I wouldn’t tap out. Never had, never will. The Mauler would have to break me first. The goal, as I told Bo, was to last the five rounds and put up a good fight. If I managed that, I’d be invited back to another card. Another undercard, but I’d still be fighting for money.
When the bell rang, we went right at each other. It was clear from the start that I was the underdog, a serious one. The Mauler had moves I hadn’t seen before until I watched them on tape. He’d been a champion of a different organization before he was folded into the big time. His expression was a mix of bored disdain and disbelief that he was fighting a rookie like me, but my show at Thanksgiving had been so good that the fans had clamored to see me fight again.
I landed a mid-level kick, trying to aim for the softer parts of Flint’s body below the rib cage. Mauler flipped me, but I expected that and rolled onto my back and kicked up my knees into his legs. We were back on our feet and trading blows. He landed a right cross that smashed across my cheek and whipped my head around. A left uppercut from Mauler missed by a whisker. I staggered backward to the fence, my vision blurring for a second. I held him off with an elbow until the bell rang.
The second and third rounds were much of the same. I was able to land a few body blows and one fairly lucky elbow to Mauler’s temple. But he’d driven me to the mat time and again. By the fourth round, I was so tired. So tired. Every inch of my body felt bruised, and my arms felt like Jello. I could hear Paulie yelling at me, but I couldn’t figure out what he was saying. I swung out wildly, making some contact and trying to move enough not to be knocked out. Mauler draped his body around mine and we rested, our cheeks next to each other. We swayed in a grotesque version of a dance until the bell rang.
In the corner, I sat dazed. The cut man added a butterfly bandage to the cut above my eye, but I could feel the blood draining down my face. My left cheek was swollen. If I had to guess, I’d say I probably looked monstrous. I squinted across the Octagon to see how my opponent fared. He looked good. I’d bloodied his mouth and his cheek, but he still looked good and he was winning. Dammit, I knew he’d won at least three of those four rounds. My eye traveled back around the crowd and caught on Grace.
She looked amazing tonight. Her hair was Vegas-ed, she told me earlier, before I left for the locker room. It was big, and I couldn’t wait to stick my hands in it when I f**ked her tonight. God, would I even be able to do that? Why wasn’t she grimacing at my injuries? Instead I saw…encouragement and faith. She believed in me. Always, even when I doubted myself, Grace had always believed in me. She believed that I would succeed in anything I put my hand on, in whatever goal I wanted to achieve. She supported me, sitting there with her hands clasped and her eyes shining.
I didn’t deserve her, but I had her nonetheless. Energy coursed through me. I took three deep breaths, inhaling the hope and belief she was sending my way. I wasn’t tired. I was going to crush this guy. My once-weak arms felt like tensile rope. My legs firmed up and I stood, electrified by my newfound adrenaline.
Paulie was yelling again, but I didn’t pay attention. Grace’s face was just one big smile now. She gestured, a tiny crooking of her hands, like she wanted me to move forward. I moved toward the center of the Octagon. I saw what she was saying. Here was the pinnacle of my efforts. A New Year’s Eve fight televised nationally. I spread out my arms and swung around. The crowd roared in response. Had they been cheering for Mauler before? It didn’t matter, because as I slowly spun in a circle, the crowd in each section responded, jumping to their feet and chanting my name.
I’d have to subdue Mauler. I wasn’t going to win on the cards. I’d have to win by submission. His jaw was hard, but not invincible, and his ribs, chest, and neck were vulnerable targets. When Mauler came out of his corner, he looked warily at me and glanced nervously at the crowd. He’d lost them, and I’d won them over in a second. Crowds were fickle. Fame was fleeting. The love I had from Grace was going to last forever. And this man was going down.
When Mauler came out at me, he rushed me with a flurry of punches as if to prove he still had gas in his engine. But even though he’d taken me in every round and I’d ended it on my back, I’d sucked a tremendous amount of energy out of him by getting back up each time. This round of punches was weak, and his execution was slow. I absorbed a few to the body and avoided a fierce uppercut that might have knocked me out. I allowed him to think the uppercut struck though and fell backward, allowing the man to fall between my legs.
