Why Did I Fight?

By Peter Weston Wood on July 8, 2018
Why Did I Fight?
Boxing saved my life. Those four words seem absurd. And yet I believe them to be true.

I was, by nature, a gentle kid—just like my real father, a genteel songwriter. But I had a real good punch, quick reflexes, a granite chin, and a screwy mind…

Why did I fight in the ring? Well, this gets kind of personal, but I’ll tell you anyway. Maybe I need to get it off my chest.

I thought writing this piece was going to be easy. I thought I’d knock it out quick, but that’s not happening. I’m already on my tenth draft, going on eleven. It’s not as easy as it looks.

I’m not sure why I became a boxer, or why I was always fighting in the streets. I guess I was unhappy. Or angry?

Why was a polite and peaceful, suburban white kid, like me, unhappy or angry?

Well, boxing was all I thought about growing up. Boxing, back in the 1960s and 1970s, was about bravery, strength, and skill. Remember?

Now that I’m older with less hair growing on top of my head than on my eyebrows, I am slowly creeping closer to an answer, and I have a better idea about why fighting was so seductive. 

And the answer is disturbing…

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, boxing still had cultural power and meaning. Boxing was deemed a manly pastime, and was interwoven into the very fabric of American culture: John L. Sullivan…Benny Leonard…Jack Dempsey…Rocky Marciano. Remember?

But today, the validity of boxing is vanishing. It is more passé than manly.

Have gender roles in America changed that drastically? Have manly expectations and pastimes radically evolved? Is boxing an example of misguided manhood? Toxic masculinity?

Boxing’s Holy Trinity—Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe “The Brown Bomber” Louis and Muhammad “Float Like a Butterfly” Ali still exists, but it has become archaic and stale.

Even my cherished Ring magazines, the once popular Bible of Boxing, are passé—doubly passé. Ring’s dwindling magazine readership reports on a dwindling sport. Ring might hang around and gain a cult following, like those who collect vinyl records, but the precious Ring magazines of my youth are now boxed up, quietly decaying, in my basement.

Is anybody interested in buying them?

So, okay, why did I step out of comfortable white suburbia and step into a boxing gym?

“You know why,” whispers a tiny voice living inside my head. It’s a voice I don’t want to hear—and definitely don’t want anyone else to hear, either.

“Admit it,” it whispers, “you wanted to be tough because you thought you never were.”

Okay, I’ll admit it.

“But that’s not the full answer, is it?” whispers the voice.

No, it isn’t.

“C’mon, Peter, tell it all. You’re only as sick as your secrets.”

Okay, fine…

At a tender age, boxing kidnapped me. It took hold of my spirit and wouldn’t let go. I quickly became a fan of everything boxing.

I loved and hated the boxing gym. I subjected myself to its agony. Boxing was beautiful and it was ugly. Understand?

My stepfamily and school became secondary. It was the rugged men in the gym who fascinated me. They were the sport heroes I had been reading about in Ring every month. They became my family.

They were brutes, but they were my brutes. They were rough and crude and probably never flossed their teeth or said “Excuse me” after burping. But these men hit the bags hard, sparred with passion, and were good at keeping whatever private darkness they carried inside themselves secret. And they enjoyed joking around with a young kid like me. They told wonderful stories and had colorful life experiences—fighting and fame, notoriety and love. I don’t think they ever had a boy look up at them with such wide, worshipful eyes.

Me, entering the gym, eager to spar, I always felt a pang of fear, a rush of excitement, and a twinge of guilt. Back then, I remember my tiny voice whispering, “Why are you taking this road? ... Is today the day someone breaks your front tooth? ... Shouldn’t you be back home studying math?”

Today, that tiny voice is still whispering inside me: “What were you looking for in a boxing gym that you didn’t find at home?”

My home was a large dysfunctional stepfamily, and my mind was a wild tangle full of horrible creatures and a hazardously low self-esteem. My solution was to hurl myself into sports—particularly a dark, smelly boxing gym. I reached out to the boxing ring like it was a life-raft. I couldn’t imagine ever letting go. Where else would I go? Who else could I be?

Quickly, boxing-magic seeped into me. I found a way to transfer my anger and sadness and my stuttering speech into my punches.  I finally become a tough guy—or, at least, that’s what I told myself.

Each punch I punched was a cry of relief, and of power, and completely beautiful. The exhilaration of landing a good punch was like hitting a homerun on someone’s head.

The pulsing craziness squirming inside my young brain was in perfect synch with the craziness inside the old boxing gym. So I guess I was in the right place after all.

Let’s face it, boxing is essentially an anti-social sport, and every fighter contains a certain measure of madness. I embraced my madness—it fed upon the hate, anger and fear I felt within me. “Punching out your madness redeemed you,” whispers the tiny voice. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

My punches curving through the hot gym air—each and every day—was my way of screaming and crying.

