Here’s a glimpse into the intriguing and captivating world of The Phoenix Project! Chapter six, quoted here below, takes us right into the fighting arena and into the stardom that adorns some of these fighters!
It was fight night again and Raven sat on his bed waiting for the familiar buzz when his cell door would unlock and he could leave and head to the arena. He didn’t want to go – he would have much preferred to stay in his cell, alone, but fights weren’t optional. Raven would leave his cell and when he returned he would have clean sheets and toilet would have been emptied.
He sighed and stood up as he heard the buzz. The mechanical door swung open and he trudged out into the long, cold corridors of Salverford. As he walked towards the arena, he was joined by other prisoners. They were excited and eager, talking in raised voices and laughing at each other’s jokes. Raven bristled with irritation as people barged past him.
He could hear the sound of the arena already. It was like a living thing, the distant rumble of pounding music, the walls and floors vibrating with the sound. The primitive beat of the drums made the prisoners’ adrenaline soar and they became more and more jubilant as they got closer to the arena. As he pushed his way through the doors, he was hit by the deafening noise of prisoners chanting and singing, almost loud enough to drown out the music which blared from the speakers on either side of the stage.
Raven made his way down to the pit, the open space surrounding the ring. Passing through the masses of prisoners, he saw Alexia standing on the far side of the pit, but he ignored her and moved to the back. He looked up at the walls surrounding him, where 10-foot high television screens were showing advertisements and giving pre-match profiles of the fighters.
Public spectators sat in seats around the edge of the pit. After paying an extortionate amount of money, they sat perched behind electric fences and rows of security guards to stop them from having to mix with the prisoners. There had been only one incident in which a prisoner had attempted to attack a spectator. He’d made it as far as a metre in front of the electric fences before he was surrounded by guards. Armed with batons, the guards had battered the prisoner to death right there in the stand. The audience loved every minute of it, but the prisoners learnt a lesson that night – better to die with some dignity in the ring than to be beaten to death by a ring of armed guards. Following that, there was never an attempted outbreak on fight night again.
There was a huge cheer from the pit as one of the fighters, Emerson, emerged and an extravagant introduction was announced. The crowd around Raven were delighted, jumping up and down and cheering. A few moments later, another fighter emerged. Again there was an introduction for the man whose name was Collier, but this time the crowd were more subdued. He was a new fighter and had only been in the prison a few weeks. He hadn’t built up a fan base yet. As he walked up to the ring, Raven saw that he was jittery and nervous. He would probably only last a few minutes. And even if by some miracle he won this fight, how many others could he survive? Nobody in Salverford lasted more than a few fights. Everybody fell eventually.
The two fighters stood opposite each other, prickling with adrenaline. The bell rang and they were instantly upon each other. There was a wild flailing of limbs, both lashing out, frantically trying to land blows before receiving them. Neither of them showed any skill, and as the kicks and punches flew around, it was a sloppy fight. They remained this way, uncontrollably lashing out at each other, neither fighter putting any real power into their hits, for at least five minutes. It was already taking too long and the crowd were getting restless.
The new fighter stood back and heaved a few panicked breaths, and a fresh determination entered his eyes. He focused all of his energy, curled his hands into a fist, and swung a haymaker at his opponent. The blow caught him off guard and he was flung to the ground. The younger man dropped down to his side and grabbed his opponent’s neck tightly with both hands. He squeezed as hard as he could, pushing his thumbs down into the hollow of his throat.
The crowd began to chant, “KILL HIM! KILL HIM! KILL HIM!” Raven could see the man’s hands shaking. He’d obviously never killed before. This man’s crime wasn’t murder, and he didn’t know what to do. Raven could see his lower lip trembling. Even if he survived, he would be emotionally scarred for the rest of his life.
The opponent began to thrash around, batting weakly at the hands that held him. His eyes bulged and he began to make choking sounds, like he was trying to clear his throat. In minutes it was over, and his limp body fell to the floor.
The crowd erupted into euphoria, screaming and shouting. Some people crawled up onto the ring and began to hug the victor and jump up and down around him, expecting him to join in their celebrations, but the fighter just remained there, rooted to the spot, staring in horror at the body of the man he’d just killed.
