DOWN, BUT NEVER OUT
“I remember now,” Matt said.
“Remember what, Matt?” Bar asked. His head looked up from his cup of the good stuff at the Waffle House. He had a curious expression as if he’d just heard something unexpected.
Not responding to Bar, Matt’s mind drifted back to a different time and place. The smell of the bacon and sausage sizzling on the freshly cleaned grill triggered memories of his past.
To the vast majority of people in the arena, it evoked thoughts of the time of two gladiators entering the ancient Roman coliseum. The only thing missing would be the lions eating followers of that new religion. The packed room was deafened by the roar of the standing-room-only crowd.
"Eakle! Eakle! Eakle!" the throng yelled for their favorite.
The two warriors, the main event of the evening's festivities, entered the ring. The WBC Heavyweight champ, A.R.“Boom Boom” Eakle exuded confidence that was felt by himself, the HBO announcers, as well as the throng of people. He was unquestionable, the heavy favorite to improve to 37-0.
Opposite of Eakle, in his corner, was the man ranked 8th in the world and fighting his first title fight. Matt “Mad Dog” Cobb’s record was a decent 22-2 and with a good left jab and excellent boxing skills, the fight should be a good one. Unlike Eakle, he did not outwardly show the same flamboyant certainty.
He knew he was a capable fighter, but Matt Cobb didn't know if he was good enough to take Eakle. This was a problem of his since childhood, feeling close, but not close enough. Even with the successes he had throughout his life, Matt had a self-confidence problem.
As the battle progressed, the enthusiasm grew, and the clamor reached a feverish pitch. Round after round progressed with Eakle slowly pulling away in the battle with Cobb.
The two gladiators circled one another warily. The fight had gone on for six rounds and Eakle’s lead stretched. By the seventh round, both men were exhausted. Cobb’s ever-growing cuts over the eyes impeded his vision.
Eakle was leading on all the scorecards. No opponent had ever been able to finish a fight with him, and this would be no different. The champion, as well as the cheering crowds, could smell another victory. Because Eakle was invincible and was again pounding an opponent.
He had followed the strategy of his corner to a tee. Jab, jab, cross, repeat. His opponent’s knees wobbled slightly. Eakle threw a hard left hook, followed by a riveting right uppercut that snapped the challenger's head back, the mouthguard flying from his mouth. Sweat and blood droplets drenched the face of the challenger.
The challenger, Matt Cobb, knees buckling, fell against the ropes and slid to the canvas. He didn't feel the punch hitting him, but he began to drift into an out-of-body experience. He forgot he was fighting for the WBC Heavyweight Championship at the Las Vegas MGM Hotel and Casino.
Referee, Owen Schaefer, leaped between the two fighters, and he pointed at Eakle, directing him to the far corner. And the count began.
"One! Two!" The referee began counting Matt out.
"Why were you late again, Matty?" the supervisor asked. "This is the second time this week and the fifth time this month, and there's half a month to go."
Matty Cobb began to stammer a bit as he tried to explain why he had been late. He was a 16-year-old teenager who was a hard worker but with other dreams
"I apologize, sir," replied Matty. "I'll do better."
"Can you be on time the rest of the month, Matty?" the foremen asked. "If you didn't do such good work, I'd let you go. At this rate, though, it's getting tough to let you stay. What's going on?"
"Well, Mr. Laurence, umm, Sir, I've been taking some classes out at the community center for design engineering. I'm out there four nights per week. I'm just having some difficulty adjusting to the sleep, or lack of it."
"Look, Matty, you’ve got to get it together," said Mr. Laurence. "Why are you taking on this second venture anyway? I mean, you’re just a kid. What are you trying to do to yourself?"
"The future, Mr. Laurence. I want more. I’ve always been knocked down, put down, and kicked around. But I want a real future."
Mr. Laurence looked at this kid standing across from him and placed a hand on his shoulder. Matty looked up and Mr. Laurence was slightly nodding his head in approval and a silent sign of solidarity, Matty was a good kid.
"Get it together boy, a lot of people have it tough. But the priority is to win in the end. I see a lot of potential in you. You have as much talent and ability as any man-Jack on the entire planet. I appreciate everything going on in your life, everything that has knocked you down, but my job is to get production completed."
"Yessir, I'll do better. Thank you, Sir.”
"You know, Matty, I work for your father. And he is a hard man. He doesn't seem to care whether or not you’re his son. He still expects results. Was he as tough on you boys growing up?"
Matty paused for a few seconds before answering. He thought about the times his father applied his “philosophy of life” to his two sons. And so, Matty told Mr. Laurence of a good example.
"Yes, Mr. Laurence, he was. He used to set my brother and me up to compete all the time. It was his way. He seemed to enjoy watching one of us beat the other one. He said it built character, I'm not so sure. He seemed to always look down on me and favor Asher in everything."
