The king of white-collar boxing
[ people - august 12 ]
A new guy came down to the morning sparring sessions, Jones. I had never seen him before. Hector told me that he was a bike messenger who had just completed a six-year bid at Riker’s Island. That was a long fuckin’ time when you considered you only got two years for manslaughter. He must have killed a whole state. I had never met anyone who had been to prison before. That was a foreign country I never dreamed I’d enter. Jones was a black welterweight who moved like he knew his way around the ring. I didn’t like to fight strangers but Hector threw me in the ring with him. Oh well. He can’t murder me with his gloves on.
The session was going so so. I was a little tentative. I was timid about making an ex-con angry. Believing all the folklore about prisoners being bad. And I wasn’t paying Jones to spar so he had no reason to hold back. He was starting to land some good shots. I started to get my back up. I wasn’t going to let him make a fool out of me. So I threw a jab, hook, uppercut, cross and then, boom, just like that I busted his nose. What a thing of beauty. That was better than closing some stupid deal for ten million dollars.
You got heart, David,”Hector said.
When a Panamanian says you got heart you got heart. I felt like a cardiologist. I was busting with self-importance. But did I believe him? Did I really think I had heart? No. I was a chicken. I didn’t mix it up with Jones till he hit me. I should have initiated it. But that wasn’t fair either. I never gave myself props. In my own mind I was always falling short. A real man did what my father did in the war, dropped bombs on cities. If a few explosions turned little children into singed angels, fuck it! That was war. That was glory. I always felt I didn’t equal soldiers. They killed while I dawdled. I needed some other venue in which to become a man. Did I have to fight Hector “Macho” Comacho? What would make me feel worthy of my father’s generation? I was brought up in a hippy generation that thought men should be delicate and sensitive like women. I rebelled against that. I didn’t want to emulate women. I wanted to luxuriate in being a man. Even in being a brute, if being a brute was my nature. I was delighted when I went into the locker room and changed. I looked in the mirror. There was a bright purple ring above my left eyelid. It was a badge of courage. Not a red badge of death. A little sort of thing. A testimonial that said I was there and that I had courage.
It was spring of ’86, and I was on the mini-fame junket. I was a high roller, a curiosity. I was invited on the Phil Donahue show. He had contacted me after reading the People Magazine article.
A girl in the audience yelled out, “You’re cute.”
Did she mean me? I think so. Wow. I thought I was cute and I didn’t think I was cute. I was both modest and conceited. Perhaps she could define me for others and myself. I hoped all of America was listening. I hoped it was subliminal. All the girls walking around hearing voices in their heads, He’s cute. My wife too, in case she had forgotten.
I was in a panel of four guys and one girl. All white-collar boxers. But I was the one Donahue wanted to put under the spotlight. I was the man with the Rolls Royce. I was the super-executive America wanted to be. I was the mistake everyone made in his or her dream lives. They showed footage of me on a large screen arriving at the gym in my Rolls Royce.
The audience loved me. But they wanted to know why a man with a Rolls Royce boxed.
Do you box for attention?” a fat lady asked.
Maybe,” I said. “But I did it before I was getting attention.” I didn’t tell her that I really liked getting hit. And hitting. Was I a sick pup? No, I was in love with the sorrow of a punch. Even when I was a child and my brother hit me I used to look to my mother for sympathy. I would fight the Jones’s of the world even if there was no media attention. It just wouldn’t be quite the same fun.
When the Metropolitan Games came around I signed up. These were no Wall Street Charities bullshit. These fights were the real thing. Amateur fights for inner city kids held up at Yonkers High School. These were the roughest kids from the worst neighborhoods.
I drove up with Hector and Chuck. Hector had the Panamanian flag hanging from his antenna. The car was some kind of old American Chevy. I felt cool in his heap. Like I was part of a Panamanian gang.
I think I was the only white guy at the weigh in. Everyone was half my age. This place made the Wall Street Charities look like some candy-assed shit. Everybody was black or Hispanic. Angry. Ready to kick butt. I was constipated. Scared shitless. I was going to die.
I was waiting about an hour when a ref came over to me, “I got some bad news.”
What? Were they going to make me fight a heavyweight? I looked up at the ring. The first fight had started. Two lightweights, a black and Puerto Rican, were beating the shit out of each other.
We have no welterweights to match you up against,” he said. “We’re giving you a by.” I made a face. “God damn,” I said. “I came all the way up here for nothing.”
