Mike Tyson: Dr. K.O.

All fighters come from mean streets and lower depths. Champions such as Sonny Liston, Archie Moore, Jake LaMotta, Dwight Braxton, and Macho Camacho have sur­vived prison detours. Mike Tyson, who could be the next great fighter, comes from the mean streets of Bed-Stuy and is a survivor of a penal institution for incor­rigible boys. When Tyson was 13 years old he moved directly from an upstate reformatory — where he’d spent two years — into the communal home of Cus D’Amato — boxing’s supreme teacher, psychologist, moralist, saver of souls, and father-substitute. D’Amato died last month at 77, and Mike Tyson, at 19, is his unfinished masterpiece.

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At this point, only boxing buffs know Mike Tyson’s name. He’s had only 13 professional fights — all awesome knock­out demolitions, nine in the first round — but he hasn’t appeared yet on network television. On March 23, 1985, he started his professional career fighting for $500. Since then he has fought in Albany, Houston, and Atlantic City. He does not have the kind of six-figure, multifight television contract that the 1984 Olympic champions received at the birth of their pro careers. He has been booked, and then bumped, from four cable-TV fights. This Friday night he makes his 10-round debut on his native ground, at the Felt Forum, against Sam Scaff for $5000.

Tyson started in boxing’s outside lane because he did not have the marketing advantage of an Olympic gold medal. He did not have the headstart glitz of past Olympic boxing champions like Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Joe Frazier, Michael and Leon Spinks, Floyd Patter­son, or George Foreman — or even of Ty­rell Biggs and Henry Tillman, the Olym­pic super-heavyweight and heavyweight gold medalists of the 1984 games in Los Angeles. All Tyson has is the power, speed, and character that might consti­tute ring genius.

The politics of amateur boxing cheated Tyson out of his rightful place on Ameri­ca’s 1984 Olympic boxing team. Cus D’Amato was advised, in a friendly way, not to even enter Tyson in the super-heavy­weight trials because that berth was reserved for Tyrell Biggs. And Tyson was robbed of two decisions in elimination fights with Tillman for the right to be the heavyweight on the Olympic squad. In one of those three-round fights Tyson scored a clean knockdown, and in the other he nearly chased Tillman out of the ring. But he lost split decisions each time.

Afterward, Tyson smashed the second­ place trophy against the wall of his dressing room.

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Tyson was not even a New York City Golden Gloves champion, like current pro contenders Carl “The Truth” Wil­liams, Eddie Gregg, and Mitch Green. Tyson had only 25 amateur fights. He never entered the Gloves during the years he was a secret being sculpted by Cus D’Amato in a gym above the police sta­tion in rural Catskill, New York, 100 miles from the deprivations and temptations of Bed-Stuy.

During those decisive years, when Ty­son was between 13 and 19, Cus D’Amato taught him everything he knew about boxing, for which Tyson had an instinc­tive aptitude, and about life — which is so much harder to learn, and for which Ty­son had only the primitive preparation of the streets and jail.

Inside the ring, Tyson quickly mas­tered the signature D’Amato moves of elusive aggression that made Floyd Pat­terson and Jose Torres (both former pu­pils of D’Amato) champions: bending at the knees to maintain balance and posi­tion; holding your gloves high, next to the cheekbones; keeping your chin down; get­ting under and inside the opponent’s jab; punching straight, short, and fast from the shoulder; and stepping to the side and throwing a left hook to the liver. (“The punch nobody can take,” Tyson says.)

During the long country walks, com­munal meals, and quiet evenings of watching grainy black and white films of the boxing masters of the past, D’Amato imparted to Tyson his special blend of psychology and philosophy. The key to it is what D’Amato called the “cultivation of character.” To Cus, “character” was a mystical combination of will, courage, self-denial, self-respect, and intensity. Cus told all his fighters, “The hero and the coward both feel exactly the same fear, only the hero confronts his fear and converts it into fire.”

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Cus also said that fighters of good skill and great character will often beat an opponent of superior skill but less character.

Cus also conveyed to Tyson his idea of the goal of the trainer-fighter relation­ship: for the fighter to eventually become completely independent of the trainer, and for the trainer to make himself obso­lete. This was one reason why D’Amato himself never worked in Tyson’s corner; he wanted to nurture in Tyson the confi­dence of self-sufficiency during a fight, so he would not feel dependent on an external adviser.

Five years ago my friend José Torres told me that D’Amato had found a trou­bled 14-year-old “kid from Brooklyn who is going to become the heavyweight champion of the world.” D’Amato had discovered Jose in the squalor of Ponce, Puerto Rico, in 1957 when Jose was still an amateur, and guided him not just to a world championship but to a successful second act as a writer and state commis­sioner after his boxing career was over. Along the way Cus never had a written contract with José. Cus never took a dime from all the money José earned during his career, because Cus felt he was making enough money to live on from Floyd Patterson’s purses. When José was broke and on the way up, Cus paid for his wed­ding. When Cus died, he left no material assets or estate; he hadn’t had a bank account for 15 years. Jim Jacobs, Cus’s best friend, paid all of his expenses.

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So one morning in 1980, José and I went to the gym above the police station in Catskill, and we saw the future. Tyson was then 14 years old, 200 pounds, and about five-six. Outside the ring he seemed withdrawn and sullen. Inside the ring he was a manchild prodigy puncher. Toward Cus he displayed the beginnings of trust and affection.

On the day Cus died last month, Tyson cried and was inconsolable. The next day José Torres drove him to the train that would take him back to Catskill and spoke to Tyson fighter-to-fighter, brother-to-brother, since Cus had been a father to both of them.

“Who is going to teach me now?” Tyson asked. ”I was learning every day with Cus.”

Torres answered: “Cus had enough time. You know everything already. You now know everything Cus could teach you. Cus gave you inspiration. All you need now is experience, confidence, and desire.”

That same night I happened to read my daughter the end of E. B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,” the chapter where the brave old spider dies, consoled by the ­knowledge that her eggs are rescued and about to be hatched.

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The history of boxing is the history of immigrant succession in America. Fighters don’t come from prep schools or seminaries. The best way to understand this dangerous, corrupt, and disorganized sport is through the eyes of Charles Darwin.

When the Irish were the urban under­class after the famine of 1848, the great champions were John L. Sullivan, James J. Corbett, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, and Torry McGovern. The generation of Jewish immigrants fleeing the pogroms of Russia and Europe produced, during the ’20s and ’30s, Benjamin Leiner, known as Benny Leonard, and Beryl David Rosofsky, known as Barney Ross.

In the ’30s and ’40s, blacks found box­ing as an exit from the slum, and started to dominate the sport. Out of the jobless Detroit ghetto, at the bottom of the Depression, stormed Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson. From Los Angeles came the first triple champion, Henry Armstrong.

In the ’60s and ’70s, great fighters emerged out of Latin America’s third world poverty: Roberto Duran from Pan­ama, Wilfredo Gomez from Puerto Rico, Carlos Monzon from Argentina, Alexis Arguello from Nicaragua, Jose Napoles from Cuba, Ruben Oliyares and Salvador Sanchez from Mexico.

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And so Mike Tyson was born in Brook­lyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant in July 1966 into an environment of riots, heroin, crime, disintegrating family structure, and collapsing public schools. He was born on Franklin Avenue, between De­Kalb and Willoughby, not far from where another fighter of the future, Mark Bre­land — the 1984 Olympic welterweight gold medal winner — was growing up. When Tyson was about nine, he moved to Brownsville, which is even more impover­ished than Bed-Stuy.

It is probably a miracle that Mike Ty­son did not die in a shootout with police, or end up doing 25 years in Attica. By the time he was 10 or 11 years old he was a remorseless predator, disconnected from society, doing muggings, stick-ups, and holding the gun during armed robberies, “because I was a juvenile.” Once he was knifed in the face by someone he had beaten in a fair fight.

Tyson attended the same public school I did — P.S. 54, at the corner of Nostrand Avenue and Hart Street. He was a good student at the beginning, but by fifth grade he had become a chronic truant. “I knew who my father was, but he never lived with us,” Tyson says. Abnormally strong for his age, he was able to knock kids five years older unconscious in street fights. They would jab and jive like Ali, and Tyson would rush in and land his punch of natural power.

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“I started hanging out with a bad crowd,” he recalls now. “After I was about 10, I lived on the street. We robbed stores, gas stations, everything. I got ar­rested lots of times. I can’t count how many. They put me in a lot of different places that I escaped from. I just walked out in the middle of the night because they had no fences. I was in Spofford House in the Bronx for about eight months. Then I got convicted of assault and they sentenced me to 18 months in Tryon, a school for bad boys. But the held me overtime. I did two years because I knocked out a few guards and some residents. I was hyper in Tryon, and I couldn’t escape. I felt cooped up and frustrated with all my energy, so I had a lot of fights. But please, don’t think I was a murderer or anything like that. I wasn’t that bad.”

The confidentiality provisions of the state’s social services law prohibited the administration and counselors at the Tryon School in Johnstown, New York, from talking for quotation about Tyson. But off-the-record they are all proud of the kid they remember as originally the most difficult of 35 residents who lived in medium-security Elmwood Cottage. In April 1984, the state’s youth services commissioner, Leonard Dunston, presented Tyson with a plaque for accom­plishment after being a resident in a state juvenile facility.

When Tyson first arrived at Tryon he was “violent, depressed, and mute,” ac­cording to one of his counselors. After a couple months he discovered boxing with gloves instead of fists. One of the guards at Tryon was Bobby Stewart, a former pro boxer who knew about D’Amato’s boxing club in nearby Catskill. Stewart arranged a meeting during which he sparred with Tyson in front of Cus. Even­tually, Tyson was paroled into Cus D’Amato’s custody. He moved in with Cus; Cus’s companion of 45 years, Ca­mille Ewald; Kevin Rooney, Cus’s loyal fighter from Staten Island, who would become Tyson’s friend and trainer; and the other young boxers who were part of the extended D’Amato family.

Things did not go smoothly at first. Cus enrolled Tyson in the local public school, but Tyson knocked out a few classmates, and Cus had to arrange for a private tutor to visit the house.

For the next six years D’Amato and Tyson worked and talked together every day. Tyson not only learned how to box from Cus, he learned the rules of civilized society. He also learned Cus’s code of honor: loyalty, perfectionism, courage. And no contact with — and no compro­mise with — the corrupters and connivers of boxing.

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By being such a gifted pupil, Tyson, in return, gave Cus the treasure of looking forward to the future. He made Cus feel young again. Cus felt like it was 1962 again, and José Torres was undefeated, and Paul Pender, the middleweight champion, was ducking his fighter. With Tyson’s father absent, and his mother (now deceased) living in Brooklyn, Cus became Tyson’s legal guardian.

Some fighters can be obnoxious bullies outside the ring. But every fighter Cus ever trained was a considerate gentleman. And under Cus’s tutelage, Tyson, too, began to feel free to display playfulness and even tenderness. He returned to an old hobby he’d had in Brooklyn — collecting pigeons. Tyson now spends hours training and playing with his collection of 100 pigeons. The birds give him peace, and are his second favorite form of recreation.

His favorite relaxation — also a solitary pursuit — is studying old boxing movies on a big screen in his bedroom. His co-managers, Jim Jacobs and Bill Cayton, own the world’s largest collection of boxing films and tapes — about 26,000. Their company, Big Fights Inc., is a $20 million corporation that sells the rights to show these films. So Tyson has access to his own vast film archive of past champions. He has become an authentic historian and scholar of the sweet science.

When I asked Tyson about the cham­pions of the past he most admired and identified with, I got answers that were surprising and revealing. I had anticipat­ed his identification with pure punchers like Liston and Foreman, but he dis­missed them as “just ponderous guys without too much brains.”

