Short Story – “Rebound”

Before I began writing my first novel, I spent a few years working on short stories so that I could improve my language and mechanics. I also did this because I wanted to get a few publishing credits to my name before I took a major work to an agent or publisher; I thought it was very important that I had some experience with publishing rather than just dive into the novel business with nothing on my resume, especially at a young age.

I had a bunch of stories eventually be published in both print and digital formats across a variety of small-print outlets, but I also had plenty that never found their way to the public. Some were outright rejected by the publishers I sent them to. A couple were accepted, but the publisher ceased operations before/after they were published (a very common occurrence in the independent writing scene). Some I wrote just for the heck of it, and never even tried to get published.

But I’m excited to say that all will now see the light of day, at least here. Over the course of the next few weeks, I’m going to be posting the short stories I’ve written in the past that were never published, or are no longer available for purchase. I’ll be putting them up on the front page, and then they’ll be listed under the Short Fiction tab alongside all of those that can still be found in printed anthologies or on another website.

At the time that I’m posting this, I’m watching a UFC on FOX event, so it only seems right to initiate things with a short story about a mixed martial arts fighter. I originally wrote this story as a script for a short screenplay, which served as my final project in one of my film classes I took in college. I eventually went on to write it in prose format and added to the story a bit.

This one clocks in at a little over 12,000 words; not a quick read, but not a demanding one, either. I hope you enjoy this tale of a young fighter as he works his way through the unforgiving sport of mixed martial arts!

 

REBOUND

 

The Knox County Athletic Complex was an old, homely arena that sat just outside of downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. Its dim lights only partially illuminated the course, grainy ceiling above. A crumbling layer of rust coated the rafters. The aisles were dusty, and the plastic seats’ color had warped after decades of neglect.

At one point in time, it was among the most popular venues for big money boxing bouts; now it was merely used for up-and-coming mixed martial artists who had yet to reach the higher levels of the sport.

But for the athletes who stepped into the cage to display their fighting prowess, simply having a building to fight in and a crowd to impress was all that they needed.

Jake Dile’s ruffled blonde hair was tossed about as he dipped and ducked around his opponent’s punches. The man in front of him was Roger Volling, a journeyman in his late thirties who was only fighting for pride at this point in his career. With twenty-five professional fights under his belt, Volling was an experienced competitor; but ten of those bouts were losses, merely proving him to be a competent fighter.

Jake Dile had a brighter future ahead of him. At twenty-two years old, Jake was one of the top lightweight prospects in the country. After seven professional fights he was undefeated and considered by many analysts to be just a few big fights away from competing at the elite levels of mixed martial arts competition.

Otherwise, the talent scouts in attendance would never have bothered coming out to a night that mostly consisted of local and amateur fights at the aging Knox County Athletic Complex.

Jake arced a strong right hand that raked across his opponent’s tired face. It was only midway through the first round, but Roger Volling already bled from a cut under each eye, while Jake hardly had a scratch on his youthful face. Jake was normally a fighter who prioritized his grappling disciplines, but his striking was on full display tonight for the crowd of several hundred. His punches and kicks were crisp and accurate, while his movement kept him away from Volling’s most powerful shots.

At one point Volling charged forward—likely in desperation to mount any kind of offense—and assailed Jake with a barrage of short punches. Jake lifted both arms up in time to cover his head, allowing only a handful of blows to graze him across the skull as Volling fired away. As soon as the journeyman ceased, Jake launched an uppercut square into Volling’s chin. Volling stumbled backwards, and the crowd showed their approval with an animated cheer.

At ringside, Willy Calter adjusted his thick glasses and nervously ran a hand through his thin, ashy hair. To his left, Ben Sorren chuckled at Jake’s head coach.

“I feel you, Willy; I didn’t like Jake taking that last flurry of shots, either,” Ben laughed.

Willy didn’t even bother to look at the thirty-year old middleweight contender—another fighter that he coached, and one of Jake’s best trainers. “He’s looked fantastic so far, I don’t see why he felt the need to let Volling unload on him like that,” Willy admitted.

“Well, it allowed him to land one hell of an uppercut,” Ben offered. “That was harder than any that I’ve landed in a long time.”

The old trainer didn’t appear satisfied. “We just need to be sure he doesn’t try that again…” Willy said, his eyes hardly blinking as he watched the fight continue.

Volling snuck in a hard jab that caught Jake on the forehead. He hurled a looping left immediately after, but Jake ducked underneath and drove forward. Jake lifted Volling off his feet and dropped him to the mat with a loud slam. The crowd sounded off with cheers and hollers as Jake pinned Volling to the floor and began to drop a series of punishing elbows onto his opponent’s head.

If the round hadn’t ended just seconds later, Jake likely would have secured the technical knockout and the eight win of his professional career. As it was, he promptly made his way to corner where Willy, Ben and his cut-man Phil greeted him.

“You’re looking sharp out there tonight, kid,” Ben complimented with a slap on the shoulder as Jake sat on the stool.

Phil, who was ready with gauze and vaseline, searched Jake’s face for any damage. “You know you’re having a good night when all you’ve got is a little bruise forming between the eyes,” the cut man said with a grin, and looked down at Jake’s white fighting trunks. “The only blood on you is on your shorts, and that’s from Volling!”

“Yeah…things are just clicking for me out there…” Jake responded as he caught his breath.

“He’s still got plenty of fire in him, though, so keep on the lookout for a big shot,” Willy advised. “If this fight keeps going the way it did in that first round, his only option is eventually going to be that one hail-mary blast.”

“Willy’s right; you keep at this pace, and the only way he can win is with a strategy that you’ll always see coming a mile away,” Ben added.

“Should I use more punches or kicks?” Jake asked.

“Both,” Willy answered matter-of-factly. “Use your kicks to slowly wear him down and keep him at a distance, and then the punches for when you want to do some real damage.”

The referee came back to the center of the cage and signaled for the fighters’ cornermen to clear out. Jake bounced back to his feet as Willy, Ben and Phil made their way back to the arena floor.

When it was only the referee and Roger Volling that Jake saw across the mat from him, the second round commenced.

The crowd came alive just moments later when Jake battered Volling over the right ear with a hard, looping hook. Volling appeared to be staggered, but he held his composure even as Jake tossed a series of straight punches and finished with a stiff kick to the ribs.

Jake flashed a straight kick then at Volling’s chin, which only grazed him across the face and allowed the journeyman an opportunity to respond with his own offense. He swiped at Jake’s free leg with a low kick and connected just beneath the knee. Jake fought back a grimace as he toppled to the mat.

“Oh no…” Ben muttered as Volling pounced on top of Jake and tried to pin him to the mat.

“Get up Jake, get up!” Willy yelled as Volling began to fire short punches to Jake’s unprotected head.

“He’s fine, guys,” a confident Phil reassured. “Look—he’s already got his base back!”

Jake’s cut-man was spot on with his observation. Jake wiggled his knee free until he planted it onto the mat, and then in one great burst leapt off the mat while pushing Volling off of him. The crowd cheered for Jake’s skillful escape from the floor, and the two fighters circled each other once more.

Jake feinted a hard right, but just as Volling backed away, the young prodigy launched a high kick with his left leg. The top of his foot seared across Volling’s face, reopening one of the cuts from the first round and nearly throwing him to the mat.

“That’s it, Jake, take him out!” Ben shouted.

Jake charged forward and readied a punishing jab, but at the same moment, Volling initiated a desperate attack. He jumped toward Jake, lifting his knee outward as Jake’s fist only landed against his chest in mid-air.

