Peter Wood: What His Soul Wants to Say

By Robert Mladinich on April 10, 2017
Peter Wood: What His Soul Wants to Say
If not for boxing, there is little doubt that Wood would be just another grim statistic.

He freely talks about boxing, not just as a primal means to an end but also of the myriad of moral and psychological ambiguities that come with it…

The New York Daily News Golden Gloves tournament is about to wrap up its 90th year with the finals scheduled for later this month. Sometimes the stories outside the ring rival the drama inside it.

Back in February, Peter Wood, a hard-punching middleweight finalist in the 1971 tournament, was invited to an event at the New York Athletic Club. His hosts were attorneys Gary Peterson, who is on the nominating committee for the upscale club, and Gerald Richman, who practices in Washington, D.C. 

The three had known each other since early childhood, but by the time they entered high school they were on far different tracts. They were reunited briefly several months ago at a high school reunion, and the bonds of friendship that were forged in elementary school more than a half century earlier were rekindled.

“I got a call from Gary inviting me to the event, and telling me he wanted to have me introduced in the ring,” said Wood, who, despite being in his early sixties, looks like he still go a brisk three rounds.

Asked what it was like to be introduced in the ring, Wood said, “It was wonderful to be remembered as a boxer. I don’t want to dwell on something that happened in 1971, but for that one night it was like a last wisp of glory. It was really nice to be recognized.”

Although the trio went on disparate paths, as is often the case they actually had a lot more in common than they might have thought all those years ago.

“I always admired their academic prowess, and they admired my athletic prowess,” said Wood.

“They were on the academic A-team, while I was on the athletic A-team,” he added. “They got acknowledged for their accomplishments in the classroom, while I was recognized for playing baseball, football — and boxing.”

Wood, who endured a challenging childhood, has always maintained that boxing saved his life, but got chills when he learned decades later how important his success in the ring was to so many students at Northern Valley Regional High School in Demarest, New Jersey.

Peterson and Richman told him that the entire school was “abuzz” on the days he was scheduled to fight.

As if the fact that he was fighting was not enough, Wood made it to the finals with a series of dramatic knockouts that generated even more excitement.

“Back then I didn’t want to use my brain, I just wanted to fight with my body,” said Wood. “I was full of rage that I did not think anyone else could understand. Boxing helped me understand the rage, and taught me how to control it — and eventually overcome it.”

Peterson reminded Wood of one tough childhood lesson that came on the football field rather than in the boxing ring or gym.

While being coached by the legendary coach Dom Sgro, who had once played under Vince Lombardi, Wood admits to being “self-absorbed” and caring “more about myself than the team.”

“It was a seminal moment for me,” said Wood. “I was acting cocky and the coach pushed me and derisively called me a pretty boy and said ‘you’re in high school now.’ It sounds simple, but those words caved me in, made me humbled and focused and not so selfish. It was a transformative moment.” 

While Wood has great admiration for attorneys, he said he “loves the fact that not many attorneys would be fighters,” but still have the well-deserved stature as “princes of society.”

“If you study hard, you can be an attorney,” said Wood. “You might not be as successful as my friends, but you can call yourself an attorney. The reality is not many people can be fighters. I’m proud that I was a fighter — and I was so proud that these men were embracing me for that all these years later.”

“As an older man, watching the fights from the safety of my seat and observing those around me, I realize that at any age people see a little of themselves when they watch boxing. It is life in its rawest form.”

As a youngster, Wood had three ambitions: He wanted to write a book, he wanted to box, and he wanted to find an outlet for the unbridled rage that burned within him. The source of his anger was an abusive alcoholic stepfather who regularly physically, mentally and verbally abused Wood, his recently deceased brother David and their four step-siblings.

(Wood’s biological father, who he revered, was renowned songwriter Guy Wood, whose credits included “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy,” “My One and Only,” and “Till Then.”)

One time, Wood’s stepfather tried to stab Wood’s mother with a pair of scissors. Like so many youngsters before and after, Wood found the perfect outlet for his rage through boxing. Although he first developed an interest in the Sweet Science at the age of eight, it was not until he was 17 that he began seriously training at Bufano’s Gym in Jersey City.

“Show me a boxer and I’ll show you a kid with an unhappy childhood,” said Wood.

Boxing turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to the young, impressionable Wood. He says it purged him of all of the toxins that threatened to erode him and helped make him the man that he is today.

Although he lost a close decision in the Golden Gloves finals to Jose Ventura, he will always be remembered for the devastating one-punch knockout he scored in the semi-finals. Fighting tactically but ferociously, the always busy Wood knocked a tall, lanky power puncher with a high Afro named Walter Johnson out cold with a sensational left hook.

Wood, who is Jewish and Irish, gave up boxing while training for the Maccabiah Games in Israel in 1976. He attended Fordham University, earned a graduate degree at Ohio State University, and went on to have a fulfilling and enriching 32-year career as an English teacher and athletic coach at White Plains High School in New York. 