His favorite fighter, he said, was Rocky Marciano. “He broke their will,” Tyson said with reverence. “He was constantly coming in. But he swayed low, so the punches hit him on the shoulder. He didn’t get hit as much as people think he did. And we have in common fighting guys with longer reach.”

The second champion Tyson men­tioned was Tony Canzoneri, the clever-­aggressive, five-four, two-time light­weight champion during the 1930s. “Canzoneri had incredible guts and de­sire,” Tyson said. “And he was so smart.”

“And I love Henry Armstrong,” Tyson volunteered. “You know, Cus thought he was the best boxer who ever lived.”

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Six days after Tyson was a pallbearer at Cus D’Amato’s funeral, he was sched­uled to fight Eddie Richardson in Hous­ton, Texas, for $2500. Jim Jacobs, Tyson ‘s co-manager with Bill Cayton, contemplated calling the fight off when he saw how “traumatized” Tyson had been by the death of D’Amato. But Ty­son wanted to go through with the fight; whatever grief and loss he felt, he would not let it interfere with Cus’s radical plan of fighting every 10 days to acquire experience and confidence. When boxing writ­ers in Houston asked him if he was emotionally prepared to fight so soon after Cus’s burial, Tyson told them: “I have certain objectives, and I’m going to fulfill them.” Jim Jacobs never saw him so ”res­olute and determined.”

Cus had been telling the boxing com­munity for years that Tyson was going to be “the youngest heavyweight champion in history,” and Tyson wants to make Cus a prophet. Under Cus’s direction, Floyd Patterson became champion at 21 years and nine months, and Tyson, not yet 20, has set his mind to break that record, even though it places him under the pressure of an artificial timetable.

At this infant stage of Tyson’s career, there are naturally unanswered questions about what hidden weaknesses might lurk beneath his growing aura of invinci­bility. Other fighters have looked like un­beatable monsters, only to have tiny flaws exposed and broken open under pressure from great rivals in big fights. Muhammad Ali unmasked George Fore­man’s lack of stamina and mechanistic inability to adjust his tactics and style. Larry Holmes revealed Gerry Cooney’s lack of confidence in his own endurance, and his demoralization when someone took his best shot and was still standing. Sugar Ray Leonard found weakness in Thomas Hearns’s chin, and ignorance of how to clinch when dazed.

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So in Texas, the herd of boxing writers seized upon Tyson’s height and reach as the potential flaw in this jewel. Tyson, at five-eleven and a half, is short when com­pared to Foreman, Ali, or Holmes. Since Jack Johnson won the heavyweight title in 1908, only two heavyweight champions have been under six feet — Rocky Mar­ciano and Joe Frazier. And Tyson’s reach is not nearly as long as future rivals like Pinklon Thomas, Tyrell Biggs, Tim Witherspoon, Greg Page, Carl Williams, Gerry Cooney, or Michael Spinks. And his opponent in Houston was Eddie Richardson, who is six feet six inches tall, with a reach advantage of about nine inches.

“Are you too short to be a heavy­weight?” the skeptical writers kept ask­ing Tyson before the fight.

“None of my past opponents say that,” was Tyson’s standard reply.

Richardson was an adequate journey­man fighter — he had 12 wins and two losses going into the bout, with eight knockouts. Tyson had won all his 11 fights by knockouts.

The fight in Houston lasted 77 sec­onds. The first punch Tyson threw — a freight-train overhand right — knocked Richardson down. He got up, but Tyson, advancing in crouch, hit him with a left hook so fast that Richardson never saw it coming. Richardson seemed to be lifted off the canvas by the force of the blow, and fell backwards like a sawed-down tree. He was counted out.

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In the dressing room, before the local writers could formulate their questions, a pumped-up Tyson asked: “Do you still think I’m too short?” When an interview­er asked Tyson what lessons he had learned from D’Amato, he answered: “To face your problems.”

Several viewings of the tape of this fight, and the tape of Tyson’s one-round knockout in September of the six foot four Donnie Long, suggest the simple es­sence of Tyson’s distinction. He punches harder than anybody else. It was this raw natural power that Cus D’Amato saw when Tyson was 13 years old and still in a prison for adolescents. D’Amato merely concentrated and refined this power by teaching Tyson to punch in a shorter arc, improve his timing and hand speed, and develop a left hook that is just as power­ful as his right. D’Amato discovered Ty­son, but he didn’t invent him.

Tyson’s victims all say afterward that they have never been hit so hard. Donnie Long, who had never been knocked out before, said Tyson’s punch “felt like a blackjack.” Sterling Benjamin, who suc­cumbed in 54 seconds, said it felt “like a sledgehammer hit me.” He was put down by a left hook to the liver — Tyson’s punch “nobody can take.”

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John Condon is the head of Madison Square Garden’s boxing department. He has been around fighters for 30 years. He told me: “I have never seen anybody punch like Tyson. Not Marciano, not Lis­ton. Nobody. He would knock out Gerry Cooney today in one round. His trouble will be no one is going to want to fight him.”

Nobody can give a professional fighter this magnitude of punching authority. It comes from nature’s chemistry of lever­age, upper-body strength, timing, and quickness of hand that prevents the op­ponent from preparing his nervous sys­tem for the impact. Professionals get knocked out by the punch they don’t see coming.

One-punch destroyers have come in all shapes and physiques. A surprising num­ber of legendary hitters have been tall and thin: Ray Robinson, Sandy Saddler, Bob Foster, Thomas Hearns, Carlos Zarate, and Alexis Arguello. An equal num­ber have been compact, strong, and stocky: Stanley Ketchel, Joe Frazier, Ar­chie Moore, Sonny Liston, Wilfredo Go­mez, and Rocky Marciano.

Whatever the secret formula is, Tyson was born with it. But a punch by itself is no guarantee of success or greatness. It must exist in combination with other qualities  “character,” defense, and in­telligence. And there must not be that small vulnerability that some future foe will find and exploit in a contest the whole world is watching.

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Perhaps the most common unseen vul­nerability in young prospects is the in­ability to take a punch. This quality can­not be taught, and it cannot be known until it is tested in an actual fight. Cus thought the ability to take a punch was a reflection of character and will. Other trainers believe the ability to relax in the ring and the thickness of the neck as a shock absorber are also factors in avoid­ing being knocked out. This capacity to survive the other man’s best blow was one of the dimensions that made Ray Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, Harry Greb, Henry Armstrong, Carmen Basilio, Sandy Saddler, and Sug­ar Ray Leonard boxing immortals. Tyson told me: ”I know I can take a great punch, but I don’t want to have to prove it.”

Tyson’s extraordinary 19-and-a-half-­inch neck is a good indication he can probably take a great punch. But he was once tested in this regard, in his toughest amateur fight.

This involuntary experiment occurred in the heavyweight finals of the Empire State Games in April of 1984, just before the Olympic trials. Tyson, then not yet 18, was fighting Winston Bent, the reign­ing New York City Golden Gloves champion.

During an exchange in the second round, Bent jolted Tyson with a right hand to the temple. Tyson punched back with fury. He did not go down. He did not retreat. And in the next round he knocked Bent out. It was an example of what Cus D’ Amato meant when he talked about “character” in a fighter.

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On November 22 — nine days after his knockout in Texas — Tyson was in the ring again. The· location was Albany, and his opponent was Conroy Nelson, six foot five inches, and with a professional re­cord of 19 wins and five losses. He had a 10-inch reach advantage.

The venue was a music tent, sold out with 3000 people plus 400 standees on a cold, rainy night. They’d all come to see Tyson, who has become a hero in the Albany-Troy-Schnectady area. (The tele­vision networks are now considering showing Tyson for the first time in February, and staging the fight in the Albany area so there will be an enthusiastic live crowd rather than the usual indifferent gamblers and tourists who attend the fights staged in the Atlantic City and Nevada casino hotels.)

The second Tyson departed his trailer dressing room — wearing no socks and no robe; as is his tradition — the crowd start­ed screaming. And Tyson, who learned from Cus there is an entertainment and personality aspect to boxing, smiled and interacted with his fans.

At the opening bell Tyson sprang to the attack, immediately imposing his will and energy level on his opponent. Nelson retreated and covered his head with his gloves. Tyson stepped to the side and went to the body with supersonic hooks to the liver and kidney.

George Foreman at 26 did not have enough poise, flexibility, or intelligence to do this with Muhammad Ali in Zaire. Foreman kept trying to punch through Ali’s parrying gloves, and hit him in his bobbing and twisting head, instead of his stationary body. Foreman kept missing, got frustrated and exhausted, and Ali knocked him out. But Tyson, at 19, had the wisdom and patience to feast on Nelson’s exposed ribs until his hands came down, his breath came in gasps, and his legs lost their spring.

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Twenty seconds into the second round Tyson hit Nelson with one short, perfect­ly timed left hook that smashed the bridge of Nelson’s nose into pieces. Nel­son went down, managed to get to one knee at the count of nine, and then with his fearful eyes and tentative body lan­guage, signaled the referee that he didn’t wish to continue.

As soon as the bout was over a 10-year-­old kid named Tony, who trained with Cus, jumped into the ring, and held up a homemade sign that said: GOODEN IS DR. K — BUT TYSON IS DR. KO.

Afterward, in the trailer, with a trace of irritation, Tyson answered unusually silly questions from some of the local press. One scribe asked about a local politician who wanted to shut down Cus’s Catskill gym because it was “dirty.” Tyson and Kevin Rooney said they never heard of the crazy idea.

Another reporter asked Tyson if he ex­pected to win all his fights by knockouts. “That’s not possible,” Tyson the Histori­an replied. “Joe Louis didn’t knock out every opponent. Schmeling didn’t either. Nobody can.”

After the local press left, I followed José Torres behind a curtain, where he embraced Tyson. Tyson whispered, “Cus would have been proud.”

The following morning, Tyson told Ca­mille: “It was just like Cus was there. Everything he taught me came back to me.”

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Boxing is now in a phase of transition. The Age of Muhammad Ali is over. Mar­vin Hagler is so magnificent he has run out of relevant competition. Boxing is at such a low ebb that Gerry Cooney, who has never beaten a legitimate contender under 35 years old, is being considered for a heavyweight title fight when his only credential is his white skin.

But about to dance on stage is the next generation of Mark Breland, Pernell Whitaker, and Mike Tyson. If boxing is going to be cleansed of its monopolistic manipulations and counterfeit crowns, it will occur when these three rising stars with honest managers become free and independent champions, liberated from phony rating organizations and option contracts to promoters.

So watch Mike Tyson, Cus’s kid from Brooklyn, this Friday night at the Felt Forum. He has overcome every adversity to redeem a wayward life and become a role model to a lost generation of the ghetto.

But while watching him, remember he is just 19. Inside his man’s body are teen­age emotions and inexperience. He has been a professional boxer less than nine months. He has never gone more than four rounds outside the gym. He has nev­er gone 10 rounds, much less the champi­onship 15.

There will be more tests to find hidden flaws in Tyson. We haven’t seen what will happen the first time some freak just shrugs off his punch. We don’t know how Tyson will handle the money and celebri­ty that are about to crash into his order­ly, ritualized life.

The Tyson we will see Friday night is not yet Muhammad Ali, or Joe Frazier, or Rocky Marciano. But at 19 he is more advanced than they were at 19. And 12 or 15 months from now, Mike Tyson could become the youngest heavyweight champion in history. Just as Cus D’Amato and his extended family knew years ago.