Willy’s eyes went wide as Volling’s flying knee smashed into Jake’s chin.

The crowd erupted as Jake ambled backward, his legs shaking with each step until the cage wall stopped him. Well before Jake regained any shred of his senses, Volling trapped him against the fence and unloaded with a barrage of wild punches. Jake instinctively tried to fight his way out, responding with blind punches that only seemed to catch Volling’s arms or the air around him.

It wasn’t long before one clean shot struck Jake hard enough on the jaw to send him spilling onto the mat. The referee immediately jumped in between he and Volling to wave off the fight. An ecstatic Volling ran to join with his cornermen as he proudly threw his arms into the air, while Willy, Ben and Phil quickly joined the doctors who tended to Jake.

“Follow my fingers with both eyes, son,” one of the doctors implored Jake as he sat the young fighter up.

But Jake, who had already recovered from the battering, came to his feet and stomped away in frustration. “I’m fine!” he barked.

Willy followed alongside him and dropped a damp towel around Jake’s neck. “Keep your head up, kid,” he said with an encouraging smile. “As soon as the doctors clear you, we’ll get you right back into the gym and on your way to another fight.”

Jake paid no attention to his coach. He promptly walked out of the cage, his bitter eyes pinned to the ground as he could hear the ring announcer proclaim Volling’s victory to the cheering crowd.

* * *

A week later, Jake’s feet bounced across the cage floor as he threw jabs at his sparring partner. Ben and Willy leaned over the cage wall on one side, watching studiously. A sparring session at Ben Sorren’s mixed martial arts gym in St. Louis, Missouri always involved both fighters wearing thick leather helmets and gloves, and no fighter ever put their full grit into a sparring session as a precaution to their opponent’s safety, as well as their own.

But something remained sluggish in Jake’s movement that left Ben and Willy thoroughly unimpressed.

“You need to have a better jab than that, Jake,” Willy called out to him. “Use your reach to keep him away from you before you set up a better shot.”

“Don’t think of it as an attack; you don’t have the punching power for that,” Ben added, more sternly than Willy. “Think of it as a gap between you and your opponent. It’ll help you keep your distance from him, and it’ll be your launching pad when he opens up a weak spot.”

“I know, that’s where I screwed up last time,” Jake said.

“Pay attention to the guy in front of you; not us,” Ben promptly scolded.

Jake offered no response, and continued to trade shots with his partner as they circled each other about the mat.

Ben failed to withhold a sigh while he shook his head. “He just doesn’t have his focus today…it’s starting to become a habit,” Ben said, his voice laced with frustration.

Willy was much more relaxed about the issue. “It’s only been a couple of days
since he got back into the gym; he’s going to be out of it for a little while,” he appealed.

Ben was hardly comforted by the explanation. “That isn’t good for him, though. It’s going to mess with his training, and if that carries over to his next fight—”

“Which we don’t even know when is going to happen,” Willy interrupted. “It was the kid’s first loss in his career; you have to expect some shell-shock out of him, especially when he was winning that fight up until the knockout. You should know about that all too well.”

“You’re not wrong about any of that, but I never sulked as much as he has when I lost my first match,” Ben replied.

Willy flashed a harmless smirk. “You also lost in your third pro fight. Jake had a much longer undefeated stretch going for him.”

Ben shrugged. “Maybe I’m being paranoid, then, but I just don’t like the way he’s reacting to this, and I’m not sure how we go about bringing him out of it if he doesn’t show some passion again.”

Jake and his partner kept at their exchanges, throwing light punches and soft kicks to the body, if for no other reason simply to mix up their offense. Occasionally they came together and grappled for a brief moment, but never attempted to haul the other down to the cage floor.

“Remember, Jake; shots to the body while you two are tied up,” Willy told him. “In a real fight you’ll do that so your opponent drops his hands. When that happens, you throw an elbow to his head before he can even see it.”

Jake mimicked Willy’s commands as he and his partner held each other in a clinch, although he eased up considerably on the elbows. Jake managed to repeat several of the combinations before an alarm clock sounded off from the far side of the cage. Ben and Willy stepped inside and joined Jake in a corner after he and his partner separated.

“That was good at the end there, Jake,” Willy said as he handed him a bottle of
water. “Your combinations in the clinch are getting more accurate, and you’re pulling them off much faster than you used to.”

Jake had a disgusted look on his face after swallowing a great draught of water. “Yeah, but the rest of it sucked,” he grumbled.

“You’re right, it did suck,” Ben quickly agreed, sparing Jake no sympathy. “Anything
wrong with you today? Didn’t sleep last night, didn’t eat this morning?”

“I slept no worse than I have any other night lately, and I had a big breakfast,” Jake answered.

“Then what’s keeping you from letting loose in there?” Ben pressed.

Jake stared down at the floor as he nervously rubbed the back of his neck. “I…don’t know. Something’s just not clicking for me like before.”

The conversation came to screeching halt just like that. Jake and Ben went completely silent, while the only thing that passed Willy’s lips was a long, distressed breath.

“Hey Ben, there’s a phone call for you in Billy’s office,” someone eventually broke in.

Ben looked off to the side to see another trainer who had run over to tell him about the phone call. “Thanks, I’ll be right there,” he let the trainer know, and turned back to Jake. “When I get back, I’ll grab the pads and you can practice throwing some kicks and knees. Stretch out a bit while I’m gone.”

Jake nodded like an obedient son before Ben stepped out of the cage. The young fighter dropped onto a stool in one of the corners and let his head fall back against the chain-link wall with a great breath.

“That last fight still have you down?” Willy asked as he pulled up a seat next to Jake.

“Yeah…” was all that Jake could answer with.

“Understandable.”

Jake’s face twitched as he took a moment to gather his words. “It’s not necessarily that I lost. I knew that I was going to lose eventually; every fighter does, I mean. But then and there…I never expected it like that.”

“Are you talking about how the fight got stopped?”

Jake’s jaw tightened. “No, I mean, losing on a small show like that which I
breezed through seven times before, and expecting to do it again. I’m not in this just for a hobby or to get away from home, Willy; you know that I want to make it into the big promotions more than anything in the world. For the last two years I thought I was well on my way to that, then I come to a fight against a halfway-decent journeyman and get knocked out in the second round. If something like that can happen, how am I suppose to be good enough to fight in the big leagues?”

Willy withheld a calm smirk at Jake’s worries. “There are a lot of fighters at the top level who lost a fight while they worked their way up; maybe a couple of fights.
Take a look at the guys who are champions, and most of them had a mark on their record before they won a belt.

“But how many of them lost when they had a shot at something?”

“Not sure what you mean again, kid.”

“There were a bunch of scouts and agents at that last fight card. If I had a better
showing, I might have been able to impress some of them. I know I turned a few heads with my last win in Brazil, so if I had won this last one, I may have been signing a contract this week, instead of stumbling through my training.”

“Well, you’d be training regardless of what you’d be signing—I’d make sure of that,” Willy informed him. “And if you were stumbling through anything before entering a fight on the big stage, you’d have an even bigger problem than what you do right now.” They both went quiet. Jake eventually turned away from Willy and blankly stared down at the mat beneath them. “Now let’s get to another topic,” Willy eventually began. “You all-but told me your life story just now, but you couldn’t say a word in front of Ben. Got an explanation for that?”