I must be honest. I was, by nature, a gentle kid—just like my real father, a genteel songwriter. But I had a real good punch, quick reflexes, a granite chin, and a screwy mind.

At home I was growing up isolated and alone, incarcerated in a dysfunctional stepfamily. My soul was cracking, and I knew what it was like to hate myself so much that I wanted to murder myself.

“You were lucky to find boxing,” whispers the voice.

Boxing stopped me fighting in the street and kept me out of trouble. It kept me from killing myself—unlike my older brother who was quietly corroding from within. One dark night, he was wheeled into Pascack Valley Hospital D.O.A. after a heroin overdose.

When training at the gym, I always felt chronic anxiety, long stretches of simmering stress, but it was way better than heroin.

I loved and hated this stupid sport. Boxing was beautiful and ugly. Understand?

Like drugs, boxing feels good while you’re doing it, but afterwards, it leaves you alone and nowhere. That’s why I didn’t turn pro.

“C’mon, Peter,” whispers the voice. “Answer the question fully—Why did you fight?”

After all these years, I guess I can finally admit the truth: I needed psychotherapy…

…Boxing was my psychotherapy.

Sometimes I wonder why God invented such a harsh sport. It’s a sport where my fearless heroes in the gym abused their bodies for our entertainment. When professional fighters get knocked out, we replay it in slow-motion, and we can see why these poor men, at 55, are rattled.

But boxing un-rattled me.

Boxing saved my life. Those four words seem absurd. And yet I believe them to be true.

No, I never turned pro. It’s a nasty life and I didn’t want to end up slurring my words, forgetting simple things, or living in cold-water poverty.

I find it hard to believe that I was in boxing-therapy for so many years and never realized it. Most surprising of all is this: In a way, I was my own therapist.

Why has it taken me so long to grasp all this?

Thanks to boxing, no horrible creatures live in my head anymore, and my self-esteem is healthy.

“Well, most of the time,” smiles that tiny voice.

Yes—most of the time.

“You were a pretty good middleweight,” whispers the voice. “Don’t forget—you fought in Madison Square Garden.” 

Yeah, I was famous many years ago—for about three rounds…Well, that’s what I tell myself.

Peter Wood is a 1971 NYC Golden Gloves Middleweight Finalist in Madison Square Garden; a Middleweight Alternate for The Maccabean Games in Tel Aviv, Israel, and author of two books: Confessions of a Fighter, and A Clenched Fist—The Making of a Golden Gloves Champion, published by Ringside Books. He is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and can be reached at his webpage: www.peterwwoodauthor.com.

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  1. Johnathan Lee Iverson 06:46am, 01/27/2019

    This piece is tremendous. I hope @peter considers turning his story into a screenplay. It’s tragic, beautiful, therapeutic, and triumphant. Really great stuff!

  2. TheOneAndOnly 12:43pm, 01/25/2019

    This is a stunning and revealing piece. I appreciate you sharing.

  3. Shaka 07:04am, 07/17/2018

    Thanks for opening yourself up so all of us fighters can have the chance to find a piece of our story in yours.  This is a great article.  I look forward to the next one.

  4. Casanovita de Ahome 07:05am, 07/12/2018

    @Peter Wood-Your posts/comments/responses are off the charts much like your articles….probably has something to do with honesty!

  5. peter 06:01am, 07/12/2018

    @Bruce Kielty—Thank you for your kind words, Bruce. I enjoyed writing it. Although, “enjoy” wouldn’t be the exact word. But I did enjoy finally getting it written.

  6. peter 05:58am, 07/12/2018

    @Pete The Sneak—Thanks for your kind words, Pete! Yes, boxing is much more than a sport…and then again…boxing is not even a sport—you play a sport, but you don’t play boxing. I continue to wrestle with this paradox. Thanks, again, Pete.

  7. peter 05:52am, 07/12/2018

    @Buster—Thank you, Buster, for the kind words. Much appreciated.  A blank page for a writer can be just as intimidating as an opponent standing in the opposite corner…well almost.

