60 Blows (Thoughts of a Graying Pugilist)
I thank boxing—it has been my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual journey. But I wonder: Has boxing formed, or deformed, me? Maybe a little bit of both?
This morning I’m thinking about the sad, sudden death of Teofilo Stevenson, the greatest amateur boxer of all time. He was 60.
Well, I turned 60 last week and I can’t say I’m happy about it. I look into the bathroom mirror and I see an old face with a thin gray hair sticking out my left nostril. This saddens me. The gray tufts of hair curling at my temples upset me. My flabby chest and soft gut disgust me.
But when I think about my former sparring partners at Bufano’s Gym in Jersey City—Jimmy Hargroves, a pro middleweight, and “Wildman” Bill Carlson, a pro heavyweight, I realize I don’t have it so bad. They’re dead.
Jimmy died of Sickle Cell and “Wildman” Bill was run down on the New Jersey Turnpike, in 1991, collecting empty beer cans.
Two other sparring partners— Richie Villanueva, a pro welterweight, and middleweight Bobby Kitchner committed suicide.
None of them lived to see 60.
Back in 1971, all of us shared a crazy dream—winning a New York Golden Gloves title. This dream unified us and made our lives meaningful. But our dream quickly became a day-to-day lump in our throats as we nervously trudged up the wooden stairs into the gym to punch each other’s faces. But we stuck with our dream because it was our salvation.
At least for me.
Jimmy, Richie and I made it to the finals that year. Each of us stepped into the ring in Madison Square Garden and fought our hearts out. And each of us lost.
But today, I’m the only one alive to talk about it.
1971 was a tough year in The Gloves. Thousands of angry kids scowling and chewing toothpicks, lined up in The Daily News Building hallway to weigh in. Three of these kids were swarthy Vito Antuofermo, slender Eddie Gregory and big Leroy Jones. All three, later on, became world champions.
But after the 1971 Golden Gloves I quit. I didn’t need my boxing dream anymore. It was a relief to finally quit such a lousy sport. I was sick of getting punched and sick of the stress. I was entering my 20s, soon to leave my dysfunctional family, and boxing had successfully sopped up my anger, hate and rage.
But once I quit boxing, it was like something important was subtracted out of my flesh. My blood never pumped quite as fast. And nothing since has ever seemed so vital.
I’m still boxing. I enroll into Fordham University and the classroom is my new arena. My adjustment into academia is difficult. My little brain is still paleo-mammalian and the anger and rage that were once my strengths as a boxer are now my liability. The muse of violence works in the ring, but not on a college campus.
Quickly, I learn how to hit books instead of people. But it’s a catch up game. After so many years perfecting my left hook and slipping right hands, I must accept the fact that in the classroom arena, I am strictly second string. My untrained brain and stuttering tongue aren’t as potent as my left hook or right uppercut. Getting verbally bitch-slapped by a witty thinker is always a concern.
During the next four years, damp fear hides beneath my armpits. I endure college. I am a retired middleweight quietly hiding in the back seat of classrooms, nervously chewing the inside of my cheek. Each day in class I pray, “Please, don’t call on me.”
While struggling with Spinoza and wrestling with Rousseau, I arrive at a horrible thought: As a boxer, I was physically tough because I was mentally weak. The size of my biceps was really the size of my weakness and fear.
With envy, I watch the flourishing boxing careers of my friends Vito Antuofermo, Eddie Gregory and Leroy Jones. All three are climbing the fistic ladder, enjoying national, and then international, prominence. Vito has already won, defended and lost the European Light Middleweight title in Berlin, Milan and Rome, respectively. Eddie, (now Mustafa Muhammad), has metamorphosed into a frightening light heavyweight contender with a 20-1-1 record. And big Leroy is an undefeated heavyweight, 17-0, with 10 knockouts.
Me? I’m an anonymous 24-year-old student who quietly graduates Fordham with a Communications degree. But what to communicate, or how to communicate, I have no clue.
I fear the white-collar arena awaiting me. College did not help me find confidence. The thought of accepting a white-collar job where I would need to match a colleague’s verbal assaults and dodge a boss’s purple ego in a sterile New York City office terrifies me.
My first job is at a boy’s reformatory in upstate New York. I counsel juvenile delinquents suffering from shell-shocked childhoods, or bad genes. These confused, intricate boys remind me of my dead sparring partners—and me. At this point in their young miserable lives, they’re stuck in their puberty-ness, embracing rage and frenzy. They are strong kids full of weakness.
Unlike Floyd Patterson and Mike Tyson, two other reform school kids, they don’t have boxing to save them.
One March night, sitting in front of a TV set, the boys and I are watching my friend Eddie/Mustafa win the light heavyweight title against Marvin Johnson with an 11th round TKO. I point out the transforming quality of Mustafa’s powerful dream—Mustafa, (a former purse-snatcher on the Long Island Railroad), is now a world champion.
