They left the arena in silence, weaving determinedly through the shifting obstructions. They have their rhythms, conversations, that contrapuntalism has its tides. Their tide had gone out, leaving exposed in each man’s mind a smattering of curiosities like seashells freed of the lap and retreat that withheld their submerged splendor.
He wondered which such curiosity would serve to break the silence. Because he wouldn’t break it. It was too loud, too crowded to venture beyond the security of his upturned collar unspurred. He hadn’t navigated such a throng in what, a year? They swerved the detritus of celebration: placards with As and Js; professions of gratitude and adoration; broad white surfaces quartered by thick red lines. Advancing upon then past the army that shed it, he welcomed an invitation to converse if only to be a good listener.
“That last right hand was beautiful.”
A perfect invitation that, something easy to celebrate. And it was a spectacular punch: a marriage of kinetics and intent absent from A. J. since when? Since the left hook that dropped Ruiz in their first fight? But that was a tranquilizer gun loaded with a merely infuriating potion—the beast turned on him after that! (And thankfully turned again before the rematch—wild boar to truffle pig.) But tonight, the kill shot permitted no revolt. Yes, a beautiful right hand.
“It was. The list of heavyweights who can take that punch—does that list even matter since nobody active today makes it?”
“Fury, Wilder, Usyk, all of them folded tightly as a soldier’s bed if he lands that one. It was good to see him find that part of himself again. That was our Joshua—our Joshua is back.”
“He was certainly a better version of himself against Pulev.” He meant that—that’s how embarrassing the Ruiz rematch had been. Besides, he told himself, while Pulev was hardly championship material he knew how to survive. Joshua didn’t let him do that, nor did he betray himself in the process. He let Pulev off the hook for a few rounds perhaps, but then, “The fight should’ve been over in the third round. I mean, when a 240-pound man turns his back he abdicates his right to fight on. Not that extra rounds are bad for testing the fitness of a rehabilitated psyche.
“He’s rehabilitated. I could forgive him for the Ruiz rematch. He had to win that one. Had to prove it to himself. Showed he could box that night too. You’ve got to be able to do it all at the highest level. Even tonight, he boxed to set up his power. Showed a good motor, seemed more relaxed.”
“Off the gear.” He couldn’t resist. Needling like that was a litmus test for credulity.
“Fuck you!” Good man, he thought, credulous as ever.
“No, you’re right: he looked comfortable. Enjoyed himself, it seemed, against Pulev.”
“Remember when he stopped Klitschko, how calm he was afterward like he understood that’s who he was supposed to be? Our boy had a bit of that tonight. Those little bows at the end of the fight, a little theatrical, sure, but his bearing again had a regality to it befitting the heavyweight champion.” He was talking with his hands; beseeching an invisible interlocutor, begging for alms. He performed this pleading shake reflexively when he struggled to make his point—when he needed convincing. Because his words were artifice. He knew it. The best heavyweight was still a knock-kneed, soupy-torsoed lunatic with an affinity for sing-alongs and pucker-lipped selfies. That man wasn’t bred to wear the heaviest crown in sports but no one was going to outfight him for it. That man’s bearing figured where it mattered: not in victory but in the pursuit of it. There was no denying it, he admitted to himself, as he sought an empty can on the curb and crushed it in stride.
“He beats Wilder, he’s shown enough poise since his loss to say that much, no?
“Probably, I mean, that man is in shambles. It’s odd: he’s a fighter with a simple arsenal: quick jab, third-rail cross, but he’s still so goddamn unpredictable. That’s not going to change. If Wilder lines you up with the right, you don’t get up. That’s not going to change. But everything else about him is murky at this point, maybe it always was. Actually, maybe that’s wrong: maybe now we know more than we ever have about him. And Wilder, seams stressed to breaking, knows it too.”
“Kind of like Dubois.”
Interrogated by the light of their cellphones, each man confessed a smile. They’d shared many a laugh over the hand-wringing that accompanied Dubois’s loss. All those sad Spinozas with their axiomatic apologies, their hyperdefinitional defenses. How relieved they must’ve been when the diagnosis justified exercising the better part of valor.
“It was nice to get out regardless.” That sounded like a transition to a conclusion, he thought, they’d soon leave the night’s spectacle behind, move on to talking about life in lockdown, its privations, its insights. Christmas too, what they were doing and not doing. “It felt like an event even with the limited attendance. It was nice to root for our guy, to stand not quite shoulder-to-shoulder in unanimous support. Scheduled celebrations of frontline workers are fine and all, but I never identify with a frontline worker the way I identify with a fighter. A. J. feels more like one of us even if nothing about his citizenship or even his profession justifies that feeling. Maybe it’s the fighting: he’s literally fighting, and it feels like for us, whereas the efforts of a nurse, or first responder, a teacher are only metaphorically a fight. That sounds stupid, I know, even a little ungrateful, but—”
“Simple pleasures. No distraction quite compares with watching your guy knock another man senseless. No need to apologize for that, or even try to justify it, really.” That was all he could offer. That was enough.