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.

We published Fowlkes’s story “Knuckles” in Issue 59.

Knuckles

posted Jun 7, 2016

Part 2

It was Liss’ idea to get rid of the fat lawyer manager once their contract was up. All he did for his ten percent was answer the phone and say yes to absolutely everything, she said. She could do that. She could do better. And with her, Verno would be her only client. No more calling to bug the guy about sponsors, wondering if he was doing everything he could or leaving Verno’s business for last. She could quit her bank job and they could keep that ten percent in the family, she said. Verno had to admit it made a certain kind of sense. He also had to admit that he liked thinking of them as a family.

He broke the news to the fat lawyer over the phone.

“Sure, that’s fine,” the fat lawyer said.

“Really?” Verno said.

The fat lawyer laughed and asked Verno if he thought he was the first fighter to get it in his head that anybody could do this job.

“And look,” he added, “if it doesn’t work out and you decide you want to come back, no hard feelings.”

It wasn’t until after Verno hung up that he wondered, if what doesn’t work out?

Liss was pregnant by Christmas and Verno won two more fights before the baby was born, a boy they named Sam. He cried all night for what felt like months, and Verno would sit in the dark of the nursery after Liss had had all she could take, bouncing Sam in his arms and wondering how he was going to get through practice in the morning.

He lost his next two, both decisions. The old pro said he was overthinking it, worrying too much about all the things that could go wrong.

“We’ve got to get you back to the old ‘Knuckles,’” he said. “Remember him? That kid was vicious. Where did he go?”

The truth was that Verno didn’t know. It seemed like everyone he fought was getting faster and better. The openings for the right hand weren’t there anymore, and the close ones that made it to the judges never seemed to go his way. Plus a troubling clicking sensation had developed in his left knee. There was something going on in his ribs that never seemed to heal all the way. He’d lay in bed at night and feel like gravity itself was crushing him, burying him under an invisible weight.

Then one morning the matchmaker from the Big Show called Verno directly and offered him a fight against some Russian with an unpronounceable name on two weeks’ notice. He said he’d give Verno an extra ten grand, win or lose, just for taking the fight. That’s how Verno knew they were desperate. Verno said two weeks didn’t even give him time to make weight, and ten grand was less than his win bonus. The matchmaker said he could go as high as fifteen.

“But I understand if you have to ask your wife first,” he said.

Verno did a quick mental scan of the words. If he had to ask his wife. What kind of shit was that? He told the matchmaker to make it twenty grand. They settled on $17,500, which still felt to Verno like a form of triumph.

Liss was in the living room, sitting on the floor with Sam, trying to help him learn to turn over on his own. He told her about the call, about the Russian, the way he’d haggled up the bonus. He tried to make it sound like something good he’d accomplished, but also something over and done with that they didn’t need to discuss. Liss put her hands out at her sides, palms up, as if checking for rain.

“I’m right in the next room,” she said. “You couldn’t put the phone down and come talk this over?”

Verno looked at her. Her mouth was a tight, straight line.

“I don’t need your permission,” he said.

No, Liss told him, she guessed he didn’t.

She asked him what he knew about the Russian. Verno shrugged. All he needed to know was that someone was going to pay him to beat the guy up. As the old pro liked to say, if you weren’t ready to fight anyone, at any time, you were in the wrong business.

“For one thing, he’s not really Russian,” Liss said. “He’s Dagestani.”

Verno didn’t know what that meant, and he knew that she knew it. It meant, Liss said, that he was from the Republic of Dagestan. As in, one of those places where you had to be inhumanly tough just to avoid being thrown off a cliff as a small child.

“There’s a reason nobody else wants to fight that guy,” Liss said. “Just like there’s a reason they called you and not me.”

Verno was smart enough to know when he was being talked down to. Verno didn’t care for it. Just the tone in her voice. Like, who was he to think he could make his own decisions?

“You think that just because they didn’t call you,” he said, “they must be trying to take advantage of me.”

“They are trying to take advantage of you,” Liss said.

Verno looked at Sam, head shaking as he strained to lift himself up high enough to see what all the noise was about. His wide eyes scanned the room, probably seeing nothing that made any sense at all, Verno thought.

“I won’t argue with you in front of him,” Verno said.

And anyway, he had to get to the gym.

*

The fight was in Vegas. The middle of summer, snarled traffic on the strip, drunk girls walking through the casinos in their bikini tops, holding enormous drinks shaped like miniature Eiffel Towers. Outside the sun beat down like it was actively trying to murder you. Verno did his best to say in the air conditioning and avoid breathing other people’s cigarette smoke. The weight cut was the worst he’d ever had. He slathered his skin in Albolene and sat in a scalding bath until he wanted to cry.