One June afternoon, we watch my friend Vito pound out an ugly decision over Hugo Corro for the WBC and WBA titles. Vito, (a former street thug who once bit a New York City cab driver’s chest so hard his teeth met), is now the middleweight champion of the world.
One August evening, there’s a third transforming dream as we watch Leroy wallop Mike “Hercules” Weaver to win the vacant NABF Heavyweight Title. (Leroy is a high school dropout.)
A purse-snatcher, a thug and a dropout—all world champs!
Where’s my transformative dream?
It arrives in the form of a telephone call at the reformatory.
“Pete Wood?” says a voice.
“You the guy who won The New York Golden Gloves Middleweight Title?”
“Well, I should of won,” I say, “but I lost.”
Hesitation. “What was your record?”
“Fourteen and one,” I say. “Who’s this?”
“I’m Ben Becker, chairman of The United States Committee–Sports for Israel. We’re looking for a middleweight to represent The United States, as first alternate, in the 1977 Maccabiah Games held in Tel Aviv, Israel. Interested?”
“Am I interested!?” I’m 27, nine years out of the ring, and secretly have been flirting with a comeback. This is my chance. I’m in decent shape, only a few pounds over the middleweight limit and I’ve been running, doing push-ups and sit-ups. I still shadowbox in the mirror.
“Sure!” I say, flattered that Mr. Becker still remembers my left hook.
I drive to the training camp in Albany State University to scout the USA boxing squad. But walking onto the campus, I’m confused. I feel more like a college student than a boxer. My rage and anger are gone, dried up at the source, withered and lifeless. Aristotle and Henry Thoreau and Eric Fromm have diluted it for me.
I know I can never match my 18-year-old levels of speed and aggression. A boxing glove isn’t something I want to taste anymore. I am a paper tiger.
I get into my car and drive back to the reformatory. I’m depressed and lost. I realize that a kid who made a big noise in his youth needs to find a new instrument to play.
I’m alone in my room, jabbing out words and punching out paragraphs. My prose is awkward and crablike—like my boxing. At 35, I have a book published called To Swallow A Toad. It’s about a young, unconfident boy shell-shocked by his dysfunctional family. One day he walks into a boxing gym and falls in love. He embraces the training and finds salvation in the ring. His antidote to life is the New York City Golden Gloves.
I’m also writing articles for Ring Magazine, Boxing Illustrated and Commonweal and discover it’s more rewarding to punch out art with a pencil than to thump out anger with a glove.
My 30s is an excellent blend of youth and maturity. My brain is less paleo-mammalian and there’s an emerging sense of emotional stability and a wonderful budding of self-confidence.
I land a job teaching at White Plains High School. Me, becoming an English teacher, is like a criminal returning to the scene of the crime, but I’m enjoying my students and they seem to tolerate me.
Meanwhile, Vito, Mustafa and Leroy are still boxing—but each has long passed his prime and has already lost his title by having been beaten by younger opponents. The long, slow slide down the fistic ladder isn’t pretty.
I begin to wonder about the other amateur boxers who had reached the 1971 finals. What has happened to them? What are they doing now? Was there life after The Gloves?
At 39, I find myself back in a gym sparring. Maybe one more fight, I whisper.
One day, while sparring without headgear, I’m moving with a light heavyweight who nails me. I feel a warm trickle run down my cheek. I’m cut.
In the hospital, I watch the doctor stitch my left eye with a thin black thread resembling a pubic hair. I sense his disapproval—me, a 39-year-old English teacher still sparring.
“Why are you boxing?” he frowns, stitching me up.
I shrug. I must admit, getting cut after a 20-year lay-off is stupid. It’s like getting shot the last day of the war.
There are mornings when I wake up from a reoccurring dream: I’m back in Madison Square Garden…I’m in the dressing room stepping into my green boxing trunks…I’m getting ready for my comeback…I’m stepping into the ring…The bell rings…
In reality, I’m no longer a middleweight—I’m the pudgy heavyweight I swore I’d never become.
I wear relaxed-fit jeans.
But I’m still running and sprinting every other telephone pole—when I’m not injured or when I have the time.
Am I a phantom middleweight stuck in an earlier decade?
One day while shadow boxing on the high school track, I’m offered a job coaching at a boxing gym in White Plains.
I ask myself, “At 44, do I really want to introduce this crazy sport to a whole new generation of confused, angry kids?”
Joyce Carol Oates once said, “For all its shortcomings and danger, the ring is a perfect kind of sanctuary, a precious counter-world to the chaotic world that exists outside of it. The ring is less verbally brutal, less economically unfair and less politically abusive.”
I take the job.
One Monday afternoon a kid walks into my gym. “I wanna fight,” he says.
“Why?” I ask.
“Just do,” he shrugs.
