. Both eyes swollen shut, nose broken, he managed to lift himself off the bench for the 12th and final round. He knew he was too far behind to win a decision. His opponent was fifteen years younger, thirty pounds lighter. Faster. Stronger. In the prime of his career, they would say. But Cedric knew. He knew it was far from over. He ignored his manager’s pleas to throw in the towel. He would not quit tonight. Cedric watched the kid in the opposite corner, laughing and bored. The kid must be making plans for the evening. Blind with arrogance, the kid didn’t see the final right cross of Cedric’s career. One punch pulled from the depths, inflamed with the memory of his father. Cedric’s right cross landed sweet. He heard the kid’s cheek bone shatter. He saw the kid’s smugness dissolve. Before moving to a neutral corner, Cedric stood over his fallen opponent. Lester Jackson, Jr. lay on the canvass, eyes shut, pretty face otherwise unscathed. He was definitely his father’s son, Cedric thought. But did he carry Lester Senior’s rage and resentment?
Cedric Mustafa, Jr. would never know the answer. The cerebral edema had been growing in the recesses of his brain, 133 fights in the making. It took 11 rounds of punishment to unleash the hemorrhage that would kill Cedric. But not before he heard the referee yell the word that confirmed his 75th win in 133 fights,
And not before the referee held Cedric’s hand aloft in victory. Held aloft for the final time in the only place he felt safe and at home. Held aloft to the adoring chants of “Cedric, Cedric, Cedric.”
It was the last, sweet sound Cedric Mustafa, Jr. would ever hear. It was the sound of redemption.
And it came at 11:23.