He still couldn’t pronounce the Russian’s name, but so what. He was a little boulder of a man, at least three inches shorter than Verno with a bald head shaped like a missile and small eyes that remained flat and emotionless when they faced off at the weigh-in. All the Russians were like that, Verno told himself. This guy was nothing special.

When they came out for the first round Verno extended his fist to touch gloves and the Russian shook his head no, then jumped in and hit Verno with a knee to the gut that almost made him sick. And here he was just trying to be a good sportsman.

He stuck the Russian with a stiff jab, then feinted the right and came over the top with a left hook. The Russian kept coming. Verno stuck a front kick in his chest, then followed with a lead uppercut. Everything landed clean. The guy refused to take a backward step, which was fine by Verno. He landed two more jabs, a right to the body. The Russian kept walking forward, moving straight into one punch after another. Verno couldn’t believe his luck. He hadn’t fought anybody this easy to hit since The Deuces.

Once he was satisfied that he could lead him wherever he wanted, Verno set his feet and let the Russian walk straight into a right hand. It was the hardest he’d ever hit anyone. Verno could feel the bones in his hand snapping like high-tension wires as it landed.

The Russian staggered back on his heels. Go down, Verno thought. For fuck’s sake.

The Russian’s eyes wandered around inside his head, as if they were lost, then stopped. The Russian tucked his chin to his chest and drove in hard for a takedown. When they hit the mat the vibration traveled through Verno’s body all the way to his hand. He tried one short punch with it, off his back, and the pain was so bad he had to swallow his scream. That’s when Verno knew he was screwed.

He spent all three rounds this way. On the feet he could feint the guy, set up traps and get him to walk into them, but he couldn’t hurt him with the left and he couldn’t convince himself to throw the right anymore.

It’s already broken, he tried to remind himself. It already hurts. Just throw it. He kept seeing the openings – throw it, throw it, throw it – but the hand wouldn’t fire.

Next thing he knew he’d be tumbling through the air, landing on his back with this little Russian on top of him, crushing the weak spot in his ribs until the breath fell out of him. As he lay there Verno pictured Liss watching on the TV in their living room, bouncing Sam on her leg as she muttered one long stream of I-told-you-so’s. He pictured the matchmaker congratulating himself for playing Verno so well. He was so tired of being tricked.

It didn’t seem fair, and then it was over. The judges were unanimous for the Russian. He gave Verno a weak hug and said, “Was good fight,” which it wasn’t.

*

At the hospital they showed Verno an X-Ray of his hand, pointing to where one bone between his wrist and knuckle made an unauthorized left turn. As if he needed them to tell him that this was the problem area.

They got him into surgery that night, then sent him home with four pins in his hand and a prescription for Vicodin. The Vicodin turned down the volume on the pain. To really turn it off it helped to pour a few beers over the top. Soon he learned that he could achieve this effect even faster with whiskey. He wasn’t sure if this was a good thing for him to know.

Verno had never done much drinking before then. Just a couple beers at a party here or there, which he hadn’t particularly enjoyed. It seemed like he always had a training camp or a weight cut to worry about. It was the same with how he could count on one hand the number of Thanksgiving dinners he’d actually eaten and enjoyed without guilt or regret since he started wrestling in middle school, when he was twelve.

Now Verno was twenty-seven, and he was beginning to realize that he had missed out on some things. Drinking was one of those things. Verno liked drinking, especially in combination with the pills. He’d pop two in the morning and it was like the day got brighter. He made breakfast for Liss and Sam every morning, then played with his son on the living room floor until Sam squealed with delight, clutching the cast on Verno’s hand with his entire body. Sometimes he’d catch Liss watching him, smiling, as if this was all she’d ever wanted, though Verno knew that couldn’t possibly be true.

Around noon most days Sam went down for a nap and Verno went to eat lunch, which really meant he went down the street to bar called Maloof’s where he could drink and watch baseball. It was quiet in Maloof’s, and dark. It was not the kind of place people went to socialize, at least not in the hours Verno was there, and he went in enough that eventually the bartender would just hand him the remote to the TV along with Verno’s first drink. He could pick his own baseball game. He’d begun to favor the Cubs, mostly because they seemed to play a lot of day games, but also because they didn’t look like they took anything too seriously.

That was the appeal of baseball, as far as Verno was concerned. It was no life-or-death struggle. It was an afternoon in the sun, spectators who could drift in and out of the game, players who knew that, no matter what happened, they’d be back tomorrow, doing it all over again. Low-impact, Verno thought. He liked that. You could chew gum while you played this sport. You could play it wearing jewelry, and they did. Occasionally someone would get hit with the ball and everyone would stop for as long as it took to make sure he was okay. The fucking coaches wore the fucking uniforms. It was a riot.