I was saved. It was like getting a pardon from death row. These guys made Sick Vic look friendly.
Hector argued with the ref, “Hey, let him fight in another weight class. We drove up here to fight.”
I kept tapping Hector, trying to get him to shut up. I whispered to him, “Don’t worry. I’ll give you fifty dollars for coming up here anyhow.”
The second fight started. An Italian against a black. The crowd was yelling, “Yo, Rocky.”
It’s the principle, Davey,” Hector said.
Fuck the principle,” I said.
I looked up at the ring. The Italian was bleeding above both eyes. Now that I didn’t have to fight, I acted like a big shot and asked the ref, “When’s my next fight?”
Six days,” he said. The Italian now had a bloody nose. Blood was leaking from his mouth.
I’ll be sure to be here,” I said, planning to make sure I disappeared to Europe for a while. The fight was stopped on cuts. The Italian was a bloody mess. The black did a back flip in the ring. There was no way I could do a back flip. These guys were real athletes. I was Woody Allen wandering from the set of “Annie Hall” into a boxing tournament. I didn’t belong here. The Italians in the audience booed. The blacks cheered.
On the way back in the car I said, “Hector, I could have gotten killed there.”
You not ready for that level.”
I felt a lot better. I could accept that.
Still, I was so strict on myself that I was faulting myself for not having an opponent even though I had no control over this. But, remember, I was no perfectionist. I didn’t think I could win and I wouldn’t have insulted myself for getting knocked out.
It made me feel brave to admit my faults. I congratulated myself that I wasn’t such a bad guy. I wouldn’t have to come back for the next round. That was good. I knew my limitations. I wasn’t crazy.
I built a gym with a shower right in my office on Wall Street. It wasn’t big or anything but it was a nice little place to play around with weights and do some strength building. I bought dumbbells, barbells, a stationary bike, a Nordic track, a sit-up board, a bench and a stomach cruncher. And I lined the walls with mirrors so I could do muscle poses. I figured I’d workout here a couple days a week and invite underwriters over to impress them. The room, which used to be a file room, was cool, shiny, glossy and high tech.
I loved my new gym with the innocent exuberance I had felt kissing girls when I was a teenager. Fresh air, fall sweaters and peachy cheeks. Life was sweet. The money was pouring in. I was living a life reserved for movie stars. I had it all. Go Awesome! Go! I rooted myself on. I was sucked into the American Dream like I was followed around by a giant Hoover vacuum cleaner. The dust of ambition made me cough up flagrant accomplishments.
Gleason’s Gym moved from West 31st Street in New York to Fulton Landing in Brooklyn. It happened in January 1987. The new location was right under the Brooklyn Bridge. I was now about to become a Brooklyn fighter. That sounded pretty tough. Except the area wasn’t Bed Sty. It was DUMBO, right next to Brooklyn Heights.
It was a real pain in the ass to go over there. It was a longer commute. Who was I kidding? My chauffeur picked me up every morning in my Rolls Royce and I had coffee, orange juice and a roll in the back seat on a wooden airplane tray. I was a big kahuna, a tycoon. But I was a nothing boxer. I was basically a beginner. Still, I was in the news all the time. Italian, German, Japanese and Chinese film crews covered me. My wife said, “It’s not you they’re interested in. It’s the Rolls Royce.” I suppose that car was the only thing special about my boxing. The car was the celebrity. I was an international presence. A walking cartoon. It was silly. At this point I had only had one amateur fight. At the Wall Street Charities where I had the shit beat out of me by Sic Vic. Boy, the other real fighters should have hated my guts. But they didn’t. They were beginning to believe my press. They began to accept me as a famous fighter. They’d tell me I looked good on television. Israel Cruz, a Puerto Rican fighter, said, “I sees you on Eyewitness News. My girl is impressed that I knows you. I got laid off you, bro.” He slapped me five. I think he was a little intimidated by me. He forgot that he could kick my ass.
What do you think about him fighting David?” Bruce asked Hector. He was trying to pair me up with a stocky looking transit cop, Ernest Medina.
“Good match,” Hector said, looking Medina up and down. Medina didn’t even have any tattoos. I thought maybe I could take him.
You wouldn’t put me in over my head?” I asked Hector.
Shut up and put out your hands so I can wrap them,” he said. I sat down on the bench and held my hands out. He put pieces of gauze on them and then wrapped them in adhesive tape. He did it real professional. My hands felt strong in the tightly wrapped tape. I thought these hands could really hurt someone. I was excited.