Jake’s feeble countenance told how reluctant he was to elaborate. “Ben’s the only reason I’m training here in the first place, or even have a shot at the big time so early in my career. If it wasn’t for him inviting me to train here in Saint Louis, I’d still probably be fighting no-name guys at the county fair back home. He got me a place to live here, gets me good fights, and he even gives me the money I need just to get by.”

Willy adopted a much more serious expression than before. “He doesn’t just give you that money, Jake. He pays you because he sees you as a benefit to his training camp. I know Ben better than anyone here; he’s pretty particular about who he wants as his sparring partners, he wouldn’t want you here if you weren’t good enough.”

Jake wasn’t convinced. “Is he still going to want me here if I don’t improve? Or if I keep losing fights?”

Willy’s usual smirk reemerged on his creased face. “No, but there’s a surefire way to avoid any of that; get yourself in full gear when you train, and that’ll give you a way better edge when it comes fight time.”

Jake had no rebuttal. “Yeah…you’re right,” he conceded. “I just don’t want to
disappoint him. And I definitely don’t want to lose my spot here and have to go back home to Virginia.” Jake paused, and a pained expression took over his face as his eyes drifted away. “You know that me and my family don’t really see eye to eye anymore…”

Willy nodded back at him sympathetically. “I know, kid. But with all respect to
your family, that’s another issue for another time. You got more than an opportunity to steer clear of that all, so let’s go after it.” Willy glanced about the gym. “Looks like Ben still won’t be back for a few minutes. Go grab a granola bar and get some food in your belly.”

Jake nodded in silent admonition and stood. As he made his way out of the sparring cage, Willy’s warm smirk and wise eyes followed him the whole way.

* * *

Later that night, Jake made his way down the corridor toward his room in the dormitory wing of the gym, his duffle bag slung over one shoulder and his head hanging toward the floor. When he opened his door he stepped into a pitch-black space where only a faint glow of blue light emerged from one of the far corners. Knowing the layout of his bedroom like the back of his hand, Jake ambled through the darkness before turning on the lamp next to his bed.

With most of the room illuminated, he could see that the blue light in the corner came from his cell phone as it rested on a cabinet top, indicating that he received some kind of message. He listlessly dropped his duffle bag onto his bed, and after retrieving his phone, sat down on the cushions. He read the notification on his phone’s screen—

Missed Call – MOM

Jake released a soft, distressed sigh. He dialed a number on the screen, and waited for someone on the other line to pick up.

Far off in Norfolk, Virginia, the phone rang in inside of a warm, cozy living room.

“Hello?” said a voice as Jake finally received an answer. It was a woman’s, very gentle and friendly.

“Hi mom, it’s me,” Jake replied, forcing his tone to take on some hint of cheer.

“Oh, hi honey. How are you today?”

“I’m good; a bit worn out,” Jake said with a lengthy breath. “I had a long day
here at the gym. I saw that you called me earlier…anything wrong?”

“No, we’re fine here,” Mrs. Dile answered pleasantly.

“Just checking in on me?”

On the other side of the line, Mrs. Dile’s expression sunk. She was silent for a few moments before she finally answered. “Jake, do you have a few minutes?” she asked, hesitation fluttering in her voice.

Jake took note of it immediately. “Yeah, of course. What do you need?” he said, already growing nervous at what she wanted to say.

“It’s not about me, Jake. It’s about you,” she began, “Look, we all heard about your last fight the other week, and we’re just worried about you, is all.”

Somewhere inside, Jake felt his spirits totter, yet he tried his best to maintain his composure while speaking. “Don’t worry, mom, I’m fine,” he assured with a mechanical laugh. “The doctors cleared me and said I had no big injuries from it, and I was back to training three days later. I’m still tender in a couple spots, but that’s no big deal.”

“I’m very glad to hear that, sweetie, but that’s not what I meant.”

Any sign of mirth fled from Jake’s features. “Wha-what do you mean, then?”

There was no longer any reluctance when Mrs. Dile answered. “Listen, I know
I’ve said this to you before, just like the rest of the family…but is this really a good idea to keep pursuing the fighting thing?”

It was hardly the first time he had been asked the question, but Jake was still
taken off-guard by his mother’s evident doubt in his pro fighting career. “Hey, I know it wasn’t my best showing—definitely the worst from me so far…” he conceded. “But I’ll get through it, I promise. My coaches have had my back this whole time, and I’m training even harder after this last fight. I’ll get back on track soon enough.”

“Will you, Jake?” his mother pressed, a mixture of uncertainty and pain in her
voice. “I know that you love this more than anything, but are you certain that you can actually get to a point where it’s worth it? It’s dangerous for your health, and you might be wasting years of your life that could be helping you get a real job that you can support yourself with.”

Jake’s face grew tense with anger, some of which trickled into his words. “You
sound like dad when you say that, except you probably don’t have a sneer on your face like you consider me a failure or something.”

Mrs. Dile looked down the hallway in her home, peering into another living
room where Jake’s father sat reading the newspaper, silent, and unaware of their conversation. “Don’t say that, Jake; you know that your father loves you.”

“And that’s why he hasn’t shown any support for me?” Jake snapped. “And
probably just rolls his eyes whenever someone mentions me?”

“Your father just wants you to do something with your life that he can be proud
of for you, and I do, too,” Mrs. Dile said with a hint of guilt.

Jake felt his anger—along with all of his pride—evaporate in a split moment. He sat on his bed in heartbroken silence before his mother spoke again.

“You’re a very smart kid, Jake, and I know you could put that to good use. You could’ve done great in school if you had actually tried; you can always come back home, go back to college and earn a degree for yourself in just a couple years. And if money would ever be a problem for you, well, you could always move back into your old room here at the house.”

Jake struggled to conceal his depression as he answered. “Don-don’t worry
about that, mom, I won’t need to do that. I’m going to figure this out…eventually.”

She only did so because Jake could not see it, but Mrs. Dile shook her head
disappointedly. “Well, I figured I wouldn’t be able to change your mind. But promise you’ll at least think about what I said, okay?”

“Yeah, mom…I promise…” Jake said, almost no strength in his tone anymore.
They both went silent for a few moments, until Jake was able to muster his composure once more. “Look mom, I had a really long day here, so I’m pretty tired. I’m going to get to bed now.”

“Okay, dear, I’ll talk to you soon,” Mrs. Dile said, “Jake—I love you.”

“I love you, too, mom…”

Jake tapped the button to end the call before he even took his phone away from his ear. His head dangled in the air as he stared dejectedly at the floor, his hands trembling. They soon formed into fists, becoming red and corded with veins as his anger came roaring back. Jake slammed his phone onto the bed and punched at the cushions.

“Damnit!!”

* * *

Jake’s expression was a frozen, intense mask as he grappled with his sparring partner in the gym. Even after three days since speaking to his mother, he hadn’t managed to suppress any of his frustration. His training sessions in the gym became his release; taking out all of his aggression on punching bags, blocking pads, and even fellow fighters who were paired with him.

Willy watched on fixedly. He was unaware of Jake’s conversation with his mother, but the old trainer knew that something ate away at Jake on the inside—something far more unnerving than the loss to Roger Volling in his last fight. He could see it in the young man’s fiery eyes and in each of his prodigious motions as he squirmed his arms about his partner and continuously hauled him to the mat.

“You’re doin’ great there, Jake,” Willy commended. “Just don’t forget about your legs; they should be second nature for you, but they need to be utilized just as much as your upper body for a throw.”