"Asher used to win pretty much, all the time. Well, all the time. No matter what sport we played. It could have been basketball, baseball, boxing, or chess, Asher always won. At least, until the last time."
"What happened, last time, Matty?"
Matty went on to describe how his father would have him and Asher wrestle in the backyard. He recounted a specific time when Asher had pinned him down easily, twice. The third match started the same.
“Then, it happened,” said Matty.
"What was that?" asked Mr. Laurence.
"My nose, he kneed me in the nose.”
Asher planted a knee in Matty’s face, there was an audible crunching of nasal cartilage. Blood began to pour from Matty’s nose which was already crooked, to begin with. At that point, Matty’s father grabbed both boys and yelled to stop.
Matty snapped. He yanked himself from his father’s grip and dove on top of Asher. He took Asher down like a sack of potatoes and pounded on him. He just kept hitting and hitting. Alan ended up with two black eyes, busted lips, and even a couple of missing teeth.
When his dad finally got Matty off from Asher, he held Matty back and stared into his eyes. But he had an uncanny look. It was almost as though he had never seen Matty before. It was a look of amazement. Instead of always, seemingly enjoying seeing him lose, Matty's father actually seemed to have a new respect for him. It took till Matty was something like, twelve years old to have earned it. But it was well worth it.
The referee kept counting, without a pause. He was looking into the face of the challenger on the mat. He was looking for any sign that might show if the fighter was able to continue his quest to become the new world champion. At this point, hope seemed only a distant possibility.
The bloodied eyes of the challenger opened into slits, and there was an attempt to focus on reality through the bloody fog that was before him. He couldn't focus on the lights, the referee, the screaming crowd, or the champion.
The Cobb family lived in Palatka, Florida, a small mill town on the St. Johns River. The mill was the lifeblood of Palatka, and not just the city, but the entire county of Putnam. Most people looked at Palatka as a typical small southern town. Everything was closed down on Sundays and Wednesday afternoons.
It was a hot Monday at Palatka Central, Matty was in tenth grade. In the middle of the large field behind the school was a ring of other students who were circling a single student. The student was Kyle Johnson, who had been friends with Matty since fourth grade. It only took a few moments for Matty to realize that the rest of the students were also some classmates since, well, forever.
Matty walked quickly onto the field to the ring of students. All were sweating a bit, but Kyle was drenched in it. All his books had been thrown and kicked around. The ring was pushing Kyle back and forth, taunting and calling him racial names, pack mentality.
Matty paused ever so slightly and then walked into the middle of the ring. He grabbed Kyle by both shoulders, looked into his green eyes, which were puffy and fighting back the tears, and spoke directly to him.
"You okay, Kyle?"
"Yeah, I think so,"
"Let's get out of here."
He looked around the ring and realized that these were all kids he had grown up with. Matty looked at each one of them in the face. Eye to eye, Matty looked at each of his friends. Matty was just another white boy. But that didn't deter him from what he did. Because he had been raised with these other kids. He had known some of them even longer than Kyle.
"Guys, what are you doing?" Matty said. "We all go to school together. Jessie, you and Norm, we play football together. Rory, Calvin, William, we're on the same basketball team, so stop it. We're all my friends. Please stop."
All those in the ring were staring directly at Matty for a few seconds, but it seemed like minutes. Then, without saying a word, each walked away. Like a wave that had crested and then washed back out at the beach, they were gone. Matty helped Kyle grab his books, then the two of them turned and walked back toward the school.
"No worries, Kyle.”
"Five!" the referee continued his count.
The crowd roared even louder. The HBO announcers were ecstatic in their description of what was occurring. It looked like another knockout for the champ. But Matt Cobb’s eyes were finally focusing now, and he was able to see the opponent in the far corner, hands raised high. As Matt looked at the canvas, he realized that there were blood splatters and stains scattered about. It was then, he realized that the blood was his, at least most of it.
Matt rolled to his left, struggling, and got to all fours. He tossed a glove on top of the second rope and began to pull himself up. With legs still wobbling and eyes not quite focused, Matt actually made it to his feet.
The referee glued his vision to Matt's glazed eyes. He was sure the challenger would not be able to continue the fight. In a flicker of thought, he realized that he probably should have stopped the fight as soon as Matt Cobb first went down. Blood covered most of the face, and the eyes were nearly swollen shut.
Matt's hand slipped off the rope, and his legs gave out, dropping him to one knee. By this point, Matt's spirit was willing, but his flesh was weak.
"Seven!" the referee's count continued.
The score was 24-13 with the Bulldogs trailing. It was late in the game, and the Braves had been controlling the Bulldogs all night long. Even though the score was only separated by two touchdowns, the Braves had dominated every facet of the game.
