by Dan Swanson
In their junior year, Todd Drake and Tomas Thomas were the twin stars of the University of Chicago boxing team. The last league match of the season was with the University of Minnesota, and both teams were undefeated. The winner would win the conference title. As the teams had not met before this year, it was difficult to predict who would win. In the past, Minnesota had always dominated, but this year promised to be different.
As the season had progressed, it had become clear to every observer that something special was happening. College boxing was not the most important sport of the time, and the crowds rarely reached five-hundred. But with each win, the crowds at the University of Chicago got larger, and a turnout of over fifteen-hundred was expected for the match with Minnesota.
While he was writing a preview of the big match for the student newspaper, one of the student sports writers decided that Tomas needed a nickname. The name Tomas Thomas immediately suggested to him the nickname of “Tom-Tom,” and he thought it was a natural, since Tomas looked so much like a Native American Indian, anyway.
Even the Chicago city papers began to follow the college boxing team. It was a slow year for Chicago sports, and having two undefeated teams competing for the conference championship was a compelling story.
Somewhere along the way, the newspaper coverage magically transformed the match from an obscure sporting event into a big deal. Advance ticket sales forced the athletic department to move the match from the ratty little gym the boxers normally called home into the big fancy gym where basketball was played. To the amazement of everyone, when the bell was rung for the first match, there were over five-thousand spectators in the stands, a good fifteen-hundred of them from nearby Minneapolis.
The crowd was raucous, and the match was hard-fought and closely contested. When the Chicago fighter at the 175-pound weight class pulled out a victory, it put U.C. into a twelve to eleven lead, and it seemed certain that U.C. would win. Todd now fought at 190 and he was a cinch, and Tomas ought to win at 210, and after that it wouldn’t matter what happened in the 230-pound class.
Todd kept his part of the deal, winning easily and making the score fifteen to eleven. A win by Tomas would make it eighteen to eleven, an insurmountable lead. Anticipation rose — this could be his toughest match this year, but he was expected to win.
Tomas Thomas had read the story in the school paper yesterday, and Todd Drake had noticed that something in the story had upset him. Todd quickly reread the story, but there was nothing obvious in it that he could see that would upset Tomas.
He turned to his friend. “So you’re ‘Tom-Tom’ now, huh? That’s kind of neat! I wonder why I never thought of that?” Todd was the kind of guy who gave everyone nicknames. His nickname for Tomas had always been ‘Nuke,’ both from his major and from the power in his punches. In fact, the whole team and even the coaches all called him Nuke by now.
Tomas turned, and Todd was surprised to see real anger in his eyes. “Todd, do not ever call me that!” he growled. Todd was stunned to see his best friend react this way. But he knew one thing; he sure didn’t want to fight Tomas.
He raised both arms in surrender. “Sure, Tomas, no problem.” He hesitated for a few seconds. “Umm, can I still call you Nuke?”
The anger drained from Tomas’ eyes. He knew Todd was his friend, and in fact, he was quite proud of his Nuke nickname. “Please do. But don’t use that other — ever.”
“You got it, buddy! Tell you what, though, save your adrenaline for Minnesota!” The two had laughed and headed off to class.
Some clever University of Chicago students had also read the story, and they had come to the match prepared to root for their favorite. Two dozen of them pulled out small drums and started chanting, “Go-go, Tom-Tom, go-go, Tom-Tom, go-go, Tom-Tom!” while beating out that same rhythm on their drums. Within seconds, all of the other U.C. fans were chanting the same thing. They started stamping out the same rhythm with their feet, and in a few more seconds, the entire gym was rocking. All except for Tomas.
Tomas had been approaching the ring when the cheering started, but now he stopped. His face turned chalk white, as if he had just had an unsuccessful encounter with a vampire. He turned slowly, and his gaze swept over the crowd. The anger in his face stunned those who noticed it enough that they stopped chanting, but he couldn’t silence nearly enough people to even make a dent in the din. He then started walking toward the locker room.
The coach and Todd intercepted him. “I’m sorry, coach, but I can’t fight tonight.” He tried to push his way past the two. As the crowd noticed what he was doing, the chants and the drumming died out, leaving the gym in silence.
Todd grabbed him and whispered in his ear, “Tomas, if we forfeit your match, you know we lose! We’ve worked our butts off for over two years for this night!”
Todd wasn’t exactly sure why the nickname Tom-Tom bothered his friend so much, but he was at least sensitive enough to realize that it was the nickname. “You get your ass back out there and beat this guy, or am I gonna have to fight him for you?”
