The Fight of a Lifetime

Celeste Davidson
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He collapses onto his stool for the sixty-second rest, and like every break period tonight, Joey looks into the first row for her. She'd made herself easy to spot: her flame-colored hair ... Every round, he'd found her—smiling and cheering, even as her smile got more forced as the fight progressed.

Trey Dowell knows a thing or two about fighting the good fight. After going more than a few rounds with rejection, he received a phone call. The kind that every writer dreams of. An editor from Simon & Schuster was interested in his debut novel. The book deal, however, was not quite a "done deal". What he thought would be a formal offer was actually a request for revisions. Not an outright rejection, but still, Trey felt as if the wind had been knocked out of him.
What he didn’t know was that life was about to deal him a bigger blow. A few weeks later, he suffered a heart attack, and underwent open-heart surgery. The recovery took months.
These challenges would have been enough to make anyone step out of the writing arena, but not Trey. More determined than ever, he managed to recuperate and successfully revise his book. The Protectors was published by Simon & Schuster in 2014.
As the winner of our 2022 Romance Anthology contest, Trey’s story, “Fair Fight,” captures his fighting spirit. In it, former boxer Joey Bannon faces the battle of his life. Hospitalized with Covid, this time there is much more on the line than a cash prize and title. Fortunately, he has a mighty love in his corner, his devoted wife Margaret—who is quite a fighter herself.
This story delivers on every level: it transcends the ordinary as each element is developed with thought and skill: and woven into a powerful whole.
Our first glimpse of Margaret is, literally, her reflection in an iPad as she visits the quarantine unit of the hospital where her husband is receiving care.
Margaret nods as she takes the tablet in her wrinkled hands. On the device’s glass surface, her own image stares back:
Gray hair, let down from the bun. Anniversary pearls, straight and shiny. Dabs of concealer over the dark circles.
The lipstick is almost perfect, a minor miracle, considering; she clamps down on the iPad to steady her trembling fingers. The nurse notices the white-knuckled grip.
Trey gives more than a physical description here; he shows Margaret’s state of mind. She is older, dressed with care to please her husband, adorned with a token of their love. A bit of a stickler and self-aware, she’s putting on a good show, but she’s suffering and scared of the battle ahead.
Equally well developed is Joey, as seen through Margaret’s eyes.
Even in a quarantine unit, wearing a hospital gown, with oxygen tubes plugged into his nostrils, every little bit of Joey Bannon makes her smile. The snow-white bushy mustache. The crooked nose, three times broken. The cauliflower ears, bumpy and misshapen from thousands of sparring sessions, giving him an elfish quality she adores. And the eyes, bright blue and still clear, even with all the coughing. The fleshy lids rise at the sight of her, and his mustache curls at the edges.
Joey is the light of Margaret’s life, and she, the light of his. This connection is first introduced through dialogue. As the two converse—perhaps for the last time—we feel like flies on the wall. We’ve heard their voices before. We’ve experienced that intimate, sometimes humorous, back-and-forth particular to deeply entwined people. We’ve felt that tug of love and loss. As his characters talk, Trey begins to develop the trajectory of their story.
“Not…fair,” he rasps, struggling to recover.
“I know, baby. I know.”
Joey clears his throat, then grimaces as he tries to massage the chest pain away. “No, I don’t mean this,” he finally says, gesturing to the oxygen lines and the room around him. “I mean life. It’s not a fair fight, y’know? If life were fair, we’d live it backwards…start with the rough stuff, then work our way back.”
Margaret wipes her eyes, smiles. “We had plenty of rough stuff the whole way through, if I recall.” And this is where things get really interesting, as Trey ventures into bold structural territory for the remainder of the story. First he revisits a pivotal moment in Joey and Margaret’s life, when Joey considers returning to the ring after fifteen years.
She sees it in his face now, though. Longing. Desire. Regret.
She rises, hands at her sides curled halfway to fists. Her chin juts forward and Margaret says only one word.