Jake and his partner spent a few moments waiting for the other to allow the tiniest opening as they circled one another. Just like all of the other times, Jake dove in first, wrapping his arms about the other fighter and planting his feet to the mat. His partner returned his own grasp upon Jake, and the two locked themselves in yet another battle of body control. Jake nearly spun his partner clear off his feet three times with swift, sharp twists on his body lock, but he never completed the takedown. On the fourth try, Jake exerted too much, and for a split second one foot left the mat.

His partner took advantage immediately. Jake found his other leg being swept out from underneath him, and he toppled back-first onto the floor with his partner pinning him there.

“Let’s take a break for a sec; get yourself over here and regroup,” Willy called out to him as he reached for a towel and a bottle of water at a nearby stool. Jake lifted himself from the mat as he and his partner gave each other a respectful pat on the arm.

“That wasn’t too bad of a session until that last throw, kid,” Willy complimented him as Jake took the bottle of water and began to guzzle down its cool contents. “It was certainly a helluva lot better than the last couple days.”

“Yeah, I guess I’m just feeling it again,” Jake replied, nowhere near as enthused
as Willy was, however.

“Not enough, though, otherwise you wouldn’t have been taken down like you
were a feather, just now. That was worse than your first day here in the gym.

“You actually remember that?”

Willy’s face was split by a wide grin. “Of course I do; you got tossed like a rag doll in just about every session. We were all expecting you to bolt after the first hour, but then you finally managed to take down big Jimmy once and your whole day turned around. It was like someone charged you with a bolt of lightning. Next thing we knew, you were in there scrapping with guys two weight-classes above you, but you didn’t care.”

Jake smiled, as he remembered the day just as vividly. “You’re right, I didn’t. But that day was brutal up to that point. Almost didn’t make me want to be a fighter anymore.”

Willy’s grin was replaced by a warm, knowing look. “It’s usually the worst days that make a fighter his best.”

The smile left Jake’s face as he realized what Willy implied. He only had a moment to take in the wise piece of advice, however.

“Excuse me, is Jake Dile in here today?” a loud, male voice boomed throughout the room.

Jake and Willy glanced over to the entrance of the gym. A tall man in his early thirties stood there, but he was greatly out of place amongst the fighters and trainers inside. He was cleanly shaven, with short, black hair so well-kept that it appeared as if he just come from a barber. He wore a white dress shirt with a burgundy tie, khaki dress pants, and a blue spring jacket over his professional garb.

“Who’s this guy?” Willy wondered aloud as he cocked an eyebrow.

“My older brother…” Jake muttered. He stepped away from Willy and called out to get his brother’s attention. “Hey, Scott!”

Scott Dile looked up and spotted Jake as he approached him. The two brothers smiled at one another as they came together. “There you are; good seeing you, kid,” Scott greeted.

“Yeah, it’s been a little too long,” Jake said. “What are you doing here? Nothing’s wrong, is there?”

Scott shook his head and smirked at Jake’s apprehension. “Nope, I just had a client downtown that I had to meet with, sort of a spur of the moment call. I’ve got a
couple hours before my flight back home to Norfolk, though, so I thought I’d see if I could find you. If you’re busy here, I can scram.”

“No, don’t worry about it; I can spare a couple minutes,” Jake said. He looked back at Willy and cupped a hand about his mouth “Hey, Willy, you mind if I take a few?” Willy merely acknowledged him with a simple wave. Jake turned back to Scott with a smile. “Let’s head outside, it’ll be a lot quieter out there.”

“And it’ll smell better,” Scott added as he followed behind Jake.

They left the gym and casually strolled down the sidewalk. The neighborhood
was fairly quiet that afternoon. There was only light traffic in the streets, and the few people dotting the sidewalks were groups of children running about care freely or residents enjoying the various shops nearby.

“You know, I gotta admit, I’m a little surprised,” Scott said, his eyes turning in all directions.

“About what?” Jake asked.

“The neighborhood,” Scott answered. “I figured I’d have to come to a crummy part of town to find a fighting gym, but this is actually a really nice part of the city.”

Jake smiled as he took a moment to look over the surrounding area. The sidewalks and the streets were all-but pristine. The buildings—most of which were shops and restaurants—wore well-furnished facades and fresh, vibrant coats of paint. St. Louis’s skyline lay in the distance, including the world-famous Gateway Arch.

“Yeah, well, you got one of my coaches to thank for that,” Jake explained. “The guy who owns the gym has a bit of money, and Saint Louis is his hometown, anyways, so he never wanted the gym to be a dump, or be built in one.”

“That’s Ben Sorren, right? The real successful fighter?”

“Yep, we’re all thinking he’ll challenge for a title soon. He’s a great guy; been real good to me ever since he brought me onto his team.”

“I can see you’re training pretty hard in there.”

Jake chuckled sheepishly, dismissive of what he thought was praise. “Yeah, I kinda had a tough fight the other week. I need to get back on track pretty quick and clean up some areas of my game. It’s one step at a time.”

Scott didn’t appear very receptive. “I heard about that fight.”

Jake’s demeanor instantly soured. “Let me guess; the whole damn family and all of my friends back home know about it, too,” his tone matching his expression.

Scott nodded, somewhat regrettably. “Pretty much. And I doubt as many people know about this part, but I talked to mom this morning and—”

“She told you about the other night,” Jake finished for him, his words becoming sharp.

“Yeah.”

Jake’s lips curled as he shook his head with frustration. “Look, I’m not sorry or
anything about freaking out at her. I don’t feel bad about it.”

“I don’t think you necessary should, either,” Scott replied. “I didn’t come by to
yell at you or something like that. I just think that you should take what she said a little more seriously than you seem to be.”

Jake’s brow furrowed as he quickly grew suspicious of his brother’s intentions.
“And why the hell is that?”

Scott wore the look of a man who was hesitant to provide the honest answer, but
knew that he had to, anyway. “Look, I’m not gonna sugar-coat anything like mom would, I’m just gonna say it—you probably can’t do this, kiddo.”

“If that’s what you wanted to say, I wish you would have kept your big mouth
shut,” Jake snapped.

Scott repelled Jake’s rising temper. “Don’t get worked up again, buddy, try and
actually listen to us—”

“Why should I listen to someone if all they’re going to do is tell me that I don’t
stand a chance at doing what’s the most important thing in my life?” Jake interrupted. “Maybe I’m crazy, but I’d like to think that my family would actually have my back when I try to pursue my dream.”

“I don’t want to crush your dream, but you don’t seem to be anything special in this business; you’re just getting hurt—even when you win—making a few bucks here and there, and scaring the life out of mom, dad, and the rest of the family.”

“I really could care less how much I scare everyone who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what I’m doing, or thinks that I suck at it.”

“Maybe you do suck at it,” Scott tried to argue. “I don’t know for sure, but even if you’re decent, you’re still putting a ton of blind faith into a tiny opportunity to actually make it big in the sport and be able to provide for yourself. You can’t just live off of Ben the rest of your life.”

The last remark struck a nerve with Jake, but he somehow managed to restrain himself from lashing out in anger. “Ben actually believes in me and supports me— unlike the rest of you,” Jake said disdainfully. “I mean, it’s real big of you and mom, and probably dad, too, to start taking more shots at me when I’m down. Where were all of you when I won my first seven fights in a row? When I got invited to train with a world-contender after just my fifth professional fight? When I was being mentioned on websites, in magazines and on TV shows as a prospect that analysts and scouts are watching out for?”

Scott remained unconvinced. “You just lost to a guy who was fifteen and ten
before your fight;. I don’t need to be an expert to know that’s embarrassing for a fighter who was supposed to be on his way to the top. And probably telling, too.”

