He hadn’t done this in years. He thought he was done, actually. He’d let time take its course, let the creaking in his body set in. He settled into the years that passed. Then the call came.
He didn’t want to do it, but his wife insisted. His retirement hadn’t been official, but it was definitive. An embarrassing defeat given to him by a young up-and-comer. He’d been caught in a triangle choke. Disbelief, or pride, or maybe both, stopped him from tapping. Surely he’d get out. Surely he’d escape. But he didn’t. The choke tightened, and he watched as consciousness left him. When he came to, he was lying on the mat, staring at lights that were like miniature suns, listening to the crowd going wild, the ref and a doctor over him, concern on both of their faces. His body was beaten and bloody, and he was barely able to catch his breath. That’s how it’d happened.
This could be his chance to end on his own terms, she said. His shot at going out on top just like he always wanted to. He could argue some with her points, though he chose not to. What he couldn’t argue with was that this could keep their bank account afloat. That old residual cash wouldn’t last forever, and this could be his way of securing their financial future.
He said yes.
He started training immediately–intensive cardio, sparring, grappling. It hit him all at once just how old he’d gotten. Sure, he was technically only middle-aged, but that was practically ancient for a fighter. Almost unheard of. But he was a big enough name where people wanted to see him fight one last time.
His legs ached from hundreds of takedowns and blows over the years, arms gave him problems if he extended them too far. Still though, he could spar.
He was always a slugger, always preferred standing toe to toe with a guy and putting his strength to the test. He’d come out swinging with such ferocity–a true berserker. Long after most guys would tire and clinch with their opponent to catch their breath, he’d be throwing hooks and uppercuts. It was what he was born to do.
He trained tirelessly, day after day, pushing his body to the absolute limit and then beyond it, having to take some days off when he flirted with injury, feeling like he needed to have an advantage over his younger opponent. But eventually, he could train no more. Eventually, fight night came.
The response he got when his name was announced would sound enthusiastic to the casual observer. He knew that there were plenty of old fans out there, plenty of people paying their respects to a guy like him, a guy who’d help define the sport, but there was pity mixed in there too. They’d seen his career end before, and they expected it to end in similar fashion again. But that was okay. He was used to being the underdog.
Round one. His opponent didn’t touch gloves, so he gave him a jab to the nose to teach him a lesson in manners. He delivered tightly-packed combinations as he was wont to do, alternating between striking the body and the head, not allowing his opponent to adjust. The younger fighter clinched several times to stop the punches, which elicited boos from the crowd. When the clinching didn’t work, the younger guy tried takedowns. But the old man had been training his takedown defense. He sprawled in textbook fashion when the kid tried to come in for his leg, put all his weight on the younger fighter’s back, pushed him down, and got back to his feet.
On and on he slugged with the kid, past round two and into the third and final round. And here was something new: the old man was actually gassed. Sure, the kid was gassed too, but this was still alarming. He threw his trademark combinations, but they were slower, sloppier. The younger fighter noticed and capitalized. He clinched up with the old man and fell backward so that the older fighter would fall on top of him. The kid pulled one arm and pushed the other against the older fighter’s chest, got one leg over his head and the other over that leg. A triangle choke. The old man breathed in slow and deep as the kid worked at the hold. The younger fighter grabbed his own ankle and pulled down, cinching it tighter, squeezing till the old man’s face turned red. He could see himself fade again, feel his strength seep out of his body.
And then he did what had to be done. He got his legs underneath him and stood up. The crowd collectively gasped as he picked the younger fighter up like he was nothing. Then everything went silent. Everyone waited.
The old man slammed the younger fighter down with so much force that the kid was knocked out instantly. The ref came in and got between the two of them before any more damage could be done. And that was it. He’d won.
The entire crowd was on its feet, cheering and applauding as if he were a hero back from war. The kid came over to offer his congratulations and thanks, and the old man shook his hand.
As he walked out of the cage and past the cheering crowd, harsh bright lights like miniature suns up above him, the old man knew what true happiness felt like.