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DEATH ROLL | Frank Drouzas

He keeps plodding toward me like some big black zombie no matter how much I punch him off.

I’m bouncing jabs off his forehead but Tyrone keeps stalking me, and I’m waiting for him to get close so I can rip into his mid-section.

Sparring for the upcoming Luis Salvaje fight. Only months ago I turned pro, and this’ll be my fourth six-rounder. My trainer Willy knows Tyrone who knows my opponent’s moves — trained alongside him a couple times — so he’s imitating him now.

With a five-and-five record, I know I’m hanging on by a fingernail. Drop any more fights and not sure what kind of action I can get after that. Don’t want to think about that, though.

Every time Tyrone tries to come inside, I side-step him like a matador and dig into his side. Tyrone absorbs it with bulldog grunts and keeps circling slowly, giving me a chance to draw him in and set it all up again. I’m bap-bap-bapping shots off him like nothing. It’s exhilarating.

That is until he slips me once, waits till I’m turned around then stabs me with two quick shots that dig into my hip, stun me. Not exactly a clean move, but I don’t say anything. One thing a fighter never wants to do is show that he’s hurt.

Only been training a month or so at the Sunshine Boxing Club in Ybor City, Tampa’s oldest and most dangerous part of town, so I’ve only seen Tyrone a handful of times. We repeat the dance for five rounds till Willy says it’s enough. I go to touch gloves, but Tyrone barely acknowledges.

“What’s with him?” I ask Willy when he’s walked to the other side of the gym to take of his gear on the bench.

“Moody bastard. You know he fought Paco Ortiz a couple years back at the Palladium. Says he was taking Ortiz to school when in the fifth he got caught with a dirty elbow that blew up his eye socket. Lost almost all his vision in that eye, still gets fierce headaches. Can’t pass any vision test so he can’t be cleared to fight.” Willy shakes his head. “Dead in the water.”

“He can still move around all right,” I say, still feeling the kidney shots.

Willy yanks off my gloves. “Jake feels sorry for him, lets him hang around his gym here, use the equipment, spar, whatever. He even cleans up and locks up. Doesn’t pay any dues. Not like he was ever a real contender, but now he’s just a punching bag.”

Almost sundown and I’m getting my roadwork in jogging toward the park lake when I spot an enormous black smudge in the sky, a smudge with wings that’s flying toward this condemned-looking building I’ve never really noticed before. It finds a perch on the very top, where it settles in and joins some other friends who are already squatting there. Vultures.

I reach the park at the end of my run and plop down on the edge of the small lake. Knees pulled up and head down, I’m huffing and puffing.

That’s when I sense it. Don’t ask me how. The way I imagine it’d feel when you walk into a room where someone was murdered years ago. Get a weird tingle.

I raise my head and look straight ahead of me and see them: two humps in the black water. Eyes. It takes me a split second to realize what it is I’m facing, what’s laying in wait for me.

It’s like when two gunfighters have their hands poised above their holsters, before I suddenly make the move. I push off to my left quick as lightning just as a huge black alligator comes at me like he was shot out of the water.

I hear the jaws snap shut, sounds like a gunshot, just missing me. On my feet now I backpedal, I don’t turn and hightail it. Not me. Want to keep him in front of me, in my vision. Just came off a two-mile run but now I’m bouncing on the balls of my feet, in my rhythm.

“Let’s go,” I tell the gator, hands up and ready like the bell has rung.

After its initial surge he stops about six feet away, jaws open, and hisses at me. A couple milk-white gashes near its head. Stand off. Since I’m erect I don’t look like some small animal and I’m trying to make my 160 pounds as intimidating as possible. My hands are still up. I’m all in now.

He stops hissing. His eyes narrow and he closes his jaw and it’s the closest I’ve seen an animal to outright grinning. It’s as if he’s thinking, I knew I had only one shot to take you down.

But I’m still here.

He turns back toward the lake and his tar-black tail is the last thing to slip back into the murky water, silent as death.

Next day at the gym I’m sparring with Tyrone again, and again we work on inside punches. “Draw him in,” Willy keeps shouting, “then up and underneath, up and underneath!” Only four rounds today till Willy tells me to work the bag for another four rounds and steps outside to take a call.

I’m wiping my head off with a towel when I look up and see Tyrone next to me on the bench.

“What record you got?” He asks me like he’s demanding I show him my hand in a card game.