Maybe he was truly exhausted, or it could have been surprise that I was still fighting. Maybe he didn’t like my grin. But his attention shifted suddenly and the mental lapse was the one I’d been waiting for. I flipped my legs around so both were pushing his neck off to the right and pulled his arm straight to the left. I lifted my h*ps off the ground and stretched until I was almost straight as a plank. His neck and arm were stretched so hard in opposite directions that I briefly wondered if I would pull his tendons completely apart, but I didn’t let up. I held on because this was it. If I didn’t get him to submit, I’d lose this fight.
Our skin was sweaty, but I was iron and he was clay. I would not let go until someone came to pry my hands off. I turned my head and there was Grace, and once again I felt infused with power. I was the one in control here. I steered my ship and directed my own destiny. Life did not happen to me; I made it happen.
And then I felt it. A laxness in his resistance. The tapping of my shoulder. I swung my head around but didn’t let up the pressure. The referee was saying something to me but the buzzing in my head prevented me from hearing him. There were others entering the ring and then they were pulling me off, literally dragging me to the side. I kicked out at first. My fight wasn’t done. I needed to get him to submit. I tried to crawl forward, but first Paulie and then Bo were there, holding me back. Mauler lay on the ground, unmoving. I stared at him and then felt my arm go up and heard the roar of the crowd in response.
Through the haze of sweat and blood I realized it was the referee holding my arm up in the sign of victory. I’d won. I’d won. The announcer’s voice rang out that it was Noah Jackson in the blue corner that had won by submission in the fifth round. Someone was helping Mauler to his feet. I noticed in detached observation that his arm hung awkwardly from his shoulder.
Paulie and Bo helped me toward the center of the ring. Bo stood behind me, his hand on the middle of my back, propping me upright. Without him, it’s possible I would have collapsed on the ground. The ceremony of announcing the winner repeated itself with Mauler and me in the center. I reached out a heavy arm that felt like it was made of steel and wrapped a hand around his neck. Pulling him close to me, resting my forehead on his, I whispered, "Best fight of my life, man. Honored."
I thumped my chest in a sign of respect, and he lifted his non-injured arm to grasp my shoulder.
"Didn’t think you belonged here yet, but I was wrong."
That was it. The following events were a jumble for me. They awarded me the belt, and Paulie held it up, parading it around the Octagon. I stood in the middle and Bo turned me like I was a marionette. I mumbled something into the microphone about how it was an honor to fight the Mauler and to be part of the organization. I managed to lift the belt one time on my own and thank the crowd for supporting the underdog. Realizing that I was about two seconds away from collapse, Paulie and Bo hustled me out of the ring and into the green room where a trainer and physician were present to greet us.
I grabbed Bo. "Get Grace."
He squeezed my hand and went off.
I SLUMPED BACK IN MY seat and leaned into Lana. We were both drained emotionally and physically from having watched the fight. I couldn’t fathom what Noah was feeling.
"I think I’ll go back to the training room now," I leaned over to whisper to Lana. After Noah’s hand was raised in victory, I wanted to rush the metal cage and climb in with him, but I refrained. Noah and I were trying to keep a low profile for differing reasons. I didn’t want to be the subject of Internet message board speculation, and Noah didn’t want pictures of me spread around the web. He’d argued that a face could be photoshopped on top of a body and that he didn’t want me out there as masturbatory material. His reasons were entirely valid.
But I was so anxious to see him and tell him how amazing I thought he was and how terrified for him and proud of him I was.
"How many of these fights can your heart take?" Lana joked. "I think I had about five heart attacks watching him. How can you be so serene during this?"
"I just believe it’ll come out right, I guess." I shrugged, but I wasn’t entirely unaffected during the fight. I could tell his energy was flagging in the third and fourth rounds and worried me that he didn’t have enough resources left to fight it out in the fifth round. But I also knew that Noah drew inspiration off my belief in him, and I was determined that he’d always see my belief in his abilities first and foremost—even if I was dying of agony inside.