This was my first fight in Gleason’s new stadium. Bruce and Ira bought a garage down the block from the gym and turned it into a boxing arena. They had big dreams. They planned to sell the fights to television. They would sell one million hot dogs from their concession stand. They’d get Penthouse Centerfolds to be their ring girls. It was the perfect place for me to get my boxing career going. I’d take ten or twelve amateur bouts and then go pro. I’d be the first fighter in history to turn pro at forty.
My fight at the arena would be my first bout sanctioned by the US Boxing Association. The Wall Street Charities wasn’t official. The Metropolitan Games didn’t count because I never got to fight there. I’d rather fight at Gleason’s anyhow. It was home to me and I was going to show off this time. I invited twenty people and promised them dinner after the fight at the Lighthouse Restaurant, which was around the corner from Gleason’s. We were all going to celebrate my victory.
The dressing room was upstairs and overlooked the arena. Everyone looked a lot tougher than I was. Most of them were in their late teens and early twenties. They were all black or Hispanic. Like the kind of kids I’d be worried would mug me in the subway. If I rode the subway. I might have split out but I had invited a lot of guests. The dressing room was hectic with the busy flinching muscles of bragging young men. They all felt they were going to do damage. I was the only one there who felt he was going to be damaged.
There was a balcony outside the dressing room where we could look down on some of the fights going on in the ring. Guys were killing each other. A few times I found myself putting my hands over my eyes.
When my turn came, I figured screw it. I was here to fight and I was going to fight. I followed Hector down the stairs, through the audience and into the ring with my gloves on his shoulders and shadow boxed around like I was a champ. The ref recited the rules. No one ever listened to him. We touched gloves and went back to our corners. It was all so official, ritualistic.
Let’s get ready to rumble,” the ref said. When that bell rang I came out of my corner like a South Bronx mugger. Not some Madison Avenue dilettante. What time was it? It was Awesome time. I told myself I shouldn’t knock him out right away. I wanted to make it look good. I pretended it was a sparring session with Chuck and moved around the ring like it was a lesson. I landed a couple of tentative jabs. A couple of long-distance body punches. I was feeling pretty good and he wasn’t doing much but sizing me up. Maybe he was scared of me. I was starting to get a little confident. I was no longer afraid. That was behind me now. I felt loose, relaxed. When I landed a beautiful uppercut, I felt like an aficionado, an artiste. It was a sophisticated punch. I was getting cockier and more arrogant like a lawyer cross-examining a gym teacher. I landed a hook to the body followed by one to the head. Then I tied Medina up before he could hit me back. I felt like dancing with him. The ref broke us up. I was Fred Astaire. I could dance on the ceiling. I stepped back but forgot to lift my hands up to protect my face. I took a step forward. He was in trouble. I could kill a bear. I was going to put him to sleep.
Bang. An overhead right rocked my temple. The torah fell from its mental shelf. I couldn’t read the Hebrew. I was lost in a numb, dizzy language I didn’t understand.
Boing. I was stopped dead in my tracks like a deer that had been shot. Like Bambi’s mother.
Boop. I fell onto my side. Out cold like jello in the freezer.
Dream on. Sweet dreams are made of this...
After the fight a few friends told me that I looked like a steer getting decapitated. Standing there headless for about five seconds. Then falling in a lump on my side. I felt like I had been in the Chicago slaughterhouses.
Snap. Hector put a bottle of smelling salts under my nose. My head jerked. My eyes teared. And I looked up at Hector, the referee and Medina who were all standing around me, looking down at my right shoulder. It was in some cubistic position with the bone sticking up against the skin. It wasn’t bleeding; it was just lumpy. It hurt so much that I was numb. I couldn’t feel it.
They gathered my flip-flop limbs and helped me get to my feet. I was standing. Hallelujah. The crowd applauded. Awesome! Awesome! Like I deserved applause for getting knocked out cold in the first round. I stank. I should have been banned from boxing forever for incompetence. I made myself sick. But at the same time I was happy because I was hurt but I didn’t hurt. It was like when I was a kid and I used to cut myself with razors so I’d look like I was beat up. That never hurt. It just looked cool. It was a way of getting my mother to love me. I had been knocked down before but never out. So this was what it felt like. Pretty good. What was everyone so afraid of? It was like getting high on pot when I was a kid. I was in a kind of numb, rubbery protective coating. It hurt a lot less than the time Sam broke my chest. Getting knocked out ended the beating and the pain. It was good.
