Paulo’s Journey (Part 3)

    A tightly packed crowd filled the warehouse, which now stank of sweat and alcohol. Paulo felt Colin’s hand in between his shoulder blades, thrusting him toward the platform in the centre of the giant room. Stumbling through the crowd, voices filled his ears with words he could not discern, and hundreds of unfriendly stares turned upon him. Standing upon the platform ahead was the man with the handlebar moustache he had seen earlier. The man beckoned Paulo impatiently. Colin pushed Paulo up the stairs to the platform, which was now enclosed on each side by three ropes. He raised the top rope and commanded Paulo to climb through into the ring. As he ducked the top rope and climbed through, the yelling and mocking laughter ringside morphed into a ringing in his ears. He struggled to think straight. Almost as soon as he stood in the ring, another man entered from the opposite side. This man was older, in his thirties, a little overweight but with strong shoulders. He had a shaved head and several tattoos: a devil on his chest, a topless woman on his right bicep, a tiger on his shoulder, the grim reaper on his stomach and Elvis Presley on the inside of his left forearm. The man wore the kind of shorts and hand wraps that Paulo had on. The moustachioed man spoke words to Paulo and the tattoed man, but the words seemed just muffled noise. Paulo looked about the crowd. His breathing raced. The man with the moustache yelled something at Paulo, and Paulo looked at him. He motioned for Paulo to raise his fists, so Paulo did. He looked at his bandaged hands before him, and at the mean looking man across the ring, then the dull, sickening suspicion in his stomach dawned to bright, dreadful realisation: he was in a fight.

    Paulo’s opponent charged. Paulo, who had never been in a fight before, stood there in shock. All he could do as the tattooed man cocked his right fist was push his hands out, duck his head and shut his eyes. A brain-rattling thump seemed to strike his head on all sides at once, and that very instant Paulo found himself face-down on the cool, smooth canvas. Shouts and cheers swirled in his ears, and he heard Colin’s voice barking behind him. He pushed himself up onto his hands and knees. Blood pooled on the canvas between his hands. It took him a second to figure out the shallow red puddle was being formed by blood dripping rapidly from his own face. He forced himself to his feet, his head throbbing and burning, and his brain managing only a drunken half-comprehension of what his eyes saw. A pair of hands turned him around, and the man with the moustache stood in front of him. He spoke a question Paulo could not understand and raised his fists up. His mind blurred, Paulo imitated the gesture and lifted his hands in front of his face. The man nodded, then stepped aside to reveal the tattooed man across the ring, ready to fight again. The crowd cheered, and Paulo’s opponent charged once more. Paulo clenched his fists in front of his face as the tattooed man threw a barrage of punches. His head rocked back with a stinging straight right to the nose, then lurched to the side from a savage left hook. Paulo gathered his footing in time to take a left jab to the cheek, a right uppercut to the chin, and then a sledgehammer left to the body. The crowd roared as Paulo keeled over onto one knee, clutching his side and gaping in agony. For a few seconds, his lungs refused to draw breath. Blood streamed from his nose, down his chin and chest, and splashed the bandages on his hands. Through the ropes, a hand reached in and latched onto Paulo’s arm like a vulture’s claws. It was Colin. He gave Paulo a fierce look. Paulo remembered the gun. He wheezed a couple of breaths and got to his feet. The referee again asked Paulo a question he could not understand and got him to raise his fists. The crowd cheered. The tattooed man advanced again, and Paulo rushed forward to meet him. He threw a wild right hand, which the man slipped and countered with a left-right combination to the head. Paulo stumbled but kept his feet. The tattooed man cocked his right fist, and Paulo lunged forward. The punch glanced off Paulo’s shoulder, and he tackled his opponent to the ground. Boos and laughter rang out as Paulo scuffled with his opponent on the canvas, before the referee dragged him off. He stood Paulo up and wagged a finger in front of his face. If it had been an officially sanctioned boxing bout, Paulo might have lost points for his tackle, but in warehouse boxing no points were given or scores kept. Only a knockout would end the fight.

    Paulo’s tackle, while earning him a reprimand from the referee, also gave him an idea. As long as he stood right up against his opponent, he could not get hit by a big punch, and so, as the fight resumed, Paulo ran to the tattooed man and pressed himself up against him. The man tried to retreat and sidestep, but Paulo was as persistent as a fly at a barbecue, and his opponent could not keep him at arm’s length. Every time the tattooed man threw a punch, Paulo would grab him and cling to him. The referee broke up clinch after clinch, warning Paulo he had to fight, but Paulo was interested only in not getting knocked into a coma. It astonished everyone in the warehouse, not the least of whom Paulo himself, when the bell rang to signal the end of the first round. The referee stepped in to break up the fighters, and the tattooed man returned to his corner. Paulo collapsed to his knees and offered grateful tears to heaven. His relief was shattered, however, when Colin lifted him up and pushed him to the corner, and he realised the fight was not finished.


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