I walked to the ring with a swagger, silk brushing against my skin as my ego staggered before me, a blur of crowd voices and cigarettes and the smell of sweat. Before me fighters had come and gone, but this one was mine.
Let’s do this life thing because I am young and I am fierce.
But I got sucker punched in the gut, and kicked in the face, and a string of a hits I didn’t expect. I tried to remember all the training and practice rounds, and yet my coach’s words were grey and hazy. All I could see coming was a left hook, a little too late it seems, and I found myself falling and slipping and heading for the mat with greasy sweat streaming from my pores. I lay face down while the crowds grew, my left eye swollen shut and my chest managing to heave in and out despite the blows. I shut my eyes hard.
Please Lord, no. I can’t bear to lose.
But the referee declared it, and the victor was announced, and all I could do was lay there in all that deafening noise. The mouthpiece held my lips ajar and I could hear my own labored breaths. I couldn’t break the pattern, for my body was surviving on oxygen alone. I stared at the side of the ring for a long while, unable to move. My eyelids shut like curtains and I thought it was over.
I’d failed so miserably, and I’ll never be able to stand again.
But after a while I drew my legs close. I turned and raised up my back like a Halloween cat and hoisted myself to a knee. I felt the drool and sweat and blood dripping, and when I raised my head I just saw the janitor in the stands, sweeping cigarette butts and popcorn kernels and picking up sticky beer cans. We were alone, he and I, nothing but leftover smoke and spoils. I managed to stand on my shaky knees. Fearful of the damage that had been caused. Of the wounds that remained.
But somehow, miraculously, my legs found their footing. I planted my feet apart and I raised my head. I was alive and tall, and tears mixed with sweat as I raised my right arm above my head. The janitor stopped his sweeping and stared at the display, the loser standing in the middle of the ring, one arm raised, fist-pumping the sky with a crooked, bleeding smile.
I might have broken lips and battle scars. I may nurse bruises and broken bones. And yet I rose. I stood. I won.
It’s not the one who shows off for the crowds, or who drinks champagne at midnight, or who gets to display the trophy that counts. It’s the one who rises, and regains footing, and manages to lift their head. It’s the ability to make it out alive and fist-pump the dirty, rotten air.
This fight did not define me. It did not break me. And through the tears I walked off the rink, and past the janitor, who had laid down his broom. He clapped, and I smiled, and I knew I wasn’t ruined.
Victory, as it turned out, was mine.