Margaret is not ready to be a widow. A comeback would be fruitless, if not deadly. All one has to do is revisit Joey’s last fight, which is exactly what Trey delivers next.
From the “clang-clang of a bell” to the “jubilant cheers of a bloodthirsty crowd,” the reader can imagine being in the ring with Joey, or cheering him on alongside Margaret. Not surprisingly, the chaos of the boxing match parallels that of the hospital. Joey is losing. Badly. But he’s not a quitter. And with Margaret by his side, almost anything is possible.
With twenty seconds left, Rodriguez lands the finishing blow—an uppercut that wobbles Joey’s knees. He crumples to the canvas as the referee begins the inevitable ten-count.
But, by the count of eight, Joey Bannon somehow, someway, manages to grab a rope and pull himself to his feet. The crowd around Margaret is going insane—screaming for the champ to go in and finish Joey off, knock him straight out of the ring. But Rodriguez hesitates.
Win or lose, Joey will stay in the fight to the bitter end. His is a preternatural endurance.
He [Rodriguez] looks at Joey in disbelief as the beaten man stands, gloves down, completely unable to defend himself. The referee commands “Box!” but Rodriguez doesn’t move. The champion lets the last ten seconds tick off, allowing Joey to survive until the final bell.
The ringside blow-by-blow commentator says “Bannon’s guts and determination are astounding. He’s earned the champion’s respect! I’ve never seen anything quite like it—”
At his most vulnerable, Joey Bannon has been granted grace.
After this pivotal moment, the story traverses key moments in the couple’s relationship like the inchoate thoughts of a fragile dream state, drifting from a sexual awakening that turns friendship into romance to Joey and Margaret’s first meeting—and playground boxing match—as kids.
And every scene shows the grit and bone-deep connection of this devoted pair.
The story ultimately comes full circle. It's time to call the match.
Ten days after intubation, she gets the message.
Come to the hospital. Nothing else.
There’s no makeup this time, no pearls. Just a ponytail, a sweatshirt, and dread.
Within ten seconds of entering the ICU, Margaret sees the doctor—Joey’s doctor. And recognizes the look on his face.
The end of the story is a knockout, and one that you’ll have to read for yourself, if you haven’t already!
No stranger to the world of competition, Trey’s career actually began with another contest. After some encouragement from a friend, he submitted to his first writing contest—and won. He was so stunned he thought it was a mistake.
The firsts don’t end there. For anyone who may be hesitant to try a new genre, it might surprise you to learn that "Fair Fight" was also Trey’s first time writing romance. You just never know what taking a chance can lead to.
When asked about the inspiration behind the piece, Trey recalled one of his friends, a nurse, telling him horror stories of the early days of Covid. “The worst thing she had to do was hold the iPad for relatives to say goodbye to loved ones because they had to be intubated or they knew they weren’t going to make it,” he said. Trey decided to take this first-hand account and turn it into an inspiring story about the power of love.
The story is impressive in its own right, but even more impressive when you find out Trey has an energetic three-year-old at home. He says “procrastination is the biggest enemy to writing.” His top challenge is one we can all relate to: simply finding the time to write. For him, it’s when his son is napping, or on weekends when he gets a couple of precious hours to himself.
Trey encourages anyone feeling stuck to consider entering a contest. While it may begin as a kind of “forced creativity,” working under an external deadline, he finds it usually turns into “unforced creativity” that gets the words flowing again and reignites your passion.
He also recommends new writers begin with a short story. “Don’t try to write the great American novel right out of the gate,” he says. Instead, treat a short story like training wheels for an entire book. “Learn all the basics you’ll need for a novel, like maintaining reader interest and pulling a reader through a story. If you can do it for 1,000 to 2,000 words, you can do it for 90,000.”
Trey is currently working on finishing his second book, a tale of time travel. He’s eager to once again experience “the rush of completing a novel and getting a publisher excited about it.” Reading Trey’s work, there's a lot to be excited about.
Read Fair Fight

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