Mythaxis

Ringside


Martin Clark


"If you even dream of beating me you'd better wake up and apologize." Muhammad Ali "Every man's got to figure to get beat sometime." Joe Louis

"End of round four!"

I slumped on the stool and spat out the guard. Lenny, my trainer, fussed around me with a wet sponge.

"Keep moving kid, you gotta' keep moving. Use your speed, watch your footwork. You can take him, sure thing."

I took a long swig of water and spat, conscious of how pink it came out.

"Take him, Lenny? It's a bloody android, for Christ's sake. I'm getting murdered out there."

He leaned in close, his voice a rasping whisper.

"More human than human, right? That's the synthetic creed, yeah? Well, all the SporTek models are based on old-school fighters and I think this joker is mimicking Sonny Liston. Long reach, big hitter, not big on uppercuts and such."

I flexed arms and shoulders, eyeing my impassive opponent.

"This helps me how, exactly?"

Lenny licked his lips and speared some more Vaseline over my right brow.

"Vulnerable jaw. Maybe."

I snorted.

"Maybe? That's the best you got?"

"That's the best you got, kid. You're Anvil Andy, the one-shot wonder. Get him open and put him down."

"Seconds out, round five!"

I came out dancing, ignoring the jeers and cat-calls from the partisan crowd. 'Sonny' was a smooth mover, all direct advances and straightforward combination punches. We traded blows against guard with little real damage. He was cut bad over the left eye and although I knew it was just cosmetic there had to be - by statute - some soft spot on his frame that would give me a KO.

And it had to be a knock-out, and soon, as I was getting murdered out here. Way behind on points and with the rib damage to prove it. Sonny had a big left arm but didn't fight southpaw - unless maybe I could tempt him into breaking his stride. I went in close with a quick flurry so he gave ground, then dropped my right like it was giving me trouble.

He lashed out with his left, coming off the back foot so it didn't have his full weight behind it, but his fist was the size of a dinner plate. I stepped into it, chin down, bringing my right up in a sweeping uppercut.

There was a jolt, like touching a live wire.

"FIVE!"

The world had suddenly shifted sideways and something seemed to be pressing against my face.

"Get up Andy! Come on! All you have to do is get off the canvas!"

"SIX!"

I was face down with Lenny shouting at me from the ringside. I lifted my right glove and hung it over the lowest rope. The background noise from the crowd was deafening, an incomprehensible clamour.

"SEVEN!"

I managed to lift my torso off the canvas, pulling with my right and pushing up with my left. My right knee up eased up almost to my waist.

"EIGHT!"

I dug my right toe in and pushed up, climbing the ropes, hand over hand.

"NINE!"

I stood, planted both feet on the canvas. Raised my gloves. Turned.

"That was a damn bear pit out there and I've got crowd sweat, popcorn and God knows what in my hair. And that was supposed to be the VIP section."
The world spun, but I concentrated on the solid feel of the ring beneath me. The referee jerked into my field of vision; a small, wizened man with slicked-back blond hair. He spoke, gazing into my eyes, a hand on my shoulder, but the words were meaningless. I slapped my gloves together and rotated my neck.

"I'm fine, ref. Bit shook up there but ready to continue."

I felt his eyes scan my face and then he nodded, pulling back and to my side, holding my right arm aloft. Crowd noise washed over me like a tidal wave of bedlam.

Sonny lay on the canvas in front of me, his eyes the solid blue of a systems crash.

I remember standing there, arms held aloft, but the rest is just a blur. There were officials, and Lenny helping me from the ring, and event security helping us forge a passage through the jostling crowd.

The dressing room was an oasis of calm and I sat on the treatment table while Mutt and Jeff unlaced my gloves. Mutt and Jeff were Lenny's assistants; two identical Beta-class androids in matching track suits. The only way to tell them apart was that Jeff wore an Über-Brawn baseball cap, although I suspected they occasionally swapped it over.

The event medic gave me a clean bill of health while the Boxing Commission flunky inspected my gloves for EMP emitters or similar gizmos which might have floored Sonny. Lenny was sporting a large, unlit, cigar in his mouth - one of his little rituals each time I win - and had to keep removing it each time he spoke. He put a hot towel round my neck and started rummaging in his bag of tricks.

"Right, kid. Can't do anything about the surface bruising, you'll just have to live with it. I think you got problems with your ribcage, though, the way you struggled through the ropes. So try a little of this..."

He applied a null-state gas injector to my torso and it felt like a finger flicked against the skin. "...just a little nanite repair crew. Fix you up for sure."

"Cheers, Lenny! I'll end up more mech than the SporTek cans at this rate."

He grinned.

"Nah, nah, strictly limited lifespan and leaves only a carbon residue. You got-"

There was a swell of sound as the door opened. Amanda ran across to me and I slid from the table to meet her embrace. She buried her head in my chest as Perry, my manager, addressed the press.

"There you are, ladies and gentlemen, Andy 'The Anvil' Harrison. Undefeated in twelve fights, only three of which have gone the distance. Now, if you'd kindly let the boy have a few moments with his fiancée we'll see you all at the press conference."