The jubilations continued and all Raven could see were people cheering and laughing as if this was a happy occasion. He looked towards the stage to see a band setting up their equipment. Why would they be setting up now? The fight was already over. He looked to the backstage door, which was open merely half a metre. He could just make out the band members tuning their equipment. Were they prisoners as well? Raven wasn’t sure.
As they walked by the door, all Raven could see was a flash of darkness. Material and hair indistinguishable from each other. Just a sea of swirling blackness. He’d just catch a patch of white wall behind them before a wave of dark material, hair, clothing would sweep back into his vision. A never-ceasing tide of darkness, swaying like grass in the wind. Then suddenly, a flash of orange-red, bright like a warning sign. He was momentarily taken aback, blinking to adjust his eyes. But it was gone again, the liquid splash of colour dissolving amongst the black bodies once more.
The commentator’s voice broke through into Raven’s thoughts.
“We declare Collier the victor!” There was a huge cheer as somebody lifted the winner’s hand high in the air. “And that was just the warm-up, everybody. Tonight we have a surprise for you. Collier will be fighting again this evening.”
He paused for effect. “And opposing him this evening, we welcome the return of the champion of Salverford…Khan!”
The surprise fight tipped the crowd into a frenzy. Raven looked on in disgust at the writhing crowds encircling him and wished he could escape. Around the arena, images of Khan’s handsome face flashed across the TV screens. There was a detailed profile of the young fighter, accompanied by a montage of his greatest moments in the ring. Raven shuddered to watch it. There was picture after picture of him in masculine poses, video clips of that charming smile in black and white, slow-motion shots of his powerful, defined body mid-battle. It was sickening.
Collier was forgotten by the fickle crowd, his fleeting popularity dismissed. Khan was a superstar. He had been in Salverford for four years and had never lost a fight. He was an invincible killing machine, and he loved his fame. Khan played up to the cameras, the crowd, interviewers, anybody who’d look at him. He was a show business natural. After his flamboyant TV introduction, the band emerged from backstage. The sea of darkness broke out of the back room and flooded out to the microphones and equipment set out before them.
From the corner of his eye, Raven caught the flash of red again. His eyes flicked over to the backstage door to see the singer emerging. She too wore black, a long, flowing dress that trailed behind her like a wedding dress. Her makeup was dark, nails painted black, her eyes masked in shadow. It was her hair that caught Raven’s attention. Long. Red. A waist-length river of fire. It provided a stark contrast to the darkness all around her. Why had he never seen her sing here before? Surely she wasn’t a prisoner – she looked too well-groomed for that, too regal. She advanced to the edge of the stage, bowed to the crowd before her and took her place behind the microphone.
The commentator started a countdown, the crowd shouting and clapping in unison.
“Five, four, three, two, one!”
As the countdown reached its climax, fireworks erupted around the fighter’s entrance. As the smoke cleared, a figure walked out. He was of average height, his body slight, but toned and strong. He made his way to the ring, smiling and waving at the crowd. His mischievous grin endeared the crowds instantly. He wasn’t surly or emotional as many of the contenders were. He existed to entertain others.
Collier was still standing dumbstruck against the rope, barely noticing that to his right, the body of his previous opponent was being clumsily dragged away. Khan made his way past his adoring fans and stepped up to the ring. He ducked under the rope and confidently strolled up to Collier, who visibly stiffened with fear.
He may have only been here a few weeks, but he knew about Khan. Everybody knew about Khan. In the outside world, Khan was the idol the teenage girls had posters of. He was the man on all the fitness magazine covers, who men everywhere wanted to be like. Some people had even said that it would be worth getting sent to Salverford just to meet him. Of course they were delusional. Khan may have been a prisoner, but he didn’t mix with the rest of the inmates. He lived in Emerald Tower. Outside of the ring, nobody saw him. He’d occasionally join them in the dining hall. It was like community service; he had to be seen mixing with the others sometimes to keep his public image positive, but he was always surrounded by guards.
Khan swaggered up to Collier, stopped a metre away and grinned a malicious smirk. Collier was still frozen, rooted to the spot. The referee joined them in the ring and the commentary began.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Let the show begin!”