Ordinarily I’m no good at hiding my emotions. Lana has said that my face was more expressive than a vaudeville villain. And honestly, when I was watching Noah, I did believe that he would win each and every match. As long as I kept telling myself that, it was what showed on my face. The small nervous, scared, hurt part of my brain was shoved way in the back. I didn’t want Noah to think that even for a moment I doubted he would succeed, and that meant repeating the maxim internally as well as verbally to anyone else who asked.
Lana looked at me pensively but just nodded.
Despite the long break between Noah’s match and the headliner fight, many people lingered in the aisles, discussing how amazing the fight was and how Jackson had made his career with the Thanksgiving fight and then this one. They said they’d gotten their money’s worth out of this fight, and it seemed like no one cared about the headlining act. The big break allowed for the patrons to get refreshments and for the crew to prep the cage again and make sure all the bodily fluids Noah and Mauler had expelled were cleaned up. I shuddered at the thought of what that canvas had absorbed.
Noah had been comped four seats in the fifth row. Lana and I and Bo used those seats along with another guy that the boys had known in the Marines. A few others from his unit were here, flown out by Bo as a surprise. If Noah was up to it, we’d have a celebration party in our suite and then head for Tempe and Josh’s bowl game in the morning.
The crowd down on the floor where we were seated was mostly men, and mostly men in suits. There were a few women, and I thought I saw a couple of famous couples in the front row. Lana and I’d gotten more than one good look throughout the night. With our big hair and short dresses, I think we might have looked like we were high class escorts, but no guy dared say anything to us while Bo and Gray were there looking bad ass and formidable.
But now that they were gone, I could see a few of the men eyeing us and weighing how much we might’ve cost for the night. Too much for any of you to afford, I thought.
"Let’s go," I said to Lana. She nodded and picked up her purse and we pushed past all the legs and torsos until we got to the end of the row. I saw Bo coming toward us, and he waved us forward. Noah was ready for us.
The guy in the last seat in the row didn’t move his feet though. His legs were sprawled out, spread at the knees, and his hands were palm up in his lap. He had a shit-eating grin on his face. Lana gingerly stepped between his legs, all the while muttering a**hole under her breath. I was next, and because I felt like he was being a jerk, I didn’t take care walking past him and instead dug the stiletto heel of my expensive shoes into the tip of his foot. He yelped and pushed me off, causing me to totter on my feet. "Cunt," he spat at me.
"Move next time," I suggested. I don’t know why I was getting mouthy with him.
"Why should I move for some rent-a-date piece like you?"
"Honey, you couldn’t afford me even if I was for sale." I turned to leave. Lana was rolling her eyes, and I saw Bo and Gray coming up right behind her looking none too happy.
"Anything wrong, Grace?" Bo called. I shook my head and started to walk down the aisle toward them when I felt myself get bumped again. Then a hand crept up the bottom of my skirt and touched my ass. I turned on the guy and before I could even think, I backhanded him across the face. The diamond engagement ring Noah had given me made a slice across his cheek that welled with blood.
"Ow, ow, ow, ow." I shook my hand. "That hurt."
"You cunt!" he swore and jumped to his feet. Bo was there before the guy could say one more word, and seconds later, Gray and a host of others were towering around us. The guy sat down abruptly. Bo had one hand on the attacker’s chest and one hand on me. I wasn’t entirely convinced that Bo was protecting me from the suited guy—he may have been protecting the suited guy from me.
"Let me see your hand," Bo commanded. I held it out and he grimaced at the swelling.
"No wonder you guys wear gloves," I joked. He poked me. "Ouch."
“Aggressive enough for you?” I smirked at Lana, who smirked right back.
“You’re teaching me things!” she laughed. Bo hustled the two of us out of the crowd while the security dragged the suited guy away.