  8. peter 05:49am, 07/12/2018

    @ Casanovita de Ahome—I was never knocked down in the ring. The closest to being buzzed wasn’t in the ring—it was chasing a fly ball, looking over my shoulder, and crashing into the bleachers. When I finally stood up, I was bleeding from the mouth from almost biting off my tongue. After the collision, they say when I stood up, I raised my hands and took a boxer’s stance. It took a month before I could talk, and during that time I had to eat and drink out of a straw…The closest to being buzzed was when I sparred an Airforce boxer who broke my nose for the first time. His name was “Rosenthal”…The biggest name I sparred with was middleweight Dennis Milton from Webbbster PAL, in the Bronx. I had a chance to move around with Jose Resto, also of the Bronx, (Fort Apache), but decided not to. Other pros I can recall sparring: heavyweight Brian O’Melia, Richie Villanueva, Willy Capuano, Jimmy Hargroves, Conrad Tooker, Jerry Caballero, Otho Tyson, and trainer Manard Stovall, (who traveled up to Boston under different names to fight on pro cards.)…My stamina was poor, (asthma), so going into a fight, my training and preparation had to be excellent—and it was…Going into my fight in The Garden was strange—I was, surprisingly, not too nervous. It was the only fight I went in calm. My opponent, Jose Venture, didn’t scare me. I had already defeated two guys from his gym who were better than him. Even though I was entering the ring after being bed-sick for ten days, I was more resigned than nervous…I’ve sparred over the years, but lacked the deep motivation. The last time I sparred, I was older and went in without headgear and got cut over the eye. It was like getting shot the last day of the war…I toyed with the idea of entering a senior competition, but I asked myself “Why?” I have no desire to punch anyone anymore. And that’s good…If I went pro? There were a lot of great middleweights in the early 70s. I continually beat a guy sparring who beat Mike Rossman in the amateurs. And I did well with Dennis Milton. But I had to work on my stamina…Thank you for your interest! Peace.

  9. Buster 08:43pm, 07/11/2018

    Thank goodness Peter Wood had the common sense not to turn pro. No way he could have written such an outstanding article with scrambled brains.

  10. Casanovita de Ahome 08:38am, 07/10/2018

    @Peter Wood-This is a boxing site so here are some boxing questions that I may have asked you before but here goes: Were you ever knocked down in competition or sparring? Were you ever buzzed to the point where you had to grab and hold to keep from going down? Who was the biggest “name” that you sparred with? You listed your best attributes….how would rate your stamina? Did you have any stage fright at all fighting at the Garden? Have you sparred at all through the years? There is organized boxing competition for Seniors these days….have you ever considered it? I Know that you have written that you have no regrets but do you ever wonder about what might have been if you turned Pro? When you were at about 50% of your potential when you fought in the GG finals, with the right people, the right trainer…..

  11. Bob 03:07am, 07/10/2018

    Mr. Wood, you are very fortunate to have found boxing at such a formative time in your life. Old fighters, even those who were not particularly successful, were easy to worship for young, impressionable men in search of something they could not fathom at the time. Despite their many misfortunes, they were accessible and often kind and even avuncular to young men like you. You are one of the lucky ones because you used what you learned in those dank gyms, from those sometimes inarticulate but wise fighters to create a good life for yourself. This story is incredibly uplifting and thank goodness you had the fortitude to not allow yourself to corrode from within.

  12. Ollie Downtown Brown 07:41am, 07/09/2018

    Pete The Sneak… Yeah, it really doesn’t seem that long ago that Czyz was featured on the cover of some boxing publication ( forget which one) along with Alex Ramos, Tony Ayala, and Johnny Bumphus as “Tomorrows Champions.” Of course it was indeed a long time ago, well over 30 years ago. Bobby had tremendous courage to get in there with the much larger Holyfield and the even larger Corrie Sanders. Czyz always wanted a fight with Hearns at light heavy or cruiserweight, and I believe that Czyz had the chin and style to actually beat an older version of Hearns at that weight. I’m hoping he can return as a boxing analyst again for someone. Czyz was a world champ behind the mic as well, loved to hear him analyze the fighters and the action in the ring. Four people I loved to hear call fights were Gil Clancy, and 3 actual fighters, Ken Norton,  Jerry Quarry and Czyz. I’m almost positive that Czyz will land back on his feet. Here’s wishing him the best and yourself as well, sir.

  13. Pete The Sneak 04:10am, 07/09/2018

    Incredible write up Peter Wood. Not much more you can say. This comment captured the essence of your story: “I loved and hated this stupid sport. Boxing was beautiful and ugly. Understand?”...I’ve seen this question broached by many a fighter I’ve spoken to over the years and unless you’ve been where they have been, you can never truly understand or answer that question. Great stuff .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) too was a fan of Bobby Czyz. I wasn’t aware of what he’s been up to these days. I’m glad he’s being productive regardless of what he’s doing for a living. Thanks for the insight….Peace.

  14. Kid Blast 06:07pm, 07/08/2018

    Peter, I mean this 100%. This is one of the very best boxing articles I have ever read. It goes deep and is very soulful. This is an award-winner if I ever saw one.

  15. Bruce Kielty 05:24pm, 07/08/2018

    Brother Wood, Thank you for an excellent article.

  16. peter 03:44pm, 07/08/2018

    Kid Blast—Thank you for your continued interest!