“Telling of what?” Jake questioned. “That I had a bad night? That I got caught?”

Scott smirked, as though he was almost amused by Jake’s defiance. “You can try to bullshit me all you want, Jake, but if you were for real, you wouldn’t even have ‘bad nights’, or get ‘caught’ by a mediocre opponent.”

“So I’ll get better!” Jake exclaimed. “I’ll just train harder like I was doing today
before you decided to strut on by and laugh at me like I’m a little kid who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing!” Jake paused, and shook his head disappointedly. An ironic smile came to his reddened face. “You know, of all people who rolled their eyes when I first said that I was serious about being a professional fighter, I thought you would maybe—just maybe—understand where I was coming from and realize why you don’t let something fade because you screwed up once or twice on your way to it.”

Scott’s head fell back with a laugh. “Are you really going to try and compare this mess you’re in to when I played baseball in college?” he asked, thoroughly unimpressed with Jake’s accusation.

“Why not? You didn’t get a scholarship that paid for every last cent of your
tuition because you were some genius.”

Jake’s last barb finally seemed got under Scott’s skin. “Watch your mouth, kid,” Scott warned.

Jake showed no reluctance to continue. “You didn’t bust your ass for four
years in high school, four in college, and a couple more after that just because you wanted to be better than all of your friends when you guys got together for a pick-up game at the park. You did it because you wanted to be a pro.”

“Yeah, and look what happened when I decided to say that enough was enough; I got a great job which I use to pay for my house and to support your sister-in-law, your niece, and your two nephews.”

Jake practically sneered at his older brother. “No, it wasn’t that you decided ‘enough was enough’—you quit, you just plain quit. You gave up when you found out that you weren’t going to be handed a major league contract just like that! And yet all that time that you spent gloating about what a prospect you were in college, and all the records you set at your school, and all the minor league teams that wanted you to try out for them, all of our family just loved it. They couldn’t get enough of you; they were behind you like you were working on a cure for cancer and they were ecstatic merely at the thought that you might be a big-time pro one day. There hasn’t been a damn bit of that from anyone for me, not even close to same kind of support!”

Short, violent breathes sneaked between Jake’s barred teeth. He stopped himself for a moment, staring down at the sidewalk as he gathered his thoughts. When he looked back at Scott, he aimed a fierce glare into his brother’s eyes. Jake spoke almost in a whisper.

“But you know what? I don’t care about that; I don’t care about any of them who just write me off. I’m going to do this. I’m going to make it as far as I know that I can. I want to be a great fighter more than anything else, and I know that I’m capable of becoming that. When I do, I’ll have accomplished a whole lot more with my life than you or anyone else we know will ever hope to.”

With that, Jake turned away from Scott and walked off, leaving his brother alone
on the sidewalk. Scott could only shake his head before turning and heading off in the opposite direction. “Good luck,” Scott muttered to himself.

Minutes later, Jake burst back into gym, making no attempt to conceal his anger. He made his way over to Ben and Willy, who spoke with one another before they noticed Jake approach them. They were immediately taken aback by Jake’s irate demeanor.

“Get me a fight,” Jake said, his tone still soft, yet filled with fury. “I don’t care when it is or where it is—I want another fight as soon as possible.”

Only dumbfounded breaths escaped Willy’s slacked jaw before he could answer at all. “Wha-wha…?”

“And make it the best guy you can find,” Jake added before the old trainer could utter anything more. “Someone undefeated, someone with a twenty-fight win streak, someone with fifty wins—whoever. Just set up a fight for me somewhere, and I guarantee you that I’ll get right back in the win column.”

Jake then stormed off from a stunned Ben and Willy, who could only disbelievingly watch him walk away. Ben eventually found himself unable to smirk.

“So much for a happy family reunion,” he said.

* * *

Willy rarely kept his office in neat order, but it had never been filled by such
clutter as what he and Ben sifted through. They sat on opposite sides of a desk that was blanketed by countless papers and folders, much of which also found its way onto the floor. One by one they leafed through the horde of fighter profiles before them, searching feverishly for the perfect opponent to match Jake up with next.

“Any luck there on your end?” Willy asked, his eyes and hands working through the piles of papers in front of him.

“Not yet,” Ben answered, not even glancing up at Willy. “I’m looking for someone he won’t breeze through. As much as I want Jake to get back to winning, I don’t want it to be easy for him. There’s gotta be someone available who will really test him.”

“I don’t see it being hard to book him a fight; Jake’s got a good reputation on the circuit, so there should be plenty of guys who would jump at the chance to fight him,” Willy noted. “It also kind of helps us that he’s coming off of a loss; he looks vulnerable now. Guys won’t be afraid to try and add him to their resume anymore.”

“Finding a guy is no problem,” Ben acknowledged. “Like I said, I just want to pit him with someone who he’ll actually have to break a sweat taking out. Problem is, he’s at a level where he can wipe the floor with most of these indy guys, but he’s still not quite ready for the big league fighters.”

They continued to pour over the horde of profiles. Eventually Willy came upon one that almost instantly made his aged eyes flicker. He chuckled just loud enough to draw Ben’s attention.

“What’s so funny?” Ben asked.

“That I didn’t think of this guy in the first place,” Willy answered as a grin split his face, and handed the folder over to Ben.

Ben looked over the profile dispassionately. “Nick Alder? Jake’s already beaten this guy; in fact, I’m almost positive it was his first pro win.”

“He was, but that was over two years ago, and it was a close judges’ decision.”

“So what? Why would we pit Jake with someone he’s already defeated? What good does that do him?”

“Check Alder’s record since that fight,” Willy confidently indicated.

Ben looked back at the profile incredulously. The uncertainty on his face was soon taken over by an impressed glint. “Huh, twelve and o since then, I’ll be damned,” he said.

“Yep, twelve straight wins in hardly two years,” Willy confirmed as he proudly leaned back in his chair. “And if you may remember, his fight with Jake was when they were both making their pro debuts.”

Ben proceeded to survey Nick Alder’s list of opponents. “You know, some of these guys that he’s beaten aren’t half bad. I’ve seen a few of them fight before; nothing elite, but they’re good wins, still.”

“If you notice, there’s only one decision win on there; the rest are stoppage victories,” Willy added. “Eight knockouts and three submissions; the kid’s done some impressive work since losing to Jake.”

“So I take it he’s still a striker?” Ben asked.

“He is, but he’s gotten a whole lot better since their fight,” Willy explained. “His boxing is crisp, and he’s got the kicks to go along with it.”

Ben appeared to grow more and more intrigued by the matchup with each passing second. “That’s exactly the game plan that Jake needs to overcome after being knocked out last time. He needs something to wake him up and keep him from being gun-shy.”

“And I’ve kept tabs on Alder like I have all of the opponents Jake has fought; the kid’s become a big trash talker since their fight,” Willy began, stifling a laugh behind his grin. “He’s got a mouth on him and he’s been known to get under his opponents’ skin.”

Ben quickly matched Willy with his own grin. “If Jake’s brother could rile him up so much, I’d love to see what this kid could do for him. I like the idea behind this fight; both fighting for redemption, one to fix the only blemish on his record, the other to prove he’s still got what it takes to make it big. It’s a good sell.”

Willy pulled open a drawer beneath his desk and produced a promotional flyer that he tossed to Ben. It was an advertisement for a fight card being held during a statewide athletic festival in Roanoke, Virginia called “Patriot Fights.”

