Peter Wood: What His Soul Wants to Say
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.”