  17. peter 03:43pm, 07/08/2018

    Casanovita de Ahome—Good question…Who was I punching? Neither my father or stepfather, or anyone else. At the time, I was totally blind to my motivations. No one, other than myself, motivated me, except for my coaches. My stepfather? I am grateful to him, I think, for exposing me to the sport.

  18. Ollie Downtown Brown 12:58pm, 07/08/2018

    Casanovita… haha. You have me rolling, amigo. Don’t know if you ever thought about doing stand up,  but if not, you should give it a try. And thank you kindly for those words of support, brother.

  19. Casanovita de Ahome 11:44am, 07/08/2018

    @ODB-Great posts…..“This article made me think”......I second that….fuk an attaboy writers workshop and fuk stool sample trolls that haunt this site too! Peter Wood is an educator and the articles that he submits are designed to make people think.

  20. Your Name 09:10am, 07/08/2018

    Ollie, you are everything from Eggroll to I’ll be dammed if I know. And you continually ruin the threads with your truly dumb posts. Get a life.

  21. Ollie Downtown Brown 08:58am, 07/08/2018

    Asher.. Obviously you read me and/or my comments WRONG. Have no idea where you are coming from, I admire Czyz as a fighter and as a person. I am as BLUE COLLAR as it gets. I have picked fruit, cleaned toilets, worked in factories making everything from Sears Diehard batteries, to automobile rims to those cute little “Goldfish” snacks from Pepperidge Farm. Hell, I even worked in a grocery store in the dairy section back in the day. So someone LIKE ME can certainly sympathize with someone like Czyz having to START OVER as a middle-age man. I am the same age as Czyz, actually a little less than a year older, so I can imagine how tough it has to be to take a job bagging groceries, even though I can’t relate to the financial success that Czyz had in the past. Obviously I have done jobs the so-called “average American doesn’t want to do,” so you might want to reread my comment. I also stated that IF someone like Mancini is worthy of the IBHOF than the underrated Czyz definitely deserves consideration. Had my own issues with the bottle but nothing like Czyz. Of course I never had to go through the domestic issues that Czyz went through either. I admire Czyz for having the work ethic and principles to not feel he is above an honest day’s work. Everyone should take a lesson from this story, especially these UNSKILLED and INEXPERIENCED youngsters who think they are too good or talented to start at the bottom. Hope this clears things up there, Skippy.

  22. Casanovita de Ahome 08:03am, 07/08/2018

    “I had a real good punch, quick reflexes, a granite chin, and a screwy mind.” You wouldn’t have lasted 5 minutes in those gyms without even one of those essentials, especially the screwy mind. Seriously…. when you were pounding the heavy bag were you really pounding your stepdad….or your “real Dad”? Can’t believe that Guy Wood’s son didn’t have at least a little inclination to music. BTW after all those drafts you got it just right!

  23. Asher 07:46am, 07/08/2018

    Ollie, your remarks about Czyz are ridiculous and patronizing. If bagging groceries is what Czyz is doing, so what. It’s an honest job. He’s not on the dole. Should we respect him any more or less if he owned the supermarket? Anyone who has dealt with problems in their life knows that the rigour of keeping a schedule and daily interaction with colleagues is the best therapy in the world. Czyz took countless beatings growing up from an abusive father, who later committed suicide. Try that on for size. Kudos to “Chappie”. He was a helluva fighter in his day. And if bagging groceries helps him keeps his shit straight and puts some green in his jeans, so be it.

  24. Kid Blast 07:26am, 07/08/2018

    A truly enjoyable read, Peter. One of your very best. Often, I’ll just look at the title and post away but with yours, I always read them from beginning to end. Again, great stuff.

  25. Ollie Downtown Brown 06:30am, 07/08/2018

    This article made me think of two fighters from back in the day, Bobby Czyz and a fighter by the name of Henry Milligan.  Both were members of Mensa, and surely had other options instead of fighting. Milligan graduated from Princeton and had offers to play professional baseball with the New York Mets. Sports Illustrated did a spread on Milligan in March 1984. He won the 1983 AAU Heavyweight title by defeating future gold medalist, Henry Tillman in the finals. Milligan would be stopped by someone named Mike Tyson in the semi-finals of the 1984 Olympic trials. Milligan did all this while weighing about 185lbs as well. I recently learned that Czyz is working at a ShopRite as a bagger. Czyz earned a pretty healthy sum in the ring but a string of DUIs and bad luck have forced him to take a job at a supermarket. Both of these guys certainly had other options in life and could have avoided the boxing ring altogether. Pretty sad that Czyz, a two time world champion and highly intelligent is now bagging groceries at this stage of his life. He definitely was more talented than Ray Mancini, and if Mancini is good enough for the IBOF than surely Czyz is as well.

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