The Bulldog players were tired and whipped physically and mentally. The Braves had apparently broken the Bulldog's spirit. There were only three minutes left in the game, and the Braves had the ball and were driving for another touchdown at the Bulldog 42 yard line.
Matty's brother, Asher, captain for the Bulldogs, was the strong safety on defense and the #1 wide receiver on offense. He had been selected to All-State first team at both positions last year and was being recruited by quite a few schools from around the country.
Only a sophomore, Matty was a starter on the varsity squad and played weakside linebacker on defense, and was a second-string tight end on offense. The coaches saw potential in Matty.
It was third and two yards to go for the Braves. They ran a sweep right. Asher was blitzing in, and at first, it appeared that he had timed it perfectly. He sped through the offensive line, and at first, he thought he was going to have a sure hit on the runner.
Without any forewarning, Asher felt a snap in his right leg. The right tackle dove into the Asher’s thigh, snapping the femur like a toothpick. It was another first down.
Every player, on offense and defense, heard the loud snap. It sounded like a rifle shot on the first day of the hunting season. Every player on the field saw Asher go down, writhing in pain. Matty rushed to his side, and the two brothers clasped hands, and Matty looked to Asher's right leg. Bone protruding out the front of Asher's right thigh. Blood was gushing out from a gash on his thigh.
Coaches and medical staff rushed onto the field. Every player except Matty was pushed back by the coaches as the EMTs attempted to control the bleeding and place the leg in traction. The packed stadium became eerily silent, the announcers asked for silence from the crowd.
Then it happened, Matty, seeing Asher placed onto the stretcher, then to the waiting ambulance, something inside Matty shattered. He looked at the other team, and something changed inside him. A burning fury welled up inside Matty Cobb. He felt an overwhelming urge to smash.
Just before playing resumed, all of Matty's teammates gave him a slap on the helmet and backside to show solidarity. Each one of them felt empathy for the pain that belonged to Matty, play resumed.
The throng of the two student bodies screamed as the ball was snapped. The tailback went for a simple dive play. Matty's game became one of blood lust. He hit the tailback with a power that brought the Bulldog student body to its feet. The play lost two yards.
On second down, the Braves went for a pass to a crossing slot receiver. Matty slipped in front of the receiver and snagged the pass, then sprinted the 62 yards to the end zone. The extra point brought the score to 24-20.
Down by only four, the Bulldogs needed the ball back, but there was only a bit over one minute left, and the Braves were about to get the ball. Things looked grim.
An onside kick was recovered by the Bulldogs at the Brave 48-yard line. The final minute had begun. As the play resumed and the two teams lined up to face one another, the crowd noise was deafening.
Matty Storki ran a hook-and-go route. Quarterback, Henery Xantheros, slung the ball as far as he could down the field. And that is when Matty Cobb hauled it in and galloped into the end zone.
Matt pulled himself up once again to face the champion. He rotated his head side to side, clearing the rest of the cobwebs. At that moment, he smelled the blood. Matt raised both hands into the air, looked directly at the referee, nodded, and said, "Let’s roll."
The referee grabbed both gloves and looked closely into Matt's eyes, seeing he was fit to continue.
"Are you able to go on?"
"Down, but never out,"
The referee waived for the champion to resume the fight. Eakle was actually shocked that the challenger was able to get back up. He was fully expecting his challenger was knocked out. The television announcers were shouting into their microphones about the courage of the challenger.
That same fury that Matt had back in his high school football days returned. He became filled with bloodlust once again, adrenaline kicking in. Matt yelled at Eakle.
"Come on, Eakle! I was down, but never out!"
The two combatants resumed their contest. Only this time, Matt Cobb showed the speed of hand and strength of will that had been missing before his knockdown. For the rest of that and the next two rounds, the challenger pummeled the champion.
With a plethora of rapier-like jabs and crosses, Matt ripped the champion to shreds. Matt’s gloved hands sliced the face of the Eakle. There was no counter to the onslaught as time after time, the hands of the challenger crunched the bones of the champion’s bones. Each punch of the challenger saw droplets of blood fly from the face of A.R. Eakle, the reigning champion.
With 42 seconds left in the ninth round, one of the gladiators went down, not to rise for the count. This time, it was the champion who went down, this time, not to rise.
In his corner. Matt stood on unsteady legs. He was barely able to see through slits of his eyes. But even the mental fog he was struggling to see with, Matt saw four ghosts standing in the front row of the arena he recognized.
As the referee raised the arm of Matt Cobb, the new undisputed World Heavyweight Champion, Matt realized who he had to be most thankful for. Mr. Laurence, Kyle, Asher, and his father, were all there, cheering for him. The lesson learned, a man being knocked down, was not the same, as being knocked out.