Boxing Is My Passion, My Sanctuary
Boxing in the ring is genuine, but outside it can be harsh, for it has never been all that stringent in its application of scruples or morality…
“You go to an amateur tournament… You get an inner-city, really rough, hard-core black kid, and you get a white kid from Minnesota. Maybe they never even say ‘hi’ to each other all week. But they fight each other, and after the fight, they hug.”—John Scully
“Boxing was on the one hand barbaric, unconscionable, out of place in modern society. But then, so are war, racism, poverty, and pro football. Men died boxing, yet there was nobility in defending oneself.”—Ralph Wiley (“Serenity”)
For me, boxing is far more than a bout between two combatants in a square circle that is entered into with knowledge of deadly risk and anticipation of high reward. Boxing is a visceral experience that has many different directions coming together including the wherewithal for passionate arguments and the witnessing of two men going mano a mano with the hope, but no guarantee, that the third person in the ring knows when the right time comes to save one of them. And sometimes, with tragic results, he doesn’t. Boxing is a loser alone with his thoughts in the dressing room and a winner being hero worshiped by fans as fickle as the weather. It is defeat or victory, nothing more, nothing less, but the difference can break a spirit or generate great confidence.
Boxing is swallowing blood, shaking off the sting of a shot to the jaw, or absorbing a lethal hook to the liver with its deferred and paralyzing painful result. It’s waking up the next morning with the nausea that comes from a dangerously concussive head shot. It’s tough guys like Chacon, “Little Red,” Saad, Jesse James Hughes, Gatti, Irish Micky Ward, and Alvarado.
For some, it’s a hook to the gizzard the genesis of which began in some small town in Mexico. For others, it’s a sledgehammer straight right originating out of Detroit or Kiev; or in a fight for redemption, a Swede’s foot twitching after he is knocked cold by a leaping left hook coming out of the Catskills. For me, it’s identifying with one of my favorites, particularly an underdog, as he overcomes adversity to snatch surprising victory from certain and anticipated defeat. When that happens, it’s my victory as much as it is his and I’m cheering for myself as much as for him. I can’t say it any better than that—that’s the essence, the very core and soul of this thing called boxing. At that point, boxing and I become one. And when the combatants hug with heartfelt emotion at the end, a chill always goes down my spine.
Boxing is Big Gerry Cooney catching Ken Norton in a corner and pummeling him with frightening left hooks, It’s Ray Mercer catching Tommy Morrison with brutal punches rendering him senseless or Gatti knocking out Gamache with a left hook from hell. It’s about Oleg coming back from three KO losses, but it’s also about slick boxers named Mantequilla, Sweet Pea, Pretty Boy, Sugar Ray or Sugar Shane showing new and higher levels of defense, footwork, combinations, and hand speed.
Boxing is watching Micky Ward end a fight at any time using his patented weapon. It’s the Sugar’s: Robinson, Hart, Ramos, Seales, Leonard and Bert. The “Kids”: Paret, Bassey, Meza, Chocolate(s), Gavilan, Akeem, Diamond, Vegas, Muriqi, and the “Rocks” Durando, Graziano, Castellani, Marciano and Rahman. Or the Irishmen: Cooney, Duddy, Quarry, Ward, and who can ever forget that good looking kid out of Tennessee, Irish Billy Collins who was mugged one violent night in New York City. It’s tough Asians like Pancho Villa, Flash Elorde, Fighting Harada and Khaosai Galaxy. It’s Gavilan’s Bolo punch and the flash and pride of Cubans “Kid” Chocolate, “Feo” Rodriguez, “Sugar” Ramos and Jose “Mantequilla” Napoles. It’s the high drama of Argentineans like Locche, Monzon, Galindez, Coggi, Bonavena, and Castro. It’s the grit of the Brits…Schwer, Minter, Graham, Honeyghan, Sibbo, Benn, Eubanks, and Bruno. It’s the nobility and grace of Watson. It’s the underrated Collins and Calzaghe’s perfect record.