Tomas smiled feebly. “Fat chance you’d have! You just barely beat the other guy!”
Todd was pleased that Tomas was getting back a little spunk. “Oh, yeah? Wanna make a little wager? Five bucks says I beat my guy worse than you will yours!”
Tomas had his eyes closed, and he seemed to be praying. He opened them again, and laughed. “You’re on!” He shook himself all over.
Todd took a few steps toward the crowd and yelled, “His name is Nuke!”
The rest of the guys on the team jumped up and started chanting, “Nuke! Nuke! Nuke! Nuke!” Once again, the crowd picked it up, and within seconds the place was roaring again.
Tomas didn’t fight very well. When he had first heard the Tom-Tom cheers, his anger had surged, and adrenaline had flooded his system. But he had then been inactive for several minutes, and now he was coming down from the adrenaline high. He was slow and sluggish, and he didn’t seem to be thinking very well, either. He was outscored badly in the first round.
The coach was worried, and didn’t want to see him get hurt, so he told Tomas he was going to forfeit the match, letting the University of Minnesota win by a technical knockout. That would make the score sixteen to fifteen in favor of Minnesota, and U.C.’s inexperienced heavyweight would have to beat last year’s National Collegiate Athletic Association champ for U.C. to win. The coach was willing to lose the match to keep Tomas safe. But Tomas wasn’t ready to give in just yet.
“Coach, I’m OK now. You gotta let me go!” he pleaded. Since he didn’t appear to be too badly hurt so far, the coach relented.
“OK, Nuke. But if you don’t fight better’n you did before, I’m stoppin’ the fight, got me?” Tomas nodded his head, stuck his mouthpiece back in, and answered the bell.
And this round he did better. He started off slowly, but his speed returned to him, and his defense got better. About a minute into the round he landed a punch, and then another, and he unloosed a flurry, driving the other into constant defense and retreat. When they reached the corner, his opponent grabbed him, and the referee broke the clinch, leading them back to the center of the ring. Before Tomas could attack again, the bell sounded. Tomas had won that round, but he was still far behind.
When the third round started, Tomas slipped on a wet spot on the canvas, and while he was recovering his balance, he left himself open. His opponent, no slouch, stepped in and hit him with a left-right combination that whirled Tomas around and knocked him down. He was back up in an instant, but the referee stood over him for the mandatory standing eight count. It had been a lucky knockdown, but it all but sealed the victory for the Minnesota fighter.
Or, at least, some people in the crowd thought so, and they were very vocal in their disappointment.
“Hey, Tom-Tom, you coward!”
“Hey, Tonto, you’re a loser!”
Those were just two of the loud, ignorant comments, though there were a variety of other, unrepeatable pejoratives.
Todd got off the bench and walked to the edge of the stands, trying to see who it was that was spewing those words. It wasn’t students, he was relieved to see, but a bunch of older men, none of whom looked too savory.
“What you looking at, kid?” one of them yelled at him. He just looked back, silently. “G’wan back to your bench before I come down there and mess you up!” Todd didn’t say anything, but he raised his hand slightly and waved the loudmouth to come ahead. The loudmouth and his friends looked at the crowd around them and thought better of starting something just then, going back to yelling at the match. They were clearly hoping that Tomas would lose.
Tomas had heard some of the ignorant remarks, and once again his anger was rising. With his hands raised high, he began stalking his opponent. He didn’t even try to defend himself, and he got hit three or four times, but he didn’t even flinch, as he just continued relentlessly moving forward. Knowing he had the fight won, the Minnesota fighter was just trying to cover up for the last thirty seconds. But Tomas didn’t let him.
Ignoring the other’s attempts at defense, he punched with precision, power, and a savage anger that no one had ever seen in him before. Two savage body blows forced the Minnesota fighter to drop his guard to protect his body, and Tomas was waiting for that moment. A hard right cross, as devastating a punch as any fight fan had ever seen, caught him on the right cheek and knocked him back into the ropes. The ropes bounced him back into the ring, but he was stunned and unable to get his guard back up, and a left jab to the point of his chin finished him off. He was counted out, and only a couple of seconds later the bell sounded to end the fight.
Tomas had won — and by a knockout. That put U.C. so far ahead that the results of the last bout wouldn’t matter.
Helping the other fighter to his feet, Tomas shook his hand. The referee raised his own hand to signal the victory. His teammates all cheered and slapped him on the back as he headed for the bunch, but he said nothing. He picked up the traditional sliced oranges, and headed for the other bench.