Security guards closed the door against a barrage of flash photography and questions while Perry turned and walked towards us. I'm a fan of old cinema and the guy is the spitting image of Peter Lorre, right down to the slightly indeterminate accent. Since I mentioned this, Perry had adopted certain affectations, like the short cigarette holder he gestured with, and was the very definition of the word 'dapper'.

Amanda pushed herself away from me with an 'Ugh!' of revulsion.

"You're not paying me enough for this, Perry. That was a damn bear pit out there and I've got crowd sweat, popcorn and God knows what in my hair. And that was supposed to be the VIP section."

Amanda was Perry's idea at generating a little human interest. She comes to all my fights, sitting there in tortured anguish as I get beat up, radiant triumph when I win. Perry makes sure we have separate hotel rooms on tour (for the Moral Majority) but with a connecting door (for the tabloids). Not that I'm interested, though, as we have about as much sexual chemistry as a dirty puddle.

Perry lit his cigarette and blew smoke towards the buzzing overhead lights.

"Your contract is for twenty fights, Mandy, my dear, but feel free to walk out at any time. The agreement is tighter than a pre-nuptial and just as intimate in its constraints, so you'd be expected to pay back your retainer, plus interest."

She glared at him and I half expected some screaming rant, but instead she stormed over to the mini-bar and hit the vodka. My manager regarded me with a patently insincere smile on his lips.

"Andy, my boy! I must admit you had us going for a moment when you went down in the third, but I can see now it was all just a ploy to increase the dramatic tension. I'm pleased you've taken my little talk about enhancing the performance to heart."

I opened my mouth, but Lenny was right in there.

"Screw you, Perry! My boy was getting hammered out there and that win was more luck than judgement. I just can't keep patching him up and sending him back into the ring week after week - we need some serious down-time!"

Mutt and Jeff sidled off to one side in response to the obvious tension but Perry was all smiling affability.

"Your contribution is appreciated, Lenny, truly. There aren't many out there with your skills, your expertise, your commitment. I'd be deeply sorry should you feel unable to continue as part of this project, and it would be extremely difficult to replace you. But not impossible. Are we clear?"

Lenny removed his cigar and spat the chewed-off end at Perry's feet.

"You listen to me, shit-head. I heard all about those jokers in the Boxing Commission wanting to change who Andy has to face down the line. It's your pals from the SenSen and mediaCore networks twisting a few arms, yeah? Am I right or am I right?"

My manager's smile became little more than a thin line.

"Nothing but gossip and idle speculation! Of course the big boys want to enhance their product and, quite frankly, no-one expected Andy to get this far undefeated. The whole twenty fights in twenty weeks schedule has captured the public interest but the pay-per-view market doesn't like a sure thing. Unfortunately that's what a match featuring The Anvil is in danger of becoming - a one-sided contest. He's already bested twelve heavyweights, including five of SporTek's finest, and that has earned him no favours, let me tell you!"

It was slightly weird, watching them get into it like that. They were both short, slightly built men and it felt a bit like tugs fussing round a lumbering cargo vessel. I stepped forward, feeling awkward.

"Hey, guys..."

Lenny ignored me.

"So what's next, Perry? Suspending the class limitations and sending in a super-heavyweight? You really want to see our boy get his head taken off?"

"Guys, really..."

Perry ignored me.

"That was an option, yes, but I came up with an alternative which I felt would capture the imagination of both crowd and promoter."

He looked at me and smiled in triumph.

"The next opponent Andy faces will be himself."

I expected Lenny to spit out his cigar in disgust, but instead he stood there for a moment, moving it from side-to-side in his mouth.

"Yeah, yeah, that might work. Even with an identical physical match-up Andy has learned boxing from the ground up, and that gives him a huge advantage against any programmed opponent. If SporTek think-"

"Über-Brawn, actually".

Perry was inspecting the fingernails on his left hand and tried to keep his voice nonchalant, but Lenny blew up anyway.

"Über-Brawn? Our own sponsors are in on this? Hell, why not keep it simple and just have the boy throw a few fights instead!"

Perry actually had the good grace to look slightly uncomfortable.

"...it's all just theatre when you get down to it. We all have our parts to play..."
"Well, that course of action has been intimated..." he saw the look on Lenny's face and continued, just a little hurriedly, "...but of course I refused to play ball. Look, Lenny, be realistic, U-B are under intense pressure to make these contests more, ah, dramatic, and it's obvious that Andy can beat SporTek in a fair fight. This was the best option I could come up with - or would you rather see our boy face a real monster with jacked-up reflexes and no soft-spot?"

Lenny turned his back on Perry, motioning for Mutt and Jeff to step in and start removing my hand wraps. I could see the tic in his cheek, a sure sign he would take his anger out on the heavy bag later.

"So U-B sold us out? I take it the opposition will get Andy's full physical work-up and training video history? Jeez, Perry, anything else you want to spring on us?"

My manager smiled, all charm.

"Lenny, Lenny, Lenny, it's all just theatre when you get down to it. We all have our parts to play and-"

"Theatre? Theatre? You step in that ring and it's the real deal, no second chances. Every time he puts on the gloves Andy knows he could get smashed up, or worse, so don't stand there and tell me it's all just play acting."

