My neighbor bobbed, then faked a punch. I flinched and he popped me on the nose and blood shot out and I yelled, “Stop, stop.”
He slugged me in the stomach and I folded at the waist and then he threw a right hook that hammered on my temple and I fell to my knees and bawled.
He sighed, “I thought you wanted to box.”
He yanked off the brand new boxing gloves and dropped them on the lawn and stomped off. Through my tears I watched him stride across the street, up the sidewalk and through the front door of his home.
It was the summer after my fifth grade and I had been ordered by Father, “Learn how to defend yourself, boy.”
In late spring of the year I’d gotten a black eye—a real shiner—when a kid socked me in the right eye. I’d called him a name—a racial slur—when our gang took on their gang.
The experience hurt on a number of levels because not only did he knock the hell out of me, but a bunch of us—not him—were hauled up to answer to Mr. Hartman. The rule on the playground was no fighting and we all had to bend over and grab our ankles while he busted our butts with his nasty paddle. The whacks echoed off the walls of his office.
By the time I walked home, my eye had swelled into a dark, puffy shiner and when Father came home he demanded, “What happened?”
My father was a serious man and when I look back now I think he was angry, too, so I didn’t always tell him the truth because the retribution could be painful. Often I would make up something or not say anything at all. It usually didn’t matter; he’d take off his wide leather belt and whip me.
But that particular moment, I didn’t fib. I told the truth because I didn’t see how telling the truth could make things any worse. But maybe it did.
He said, “If the principal busts your ass, boy, then I’m going to bust it, too, and since you like to shoot off your mouth and call people names, I’m going to bust it twice.” And he did, as he quietly ordered, “Don’t be mouthing off and calling people names, especially when you can’t defend yourself.”
The next evening when he came home, I sat at my desk in my room and faked solving arithmetic problems. He opened the door and when I turned around, he threw a box at me and barked, “Learn how to defend yourself.”
He closed the door and walked down the hall. I heard him laughing and my mother laughing, too.
In the box, two sets of new boxing gloves.
I’ve been thinking about the “sweet science,” as boxing was called when I was a kid, because I’ve been reading Louise Erdrich’s wild and magnetic novel, “The Night Watchman,” and there are scenes in there from the boxing milieu.
When I was a kid, boxing was a big deal in our lives. My father and his six brothers all boxed for fun and money, sometimes bare knuckles, and some of them were pretty good. My father knew the game well and I suspect he could throw hands with some acuity although he never talked about that, just his brothers Chuck and Ed and McKenzie.
I grew up in front of the television watching fights on Wednesday nights, and Friday nights, and Saturdays, too.
Carmen Basilio, Gaspar Ortega, Sugar Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Gene Fullmer, Floyd Patterson and Dick Tiger filled our television screens.
When Floyd Patterson fought Ingemar Johannson in an attempt to regain the world heavyweight championship, Father and I tuned in. Johannson had knocked Patterson out the year before, 1959, and the 1960 rematch was a much ballyhooed bout, at least around our house.
Instead of watching on TV, we had to listen to the radio, and that evening is one of my strongest positive memories about my father and I sharing something.
We had a great big RCA radio—one of those that stood several feet tall—one that my grandmother had back in the days when radio was the way people received a lot of important information.
It had a fine oak cabinet and big speakers below the dials and the top was rounded off like the end of a .45 caliber bullet. Both of us, Father and I, knelt on the floor and listened to Patterson knock Johansson out in the fifth round.
I don’t recall how I felt about the match’s outcome although I suspect I was proud of Patterson, proud that he and I shared American roots and he brought the championship back home where it belonged.
I think Father was a little upset because the fight didn’t go the full length.
But that evening is cemented into my recollections because we did something we rarely did . . . we bonded.
Later, not much later, Muhammad Ali, who at the time was known as Cassius Clay, came on the scene and sundered the bond that Father and I, and I suspect a lot of fathers and sons, shared over the “sweet science.”
I was a rabid Ali fan. Hell, he was close to my age. My mouth ran constantly back in those days. I knew it all, and I pissed off a lot of adults because they knew I didn’t know it all. And deep down in my guts, I knew that Ali would become champion of the world and do it with a lightning punch packed with power and a big, yakking mouth.
He was one of my heroes. At school, the physical education teachers all hated him. And their hate and my big mouth created a lot of friction when I went to PE. I boldly predicted that Ali would beat Sonny Liston and become the new champ.
When Clay won bout one in February of 1964, I couldn’t keep my trap shut and crowed like a virile rooster when I got to PE. The coach had other issues with me because, as a reporter for the Cougar Growl, our school paper, I had written an editorial criticizing his coaching strategies.
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If I hadn’t been such a jackass about Ali, it might have been less inflammatory. I knew how Coach felt about me, and there was an element of fright. Looking back now, I suspect that the thrill from my fear is what egged me on. It was heady, it was provocative. I figured he couldn’t whip me around physically just because I liked Cassius Clay who sported an element of revolution, shattered long accepted taboos, and that sang to me. I was seventeen and itching to become my idea of a man and shatter a few taboos of my own.
I revered Clay, and when he became Muhammed Ali, I didn’t—like so many of my friends—denounce him, nor did I denounce him for dodging the draft. I respected his logic.
When he was older and still fighting, I felt sad about the beatings he took, although he generally still won his bouts.
He was electric and unusual and bold.
I quit watching boxing when, in November of 1980, Roberto Duran of Manos De Peidra (Hands of Stone) fame quit fighting Sugar Ray Leonard in the 8th round of what has become known as the No Mas bout.
No Mas? No Mas?
Anger roiled my guts like a boiling volcano and after that, I didn’t watch fights.
What remains of pugilism fails to gestate the calm and satisfying bonding my father and I managed to get from those fights in the 50s and early 60s. And after Ali gave up boxing, there just wasn’t much drama that meant anything. The game became, like so much of sport, ALL about money and maybe it always was but the glitz and shimmer of the promotional pranks disgusted me.
The “sweet science” became, for me, sour.
After my neighbor knocked me around that time, I vowed to learn to punch and jab and feint and dance.
Maybe it was plain stubbornness, but I didn’t ever become proficient at boxing.
I developed my own style. I’d wade inside and somehow flip my opponents onto the ground and then punch them about the head as many times as I could. I stuck my fingers in their eyes and if necessary, I’d bite, and if I got them down and sat on their chests, I’d grab their ears and pound their heads into the ground. Sometimes it worked, others it didn’t.
Sweet Science? Not for me.