“There’s a promotion up in Virginia looking for a co-main event for a show barely a month from now,” Willy said. “If Alder and his camp accepts the match, I think we’d get this thing booked in no time.”

Ben hardly spent any time looking over the flyer. He smirked, and casually flicked it and Alder’s profile onto the desk. “It’s got my vote.”

* * *

It took even less time than Willy and Ben expected to get the fight booked. Within just a few days, the rematch between Jake and Nick Alder was agreed to by both of their camps, and the bout was put on as the co-main event for Patriot Fights.

After three weeks and a feverish training regimen, Jake, Willy, Ben and Phil all
boarded a flight that took them to Roanoke, Virginia. No more than an hour after checking into their hotel, the Patriot Fight’s promoter summoned Jake to a press conference. He and Willy hurried over to the scheduled venue for the fight card—the Mountainfall Center—in downtown Roanoke. They were ushered into a large hall where a series of tables ran from each side of a podium. The Patriot Fight’s promoter took his place at the podium as he ran the press conference, while the fighters and their mangers sat at the tables beside him. A long banner lay across the wall behind them displaying the Patriot Fight’s logo, which appropriately featured red, white and blue colors along with a number of patriotic symbols.

“I wasn’t expecting this fight card to have so much attention,” Jake whispered to Willy as the press conference went on, his eyes scanning the gathering of reporters seated before the fighters. “I’ve seen a few of these journalists before; some of them work for the biggest magazines and websites in the business.”

“You really shouldn’t be that surprised,” Willy returned. “The main event’s got two former champions fighting in it, while you and Alder over there are two popular prospects on the rise. Fans are going to be interested in this card, and so are the big-time execs looking for new talent.”

Jake glanced down the table at Nick Alder. He appeared disinterested by the sight of his old opponent, who wore a confident, smug look on his face. Alder was a young fighter of just twenty-three, with a buzzed haircut and very tan skin. “I still don’t get why you paired me with him,” Jake expressed. “I already beat the guy once; what does beating him again prove about me?”

“Hey, you said you wanted a fight,” Willy said with a shrug. “Ben and I got you one just like you asked.”

Jake showed no mirth at Willy’s mock innocence. “I also said that I wanted the best guy you could find for me.”

“We did under the circumstances. Unless you wanted to wait a couple
months for other schedules to clear up. Or if you wanted to take on a middle or light-heavyweight; there were more than enough options there.” Willy again used a playful tone when offering the latter suggestion, but was unable to shake Jake from his incredulous attitude.

“Excuse me, I have a question for Jake,” a reporter suddenly chimed in.

Jake’s expression softened on the fly, and he brought his attention to the journalist who stood amongst the crowd.

“Jake, what’s changed about your mindset following that last loss?” the man asked.
Jake answered the inquiry almost on instinct rather than thought. “It kind of woke me up. I realize now that I’m not invincible, and that I’ve got plenty of work to do if I want to grow as a fighter. I’ve learned firsthand how tough the sport can be and that you have to be ready to face any kind of challenge if you want to succeed in it.”

“What have you done to prepare yourself going forward as you look to get back on a winning streak?” the reporter pressed.

“Well, my coaches have me training harder than before, cleaning up areas that I haven’t always utilized,” Jake began, and took a pause to ready his words. “But a lot of it is mental; I’m not worried or anxious for any fight now. I know better what I have avoid pre-fight and in the fight itself. That last bout taught me a lot and made me a better fighter, I think.”

No sooner than when Jake finished his answer, Nick Alder’s head fell back and loosed a deliberate, condescending laugh. Every eye in the hall turned towards Alder. “The only thing that fight did was reveal you for a fraud,” Alder spat. “And if it did teach you anything, it’s that you don’t have what it takes to be an elite fighter.”

Several murmurs emerged from the crowd of reporters as their hands worked like lightning to jot down notes. Many of the fighters and trainers at the table had to stifle reactions to Alder’s brash outburst.

“So, Nick, how do you see this rematch going down between yourself and Jake?” another reporter asked.

A glowing smirk edged its way across Nick Alder’s smug expression. “I see the referee raising my hand at the end of the fight; that’s all of the specifics I can give you. I can win this fight any way I need to—standing up, on the ground, in the clinch—wherever this guy decides he wants me to embarrass him. This fight is going to prove that I’m an elite fighter. It’s the real main event for the card, not the fight between these two washed up has-beens sitting next to me.”

Alder carelessly pointed to the two former champions who were scheduled for Patriot Fight’s main event without even sparing them a glance. Both veteran fighters were clearly offended by Nick’s insult, and even a few of the reporters appeared uneasy at the disrespectful words.

“Jake, what do you have to say to all of that?” another reporter quickly asked.

For all of the time that Nick Alder spent berating Jake and his professional career, Jake watched on with a hardened look in his eyes. But just seconds after the reporter finished his question, Jake’s expression softened, and actually revealed a smug smirk of its own. “I think what’s really embarrassing is that guy down the table from me talking all of this crap after I beat him the last time we fought.”

Nick’s mood swung in a split second. “That was over two years ago, pal! We
were both making our pro debuts. I was a rookie, now I’m better than you can imagine, and I’ve got the record to prove it. Since that fight I’ve got twelve wins and not a loss to go with them; you’re the only one between us with one of those.”

“Don’t worry, bud, you’ll be getting another one real soon,” Jake shot back.

“If I ever would, it sure as hell wouldn’t be from you,” Nick said mockingly. “What kind of ‘rising star’ loses to a fighter that has a fifteen and ten record? You’re a joke, Jake, a coddled joke who isn’t good enough to win the real fights. But you’re definitely good at leeching off of true fighters like Ben Sorren, at least.”

The remark about Ben sent Jake’s blood rushing through his body. He stood up from his seat and aimed a maddened scowl at Nick Alder. “That’s a pretty good line,” he said, feigning admiration. “That’ll probably go all across the internet after this. Too bad that’s going to be the only fame you’ll ever get in your life!”

Before Nick could respond, the fight promoter loosed a jolly, almost amused laugh into the tension-filled air of the hall. “Easy there, boys, we don’t need a brawl here at the press conference,” he said, waving the two young fighters off to scale back the confrontation. “It’s good to see you both excited for the fight, but save all of that energy for the cage in three days.” He then looked down at the reporters and grinned like an excited child, even adding a wink. “This should be a fun one, shouldn’t it?

The hall boomed with laughter from the reporters. Jake and Nick continued to eye each other up as they slowly, almost hesitantly, took their seats once more.

All the while, Willy watched Jake intently and formed a faint smirk.

* * *

The next three days seemed to pass by in a flash for Jake. It was already the night of the Patriot Fights card, and he was just minutes away from walking out into the Mountainfall Center’s core and stepping into the cage.

He sat on a bench in the locker room, a focused, untroubled look on his face as Phil continued to wrap up his hands in tape. It was the very last preparation for the fight; Jake’s ankles were already taped, and he had been wearing his white fighting trunks and hoodie nearly since the time he woke up in the morning.

Off to the side, Willy stood with his arms crossed and his eyes centered on Jake,
as if he studied the young fighter.

“Did you eat somethin’ earlier?” Willy asked.

“A big bowl of cereal,” Jake answered, not even looking at his coach.

“Better not have been any of that sugary crap,” Willy said disapprovingly.

Jake smirked. “You know I had to give that stuff up when I started training with
you guys. Nah, it was the wheat flakes with raisins; pretty sure it was the whole grain stuff, too.”