Perry kept smiling, but his eyes were like stone.

"Lenny, look at you, you're a walking stereotype. The wise old trainer who takes the promising kid under his wing for a shot at the title. Andy, the contender who'll risk everything to fulfil his dream. Amanda, the glamorous, supportive girlfriend. Even me, the shyster manager willing to risk his fighter's well-being for a few extra bucks."

He paused, gesturing around the dressing room.

"This, all of this, is just a carefully manufactured image to make the product more media-friendly."

Lenny turned and jabbed at Perry with his cigar.

"Not in here. Not in the ring. We'll put up with all the window dressing you want but never get in the way of the boxing or -"

Perry held up both hands in mock surrender.

"Lenny, Lenny, I know! We're all on the same team, really. On the plus side if, sorry, when, Andy gets past his next opponent the Commission have agreed to bring forward the title bout against Khan."

Lenny frowned.

"What happened to the whole twenty-in-twenty setup then?"

"That was always a gimmick, Lenny, you know that. Just my way of breaking an unknown fighter into the professional circuit. The networks will cut in the unused venues for a share of the media rights in lieu of cancellation penalties. Everyone stays sweet and you get to see Andy tread the golden canvas. World heavyweight champion. Has a nice ring to it, eh? Plus, of course, if I can get Andy to a title then I'll be able to write my own ticket when it comes to managing other contenders."

Nobody asked my opinion. They never do.

I could see Lenny chewing this over and Perry took his silence as agreement.

"Excellent! So for one night only we have the exciting prospect of seeing two Anvils in action."

Amanda looked up from the mini-bar, her faced flushed, an empty glass swaying in her grasp.

"I'm not doing a threesome, no way! Not unless I get exclusive rights to all media content." She burped, frowned. "Anyway, I didn't think he was into all that."

"Mandy, my dear, let me explain..."

Perry sidled over to her and Lenny turned back to me, concern haunting his eyes.

"You take all that in, kid? You'll be facing an opponent modelled on yourself, one that knows all your moves, all your strengths and weaknesses."

"Yeah, yeah, I get it, Lenny. Kind of like that mirror boxing stuff you have me do, 'cept he hits back."

I grinned, bringing my freed fists up in a classic pose. "But I'll have the edge, right? Like you said, I've learned boxing the hard way. No implanted responses or easy access techniques."

He smiled and held his palms up for me to slap in a quick combination, but his eyes stayed wary.

"Won't be that easy, Andy, no way. You can bet your bottom dollar SporTek will come up with some way to wangle an advantage out of the Commission. Harder hitting maybe, or slightly faster. Something to compensate for your natural edge."

Perry looked up from mixing himself a vodka martini.

"Sorry boys, maybe I didn't make myself clear. Andy won't be facing a standard SporTek boxing android this time, that's obviously lost its appeal."

He popped in an olive.

"I'm not sure exactly what they've got planned but the tag-line for the fight is already out. Very dramatic. Catchy, in a neo-biblical way."

Lenny and I exchanged glances. Perry whispered to Amanda and she giggled, saluting me with a toast.

"The Anvil meets his maker."

Lenny stuck me in the tank and kept me there for four days. It's designed for dermal regeneration but this time they also stuck me with these needles and biomonitors like I was facing major surgery. I didn't feel a thing, of course, and went from giving Lenny a thumbs-up to groaning on the recovery pad.

My body burned.

Lenny covered my shoulders with a big towel and started rubbing me dry.

"Sorry, kid, that was a bit extreme, even for someone as used to it as you. Ran you with as much I-V fluids and diuretics as I dared, to flush the crap out of your system. Just couldn't match the build-up of toxins towards the end there. It'll pass, I promise, and you'll feel the benefit of it."

I coughed and hawked up some of the saline solution they have me floating in. It always gets up my nose, no matter what.

"Feels like I've been run over, Lenny. What the hell you do to me?"

He grimaced.

"Bit more than just toning, that's for sure. Look, try and stand, move about a bit. The more active you are the faster you'll recover."

I stood, but my legs were uncertain and I had to sit on the bench, conscious of the cold plastic against my skin. I started shivering, gagged, and was sick. Nothing much came up, just bile, but I felt a bit better afterwards.

Lenny brought me a high-protein smoothie and one for himself. It's all he takes following stomach cancer a ways back, so he told me, and he put me onto the same régime right after he became my trainer. Some days it's like I can't remember eating anything else, and my guts have long forgotten what real food tastes like. Made me hard and lean inside though, and Lenny says that's good - the more my guts shrink the less they can move if I get hit. Less movement, less damage.

I sucked on the straw and made a face.

"Jeez, Lenny! What's this supposed to be?"

He peered at the label as he really should wear glasses for reading.

"Strawberry. Maybe. Berry something at least. I didn't have time to buy the ingredients so I bought some ready made from that wholefood deli across the street. Anyway, Perry has you booked in for a romantic evening meal at some swanky restaurant, so I figured you better have something to eat beforehand."

"With Amanda?"

He laughed.