And it’s all about the Latino legends and iron-fisted Puerto Ricans like Duran, Chavez, Sanchez, Pedroza, Torres, Gomez, Rosario, Tito and now Cotto, Canelo, Rios, Perro and Garcia. Tough Mexicans like Juan Manuel Marquez who eat nails and spit out blood, but now mix their macho with technique and the result is a killer cocktail. But the blacks still own the sport; great fighters like Robinson, Louis, Moore, Charles, Saddler, Patterson, Liston, Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Holmes, Lewis, Jones, Hagler, Hearns, Mosley, Hopkins, Mayweather, Toney and so many others. Why is Hopkins still fighting; why is he still winning?
But here come fighters from other countries. The Quebecois like Bute, Adonis, and Pascal by way of Haiti and Romania. The mighty Klitschkos, Manny Pacquiao, Donaire, Rigo and they fight as well as anyone, maybe better. Here come the Eastern Europeans. Here comes Lomachenko, Kovalev, Provodnikov and GGG. Here comes excitement.
Boxing is Hearns vs. Hagler in savage and unmitigated non-stop action and Castillo vs. Corrales and Indian Yaqui vs. Saad in quintessential ebb and flow; it’s steamy Philadelphia gyms, Coulon’s, Kronk or Gleason’s; it’s The Forum in LA or some fairgrounds in West Virginia or Ohio. It’s Don Dunphy thrilling listeners during the “Gillette Cavalcade of Sports,” and it’s the Lennons, Johnny Addie, Buffer, Ed Derian-Derian (“who has the scoring and here it is”), Clancy, Cus, Manny, Angelo, Goody, Bimstein, Goldstein, Futch. It’s Teddy, Max, Larry, Harold, and Lampley, and its Al and the Colonel. It’s new stuff like 24/7, Two Days, and Lampley’s Fight Night.
Boxing can be high camp and all about innuendos and nuances; Tami Mauriello, Abe Simon and Tony Galento playing bit roles in On the Waterfront, or Justin Bieber walking in with Floyd Jr.
The sport is both tender and brutal; triumph and tragedy. Some find Jesus, others find the devil. Boxing is watching a “lonely” Larry Holmes walking in to fight a popular Cooney and then taking him out, or watching a disoriented John Tate running away from Trevor Berbick. Boxing is about a warrior mentality that unmistakably demonstrates a willingness to engage in a punch-out, a willingness to take three to get in one, or a hard and tough guy patting his chest and waiving the other guy in as he spits out blood while the crowd rises and roars its approval.
How can a Giuseppe “Joey” LaMotta, brother of Jake, have a record of 32-5-2 (22 KOs), with only one stoppage loss in a career that was only twenty-one months long? How can a Sean O’Grady have 70 professional fights before he was old enough to drink? How can a seventeen-year-old beat Kid Pambelé? Boxing is the sum and substance of those kinds of indelible memories and for those blessed with good recall, it is something to manifest with emotion, passion and conviction.
In the 1950s movie The Harder They Fall, they nailed the dark side of boxing for what it was in those days. Organized Crime controlled big time boxing during the 1930s into the 1950s. The film’s biting screenplay was based on a true story by Budd Schulberg of how the Mob foisted heavyweight champion Primo Carnera on the public during the 1930s. But hell, I was able to blink and get through all that, because boxing, warts and all, provided my safe place. And the 1950s gangster noir part just added more flavor to the mix.
Look, I’ve been there and have seen up close the soulfulness, courage and sportsmanship of Floyd Patterson, the unpredictable excitement that was Bob Satterfield, Rex Layne and Johnny Bratton in the 1950s, the classics between Marciano-Charles-Louis-Walcott. I witnessed the social stratification when Chuck Davey fought Chico Vejar. I saw LaMotta-Robinson, Ward-Gatti, Ward-Green, Ward-Augustus, Ward-Diaz, Ward-Neary, Zale-Graziano; I saw tough, ethnic guys from the ‘50s like Fusari, DeMarco, Durando, Basilio, Giardello, Giambra, Janiro and Miceli.
