My uncle used to have this old, black and white photo that took pride of place above his dinner table. No matter how many times he moved, that photo was always the first thing anyone would see when they walked into his house. There he was, 22 years old, being chaired around a boxing ring in front of thousands of adoring fans, holding the world’s championship above his head. His muscles rippled beneath the bright lights and, even though one of his eyes was swollen shut, he had a look on his face like the whole world was his. Every time I went to see him over the last two decades of his life, he was a little less like the man in the photo, and it made me sad to look at it.
The last place my uncle hung that photo was above a cheap, plastic table in the corner of his hospice room. I always put off visiting him as the end drew closer, because it broke my heart to see such a bright light fading away. There wasn’t much left of him the final time I turned up, but he dragged his bones a little higher in bed when I walked in. He smiled, and for a moment I allowed myself to believe that he knew who I was.
“Hey Champ,” I said, using the only name I’d ever known him by.
“You took your bloody time getting here, Danny,” my uncle wheezed. For the last couple of months of his life, he’d thought everyone was his old manager. The bloke had been in the ground for 30 years, but he was still alive inside Champ’s head.
“Is it time?” he asked me, staring straight into my eyes. “Is it time for me to go out there and whip that bastard, Danny? Is it time for me to take what’s mine?”
They were the ramblings of a dying man. He thought he was back in the 60s, when his body was strong and the world adored him. He truly believed he was about to walk out in front of thousands of people and fight for the title, rather than lying in bed with a catheter strapped to him. At first I played along to keep him happy. His eyes flicked around the room as he waved to imaginary fans. He shook and he threw weak punches at nothing. He ranted about how everyone on the planet was watching. I cried, because it was sad to see him like that. I thought it was pathetic.
What was left of Champ reached out his hand to me. I took it, and as soon as I touched his skin, it was as if a lightning bolt hit me right between the eyes. Everything went silent and everything went white for what seemed like a long time, but was probably less than a second. Then this rumbling started to grow around me, and I soon realised it was the roar of a crowd. Shapes came out of that blinding light, and twisted around until I was standing there in the ring near Champ, surrounded by legions of fans. It was so clear, I was almost overwhelmed by the stench of sweat and blood.
I saw Bobby Calhoun, the former champion, laying in a crumpled heap in the corner of the ring. I saw gorgeous women pushing past security guards to reach the ring. I saw my uncle, lean and mean and wild, surrounded by journalists, waving the title moments after fighting his way into the history books. He seemed like more than a man; he was a living mountain with rockets for arms, and I was utterly in awe of him. In that moment, I saw my uncle’s world, and it was real.
The churning waves of people swept me towards my uncle, until I was thrown against him. The giant of a man demanded awe and respect, and I felt like a child when he took me into his massive arms.
“We did it, Danny,” he wept, and I realised that I was crying, too. I tried to reply, but no words would come out. There was nothing to say. All I could do was join the throng as we hoisted the colossus onto our shoulders and carried him around the ring as he waved his new belt.
Then it all disappeared. It didn’t fade away; one second I was there in the ring with Champ, and the next I was back in a pale green room with the shell of a man. The thousands of admirers were gone, replaced by a handful of photos of friends long lost. The title belt had vanished. The scent of sweat and blood had been swapped for bleach and decay. Champ’s eyes still flicked around and he still threw punches at nothing, but that world was only for him now. I sat there with my uncle for a while, watching his title fight from afar, until he fell asleep and I left.
Champ died less than a week later. When I went to the hospice to say goodbye and collect his few possessions, the nurse told me he’d died with his arms above his head, just like in the old photo. Even in death, he was a winner. The nurse didn’t realise the significance of that, or that it was my uncle in the picture, and wouldn’t have cared if I’d told her.
People and memories and moments don’t disappear, we just lose touch with them. Everything we’ve known and everyone we’ve loved are still there if we can find a way to bridge the gap. At least, that’s what I think. That photo hangs above my dinner table these days, and it makes me happy every time I see it. I know somewhere out there, Champ’s still in that ring, where he’s supposed to be.