"Well, you're sure as hell not my type! Not Perry's either, although he dresses like a fag. No, it's one of those photo-calls he's so fond of, for the media. You know the drill - the Anvil and his fiancée share an intimate moment ahead of his big fight."

I swallowed some more and tried to put a name to the taste. I failed.

"Evening meal, Lenny? Let me guess, that means a steak with all the trimmings?"

"Yeah, yeah, I know. Don't worry though, you'll have a whole bunch of little munchers to tackle the solids. I'll put them in that bio-drink you're promoting."

He took the unfinished shake from me as I tried standing again. At least the world didn't come up to smack me in the mouth but it still felt like I'd just run ten K. On all fours.

"Still hurts like hell when I pass the residue though. Can't you come up with something that just dissolves all that stuff completely?"

He passed me a pair of shorts and I didn't fall over while putting them on.

"Sorry, kid, but nanites can only do so much. Just be thankful it's the consistency of porridge. Now, make fists." He held his palms up and I jabbed. With my left. I stopped, staring at my hands like they reminded me of something I'd forgotten, something I'd dreamed about.

"Lenny? What's going on?"

He nodded and smiled, but without humour.

"Listen up kid, if there was any other way I'd have taken it. I'd love to blame Perry for this but it was my idea, plain and simple."

He paused, running a hand over his mouth.

"You're now a southpaw, Andy. Implanted response. Not permanent, I promise."

I shied away, two steps back, my scalp tight with fear.

"An implant? An implant? You've messed with my head? For God's sake, Lenny, I trusted you!" He stepped up and grabbed my forearms, his eyes like stone. "Listen to me. We needed something. You needed something, something wildcard, something the opposition won't expect. You're still the same inside, really. It's just a switch, a crossover. You think right, your body responds left. Got it?"

I shook him off and flexed my right hand, seeing the fingers on my left respond.

"But my punch, the big K-O, it's the wrong arm. It's all just wrong."

He slapped me across the face, gun-shot loud in the empty room. "Feel the power in your left arm. Go on, try it! Trust me, kid, you don't want to know what it took, but there's nothing left in your system that won't pass muster with the boxing commission. Move it, feel it, feel the extra power. "

My reflection twisted and turned in the full length mirror as I inspected myself. I'd never been 'crabbed' - one arm hugely over-developed - but my left had always been the junior partner. Now it felt like I was using my right, just it was a bit lighter, a bit underpowered. I tried a few basic combinations, jabs, a flurry, uppercut, rest. Lenny stood behind me, trying to sound encouraging.

"There, kid, you see. Not so bad. In the ring, you won't hardly notice, you'll be too focused on the other guy. Your guard and counter-punching will be a bit off to start, but I've got a session booked in the gym for you to practice in. Get dressed now."

He slapped me on the shoulder and turned away while I stood there, looking at myself in the mirror, wishing I could trade places.

I got dressed in tracksuit and trainers and followed Lenny down the corridor, still feeling like I was one stage removed from my body. Then the penny dropped.

"You've got a session booked in a gym? What's wrong with this place, you got the decorators in or something?"

He glanced back over his shoulder and led the way out into reception.

"Perry's idea, kid. He thinks the place might be bugged - spy cameras and all that high-tech crap. I think he's just blowing smoke but given the little surprise we got planned you can't be too careful. Friend of mine has a gym across town, so we'll have exclusive use of it today."

There were two big guys waiting for us, all loose-fitting suits, anti-flash contact lenses and double earpieces. Lenny just grunted and headed out the door with our escort trailing along behind. At the kerb were three identical black SUVs with tinted windows and we piled into the middle one. Our little convoy drove off with an obvious camera crew following.

"Lenny, isn't this all a bit..."

He grimaced. "Melodramatic? Yeah, well, partly serious and partly just play-acting for the media. Look, kid, a couple of bookies came to Perry on the sly, asking if the fight had been fixed. You were the clear favourite going into this but a lot of serious money has started shifting to your opponent, so they're getting nervous."

I fiddled with my seatbelt as we drove through a maze of dilapidated light industrial units. "You think some word of what SporTek's got planned has leaked out?"

"More like inside information being used to make a fast buck. We're talking betting syndicates here, people who don't like surprises. We could make a lot of people unhappy when you win, and that means the betting on the title fight will be something else. Oh, they've given your opponent a name - 'Anton Marx'."

"A full name, like for a regular person? Why they go and do that?" Lenny shrugged. "Beats me. I checked it out and it's not even a name used by anyone on the circuit. Maybe they're just trying to personalise the fight, make it less like the usual match-up where you pound one of their cans into the canvas. Look, it'll take the best part of an hour to get there, so you rest and don't worry about the window dressing, OK?"

So I dozed, tired despite having been unconscious for four days, until Lenny touched my shoulder.

"We're here, kid. You wait by the car while I check everything's kosher."

We were in an overgrown alley in the midst of a run-down residential neighbourhood. The cars disgorged a posse of security who stood about, scanning the windows and doorways facing us. I was bored.