Who can forget Gene “Silent” Hairston on Gillette’s Friday Night Fights, and Teddy ”Red Top” Davis (who went the distance in 71 out of 73 career defeats)? Who can forget Ali-Frazier, Patterson-Johansson, and Barrera-Morales? I was dumbfounded by the illogic of Hearns putting Duran away with a thunderous straight right, and then Duran beating Barkley who then knocked out Hearns. I watched in disbelief as Martin starched Liston and Bruce Curry and Monroe Brooks exchanged lethal hooks simultaneously. I watched Caveman Lee and John LoCicero go to the very edge in their fifth round in 1981, and who can forget how McClellan and Benn fought with uncommon fury and ferocity and go beyond the edge? These men fought with a total disregard for their well-being, hell, these fights were like reading a James Ellroy novel; they were fast, furious and violent—and some ended like a “Lady Day” song, sad and tragically. BIFF, BAM POW! Boxing is a man’s world, but then came Christy, Laila, Ann; Lucia, and Holly. I even remember Lady Tyger Trimiar and Jackie Tonawanda. Like snowflakes, each one is different.
I went crazy when Jake KO’d Laurent Dauthuille in 1950 only to weep when Giuseppe Antonio Bernardinelli (Joey Maxim) and the heat made Sugar Ray and Ruby Goldstein quit on June 25, 1952 in Yankee Stadium. I cried again, when college boy Chuck Davey beat Rocky Graziano a month later. But then I rejoiced when the great Kid Gavilan took out a brave but finally beaten Davey.
Shavers came back from death to beat to beat a fearsome Roy “Tiger” Williams in a fight that had to be seen to be believed. Paret took seventeen unanswered shots (or maybe it was 23), and Ernie Knox, Laverne Roach, Davey Moore, Kim, Enrico Bertola, Johnny Owens, Jimmy Garcia, Willie Classen, Young Ali, Frankie Campbell, Randie Carver, Stephan Johnson, Bobby Tomasello, Felix “The Hammer” Bwalya, Masatate Tsuji, Miguel “El Huracan” Barrera , Beethoven Scotland, Leavander Johnson, “Pancho” Moncivias, Benjamin Flores, Francisco “Paco” Rodriguez, Frankie Leal and too many others left their lives in the ring. It takes only one punch.
I witnessed the shootouts between Brooks-Curry, Meza-Garza, Ruelas-Gatti, Letterlough-Gonzales, Moorer-Cooper, Lyle-Foreman, Kirkland-Angulo, Rios-Alvarado and the big boppers, Cobb-Shavers-Norton at the end of their careers.
I’ve seen the smashed noses, ridges of scar tissue and deformed ears. I witnessed the slow and frightening slide of Jerry and Mike Quarry, Jimmy Ellis, Bobby Chacon, Jimmy Young, Willie Pep and far too many others. I pray Bobby Quarry will be okay. The early signs were easily detected; the slurring of speech, the nasal monotone, the shuffling. And I find small comfort in knowing that Jerry Quarry is now finally at peace in Shafter Memorial Park twenty miles northwest of Bakersfield with his younger brother Mike, and when I am in California, I make it a point to go there. We don’t much want to talk about it but constant reminders are always there and that’s the dark side, the other, horribly irreversible side of the risk-reward equation. And most boxers are leery of this darker side as well they should be, for this is the one that can lead to that dreaded place called Palookaville from which there is no return.
I prayed for Victor Burgos, Michael Watson, Paul Ingle, Gerald McClellan, Sergei Artemiev and Greg Page and I remember the courage of Robert Wangila and Pedro Alcazar.
Look, I witnessed the epiphany of Foreman and the “what if” and terrible disappointment that was Ricky Womack, Ike Ibeabuchi, Tony Ayala, and Edwin Valero. I’ve been mesmerized by the magic, felt the emotional highs and lows, heard the music and seen the dance.
Someone once said “suicide becomes viable when all other options disappear,” but however one defines or rationalizes suicide, nobody impacted by the deaths of Darren “Daz” Sutherland, Alexis Arguello, Edwin Valero, or Arturo Gatti will ever get over it. Nobody in boxing will ever get over the unnecessary death of the greatly admired Vernon Forrest who was shot several times in the back in Atlanta while chasing robbers. The collateral effect of these tragedies was and remains enormous.
