Ben Fowlkes is a sports writer for USA Today and its dedicated mixed martial arts site, MMAJunkie.com. He has covered professional fighting since 2006 for outlets such as Sports Illustrated, AOL Sports, CBS Sports, and others. He has an MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana, and a BA in English from San Diego State University. His fiction has also appeared in Crazyhorse, Glimmer Train, Crab Creek Review, and

The Best American Short Stories 2015.

He lives in Missoula, Montana with his wife and two daughters.

Knuckles

posted May 24, 2016

Part 1

It was Vernon Lewis' college wrestling coach who urged him out of school and into something resembling a career. Not that Verno thought of it that way at first. Not that he could have known this would be the thing he would do with his life, such as it was.

It was his second year at Iowa State. He was passing the classes where showing up was enough, failing most of the others. When he wasn't academically ineligible, he lost as many wrestling matches as he won. He had a knack for getting himself disqualified. He couldn't help it. Someone would collar tie just a little too rough, then stick a palm in his face, maybe slap him so that his ears rang. On Verno, that was like pushing a button. His right hand shot out before he could stop it. The crack would echo throughout the gym like a gunshot. Sometimes the refs would warn him that it wasn't a boxing match, but it seemed that they only warned him and never the other guy. That was the great injustice of it.

Then the other guy would smack him again and Verno would say fuck it. Next thing he knew, disqualified. It got to the point where his teammates actually clapped any time he lost a match on points.

This wasn't wasted on Coach Kyle, who remarked on more than one occasion that he needed a losing 174-pounder soaking up one of his scholarships like he needed a hole in his balls. He took Verno into his office near the end of that season and wrote down the name and phone number of a man who could get him a fight.

'What kind of fight?' Verno asked.

'The kind you want,' Coach Kyle told him.

Verno felt certain this was some kind of test, but he couldn't say which kind. Would he pass the test by calling the number and trying to get a fight? Or was that how you failed? The fact that he didn't know, he supposed, was what made it a test. In the end he decided that the thing he couldn't live with was the possibility of failure through inaction, so he called the number and the man told him to come to The Deuces on Thursday night and to bring shorts, a cup, and a mouthguard.

The Deuces was a strip club just out of town where you could bring your own beer. You had to bring your own beer, because The Deuces didn't sell anything but admission and lap dances. On Thursday nights they cleared out the tables and set up a claustrophobic little cage next to the DJ booth. Everyone stood around drinking cans of Budweiser and Natural Ice from cardboard boxes at their feet as Verno climbed the metal stairs wearing basketball shorts and a pair of borrowed gloves. A man with a shaved head and a giant eagle tattoo sprawling across his chest waited on the other side of the cage.

The winner's share was 200 bucks. Verno took it all.

When he went to wrestling practice the next day Coach Kyle asked him how it went. Verno told him and Coach smiled. Verno went to get suited up and Coach asked him what he was doing.

'Verno,' Coach explained, 'You took money to fight. You're a professional now. Professionals can't wrestle as amateurs, buddy.'

He said it just like that, with the buddy at the end, as if he was sorry it had to be this way. That's when Verno realized it wasn't so much a test as a trap. This is how his very unpromising careers in both wrestling and college came to an end. He was too mad at having been tricked to feel sorry about seeing either of them go.

*

His scholarship lasted through the rest of that semester, which Verno spent almost entirely at The Deuces. He didn't even realize he was falling in love, but when he looked back later the signs were all there. How his adrenaline would spike as his pickup truck tires crunched the gravel in the parking lot. That stale smell of spilled beer on the concrete floor. The way everyone wanted to be his friend after he won. Verno made friends fast at The Deuces. Verno became a piece of the furniture.

He was there so much that eventually the owner, a small Arab man with a bad hairpiece, gave him a job working the door. He had every Thursday night off so he could fight and he never missed his chance. He didn't get as tired or nervous or scared anymore after the first few. He could wrestle the strikers and knock out the wrestlers, despite having almost nothing in the way of punching technique. All he did was put his head down and throw. At The Deuces, with the kind of power Verno had, that was enough. No one ever stayed on their feet when Verno landed the right hand cleanly. It was like discovering a superpower he never knew he had.

One night, more out of curiosity than anything else, they matched him up against a big, dumb farm kid who had half a foot and seventy pounds on Verno. The kid came out of his corner with his big paws outstretched like a mummy, as if he could almost reach from one end of the cage to the other. Verno ducked inside and threw the right. The kid stopped cold, then sank to one knee while holding up an index finger. Like, give me a minute here. Verno threw the right again, coming from the floor with it this time. The kid's head popped up once, then plunged to the mat.

When he regained consciousness and had a few beers the farm boy said, somewhat accusingly, Verno thought, that it felt like Verno had a pair of brass knuckles hidden in his glove. The other guys loved it. They started calling him 'Knuckles' after that. Verno didn't mind. As nicknames went you could do a lot worse.

When summer came he moved into a studio apartment above a laundromat. He called his mother in Montana and told her he was done with school, but wasn't coming home. He tried to explain that he'd found something else, something better, at least for him. He could tell from the sound of her voice that she was going to wait until she hung up to cry.