Then, it was the weirdest thing, but I swear I saw Lenny cross the end of the alley, like he'd come out the front door and was making tracks. Same rolling gait, same knitted cap, and I was on the point of calling out when Lenny himself appeared at the side entrance and ushered me inside. He hustled down the corridor, pointing as he went.

"Right kid, you got steam room, dry sauna, plunge pool. Changing rooms over there, gym back through here, OK? We'll just use the cushion pads rather than wraps and I'll lace you up when you're ready. Get a move on!"

I swapped trainers for boots and put on helmet, fingerless inner gloves and regular boxing gloves on top. Pushing through the double doors into the gym I found Lenny had arranged a sparring partner; shaven head, shorter than me by an inch or so but heavier across the shoulders.

"Andy, this here is Tony Poletti. Five professional fights before a detached retina put him out of business. Still keeps in shape and we're paying him to give you a run-through. We've paying him even more to sit in a hotel room with babysitters until after you step into the ring for real, so everything that happens here, stays here."

Lenny laced up my gloves while Tony pulled on a helmet and ran a few combinations to loosen up. Once we were all in the ring my trainer laid down the law.

"Right then. Fight when I say 'fight', break when I say 'break'. Despite the helmets I don't want to see any head shots. This is all about Andy getting used to fighting as a southpaw so you can both be as quick as you like, but not serious. Got that?"

We both nodded and murmured our understanding, touched gloves and stood back.

"Right then. Fight!"

I got nailed.

A regular fighter can go his entire career without facing a left-handed opponent, so the chances to develop a response are limited. A southpaw is the exact opposite and knows how to fight match-up; lead hand against lead hand.

I didn't know what the hell I was doing and just floundered away, striking at openings that weren't there for a left-handed blow. If I took the time to translate right-into-left then the moment was gone and I just slapped leather. Tony adjusted quickly and kept sliding away to his left, bringing his strong right up against what - in a southpaw - should have been my weaker hand. Of course it wasn't, so I got cocky and concentrated on getting my left into play.

The world blinked.

"Break, break! I said no head shots! What did I say about no head shots?"

Somehow I was lying flat out on the canvas, with Tony looking a bit sheepish.

"Sorry, man, but Jeez, his guard was just static. He couldn't be more open if his hands were taped to his sides!"

Lenny bent over me, frowning.

"He's right, kid, you were lousy. I just hope it was as painful to take as it was painful to watch."

He helped me to my feet and stood there, hands on hips.

"Looks like it's time for plan 'B'."

I shook my head to try and clear it, like that ever does any good, and took a couple of deep breaths. The world still seemed a bit off-balance.

"Ah, what? What plan?"

Lenny snapped his fingers in front of my face.

"Listen up! Usually you dance around for a couple of rounds, staying out of trouble until you get a feel for your opponent. Well, that ain't gonna' fly this time, that's for sure."

Tony added his two cents.

"I seen you fight Mancini and you're a counterpuncher all right. Right now your responses are about as fluid as that chair over there. You got no chance, even against a hack like me."

My trainer continued.

"They're expecting clever but we're gonna' try crude instead. I want you to come straight out and start punching like some slugger, OK? If you need a breather then just put your head down and cover up. It won't be pretty, and it sure as hell won't please the crowd hoping for a fancy display of boxing between evenly matched fighters."

He coughed and wiped his face, suddenly looking real old.

"It might work, kid, and it's the best chance you got just now. You get through this next fight and we'll go back to your natural style for the title bout against Khan, I promise. You ready to continue?"

I nodded, not really sure what to do. Most fighters can mount a flurry of between four and eight continual punches; left-rights, with the odd uppercut for variety. Lenny wanted me to just get in close and trade body-blows until one fighter wilted, pretty much just a test of endurance rather than skill. If my opponent was as mobile as me, as I usually was, then I'd end up chasing him all over the ring. My fight against Boom-Boom Mancini had been like that, with me doing the dancing, and I'd witnessed how frustrating it could be.

"OK then, fight!"

I just marched straight at Tony who stood his ground to see what happened. I took three on the gloves and one to the gut, but just a tap. Then I waded in, throwing punches and trying to find some sense of rhythm. Eight, nine, ten blows against his guard, not letting up, not giving him a chance to strike back. Tony gave ground, trying to slide away, trying to get a bit of separation and mount his own attack.

"Close up! Close up! Keep in there, keep punching!"

I really didn't need Lenny yelling at me as it was obvious this was a do-or-die tactic. If my opponent could weather the storm I'd be exhausted and off-balance - a three-minute round is one hell of a long time when you're the one doing all the work.

Eleven, twelve, thirteen blows and I started a subconscious mantra; right-in-to-left, right-in-to-left, right-in-to-left. I lost count of the blows, only keeping up the rhythm mattered. Tony's right hand dropped slightly as he covered up his lower ribs and my left lashed out - solid contact. Just his right shoulder, but it could easily have been his face. He grunted and turned half away from me, open to my in-swinging right.

"Break! Break!"

I stepped back, breathing hard, suddenly conscious of the sweat dripping from me. Lenny stepped up to where Tony was flexing his shoulder.

"Well, what'd you think?"

My sparring partner grimaced.

