By Andy TT Obuoforibo
“At least he is skillful,” Aaron thought to himself. So far, his opponent’s guard had been well maintained. All he could see of Michael Katto’s young face were his eyes, keenly peering over his blue gloves. The boy’s right hand always protected his head, even when he threw his jabs. Aaron found himself very irritated by this. He wanted to see his face. He realised he had never gotten a good look at him. Not during the weigh-in. Not even during the handshake before the bout. His eyes had just vacantly stared at Katto, while his mind drifted away. Memories flipped through his vision. His first fight. His first knockout. The night he won the title. And the night he was ordered to lose it.
He had been sipping beers at a dingy bar in Wandegeya with his manager “Ssalongo” Sezibwa, and three hangers-on. Ssalongo did not say a word for a half hour, which was an accomplishment for the affable fellow. The other men were in a boisterous mood. Aaron had never seen them before, though they claimed to be high school classmates of his. He had only agreed to their company because they had offered it so loudly, and the whole beer hall was listening for his decision. Image meant a lot to him. He couldn’t have people saying he had become arrogant. Finally, the men asked him for what they really wanted: money with which to get women for the night. He had, again reluctantly, handed over ten thousand shillings to each of them. He noticed Ssalongo’s surprise at the sum, but was far more interested in the half-dozen or so nods of approval around the hall. His “schoolmates” left the table, reciting their thank yous. Moments later, Ssalongo finally stirred, leaned over, and began to speak. His breath was rich with pilsner and sausages.
“They want you to let him win.”
“Who does? What do you mean?”
“You know who. The same as always. Just that for this one time they want you to lose. They will still pay you from the bet. But this time they bet against you.”
“Why?” He raised his voice. People turned to watch.
“Softly, please.” The old man looked around, and continued. “It’s Katto’s time. The young men, for them they worship him. If we don’t give him his chance, he will go fight for Bukenya. We have to satisfy his people., or they will go with him.”
“Then you let me fight him. Why must I lose? When I beat him, they will come back to me.”
“The big men have already bet the money. You have to lose. If you go against them, they will finish us.”
Aaron knew he was right. He spent his fight purses as quickly as he earned them. The bribes the promoters gave him were keeping him afloat. In return, he made sure his fights ended the way these men wanted. They told him the round, and he waited till then to knock out his rival. Sometimes they demanded a complete fight, and so he would keep his man standing. The judges always obliged with the win.
Now they were telling him to lose. If he refused, he would never see another shilling from them. They would also make him fight more often. They would send man after man to him, till the exhaustion took its toll, and he lost the Belt. Without his title of City Champion, he would be easy to phase out of boxing. They could just ignore him. And he had no alternative to them. He couldn’t even go to Bukenya. Getting the only rival promoter’s daughter pregnant, then abandoning her with the baby, was something he now regretted more than ever. His youthful lust and callousness had robbed him of his only help.
“How?” he asked resignedly.
“Knockout. Ninth round.” Sslaongo spat the words, as though the very act of forming them disgusted him.
“Jesus!” he exclaimed, covering his face. Aaron Ogwal had never been knocked out in his career. The bosses knew this. Why would they do this to him? For the money, of course, came the answer from himself. Nobody else would bet on him getting knocked out. The odds and payout would be high for them.
The crowd in the gym was roaring. As he sensed the round ending, Aaron backed into the ropes, and exposed his trunk to Katto. He did this every couple of rounds, to make his defeat seem credible. The young man was pounding at him. Aaron felt his body jolt under the punches, as his ribs became ever more pained. He noticed, but did not care. He was too busy studying Katto’s face. Flawless ears. The boy had not been punished much, he realised. Ogwal decided that he must be a genuine talent. Katto’s expression was relaxed. His punches were effortless. Aaron felt the boy’s breath on his shoulder every time a punch landed on his aching sides. Good technique. He turned his attention to the crowd. They were on their feet. Clapping. He heard them chanting “Katto! Katto!” That made no sense. He had only ever heard them cheer his name. He looked to his right. He saw them. Smiling. pointing. Laughing. Laughing at him. What was he doing? He couldn’t let this happen. He couldn’t shame himself like this. What would people say? A youngster beat him around for nine rounds, then knocked him out. Well, what choice did he have? How would he survive without their money? Maybe he could defend the title five or so times more. Then what? What would he do for money? Get a job? In this economy? Without even O levels? Maybe he could invest whatever he earns from these next few fights. Maybe buy a stake in someone’s store. He wondered why he had never thought of doing that all these years. He laughed at himself.
He turned to his foe, who was still working his abdomen. Aaron jerked his right hand back, away from his face. He caught Katto with a backhand to the head. Then, spinning his aching torso, he landed a left cross clean on the boy’s temple. Katto jerked away, surprised, and was met with an onslaught of punches. Aaron felt his heart racing faster. His opponent slumped on the ropes, just as the bell tolled.
Aaron sat in his corner. Ssalongo sponged him roughly. The old man scolded him the whole time, but Aaron never responded.
“What are you doing? Are you mad? Have you forgotten what they said? You almost got him. Be careful. Don’t punch as much. Two rounds to go. Just leave it, my boy.”
The bell sounds for round eight.
Aaron Ogwal marches across the ring. He can see Katto’s nose. “He’s dropping his guard. Are his hands getting tired?” As they dance around the mat, Aaron punches more often. He notices Katto’s reactions are slowing. The younger man keeps retreating, but he closes the gap. He jabs Katto twice in the head, and the boy’s hands do not rise to defend. Sensing his moment, Aaron winds his right hand, and releases it with all his might.
He never saw a boxer move that quick. Katto slipped beneath his thunderous right hand, and released a bolt of his own into Aaron’s stomach. The champion felt winded, and his head began to drop as he bowled over. At the same time, he felt a searing pain all through his head, and saw a blue haze sweep upwards, barely an inch in front of him. Uppercut.
He tried, all through the count, to find his feet. He never could. Something always distracted him. The lulling, rhythmic counting of the referee. The individual exclamations of all in attendance. The screams of “Not yet!” from his corner. The odd sensation of heaviness in his jaw. The lights. The beautiful, painful lights.
When the haze finally cleared, a man in white was squatting over him, shining a light in his eye. He heard himself answer questions about his name, and the date. The man backed out of sight, and was replaced by a face Aaron had come to fear. Teddy Bukenya.
“I hear you crossed your bosses.” He waited a few seconds, but when no response came, he asked “why?”
Aaron fumbled the words. “I wanted to win.”
“I see.” The man laughingly said. “But here you are now. You still lost, but now you have nothing.” The boxer could not respond. It had never occured to him that he couldn’t beat his man.
“Maybe you have won something else. Maybe you won your self-respect.” Aaron thought for a moment, then nodded. Bukenya nodded too. “I think that’s it,” he continued. “You still want to fight?”
“Where?” Aaron scoffed. “Nobody will promote me.”
Aaron, who had just got on his feet, stumbled at the words. He looked incredulously at the fat man in his blue french suit. He was smiling. “Today you gave me hope for you as a man. Maybe there is also hope for you as a father. I’m going to give you a second chance.”
Aaron Ogwal put his back against the corner post and sighed. He’d always felt bad about ignoring his son, now six. Just never bad enough to change his mind. Now this fat goat was going to make him do it. He cursed under his breath. But what option did he have? He didn’t take one dive, so he had to take another.