Short Stories

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Tomato Can Blues

This short story was originally published on the New York Times: Tomato Can Blues

Scott DiPonio raced to make sure everything was in order — the fighters were ready, the ring girls were on time and the Bud Light was cold.

DiPonio was a local promoter who organized amateur cage fights that looked more like barroom brawls than glitzy Las Vegas bouts. With a mix of grit, sweat and blood, the fights had caught on in rural Michigan, and DiPonio’s Feb. 2 event, called Caged Aggression, drew hundreds of fans, even with cage-side seats going for $35.

Charlie Rowan, an undistinguished heavyweight, was scheduled to fight that night at Streeters, a dank nightclub that hosted cage fights in Traverse City.

Rowan’s cage name was Freight Train, but he was more like a caboose — plodding and slow, a bruiser whose job was to fill out the ring and get knocked down.

He was what the boxing world used to call a “tomato can.” Where the term comes from is unclear, but perhaps it’s as simple as this: knock a tomato can over, and red stuff spills out.

Rowan certainly wasn’t in it for the money. He was an amateur who loved fighting so much he did it for free.

An hour before the Caged Aggression fights began, DiPonio’s cellphone rang. It was Rowan’s girlfriend, so frantic she could hardly get the words out, DiPonio said. He asked her to take a deep breath, and, on the verge of tears, she told him that Rowan had crashed his car. He was being airlifted to a hospital. It didn’t look good.

“He was a horrible fighter,” said a local competitor. “he just showed up and wouldfight.”

Two days later, DiPonio said, she called back. Rowan, only 25 years old, was dead.

DiPonio drove for two hours from Traverse City to Gladwin for a makeshift memorial at the home of Rowan’s girlfriend. Rowan’s mother sat in the living room, quietly weeping.

DiPonio and other promoters planned a string of benefits for the Rowan family, including one called the Fight for Charlie. The fighters were enemies in the cage, but they pulled together to help one of their own. A heavyweight who had once knocked out Rowan in fewer than 90 seconds agreed to work as a judge at the largest benefit.

The benefit took place March 9. Ring girls sold raffle tickets to a crowd of about 1,000. A young fighter declared from the cage that he was dedicating his bout to Rowan’s memory.

“Thank you for helping us raise money for Charlie Rowan’s family,” a promoter wrote on Facebook after one of the benefits. “Thank you for letting it all out in the cage for us.” He added that Rowan was “there with us in spirit and would have been very proud of all of you!”

Less than two weeks later, a Gladwin gun store was robbed.

When Scott DiPonio, the fight promoter, saw the suspect’s mug shot on the next day’s news, his stomach dropped. It was the late Charlie Rowan, back from the dead.

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