"Might work. He's concentrating rather than boxing instinctively, but that's working to your advantage. His eyes telegraph one blow, but his fists do the opposite. Confusing as hell to start with. Add in the unexpected southpaw and you might buy yourself a round of hesitation, maybe two at the outside. Then your boy will get creamed."

Lenny nodded, seemingly satisfied, but I was a bit sceptical.

"Two rounds? Jeez, Lenny, none of my fights have gone less than three."

"Two rounds is all you've got at that pace, kid, and that's being generous. When you face this Marx you march straight in there and batter him down before they get a chance to alter his responses. That's the plan. Now go use the heavy bag to cool down."

While I pummelled the leather Tony was whisked away by part of our private security detail, presumably to a secure location outwith the reach of inquiring minds. Lenny kept me on the bag for ages, alternating with a running machine to give my upper torso a rest. Eventually he called a halt, as it was obvious my arms felt like lead.

"Enough for today, Andy. Either you pick up the left-right swap, or you don't. Simple as that. Hit the showers, get dressed, and I'll meet you in the lounge area. Sorry there's no massage but I wanted the place to ourselves."

I stood under the power shower for a long, long time. My days always seemed so planned, even down to rest periods, that just taking my time under the hot water felt like a guilty pleasure. Eventually I stepped out, got dried and dressed, and made my way out into the shabby lounge - a couple of beat-up sofas and a big plasma screen.

Lenny was flicking though an old copy of 'Prize Fighter', the one with me on the cover. It always looked strange to see me like I was a real person and not just some dumb kid riding his luck. He held up the magazine as I approached.

"'Orphaned kid struggles against adversity to pursue his dream.' Brings a tear to my eye. Or makes me want to puke, I can never remember which. Ready?"

I laughed, although the 'orphaned' tag always hit me in the heart.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm ready to rumble. Got to make myself presentable ahead of my dinner date with Amanda."

"Rather you than me, kid. She's hard as nails, that one. Anyway, I just had Perry on the mobile. Apparently Otis Khan himself will be in the audience to watch you fight. Now, to my way of thinking, that's the action of a man who realises you might be a serious challenger. He wants to take a look at you in action, before the two of you get up-close and personal."

He grinned.

"Sounds like he believes you might be the real deal."

I grinned back.

"Lenny, I'm starting to believe that myself."

The limo came for me around eight that evening; a stretch, with SUV lead and chase cars. Hell, there were even a pair of police motorcycle outriders, so I guess Perry had been promising tickets to the title fight. There was the usual media tail but it's something I try and blank out, and, anyway, the limo had tinted glass.

We picked up Amanda outside her apartment, where she was posing for some more snaps and signing a few autographs. I'm not entirely sure what made her any kind of celebrity, but she now rated private security to escort her as far as the car door.

Once we were mobile her smile slipped like snow from a porch roof.

"Jeez, those press are like pack animals, you have to keep throwing them bones. I'm getting tired of stopping to adjust my stocking just so some hack can get a candid shot. You'd think they'd get bored, but no. You want a drink?"

"Ah, hi, Amanda. I'll have a tonic water, thanks."

She busied herself in the minibar, incidentally giving me a fine view of her rear. The sight did nothing for me, something I'd always wondered about but never had the nerve to discuss with other guys in case they thought I was a fag. Not that guys did it for me either, it just like the whole sex thing is a non-event as far as I'm concerned.

Amanda sat back with a vodka martini and handed me a tonic water, with ice and lemon. It was nice she'd made the effort.

"You're looking real good this evening, Amanda. Classy."

She flashed me a brief smile through force of habit.

"Thanks. Designer dress, complements of Paul Degas. Fake jewellery though, so I guess I'll have to wait until the title fight before someone wants a mention of me wearing their stuff. Cheers!"

She took a generous mouthful and then put on her serious face.

"Look, Andy, my agent says to tell you that if you lose this next fight then I'll be dumping you, OK? Nothing personal, it's just you're not famous enough for me to go through the whole stand-by-your-man routine. If you eventually win the title and then lose it, that's different, unless you blow the rematch in which case you'd be history. OK?"

Amanda took another swallow while I considered this.

"Yeah, I get it. Look, you don't have to do me any favours, so if you'd rather not come out this evening I'm sure Perry could spin it some way that doesn't put you down."

"No, no, Andy, it's fine. Where are we going, anyway? L'Auberge? In The Quarter? No, that's OK, it's a good place to be seen. Anyway, we need more time together for the 'My life with the Anvil' article my agent has been touting."

She finished her cocktail and a look of almost genuine concern flickered across her fine features.

"Andy, if you don't mind me asking, what will you do if you lose this next fight?"

I shrugged, feeling uncomfortable at having to confront real life.

"Well, I dunno, to be honest. Boxing is all I know, really. Lenny spotted me when I was hanging about Potemkin's Gym, doing weights. I was living in the half-way house after the orphanage, just killing time, you know? I'd probably have ended up in the army or something like that, but he said I already moved like a fighter and all he had to do was show me the moves."

The memory lifted my spirits.

