Red and blue never warm up together. No mind games before the ring.
The skip skip skip of the girl five fights away. The pah pah pah of some gobshite doing drills as if her technique will improve within the next five minutes.
Run up the corridor, run down the corridor, the stretches already done. The coach walks down the steps, a helmet and Vaseline in his hands. The stomach is a gymnast and the head says we should’ve picked that game as Paddy edges closer.
Breath in, breathe out. Here the fuck we go.
The 70-year-old man grumbles as he welds the head guard to my scalp. ‘Fucking girls and they’re fucking hair’. Of course I forgot the swim cap.
Same conversation, every fight.
Then there’s the smile and a light thump to the head.
‘Are you going to listen to me in there Kelly?’. He points the finger at my face.
‘Not a fucking Hope, Pad’
Another thump and an order to go keep warm after calling me a ‘cheeky fecker’.
Jumping jacks and high knees are followed by the call that I’m up next. Twelve minutes bounce around the head as its rolled and rerolled for good measure.
The bell and the roars from the fight before resonate around the warm up area, they’ve gone in to the second round. The screams start again.
The smell of the lads toilet keeps you grounded, weaving in and out you can hear them piss when you stop to double knot your boots.
Back over to the man himself, some gloves appear rising from the steam of their predecessor. Vaseline smeared right up my nose.
Left hand goes in. Strapped nice and tight.
‘Hit her hard and hit her fast. You’ve a longer reach so she’ll want to get in nice and tight. But you’re not going to let her do that are you?’
Right hand goes in.
‘Jab. Jab. Jab make her head go back. And I’m telling you they’ll stop this fight.’
A sniff and nod of acknowledgement. No words in case I projectile vomit.
Last strap tightened, the weight of seven years training keep the fourteen oz gloves welded to my waist. The stomach’s in knots. Unable to swallow as I walk up nearer to the ring.
A thumbs up from the mother. She’s away from all the gang. And what a gang there was up here. All the lads, the aunts the uncles, the nan, the cousins and even a second cousin. But mam off to herself biting her thumbnail away.
The ref pulls the two apart. A tight hug and heavy panting. It’s over. Oh my god it’s fucking over.
Right foot. Left foot. Clouds for brains and air for shoes. I somehow make it to the ladder. Paddy’s talking. I can’t hear him. There’s a dog whistle going off.
Your one in red bends down the ropes, hops out grinning from ear to ear. I guess she must’ve won. A slap on the back and a ‘good luck you’re next’ signifies the latter.
‘You’ve got this Kelly. I wouldn’t put you in unless I thought so. Now go out and show the rest of them what you can fucking do.’
The green gumshields you’d see a mile away are popped in the mouth. At least now my teeth won’t grind together.
This is it. The blinding light. The shaky knees, every thought I’d ever conjured rambling within my brain.
In I go between the ropes.
And ready to fucking go.
The ref is in the middle. Blue’s a couple of feet behind. Glaring as if I’d give a shit. Was never into the intimidation.
Even gave a heart felt good luck when touching gloves.
Because by God she’s going to need it.
Names are called over the intercom but the dog whistle won’t fuck off.
Shouts are heard. Screams are screamed and somewhere a bell is rung. Neither of us move in the sickly heat until the ref gives us the signal.
The ring is big. Really big. And the blue flooring is quite bouncy and before you know it you’re too busy getting punched to remember details.
There’s just you, blue, the dicky bow and matching bloody noses.
And of course, paddy’s instructions.
But no stool between the rounds. No sitting in case the legs begin to cramp. Or the brain simply goes ‘not a hope of me getting up’.
She’s tough and good and strong, and packs a bit of a punch. But thoughts like this have no place in the ring. Only hit and don’t get hit. Mind your footing. Roll the shoulder. Upper cut.
Hear paddy’s curses as the eyes are closed, blindly hoping to hit the target.
An eternity and a fraction of a second, red and blue are ripped apart from their entanglement. Blood dripping to the floor.
And the hugs, the smile and ‘fair play you got me good’, shaking of the hands, the coaches’ hands, everyone and their mother’s hands.
The ref holds your wrist, checks your wraps for any weights and you can’t bare to look at the mother because she hates to see you hurt and the blood from your mouth is dribbling down your chin.
Looking up at the white light waiting for the verdict, the soul is out on display, judged by those who hold your future.
A wink from Paddy and you already know, the fingers are crossed just in case.
The name is called, my arm is raised, the first time I clearly hear my family.
Knees are buckled, soreness already begins to set but you have to give one last ‘hard luck‘ to the opponent.
Her tears of disappointment lose the fight of holding back far easier than our bout. And I can’t blame her.
Paddy’s there, lifting up the ropes, the next fights all ready to begin.
A slap on the back, a new-found bruise hurting from the inside, and a massive bear hug that makes it all worth it.
Then there’s hugs and cheers and pictures and I don’t really know what’s going on and people are shaking my hand and all I see is my mam and we look at each other with such mixed emotions because it was such a long road to get there. ‘I did it mam’ I whisper but it sounds like a question.
And she hugs me so hard I’m put back together. ‘You did, love. You did.’
The president of the IABA is next, myself and Paddy are ten feet tall. I’m told ‘I’m one to look out for in the future’ and in that moment I’d do it all forever. But the crowd around me doesn’t dwindle and my body begins to shake and my head is fucking pounding and I tell them all I need to go get changed. On my own.
The silence in the dressing room is broken by my breathing. Glaring at the broken image in the mirror as if it were a painting with all the reds and blue and yellows on the canvas, the spirit was never more complete.
I strip slowly, tomorrow I won’t be able to move. Every thing come’s off save for the medal, that was worn in the shower.