Baker sluiced tap water into his mouth and spat against the enamel. He took his teeth between thumb and forefinger and tugged. They were solid, but his gums ached; throbbing where Butler’s hooks had cut into him. As a kid he’d once had six teeth pulled the same afternoon. Mom had tried to pacify him with sweets and a copy of Victor. He’d eaten bananas and mashed potato all week, while his dad sat grinning, washing sausage and chips down with stewed tea.
He’d lost a stone. His cheeks had sunk and he’d got legs like a chicken. Kids were quick to step in and try their luck that winter. They threw his satchel under a bus, poured iron filings inside his jacket and held him down in the snow. Baker got home and emptied his dripping satchel onto the kitchen table. His exercise book bled felt tip pen. His pocket dictionary was warped along the spine. It hurt him he’d been unable to protect a birthday present from his granddad. Dad thumped the worktop, making the cutlery rattle.
‘Till you learn to fight it won’t stop,’ he said.
Dad spoke to a man called Weston. Weston used to fight on the cobbles, they said. He had gypsy blood. His presence in the bookies or pub brought nods and silence from working men.
‘He needs building up,’ Weston said, feeling Baker’s arm. ‘He’s got muscles like knots in cotton.’
The next day Dad took Baker to the boys’ club at the back of the church. Rainwater dripped from a busted gutter. Moss had grown in the cracks in the flags and names were carved in the paintwork on the door. Dad knocked. A fat man in a donkey jacket nodded when Dad gave Weston’s name. The fat man told Baker to strip to his shorts and skip. Dad winked and left. He hung Baker’s pump bag on a hook by the door. Mom had stitched his initials SB in gold thread. The bag was made of green cord; a leftover swatch from their three-piece suite.
‘You’re not a paddy, are you?’ the fat man said, nodding at the bag, his eyes twinkling.
Baker jumped and crouched in black crepe shoes and tried to do what the rest of them did. He grunted and snorted under paintings of Ali, Robinson and Marciano that’d been done in house paint. They looked like the giant murals you saw on the news in Belfast. It was three months before the fat man told him to lace up his sixteen-ounce gloves and step through the ropes.
Baker braced himself, palms against the sink. He leaned into the mirror and shuddered from as back spasm. He took a gulp of air, winced and set his spine straight. He’d taken the last of the codeine and it hadn’t touched him. He stared into his reflection and smiled. It was a sad smile. It was nine years since he’d looked in this mirror. Baker’s calves and thighs had thickened from roadwork. His cheeks and brow were lumpy and scarred from hard sparring. He’d got broader at the temple and jaw, so his head seemed squarer. First he couldn’t make middle; then he was fighting up at cruiser. He didn’t eat, he didn’t drink; he just kept growing. He was a late developer, they all said. There was a rap at the door, then a flutter of fingers. It was Mercer’s knock. Baker touched the swell beneath his left eye and winced.
‘Should have ducked,’ Mercer said.
Baker watched him in the mirror. Mercer wore a beige suit with tanned loafers. Gold aviators hung from his jacket pocket giving the impression of an aging gangster. Baker guessed he was aiming for that.
‘Got someone to talk to you,’ Mercer said.
Baker shook his head. Tiny white shards of light danced at the edge of his vision. Mercer stepped aside. A slim kid clutching a spiral notepad raised a hand as if to wave. When Baker didn’t speak the youth pushed his wire-framed glasses up his nose.
‘He’s a reporter,’ Mercer said.
‘You don’t say.’
‘Tony Brett,’ the youth said, switching the notepad to his left and holding out a small, pale hand. Baker gripped it. It was damp and cool, like the earth under a flagstone.
‘How do you think it went?’
Brett’s pen scored a ridge in the paper. He licked the nib and scribbled circles until the ink began to flow.
‘I won, didn’t I?’
Baker slumped against the lockers to unlace his boots, picking them open one strand at a time.
‘Baker uses his loaf. What about that?’ Mercer made speech marks in the air with his fingers.
Baker’s T-shirt had ridden up at the waist exposing white scar tissue. Baker tugged a bottle of lemonade free from his backpack, twisted the cap off and slugged it back.
‘Baker uses loaf. You can have that for free, young man.’
Brett ignored Mercer.
‘Where do you see yourself going next?’
Baker nodded at Mercer.
‘I do the fighting. He does the matchmaking,’ he said, and belched.
Mercer cleared his throat.
‘We’re looking at the Midlands belt,’ he said.
‘But that’s the problem, isn’t it?’ Brett said.
Baker swigged his lemonade. He watched Brett through the plastic of the bottle.
‘What’s the problem?’ Mercer said.
Brett sucked on his pen.
‘You fought on the Lewis card in Vegas.’
Baker put the bottle down. He wedged a towel behind his neck, as if readying himself for a long-haul flight.
‘I stopped Tony Romero in five.’
‘That was four years ago,’ Brett said.
Baker’s eyes narrowed.
‘He never fought again, did he? I finished him that night.’