He always made sure to get home in time to feed Sam dinner and give him a bath, though he often did it in such a state that sometimes he’d wake up in the morning with no memory of it. He’d have to go into the bathroom to touch the little blue towel with the monkeys on it, still damp, just to make sure he hadn’t forgotten.

Liss didn’t say anything. What could she say? Verno was helping out. He was doing his share. And besides, it’s not like he had a job to go to. Neither did she, thanks to the money he brought home. Until the hand healed, there wasn’t anything to do but wait. They still had his show money from the fight against the Russian. They had the bonus he’d negotiated. Maybe stupid Verno could take care of himself after all.

A week after the cast came off the Big Show called to say they’d terminated his contract. They called Liss for that one, Verno noted. They were too chickenshit to talk to him about it, and after he’d done them a favor by taking the fight against the Russian.

“Can they do that?” Verno asked. “Just cut me in the middle of the contract like that?”

“They can cut you at any time,” Liss said. “For anything.”

“Some contract,” Verno said.

Liss looked at him like she was trying to decide what to make of it, then she told him it was the same contract everyone got, the same one his fat lawyer friend had gotten him before she’d taken over to save them the money they were really going to need now.

Verno thought she was exaggerating until the bills started coming for the physical therapy on his hand. When the Big Show cut him, they cut his health insurance too. They’d paid for the surgery, but the cost of “ongoing care,” as the letters from the hospital put it, was now Verno’s problem. Three times a week squeezing foam balls and working oversized rubber bands with his fingers to get his hand back in working order, and he couldn’t believe how fast it ate through his savings.

Still, what else was he going to do? This was his right hand they were talking about. He needed it. He’d look at his scar sometimes, this thin line running down the middle of the back of his hand, and he couldn’t help but think about the Russian. That guy was next in line for the title shot now, from what everyone said. He could barely speak English and still he had endorsements and t-shirts with his face on them. What did Verno have?

If only that guy had gone down when he hit him. If only his hand hadn’t broken. He was better than that guy and he knew it. The fact that no one else did seemed too awful to be true.

*

After two months the doctors cleared him to return to training, but Verno didn’t go. He couldn’t. No matter what they told him, he was sure that his hand would shatter the minute he punched anything with it. He’d look at it, pale and soft from the weeks in the cast, like something foreign that had been stuck onto his body. He moved his fingers and watched the bones dance under the skin. He told himself he could feel the pins in there, though the doctor had assured him this was impossible. How could he ever trust this hand again?

Maybe he was done, Verno thought. It was a fucked up business anyway. He hated it more than he could say, and he hated even more that it was the only thing he really knew how to do.

He thought about telling Liss, but that was a conversation he didn’t even know how to begin. Instead he left each morning like he was going to the gym, then went to Maloof’s instead. After a couple of hours he’d yank himself off the barstool, shower at the YMCA down the street, then stick his unworn gym clothes in the little washing machine where people rinsed off their bathing suits in the men’s locker room. He figured that would make them wet enough to look like he’d used them, even if they wouldn’t smell right. Then again, since when had Liss ever put her nose to a pile of his wet gym clothes?

It was a fine plan, utterly doomed to fail, and Verno knew it.

*

It was getting on towards fall, the baseball playoffs just getting ready to start, when the fat lawyer called Verno directly and said he had a main event spot open on one of his local events if Verno was interested.

Good money, the lawyer said. Verno could still draw around there. People liked reminding each other that the guy who fought in the Big Show was once “Knuckles” from The Deuces. That would get him five grand to show and another five to win, the lawyer said.

“I thought you said it was good money,” Verno told him.

“Good money for where you’re at right now,” the lawyer said.

The lawyer told him to talk it over with his wife. The only thing, he added, was that in order to get the fight Verno would have to sign a new deal with him. Ten percent off the top, same as the old deal.

“Just think about it,” he told Verno. “Think about where you might be right now if you had some experienced representation picking these fights for you.”

He waited until after he’d put Sam to bed to tell Liss about it. She listened patiently until he was finished and then told him he should take it. When she said it he realized just how badly he’d been hoping she’d say something else.

“He’s right,” Liss said, sounding flat and empty. “I’m no good at this.”

“Don’t be like that about it,” Verno said.

“It’s true,” Liss said. “Just look at what’s happened.”

Verno wondered if he’d ever be done letting people down.

*

He had just under a month to get ready for the fight. It seemed like the exact wrong amount of time. He kept telling himself he’d get back in the gym, or at least watch some film on this guy he was fighting, some local kid who had supposedly wrestled at Oklahoma State once upon a time.