The band kicked in. The sounds of snarling industrial metal reverberated around the stadium. The band members thrashed their instruments furiously. The red-haired singer stood at the edge of the stage, clutching her microphone in her left hand, looking down at the floor. The music continued and she lifted her head, raised the microphone to her mouth and began to sing. It was beautiful. Strong and powerful, her potent voice echoed over the growl of the music. She poured her heart into her singing and the effect was mesmerising. Primal and enchanting. The crowd were jumping up and down, dancing and enjoying the beat of the music. Raven doubted that many of the people there could see the beauty in her singing.
Khan smiled and closed his eyes as the music echoed around the arena. If there was one thing he loved more than fame, it was music. The music resonated around his soul and spurred him on to fight harder and faster. He took a few more seconds to let the music wash over him, licking his lips as if he could taste the powerful beats. He opened his eyes. He was ready.
He took a few steps back to his starting position. Collier, still stunned with fear, was jostled forward by the referee into his own place. The crowd started a rhythmic chant, “Khan! Khan! Khan!” He gave a charming sideways grin at the girls in the front row of the pit.
The bell rang.
Khan didn’t move; he just stood in front of Collier, a smile spreading across his lips. Collier’s eyes widened. With lightning speed Khan’s leg swept out in a wide, graceful arc, connecting sharply with Collier’s knee. He was thrown off balance and landed heavily on his back, forcing the breath from his lungs.
Panic flooded his mind and he gasped for air, choking. Collier pulled himself together and rolled over onto his knees. He staggered to his feet and stumbled away from Khan. He tripped into the rope surrounding the ring. As he fell onto the cord, he looked into the eyes of the crowd before him. They grinned back at him, watching in pleasure at his horror. He tried, crying now, to stretch out his hand for help. The tears rolled down his young cheeks as a man in the crowd batted his hand away. Collier knew Khan was behind him, knew he was approaching. He didn’t dare look over his shoulder. The kick came swiftly, slamming forcefully into the bottom of his spine with great precision.
Nausea and disgust washed over Raven. Collier’s plight was breaking his heart. To have the chance of life so brutally ripped away from him, only minutes after escaping the jaws of death. It was too cruel…
Despite the deafening music, Raven thought he heard the crack as Collier was paralysed. Khan turned away from the weeping Collier and signalled to the crowd, raising his arms in the air in a display of victory. The masses roared with pleasure. He flashed his trademark smile and turned back to Collier.
Khan leant down close to Collier’s face and whispered something in his ear. It was inaudible to all except Collier, whose eyes widened as he heard the words. Khan leapt up and looked back down on his victim, and for a moment there was a hint of pity in his eyes. The moment passed as Khan delivered a quick, powerful kick to Collier’s temple. Raven watched in dismay as he saw Collier screw his face up in anticipation of the kick. As the foot connected with his head, he gasped loudly. It was the last sound he ever made.
Khan smirked and walked to the edge of the ring. He leant over the rope to reach down and kiss the hands of his fans. He passed under the rope and walked into the crowds, people gathering around him to shake his hand. There was a surge as people at the back pushed to get within touching distance of their hero. Raven stood at the back, shaking with repugnance at what he’d just witnessed. People pushed by him roughly and he began to swell with anger and loathing.
Khan was only in the crowd for moments before security came to clear people away and escort him back to Emerald Tower. As he was taken out, the music came to an end, finishing with a loud squeal of guitars. The band members came to the edge of the stage, taking a bow in unison as the crowd cheered and applauded. The band members seemed pleased that Khan had fought well and their song had been a success. Raven glared at them, searching for some hint of humanity in their eyes. He found none, not even in the beautiful red-headed girl.
That was when he saw it: a barely noticeable trace of sadness in her eyes. In the way they flicked to the floor and then immediately snapped back up to look at the faces of the crowd. Raven remained transfixed on her eyes, searching again for a shadow of regret, pity, guilt.
He was still searching her eyes when, from behind the crowd, there came a mechanical grinding sound as the enormous metal doors swung open. The guards began herding the prisoners back to their cells.