"It was great. Real hard work, but great. Twelve, fourteen hours a day. Weights, the bag, running, then gradually sparring partners. Big guys, tough, who knocked me on my ass more times than I care to remember. Everyone said I was a natural, so that's what I decided I wanted to be." Amanda patted my leg. "Very touching. I'm sure that'll make for a great montage sequence when they film your life story. But to answer my question?"

"Seriously, Amanda, I've got no idea. Lenny said that I was like a blank canvas, that I could have done just about anything. But he turned me into a boxer and I guess that's who I am, not just what I do."

She laughed, half in exasperation.

"Men! Oh, we're here... You're doing it again."

The door was opened by a uniformed flunky and I paused, half out of my seat, caught in the flicker of flash photography.

"What? Doing what again?"

Amanda spoke through her fixed media smile.

"Inside. Lets get to our table first."

The maitre d' seated us in person; a discreet table out of sight of the main windows. He handed out menus, the wine list and a schedule of when the press would be allowed access for some human interest shots. We settled in and I placed myself in his hands as regards ordering. "An excellent choice, monsieur." He murmured, removing the superfluous literature. I waited until he had withdrawn before turning to my date.

"What did you mean, in the car, about me doing it again."

She sipped another martini.

"Every time we're out someplace, before every fight, I've seen you scanning the crowd, as if you were looking for someone."

I blushed, took a sip of water.

"It's nothing, really. Just your imagination."

"Andy, I'm a blonde, I'm not supposed to have an imagination. Try again."

It felt like I was in a spotlight. I cleared my throat, playing with a napkin.

"It's just... I remember my mother. Just flashes, images, from when I was real young. She was a vet or dental nurse or something, mostly in a white coat. She didn't die or anything. I got Lenny to check and she placed me in the orphanage when I was, like, three or four."

Amanda squeezed my hand, an entirely spontaneous gesture that threw me completely.

"Jesus, Andy, what a bitch! Well, that explains a lot. I described your behaviour to my therapist and he said your emotional withdrawal was a classic symptom of childhood trauma."

I blinked, pulled my hand away.

"You did what?"

"Look, Andy, that first night together when you showed zero interest in me, well, what was I to think? You really undermined my sense of self-worth. Especially so after you blanked Jon."

"Jon?"

She smiled.

"Perry's personal assistant? Slim, athletic body, big doe eyes? After I told Perry you weren't interested he had Jon cozy up to you it case you went that way instead. Seriously, you didn't notice? Actually I can believe that. So, what, you're looking for your mother in the crowd? After all these years? Talk about a TV movie moment!"

I was in danger of shredding the linen napkin and threw it on the table.

"Look, Amanda, just forget it, OK? I'm sorry I ever mentioned it... Look, you're right, I know. It's just-"

I was talking to the hand and shut up, so that we sat in silence while they brought our starters. I stared at my food, knowing it wasn't the only thing I found hard to swallow.

The day before a fight is pretty much a non-event as far as Lenny and me are concerned. Just a little light road work to keep the muscles moving, but no sparring or anything that might result in an accidental injury. This time, though, we were pretty much besieged by the media, so any outdoors running would have required a posse of security to clear the way. Lenny just muttered under his breath and yanked off his bicycle clips in frustration. So he put me on the treadmill for a bit, plus some back-pedalling exercises to keep up appearances, then it was just the steam room and a massage.

I had hours to idle away before bed, which is why I developed this thing about watching old movies. Real old, black-and-white old, where the hero generally wins through in the end and gets the girl. If not films, then video of my opponent in action, in case anything last minute comes to mind about his style and moves. Obviously that didn't apply this time round so it was a light supper and early to bed.

I always sleep real sound before a fight, and I've come to suspect that Lenny slips me something to make sure I don't have a restless night. Whatever. Mid-morning they came and ferried us over to the New Oasis, the casino/hotel complex which was tonight's venue. They gave us a nice suite, but I was bored to tears. Calm, though. I'm always calm before a fight, although I know some fighters get real restless. Lenny just sat and read a book while I watched TV.

The lack of a pre-match press conference got some attention. Apparently Khan's management didn't consider me 'a serious opponent, worthy of media attention', which made me smile. These face-to-face encounters are generally just so you diss the other fighter, make it seem that bit more personal, but it's all just hype. When you face each other in the ring it can't get more personal than that.

Time went by. It always does.

They came for me in a group; event security, boxing commission officials, Perry with some media hacks in tow. It was just a babble of noise and activity with me in the centre, the eye of the storm, as I went downstairs and across to the dressing room.

Mutt and Jeff helped me get ready and Lenny was murmuring a string of last minute advice and encouragement but it was all happening to someone else. Even when Perry ushered Amanda in for the obligatory pre-fight kiss, on camera, it was like I was watching a re-run of my fight history.

I was concentrating on my opponent, like I was trying to reach out and connect with him. When it comes down to it there's just you and him, and nothing else matters.

"Andy, it's time."

Lenny, looking into my eyes, his hand on my forearm. The real world had returned. I smiled, nodded, and we took our place in the procession to ringside. The venue was big, bigger than anything I'd fought in before, and ablaze with flash photography. The crowd noise was mostly cheers and encouragement, which was a first as well, but I concentrated on Lenny's voice behind me -'Just keep walking, kid, eyes down, dignified. Just keep walking...' It's his little mantra, something we've always shared.