On the fight poster the kid glared out between his fists, hair in tight cornrows, a serious scar running under one eye. Minimal tattoos. The guy was trouble, people said. Verno believed them. He just couldn’t quite get himself to care. Not enough, anyway.

Instead he kept going to Maloof’s. The Cubs made the playoffs by the skin of their damn teeth and then somehow advanced to the next round. They went back and forth with the Dodgers for the National League pennant. Their Dominican shortstop hit a walk-off homer to save them from elimination in game six. Verno felt fortunate to have stumbled upon an interest in the game at this particular time of his life.

The night of game seven Verno was sitting in a locker room inside a shitty little casino in Rock Island, Illinois, staring down at his right hand encased in four-ounce leather gloves on top of about a pound of athletic tape. He’d never been less prepared for a fight in his life. What worried him the most was the extent to which this knowledge failed to worry him more.

There were things you did because you wanted to do them, Verno told himself, and then there were things you had to do because of the other things you’d already done. Doors closed on you. Options narrowed. The funny thing was that you never realized it until it was too late.

When the fat lawyer came in to give him the fifteen-minute warning, Verno told him he wasn’t going out. The fat lawyer laughed. Like, good one. Then he saw Verno’s face.

“Twelve grand,” Verno told him.

“You want twelve grand on top of the five and five I’m already paying you?” the lawyer said. “That’s an easy decision, because I don’t have it to pay you.”

No, Verno explained, what he wanted was twelve grand total, right now, in cash, and then he’d go out and fight. Verno was done being tricked. Verno was going to try life on the other side of that equation for a change.

The fat lawyer cussed him for what seemed like two solid minutes. It was the first time Verno felt like he’d ever seen the man’s real personality.

“You idiot,” the lawyer said. “That’s only two grand more than what you’d make for just going out there and winning the damn fight.”

Verno said yes, thank you, he was aware of how the math worked. He was also aware that twelve grand was likely to be the upper limit of what the box office would take in tonight, or else he would have asked for more. He was still wishing he’d given it a shot when the lawyer took out his checkbook.

“Cash,” Verno reminded him.

The lawyer left the room cussing and slammed the door. Verno tested his right hand in the palm of his left. It made a solid thump that he couldn’t quite trust.

When the lawyer came back in the room his face was a dark red and he was carrying the metal cash box from the box office. Verno had never seen anyone count money so angrily before.

“Twelve thousand,” the manager said and slapped the money down on the table next to Verno’s thigh. “Enjoy it, because I’m going to make sure it’s the last payday you see in this business.”

That was fine by Verno. He counted the money himself as the lawyer watched him, breathing heavy, smelling of coffee and sweat.

“This isn’t even worth getting mad over,” the fat lawyer mumbled, almost to himself. “You know that? It really isn’t. That’s how dumb this is.”

He stood there as if waiting for Verno to say something, then smacked his thick hands against his slacks and turned to go. Verno told him to wait. Verno peeled off twelve hundred bucks in twenties and held it out.

“Ten percent,” he explained.

The fat lawyer looked at him, shook his head, and walked out without taking the money, just like Verno knew he would. At least he wouldn’t be able to say Verno had stiffed him.

*

Verno took his time walking to the cage that night. He wanted to remember everything about his last time.

The way they blasted the music so loud during his entrance that you could feel it through the floor. The way he could sense the crowd out there in the dark, turning as one to watch him as he made his way to the cage. The way the canvas felt rough and alive under his bare feet. How his mouth went dry with fear the moment they fitted the mouthpiece in.

Across the cage, the guy in cornrows stared at him. He looked hungry, Verno thought. He looked like he thought this was his big break, which it probably was. Verno wondered how the Cubs were doing.

The ref gave the signal to fight and the guy with the cornrows came forward in slow, shuffling steps. Verno hoisted his right hand up next to his chin and used his left to wave the guy in. Come and get it. The crowd ate it up.

The hell with it, Verno thought as the guy moved in. Go ahead and throw the right one more time. See what happens.

The guy was getting closer, weaving, pumping a jab to test the distance.

Throw it, throw it, throw it, Verno told himself.

The guy floated a leg kick out into the space between them.

Throw it.

The guy stung him with a straight left, dead center of his forehead. Verno felt his head snap back from the impact. Bright white lights behind his eyes. The noise of his own blood in his ears. The crowd whooped. The guy slapped his ear with a sloppy hook.

Verno’s right hand shot out on reflex. He couldn’t stop it. He’d always been that way.

When it landed it didn’t feel like anything. It felt like home.