‘That got you a shot for the World title?’
Baker nodded. Brett stepped back and glanced around the room. He didn’t say anything more about the World title. The walls of the makeshift dressing room were pocked with specks of sage green. A rusting radiator seeped its filthy treacle onto the patterned lino. In the corners of the room, where the lino hadn’t been nailed or taped in place, it peeled back revealing cracked green Marley tiles. Peeling fight posters from the 70s had been tacked to the plaster. Men with chiselled cheeks and long sideburns prepared for action at Kings Hall, Stoke and The Civic, Wolverhampton. Brett swallowed.
‘This must be so different to what you’re used to.’
Baker’s eyelid twitched.
‘I mean it’s not Caesar’s Palace, is it?’ Brett said.
‘And you’re not Hugh McIlvanney,’ Mercer said, ‘so sod off.’
‘I didn’t mean to offend,’ Brett said.
Mercer nodded at the door. When Brett trudged out, he slammed it. A piece of card with ‘dressing room’ scrawled on it dropped to the floor.
Midway through the fourth a short right almost cut Baker in half. He gasped, sank to one knee and blinked away the pain as the ref took up the count. Faces at ringside swirled and contorted. He pawed at his brow, unsure if it was sweat or blood he was leaking. Baker rose at eight, clamped his gloves tight and nodded at the ref.
‘Start throwing something back,’ the ref said.
Harry Kite was an ex-welterweight who’d won Area titles. He’d retired and taken his referee’s courses. He knew what a beating did to a fighter. He wouldn’t give Baker long.
Baker threw a jab. Hooper caught it, grinning. Baker stepped in, swung a straight right. Hooper ducked under, slammed him to the ribs and stepped back out. Hooper swerved left, jigged right and did a little dance, gloves hooked in his waistband. He’s humiliating me, Baker thought. Hooper gestured for him to come on. Baker doubled the jab. Hooper was behind him, grinning. He shot a straight right that skimmed Baker’s shoulder. A right hook lifted him back on his heels. A chopping left sent Baker spinning into the ropes. He covered up, his gloves jackknifed to his temples as hooks and short rights rained in on his head and body. Baker bit down on his gum shield and swung a right hand. Hooper leaned back and sent an uppercut through Baker’s gloves. Everything went black. Baker sank to his knees as if bowed in prayer. He rocked back against the ropes and saw the white lights flashing in glints and flickers and sparks. He saw the milk bottle tops he’d used to lure mackerel as a schoolboy in Wales glinting in the sunlight. He got to one knee, unsteady.
Five, six, seven…..
At ringside Mercer was punching the air, waving him back in. Claude Jones, Hooper’s manager, was talking on his phone, gesturing wildly with a pen. The press benches were almost empty. Baker squinted, wiped away the sweat with a glove. One man thought he was still worth a line. Brett was watching, pen in hand.
The tragedy for fighters like Steve Baker is that boxing becomes a way of life. They lose their speed, their wits and their senses, but they continue. Because nature deems that the last thing they lose is their punch. While a boxer has heart and a punch he’ll always believe he has a chance.
Baker thumped his gloves together, stepped in and threw a straight right. Hooper parried and threw an uppercut. Baker saw it but couldn’t get out of the way. His footwork was leaden, lumpy. He lurched forward and staggered like a novice in knight’s armour. Hooper threw combinations of six and eight unanswered. Kite threw his arms round Baker. Only the weight of Hooper’s punches kept Baker on his feet.
Brett stared up into the rows of seats. Hooper’s fans were punching the air and singing. There were thirty or forty of them; fit-looking men with shaved heads and orange tans; enough to hire a minibus. They had flags and T-shirts made up with their hero’s name and photo on them. The name of their pub was stitched onto a flag of St George. Hooper wouldn’t have lasted a round with the Baker who’d fought in Vegas. But the pendulum swings. No one had come to watch Baker.
Later, Baker would salve his bruises and drink. He’d tell the barman in the Fox that we all have bad nights. He was fit. He hadn’t been in many wars; hadn’t taken many beatings. He would come again. He ordered another scotch. No one in the Fox was buying for him. He tumbled out at midnight, arched his back into a bus shelter to avoid the icy wind and began to feel the aches in his ribs and his kidneys.
Brett would file his copy. He’d write about a fighter who couldn’t quit; who’d slid from Vegas all the way back to the Town Hall where he’d made his debut. Brett stopped typing at three in the morning. Brett had finally written something that mattered. He’d written about humanity.
Despite the brutality and heartache it’s hard to escape the appeal of boxing. These quiet, disciplined men have a dignity about them and an obvious respect for each other. There are mismatches and there will always be supreme talents other fighters can’t live with, but fighters don’t mock because they know the courage and grit it takes just to step between the ropes.
Brett trudged into the office at nine, wiping sleep-grit from the corners of his eyes. He went in search of coffee and was handed a note by the chief sub. His copy had been spiked. Written across it in red ink were the words: I don’t want to know about the loser. Who cares about the loser?