The ref told me to get my ass to the hospital. All I was thinking about was who was going to take my twenty guests to dinner? Jack Kelly, my weaselly vice president, ran up to me, “I’ll take you to the hospital then take everyone to dinner and pick up the bill.” It seemed he was always there covering my ass. I thought he was loyal, reliable. I didn’t yet know how duplicitous he was. He was my right hand man. I didn’t notice his left hand picking my pocket. His corruption was right in front of my face but I didn’t see it.
I was in the emergency room waiting area of New York Hospital. Walking around like some cartoon character in my boxing shorts, robe and blue sequined boxing shoes. A little girl asked her mother, “Can I take Batman home with me?”
Stay away from that crazy man,” her mother said.
I was beginning to find the whole thing very funny. My brother called my wife. He held the phone away from his ear, “I knew this would happen. He shouldn’t be fighting kids. The big jerk.”
Big?” That was nice. “I wasn’t big,” I thought.
After about an hour the intern took me into a private room. He helped me take off my robe and looked at my shoulder.
Pretty nasty spill you took there,” he said. He probably thought I was some asshole who fell off a skateboard at a costume party.
I got knocked out at a boxing match,” I said.
Boxer’s break their noses. They don’t separate their shoulders,” he said. “You sure you weren’t skiing?”
I don’t ski when there’s no snow and no mountains,” I said.
You’re probably going to need an operation. Some steel pins to put your shoulder back together.”
He gave me two Percodans. “I can do the operation or you can go to your own orthopedist,” he said.
There was no way I was letting him operate. “I’ll let you know,” I said.
When I got home at about 2:00 in the morning my wife said, “I told you so. You’re a dope.”
Can you put off the nagging until I feel better?” I said.
I spoke to an orthopedist, Dr. Lieberman. He said he’ll see you first thing in the morning. Now thank me.”
Thank you.” Lauren had a way of resolving things. She could contact the necessary people anytime, anywhere. You couldn’t hide from her. She felt the world owed her and she insisted on collecting. I resented her courage. I was afraid of confrontation.
I told you not to fight.”
I was glad I fought. I was glad I got hurt. I pictured my mother holding my head when I got hurt as a child. She never did. She was shy around me. But I loved her all the same. I think I had an Oedipal thing going on when I was young. My mom was so pretty I thought my dad would castrate me for getting close to her. I went into the bedroom and went to sleep.
Dr Lieberman had a jovial face lost in a huge body. He never stopped smiling and he kept spitting as he talked. He would have made a good character in Alice in Wonderland. He had a big face like the Cheshire Cat. I nicknamed him Dr Jowels.
I used to be a boxer too,” he said.
Great,” I said.
But I was nothing like my dad. He had fifty-six fights. He would have gotten a title shot if he was connected. In those days you needed to be in with the mob.”
Dr Lieberman was too busy talking to examine me. He just kept yakking.
Do you remember my dad? He was on the Friday night fights once. He was a banger all right. A little guy. You wouldn’t believe it. I’m six feet four inches tall, you know,” he said.
He finally got around to looking at my shoulder. He took out his tape recorder and rattled off his diagnosis. Separated shoulder, torn ligaments... He put the tape recorder down and turned to me, “I could operate and put pins in but pins can rust. Sometimes you have to take them out again. You don’t want to ache in the rain, do you?”
Of course not,” I said.
I think I can fix you up with a fiberglass splint. Wait till you see it. It’s great,” he said. “Someday I have to introduce you to my father. You’d love him. I took care of Marc Breland, you know. And Wilfredo Benitez.”
I felt proud that both of those great fighters were from Gleason’s.
He went into a closet and took out this fiberglass contraption that looked like it was part of a robot’s chest.
How long will I have to wear it?” I asked.
Six weeks. Give or take,” he said.
He strapped me into it, pushing me this way and that. I felt like I was part of a science fiction movie. I was the Terminator.
I later heard that everyone had a good time at dinner at the Lighthouse after I went off to the hospital. Kelly was there announcing that I was finished and that he was taking over as the new President of Allied Programs Corp. Hee. Hee. No one cared about my getting hurt. What the heck? Even I laughed when I heard about Kelly’s joke. But I made up my mind as much as I liked Kelly, I’d have to watch out for him. A joke is a joke but he had revealed his ambitions.