While the final bout of the evening took place, he talked with the Minnesota fighter, whose name was Terry. Tomas handed him an orange, and they shook hands again. Before Tomas could start talking, however, Terry spoke up enthusiastically.
“Wow! Tomas, I spar with Billy-boy, there, everyday.” He pointed to the Minnesota heavyweight out on the mat. “And he’s the national collegiate champion, but I ain’t never been hit like that before! You really oughtta think about going pro — right now, in fact, so I have a chance in the tournament!” He had a big smile on his face, and he clearly respected Tomas for what had just happened.
Tomas was amazed. He had been planning to apologize for losing his temper. But here was his beaten opponent, acting as thrilled about Tomas’ victory as his own teammates were. He really didn’t know what to say. “Um, thanks, Terry. I got in a couple of lucky shots there at the end, but you know you had me all the way.”
“That’s a load of bull-crap, Tomas! I’ve seen you fight before, and something was bothering you. And I admit I’m pretty damn pleased with most of that fight. But the accident was the first two-and-a-half rounds, not the last thirty seconds, and you know it, too. You are good, Tomas. Whatever was bothering you? Let it go.”
Both men stopped talking as cheering from the crowd interrupted them. They turned to see that Billy had won on points, making the final score University of Chicago at twenty, and University of Minnesota at fourteen. It was certainly the biggest win in U.C. boxing history, and the first school championship in boxing ever.
Todd watched the loudmouths leave the gym. They looked a lot more depressed than most of the Minnesota fans. His long-dormant crime-fighting instinct told him these guys had lost more than a friendly wager on this match. Well, he figured, that’s what they deserved for gambling on a college sports event.
The coaches had set up a buffet dinner in one of the school cafeterias, and the team and some of the best friends of the fighters got together for a small victory party. It broke up about an hour later. Tomas had never showed up. Todd looked for his friend, and when he couldn’t find him, he made a half-dozen sandwiches, and then he, too, left the party, looking for Tomas.
He found Tomas in the first place he looked, a small campus park on the shore of Lake Michigan. Tomas was just sitting, watching the small waves roll in. Todd wasn’t trying to be sneaky, but he was surprised when Tomas spoke up.
“Well, Todd, I’m surprised! I didn’t figure you’d be here for another half-hour or so!” Todd was still twenty feet away and behind Tomas. Tomas had never turned his head. “Oh, come on!” Tomas continued. “We’ve lived together since we were freshmen; you think I don’t know your walk by now?”
“And you can read my mind, too?” Todd was astounded. “Anyway, Tomas, what’s bothering you? What’s the deal with this Tom-Tom thing?”
“Sorry, I’m not ready to talk about it. You ought to go back to the party. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be in later.”
“As if! You gonna sit here all night?” Todd asked him. “Could be sort of boring… especially if you aren’t talking!”
“Actually, I wanted to get a little more exercise tonight. You can come along — if you can keep up!” Tomas stood up and walked back toward the middle of campus.
They approached one of the oldest buildings on campus, at four stories tall, with a library on the first three floors and a gym on the top floor. It was a very ornate marble building. Tomas walked right up to the corner of the building and started climbing. He swarmed up the wall almost as fast as he could walk.
Todd shook his head. Tomas must be part cat, or squirrel, or monkey to climb like that. Todd had never done any serious climbing in his life, having never really been interested in climbing things. But he was determined to stay with Tomas tonight. And heck, if Tomas could do it, Todd could at least try.
It turned to be much easier than he had expected. The many decorations carved into the building wall almost made a ladder for him. He reached a big wide ledge that ran all the way around the building, just below the window level on the fourth floor, and found Tomas perched on the ledge, waiting for him.
Todd reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the bag of sandwiches and a pint of whiskey. He used the cap as a shot glass, and knocked back a shot, then began to pour a second shot for Tomas, but Tomas stopped him.
“Sorry, Toddles, but we have to climb back down, too, remember!” he chuckled.
“Not me,” Todd replied in a growl. “I only got up here because it’s so dark, I couldn’t see the ground when I looked down. I’m going through that open window there, and down the stairs. Anyway, what’s bugging you?”
“Well, it’s a long story. If we’re going to take the stairs when we leave, how ’bout that shot, before I start?”
Todd looked at the bottle, then the open window, and then down at the ground, so far below. “Tell you what, let’s go inside before we talk.”