Willy didn’t understand all of Jake’s answer. “When you’d have the chance to go buy that?”

Jake finally turned his head toward Willy and showed a sheepish smile. “I
didn’t; I took the box out of your cupboard from back at the gym before our flight here.”

Willy’s head fell back with a hearty laugh. Phil rolled his eyes and shook his head. “So this is what you guys do for prep talk before a fight?” the cut man said sarcastically.

“Trust me, this is actually normal compared to some of our other conversations,” Jake said with a chuckle.

Phil glanced back and forth between Willy and Jake as he applied the last strand of tape to the young fighter’s hand. “Knowing you two goofs, I don’t doubt it.”

Before Phil had even put his supplies back into his medical bag, Jake had already slipped on his gloves and was slamming fists into both palms. The door to the locker room suddenly opened, and Ben stepped in.

“Looks like we’ll be heading out a little bit early,” Ben announced to the others, but set his eyes only on Jake. “The last fight was a quick one—first round knockout.”

“So, we’re up next?” Willy asked.

Ben nodded, still not looking away from Jake. “Yep. You good to go, kid?”

Jake leapt from the bench in the blink of an eye. “Let’s do it.”

Ben hid a proud smile from Jake as he stepped to the side and let the young
fighter leave the locker room first. Ben, Willy and Phil exited together and began to follow Jake as he jogged down the hallway that led to the core of the arena. Just ahead of them was a long black curtain that had traces of light leaking around its edges. Behind it, they could hear the distant sounds of an energized crowd that anxiously awaited the next fight of the Patriot Fights event.

“It’s nearly a packed house out there,” Ben said to Willy, just quiet enough that Jake wouldn’t be able to hear. “Some usher was telling me they thought a little over five thousand fans are here.”

Willy appeared to be much more impressed with the number than Ben was. “Pretty good? That’s fantastic for a small show like this. That’ll get Jake’s blood pumpin’.”

Ben nodded in agreement. “Same if he recognizes some of the people here. I saw plenty of big-time scouts and promoters out there. And there’s no way they’re here to check out a main event between two former champions almost in their forties.”

“I’m sure Jake knows about them already; he better impress,” Willy added. “This might be the best shot he gets for a long time.”

“There’s one guy he probably doesn’t know about.”

“Who’s that?”

“His brother. The one who came to the gym that day.”

Willy’s ashy eyebrows perked. “No kidding? Huh, I wonder how Jake will react to that.”

Ben looked ahead as Jake pushed through the curtain, and the sounds of the
excited crowd poured into the hallway. “We don’t have to wait long to find out.”

Jake hurried down the aisle of the clean, bright, state-of-the-art Mountainfall Center and to the cage. He never even bothered to lift his eyes to the thousands in attendance who cheered passionately as they watched the home-state fighter approach the center of the arena.

When he came to it, Jake quickly slipped off his hoodie and allowed the cageside doctor to inspect him. When he was given approval, he turned back and gave each of his cornermen a brief, rough hug.

“Go get ‘em, kid,” Willy whispered in his ear when they came together.

Jake ran up the steps and into the cage. He continued his jog across the mat as Nick Alder waited in his corner, jumping in place as his crimson trunks wafted in the air. Alder wore a smug, confident look upon his tan face, while Jake stared back with hardened eyes and a faint snarl.

Soon the ring announcer entered the cage. He was clad in a black suit with a pristine shirt and tie. His dark hair was slicked back and his mustache appeared as if it had just been groomed minutes before he entered the arena.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is our co-main event of the evening,” he proclaimed, practically grinning. “This fight is set for three five-minute rounds in the lightweight division, and is sanctioned by the Virginia State Athletic Commission. Our referee in charge of the contest is Lou Lubbock.” He took a deliberate pause for dramatic effect, and pivoted toward Nick Alder. “I introduce to you first—fighting out of the black corner—this young man is a mixed martial artist with an outstanding record of twelve wins and only one loss. He is fighting out of Chicago, Illinois…I give you—Nick ‘Venomous’ Aldeeer!!

Alder played to the crowd that responded with a mixture of unenthusiastic cheers and vehement boos.

The ring announcer then pivoted toward Jake.

“And I give you his opponent—fighting out of the white corner—this young man is a mixed martial artist also with an impressive record—seven wins and just one defeat. He is fighting out of Saint Louis, Missouri, by way of Norfolk, Virginia…I give you—Jake…Dile!!”

Jake was much more stoic to the introduction despite the passionate response from the crowd, merely raising a fist to acknowledge their cheers. The ring announcer exited the cage and the referee came to the center.

“Okay, boys, let’s have a good bout,” the referee told the young fighters, and his hands came together with a clap. “Let’s fight!”

At his command, Jake and Nick approached the center of the cage and began to circle one another. It was Jake who struck first, throwing a right hook that sped across Alder’s cheek.

“Great start, Jake! Exactly how to do it!” Willy shouted encouragingly from cageside.

Jake proceeded to toss out a series of punches, but he couldn’t land any as well as his first. Nick Alder eventually responded with a stiff jab that caught Jake beneath the left eye. Alder targeted the same spot immediately after, planting two more hard shots that produced a cut just over Jake’s cheekbone.

They both continued throwing punches, with Alder getting the better of the
exchanges. Jake varied his attack with a plethora of swinging kicks into Alder’s thigh, but none were able to slow Alder down for very long.

“Take him off his feet, Jake!” Willy yelled, more of an order than a piece of advice.

Jake began to backpedal under the duress of Alder’s offense, and just when Alder over committed on a wild punch, Jake launched himself at his opponent. With his shoulder buried under his ribs, Jake scooped Alder clear off the floor and proceeded to slam him back down, drawing a loud roar from the Virginia crowd.

As Alder desperately squirmed underneath, Jake chose not to pursue an
attempt at mounting him. He instead began to slash at Alder’s exposed head with the tip of his elbow, slicing Alder open after just the first blow. Alder tried to cover up as blood streamed from the gash, and Jake took advantage. He took hold of Alder’s left arm and began to contort it unnaturally into a painful submission hold, sending the crowd into another frenzy.

“That’s it, Jake! Don’t let go!” Ben shouted excitedly. “Turn it turn it turn it!!”

Jake hardly paid any attention to Ben or the roaring audience as he strained every muscle in his arms to apply pressure. Alder’s face twisted into a grimace, his teeth barred together. A fighter with less pride might have submitted, but Alder endured the agony long enough to wiggle his arm free and escape from underneath Jake.

The crowd released a stunned, almost amazed gasp as Alder scrambled to his feet in a hurry. Hardly before Jake stood up, Alder leapt at him and struck him flush on the chin with a leaping knee attack.

“Shit, here we go again…” Ben muttered worriedly as he watched Jake stumble backwards.

Alder aimed a punishing kick to the side of Jake’s knee that dropped him almost immediately on contact. Alder pounced on top of Jake and began to rain down punches. Somehow Jake maintained his senses and held on desperately as he inched towards the cage wall.

“Get to the wall and stand yourselves up!” Willy bellowed

When they came to the edge of the mat, Jake gradually came back to his feet with the support of the chain link wall at his back. Alder brought his attack to a halt once they stood, and uselessly tried to wrestle him back to the ground. Jake’s superior grappling kept him on his feet and allowed him to slither his arms behind Alder’s head. With Alder’s skull in his grasp, Jake lifted his knee and smashed it into his opponent’s chin.

Alder staggered back, but only for a moment. He threw a wild left hook in his stupor that Jake ducked under. Jake drove forward and lifted Alder off his feet once more, throwing both of them to the center of the cage as he slammed Alder to the mat.

