Boxing, Ambiguity, and Certainty

By Robert Mladinich on October 24, 2011
Boxing, Ambiguity, and Certainty
The source of Wood’s unbridled anger as a youngster was an abusive alcoholic stepfather

“Show me a boxer and I’ll show you a kid with an unhappy childhood. It’s always been that way, and it probably will always be that way…”

At first glance Peter Wood looks like just another suburbanite who is much closer to 60 than he is to 50. A longtime English teacher at White Plains High School in Westchester County, New York, his students might find it hard to believe that their admired instructor was a 1971 finalist in the New York City Golden Gloves tournament.

Even if they had read the two semi-autographical books that Wood wrote about boxing, “Confessions of a Fighter: Battling Through the Golden Gloves,” and “A Clenched Fist: The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion,” they would find it unfathomable that the lead characters have so much in common with their seemingly mild-mannered teacher.

The truth is, if not for boxing, Wood would not be a teacher. If he even managed to make it into his 30s alive, he believes that the anger that consumed him like a cancer would have eventually brought about his demise. 

“Show me a boxer and I’ll show you a kid with an unhappy childhood,” said Wood. “It’s always been that way, and it probably will always be that way.”

The source of Wood’s unbridled anger as a youngster was an abusive alcoholic stepfather who physically, mentally and verbally taunted him and his four siblings. And some of the man’s children, Wood’s new step-siblings, had an affinity for torturing and killing cats.

When the man married Wood’s mother, the family’s life was turned upside down. Wood had very fond memories of his birth father, Guy Wood, a noted songwriter responsible for such hits as Frank Sinatra’s “My One and Only,” “Till Then,” which was sung by the Mills Brothers, and Peter’s personal favorite, “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy,” a 1950s hit by both Red Foley and Dinah Shore.

Guy Wood was as much of an old-school songwriter as his teenage son would resemble an old-school fighter. According to Peter, his father’s career immediately ended when the Beatles came to America and changed the sound of music forever.

“When they came along, my father became an overnight anachronism,” he said.

While several of Wood’s siblings have endured much tragedy over the years, he still credits boxing with saving his life and making him the grateful, content and fulfilled man that he is today. He often says that boxing is the best thing that has ever happened to him. At 17 years of age he began training at Bufano’s Gym in Jersey City, and within a year he was tearing through the Golden Gloves scoring one knockout after another.

On the night of his semi-final bout he was matched with the tall and lanky but powerful two-fisted Walter Johnson, who was knocking out everyone he met.

“When I drew Walter Johnson out of the hat in the dressing room I wasn’t too pleased,” Wood recalled, “but at least I didn’t draw the beast named Alexis Griffith, who was diesel and could punch.”

Against Johnson, Wood did what he always did, which was move forward throwing punches from bell to bell. But Johnson was giving as good as he was getting, and the fight quickly developed into the type of barnburner you don’t see in amateur tournaments anymore.

Wood wound up knocking Johnson out in the first round, with what just might be one of the best left hooks ever thrown in the coveted tournament. But rather than exult with joy over his hard-earned and well deserved victory, an angry Wood stalked around the ring like a crazed beast, unwilling to calm down long enough to even have his cornermen take off his gloves.

Having watched his sterling performance many times on You Tube over the years, I always wondered why there was no celebration on his part, why he was so wild, wired and full of fury. He finally set the record straight when I spoke with him last week.

“I woke up that morning feeling a cold coming on,” said Wood. “I had a sore throat and was dragging. By fight time it wasn’t much better, but with all of the other stuff going on I was able to gulp it back down and forget it. In the first round I hit Johnson a few good times, but he didn’t go down like some of my previous opponents. He fought back hard and I got clipped a few times and was on the ropes.”

Being on the ropes was not what bothered Wood. It was his reaction that made him so angry, even after having his hand raised in victory.

“I’m on the ropes and I visualize myself from the audience’s perspective—something I never did before—and I think I look horrible. So I say to myself, ‘Lie down. It’s okay. You’re sick, just lie down.’

“Pretty soon after that, I threw that left hook. So what you’re seeing in the clip is me totally pissed and ashamed at myself for having that weak thought creep into my head. I’d worked so hard and for so long to get where I got, and there I was being my own worst enemy.”

Because Wood had acted up after his previous fight, a second round knockout on Long Island a few days earlier, he recalls the tournament administrators being leery of his antics and warning him about causing any more disruptions. But, he says, the anger that raged within him needed an outlet and if he couldn’t take it out on his opponents, he felt he had no choice but to take it out on himself by acting in a boorish manner. 

Wood would lose a close decision in the finals and go home with silver instead of gold. He went on to attend Fordham University, and because of his Jewish and Irish heritage was selected to represent the United States in the Maccabiah Games in Israel in 1976.

But after graduating from Fordham he realized that the demons that had propelled him to so much success in the ring were gone forever, so he opted to become a schoolteacher instead. He has never regretted his decision. 

“I look back at boxing with both ambiguity and certainty,” said Wood. “I was so full of rage, I had no idea who I was or how to control my emotions. Boxing really helped me; it saved my life by transforming me. If not for boxing, I can’t even imagine the nightmare my life would have become or how long I would have lasted. I don’t even want to think about it.”

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Peter Wood Semi Finals, The Felt Forum, NYC, 1971

Peter Wood vs. Larry Gigliello, The Quarter Finals, The Felt Forum, NYC 1971

1971 NYC Golden Gloves--Peter Wood vs Herb Goings, Middleweight Bout

1971 Golden Gloves Finals -- Peter Wood vs Jose Ventura, held in Madison Square Garden, NYC

Middleweight Peter Wood Shadow Boxing--1980

Peter Wood Chappaqua Library -- Pt.1

Peter Wood Chappaqua Library -- Pt.2

Peter Wood Chappaqua Library -- Pt.3

Peter Wood Chappaqua Library -- Pt.4

Peter Wood Chappaqua Library -- Pt.5

Peter Wood Chappaqua Library -- Pt.6

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  1. bikermike 08:08pm, 04/06/2014

    Robert Mladinich has outlined the principles of the PAL Program…..and I bless him for his efforts
    It’s hard to keep a club up and running….with things being the way they are..God Bless

  2. mikecasey 01:05am, 10/25/2011

    A cracking good and inspirational story without being at all maudlin or mawkish. Nicely done, Robert.

  3. pugknows 12:06am, 10/25/2011

    This is the kind of piece that goes beyond the boxing story and picks up on the human aspects of the sport/business. Totally enjoyable read.

  4. The Thresher 04:17pm, 10/24/2011

    Love you, Bob.

  5. Bob Mladinich 04:10pm, 10/24/2011

    The Thresher: You have a lot of soul. You remind me of the referee Marty Sammon. There should be more like you in this world.

  6. The Thresher 04:07pm, 10/24/2011

    Kind of reminds me of Guy “The Rock” Casele. At some point those demons are gone. Too bad this can’t happen for real combat veterans. Maybe there is something in there that can be learned by those who continue to suffer.

  7. The Thresher 04:03pm, 10/24/2011

    “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy,” Holey hell. my sister and I used to sing this all the time.

    Robert, you remain one of my favorite writers and this wonderful piece is witness to that fact. Keep ‘em coming, good buddy.

  8. "Old Yank" Schneider 03:27pm, 10/24/2011

    Great feel to this piece.