'I'm just disappointed, is all,' she said at one point.

'I know you are,' Verno said. 'I'm sorry.'

He could picture her then, her little house outside Great Falls where the windows shook from the sound of the trains coupling up all afternoon, yard overgrowing with angry weeds that no one could keep away. He almost wanted to tell her about the wide open emptiness of Iowa, where you could see forever in all directions without feeling like you were looking at anything. But what would he say? And who'd want to hear that?

'I really wanted you to be the first one in my family to go to college, you know?' his mother was saying.

She'd wanted it so much, she told him. It had felt like a goal.

Verno pointed out that he did go, for almost two full years.

'That's true,' his mother said. 'Maybe one day you'll have a son, and he can be the one who finishes.'

After that it was Verno who felt like crying when he hung up. His new apartment felt cold. Even in June. Even in Iowa. Through the open window he could smell the cigarette smoke from the laundromat workers on break and he wondered if he'd ever be done fucking up. He hoped maybe this was what it looked like when you first started something good, but were too close to the beginning to know.

*

He fought as much as he could that summer and worked every shift they'd give him at The Deuces. One night just after the Fourth of July he even met a girl, and not the kind he usually met at The Deuces. Her name was Liss and she'd just graduated from Grinnell, where the shy, smart kids went to be shy, smart kids together. Her sister was one of the dancers, she told Verno, and her parents were equal parts baffled and ashamed. Liss had come down to see what the big deal was. Her parents thought the work was demeaning.

'But neither of them has ever waited tables,' she said. 'So what do they know?'

Verno liked her right away. When she asked him what he did at The Deuces, he told her he usually worked the door.

'Usually?' she said.

'Tonight's Thursday,' he added. 'You'll see.'

That night the guys from a fight gym over in Bettendorf came in. Real fighters, all of them. Cauliflower ears and flattened noses. None of them brought beer. The old pro who owned the gym and coached the fighters there had a new kid he wanted to try, he told the Arab. He wanted to throw him in the fire and see what he was made of. The Arab nodded and said he was sure he could find someone. The old pro told him he didn't want someone.

'I want this Knuckles I keep hearing about,' he said.

Verno was standing just over the Arab's shoulder when he said it, and he wondered if the other people in the bar could see him glowing with equal amounts of pride and fear. When the Arab looked over at him, Verno just nodded.

'You?' the old pro said. He had a wide, dented face, and warm, grey eyes. Just looking at his teeth Verno could tell they were dentures, the real ones knocked out by God knows what. He had that wrestler hunch to him, a sloping of the neck from years of disregarding his own spine. He looked up at Verno out of the tops of his eyes. Verno told him yes, he was the guy.

'I gotta know,' the old pro said. 'Where'd the nickname come from?'

Verno opened his mouth to explain, but it was a long story for a loud bar, and anyway he suspected he was being sized up here. He was afraid that if he started talking at all, about anything, he might give something away. Verno wanted very badly to never be tricked again, especially when it came to this.

'It's complicated,' he said, and left it at that.

'The good ones always are,' the old pro said, and winked.

The kid they brought for him to fight didn't look like much, which worried Verno. If he'd learned anything at The Deuces, it was that the ones who looked tough rarely were. This kid had acne scars on his face, no tattoos. He had a cheap country boy haircut that made him look like an oversized ten-year-old. He came out to start the fight with his glove extended like they did on TV. A bit of sportsmanship, Verno thought. How civilized.

Verno went all three rounds for the first time that night. He could never land the right hand cleanly through the kid's defensive shell, all forearms and elbows, and whenever he threw it he took a shin to his thigh, almost automatically, until his lead leg felt like a solid, throbbing chunk of concrete. In between rounds the strippers shook their asses in bikini bottoms for dollar bills that people crumpled up and pelted them with through the chain link. A balled-up one landed in Verno's lap and he tucked it inside his cup.

By the start of the third he could barely haul himself off the stool. He decided to take the kid down and try him there, but he kept getting caught in strange chokes that he didn't understand, the kid's legs wrapped under his arm and somehow also around his head, squeezing until the room got darker and darker and Verno had to lift him high up off the mat and slam him down hard to make him to let go. With each slam he could hear the crowd behind him, everyone holding their breath when he picked the kid up, letting it all out when he brought him crashing down. He knew Liss was out there somewhere, watching him and probably pretending she wasn't.

When they announced that he'd won the decision, even Verno knew he didn't deserve it. He was pressing a lukewarm Natural Ice to his forehead out in the parking lot when the old pro came and found him.

'The scaffolding's there,' he told Verno with a crooked smile. 'Come by our place and we'll build the cathedral around it.'

Before she left Liss slipped him her phone number and told him he could use it as long as he didn't abuse the privilege. Verno couldn't honestly say which development he was more excited about.

*

Working out with the pros wasn't so different from wrestling practice. Verno still felt like vomiting by the end. He still got yelled at what seemed like a disproportionate amount of the time. He still had the feeling sometimes that he was bobbing up and down in the middle of a vast lake with a bunch of other people, and none of them could decide whether to swim for it or try to push each other's heads under water.

