Coach starts wrapping up his hands and Rico puts stuff on his skin as he talks him up. They both give him reminders about what to watch for, remind him of his weaknesses and when to use his strengths.
I watch in awe of the transformation that falls over Bear as he turns into Cannon. The room is charged and the tension is tight. He’s amped up and even I’m ready to go to war in that ring.
When it’s time, Bear grabs my hand and we exit the locker room to walk down the long hallway.
“You two keep her close,” Bear tells them. “I’m not fucking around.”
I squeeze his big hand, trying to reassure him. When we get to the end of the hallway, he turns, looking down at me. I can hear his name being chanted from the other side of the curtain and I can practically see the energy rolling off of him.
He presses his forehead to mine and I close my eyes in silent prayer that he’ll come back to me unhurt.
“I love you,” he says before turning and walking through the curtain and into the crowd.
The music is blaring through the crowd and people are screaming as I walk up to the ring. When I step onto the mat I turn around and see Pepper in her reserved seat next to Rico and Tasha. She cheers for me and my chest swells with pride as I dance around on my feet to stay warmed up.
I go over to my corner where Coach is waiting. He holds my water bottle up and I open my mouth as he gives me a drink. Then I shadowbox, feeling my muscles loosen as the crowd begins to get loud again.
“Here comes the little dick showboat,” Coach says, and I can’t help but smile.
Gio comes out to shitty rock music and half the crowd cheers while the other boos. He’s being lifted by a golden platform covered in lights as a number of half-naked women surround him.
“If he spent as much time training as he did on his Girl Scout parade he might have stood a chance.”
“I think that’s an insult to Girl Scouts,” I say, shaking my head at the spectacle he’s created.
“That’s true. I fucking love their cookies,” Coach says, giving me another drink of water. “He’s a damn embarrassment to the sport.”
I can almost see why the media wanted to match us up. Gio is talented, and he’s got a big fanbase. But there’s no soul to his fighting. There’s no heart to his dance once he steps onto the mat, and you can feel that in his energy.
As he steps in with me and waves to the crowd, he continues to move around and wave his arms, inciting people to react. Either good or bad he doesn’t care. As long as people are making noise.
He couldn’t totally buy his way into the ring tonight, but he greased some wheels for sure. He’s a big guy and he’s got skill, but I’ve spent months training for his weaknesses. He’s spent his time trying to plot a way to drug me and get me banned so he can steal the belt from under me. This is why he’s going down tonight. That, and he touched my woman.
The referee comes out and does his speech, and I stand there while Gio tries to glare at me. I call on all my training and control while I calmly listen and wait for the match to begin. Once the referee has finished the opening, I walk back to my corner and listen to Coach. He puts his hand on the back of my neck and pulls me close until our heads are together.
“I’m so proud of you, Theodore,” Coach says, surprising me. When I lean back and look into his eyes he claps me on the shoulder. “Now let’s get this over with so you can have some babies with that woman of yours and make me feel like a grandpa.”
I nod as I shove in my mouthpiece and go to the center of the mat. I don’t take a second to look at Pepper or anyone else in the arena. My sole focus is on my fight and getting this over with as soon as possible. I know if I look at her right now, she’ll take up all the space in my head. I’m doing this for everyone in my corner tonight.
Gio comes to meet me and we stare one another down. He’s smiling, but I can see the uneasy look in his eyes and in this moment, I know I’ve just won. Then I feel myself smiling and his own falters.
The bell rings and we descend on one another. He’s strong and locks us up in a defensive hold right away. I could tell he wanted to go in for a hit right away, but I got into his head.