I tell him. “Got the short end of some decisions, though. This last one--”

He cuts me off with a laugh like a rusty chainsaw. “Course you did, course you did,” he manages to get out, still laughing. “Best be careful or you’ll be Mr. Stepping Stone ‘fore you know it.”

Before I can say anything Willy comes back and says he’s going to his daughter’s to help with a faucet, and he’ll pick me up at two for the weigh-in tomorrow.

Soon as he leaves Tyrone stands up. “Let me show you some stuff.”

Back in the ring he tells me to plant myself while he comes way inside, slips my punch then turns his knee sharply and whacks my inner thigh with it — I stumble and barely avoid taking a seat on the canvas when he just taps me with a follow-up punch.

He laughs. “Now the voice in your head is sayin’, ‘Do I not get hit and fall, or do I cover up and fall?’

“I don’t know about that, man.” I don’t come out and say the word ‘dirty,’ but I’m sure thinking it.

“Survival, baby. Kill or be killed,” he says.

“You want to talk about that?” I say. So I tell him about the gator, how close it came. “It wasn’t like those cutesy Greetings from Florida postcards where you have some broad in a bikini bent over and the gator right behind her looking like it’s going to kiss her in the luscious ass. No. This thing was evil, hissing at me. I saw death in its eyes, man.”

“Whoo! You one lucky sonofabitch! He tried to ambush your ass. You think he gonna show you ten feet of reptile skin and muscle? Hell no. You don’t see nothing, until it’s too late. That thing gets a hold of your leg you either lose about a foot right there or it drags you down for a death roll.”

“A what?”

“He can’t outrun you on land, right? So it takes the fight to his turf. Drags you down into the water and spins around and around till either a part of you breaks off in its jaws. Or you drown.”

“Well this one was mean-looking. Had these white and gray gashes all…”

“Battle scars. The males are territorial as hell so they fight each other, especially in their mating season. Right now, matter of fact. They don’t bluff each other or play wrestle, they vicious. They bite and rip each other up till one is dead or backs off.”

“How you know so much about these things?”

He shrugs. “Mama’s always got that Discovery Channel on. Besides,” he says, getting defensive, “it’s educational.”

Suddenly he starts throwing fierce combinations in the air. In between punches he starts speaking low, “You watch him, feel him out. He come at you looking to mess you up, then you level the playing field. You got to get in his head. That’s the law of the ring. Whatever you got to do, it’s all fair.” He ends with a flurry that stops just short of my gut. “If I’d done that I’d still be fighting. Come on, I got a couple more things to show you.”

Day before the fight, at the weigh-in. Salvaje’s staring me down the whole time, making a good show of it. When we’re all weighed in I notice his woman on the way out, a fine Latina. “Looking good, mama,” I whisper to her and grin like a bastard. She looks like she can’t make up her mind to tell me to piss off or just to laugh. An iron glare from Salvaje tells her she’d better shut up. I can see him seething.

Complete rest that night. Trying to clear my head but keep thinking about my previous bouts. About what I could have done differently, how far I think I can go with this. Like Tyrone said, you have to know how to survive or you’re not going to last. You have it or you don’t.

Night of the fight. Boxing Under the Stars, the promoters call it. Set up a ring outside in the heart of Ybor. Even the crowd’s giving off an electricity, they’re all chomping at the bit to see some blood then be turned loose on the bars up and down Seventh Avenue. I got a tough act to follow cause the opener had Whelan taking his man out in the second with a face-plant KO.

Finally it’s my turn to step between the ropes. Crowd doesn’t seem too impressed when I’m announced but they all-out cheer Salvaje. It’s go time.

First round we’re just sniffing each other out with some light trading and he fires off some jabs but doesn’t get too close yet. But I’m patient. I flick off a few of my own lefts to go to work inside but before I know what’s happening he comes punching right through them and backs me into the ropes and jams his forearm against my gloves, into my chest. Tees off on me downstairs while my hands are trapped. Quits just before he can get called on anything but gets his shots in.

Every time I try to get him to come inside he steps in and around me, rips into my hip just like Tyrone did, and runs off before I can counter.

Toward the end of the second round he’s got another nifty trick. Comes in real close with his gloves tucked under his face, feints with a left then squats and whirls at the hip, trying to whap me in the knee with his own knee and knock me off balance. I’m able to jump back quick enough. He’s being sneaky as hell, boy. He manages to shove me against the ropes again and again and when my gloves are both up he jams his forearm against them, pinning them to my throat, even, while I’m eating his punches.

After the bell and between heavy breaths I try to tell Willy what Salvaje’s up to but Willy won’t have it. Screams at me to tighten up my combinations and punch my way out of trouble against the ropes. Not so easy when you can’t move your hands, I feel like saying.

During the middle of the fourth, Salvaje waits for me to come inside. I test him out, jab a few times, but back off. I sense something has changed. Feeling like I’m walking near a tiger trap. Again, he waits for me to take it to him and after a couple jabs I try to come over the top. He slips it and digs his right hand up and into my hip near the kidney two, three, four times before he backs it off.

The ref ain’t calling jack. If Salvaje whipped a .38 out his trunks, aimed it at my crotch and shot my dick clean off then maybe he’d call a foul.

So I go for it.

I take a step back and at the same time raise my right hand straight up and leave it there frozen for a second, like I’m about to smash my fist straight down on his head like a hammer. Salvaje looks up for a split second and that’s all I need. I flick my left at his forehead for decoy and in a bowling motion I bring my right sweeping down and picking up momentum as it finds its target — half a foot below Salvaje’s belt.

The crowd whoops as Salvaje leans forward, head bent down while he holds his crotch. The ref immediately shoves me back and signals to the timekeeper to stop the clock and tells Salvaje to take his time to recover.

He gives me an official warning as he backs me into a neutral corner. I shout loud enough for Salvaje to hear: “You tell him to keep doing what he’s doing and next time it won’t be a love tap.”

“Next time I take a point away,” Ref yells. “Keep ‘em up!”

Salvaje takes his time meanwhile, acting like he just took a cannonball to the groin. I know how hard I hit him so I know he’s just putting on a good show. He paces around the ring inhaling and exhaling. Can’t tell if it’s surprise or anger on his face.

During all this I spot his woman in the front row. I give her a nod. I glance across at Salvaje to see if he’s looking, then back at his girl and blow her a kiss, with tongue. I swear I see her cheeks flush. Get in his head.

We finish the round and back in the corner Willy’s giving me an earful about the low blow. “You done hot dogging out there?”

I just take in some water and spit. Focusing on what I have to do — after all, it’s just me in that ring fighting. No one else.

Sixth and final round and I’m definitely feeling it. Feeling it from the hip punches, feeling it from the gut punches, feeling it from getting out-boxed too many times in all my fights. Salvaje must smell it on me cause when I step in he gets inside and quick as hell he twines his arm over mine and locks it up at the elbow. I can’t escape. He tears into me again and again, pounding my body and kidney.

I try to whap him off with my free hand but he’s pressed me so close I can’t get any kind of juice behind it. Gripping my arm tight he keeps ripping into me at the same time spinning me around and around, trying to keep it out of the ref’s sight, while I’m flailing with only my left and my legs are wobbling and I’ve got no gas left in the tank and it’s all slipping away from me as I’m struggling for air.

Finally the ref breaks us but Salvaje comes right back in, looking to lock me up again. “This is it,” his face may as well be saying, “this is where you go down.”

I tuck in my arms and bend down so low my head’s almost in his gut and I feel his punches pelting the side of my head. I know he’s close enough so I call up every reserve I have and like a shot my right hand comes sweeping around — I’m careful to hook my glove in as I swing so it whiffs purposely short of his head but I follow through all the way with my remaining strength and smash my elbow on the point of his jaw, where it explodes on his bone.

I feel a charge shooting up and down my arm — like the lightning hitting the rod that jolts Frankenstein’s monster to life — and Salvaje drops his arms instantly while his body jerks up but his head dangles down, like he’s been tasered. Executed right, Tyrone said, a shot like that can bring down a horse. Before he can crumple I follow with a quick left, but it’s already over.

Stick my hands straight up and stab the air as the surge keeps shooting through me. I’m invigorated, baby! Alive!

Next day something drives me to go down to the lake again. Maybe respect, in a way. Can’t really explain it. I’ve got two whole raw chickens in a bag, dripping in the heat. I make my way down my jogging path and down to the lip of the lake. No fear.

I wind around some marshes trying to find the same spot, when I see a huge vulture with its red bald head and black eyes. Then another one in front of it. It’s a whole line of them, single file as they’re waiting patiently to get at something behind a thick clump of weeds.

The air smells heavy, sour in the wavy heat. At the end of the line of vultures, completely out of the water I see the black alligator, lying on its back, jaw frozen open and feet jutting up into the air, with its throat ripped and gray stomach bloated and the biggest of the vultures standing over it, its beak bloody in the bright sun, stabbing and picking through the underbelly to get to the meaty payday.

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