Knockout: How Chronic Illness Tries to Keep Me Down for the Count

I love boxing movies. From Million Dollar Baby (2004) to Raging Bull (1980) to Rocky (1976), all the way back to Champion (1949), The Set-Up (1949), Body and Soul (1947), Knockout (1941), and The Champ (1931), fight films usually contain the basic premises of rags-to-riches, how ego and greed can tempt a man to chase the abuses that come along with success, and a spectacular fall from grace. Rocky stands out among the rest as continuing the narrative of a boxer’s life far past that fall from grace. I love every sequel, even the not-so-good ones.

Each man got his comeuppance

In Knockout (1941), character actor Arthur Kennedy plays the callow up-and-comer. Startling to see him in a leading role, more so to find that his movie career had only begun the year before. It was breathtaking to see a 27-year-old Kennedy, trim and toned in nothing but boxer shorts, with thick hair falling into his eyes and the sweetly dumb grin that kind of character would wear—a far cry from his later more complex roles such as Biff in Death Of a Salesman. Eight years later, he would play a mild-mannered disabled man in a supporting role opposite Kirk Douglas’s aggressive boxer in Champion (1949). Each man in their respective films got his comeuppance in the form of losing the best girl in the world to his self-indulgent dalliances. In Champion the hero’s downfall is tragic and permanent, while in Knockout he gets a chance at redemption. The girl left him but was never more than a block away, waiting for him to realize that love is more important than risking a closed head injury.

I’m in the ring by myself

Unlike a street kid being groomed for the ring, chronic illness acts like a punk that’ll take a swing at me just because and without warning. I’m still scratching my head over what triggers MS to step out of its corner and deliver a sucker punch to my cervical spine. Researchers are doing a lot of head-scratching, too. Since a disease is not a human being with a nervous system and a large brain, we can’t assign it human motives. In the world of MS, acts that seem random, are. Unlike in a boxing match, MS doesn’t play fair. It doesn’t follow any rules, doesn’t stop punching and return to its corner at the sound of the bell. It doesn’t even fight me toe-to-toe so I can at least look the devil in the eye. I have no coach to guide me in when to hammer my opponent’s tender hamstrings or keep opening that cut above the left eye so the blood gushes and blinds him. No, I’m in the ring by myself with an unseen enemy, shadow-boxing a phantom. It seems as though the game is rigged against me, so I might as well throw in the towel. But I never do.

Why don’t I throw in the towel?

Why don’t I? It would end the pummeling, the pain, and like Robert Ryan in The Set Up, give me a brief respite before I hit the showers and limp home through the darkened city streets to a can of vegetable soup and a hamburger warmed on a hot plate in a cut-rate hotel room. I was lucky this time. No deep cuts, no concussion. And closer to getting a shot at being a contender, bringing me closer to achieving my dream.

Keep taking the punches

The dream of freedom. Not the constitutional kind, the physical kind. It’s why I don’t stay down for the count. If I stay on my feet and keep taking the punches, eventually my opponent will get tired. I will see a way in and use my resources to catch it off guard. All it takes is a little nudge. A simple burst of corticosteroids can quiet those inflamed nerves. The intake should begin sometime this week.

In the meantime, I’ll remain vertical and take it on the chin. After all, I’m the hero in my own fight film. I owe it to the audience to hang in a little longer. Just until the credits start rolling.

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