I have seen very good things, some not so good, and some downright horrific. I have seen spitting, biting, butting, slapping, and even kissing. I’ve talked to humble and decent guys like Matthew Saad Muhammad, Alex Ramos, Greg Haugen, John Scully, Micky Ward, Pipino Cuevas, Harry Arroyo, the late Johnny Tapia, Juan Laporte, Ricardo Lopez, the great Galaxy and George Chuvalo. They wouldn’t know what trash talking is if you hit them over the head with it. Oh sure, I’ve been snubbed by others, but just a few, for most boxers are uncommon in their decency, respect and humility and that too is part of the mix.
Boxing for me is also enswell, Vaseline, ointment, ice bags, Q-tips, and duct tape juxtaposed against a sensual confluence of sweat, testosterone, perfume, cheap cigar smoke, and even cheaper after-shave lotion; it’s the sweet smell of success and sour odor of failure. Greasy hot dogs with everything on them, cheesesteak hoagies, onions, oily roasted peppers in brown and leaking paper bags, hot peanuts and buttered popcorn, warm and foamy beer at the Aragon Ballroom, Blue Horizon or the Roxy and frothy mixed drinks and the smell of expensive cologne at the MGM in Las Vegas or at Foxwoods. I was drinking too much soju at Munhwa Gymnasium in Seoul when Chong Pal Park barely beat tough but relatively unknown and talented Bostonian Vinnie Curto for the IBF Super Middleweight Title in 1985.
Boxing is cheering, taunting, chanting, whistling, screaming, clapping and leering at scantily clad round card girls against a backdrop of the periodic screams of winners at a blackjack table or the mindless and never ending sound of slot machines simultaneously providing hope and presenting odds that prevent that hope from ever being fulfilled. The ambience includes pretty blondes, voluptuous Latinos and beautiful black women dressed to the nines; guys with chains worth the price of a new car and clothes and hairstyles to match. Vanity, sycophants, conceit, nepotism, suck-ups are words that come to mind as I look over the occupants of ringside seats, but why not? Narcissism is an essential part of this thing.
There is no political correctness here or “right” way to behave. You either love it or hate it, but if you think it’s a barbarian ritual, you had best tread with caution. Boxing tries to be colorblind, but those behind the scenes often use issues of color and ethnicity as a means to generate more cash. It’s never about hate; it’s always about cash. It is what it is, and in this regard, it should not be taken as seriously as it sometimes is. The “Russians Have Arrived,” will likely be replaced by something else, maybe the “Argentineans Rule,” or “Here Comes the British,” but that’s just the way it is and while the paradigm might change and the normal might become “new” along with a changing business model of more bangs for the buck, the essence of the thing won’t change anytime soon.
Boxing is camaraderie with macho banter and betting. It‘s drinks and maybe a great steak after the fight, a hotel room with TV, friends, Champaign, shrimp cocktails, maybe some poker, expensive cigars, all the right ingredients for another entry into your memory bank. Sure, the fight is the linchpin, but the entire experience is often just as much fun. It all goes together and blends in the mix. And the mix is the essence.
Boxing has a love affair with the world: from Japan to the UK, Germany to Australia; from Canada to the countries of the former Soviet Union, and everywhere in between.
Most of all, boxing is a safe place for me to be without having to worry about how I behave or what I say. It’s the boxers and cornermen who interest me the most. No sycophantic or subservient stuff with them. No fragility or overly sensitive psyches. Hell, boxing is not a meeting of the Rotary and it certainly does not shackle me with corporate handcuffs. Boxing is hardcore. No prissiness or self-righteousness. No phony artifice, no plastic smiles or soft and clammy handshakes; boxing in the ring is genuine, but outside it can be harsh, for it has never been all that stringent in its application of scruples or morality. But hell, boxing is my sanctuary and I love it so.
Like Aesop’s fable of “The Scorpion and the Frog” …. I can’t help myself.