Wood brilliantly spoke of his boxing days in his two books, “To Swallow a Toad,” which was later re-released under the title “Confessions of a Fighter: Battling through the Golden Gloves,” and “A Clenched Fist: The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion.”

The always eloquent Wood describes the latter as a blend between “Rocky” and “Up the Down Staircase” as it follows two teenagers trying to navigate the merciless gauntlet of training, sparring and proving themselves in and out of the ring.

What makes Wood so refreshing is his raw emotional honesty. He freely talks about boxing, not just as a primal means to an end but also of the myriad of moral and psychological ambiguities that come with it. Wood often wondered if his quest for violence through boxing was actually making him into a monster not so unlike the source of his rage — his stepfather. 

Not only is Wood a wonderful writer, he is fearless when expressing what his soul wants to say. He crawls into very dark places with the same tenacity in which he threw punches. In sometimes heartbreaking but inspirational detail, he shares the results of those journeys.

If not for boxing, there is little doubt that Wood would be just another grim statistic. The sport gave him the courage, fortitude and determination to move on with a life that seemed destined to end in tragedy.

Now retired from teaching, Wood has recently embarked on a new career as an actor. He recently appeared in the “The Expediter,” an independent film directed by Michael Domino that takes place in a Queens manufacturing plant in 1975.

Wood plays Dicky-Doo, a parts supplier who is selling inferior foreign merchandise to the company. In one scene he and four other businessmen are having a liquid lunch. The names of the characters are Jake Cutter, Camel Driver, Shyster and Beak.

“It was great to be part of an artistic ensemble,” said Wood. “We got to ad lib and we didn’t have to be politically correct. It was a bunch of businessmen sitting around drinking, and then drunkenly carrying on outside. People walking by were transfixed by the filming. It was a refreshing experience.”

Just as refreshing was Wood’s recent night at the fights, not only because it reunited him with old friends but it also “connected the past to the present” in an almost mystical way.

Of particular note to the always astute Wood had nothing to do with the travails that had come as a troubled teenager and young adult.

“Gary and I were in a second-grade talent show,” recalled Wood. “He is the professor and I interview him about Fred Fulton and how he keeps the steam engine going. I asked him the same question I asked him all those years ago, and he responded verbatim.

“It was if no time had passed, that nearly 60 years went by in a flash. For some reason, that conversation filled me with emotion — and more importantly gratitude.

“And to be introduced in the ring — the whole night was a high water moment for me.”

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  1. Matthew 05:08pm, 04/13/2017

    How lucky was I to have had Peter Wood as my Boxing Trainer: Boxing Coach & Life Coach. I was one of the few fighters who did not come from a bad childhood; quite the opposite, actually.  To always be able to say to yourself, that, you had the balls to get into the ring with some guy you don’t know who wants to beat the shit out you will ‘always’ be one of my proudest moments in life. Whether it was sparring at the cage or fighting as an ametuer in Yonkers or Port Chester, Mr. Wood was always in my corner. And he still is to this day.  Your the best Coach.
    Now that you are a fellow actor, I see us working together again.

  2. Bill Angresano 11:43am, 04/13/2017

              When I was in high school with Peter Wood, the “thing” that impressed me about Peter then as now was not even that the “love” of Boxing was similar and completely iconoclastic ,(not alot of serious participants)  but his genuine interest in me as a “underclassman” . Boxing is for many still, a place of refuge (fill in the blanks) tremendous self confidence , personal growth , physical of course and in the often MORE important neglected area of SELF AWARENESS. I suppose in a perfect world , there wouldn’t be the sport of Boxing. There will always be warriors and the need for them. Peter Wood will continue to keep growing , learning and punching in his way. Glad to call him friend.

  3. Jacqueline Goldstein 08:04am, 04/11/2017

    I know Peter Wood as a wonderful writer, and am so inspired to learn how boxing helped him to overcome childhood difficulties. This is a heartwarming piece. So happy that Peter got to share his soul.

  4. peter 11:51am, 04/10/2017

    @ John—I “blew my wad” fighting Mike Gigliello in the quarterfinals, my fight before Walter Johnson. After the Gigliello fight I was unable to walk back to my dressing room. After resting in a chair, I finally made it back to the dressing room where I promptly began dry heaving. I’ll always remember the scared look on Dom Bufano’s face. I think they finally chalked it up to exhaustion. Thanks for remembering!

