A Boxer’s Second Chance

By Jeffrey Sussman on May 7, 2014
A Boxer’s Second Chance
We walked to a nearby diner and talked about his dreams of becoming a champion.

“He may get you a lot of fights; you may make money out of the deal. But you’ll be all his. He’ll own you, body and soul…”

A man I’ll call Keith (which is not his real name) lived, in the mid-1950s, with his widowed mother in a small, neat house in Ozone Park, Queens. His mother had asked my father to speak with Keith about his ambition to become a boxer. My father let me tag along, for he thought I could learn something from these encounters. We ascended three cement steps leading to a screened-in front porch and were welcomed by a short, lean woman in a beige Jersey dress given shape by a tightly drawn brown belt. She smoked a cigarette and offered my father one from her pack of Camels. He declined, and she then introduced us to Keith. He welcomed us with sturdy handshakes. He stood about 5-foot-9, had broad shoulders and long muscular arms.

“So,” said my father, “your mother tells me that you want to become a boxer. And since I was a friend of Abe Simon and did a little boxing myself, she asked me to speak with you. So tell me, why do you want to become a boxer?”

Keith cracked the knuckles of his right hand, then paused before saying, “It makes me feel good. I like the workouts. I have a good left hook and a powerful right upper cut. And I think that I can earn a good living. If not boxing, then it would have to be a civil service job, and I’m not too keen on that right now. If I don’t make it as a boxer, I can always take the civil service exam and become a fireman or a cop.”

“You might make some money boxing,” agreed my father, “but then again, maybe you won’t. You know your manager and the promoters will take the lion’s share. And there’s a good chance you could get permanently injured. You know my pal Abe suffers headaches from punches to his head. There are others who are punch drunk. They can’t do anything profitable, except basic jobs. You should consider the risks. Being a cop or a fireman has enough risks too, but those aren’t as bad as getting hit on the head hundreds of times. Think about it.”

While having cokes, we talked about Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Graziano, Carmen Basilio, Kid Gavilan, Bobo Olson. We also spoke about baseball, the chances of the Yankees, the Dodgers, the Giants, (all New York teams in those days), the upcoming pennant battles, the attributes of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Duke Snider, and Willie Mays. And then the conversation slowed to a dribble, and after a few minutes, it just evaporated. We stood and shook hands all around.

In the car, my father said: “I’m gonna pick up tickets for the Dodgers; they’ll be playing a home game at Ebbets Field next week.”

“Great!”

During the following weeks, I would occasionally go to the gym where Keith worked out and watch him spar with other middle weights. While setting up an opponent, he would seem casual, almost laid back. And then he would display electrically fast reflexes, two left jabs, a right upper cut, a left hook. A bewildered opponent hugged the canvas looking like a dead man floating

After he showered and dressed, we would walk to a nearby diner and talk about his career, of his dreams of becoming a champ.

He eventually hooked up with a manager who got him some matches in towns and cities in the Midwest. He compiled a pretty good record, lots of knockouts against local tough guys who believed too strongly in their own reputations. Keith’s manager finally brought him back to New York and arranged for an undercard bout in Sunnyside Garden Arena. Keith won by a knockout in one minute of round two. It was an impressive performance. A week after the fight, Keith called my father.

They made a date to meet for lunch at a cafeteria in South Ozone Park, and I asked my father to take me along. We drove to the cafeteria in my father’s new green and beige Oldsmobile ’98. I drummed the dashboard as I listened to Jerry Lee Lewis singing Great Balls of Fire, and imagined it as the soundtrack for a middle weight fight.

I was a little taken aback when I saw Keith’s face. It had changed after just one year of boxing. He had a scar that dissected his left eyebrow, the bridge of his nose was slightly pushed in, and a fold of skin on his left ear was enlarged and puffy. He seemed less of a kid, more of a hardened man, and more subdued than I recalled.

“I’d like your advice,” he said to my father.

“All right. Shoot.”

“My manager introduced me to a guy who claims to be a promoter; he said that if I sign with him, I can get an undercard and then a main bout at the Garden.”

“Who’s the promoter?”

Here, Keith mentioned the name of a notorious gangster.

“He’s bad news. And if you sign with him, that could be it. He may get you a lot of fights; you may make money out of the deal. But you’ll be all his. He’ll own you, body and soul. And once in, you’ll never get out. He won’t let go until your career is over, or until you’re not worth keeping anymore. Then he’ll sell you to some low-life bottom feeder. It’s something you need to think about.”

Keith nodded slowly, then muttered, “Okay.”

“Have you spoken with your mother about this?”

“No. But she spoke with her brother who’s a cop in the city, and he wants me to go to the Academy and join the force.”

“It’s certainly a better alternative than signing your life over to the mob.”

My father died the following year, and Keith came to his funeral. We didn’t speak about Keith’s career. As the years passed, I occasionally thought of Keith, but I never sought him out. I had graduated from college, gotten married and became a father. Then one spring day, I was surprised to hear from Keith. He invited me to meet him for coffee at a diner in lower Manhattan. Once there, I recognized him immediately. His friendly boxer’s face was a little heavier: incipient jowls had formed along his jaw. Thinned grayish red hair receded from a high white forehead. He recognized me as well. “You haven’t changed much since you were fifteen,” he laughed. “A little grayer, a little heavier, but the same sad twinkle in the eyes.”

We talked about bygone years. After my father died, his partner was forced out of their clothing business by a mafia-run union and trucking company. Keith’s mother had died of lung cancer. Keith was now married, had three daughters, one in college, one a nurse, and the youngest still in high school. He and his wife were living in a comfortable ranch house in Nassau County.

“I never got to tell your dad how grateful I was that he convinced me to quit boxing and not sign that contract. If I had, it would have ruined my life.”

“It turned out well for you. My father would have been pleased. He liked you. He said that he saw himself in you. Both of you made smart decisions.”

He smiled and gently punched my right shoulder.


Jeffrey Sussman is the author of ten books and has a marketing/PR company, www.powerpublicity.com.

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  1. Bob 01:49am, 05/08/2014

    Excellent story. Your father sounds like a very decent man who put the interests of fighters first. Keith was lucky to have met him, and wise enough to accept his sage advice. Finally, a boxing story with a happy ending.

  2. peter 04:04pm, 05/07/2014

    Jeffrey, thank you for another wonderful boxing story. But get ready for: “Is this fiction?” or “What was ‘Keith’s’ real name?” So, come clean, Sussman—“Is this fiction?” or “What was ‘Keith’s’ real name?”

  3. Mohummad humza elahi 05:20am, 05/07/2014

    That was a great little story; it’s fascinating that of all the great fighters who made it, there were probably 10 for every 1 that had just as much potential, guts and talent to become a champion but for some reason or other, it doesn’t materialize.

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