Rico’s lip is bleeding. He’s puffing too, not a good sign. Every fight’s hard but in here you don’t think it gets any harder. People die sometimes. Depends how angry they are, what comes up. Rico’s not angry. I know him. He’s a good kid, just misguided. Thinks he doesn’t deserve anything. Probably thinks it’s his due getting his face bruised up right now.

It’s raining hard out and it’s hot and humid like always. Most wear shorts night and day, makes no difference. Rico’s in a loincloth. It’s got spots of blood on it splashing down from his nose. I don’t want to watch, but I have to for support. So he knows he can stop. By himself he’d get knocked into pieces, no question. There’s always got to be weak ones. A big hill Indian picked on him and started up over nothing. I saw it happen. Strong looking mother too, with a wrinkled face like he lives out of doors and plenty of scars. I watch him closely as he shuffles and then feints and then starts dancing quicker. Suddenly his big hook swings out of the blind side and Rico’s down. About time. The Indian slopes off without even looking back, he doesn’t give a damn. Rico tries to look brave but it’s bull and no-one cares if he blubs and whimpers. We see it all. We’ve come to learn fighting rules proper, but it’s out of sight of the supers and the ring studios and bright lights we learn how it’s really done. The choice isn’t much: poverty, prison or boxing. Take your pick. That’s life.

I walk Rico back to where we’re living. Long dorms, about twenty of us all together. Every kind of misfit. Even a chaplain who gave up saving souls. Likes the lay challenge. And a good clash. Rico lies down. He’s put aloe on his face – we pick it in the yard, use it for everything. His one eye is puffed, the other lazily drifting around the room – both green and muddy-looking and hazy. He dips in a fold on his hip and pulls out a squashed hemp butt I help fix in his mouth and light for him. He’s one lost monkey. When he was little his father woke up one day with his nomad blood on fire and hiked off. His mama never coped. She had other babes to worry about. All in all, he’s lost. It’s like he never figured out how to go after what he wants, or what he needs. Aside from bread, sure, like the rest of us. There’s nothing to be made scratching around in the hills or beyond in the pampas. We squat on the edge of the biggest city in the world. The dirtiest, poorest hell of opportunity. Everybody feels it. Make this, make that, win some, win some more, get your face on a poster maybe. Soon the cash will fly your way. It happens for some. Meantime, the school is crammed with macho boys thinking it takes a killer state of mind. We get hard, that’s for certain. It’s a hard place. We live a shit life, eat shit food. Only a few get anywhere. The rest, well, we blow one choice, we still got two left.

When Rico first arrived, he’d already heard of Olivier Fernandez, the champion. Either you have or you haven’t. It’s a sign of interest though, and Rico had him for an idol. I don’t think that’s wrong. A bit vague maybe, he’d never seen him fight, but the idea of him, of someone who wins, and survives and is still around, that was a lot for Rico.

I have seen him fight. He’s a proud one, very clever and lucky. In twenty years, they say, he never broke a bone. Rico hangs on every word when I tell him, cocks his head on one side, and sits there breathing slowly. This boy’s got no guile. He’d never make a thief. Sometimes he’s so stupid I tell him he couldn’t even be a shepherd. Then his big green brown eyes fix on me like coffee beans, and he smiles. It’s simplicity. He can only hold on one thing at a time. But he’s fast, that’s his speciality, maybe it’ll even be his ticket.

They train us here for five months, which is not bad for four hundred bucks. Then it’s up to us. Adios. We’re back out doing it for real. People come from all over and bring different kinds of strength. There’s wiry ones from the forests been ranging around all their life, long limbed for necessity, like gibbons. There’s thickset ones, like me – with big bones and plenty of fat and muscle. We can take anything more or less. We just get up again. If we have to. Then there’s the mesomorphs, that’s their fancy name, but it’s what they’re called. Like traditional heroes – v-shape, proportional. Rico’s one of those. He’s got a slender form really but you can build a lot of muscle on that. His legs are long and skinny with big target knees and crooked toes. But an expanse of chest and ridged biceps mark his fighter spirit. It’s in there. Under the shyness or anger or whatever crust of quietness he wears.

Rico sticks to me because I told him I know Olivier Fernandez, which is true, I do. We grew up in the same district, a long time ago; I used to watch him when he started, out by the borders. Each week in the hills pitched fights set up; word was sent round. If I could get a ride in a truck going that way I’d set off to see whatever was on. I remember the first time I saw a roll of bills – never mind the bravado and the smell of men, or the fear and blood rush in the ring – my eyes bulged out. No good reason, I know, but for a boy as good as any. So, now, when the rumour reaches round that Oliver Fernandez is coming to visit, to give a master-class or see his old teachers or whatever it is, I don’t know, but Rico can hardly keep his cool. Once before, I heard, he came for a day. Nobody saw him or anything. We’re just onion-boys, hicks. But the story stuck. Rumours grow legs like millipedes.

Our routine stays the same on the day. It’s hot out, very hot, and rainy. We’re working fiercely. In the late afternoon, I tell Rico that when Olivier Fernandez goes in the shower I can get him his autograph. He beams at me, his eyes giving away his hungry heart. He is so rapt thinking Olivier Fernandez might think of him. I know it’s a big deal. He doesn’t stop pestering me, scouring inside my brain with his questions and following me all over. Yet still, it’s me that knows him.

The usual crush of us is in the bathhouse. So-called I don’t know why as there are only showers. Rico presses close. I can almost feel his nerves pushing the sweat from him. His skin is clear as if it’s been cleaning itself by willpower. For a special occasion. Like we’re in church now. The fog inside is rising. This always happens when both blocks come in at the same time. All the faucets are turned on and the vents can’t take it. I tell Rico to wait by, but he clings to me. ‘Rico, I know you want this,’ I tell him, ‘but the man’s tired too. Don’t you be bothering him now. Then we can see him another time. Just me, it’s better.’ He shrugs. Full of trust, which I take, which I suppose I’ve asked him to give me. Little Rico. He shouldn’t be here at all. It’s too hard. But there is nowhere else, for now anyway. After, sure, who knows? Maybe he’ll get married, have children, a job. Why not? It’s not so difficult to be gentle. I leave him standing at the basin holding on the edge and bent over looking at himself in the plastic mirror. His two new scars are healed now by his floating ribs. Marking a new tougher place.

I have a bag with a pad of paper and a pencil inside it that Rico gave to me. It’s an absurd place to write – everything is drenched, mildewy, slippery. I step into the end cubicle and pull the canvas curtain across. There is steam frothing at the top near the ceiling. I open the bag and take out the pad and the pencil, and pause. I’ve been thinking all day but now my mind is blank. This is not my job. What can I tell this kid? What I really want to say is, Get out however you can. And believe in Mary and God. But it would be useless. My writing’s not much good but I have some. I scratch out using the soap tray as a rest, “To Rico, I know you can do it if you want to. Regards from Olivier Fernandez.” The signature I finish with a careless slow flick. I’m sure the old man would approve.

//Second half posting soon…