Maybe my separated shoulder was good for me. I changed my focus. I worked a little harder. I paid attention to business. I began to feel I didn’t need boxing anymore. Maybe I should quit. Maybe I should pay more attention to my wife. There was love beneath the crusty years of arguing. But we just couldn’t or didn’t want to see through the conjunctivitis. We were afraid to feel our initial attraction. It left us too exposed.
Lauren loved to shop. She’d charge up thousands of dollars every month on her credit cards. I was once walking past Chanel on Fifty-Seventh Street when I ran into Lauren. She was struggling out to the Rolls with three boxes under her arm. The Rolls followed her from one fancy boutique to the next like Said was on a leash.
Why are you always shopping?” I said.
Was she lonely or was she in love with clothes? Was she attracted to the sexy labels? If I spent more time with her, would she be happy? Or would she be anxious to get rid of me so she could charge up a new dress to complete herself? Had I become her excuse for her own lack of initiative and boredom? Or had I become her impetus for her spitefully buying every luxury item she could get her hands on? She passed her days lunching with her friends and shopping. Was I the inspiration or the excuse? She called herself and her crowd, “Ladies who Lunched.” Was she happy with this? I first fell in love with her when she was a poet and a potential actress. I talked her out of acting because I was afraid she’d dump me. Would she rise above her rich friends?
After about six weeks Dr. Lieberman took the fiberglass contraption off. He put my right arm in a lightweight cloth sling. And I went back to Gleason’s to train. Hector said, “Now you a real fighter. You come back after injury.” I was proud of that. I was no quitter. I couldn’t move my right hand so I worked on my left jab. It had always been my weakness. Hector held the mitts. I threw straight jabs, jabs to the body, jabs to the head, low jabs that rose up to the face, high jabs that smacked down on the head, jabs that snapped back to my face, jabs that I left dangling in the heavy bag, jabs with wrist snap and jabs with a firm wrist. I was having a jab fiesta.
A few days later, Dr Lieberman took off the sling altogether. I started training again with both arms. The right was stiff as hell and it creaked as I tried to punch some life back into it. I started getting physical therapy two days a week. A trainer made me stretch these long green elastic rubber bands. I stretched like a demon, trying to improve. I couldn’t wait to fight again. As I got into better shape I felt more and more like my knock out at the hands of Medina was an accident and that I could do much better. If I hadn’t walked into his right hand, I might have knocked him out. After a couple of weeks I started sparring again. Hector paired me up with JT Murray, a classy black man in his twenties. JT was in the bond market but he was not sure what he wanted to do with his life. His father was an insurance agent. “Do you like insurance?” he asked me.
It sucks,” I said.
It got you a Rolls Royce. You couldn’t be doing too bad.”
I’m doing great,” I said. “It still sucks.”
JT was a stylish fighter. He looked a little like Sugar Ray Leonard. I let him hit me on the head. I couldn’t feel it. My right was like a dead lox. So I was mostly jabbing at him with my left. Pop pop. Pop pop. Still, my jab sucked. You can’t have everything. I had a natural hook to the body. That was something. Like Julio Cesar Chavez. I was back in the game and real as real. Realer. I was ready to take whatever punishment came my way. You could beat the shit out of me and I’d still be in your face throwing punches, bleeding. That took character. That showed I wasn’t some dilettante. That showed I was true blue. Black and blue. Whatever...
Our intra-office Christmas party for 1987 was held at the City Club in the Marine Midland Bank Building a few blocks from my office. It was on the top floor overlooking all the offices that were churning out money. The downtown snobs loved it. They could get drunk in a high place. We rented a beautiful, private dining room with a bar attached to it. Our whole staff showed up, twenty-five people. Before the actual dinner, I was standing at the bar drinking with Kelly. He was drinking orange juice. He was a recovering alcoholic and didn’t drink booze. He finished his juice and asked me if I could order him a screwdriver.
I thought you’re on the wagon,” I said.
Just help me out this once,” he said. “I can handle it. I don’t want anyone to see me ordering it, boss.”
I liked being called boss. It flattered me. Silly.
Kelly continued, “I’m worried about your boxing. You could get hurt.”
I’m worried about your drinking,” I said and ordered him a drink. I was neither his conscience nor his facilitator. I let him do his thing. I don’t believe in interfering with the universe. I don’t believe in abortion or in vitro fertilization. Let nature take care of herself. If Kelly wanted to drink, that was his progression.
After that drink, Kelly didn’t care who ordered for him. He ordered three drinks at once. Within two hours he had finished eighteen drinks. He left the party to go off drinking by himself at some other bars. I knew I was in trouble.