  5. John McKaie 10:12am, 04/10/2017

    Pete, Didn’t know you were ill when you fought Ventura.  Remember watching the bout and figuring your blew your wad beating Johnson :).  I’m just happy you’ve done so well in your life post boxing competitively.  I’m sure you agree with me that with all the academia we went through after boxing, the most acute education we ever received was through our pugilistic endeavors. Wouldn’t trade a second of it for anything…

  6. peter 09:58am, 04/10/2017

    @ John—Your club that year, the New York City Recreation, was full of amazing talent in the 160-pound division: Jose Ventura, Herb Goings and Walter Johnson. All of them were extremely tough and I was very fortunate to beat two of them. Years later, I met Goings, and he turned out to be a very nice man—a retired bus driver. We sat down at lunch and discovered our many commonalities…Ok, back to 1971! When I knocked out Johnson, it was after a grueling, draining, fight the previous week with a tough nut named Larry Gigliello.  Consequently, I caught the flu bigtime. (I’ve since learned from Gigliello’s recent obituary that I was lucky to beat him because going into our fight he was a veteran of over 71 bouts in the Air force!) When I finally met Ventura in the finals, I had finally recovered from the flu, but hadn’t trained at all. I just needed to recover. After beating both Johnson and Goings, fighting Ventura didn’t scare me. Honestly, it’s the only time I wasn’t scared stepping into the ring.  I guess I needed that fear because I lost a close decision. Ventura fought smart, moved well, and prepared himself for my left hook.  Me? Being sick, I was too concerned about being able to go the distance—if needed. So my plan—my stupid plan—I’d give Ventura the first round, then I’d take the last two. But my numskull plan backfired—it emboldened him. Round two was close and round three I took big. He won. Congratulations. The next year Ventura entered The Pan American Games and lost his first fight.

  7. Evan Marshall 09:40am, 04/10/2017

    Excellent article about a man I feel honored to know and work with. Peter Wood continues to dazzle us with his many talents.

  8. Alan 07:58am, 04/10/2017

    Peter’s recollection of the lines from the second grade talent show kind of presages his latest career on the stage and screen. Seems as if he’s always been a man of words as a teacher and a writer. Also take a look at his visual art, which often features words at its heart.  Multi-talented Pete Wood, a man for all seasons. Thanks for the essay, Robert.

  9. John McKaie 07:46am, 04/10/2017

    Walter Johnson was a towering stablemate of mine who had tremendous talent with the rare combination of a high boxing IQ and one punch knockout power.  Great pro prospect. He struck terror in prospective foes.  He was a lock to be the 160lb novice champ.  He landed a few bombs on Woods and it looked like it was going to be another short night.  It was, but only because Woods unleashed a flurry of bombs that flattened Johnson in the first round.  Never saw Johnson again.

  10. Trinity 06:47am, 04/10/2017

    peter… Damn if I don’t have to bring up Al Pacino again. IF most cops were like Serpico….Only kidding. Bad seeds in every occupation but it seems certain jobs attract the real scum of society. Police officer? Most that I have dealt with were very respectful, professional, and straight shooters. I wouldn’t want to deal with the caca those guys have to put up with day in and day out. But like any occupation, I’m sure there are some bad cops out there.

  11. Michael C. Gwynne 06:32am, 04/10/2017

    An eloquent neighbor and friend. Straight talker and a real “Prince” of a guy. Classy in and out of the ring. His books are one helluva read and an excellent naught into the “sweet science.” How he transmuted that rage into a disciplined life as a teacher who inspired and shaped young minds is a testimony to any and all who are grappling with personal demons.  Glad he’s not mad at me!

  12. peter 06:28am, 04/10/2017

    Trinity, thank you for your stirring, heart-felt comment regarding lawyers. As far as lawyers being “the princes of society”, I merely am quoting a lyric sung by one of Stephen Sondheim’s characters in the Broadway musical, “A Little Night Music”. As far as my own personal feeling about lawyers go, it might be more in line with your feelings—that’s, of course, until I need one. Then, a lawyer, like a policeman, will become my best friend.

  13. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:16am, 04/10/2017

    Off the charts great article here! Danny Aiello got a late start….but not this late….he could be the Grandma Moses of acting! I hope he keeps it up!

  14. Jeffrey Sussman 06:08am, 04/10/2017

    Peter Wood’s life should be studied by anyone who aspires to a career in the ring. He is one of the perceptive writers about boxing, and young boxers would do well to have him as a mentor.

  15. Trinity 05:57am, 04/10/2017

    Arthur Kirkland was the name of the character played by Pacino. IMO, a very underrated movie. Only in REEL life will you find an attorney with that sort of character or morals. It ain’t happening in the REAL world.

  16. Trinity 05:42am, 04/10/2017

    Don’t know if being a “successful” attorney is a good thing or a bad thing. An attorney and/or lawyer ( what the hell is the difference ) is definitely one of the sleaziest of occupations out there, along with politician, judge, and prison guard. An attorney as a “prince of society?” Not happening. I forget the name of the character that Al Pacino played in the movie, “And Justice For All,” but IF you can find a real life attorney who matched up with Pacino’s character, then I would honor them with the title “princes of society.”

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