Up the Stairs with Cus D’Amato

In those days, you had to pass a small candy stand to get to the door of the Gramercy Gym on East 14th Street. The door was heavy, with painted zinc nailed across its face and a misspelled sign saying “Gramacy Gym,” and when you opened the door, you saw a long badly lit stairway, climbing into darkness. There was another door on the landing, and a lot of tough New York kids would reach that landing and find themselves unable to open the second door. They’d go back down the stairs, try to look cool as they bought a soda at the candy stand, then hurry home. Many others opened the second door. And when they did, they entered the tough, hard, disciplined school of a man named Cus D’Amato.

“First thing I want to know about a kid,” Cus said to me once, on some lost night in the ’50s, “is whether he can open that door. Then when he walks in, I look at him, try to see what he’s seeing. Most of them stand at the door. They see guys skipping rope, shadowboxing, hitting the bags. Most of all, they see guys in the ring. Fighting. And then they have to decide. Do they want this, or not? If they want it, they stay, they ask someone what they should do. Most of them are shy, for some reason. Almost all fighters. They whisper. You tell them to come back, and you’ll see what can be done. They have to spend at least one night dealing with fear. If they come back the second time, then maybe you have a fighter.”

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I wasn’t a fighter, but I came up those stairs almost every day in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and in some important ways I learned as much from Cus D’Amato as the fighters did. I was living then on 9th Street and Second Avenue, working nights at the Post, and I’d wake up around three in the afternoon and walk to 14th Street and hang out with the fighters. My friend José Torres was then the hottest young middleweight in the city and one of Cus D’Amato’s fighters. He had lost by one point to Laszlo Papp in the finals of the ’56 Olympics in Melbourne, and when he came to New York from Puerto Rico he placed his career in the hands of Cus.

“I didn’t know anything about New York,” he said. “I didn’t know very much about boxing. Most of all, I didn’t know anything about life. So I learned about everything then from Cus.”

Cus, who died last week at 77 after a long struggle with pneumonia, was one of the best teachers I ever met. He was a tough, intelligent man who was almost Victorian in his beliefs in work and self-denial and fierce concentration. For years he’d lived alone in the office of the gym, accompanied only by a huge boxer dog named Champ; there were books on the shelves (he loved the Civil War and essays on strategy and tactics and almost never read novels, although he admired W. C. Heinz’s The Professional) and a gun somewhere and a small black-and-­white TV set and a pay phone on the wall. After Floyd Patterson became champion in 1956, Cus took an apartment over a coffee shop on 53rd Street and Broadway and bought some elegantly tailored clothes and a homburg; but, talking to him, I always sensed that his idea of paradise was that room and the cot in the office of the Gramercy Gym.

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“You can’t want too many things,” he said to me one wintry evening, after the fighters had gone, the speed bags were stilled, and we stood at the large gym windows while snow fell into 14th Street. “The beginning of corruption is wanting things. You want a car or a fancy house or a piano, and the next thing you know, you’re doing things you didn’t want to do, just to get the things. I guess maybe that’s why I never got married. It wasn’t that I didn’t like women. They’re nice. It’s nice. It’s that women want things, and if I want the woman, then I have to want the things she wants. Hey, I don’t want a new refrigerator, or a big TV set, or a new couch … ”

Cus wanted his fighters to be champions, to have money and glory; but he truly didn’t seem to want much for himself. Once a bum made his way to the Gramercy from the White Rose bar across the street; Cus gave him a dollar; the next day, five bums showed up, and the day after that, almost 40. The fighters laughed, as Cus dispensed singles; and then Cus said, “That’s it, that’s all! You want to come back here, bring trunks!” He was a sucker for old fighters. Once when Cus had the shorts (he had to declare bankruptcy in 1971) Ezzard Charles came around to see him; the great light-heavyweight and former heavyweight champion was a broken man, confined to a wheelchair; he needed a thousand, and Cus borrowed the money, gave it to the old champion, and never heard from Charles again. When Patterson won the championship by knocking out Archie Moore on November 30, 1956, Cus used his share of the purse to make Floyd an elaborate $35,000 jewel-encrusted crown; a few years later, Patterson wouldn’t even talk to Cus. Cus once quoted Gene Fowler to me: “Money is something to throw off the back of trains.”

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He loved style in fighters and in writers, too. His favorite sports writers were Jimmy Cannon, Dick Young, and Dan Parker, all of whom took shots at him in print from time to time (“I don’t mind, they gotta job to do and I’m not perfect”), but he also said that the sports writer who moved him most consistently was the elegant Frank Graham of the Journal-American. Later, when Torres became friends with Norman Mailer, Cus started to read his work, as if inspecting it for signs of moral decay. “The guy is really good, isn’t he? He’s like a Robinson, he can box, he can punch … ”

He cherished great fighters — Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Sandy Saddler, Willie Pep, Tommy Loughran — but sometimes, late at night, sitting over coffee, he’d talk about the fighter that didn’t exist: the perfect fighter, the masterpiece. “The ideal fighter has heart, skill, movement, intelligence, creativity. You can have everything, but if you can’t make it up while you’re in there, you can’t be great. A lot of guys have the mechanics and no heart; lots of guys have heart, no mechanics; the thing that puts it together, it’s mysterious, it’s like making a work of art, you bring everything to it, you make it up when you’re doing it.”

Toward the end, he thought perhaps that he had the perfect heayweight at last in young Michael Tyson, who has now knocked out all nine of his professional opponents, six in the first round. “He’s strong, he’s brave, he’s in condition, and most of all, he’s got that other thing, the mysterious thing,” Cus said, the last time I saw him. “I have no doubt he’ll be a champion. But more than that, he might be a great fighter.”

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There were a lot of good fighters at the Gramercy in the late ‘5os: Joe Shaw, a fierce-punching 140-pounder; light-heavyweight Jim Boyd, who’d won the gold medal in Melbourne; two more light-heavyweights, named Sylvester Banks and Paul Wright; a wonderful southpaw featherweight named Floyd Smith; and some fine amateurs ranging from bantamweight Georgie Colon to light-heavyweight Simon Ramos. But as Cus became more involved managing Patterson and Torres, the day-to-day training was left to Joe Fariello (now educating Mark Breland). Cus was away at camp with Patterson; he was up at Stillman’s with Torres, to find experienced professionals for sparring partners. And during the same period, Cus was waging his wars with the International Boxing Club and Madison Square Garden. Some people thought he grew increasingly paranoid.

“If this goes down instead of up,” he said to me one day as we stepped into an elevator in a midtown office building, “we’re in trouble.”

He laughed, but Cus meant it, too. The Mob was all over boxing when Cus brought his first good fighters out of the Gramercy Gym. The hoodlums cut into fighters, arranged tank jobs, fixed judges. Frankie Carbo was called the underworld’s commissioner of boxing, a vicious punk who lived off other men’s sweat and controlled a number of managers. Carbo was friendly, sort of, with Jim Norris, a rich bum with a hoodlum complex who ran the IBC out of the old Garden on Eighth Avenue and 50th Street. There’s no room here to relate the details of Cus D’Amato’s sustained contest with Norris, Carbo, and the Garden. Certainly he was on the moral high ground, but the terrible thing was that his personal crusade also hurt his fighters.

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We’ll never know how good Patterson and Torres might have become if they’d been fighting more often, battling those fighters who were controlled by the IBC and the Garden. Certainly Torres would have made more money. I remember one main event he had to take in Boston, when he was still a hot fighter in New York. The total purse came to $28.35. Joe Fariello said, “Joe, you take the $20, I’ll take the $8, and we’ll send the 35 cents to Cus.” Patterson did get rich, and Torres did become champion years later than he should have, and in the wrong division (he was one of the greatest middleweights I ever saw, but had to settle for the light-heavyweight championship in 1965). But the competitive fire of Shaw withered from lack of action; the others drifted away.

“It breaks my heart sometimes, thinking about those kids not fighting,” he said to me once. “But I don’t see any other way.”

That was the problem. From 1959 on, Cus never worked a corner for any of his fighters; he didn’t even hold a manager’s license, as a result of the botched promotion of the 1959 Patterson-Johansson fight, when it appeared (but was never proved) that Cus helped bring Fat Tony Salerno in as a money man. The fighters did their best, and for some fights Cus would come to camp, work with them, talk strategy and tactics. But Patterson broke with him, and Torres was forced to go with another manager (Cain Young) to get his chance at a title. Around the time Torres retired, Cus moved upstate, far from the gyms of the city. “I like it up there,” he said once. “I like the clear skies, the lake, where I go fishing. It’s beautiful. Beautiful.” Did he miss the gym on 14th Street? “Yeah,” he said. “Sometimes … ”

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The last time I saw him was almost exactly a year ago, on the 57th floor of the World Trade Center. We were there to watch Torres be sworn in as chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, the first professional fighter and the first Puerto Rican ever to hold the job. “I’m so proud of José, I can’t explain it,” Cus said. We talked about Tyson and other things. And then I asked him if he’d ever gone back to the Gramercy Gym since he sold it in the ’70s. “No,” he said, and looked up at Jose, who was standing with Mario Cuomo at the front of the room. “No, I don’t like to look back.”

And so I did the looking back, sitting in the packed, brightly lit conference room, remembering Cus talking to me when I was 20 about the uses of fear, the meaning of courage, the need to concentrate energy and purpose in all things, and how I’d tried and failed so often to follow his lessons. I’d modeled a character on Cus in one of my novels, and he’d liked the book but objected when he saw the TV movie; on the screen, John Cassavetes stood on a ring apron talking to a fighter and smoking a cigarette. “What manager would do that? What kind of example would he be showing to a kid?” I remembered that conversation, and after José was sworn in, I turned to Cus and said, “Listen, Cus, I want to thank you for everything.” He squinted suspiciously at me. “What do you mean?” he said, and I said, “For letting me climb the stairs.”

He nodded, turned away, and said, “You goddamned writers.”

I’m sorry I never got to explain. ❖


Mike Tyson: Cockfight in the Desert

Blood and Neon — Tyson, Smith, Las Vegas, and Boxing

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA — In a ring still stained with blood from the heavyweight fight that preceded it, Mike Tyson, at 20 the youn­gest heavyweight titleholder in boxing history, brings the fight for unification of the title to James “Bone­crusher” Smith, an aging athlete at 33, and the only heavyweight titleholder in boxing history to have graduated from college. Smith will have none of it. Min­ute follows minute, round follows grind­ing round, as Tyson tries to get inside to throw the rapid-fire combinations for which he is famous, and Smith clinches, backs away, walks away, clinches again, hugging his frustrated and increasingly infuriated opponent like a drowning man hugging something — anything — that floats. For the most part Smith’s expres­sion is blank, with the blankness of fear, a stark unmitigated fear without shame, yet shameful to witness. The referee, Mills Lane, exasperated, penalizes Smith by deducting points from him after rounds two and eight. (“I could have de­ducted a point from him after each round,” Lane said afterward, “but you don’t like to do that in a title fight.”) “Fight!” the crowd shouts vainly. “Do something!”

The pattern of the fight is immediately established: in the entire twelve rounds virtually nothing will happen that does not happen in the first thirty seconds of the first round. The spectator is gripped by stasis itself, by the perversity of the expectation that, against all evidence, something will happen. While my press colleagues to a man will report the match boring (according to the Los Angeles Times, “Two interior decorators could have done each other more damage”), I find it uniquely tense and exhausting; not unlike the first Spinks-Holmes fight in which the frustrated Holmes carried his right glove for round after round like a talismanic club waiting to be swung. This is the very poetry of masculine frustra­tion — the failure of psychic closure.

In the ringside seats close by me, Smith’s fellow boxers Trevor Berbick and Edwin Rosario are particularly vocal, as if in an agony of professional discomfort. For it seems that the superbly condition­ed Smith — who had performed so dra­matically only three months ago in Madi­son Square Garden, knocking out Tim Witherspoon in the first round of his WBA title defense — is now, suddenly, not a boxer. Though in an elevated and gar­ishly spotlit ring with another man, con­tracted for $1 million to fight him, per­forming in front of a crowd of 13,600 people in the Hilton’s newly erected out­door stadium and how many millions of television viewers, Smith cannot or will not fight. His instinct is merely to sur­vive — to get through twelve rounds with no injuries more serious than a bleeding left eye and a bad swelling on the right side of his face; and to retreat, profes­sionally disgraced, to his wife, family, and plans for the future (“Being a champion opens lots of doors — I’d like to get a real estate license, maybe sell insurance”) in Magnolia, North Carolina.

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Berbick writhes in the folding chair beside me, muttering, laughing, derisive, very nearly as frustrated as Mike Tyson, and clearly resentful — after all, Berbick fought Tyson here in November, and spectacularly (and humiliatingly) lost to him, in the third minute of the second round of that fight. Berbick too had tried to clinch with Tyson, to slow him down, to frustrate him; but Berbick had also fought him, or at least made a game attempt (“I wanted to prove my manhood,” Berbick said afterward, ruefully, “that was my mistake”). In this match, Smith’s manhood is not evidently an is­sue. He has no “machismo” to display or defend; if he is a boxer it must be by default. The six-four 233-pound Bone­crusher is a zombie tonight, a parody of a boxer, so resistant to boxing’s visible and invisible rules, that complex of mores that make boxing at once the most primi­tive and the most sophisticated of contact sports, that it is fascinating to watch him — to a degree.

Of current heavyweights Smith has in­variably been one of the most erratic and unpredictable in performance; capable, under pressure, of boxing well, yet strangely and unprofessionally suscepti­ble to vagaries of mood. Perhaps because he has no real vocation as a boxer — and no more instinct for fighting than one might expect from a man with a B.A. in business administration (from Shaw Col­lege, North Carolina) — he is easily de­moralized in the ring, allowing childlike expressions of triumph, hurt, bewilderment, and acute unhappiness to show on his face, as boxers so rarely do. He boxes as an intelligent man might box whose intelligence is his only weapon in an ac­tion in which “intelligence” must be subordinated to something more fundamen­tal. He draws upon no deeper reserves of self — no energy, imagination, emotion — beyond those of consciousness.

As for Tyson: unlike Dempsey, Mar­ciano, and Frazier, those famously ag­gressive fighters to whom he is often compared, he is not a reckless boxer; he is not willing, as so many boxer-fighters are, to take four or five punches in order to throw a punch of his own. His training is defensive, and cautious — hence the peek-a-boo stance, a Cus D’Amato signature: a return to boxing as the art of self-defense, of hitting your man, and scoring points, without being hit in return. D’A­mato trained Tyson to bob, weave, slip punches from sparring partners without throwing a single punch in response — a conditioning that has made Tyson an anomaly in the ring. His reputation is for power, speed, and aggression, but his de­fensive skills are as remarkable, if less dramatic.

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Confronted with an opponent like Bonecrusher Smith, who violates the de­corum of the ring by not fighting, Tyson is at a loss: he hits his man after the bell, in an adolescent display of frustration; he exchanges insults with him during the fight, makes jeering faces; pushes, shoves, laces the cut over Smith’s eye during a clinch; betrays remnants of his Brooklyn street-fighting days (Tyson, as a child of ten, was one of the youngest members of a notorious gang called the Jolly Stomp­ers) that his training as a boxer should have overcome. In short, his inexperience shows.

Tyson’s predicament vis-á-vis Smith recalls Jack Dempsey, similarly frustrat­ed in his matches with Tunney, shouting at his retreating opponent, “Come on and fight” (the subtext being, “Come on and fight like a man!”). But Dempsey was not a strategic boxer of the sort Tyson has been meticulously trained to be; Demp­sey’s ring style was virtually nonstop of­fense with very little defense. Outboxed by the more cautious and more intelligent Tunney, he eventually lost both fights. In the Tyson-Smith match there is no ques­tion that Tyson is the superior boxer; he will win every round unanimously and triumph in what is in fact one of the easiest fights of his two-year career as a professional. But this is hardly the dra­matic public performance he’d hoped to give, and the fight’s promoters had hoped to present. No knockout, none of the dazzling combinations of blows for which he is known — very little of what D’Amato taught his proteges was the boxer’s pri­mary responsibility to his audience: to entertain. Winning too can be a kind of failure.

This fight recalls several previous fights of Tyson’s with opponents who, out of fear or cunning, or both, refused to fight him. Yet more worrisomely it also recalls Joe Louis’s predicament as heavy­weight champion in those years when, after having cleared the heavyweight di­vision of all serious contenders, he was reduced to fighting mere opponents­ — “Bums-of-the-Month” as the press deri­sively called them. Worse, Louis’s reputa­tion as a puncher, a machine for hitting, so intimidated opponents that they were frightened to enter the ring with him. (“Enter the ring? My man had to be helped down the aisle!” one manager is said to have exclaimed.)

Though most of Mike Tyson’s twenty-­eight fights have ended with knockouts, often in early rounds, and once (with Joe Frazier’s hapless son Marvis) within thir­ty seconds of the first round, several op­ponents have slowed him down as Bone­crusher Smith has done — making Tyson appear baffled, thwarted, intermittently clumsy. “Quick” Tillis and Mitch Green come most readily to mind; and, though Tyson eventually knocked him out in the final round of a 10-round fight, Jose Ri­balta. Perhaps the ugliest fight of Tyson’s career was with Jesse Ferguson who, in a performance anticipating Smith’s, held on to Tyson with such desperation after Tyson had broken Ferguson’s nose that even the referee could not free the men. (Ferguson was disqualified and the fight was ruled a TKO for Tyson.) Such performances do not constitute boxing at its best moments, nor do they presage well or Tyson’s future: to be a great champion, one must have great opponents.

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In the antebellum American South white slave owners frequently pitted their black slaves against each other in fights of spectacular savagery, and made bets on the results. The descendants of these slaves, and their black kinsmen from the West Indies, Africa, and elsewhere, freely fight one another for purses of gratifying generosity: the highest paid athletes in the world are American boxers, and the highest paying fights are always in Las Vegas.

Incongruity, like vulgarity, is not a con­cept in Las Vegas. This fantasyland for adults, with its winking neon skyline and its twenty-four-hour clockless casinos ex­ists as a counter-world to our own. There is no day here — the enormous casinos are pure interiority, like the inside of a skull. Gambling, as Francois Mauriac once said, is continuous suicide. There is no past, no significant future, only an eternal and always optimistic present tense. Vegas is our quintessentially American city, a series of hotels in the desert, shrines of chance in which, presumably, we are all equal as we are not equal before the law, or God, or one another. One sees in the casinos, especially at those acres and acres of slot machines, men and women of all ages, races, types, degrees of probable or improbable intelligence, as fiercely attentive to their machines as academi­cians are to their word processors. If one keeps on, faithfully, obsessively, one will surely hit The Jackpot. (You know it’s The Jackpot when your machine lights up, a goofy melody ensues, and a flood of coins comes tumbling into your lap like a lascivious Greek god.) The ready dialects of irony — the habitual tone of the cultural critic in 20th century America — are as foreign here as snow, or naturally green grass.

So it is hardly incongruous that boxing matches are held in the Las Vegas Hilton and Caesar’s Palace, VIP tickets at $1000 or more (and the cheapest tickets, at $75, so remote from the ring that attendance at a fight is merely nominal, or symbolic); it is not incongruous that this most physic­al of sports — like the flipping of cards or the throw of dice — is most brilliantly realized as a gambling opportunity. Since Tyson’s victory is a foregone conclusion, the bookmakers could offer only one proposition: that the fight will, or will not, go four rounds. (Which accounts for the outburst of ecstatic cheering, the only cheering of the fight, when the bell rings sounding the end of round four and Smith, bleeding down the left side of his face and freshly admonished by the refer­ee for holding and refusing to break, nonetheless walks to his corner.)

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Mike Tyson will earn a mini­mum of $1.5 million for this fight (to Smith’s $1 million) and if his spectacular career continues as everyone pre­dicts, he will soon be earning as much as Hagler and Leonard, if not more. Though Tyson lacks Muhammad Ali’s inspired narcissism, he is not handicapped by Ali’s brash black politics and Ali’s penchant for antagonizing whites: for all his reserve, his odd, even eerie combination of shyness and aggression, his is a wonderfully marketable image. (See the iconic “Mike Tyson” of billboard and newspaper ads, a metallic man, not a 20-year­-old, but a robot of planes, angles, inhuman composure: “Iron Mike” Tyson.)

Yet how subdued the real Tyson appeared, following the inglorious fight, and the noisy press conference in a candy­-striped tent in a corner of the Hilton’s parking lot. One caught glimpses of him that night at the jammed victory party on the 30th floor of the hotel, being inter­viewed, photographed, televised, and, lat­er, being led through the hotel’s crowded lobby, surrounded by publicity people, still being televised, wearing his prepos­terously ornate WBC champion’s belt around his waist and his newly acquired WBA belt slung over his shoulder. His expression was vague, dim, hooded, very possibly embarrassed (“It was a long, boring fight”), like one of those captive demigods or doomed kings recorded in James Frazer’s Golden Bough.

To the boxing aficionado the sport’s powerful appeal is rarely explicable. It seems to be rooted in a paradoxical nature — the savagery that so clearly underlies, yet is contained by, its myriad rules, regulations, traditions, and superstitions. It seems to make quotidian that which is uncanny, dangerous, forbidden, and unclean: it ritualizes violence, primarily male violence, to a degree which makes violence an aesthetic principle. In this, men’s bodies (or, rather, the highly trained employment of their bodies) are instruments and not mere flesh like our own.

That a man as a boxer is an action, and no longer a man, or not significantly a “man,” puzzles those of us who feel our­selves fully defined in any of our actions. The romantic principles of existentialism in its broadest, most vernacular sense, have much to do with one’s will in creat­ing oneself as an ethical being by way of a freely chosen action. Boxing, more than most contemporary American sports, clearly inhabits a dimension of human behavior one might call metaethical or metaexistential. There is no evident relationship between the man outside the ring and the man inside the ring — the boxer who is, like Mike Tyson (or Joe Louis, or Rocky Marciano, or any num­ber of other boxers of distinction), “cour­teous,” “soft-spoken,” “gentle,” in private life, and, in the ring, once the bell has sounded, “brutal,” “awesome,” “murderous,” “devastating,” “a young bull” — and the rest. The aim is not to kill one’s opponent but to render him temporarily incapacitated, in a simulation of death. “It’s like a drug,” Mike Tyson has said. “I thrive on it. It’s the excitement of the event, and now I need that excitement all the time.” Tyson has also said, “Other than boxing, everything is so boring.”

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When the boxer enters the ring, cere­monially disrobes, and answers the sum­mons to fight, he ceases being an individ­ual with all that implies of a socially regulated ethical bond with other individuals; he becomes a boxer, which is to say, an action. When, as the story goes, Alexis Arguello met Roberto Duran and proffered his hand to shake, Duran backed away and screamed, “Get away! You’re crazy! I’m not your friend!” To touch another man in friendship, let alone in brotherhood, would make it difficult to kill; or to provide for spectators the ex­traordinary mimicry of killing that boxing of the quality of Roberto Duran’s, and Mike Tyson’s, customarily provides. Life is real and painful, and steeped in ambi­guity; in the boxing ring either/or pre­vails. Either you win, or you lose.

It might be argued that America’s fas­cination with sports — if “fascination” is not too weak a word for such frenzied devotion, weekend after weekend, season after season, in the lives of a majority of men — has to do not only with the power of taboo to violate, or transcend, or ren­der obsolete conventional categories of morality, but with the dark, denied, mut­ed, eclipsed, and wholly unarticulated un­derside of America’s religion of success. Sports is only partly about winning; it is also about losing. Failure, hurt, ignominy, disgrace, physical injury, sometimes even death — these are facts of life, perhaps the very bedrock of lives, which the sports actor, or athlete, must dramatize in the flesh; and always against his will.

Boxing as dream-image, or nightmare, pits self against self, identical twin against twin, as in the womb itself where “dominancy,” that most mysterious of human hungers, is first expressed. Its most characteristic moments of ecstasy — ­the approach to the knockout, the knock­out, the aftermath of the knockout, and, by way of television replays, the entire episode retraced in slow motion as in the privacy of a dream — are indistinguishable from obscenity and horror. In the words of middleweight Sugar Ray Seales, 1972 Olympic Gold medalist, a veteran of more than four hundred amateur and profes­sional fights who went blind as a consequence of ring injuries: “I went into the wilderness, and fought the animals there, and when I came back I was blind.”

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In Clifford Geertz’s classic anthropolog­ical essay of 1972, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” the point is made that, in Bali, the now-illegal cockfighting obsession is wholly male, and masculine. The “cock” is the male organ, as the Balinese freely acknowl­edge, but it is more than merely that; it is the man, the maleness, codified, individ­ualized, in a context of other individ­uals — which is to say, society. The cockfight is utterly mindless, bloody, savage, animal — and ephemeral: though a Bali­nese loves his fighting cock, and treats him tenderly, once the cock is dead it is dead, and quickly forgotten. (Sometimes, in a paroxysm of disappointment and rage, Geertz notes, cock owners dismem­ber their own cocks after their fighting cocks are killed.)

Boxing in America is far more complex a cultural phenomenon than the Balinese cockfight. It has much to do, for example, with immigrant succession, and with the ever-shifting tensions of race. But some of the principles Geertz isolates in the cockfight are surely operant: men are fas­cinated by boxing because it suggests that masculinity is measured solely in terms of other men, and not in terms of women; and because, in its very real dangers, it is a species of “deep play” (an action in which stakes are so high that it is, from a utilitarian standpoint, irrational for men to engage in it at all) that seems to dem­onstrate the way the world really is and not the way it is said, or wished, or prom­ised to be. The boxer is consumed in action, and has no significant identity beyond action; the fight is a convulsion of a kind, strictly delimited in space (a me­ticulously squared circle bounded, like an animal pen, by ropes) and time. (Jack Dempsey, in whose honor the term “killer instinct” was coined, once remarked that he wasn’t the fighter he might have been, with so many rules and regulations governing the sport: “You’re in there for three-minute rounds with gloves on and a referee. That’s not real fighting.”) The passions it arouses are always in excess of its “utilitarian” worth since, in fact, it has none.

As the bloody, repetitious, and ephem­eral cockfight is a Balinese reading of Balinese experience — a story Balinese men tell themselves about themselves — ­so too is the American boxing match a reading of American experience, unsenti­mentalized and graphic. Yes, one thinks, you have told us about civilized values; you have schooled us in the virtues, pre­sumably Christian, of turning the other cheek; of meekness as a prerequisite for inheriting the earth — the stratagems (manipulative? feminine?) of indirection. But the boxing match suggests otherwise, and it is that reading of life which we prefer. The boxers make visible what is invisible in us, thereby defining us, and themselves, in a single consecrated action. As Rocky Graziano once said, “The fight for survival is the fight.” ❖


Ishmael Reed on Muhammad Ali

Ishmael Reed on Muhammad Ali: “You Really Didn’t Know How Great I Was”

In the films Mandingo and Drum former World Boxing Association Heavyweight Champion Ken Norton plays a slave boxer, his flesh handled by people who have such intense feelings for him they wish to stab him or boil him in a pot. The women want to ball him, and the men want to do battle with him; some people want to do both.

The Heavyweight Champion of the World is, most of all, a grand hunk of flesh, capable of devastating physical destruction when instructed by a brain, or a group of brains. I’m not saying he’s stupid. He may be brilliant, but even his brilliance is used to praise his flesh.

The Heavyweight Championship of the World is a sex show, a fashion show, scene of intrigue between different religions, politics, classes; a gathering of stars, ex-stars, their hangers-on, and hangers-on assistants.

It’s part Mardi Gras, with New Orleans jazz providing the background for the main event while the embattled Be-boppers, led by former Sonny Rollins’s sideman Earl Turbington, hold forth in one of the restaurants facing the Hilton’s French Garden bar.

Driving into town on Route 61 past the authentic Cajun music and food joints, motels with imitation French-styled balconies, car lots, heading on Canal Street toward Decatur, I heard Dick Gregory on the car radio. A saint of the prime flesh movement, he was naming “Carlos,” a New Orleans man, as a conspirator in JFK’s assassination. Gregory was one of Ali’s advisors, though an insider told me that Ali didn’t pay attention to Gregory’s nutritions.

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Hotel Bienville, named for Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, the founder of New Orleans, was located in a red-light district of the French Quarter. Nearby were two Greek restaurants and some small-­time players’ bars. I checked in, changed, and then followed the huge Hilton H the way you’d follow a holy asteroid: the sign resembled a blue star on the New Orleans skyline. The Hilton is located on a 23.3-acre, $250 million international river center. It has 1200 rooms, five restaurants, three lounges, parking lots for 3550 cars, tennis courts, and rises to 30 stories above the street. It was designed by Newhous & Taylor, architects.

Entering the press hospitality room I was greeted by Sybil Arum, a Japanese-Korean woman who got me a drink and in­troduced me to her husband, Bob Arum. They both were dressed casually; she was wearing proletariat pigtails and lat­er someone said she was the best-looking woman in the hotel. Arum was seated next to Leslie Bonanno, a burly, wavy-haired sheriff who is heavyweight Jerry Celestine’s manager. Arum was confident that Spinks was going to win the fight. He had great admiration for Ali but it was his theory that “elements of deterioration” had set in during Ali’s “exile” from 1967–1970. I was introduced to an ex-UPI reporter who followed Ali’s career during those years and we were about to head upstairs to the bar when Mike Rossman’s family arrived, wearing MIKE ROSSMAN T-shirts. They told me they were bringing in three planeloads to witness Rossman’s fight with Victor Galindez for the WBA Light Heavyweight Championship of the World.


The man from UPI talked like Jimmy Stewart and didn’t want his name used. He had that glint in his eye, the glint I’d see in the eyes of the other Ali disciples — Norman Mailer, Budd Schulberg, and George Plimpton. The Ali glint belong­ing to the true believer. Once, when Ali was banned and a black promoter from Charleston offered him an exhibition fight which was to be held on a dirt track, the UPI man and a reporter from the Detroit Free Press were the only ones there to cover it. The city council voted against the exhibition bout and it was cancelled. At 3 o’clock the afternoon of the fight they came to tell Ali there’d be no fight. Ali took it philo­sophically, got into a car, and headed for the airport wearing the same suit he’d worn for two years.

The punishment and cruelty visited upon Ali during those three years for refusing to step forward at the induction cen­ter have become part of the Ali legend. It seemed that the whole nation wanted to spit in his face, or skin The Grand Flesh. Not only, to them, was he a draft-dodger but he was also a member of a misunderstood religion which the media had hyped into a monstrous black conspiracy. The Muslims were different from many of the other black organizations of the time. They had rhetoric but they also accomplished things. They had built a multi-million-dollar business from their Mom and Pop stores and newspaper sales. They were “The Bad Nigger, The Smart Nigger, The Hard Nigger, and The Uppity Nigger” epitomized by one organization. Ali had to pay a heavy price for his religion and for his politics. My favorite story from that period occurred when an imprisoned Ali was ordered to serve breakfast to prisoners on Death Row. One prisoner looked up and said, “My God, I must be in Heaven, the Heavyweight Champion of the World is serv­ing me breakfast.”

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The man from UPI remembered an argument that broke out in the press room in Madison Square Garden the first time Ali fought Frazier for the heavyweight championship. They didn’t know what to call him. They decided, finally, to call him Ali if he won the fight, and Clay if he lost.

There was a flurry in the lobby. Some of Spinks’s people began showing up. Tourists were standing on the second floor balcony staring down at the scene. Shortly, Spinks came in. With that black crest he resembled a black silk shirt–wear­ing iguana. I approached the gathering with my brand new Realistic tape recorder I’d bought at Berkeley’s Radio Shack. Spinks’s bodyguards made a scene. They demanded that I turn the tape recorder off. Later I understood why. A Playboy writer using a tape recorder had betrayed Spinks’s confidence by writing that Spinks had smoked some grass.

Because I was standing with Leroy Diggs, Spinks’s spar­ring partner and bodyguard, a tourist came up and asked for my autograph. It was that way the entire week. People signing each other’s autographs; photographers snapping pic­tures of other photographers.

The next afternoon, people from Ali’s camp began to show up in the French Garden Bar, a stunning environment light­ed by sun rays which poured through a skylight above: Ali’s brother, Rachaman Ali, his freckled-faced mother whom Ali calls “Bird,” and his father, wearing a checkered sport-jacket and white hat. Bundini arrived and judging from his ringside antics I thought he’d have an expansive sense of humor. He didn’t. He was wearing a white leisure suit. Bundini always wanted to be an actor, someone told me later.

In the evening, Mayor Ernest N. Morial, New Orleans’s “Black” Mayor, who’d be considered white in most parts of the world, gave a reception at the Fairmont Hotel honoring Ali and Spinks. I walked into the lobby toward a big room on the first floor. There was a commotion behind the door. The first man to exit was Ali. I was standing face to face with a $100 million industry which included everything from candy bars to a forthcoming automobile capable of traveling across the desert. He was huge and awesome-looking, but not the “Abysmal Brute” Jack London had pined after.

“Hi Champ,” I said. I shook hands with the black man they let beat up Superman.

He was followed by his wife, Veronica (“Veronica belongs to me,” he said later). A procession trailed the couple to the upstairs ballroom, the whole scene illuminated by the photographers’ flashbulbs. I fell in behind them. When we reached the top of the escalator I heard a loud exchange between him and a figure who was coming down. It was Joe Frazier.

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Slave power allowed Southern women to spend hours at the mirror costuming, preening, and painting their faces. There was an eerie ad for Georgia Life Insurance on a billboard, a picture of a child done in the kind of oils Rod Serling used to introduce Night Gallery. She was dressed in a Victorian outfit, and heavily made up. The caption read: “What about her?” The Southern woman was supposed to be this life-sized doll who occasionally produced a fake aristocrat while the old man went about impregnating the countryside. In the French Quarter you can buy any kind of doll you want. Black. White. I bought a black doll which turned inside out became a white doll (no jokes, please).

Some of my very talented female-writer friends have jammed up the media with their woeful tales regarding the black male’s proclivity toward the Macaroni style. It took me some serious reflection to reckon with the truth in this. But if black males were that — if Emmett Till was a rogue as a dema­gogic feminist, so hard up for a victim, as claimed — then they certainly had a great teacher.

The doll style of the women in this ballroom, in their syn­thetic fabrics, bloused and belted-in at the waist, showed that even though the institution was razed, certain habits of the old South have endured. The women were what we used to call “Beautiful,” and the men were youthful and virile-look­ing. Attractive and adorned bodies gathered to witness the most wonderful body in the world. A flesh ball. The Mayor was standing behind Ali’s people, beaming. Don Hubbard, a local promoter, told me that the fight would bring the city $20 million in revenue, bigger than the Mardi Gras.

Ali has so much control over his body he can turn the juice on and off. In contrast to the sombre and downcast-looking fighter I’d seen emerge from the downstairs room, with whom I was alone for about 15 seconds, the upstairs Ali be­gan to shuffle up and down the stage, jabbing at invisible op­ponents, dancing, all the while speaking rapidly. He doesn’t have the brittle, dry irony of Archie Moore or the eloquent Victorian style of the bookish Jack Johnson, but he is more effective because he speaks to Americans in American im­ages mostly derived from comic books, television, and folklore. To be a good black poet of the sixties meant capturing the rhythms of Ali, and Malcolm X, on the page. His opponents were “Mummies” and “Vampires”; he was “The Man from Shock.” In one press conference he dis­cussed The Six Million Dollar Man. His prose is derived from the trickster world of Bugs Bunny and Mad magazine. The world of Creature Features.

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“I don’t know what to say,” he said as the press conference began. “Where’s the champ? If he stays out of jail, I’ll get his tail.” Ali referred to Spinks as a “nigger” then caught him­self to explain that “niggers can say niggers, but white folks can’t,” which is as good an answer as any to the man running for office in Alabama who requested that he have the same right to say “nigger” as “the Jews” and “the niggers.”

Ali’s style was a far cry from the nearly catatonic humility of Joe Louis and Floyd Patterson, but then, these are differ­ent times. Can you imagine the uproar if Louis had come up with, “No Nazi Ever Called Me Nigger”?

When the question-and-answer period came, I had my hand up and Ali pointed to “the young man over there.” I was on his side after that.

“Mr. Ali, do you plan to run for Congress as The Nation magazine has suggested?”

“No, I plan to run for vice-president, that way the president won’t get shot.” He called himself the “Savior of Boxing,” and predicted that he’d punch Spinks out of the ring. “Spinks,” he said, “will become the first spook satellite.” He flirted with the ladies and praised his body.

Dick Gregory followed Ali with some familiar jokes about Spinks’s arrest for driving without a license and possessing $1.98 worth of cocaine (St. Louis cocaine). Gregory strongly believes that the coke was planted on Spinks. “Why did they alert the press before he was brought into the station?”

I asked Gregory to repeat what he’d said on the radio, that the killers of JFK resided in New Orleans. I figured that since the Mayor and the police were on the stage the con­spirators would be arrested immediately. The laughter van­ished. The Mayor and Ali stood silently. Dick Gregory refused to discuss it.

During the broadcast he urged black-Italian cooperation. “If the Mafia is so big,” he said, “why won’t Henry Ford in­vite it to his next garden party?”

After Ali left, Gregory came over to the bar where I was standing. The black waiters, dressed in black bowties and green satinish jackets, weren’t serving beer nor wine, so I asked for what Gregory was drinking. Vodka and orange juice. UMMMMMM.

A long table covered with white linen held hors d’oeuvres under silver tops which resembled Kaiser helmets. The South knows how to lay out the dog when it wants to. Chopin on the piano stand. Silver layed out in case somebody’s com­ing for supper.

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I got a plate, returned to my seat, and found myself being choked to death from behind. It was Hunter Thompson. Choking people, I learned later, was his way of showing affection. He was wearing dark glasses and looked like he’d just stepped off a space ship. They’re filming his life and the crew was coming to New Orleans with his two lawyers.

The DeJan’s Olympia band began to second line about the floor playing some old music. They were led by this lithe flesh wearing a top hat and tails, symbolizing what to some may be a spirit imported from Haiti. The carrying of the um­brella may be an African retention. I fell in behind the band and began doing the second line around the room with them. Few joined in. As we made it about the door, Spinks ap­peared. His eyes seemed to roll about his head. He was wear­ing a droll grin. He seemed very very happy. He took the umbrella from the band’s major domo and second lined to­ward the stage. He stood and signed autographs for a while.

I went back to the press hospitality room and met some old-timers, some trainers and some boxing buffs.

Like there was Sam Taub. As Irving of Top Rank tells it, “Sam Taub was 92 on September 10. He was born on Mott Street on the Lower East Side and was working as an office boy when he got a job through The New York Times with The Morning Telegraph, a magazine similar to The Police Gazette. He worked many years for Bat Masterson, a lawman who came west to be a fight official and sportswriter. It was Sam who found Masterson dead at his desk of a heart attack. I was looking through the record books and I found out that Mas­terson was the timekeeper for the Sullivan-Corbett fight which was held in New Orleans, September 7, 1892.

“Sam did the first radio broadcast from Madison Square Garden, in the 1920s, and the first telecast of a bout from Madison Square Garden in 1939. For many years Sam broad­cast for Adam’s hats and Gem razor. He had a popular show on WHN called The Hour of Champions. Never took a quar­ter from anybody. Never put the shake on anybody.

“During the last riot at the Garden he climbed to a chair to call the rioters ‘hooligans,’ and had to be carried away by the police, bodily.

“Sam Taub told me about the time Jack Johnson worked at the 42nd Street Library and was obsessed with these sand­wiches which they were selling four or five in a bag. Taub went out and bought some for Johnson. And when Sugar Ray appeared on the Hour of Champions for the first time, I said, ‘Now you watch this fellow; he’s going to be the champ one day.’ ”

As I approached Taub to be introduced he was threatening a man who could have been 40 years younger than himself with, “Take a walk, buddy!” The man moved on.

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Thursday, hundreds of people were pushing into the Grand Ballroom for the official weigh-in ceremo­nies. Bright, unnatural lights from the television. Total confusion. People were standing on chairs, craning their necks to see celebrities. It was 10:55 when Angelo Dun­dee arrived. He looks like a mild-mannered math teacher in a boys’ high school. Jimmy Ellis, who has a teenager’s bright face, strode in with Ali’s brother, Rachaman, whom I mistakenly called Rudolph Valentino Clay. He could have been, standing against the pillar in the French Garden Bar, as I had seen him earlier, dressed in a white suit.

The platform which held the scales was so full of the press that it began to reel. Arum threatened to cancel the press conference. I spotted Don King, followed by Ali, toothpick in mouth, and Veronica. A man next to me said, “Ali is the best-known person in the world.” Ali weighed in at 221 pounds, Spinks 201. I was tempted to bid.

After the weigh-in I asked former Light Heavyweight Champion of the World, Jose Torres, to assess Ali’s chances. Torres was pessimistic. He’d seen Ali work out and he didn’t like his color. “Too grey.” He thought Ali’s eyes were “dead,” and that he was bored. “Ali no longer enjoys fighting and despises training,” Torres said. “I want Ali to win for nostalgic reasons.” He liked Spinks. “The more criti­cism he gets the more I like him,” Torres said. Leroy Diggs, Spinks’s bodyguard and sparring partner, standing behind Torres, said that Spinks looked real good.

Up front, Emile Bruneau, a wizened wild turkey, the head of the Louisiana Boxing Commission was holding a press conference. Somebody asked him if he had voted to strip Ali of the crown in 1967 when he was sitting on the World Box­ing Association. The Commissioner told the reporter to leave or “go to a cemetery.”

Another person asked if there would be a dope test follow­ing the fight. It seemed that Ali’s corner had complained about a mysterious bottle given to Spinks between the rounds of the last fight. Whatever was in it seemed to give Spinks ex­tra vigor. He asked the Commissioner what kind of water would be allowed in the corners. The Commissioner an­swered, “Aqua water.”

I saw Don King’s famous crown poking above the crowd of bodies, moving and mashing against each other. King was blandly praising Ali but at the same time voiced hope that he would retire. He said that Ali was the most identifiable man in the world. “Strong on the inside as well as the outside.” He praised Larry Holmes, “the other champion,” in a short speech dotted with words like “cognizant.” The most fre­quent adjective people use in talking about King is “flamboy­ant.”

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I went up to the second floor to inquire about my creden­tials. A white-haired Norman Mailer was standing in the middle of the room. I had met him in 1962 at Stefan’s and had gone to a couple of his parties. Gone were the pug breaks and the frantic fast-talking. He seemed at peace. We exchanged greetings.

Albert C. Barnes, writing in The New Negro, in 1925, ex­tolled Primitivism in Negro Art: “It is a sound art because it comes from a primitive nature upon which a white man’s education has never been harnessed.” He said it reflected “…aspirations and joys during a long period of acute oppression and distress.” Man in distress was existential man. Mailer popularized this idea with his “White Negro.” To be Negro was to be hip. Jack Kerouac studied Negro Art, and for his dedication Bird did a tune called Kerouac. What Mailer and Kerouac failed to realize was that the average black would have thrown Bird out of his home, or giggled at his music, or charged him with not combing his hair. It was hard enough to be a Negro, but to be that and Bird too was real hard. In Managing Mailer, Joe Flaherty writes about the free­loader blacks Mailer surrounded himself with — hustlers who turned Mailer sour on blacks in general. Kerouac and Mailer tried. As they grew older their intellectual position regarding blacks became more obtuse than right. As obtuse as their prose styles.

Reading The Fight again, on the way down, I realized that what I had mistaken for racism in Mailer’s writing was actu­ally frustration — frustration that he couldn’t play the dozens with Bundini and them; frustration that he couldn’t be black. Maybe one day the genetic engineers in their castles rocking from lightning will invent an identity delicatessen where one can obtain identity as easily as buying a new flavored yogurt.

It’s kind of sad. The trench-coated verbal and physical scrapper I used to trade jokes with at Pana Grady’s salons in the Dakota. His benign eyes indicated that he realized he could never really become a “Wise Primitive,” and this had brought tranquility, like the look that comes over the face of the werewolf who finally realizes his agony is over.

I asked Mailer who was going to win? He gave me one of those answers for which he has a patent. “Ali. He’s worked the death out.” So had Mailer.

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The black entrepreneur is caught in a bizarre crossfire. On one hand, black intellectuals view him as a sellout to the system, even though many of them have bank accounts which help sustain the system. The 1960s social and cultural programs brought prosperity to some and with this prosperity came the guilt feelings ex­perienced by other aspiring immigrants toward the “brothers left behind.” The black entrepreneur is expected to kickback his gains to them, “the sub-proletariat.” In Oakland, the Black Panthers, joined by white children of the prosperous middle class, picketed black merchants.

He also has to struggle against the banks and creditors who grudgingly lend him money, and against the myth of black ineptitude. He has to struggle against blacks who seem to try their damnedest to prove the myth.

He knows that if he gets too big they’ll axe him down to size.

Don Hubbard, the 38-year-old president of Louisiana Sports, sat on the arm of a couch in the second-floor lobby of the Hilton. He was confident, proud, cocky even. He blamed Top Rank for the disorderly weigh-in ceremonies which had just taken place. “Only people with gold passes should have been admitted.”

The Vegas fight between Spinks and Ali was the first fight he’d attended; the first time he’d heard the “moans and groans” of the sport.

Hubbard had met Butch Lewis, Top Rank’s former vice-­president, at the fight and invited him down to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. He proposed to Lewis that New Orleans would be a good scene for a rematch between Ali and Spinks. Lewis scoffed at the suggestion, reminding Hubbard that Hubbard had never promoted a fight before and there was some strong competition, including Anheuser-Busch, groups from Las Vegas, Casino owners in South Africa, and a Miami group led by Chris Dundee, Angelo’s brother.

“Spinks agreed to come to New Orleans for the YMCA and didn’t show. The Mayor’s limousines, police escort and everything, were waiting for Leon Spinks. I looked at the 5 o’clock news and Spinks was in Detroit. My wife had cooked dinner and was mad enough to jump on Spinks.

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“Butch Lewis came down to save face, and raised the money for the YMCA. I started needling Butch because there was a rumor that the fight was going to South Africa. How the hell can Ali stage his last fight in South Africa? Top Rank got a whole barrage of protests from the Urban League and others, and I kept bugging Butch.

“Butch called one evening and said, ‘Don, you’re bugging the hell out of me. I’m coming to New Orleans at 11:30. From that time you have 48 hours to raise $3 million.’ ”

Hubbard said he met with the Mayor to get his blessings, obtained a letter of credit for $350,000, and kept $2,500,000 in escrow. At the time I talked to Lewis, which was about 12 o’clock on the Thursday before the fight, the $3,000,000 in­vestment had been returned. Hubbard’s partners were Sher­man Copelin, a black, and two Italians, Jake DiMaggio and Phillip Ciaccio. Hubbard said he didn’t know whether to call the Italians white because some Italians are white and some are Italian.

“The boxing crowd spends more money than the football crowd,” he claimed. “When the Super Bowl fans come, it’s with clubs on chartered buses, but the fight crowd arrives in Rolls Royces, Mercedes, private planes.”

Back in the press room I ran into Harold Conrad who’d promoted the Liston-Patterson fights and traveled to 22 states seeking a license for Ali to fight during his three and a half years’ exile. He said that if Ali won, the only fighter he’d get money for fighting would be Larry Holmes. I had just seen Holmes encounter Angelo Dundee in the hall. Dundee had said to Holmes, “My kid thinks you’re the ugliest and biggest man she’s ever seen.”

Conrad was completing a novel called A Rare Bird Indeed, which he says will be the story of a newspaperman of the 1930s and 1940s, the end of a great era when you could get a table at Lindy’s and Reubens at 5 a.m. and everybody knew Winchell, and nightclub openings were as big as Broadway openings. Conrad, tanned and wearing a plaid sports jacket, slacks, and a shiny, thin mustache could have been a Runyon character. He had worked for Damon Runyon, a “strange man from Kansas City who didn’t have many friends and liked to be left alone.” Humphrey Bogart played Conrad in The Harder They Fall, his last role.

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My friend Sam Skinner, from San Francisco’s Channel 44, and I posed for a gag picture with Larry Holmes, WBC Heavyweight Champion and one of the brightest students of the Ali style. Holmes wanted to know where the women were. A young hostess told me that the demand for women was incessant from the Spinks people. They bragged about all the “ladies” they had coming down from St. Louis.

Skinner introduced me to a black-haired, short, and tough-looking man, Richie Giachetti, Holmes’s trainer. I asked him how Holmes had made Ken Norton look so bad.

“I studied the Norton film. He can’t back up, he’s vulner­able to uppercuts, straight right hands; when he throws a left hook he telegraphs it; his overhand right is only effective on the ropes; he can’t throw it in, the middle of the ring because he drags his foot.

“So the way you fight Norton is to stay in the middle of the ring and fight, and jab — jabs nullify him better than anything else. You neutralize a slugger with jabs, you back him off, you fluster him.”

How would Spinks fare against Ali? “Spinks is still an amateur. In football you go through high school to college and then to the pros. Spinks went through high school — but he hasn’t had enough fights to have gone through college.

“Spinks makes a lot of mistakes, but at the same time he’s fighting an old fighter like when Marciano went up against Louis. Spinks would not get the recognition because he will have defeated an old man, a man who contributed so much to boxing, a living legend. Spinks has nothing to gain and ev­erything to lose by defeating Ali.”

How should Ali fight Spinks? “Go out and rake the first round, don’t give up anything, stay away from the ropes and fight in the middle of the ring; Spinks’s best attack is a com­bo left hook followed by a right hand. Ali should sidestep I him, throw short left jabs, counterpunch him, and there will t be no contest.

“I’m for Ali. Got to go with Ali. But if it goes over 10 rounds, Spinks will win the fight.”

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Spirit City had become keyed up for the fight. Boys and girls in red stetsons and fringed jackets were bused to the Hilton to provide a marching band. The town was heavy into Disco. Hilton employees, dressed in black skirts, pants, and white blouses, tossed black and white balloons in the alley next to the Hilton as they second lined to a Jazz band. There was a fireworks display over this New Orleans sun temple. On the second floor, celebrities moved through the English bar, or sat on the sofas. Souvenirs of the fight were on sale all over the French Quarter. They ranged from cheap and ex­pensive dolls and T-shirts, to the $100 official fight poster boy LeRoy Neiman, on sale at the Bienville Exchange, where the Louisiana equestrian crowd brunches on Saturdays. Even in the airport there were waitresses dressed in glossy boxing shorts, and wearing Ali and Spinks training jerseys. The fight coincided with the Hilton’s first anniversary and so it got real goopy. Baron Hilton, the son of “the man who bought the Waldorf,” was greeted with a kingly reception as he walked into the lobby with a woman who wore a fur coat, even though it was about 90 degrees outside. The humidity was making life miserable. There was a huge cake near the French Bar, about 15 feet high, blue and white in color. Two chefs were standing next to it. I asked how many pounds of flour went into the making of the cake. They said that it wasn’t edible.

I had dinner Thursday night with Hughes Rudd, whose appearance in experimental anthologies alongside Barthelme and Barth is a well-kept secret. CBS’s eye should be replaced with a peabrain for removing Rudd from the CBS Morning News. We all got up at 6:30 so as not to miss those long ram­bling anecdotes of his which were about as close to writing fiction as television will ever approach. We ate and went through a couple of bottles of Pouilly-Fuisse in Winston’s Room, on the second floor of the Hilton. It was done up in the style of early Frank Lloyd Wright and included some touches of chinoiserie, which became popular in the twenties when the missionaries were looting China.

Rudd talked about an incident during World War II when they sent him up in an airplane that was worth less than the crate it was shipped in. He said some things about the “TV Industry” which led me to think that it ought to be sunk be­neath the ocean in cans so that it won’t disturb mankind for maybe 200 years.

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On the day of the fight you couldn’t touch anything without getting a shock, so high was the tension. The night before I made a bet with a Reuters reporter that Ali would KO Spinks in three rounds. I over­heard Angelo Dundee telling someone, “The Champ’s going to do a number on Spinks.”

In the morning Jose Fuentes and Jane Senno took me up to Luis Sarria, the man some people referred to as “the mysteri­ous Cuban.” He was eating breakfast alone, gazing from time to time at the barges and sightseeing boats on the brown Mis­sissippi, or watching the cartoons on television. I’d met him Wednesday night, and watched him as he stood on the periphery of the crowd, hardly speaking, contemplative, studi­ous. He was the calmest man in the whole place. I must have asked him a hundred times whether he thought Ali would win; Jose or Jane would translate to Spanish, and he’d usual­ly nod his head. Jose showed me a photo he’d taken of Sarria, “laying hands” on Ali’s face. Sarria’s face was black and his features were ancient, like those of the people who came over on the first boats.

We went to Ali’s private suite, room 1729, only to learn that he was living in a private home in West Lakeside. He was inaccessible to all but TV media stars. Television had put up $5 million for fight coverage. There were some men sit­ting about the suite, silent, not talking. I was reminded of the time I was snowed in one Seattle night with the Cecil Taylor group only to hear a tape of the three-hour concert I’d just left. Nobody said a word. Bundini filed in with Pat Paterson and some others, then filed out again. It was like a religious cult. The night before an insider had praised Ali as Christ, Abraham, Moses. But what influence would he have on international politics in the future? The newspapers were begin­ning to say that he was naive about the Soviet Union. Others were saying that his entourage was protecting him from the world and that he was “easily deceived.”

We went to Pat Paterson’s room. He is the permanent bodyguard Mayor Richard Daley had assigned to Ali. My eyes were blinded by a cluster of blazing trophies laying on a dresser, glittering like idols to the sun. I had read that there’s a crunch in the dressing room after the fight and asked Pater­son, who was wearing a green leisure suit, my chances of get­ting in. He said I’d have to take my chances like everybody else.

The packed press bus headed for the Superdome at 4 o’clock. I felt sorry for the working press. I thought about the newspapers they worked for. The cities they had to re­turn to. I was standing next to Ed Cannon, a Muslim reporter who was wearing a sweater which read: THERE IS NO GOD GREATER THAN ALLAH. That night he was hassled on the floor by a “famous movie star.” The Superdome resembled a giant concrete jaw jutting out at the end of the street. Soon we were inside the jaw. New Orleans chauvinists say that the Super­dome is so big you can put the Astrodome inside and still have 60 feet around. A Muslim reporter wrote an article describing it as “a white elephant.” The seats were of red and blue hues and extended to the roof of the building. Strobe lights blinked on and off. Processions of flag bearers headed up and down the aisle.

One blue flag carried the letters MORON. Nobody will be­lieve me. I asked Nick Browne of the Soho News, who was sitting next to me, to examine the flag through his binoculars and sure enough it said MORON. After the chaotic weigh-in there had been a threat to call out the National Guard. Fist­fights broke out on the floor during the bouts.

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I decided to take my roving press pass and rove about the floor. Spinks’s cars, all white, were on the main floor near the dressing room. I went to Ali’s dressing room and was stopped at the door by two whites. I moved through the people on the main floor who were gawking at the celebrities entering to take their seats at ringside. People were putting on a fashion show and hardly paying attention to the bouts. Three black women dressed to the hilt in 1940s costumes walked up and down. One was wearing a gold-sequined dress the color of her hair and skin. There was a group of men who made a ring about another man. Nobody was paying any attention to them. I walked up to see Chip Carter standing in the center of the ring.

“Who’s going to win the fight?” I asked.

“Ali,” he said.

“What about Spinks?”

“He’s good, too.”

“You’re really a politician.”

“I hope so.”

I made my way down the aisle toward ringside, past the guards who were sending people back. Up close I could see an ugly, dark-red wound about the eye of Victor Galindez, who was defeated by Mike Rossman for the WBA Light Heavyweight Championship. This was real blood, and some of it had sprayed on the referee’s shirt. Somebody in the front row yelled, “Get out of the way!” and I spun around and flashed on the people at ringside. It resembled one of Dadaist Lil Picard’s Beauty Shop satires she used to do in the sixties art galleries. I saw no eyes, noses, nor mouths but what ap­peared to be blank faces smeared with pancake make-up which seemed unnaturally dry under the lights. My mind flashed back to the Norton films, the eager and richly fed faces, despising his body but at the same time lusting after it.

I started back toward the press box which was way up in the balcony, nearly touching the ceiling. As I moved toward the elevator, Veronica Ali was entering the Superdome, pro­tected by bodyguards. From upstairs, the fighters in the ring looked like dolls. So I watched some of the fight on one of four giant TV screens suspended from the ceiling. All during the preliminary fights, even the championship fights, people were entering and exiting. “They don’t care about this crowd,” somebody said. “What they care about is television.” More than 200 million people were watching.

Nick Brown’s remarks were more interesting than the preliminary bouts. It was the kind of grim, deadpan, jaded humor you hear traded across the bar at the Club 55. When Featherweight Champion of the World Danny (Little Red) Lopez knocked out Juan Malvarez, Brown said, “I can understand ethnicity in boxing, but a guy who’s part Irish, part Amerindian, and part Chicano is taking it too far.”

When Rossman came on to the strains of “Hava Nagila,” he quipped: “Four thousand years of history and only one song.”

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As the main event approached, fistfights began to re­ally break out; “over bets” I was told. About six rows of state troopers spilled over one another just to stop two guys. It was like a rowdy 1890s audience which used to hurl liquor bottles at the actors, or mercilessly heckle politicians on the stump.

Edy Williams, 37-23-37, a “raven-haired” woman, jumped into the middle of the ring after the Rossman fight and took her clothes off, revealing flesh the color of the hotdogs they were serving in the press room and a few shades lighter than the red ring ropes.