Up and into the ring, sitting on my stool, a towel round my shoulders. The MC stepped up with a radio mike in his hand, giving the pre-fight spiel I try and tune out while waiting for my name.

"...in the blue corner, weighing..."

That was me - top billing. I'd never had top billing before. It made me feel… hungry.

"...Andy, 'The Anvil', Harrison!"

Lenny whipped the towel away and I stood, both arms raised, to acknowledge the crowd. I could barely see outside the lights but I knew that Amanda would be waving frantically and blowing kisses, so I waved back in the direction of the VIP area.

"And in the red corner, from Toulon, France..."

Man, they were really laying it on thick for this can. My opponent was standing with his back to me, wearing a dressing gown with the hood up. He even had what looked like a real trainer fussing over him, plus a big black guy in a suit giving him some last minute instructions. Like it would matter.

"...heavyweight champion of the French Foreign Legion..."

What?

"...An-ton Marx!"

He shrugged off the dressing gown and turned, one arm aloft.

It was me.

The MC bugged out and the ref waved us forward into the middle of the ring. He launched into his 'I want a good, clean, fight' routine but I barely heard him.

Anton Marx was me; same hair, same eyes, same physique, same old scars. Differences though - a couple of scars I didn't have and he looked a bit older round the eyes. I guessed they'd tried to customise him a bit and maybe that's how old I should look if it wasn't for all the dermal regen work I've had.

"...and come out fighting."

We touched gloves and he winked, beating me to it by a fraction. I turned back to my corner, smiling to myself. If they'd gone to the trouble of replicating even my minor gestures then I knew exactly what to expect.

Usually you go back to your corner, get the gum shield in place, and tune out whatever final advice and/or encouragement your trainer has to offer. There's a slight pause while the girl parades around the ring with the round number board, and then the bell goes. I was ready. Lenny nodded, satisfied.

Then I stepped through the looking glass.

A small group appeared at our corner, flanked by event security; three guys and a woman, all in suits. Lenny glanced in the direction I was looking and his shoulders sagged.

"Ah, goddammit, not now! They promised this wouldn't happen."

One of the men was wearing a boxing commission sash and he motioned to the timekeeper, who put his hammer down. The steps were still in place and the woman came up to ring level, motioning me closer so she could make herself heard over the crowd noise as the obvious delay wasn't going down well.

She was a tall woman, slender, mid forties maybe, with shoulder length dark hair and darker eyes. She seemed to take a moment to compose herself and when she spoke there was a slight tremor in her voice.

"Andrew, I know how inappropriate this is, but your opponent will no doubt try and distract you during the fight so I decided to tell you myself."

The woman paused, smiled a hesitant smile - and something about that, that smile, sparked a flash of memory. I felt like the ground was opening up beneath me and could only stand and stare at her, speechless.

"I just wanted you to know, Andrew, how proud I am - how proud we all are - of what you've achieved so far. Whatever happens this evening."

She turned to Lenny, who was standing there, looking as sick as a dog.

"And you're, what, a Lenny?"

He nodded, almost curtsied.

"Ma'am."

"Even for an Alpha this has been a spectacular achievement, far exceeding anything the Tabula Rasa team anticipated. I know that on certain levels this is meaningless, but you have our thanks for turning Andrew into the fighter he is today."

She turned back to me and hesitated, her eyes wet.

"I held you in my arms six years ago, when you first came out of the tank. Just an unthinking mass of meat, but I could tell, even then, that you were perfect. You have no genetic flaws, Andrew, none - our finest creation. I just had to wish you good luck... my son."

The woman stepped down and took my world with her. The crowd was baying for action and there were only moments before the bell, but I just stood there, arms by my sides, lost.

Lenny didn't bother slapping me or anything so obvious; he just rubbed down my face with the towel while rabbiting away soto voce.

"Forget her, kid, forget me, forget your past - 'cos you ain't got one. Just the last six years, everything else is memory implants. But you got a future. You can stand and fight, or I can throw in the towel and we walk away. Maybe I made you a boxer, Andy, but you're your own man. Get it? Whatever happens now is your choice, your decision - I guess it's what they call 'free will'."

I looked at him like he was some weird example of alien life.

"Lenny? What are-"

"Yeah, yeah, I'm a can. An Alpha. Just like Mutt and Jeff but a ways smarter. You though, you really are more human than human, and that guy over there? I guess he's the genetic template they based you on. A real flesh-and-blood fighter. Hell, two flesh-and-blood fighters, in an old-school boxing match. It doesn't get more real than that."

He poked me in the chest, bringing me back to the here and now. Lenny slipped through the ropes while Mutt or Jeff removed the stool. My trainer hung there a moment, smiling.

"Andy, it's not just your future."

"Seconds out. Round one!"

The bell rang. The crowd roared. I raised my gloves.

Time to face myself.

Copyright © Martin Clark 2010 All Rights Reserved


Date and time of last update 19:03 Sat 18 Sep 2010
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