NEW YORK -- He held the check in his hands, a yellow rectangle designating that one Robert Lee Harris, 37-year-old steelworker and father of four, was entitled to $580 for having his head repeatedly sledgehammered until his legs turned to Jell-O and collapsed beneath his body weight.
Lee gratefully took the piece of paper, smiling toward nobody in particular from atop a table in a rear utility room. "Not too great," he sighed. "But it's money. I got paid."
He is now 0-2 in his quirky-yet-all-too-common professional boxing career, one in which he is paid chump change to be a chump -- i.e., the guy who can't possibly win. When Harris stepped inside the ring at the B.B. King Blues Club in Times Square on Wednesday night, it was not to go toe-to-toe with middleweight Phillip Jackson-Benson, the two-time Golden Gloves champion who was making his highly anticipated professional debut. No, it was to quietly, willfully, anonymously get pummeled.
That's what professional boxing "opponents" do.
They enter the ring.
They pray for health.
They get hit.
They shuffle out the back door.
Harris didn't disappoint. A Youngstown, Ohio resident who works days in a factory making steel plates for railroad cars, Harris arrived at LaGuardia Airport early Tuesday afternoon, eagerly snagged $100 in meal money from a DiBella Entertainment representative and was taken to the nearby Clarion Hotel, where $89 per night gets you a room, a bed (Writer's tip: Pull back the comforter), and plenty of time to think about life's quirky nuances. Why, just 1½ years ago Harris had never entered a boxing ring; had never fought on a card on any kind. And now here he was -- a mere seven months after making his debut by getting destroyed by a man named Gary (Spike) O'Sullivan -- preparing for another mugging. He had never seen tape or a scouting report of Benson, but was sorta kinda certain that he might possibly be tall and strong. Indeed, Benson was both -- he scored a TKO midway through the first round with a bevy of combinations that morphed Harris from a slow, predictable, skill-deprived boxer on two feet to a slow, predictable, skill-deprived boxer on his back.
"Why do I do this?" Harris said afterward. "Well, I was going to go to college, but then I met a woman and had my kids. I have child support to pay, and this money goes mainly toward that. So what else am I supposed to do?"
The question -- like Benson's punches -- went unanswered, but the somberness of the scene did not. There are myriad reasons professional boxing has as much remaining life as a Lisa Whelchel film festival, but No. 1 on the list should be this: It is the most callous of industries.
At the same time Lou DiBella, the wealthy overseer of the event (as well as the man who -- not coincidentally -- handles the career of most of the night's favorites), dashed and weaved through the crowd, slapping hands with celebrity guests like Brandon Jacobs and Curtis Stevens, eyeing the ring girls, raising the arms of victorious pugilists, offering up drinks and toasts, basking in his own spotlight, Harris found himself a forgotten man. DiBella never checked on his well-being; never stopped to say "Hey, thanks for doing this"; never offered an extra $100 and a "get home safely." No, Harris was a used sack of old meat, left to rot on his own. After a physician provided one of the lamest exams in the history of medicine ("You were knocked down. Are you OK? Any headaches? Do you have someone with you? OK -- good. Bye."), Harris wandered back toward the ring. He sat in a chair and watched the remaining fights, moving his hands up and down, pretending he was back in the ring; pretending he was a real fighter.
Sadly, reality isn't always real.
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty," which is on sale now. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.