The difference was talent. Some of these guys he'd seen on TV. One of them came to practice in a Mercedes. When the young guys like Verno were dragging ass during conditioning, the old pro would suggest that maybe they were in the wrong line of work. Just thinking of it that way, as his work, excited and terrified Verno.

'Quit if you want to,' the old pro would say. 'Go get a job at Best Buy, maybe. Wear a little blue shirt, take fifteen-minute breaks. Help some old lady with her fucking computer.'

Verno got the message.

Then one day he sparred with a guy who'd been champ for about fifteen minutes once in the Big Show and Verno dropped him with a right hand to the body. A few weeks later he got a takedown on Mr. Mercedes.

'Hot damn, Verno,' the old pro said. 'If I didn't know better I'd swear you were turning into a somebody.'

Verno looked up and there was that wink, that crooked smile.

They got him some fights on the local circuit, a monthly event promoted by a fat lawyer. Verno won three in a row, all via first-round knockout. He'd learned how to land the right cleanly now, how to set it up, how to feint and bait and convince people to walk into it. Now it felt less like he was throwing the punch and more like he was releasing it to do the thing it was made for. It waited for his signal. Verno waited for the right time to give it.

After the third knockout the fat lawyer asked if he had a real manager yet. Verno said he wasn't sure. The lawyer said that meant no.

He promised to get Verno off the local circuit and into the Big Show if he'd sign with him. He didn't say what would happen if Verno didn't.

Verno asked Liss what she thought. She was the smartest person he knew. She was so smart she didn't feel the need to prove it all the time, or hold it over his head, which, especially when they were lying in bed together in the morning, made Verno feel like he could tell her anything. She'd been working at a bank since she graduated and hating every second of it, judging by the way she talked about it, but being around all that money made Verno think she must know something about the contracts and rules involving it.

Liss asked what kind of percentage the manager got, who else this lawyer managed, what he'd have to sign to make it happen. All questions Verno wouldn't have thought of, and none of which he had good answers for.

Finally Liss told him to go ahead and sign, but to keep the term short so they could get out if it went badly. She actually said it that way ' so we can get out ' which sounded so right to Verno that it made him feel hollow and light inside, like a giant balloon was slowly expanding inside his chest.

The fat lawyer was true to his word. After one more fight he got Verno a contract with the Big Show, where he made eight grand just to show up and another eight if he won. It seemed like all the money in the world, and when Verno walked out in the MGM Grand for the first time he felt cold with panic.

The Vegas crowd showed up late, half-drunk and sunburned. Verno was on the prelims, third fight in. As he walked to the cage he heard a man in a tank top lean toward his friend and shout, just to be heard over the music, 'Who's this fucking guy?'

The ref gave the signal to fight and Verno came forward slowly on barely functional legs. His feet felt like he was dragging them out of heavy mud. The more he thought about how nervous he was, the more nervous it made him. His vision seemed to narrow to a spot directly in front of him, like he was looking through a periscope at the events of his own life. He never saw the kick arcing high off to his left. He never felt it either.

The next thing he remembered, the old pro and the referee were both standing over him while some ancient doctor with bushy white eyebrows asked him if he felt like he could stand up yet. Verno got the sense that this was not the beginning of their conversation, but he had no way of knowing for sure. When he got to his feet, the crowd clapped. This is how Verno knew he must have been down for a while, and he couldn't help but think about Liss watching on TV.

*

'It was just nerves,' she told him when he got back. 'It happens to everyone the first time out. They even have a name for it.'

She was right. She showed Verno a story on the internet all about it. 'Big Show Jitters,' people called it. The story had a bunch of veteran pros and even one ex-champ talking about how awful their first times were, whether they won or lost. Liss told him he'd be fine, that next time would be different.

Verno dropped a weight class on the advice of the fat lawyer, half starving himself on brown rice and chicken breasts to get there, and then three months later they matched him up against some French-Canadian kickboxer who'd just come up from the regional circuit.

Verno spent the first round slamming him down and softening him up with elbows. He could hear the guy's panicked breathing, feel the muscles in his forearms trembling with premature exhaustion. Big Show Jitters, Verno wanted to tell him. The guy came out for the second looking like he'd rather be anywhere else. Verno almost felt bad for him, but not quite. When he faked the shot and came up with the right hand, he told himself he was doing the guy a favor. At least it was over quickly.

The crowd went apeshit as soon as the guy hit the mat, face-down. Verno stood there for a moment, listening to them, trying to let the sound sink into his pores. Remember this, he begged his own brain. Whatever else happens, don't forget this.

He won two more after that, with the numbers on his checks getting bigger and bigger. With the win bonus on the first one, he and Liss moved into a two-bedroom in Davenport. They had a dishwasher and a covered porch where they could sit in the summer evenings and drink a beer while they watched the thunderstorms roll in. They made love almost every night, Liss whispering, please, please, into his ear before she came, then feeling embarrassed about it later, after Verno pointed it out.

With the win bonus on the second one, they got married.