Airman's Fighting Spirit: "I'm Going to Win"

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- A tall figure steps out of a car in front of the Sorenson Center, a shining new complex tucked away behind all of the construction and longstanding buildings in downtown Salt Lake City. His confidence exudes with every step, even after making the four-hour drive.

He meets with the doctor to do a check-over to ensure he is safe to fight. The doctor asks him how the evening's match will go; he replies, "I'm going to win."

This is Senior Airman Martin E. Bills III, a response force leader with the 366th Security Forces Squadron and a new member of the All Air Force Boxing Team.

Although he may sound arrogant, he has earned his confidence. He's paid his dues in the gym hitting the heavy bag for hours upon hours, putting himself through three-a-days and maintaining a strict diet. While others may only do seven rounds with the bag, he describes days where he went twenty rounds or more, leaving the gym long after everyone else.

He credits his dedication for making it this far.

"Hard work beats talent any day," Bills said.

After weighing-in, the wait begins. He's the first in the gym. The lights highlight the ring where he'll be fighting in three hours. The musty smell of old sweat fills the air. He stares at the ring as if watching his fight play out in front of him.

As a child, Bills had his struggles. He recalled a few different fights he was in, but one really stands out.

When he was 12 or 13, a group of kids--whom he thought were his friends--invited him to go play in the creek by his house. Little did he know their intentions weren't to play, but to jump him. The scar on his elbow is an eternal reminder of how helpless he felt that day.

"I was thinking in my head, 'I need to learn how to fight,'" he said.

Back at the Sorenson Center, onlookers began filing in to watch the series of matches that evening. While all the other fighters pace back and forth, Bills remains calm and collected. He sits down, listening to music to clear his mind.

"I'm anxious," he said. "I need to stay loose and focus on relaxing my body, not tensing up before the fight."

After watching the first few fights he changes into his trunks and jersey. He searches for the trainer who will be in his corner, a local in Salt Lake City to whom he had spoken to once or twice on the phone the week prior but has never before seen in person.

Long distance coaching and coordination is a hallmark of his time with the team. The coaching didn't come immediately though, they were going to wait until next year to bring him on-board since he wasn't a registered fighter and had never been in a match.

Despite the temporary rejection Bills remained positive. He received a phone call shortly after from Coach Osmar Alaniz who said they were going to bring him down to San Antonio and see what he could do.

"I needed to stay positive," he said. "I needed to believe that I was going to make the team."

The first day in San Antonio, Bills proved his worth and shocked the coach. He stepped into the ring with one of the seasoned members of the boxing team and held his own. He traded punch after punch with his sparring partner until the coach ended the fight.

His sparring partner, a team member, told the coach that Bills had heart and needed to be on the team.

"I made the team!" he exclaimed.

Having his Air Force coach thousands of miles away he relies on other trainers in various cities to be in his corner when he visits.

Navigating his way through the crowd he finds the trainer to have his hands taped. While taping his hands the trainer asks how he thinks the fight will turn out. Once again he replies, "I'm going to win."

After getting taped, he is checked by the referee with only minutes until his fight. He finds a place to separate himself from the crowd, a place with no distractions. In a deserted corner of the gym, he begins shadow boxing and working on moving around the ring, stepping side to side to loosen up before the fight.

It's time.

The announcer's voice echoes throughout the gym; Bills and his opponent are the next fight.

The crowd roars. His opponent is a well-known fighter of the area. Only a few members from his base made the drive to cheer for him; the rest of the crowd clearly wants his opponent to win.

The struggle of making a name for himself is nothing new to Bills.

When he first started getting serious about boxing he traveled to a gym in Boise, Idaho, but shortly after starting there he realized he couldn't commit to the amount of time the coaches wished he could. After having to miss numerous practices due to his work schedule he received a text message from the coaches at the gym.

"They said I wasn't the image they wanted to portray at their gym," Bills said.

His time in the Boise gym has long passed and a new challenge faces him.

Weaving through the crowd, he makes his way to the blood-stained ring.

He stares down his opponent as they touch gloves. His opponent stares back, Bills knows it's going to be a tough fight.

The bell rings; round one is underway.

Bills comes out with a flurry of punches. He pushes his opponent into the corner delivering a variety of combinations to the body and head, silencing the crowd.

His opponent flips the script about half-way through the round and begins countering his punches. With every punch his opponent lands the cheers from the crowd grow louder and louder. By the end of the first round he begins slowing down. The bell rings, the first round is over-- finally a moment to breathe.

He makes it back to the corner where his coach awaits him with the stool and water. He sits down and takes a few swigs of water while listening to the advice of his coach.

"You have to slow down," his coach said.

Bills clears his head, focusing on what the next round will bring. He wants to win--he wants to honor his family, especially his father, Everett Bills.

"I was about to deploy," Bills said with sadness in his voice, recalling the time when he received a call from his dad saying, "I'm dying."

He caught the first plane home to spend the last moments with his father, but he was too late.

"As soon as I landed my father passed," he said. "I didn't even get a chance to see him."

He explained that when he came home, he was drinking every night then waking up to go running every morning to try and work through the pain he felt.

"I was bad," he said. "I was down; I really wasn't feeling boxing."

Meanwhile, his mother and siblings grieved in their own ways. His father's retirement benefits, something his mother relied on to survive, dried up.

Watching his family fall apart, he realized he was being selfish.

"I'm not the only person who is hurting. My brother and sister are hurting, and my mom's hurting," Bills said.

With this realization, he began boxing again, leaving the alcohol and self-pity behind for good.

"Every time I box, every time I fight, every time I train, I just think, 'how am I going to make a better life for not only me but my family,'" he said.

The bell sounds out in the boxing ring; it was time for round two.

He begins the second round at a much slower pace; exhaustion has already set in. His opponent attacks; a lightning-fast punch flies in from the left, stunning him. The ref stops the fight to look over Bills and make sure he's able to carry on. He glares across the ring at his opponent, waiting for the ref to clear him to continue.

"I knew at that point I was down in points in the match," he said. "I gotta come out strong and recover."

The fight isn't going well, but he's come too far to give up now. He's not going to roll over.

Sounds of the crowd cheering fill the air.

With the odds against him in the third and final round he comes out strong. Countering his opponents punches with combinations, jabs and hooks to the body.

After nine long minutes, the fight comes to an end. The crowd roars in approval.

Then, a silence falls over the gymnasium; the crowd awaits the reading of the judges' score cards, declaring the winner.

"Juan Higuera."

The look of defeat flashes across Bills' face.

"I came out too strong in the first round," he said.

It wasn't a complete loss though; what he took from this fight will help him better prepare for the next one.

"I take this as a learning lesson," he said. "It's good facing guys that are better than me or more experienced than me; that makes me better."

Although this fight will go down as a loss, his spirit remains strong. He's more determined than ever to come out victorious in his next fight with the Air Force Boxing Team.

"I've already put this fight behind me and started preparing for the next one," he said.