Alder thrashed on the ground as Jake landed a flurry of glancing punches
for the remaining seconds of the round before the horn signaled its end. With the crowd cheering their performances, the two bloodied fighters got up and headed to their corners as their cornermen tended to them.

“Great job out there, Jake; that round was definitely yours,” Willy commended as Jake took a seat on the stool.

“But you gotta stay out of his range,” Ben quickly noted. “I know you don’t want
to admit it, but this kid’s standup is pretty damn good. You won’t win the fight just trading with him.”

Jake didn’t even look at Ben or Willy as he answered. “I can…still take him…” he said while he reclaimed his breath.

“Don’t be reckless,” Ben scolded. “I know you want to impress the scouts here, but you stand a way better chance of doing that by just sticking to this game plan. It may not always be pretty, but it works.”

“Ben’s right, kid,” Willy agreed. “Every time he’s open for it, just go for the takedown. You’re sure to get it, and you can just beat him up on the mat.”

Jake shook his head. “He’s expecting that…now…” The referee started to direct the cornermen out of the cage and signaled for the next round. Jake stood from his stool, his eyes staring at Alder unblinking. “Just watch this.”

Ben, Willy, and Phil gathered their belongings and left the cage. “I’ve never seen him so confident about something,” Willy muttered as they walked out to the cageside floor. “I don’t think he’s pulling our legs; I think he’s got a plan in mind.”

“Yeah, I’m not sure if I like this…” Ben replied.

As soon as the second round commenced, Jake and Nick Alder rushed at one another. Alder took the entire arena by surprise as he leapt straight at Jake and raked his leg across Jake’s chest in a flying kick.

When he landed, the two fighters unleashed a salvo of furious punches at one
another and brought the crowd to their feet. Alder eventually switched gears and threw a high kick that roofed the top of Jake’s head. Jake felt his whole body quiver as his vision blurred for an instant.

Sensing that victory was near, Alder moved in.

But before Alder could even throw another punch, Jake suddenly spun on a dime. He lashed out with his arm as he came back to face Alder, and the tip of his elbow tore across Alder’s face with every measure of momentum from his rapid rotation.

“Where the hell did he learn to do that!?” an astounded Willy exclaimed from cageside.

“It wasn’t from me!” was all that Ben could respond with.

Alder dropped to the mat, and Jake jumped on top of him. Jake began to unload a series of elbows and hammerfists as the dazed Alder struggled to defend himself. Alder eventually turned his back to Jake and curled up under the pressure. Jake seized the opportunity and sank one arm behind Alder’s throat, locking in a rear-naked choke as he began to squeeze’s Alder’s neck.

It wasn’t long before Alder tapped out. The referee promptly stepped in to
break up the fight, and along with the rest of the crowd, Ben, Willy and Phil exploded in celebration.

Jake stood up from the mat and raised both arms to the euphoric audience; his face shrouded in relief and joy. His cornermen rushed into the cage and joined him.

“That’s the way to bounce back, kid!” Ben shouted as they came together.

“Might have been your best performance yet,” Willy told him as he wrapped his arms about Jake. “There’s no way the scouts are going home unimpressed tonight!”

Jake celebrated with his team for a few more moments before he stepped near the center of the cage alongside the referee for the official result announcement. The ring announcer entered the cage and brought the microphone to his lips.

“Ladies and gentlemen, our referee has called a stop to this contest in the second round due to submission by a rear-naked choke—your winner is Jake…Dile!!”

As the referee lifted Jake’s arm and the ring announcer declared his victory, Scott Dile stood with a humbled smile, clapping alongside the rest of the crowd.

* * *

Hours after all the fights had concluded and the fans left the Mountainfall Center, Jake sat on a bench in the locker room packing up his belongings. His gloves and his trunks had been thrown off long ago, and he donned a much more average appearance with jeans and a black button-up shirt. His smiling face still wore a few markings from the bout with Nick Alder, but all of the cuts and bruises had been treated, while a cool shower left him feeling clean and refreshed.

As he continued filling his duffle bag, he heard the locker room open just ahead of him. Jake looked up, expecting to see either Willy or Ben come rushing in to hurry him along so they could return to the hotel for the night.

Instead, he saw Scott standing in the doorway, an amazed smile splitting his features.

For a moment Jake was taken aback by the unexpected appearance by his older brother, but he promptly turned his attention back to packing.

“I thought you’d be more surprised to see me; or just pissed,” Scott eventually
said.

Jake withheld a laugh. “Nah, I saw you in the crowd as I was walking around the cage when I entered.”

“And you couldn’t give me a shout-out or even a wave?” Scott asked with mock despair. This time Jake was unable to contain his laughter, and Scott’s smile took on a glow of satisfaction. “That was a great fight,” Scott commended. “You two had the whole building buzzing for both rounds.”

“Yeah, I could hear the crowd the entire time,” Jake said.

“Really? I thought you guys always tuned out everything away from the fight, or something,” Scott said, not entirely serious.

“You try blocking out five-thousand screaming people,” Jake challenged. Scott’s head fell back with a deep laugh that filled the entire locker room. Jake formed a grin as he zipped up his duffle bag and looked back at his brother. “You weren’t in town on a business trip that one day at the gym, were you?” Jake asked, although he already knew what the answer would be.

Scott shook his head. “Nope.”

“So, what gives?” Jake pressed.

Scott shrugged. “Maybe I’m not the asshole brother that you think I am,” he offered appealingly.

Jake detected the sincerity in Scott’s response. “Maybe not for why I thought before, but you’re still an asshole, alright.”

The brothers aimed alike grins at one another. Jake eventually stood up from his seat and approached Scott, wrapping his arms about him. Scott returned the embraced and patted Jake proudly on the back.

“It’s like I told you before; I don’t sugar coat things,” Scott explained, his tone becoming serious. “But I have no problem with it if you prove me wrong about something.”

“That’s fine, because neither do I,” Jake immediately shot back. They released their embrace and once again met with identical grins, the kind made through the harmless teasing between two brothers. “And seeing as how you don’t sugar coat things,” Jake went on as he returned to his duffle bag, “Make sure you tell everyone back in Norfolk every last detail about this fight.”

“You’re not going to come back and gloat about it yourself?” Scott asked, genuinely surprised that Jake did not intend to return to home.

“Nah, I’m planning on getting back into the gym after another day or so,” Jake said as he slung his bag’s strap over one shoulder. “No telling if or when I’ll actually get a call for a big-fight contract after this match, so I better stay sharp in the mean time.”

“Still thinking ahead, I see…” Scott said unenthusiastically.

“That’s what I did three years ago before I even went pro,” Jake said proudly.

Scott still did not appear to agree with Jake’s mindset, but he managed a smile nonetheless. “More power to you, bud.”

Jake took his cell phone from the bench and briefly glanced at the screen. “Well, I think it’s about time I head on out of here,” he said, and slipped his phone into his pocket.

“Where are you going?” Scott asked.

“Just back to the hotel,” Jake answered. “I already got the press conference out of the way, so there’s nothing else to do here.”

“Let’s go grab a drink, then,” Scott proposed, and showed a smirk. “Or is booze banned from a fighter’s diet?”

Jake laughed at the good-hearted joke. “No, but I don’t know of any places around here, anyways.”

“Don’t worry; I do,” Scott said, patting Jake on the shoulder.

The Dile brothers smiled at one another, and made their way out of the locker room together.

 

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