I look into his sad, hungry eyes and I see myself reflected back. He doesn’t talk much, but when he steps into the ring, he moves so sweet.
He’s 22-year-old, a middleweight, a converted southpaw, a former drug addict, and he has the same crazy dream of winning a New York City Golden Gloves title as I had.
That week, our hectic four-month emotional rollercoaster ride begins as he and I start training in earnest. Week after week he beats his opponents—five in all—until he finally reaches the finals in Madison Square Garden.
After three tough rounds, my dear boy finally tames his monkey-mind and wins the middleweight championship title!
Meanwhile, my champion friends—Vito, Mustafa and Leroy—have long retired. Vito’s beautifully-ugly, flat-nosed face, a face that’s been punched lumpy, gets him bit parts on TV, and in shows like The Sopranos. Mustafa has become a top-notch boxing trainer. I don’t know where Leroy is—no one seems to know where he is.
I’ll be 50 soon. There will be no comebacks at 50. Boxing is a young man’s game.
Along with writing articles about retired heavyweight Boone Kirkman and former champion Ernie Terrell, I’m now writing a second book. It’s about a young middleweight who fulfills his old trainer’s crazy dream by winning a Golden Gloves championship.
I think I hate boxing. I suspect boxing is just plain stupid. It’s a brainless sport created for unhappy people. Even the infamous Rubin “Hurricane” Carter agrees with me. He doesn’t watch the fights anymore because he thinks it’s “sort of barbaric.”
But since I’ve invested my entire life to boxing, since boxing has become a pillar of my very existence, it would be stupid to turn my back on it.
I remember when boxing was my best friend—I was 14.
I want to love boxing again but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I try to balance it out—the good and the bad—because there’s still this insane hope in the corner of my heart telling me that boxing is still beautiful.
But I know there comes a time when you have to give things up. There comes a time you have to stop making excuses for such a sad sorry sport. I’m not 14 anymore.
Is boxing childish masculinity?
For four decades I’ve defended this crazy sport by saying sentences like: Boxing is art, or Boxing is a physical chess match, or Boxing is therapy, or Boxing is theology, or George Foreman’s, Boxing is a sport to which all other sports aspire. But I don’t know if I really believe it.
But I can never badmouth such a stupid, atavistic sport, no matter how stupid and filthy it is because I could never have found a better therapy than punching someone’s nose—or getting my own nose punched.
It’s been a long time since I suffered a black eye, a swollen jaw, or starved myself to make weight, or cut my fingernails short so my hands could punch faster.
Memories of my youth ferment in my mind. Nothing I will ever do will be as wild, dangerous, or exciting, or stupid, or crazy, as beating people up.
My heart sweats when I remember the night when boxing, literally, made me sick to my stomach. I was 52, attending a Don King fight card in Madison Square Garden. The main event was a disgusting highway robbery—Andrew Golota was robbed out of a well-deserved win against Chris Byrd. After the pathetic decision, I stormed out, angry and upset. I then spotted a well-known former champ walking down 32nd Street sideways, like a punch-drunk crab. He was unbearably sad to watch, a former great listing from side to side. On the corner, my former sparring partner, a four-time Golden Gloves champ, and former middleweight contender, tapped me on the shoulder. He was only 50, but he was now slurring his words and had only one good eye in his head. What boxing does to the body is frightening. Emotionally nauseated by it all, I escaped into a bar on the northeast corner of 8th Avenue and 32rd Street. I ended up sitting on a toilet bowl, retching with sweat streaming down my face.
It’s very tempting to be discouraged and disconnected from boxing.
I’m glad I quit when I did. But I can’t seem to quit entirely. We have an I-hate-you-don’t-leave-me relationship. Quitting boxing entirely would be like looking out an airplane window and finding the earth had disappeared forever.
So now I’m standing in front of my bathroom mirror. I look at my 60-year-old body. Sure, my chest is much softer than it was at 18. But my 60-year-old brain is much stronger than it was at 18.
I thank boxing—it has been my physical, emotional, mental and spiritual journey. But I wonder: Has boxing formed, or deformed, me?
Maybe a little bit of both?
I look at myself in the mirror. I’m now ready to surrender to 60. There’s a comfort to it because I’m finally learning to be my own best friend rather than my own worst enemy.
That’s when I hear a thin gray voice. “Look at me, I’m talking to you,” it says.
I know that miserable little voice—it’s the gray hair sticking out my left nostril.
“Peter, you’re closer and closer to your death,” it whispers.
With my forefinger and thumb, I pluck him out.
“I’ll be back,” he snivels.
I flick him down the sink. Then I throw a beautiful left hook and an uplifting right uppercut.
(Peter Wood, an English teacher at White Plains High School , is the author of Confessions of a Fighter—Battling Through the Golden Gloves and A Clenched Fist—The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion, two memoirs published by Ringside Books.)