by Alec Clayton – Akiko Durant didn’t much like boxing, but she was good at it and it provided her with a handsome living. She sometimes didn’t much like her live-in boyfriend, who was also her manager, either. More precisely, she didn’t like herself for liking him, but she was a sucker for his slick charm.
Akiko held the women’s welterweight championship for ten years with a record of 86-2-0 until she was finally defeated by Dana Mitchell, a tall, blonde brawler who started her career in the ring as a wrestler popularly known as Dominatrix. The championship bout was a split-decision that boxing fans argued about for months while Dana the Dominatrix strutted her stuff in all the places where the in people were seen, while Akiko retreated from the public eye. Her only public appearances were when she was pictured in a suburban newspaper, once escorting her six-year-old son, Hiro, to his first day of school, and a second time when she worked with a local church’s efforts to raise money for victims of a tsunami in the Philippians (pictured in the same suburban newspaper holding one end of a banner while the church’s popular pastor held the other end). She did not appear to be particularly athletic in either photo. At a slim 140 pounds, the lowest weight in her division, Akiko looked more like a dancer than a boxer, especially in the sleek black dress she wore for the charity event.
A gorgeous woman with luscious lips, high cheekbones, and copper toned skin as unblemished as a baby’s cheek despite having absorbed thousands of punches, Akiko was the most celebrated female boxer ever. She and her longtime manager and lover, Jimmy Joe Cranston, the proud father of her son, were worldwide celebrities far beyond sports circles, not so much for anything they had done (other than winning a boxing championship), but because of their glamour. Jimmy Joe dressed like a showboat gambler and wore his golden hair swept back in a tall pompadour, and she looked like a porcelain doll by his side. They were often pictured in celebrity magazines.
Twenty-five-year-old Dana Mitchell was twelve years Akiko’s junior. Fans hated Dana Mitchell as much as they loved Akiko. Naturally larger than her ideal fighting weight, Dana had to starve herself before every bout to get down to welterweight size. Her style was lumbering, a brawler more than a boxer, and she was often accused of dirty tactics. In her wrestling career she had been the wrestler fans loved to hate. But her nastiness was an act, something Akiko understood since the two were friends outside the ring and when not in public settings.
The fans really hated Dana after she took the title away from Akiko, because not long after Dana became welterweight champion Jimmy Joe dropped Akiko and teamed up with Dana as both manager and lover. And then, to everyone’s surprise, he left Dana and went back to Akiko, begging her to forgive him and take him back. Her fans howled, “No, never take him back!” Imagine if you can, and if you’re old enough to remember, how Americans would have felt if Eddie Fisher had dumped Elizabeth Taylor and gone back to Debbie. Should she or shouldn’t she take him back became a hot topic on social media and in the popular press for a few short months. But take him back she did. For the sake of the child, she said. And it was not long before all was forgiven and Jimmy Joe and Akiko were America’s favorite couple again. And once again she did not like herself for liking him.
And then Akiko announced she was going to come out of retirement. At the age of forty-one, when few of her fans believed she could do it but fervently hoped she could, Akiko Durant met Dana Mitchell again in a championship bout.
It is now six o’clock in the evening of the bout. Madison Square Garden is quiet, only a few maintenance workers near the ring, the big lights not yet turned on, someone doing a sound check. Akiko shows up two hours before the bout to work out in the ring with Jimmy Joe as was her custom. She climbs into the ring and drapes her robe across the ropes. Moving with grace, punching Jimmy Joe’s oversized punching mitts with sharp jabs, working more on movement than on hitting, getting accustomed to the feel of the ring, she moves like Muhammad Ali in his prime. She even repeats his mantra as she boxes: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Perhaps a dozen people drift in to watch her workout. Trainers, a couple of sports writers, more Garden workers; and Dana Mitchell sitting three rows back with her new manager, Hulk Montague of professional wrestling fame. “I gotta admit, she’s got the moves,” she whispers. “I can’t out box her.”
“Sure you can. You just gotta set your mind to it.”
“I’m gonna have to overpower her and hope she can’t last ten rounds.”
“She’s fucking old,” Hulk Montague says. “There ain’t no way she can last.”
“That’s what I’m counting on.”
“No mercy. Go for the kill from the first bell.”
“Look at that move. She’s fucking smooth.”
