Brandon Berry doesn’t think he’s ready for this fight. He’s almost sure of it, actually, but that’s the thing about grief. Sometimes it makes the decision for you.

“I knew in my mind it wasn’t enough time to get ready. I’d be shortchanging myself to think I could possibly be ready for a fight. Emotions took over, and I said I am fighting,” Berry said. “Would I like another four or six weeks to get ready? Yeah, but I don’t have it. This is what I’ve got.”

Next Saturday at the Portland Expo, Berry will fight for the first time since June 2016. His opponent will be Eric Palmer. It’s a rematch of a fight from Oct. 2014. That time, Berry beat Palmer in a unanimous decision at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee. The West Forks native is recovering from surgery on his left shoulder last April, his third operation on the shoulder since 2015. Two months ago, Berry was cleared by his doctor to resume training, but he wanted to take it slowly. Really make sure the next time he stepped in the ring, he was ready.

Then, tragedy blindsided Berry and plans changed.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 1, Joel Bishop was killed in a single car accident on Route 201 in The Forks. He was 31. Bishop was leaving Berry’s wedding reception, where along with Berry’s older brother Gordon, he was co-best man.

“That’s how close he was. We couldn’t choose. It’s the way it had to be,” Berry said. “Every week that passes, it becomes more real. I don’t know if that’s the word… It’s the longest I’ve ever been since fourth grade without talking to him.”

They met when Berry was in fourth grade and Bishop in sixth, at a Valley basketball state championship game at the Augusta Civic Center. From that day, they were best friends.

“It didn’t take time to become what we were. It was instant. We just hit it off,” Berry said. “Our parents would be yelling at us. ‘You have to get off the phone, guys.’ Our lines would be busy for an hour or two because we’d be talking about stupid stuff.”

The friends loved boxing. When Gordon Berry started training to box, Brandon followed, and Bishop followed soon after.

“He was amazed by it, just like me. My brother was training at the time. We’d just follow him around,” Berry said. “We’d spar and beat the hell out of each other. We didn’t know how to do it, but we did it. Little by little, over the years, we learned…Boxing was probably our biggest passion that we shared, but we had a lot of stuff. We were like almost carbon copies of the same person. We could have a conversation without speaking.”

As an amateur heavyweight, Bishop was 12-2. Berry quickly points out that Bishop took the rematches with each of the fighters who defeated him. Bishop had two professional fights, both draws. Now, Berry watches those fights with the sound down, and he’s convinced his friend won each one.

The morning after his wedding, Berry tried reaching Bishop on his cell phone, but the calls didn’t go through. That was not unusual, Berry said.

“He wasn’t a big phone guy. He didn’t care about social media. His phone would be dead for hours. He didn’t care,” Berry said.

Later that morning, Berry’s father told him, there’d been an accident. There’s a fatality. It was Joel.

Bishop left the wedding reception quietly, Berry said, without saying good-bye. Approximately an hour later, Berry drove that same stretch of road on his way home. It was extremely foggy, he said, and he never saw Bishop’s Toyota Camry off the road. The accident was around 1 a.m. Bishop wasn’t found until shortly after 6 a.m.

“Maybe he put the fog there so I couldn’t see. I mean, there was nothing I could’ve done. I wish we could’ve found him so he didn’t have to sit there,” Berry said.

At first, Berry wanted nothing more to do with boxing. As he grieved, he realized he could fight in his friend’s honor. Berry had T-shirts made, adorned with Bishop’s nickname, Baby Bull. Berry’s days are full of training and last minute shoulder rehab appointments. As the 11th approaches, Berry is cramming for a test. He doesn’t think he has a choice.

“The only way I can explain this is, Joel was able to possess something in boxing that, it kind of goes off the charts. People don’t recognize this because people recognize success through winning titles, money, ripped physiques. Joel had something in him, it’s the type of stuff that I’ve always been a fan of because it’s more realistic for people like he and I. We’re not the most talented guys in the world, but he didn’t know how to go backward. He was a crowd pleasing fighter,” Berry said. “The guys Joel fought, they’d look like Spartans. Thirty or 40 seconds into the fight, they’d realize they were in a hailstorm and couldn’t get out of it… He had such a big heart, and I want people to see that so much. I wanted his success more than my own. I guess that’s why I’m doing this.”

Palmer is a good fighter, Berry said. He’s not boxing a cardboard cutout just to earn a cheap win in memory of his friend.

“I can’t dedicate a fight and have it mean so much to me and know the outcome. So I need to fight somebody like Eric. I know it’s going to be a hard fight. He’s only been knocked out once is his 25 fights, so I’m not going to knock him out. It’s going to go six rounds. It’s going to be a test,” Berry said.

Berry’s left shoulder feels good. His heart does not.

“This is Joel’s send-off for me. I’m going to try, on the 11th, to give him the most attention he’s got in a boxing arena. That’s my goal. It won’t change anything, but I’ll leave there happy to see everybody in the crowd not wearing Team Berry shirts. They’ll be wearing Joel’s shirt. It’s all for him. It’s all I can give him,” Berry said.

When the Portland Expo crowd cheers, it will be for Bishop, Berry said. His voice cracked a little as he spoke, and Berry lowered his voice and head.

“I’m not a wicked spiritual guy, but I know I’m going to feel him. I just know he’s going to be there. Right there,” Berry said.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM