Two Fighters Meet After 44 Years

By Peter Weston Wood on October 19, 2015
Two Fighters Meet After 44 Years
Herb Goings and I seem to have cleansed ourselves of our aggression, anger and hate.

“I thought you’d be a construction worker or something,” he says. “Not a teacher! Hey, it’s great to see you doing good. Not all of us are…”

My index finger slides down the page of the New York City phone book. It stops on “Herbert Goings.” It says there’s a “Herbert Goings” on 215 Madison Avenue. Is this my Herb Goings? I doubt it.

Forty-four years ago my Herb Goings was a tough, black thug from Harlem knocking out opponents in the 1971 NYC Golden Gloves. He had a God-given killer instinct.

Then we drew our names out of a hat and we fought each other.

I knocked him down three times and copped a three-round decision. I’m now 61 and he’s 67. How would he react if I called him up and he heard my name? Would he even remember me?

I pick up the phone and punch in his number. It’s a long shot. My Herb Goings, a former pug, living on Madison Avenue?

“Hello?” answers a gruff voice.

“Herb Goings?”

“Who is this?”

“Is this Herb Goings? The former fighter?”

“Who’s this?” repeats the voice.

Already we are sparring. “Did you fight in the 1971 Golden Gloves?”

“Where’d you get this number?” he counters.

“Are you Herb Goings?” I repeat.

“Who’re you?”

“Pete Wood.”

“Pete Wood?” I hear him gasp. “How the hell are ya?”

Eventually he lets his guard down and we reminisce our fight. Herb was destroying every opponent that year in the 160-pound novice division. No one wanted to face him. Especially me. Just looking at his muscular shoulders and chiseled biceps made me nauseous. But since we were both 5’8”and 163 pounds we were matched.

That night, in a 20-by-20 foot ring, I knocked him down three times and advanced to the quarterfinals in The Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden.

“Man, you threw a wicked left hook!” he chuckles. “You knocked me down in the first. Only time I ever be dropped!”

“You scared the hell outta me!” I say, evening it out. I’m tempted to correct his “only time,” but don’t.

We’re embracing each other, this time, with laughter. There’s not a mean bone in his voice. We are no longer angry kids punching people. I learn Herb is now a New York City bus driver, a vegetarian, swims laps every day and has attained a 5th degree black belt in karate. He’s engaged to a woman from Tanzania and is learning Swahili. His son attends Fordham Prep. As I listen to Herb’s voice on the phone, I can almost smell his onion breath, as we stood toe-to-toe during the ref’s instructions before our fight forty four years ago.

I tell him I’m now teaching English at White Plains High School. I’m happily married and have one beautiful 19-year-old daughter who’s attending Bowdoin College. My wife is from Guangzhou, China, and even though I am not learning the language I know a few words and phrases: watermelon; thank you; I love you. Herb and I seem to have cleansed ourselves of our aggression, anger and hate.

Cleansed of anger and hate? Was The New York City Golden Gloves the cathartic experience it claimed to be? Was The Golden Gloves a form of hospital? Or sanatorium? Is encouraging a kid to spew out three rounds of aggression, anger and hate onto someone’s face therapy? Isn’t boxing, in truth, a sickness called sport? Isn’t boxing tidy violence? Yes.

But boxing is also artistic violence. Violent art. It allowed me — with left hooks and right crosses — to be an inspired Jackson Pollack swinging and spewing punches on a different canvas.

I hope Herb Goings is no longer punching the world. Whatever his problem was then, I hope boxing has helped him punch it out.

Is boxing healing? Are boxers physicians to each other?

Herb was born in Hell’s Kitchen and raised in Harlem. After quitting boxing at 28, he adopted the Hebrew faith. “The first Jews were black,” he claims. “I’m not a Negro, a pickaninny, a black or an African American; I’m Hebrew. Judaism isn’t a race. Moses, Abraham and Noah were black. My two sons, Solomon and Joshua, are Hebrew. Too many black boys lack role models. Michael Jordan and Jesse Jackson aren’t role models; they’re figureheads. Black kids need homegrown male figures in their lives.”

“Elephants is an analogy,” he states. “In Africa there was once a large herd where all of the mature elephants were captured or killed. When the younger bulls took over they be killing each other and the herd was in danger of extinction until older bulls were adopted from The Serengeti and India. It worked. The older elephants calmed the younger ones down.”

I’m only an English teacher, not a psychologist, but I sense a connection with Herb’s thinking — his elephant analogy, his adopted religion, and his boxing all seem to be a searching for personal stability and meaning.

After boxing, my quest for stability and meaning led me, at 32, to write “To Swallow a Toad.” Research suggests that writing about emotional upheaval in one’s life increases physical and psychological health. Writing, indeed, grounded me. Jabbing out words and punching out paragraphs helped scrub out the residual sadness and anger boxing had missed. In my novel, my Herb Goings is “Jamal Green,” a violent street thug, a loud-mouthed Black Muslim who vows to “kill my white ass.”

“I’m in your book?” he murmurs with disbelief. “What’s the title?”

“To Swallow a Toad.”

“How do you spell Swallow?” he asks, writing it down.

Hey, I have spelling problems, too. Spelling the words “grammar,” “attendance” and “schedule” is always a dilemma — and I’m the English teacher.

                                                                * * *

We agree to eat lunch in White Plains. We’ll meet on Mamaroneck Avenue in front of the YMCA. He knows a good Japanese restaurant in the area. Before I hang up, I tell him I’ll bring along something extra special; a videotape of our bout. “No way!” he shouts. Once again, he’s floored. After 44 years, Herb will relive a precious morsel of his youth: our three-round fight.

Unfortunately, he’ll rediscover he was knocked down three times.

                                                                * * *

What did I get myself into? Herb is standing in front of the YMCA at 12:00 sharp. Is that a scowl or smile on his face? He’s wearing a black leather jacket, black shirt, black pants and black shoes. In his hand is my book. Is he angry at the perceived slight at being named Jamal Green? Is he still a raging bull harboring a grudge? Is he thinking rematch?

I walk closer and am pleased to spot a smile in his eyes. We embrace. We’re Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. Muhammad Ali and Jerry Quarry.

Once inside the restaurant, he plants his muscular elbows on the table and orders miso soup and steamed vegetables. He has a bullet-bald head and his nose is slightly bent to the right. On his left forearm is a tattoo: “Born to Raise Hell.” On his right forearm is a nasty 12-inch scar.

“I’m sorry if I was rude over the phone,” he grins. “I thought you was a bill collector.” He looks me over and adds, “How much you weigh?”

“One-seventy-eight. You?” I counter.


“I thought you’d be a construction worker or something,” he says. “Not a teacher! Hey, it’s great to see you doing good. Not all of us are.”

Our life stories gush out. We’re two small men — an inner-city bus driver and a suburban schoolteacher — two little success stories — spilling our guts. During our meal, I sense we are both gentle souls yearning to discover commonalities and be at peace with each other. I sense our minds, for years, have been saturated and pickled by years of sensational tabloid headlines and scandalous news. I sense we long to transcend our racially-charged society and find harmony, a shared sense of humanity. We tiptoe around difficult areas, like politics and race. We bob and weave around the “Black Lives Matter” and the upcoming presidential election. Is this timid shadowboxing typical of all first meetings?

He tells me about his morning bus route, the BMX 18 Express, connecting Riverdale with Wall Street. He’s been driving it for years. “I always keep my passengers positive. I’m always chatting with them. If they come in frowning, I leave them smiling. If it’s raining, I always tell them “Don’t let a little water ruin your day.”

He sips soup and asks, “So, what’s “To Swallow a Toad” mean?”

“Toad is an analogy,” I state. “If early in the morning a kid is told to swallow a toad for breakfast, just do it, and the rest of his day, by comparison, will be better. It’s just like in childhood. If something bad happens to you, get over it, and the rest of your life, by comparison, will be better. In my book, a kid swallows a toad.”

Herb smiled and nodded his head. “We’re very much alike, man.” He opened to page 25 in my book where I wrote: “There was more emotional and physical violence in our house than in one block in Harlem. Family dysfunction, heroin and alcohol addiction, violence.”

At the end of lunch, I need to ask Herb a personal question. Till now, we’ve kept it neutral. But I need to know something. Perhaps this is the reason why I called him in the first place. It’s not my place to ask indelicate questions, or force Herb to express painful feelings, but I personally think a kid needs to be hurt into boxing. What was Herb’s hurt? “Herb, why did you box?”

He reaches with his chopsticks, deftly tweezes a head of broccoli, pops it into his mouth and chews. “Because I was good at it,” he grins. Then he adds, “Plus, I didn’t wanna end up like everyone else, robbing, dealing, or pimping.”

                                                                * * *

The next day in my 4th period English class we’re reading Macbeth. I tell my students: “Plays purify the morals.” This might be true, but boxing does something better: it disinfects the soul. After a fight, I always felt strangely cleansed and pure. I was free from anger and hate. After fighting, I felt an inner glow, something, perhaps, like a Catholic feels after confession. Or Herb feels after making a passenger smile on the BMX 18 Express.

Herb and I are small men. Neither of us became a champion, but we became something much more important — healthy and happy. Herb gets them smiling on the BMX 18 Express and I teach Macbeth at White Plains High School. We are two old bulls who have swallowed our toads.

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

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  1. bikermike 05:27pm, 11/02/2015

    Geez these two guys look to be in great shape…sixty one..and sixty seven.

    You gotta live clean to look that good for that long….Those smiles look sincere…...Nice to be healthy and happy in the golden years.  Thanks to Peter Wood.  Refreshing article

  2. Aztec Warrior 04:17am, 10/21/2015

    Thank you Mr. Wood. It’s stories like yours that bring me to this website EVERYDAY.
    And they say boxing is dead. I say never. Because the soul of boxing is what embodies this true story. Not the dirty, behind the scenes corruption and even the visible tragedies we witness far too often. Thank you again, Mr. Wood. I would like to shake your hand.

  3. Caryn A. Tate 09:49am, 10/20/2015

    Such a great piece, Peter. Well done.

  4. Bill Angresano 08:40am, 10/20/2015

    AHHHH the UNDERRATED jab of Peter Wood… the underrated soul of a poet ...

  5. c.h. 07:51am, 10/20/2015

    With that left hook we’d a loved you in Philly. Great story. The brotherhood of former opponents is hard for many people to understand.

  6. Bob 07:27pm, 10/19/2015

    There is so much to like about this wonderful story and these tremendous athletes. These two fine men realized after all these years that they had a lot more in common than they could have ever realized. Boxing contributed so much to their later accomplishments, where both affected people’s lives in a positive manner whether they realized it or not. Teaching youngsters is crucial to the development of the students and performing one’s duties as a daily transporter of people in such a positive manner is easily overlooked as being socially significant, leaving a smile on the face of one’s “clients” should never be minimized.  I’m glad both men beat the devil, and yearn for the excitement of fights such as theirs. You rarely see that much action in the pro ranks these days, and NEVER in the amateurs anymore. And that referee - McGuire - he never got tired. Thanks for such an inspiring piece of journalism., Mr. Wood and Mr. Goings.

  7. gordon analla 03:02pm, 10/19/2015

    Great story of mutual respect and love for one another.  Thank you.

  8. Mike Silver 01:56pm, 10/19/2015

    As the old philosopher Cus D’Amato used to say, “Boxing is about character.” Wonderful story about two men with character.

  9. Michael Gwynne 12:25pm, 10/19/2015

    A great piece of insightful and very satisfying writing. I felt the changes. I could see you both at lunch. I could see you both taking a punch. There has always been something deep in the psyche of fighters over the Millennium going back as far as the gladiator days. But the deeply felt and hard won wisdom resulting from the inherent honesty in a well balanced match between two men in the ring (Even tho it’s a square) underlies the mystery and perhaps inspires us all to face out battles with courage and the guarantee that if fought honestly there is no way to lose. Indeed, there is a deeper understanding to be won. It’s called the ‘sweet science’ for a reason. Now we suspect that there is even more than science involved. With the kind of understanding expressed by Mr. Wood there may also be the cathartic release of great art! Thanks you sir.

  10. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 12:19pm, 10/19/2015

    Peter Wood-I’m going to give you a grade for this work from the back row of night school in City College….why?.... because I can….I give you an A+. Two things…you got Herb’s respect with that first hook which was very important and I think it might be a case of convenient amnesia for him to remember only one knockdown because there’s a world of difference between one knockdown and three in a three or four round amateur bout.

  11. Jeff Weston 11:52am, 10/19/2015

    A beautiful piece of writing. We all wonder what should be, but then see the failings and misfortune in others and think: It ain’t so bad. No paths are easy. A joy to read. Sadness echoes everywhere but you’ve gotta learn to see the sparkle.

  12. Alan W. 08:49am, 10/19/2015

    Loved the essay and the photo.  You guys look like you could still go three, though those smiles indicate you’d mostly be dancing.  Herb Goings sounds like a helluva guy, Peter, and I know you are.  The best thing is Herb was right:  Neither of you ended up like everyone else.

  13. Clarence George 08:44am, 10/19/2015

    Very fine.  I found the questions-without-answers exchange quite funny.

    Robert Mladinich sent me an email: “Ask Peter where all his hair got to.”  He made a big fuss about my asking, so…

  14. Jeffrey Sussman 08:28am, 10/19/2015

    A touching account about two new friends. The photo of you and Herb reminds me of the friendship that ensued between Barney Ross and Jimmy McLarnin following their brutal trilogy of fights. A nice piece of writing from a great boxing writer! Nevee stop.

  15. lb 07:56am, 10/19/2015

    Outstanding essay

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