“She won’t be so fucking smooth after she takes a few of your rights.”
For the first time in her career, Dana feels a momentary shudder at the thought of hurting an opponent, but she knows she can shake that once she climbs through the ropes.
It is now eight o’clock at night. Dana and Akiko are seated on stools in their respective corners, towels draped over their heads, rolling their necks and shoulders to work out the kinks, slapping their gloves together, their managers squatted down in front of them giving last minute instructions, pep talks. Jimmy Joe is on one knee. Akiko says, “I’m going to kill her. I’m coming out with everything I’ve got. I’ve got to win it in the early rounds, knock her out.”
“That’s the worst thing you can do,” Jimmy Joe tells her. “You’ve never won by knockout. You’re not that kind of fighter.”
She knows he’s right. Furthermore—and Jimmy Joe has always criticized her for this—she never wants to hurt her opponent. She doesn’t have the killer instinct.
Jimmy Joe says, “Fight angry and you lose. Don’t forget what took you to the top before. Finesse and skill. Keep moving, counter punching.”
“You’re right, you’re right. I’ll do it your way.”
Both women are on their feet now, dancing in place, shadow boxing. The bell rings, and Akiko shuffles softly toward the middle of the ring. Dana blasts off from her corner like a rocket from a launch pad. She attacks like a mad dog. She meets Akiko with a flurry of punches before she has gotten five feet from her corner. Akiko never sees it coming. A quick left and a right to her cheeks, an undercut like a sledge hammer to her gut. For a second she can’t see. She tries to cover up. She backs up, tries to circle. Dana has her against the ropes. She’s landing body blows that take her breath away, hurtful hooks to the face and shoulders. Akiko clinches, holds on for dear life. The referee breaks them apart. Dana is on her again. She clinches again. Akiko is unconscious on her feet, backpedaling. She wraps her arms around Dana in a desperate attempt to hold her arms to her sides. Dana brings her knee up to hit her between her legs. Akiko gasps. She’s woozy. Dana whispers, “Sorry.” She means it. It was an accident.
The referee breaks them up again, stops the fight to ask Akiko if she’s able to go on, warns Dana no more knees. Akiko says she is all right. There’s a cut over her right eye. Blood is streaming into her eye and down her cheek. The crowd is booing. The bell rings and Akiko staggers to her corner, sits on her stool. Jimmy Joe applies astringent to her cut. “I’m afraid there’s going to be a scar,” he says. He asks her if she wants him to throw in the towel. She shakes her head no.
“To hell with boxing,” she says. “I’m going for the kill. Gotta get it over with.”
Jimmy Joe now knows better than to try to talk her out of a desperation strategy. It’s all they’ve got. She comes out for round two as recklessly as Dana had for round one. She doesn’t have the strength Dana has. She’s two inches shorter with a shorter reach, and she’s five pounds lighter. In terms of the power of her punches that five pounds could be twenty. But she has gained the advantage, if only momentarily. She catches Dana with an unexpected flurry of blows that has her back on her heels, and she keeps pummeling her until the bell rings.
Akiko wins the second round as decisively as Dana won the first. After that, the brawl settles into a boxing match, and for that Akiko has the edge. Dana had counted on Akiko being out of shape after years out of the ring, but what she had not counted on was that Akiko had never stopped training while she, Dana, had spent most of her time since winning the championship partying.
By the eighth round both women are rubber-legged. They can barely hold up their gloves. They both begin to wonder what in the hell made them think boxing was a good way to make a living. They clinch so much you might think they’re making love, not fighting, and in a way they are. Over the course of ten, three-minute rounds they have come to admire the hell out of each other.
Akiko is declared the winner by a split decision. Not long afterwards they both retire from boxing. Jimmy Joe finds himself a hot new up-and-coming boxer to manage and drops Akiko. Leaves her for the younger woman. Akiko and Dana start hanging out together. They’re seen in all the in clubs, and they’re pictured on the cover of People magazine looking more like lovers than rivals. Their closest friends know they are, and it won’t be long before they make it public.
This is a rewrite of a story originally published in Creative Colloquy.
Three other short stories by Alec Clayton “The Death of R&J,” “Selling the Fishing Camp” and “Josephine and the Tiger” are published in our 2022 anthology, Mud Flat Shorts (mostly fiction).