Describing herself as a “Naturalist from California,” she said, “If Muhammad Ali can use his body to be a success in the ring, why can’t I?” One newspaper described her show as “the most exciting event of the evening.” Many were using their flesh for success outside the ring as well; it seemed that every whore and player from the Mississippi Valley and points beyond was there.

Rocky Stallone, Joe Frazier, and Larry Holmes had en­tered the ring, Holmes receiving a few boos, but fewer than the Governor of Louisiana received when he was introduced. Isaac Hayes did a Disco version of “America the Beautiful,” and Joe Frazier sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” grimac­ing as if in pain. Somebody seated beneath me said, “I ain’t gonna stand.” When Ali entered he was alternately lifted and buried by the crowd. His party seemed to sway from side to side and as they moved him down the aisle, the crowds pressed in for a souvenir of The Greatest’s flesh. Spinks looked like the kind of guy who’d say, “Motherfucker, kiss my ass” as they put the handcuffs on him.

After one round a few state troopers gave Ali a standing ovation. His left jabs worried Spinks silly, and Spinks looked like a brawler, engaged in a St. Louis street fight, the most vicious east of the Mississippi. His trainer, George Benton, left his corner during the fight, in frustration at the amateurs Spinks had at ringside yelling to him “wiggle, Leon, wiggle.” Arguments broke out among them over who should give Spinks advice. Spinks was 25, lacked craftsmanship, was a sensational head-hunter. I remember a trainer at an exhibition fight heading with Spinks to go for the opponent’s body. Ali had followed the advice Archie Moore had given to an Old Man in the Ring: “You hone whatever skills you have left.”

A reporter from the Washington Evening Star told me that it was Ali’s most serious fight in three years. At the end of the 15th round there was no doubt in my mind that Ali had won, and so I headed for the dressing room without hearing the de­cision. Veronica Ali, Jayne Kennedy, members of the family, boxing people, and show business personalities were watch­ing a small TV set. The decision was announced. Stallone en­tered, and John Travolta was standing off to the side chatting with some people. I asked Liza Minelli, who was standing in front of me, wearing a red dress, what she thought of the fight. She thought it was “sensational.”

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As soon as Ali left the ring, the crowd began swaying and moving like a papier mache dragon, moving through the in­terview room to the dressing room. When Ali finally entered it was impossible to gain entrance unless you were a celebrity or an important member of the Champ’s entourage. “Make way for Wyatt Earp,” they said when Hugh O’Brien walked by. I spotted some of the old timers I’d met on Wednesday evening. I wanted to hear what the craftsmen had to say.

James Dudley is black, grey-haired, and looks like a classical American trainer, old style. Suspenders and glasses, starchy white shirt, a smile that makes his eyes shine. James Dudley managed Gene Smith and Holly Mimms. When I approached him he was being congratulated. His new fighter, welterweight Johnny Gant, had won a shot at the title.

“Ali made him miss a lot,” Dudley told me. “Spinks tried to weave and bob and weave and bob but wasn’t able to do anything. Any time Ali’s left hand is working he’s unbeat­able, and his left hand was jabbing and hooking. Ali hit him with anything he wanted to hit him with.

“Spinks comes straight to you and any man who’ll come straight to you you hit him. You move from side to side and hit him with a right hand, hit him with hooks, hit him with anything you want to hit him with.”

I asked Dudley when he thought Ali had the fight won.

“In the 10th round, because I’d given Spinks only three.”

“What was Spinks’s biggest mistake?”

“Taking the fight,” he chuckled. “Ali,” he continued, “lost the last fight because he stayed on the ropes and gave away six rounds.”

“How would Ali do against Larry Holmes?”

“I think he’s serious about retiring. He’s done everything you can do in the fight business. There ain’t nothin’ else you can do.”

“How would Ali rate against Joe Louis?”

“Ali has the style that always gave Louis trouble. Any box­er who could move gave Louis trouble and Ali is the fastest heavyweight of all time.”

Louis, I thought, might have had a harder punch. Judging from his films, his KO victims take a longer time to rise than Ali’s.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718477″ /]

Congratulations were going all around as well-wishers en­tered the dressing room area. Rachaman was standing in the middle of the room chanting Muslim phrases. He kept repeating in English, “He said he’s from the world of shock.” Ali had told the inner circle that he would surprise everybody and that he was from the world of shock. I decided that the silence among his aides that afternoon was not due to sullen­ness but gloom. Ali had to cheer them up.

I caught up with Dick Gregory. Gregory said he was sur­prised that the fight had gone as long as it did. “It was a les­son for the world, a health and body lesson. If you take the physical body God has given you and purify it, there’s noth­ing that the body won’t do for you. Anything made by the universal force won’t get old. That’s what it was; with the right mineral balance and combination of nutrients you can make it.” I overheard one of the trainers remark, “He did 6000 calisthenics. 6000. No athlete has ever done that.”

New studies had come out which indicated that we know less about aging than we thought. Senility was being seen as a social, not physical, phenomenon. The idea of waning intellectual powers among the elderly was under challenge. George Balanchine, the dancer, had a body which put many a teenager’s to shame. I remembered a story from an old box­ing magazine, about someone running into the retired Jack Johnson. He was eager to fight Louis and bothered Louis so he was banned from the Brown Bomber’s training camp. The story revealed that Johnson knew of Louis’s weakness — ­dropping his left after a lead — before Schmeling spotted it on film. How would a retired Johnson have made out against Joe Louis?

But then there was something unique about Ali. Bob Arum had put his finger on it. He argued that “elements of deterioration” had set in during Ali’s layoff, just as they had to Louis during his army stint, and Jack Johnson after his ex­ile abroad. But then Arum spoke of Ali’s regenerative capa­cities. He said he’d seen three Alis — the Alis of the Supreme Court victory, the victory over Frazier, and the defeat of George Foreman — and that Muhammad might win if he had a fourth Ali in him. That night in the Superdome we’d seen the fourth Ali.

He had his skills, he had his personality, and he had the will. What else did he have at ringside? Spinks’s trainer, George Benton, mentioned a “mystical force guiding Ali’s life.…” After the Zaire fight, George Foreman’s corner complained that Foreman didn’t fight the fight that had been planned. That he seemed distracted. After Spinks lost he said that his “mind wasn’t on the fight.” Was an incredible amount of “other” energy in Ali’s corner? His devotion to Allah is well known.

Bob Arum said that Dick Gregory told him to call home because his son had had an accident. Arum called and it was true. Was Dick Gregory laying more than physical protection on the Champion. Did Dick Gregory have “second sights”?

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A Miami customs official said that with the immigration laws as they are now, half of South America­ will be here in the next few years. On my last trip to New York I noticed storefronts to the goddess of the sea, Ye­manya, were springing up around the West 90s. Among the people who came were the Cubans who hold Santaria cere­monies in their Miami apartments. The Cubans brought their cults. This Cuban, Luis Sarria, was protected by Chan­go, the perfect loa of boxing, the warrior-god of fire, thun­der, and lightning.

It was a “mystical” night. The Superdome audience had watched a man turn the clock back, a rare event. I noticed pigeons inside, encircling the Superdome, flying above the heads of the crowd.

Spinks’s six-door white Lincoln Continental was brought up by a bald man, wearing dark glasses and an earring, named Mr. T. Leon was surrounded by a few people including his brother Michael. Spinks waved at some people who stood on a balcony. Nobody waved back.

Somebody announced that Ali was holding a press confer­ence upstairs. He was seated, flanked by Veronica and Jayne Kennedy, the actress who resembles her so much that they could be sisters.

“I’mmona hold it six months. I’m going to go all over the world. Do you know what I did? I was great in defeat. Can you imagine how great I am now? Can you imagine how many movies, how many commercials I will get? I was great when I lost fights. I got eight months I can hold my title… mannnnnn. See how big I am? Can you imagine what will happen if I walk down the street in any city?

“My thing was to dance, come right out and start moving, win the first, win the second, win the third, get away from the ropes, dance, do everything I know how to do. Get my body in shape so that it could do what my brains tell me. The fight’s almost over, if you lose eight rounds, you lose the whole fight — so after I won about 10 rounds, naturally, the opponent gets frustrated. He can’t win unless he knocks me out, and I get more confident.”

“He cut out that rope-a-dope bullshit,” one old timer said to me.

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“Do you know I danced 15 rounds with a 25-year-old boy? I’m 36 years old? Man, do you realize how great I am now? The doctor checked my temperature and my blood, and took it to the hospital, and told Dick Gregory what I needed. Do you know how my stamina was up? Do you know what he told me to do?

“Take honey and ice cream 30 minutes before the fight. Half a pint of ice cream and five or six spoonfuls of real hon­ey. My doctor told me to eat ice cream and honey. He gave me a big hunk of honey and melted ice cream. I didn’t get tired. Did you see me explode all during the fight? I said, go!

“Spinks is a gentleman; he held my hand up. Spinks will beat Larry Holmes. Spinks will be champion again. He’s go­ing to be the second man to regain it twice. He’ll have to do a lot to do it three times. But Spinks will be champion again. He’s young, he’s in good shape, he’s going to fight Larry Holmes and be the champ.

“I’m the three-time champion. I’m the only man to win it three times. The greatest champion of all time.”

“Of all time,” chorused his assistants.

“Of all time. Was I pretty?”

“You was pretty,” said a man in the audience.

“Was I moving? Was I fighting? Was I sticking? Was I a Master?”

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“In eight months I’ll let you know, I’ll either retire or fight. Hold it eight months. Why give it back as hard as I worked? I’m getting old. Somebody is going to get me. I’m lucky I came back. See, I had you thinking I was washed up. You thought I was washed up. You really didn’t know how great I was. You didn’t know I just didn’t train for the first fight. You thought I had trained and that was my best. Wasn’t I much better this time than the first time? I’m older. I’m seven months older. Wasn’t it a total difference?

“Mannnnn. Mannnnnnnnnnnn. Mannnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Mannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. I was the best in this fight, let me tell you. I was training six months. My legs were running, I was chopping trees, running hills, watching my food. I said I cannot go out a loser, Jack Johnson went out a loser. Sugar Ray went out a loser. Joe Louis went out a loser. Of all the great fighters only Marciano and Tunney — two white ones­ — went out winners and everybody’s talking about how great Marciano was, and how great Tunney was.

“I said, some black man has got to be smart enough to get by all these people. I got to be that black man who gets out on top. I went training early. I put all my tools together. I tricked you. I was separated from my wife, all my friends. Mannnnnn. Mannnnnnn.” (Audience, including urbane, so­phisticated sports writers: “Mannnnnnn.”) “Man, I got ready a book coming out for all school children. I hang up my robes, hang up my crown, and my trunks. A Champion Forever. A champion forever. A champion forever. Mannnnnnnn.”

A reporter asked Ali did he think we’d hear from George Foreman again.

“You’ll hear of George Foreman no more. I don’t think he’ll ever come back. Spinks will win the title. Spinks is not finished. He just couldn’t beat me. He’ll beat Larry Holmes (takes a swig of Welch’s grape juice).

“I have an announcement. Kris Kristofferson and Marlon Brando have just signed to make my movie, Freedom Road. We have a $6 million budget. Couple of more questions then I gotta celebrate. Mannnnnn, you come over to the Hilton and we gonna ball. Mannnnnn. My victory party. All y’all playboys come on over.”

Trainer James Dudley said Ali won because “class will tell.” Ali’s camp did everything according to script down to even the right kind of music. In the first fight with Spinks he was introduced with a movement from a Brahms symphony. In the second fight, “The Saints Go Marchin’ In.” Spinks’s entrance was accompanied by the macho “Marine Hymn” which boasts of an illegal invasion of Mexico. So the people were joking about Spinks’s style. A friend of mine predicted that Spinks would win the fight if he weren’t arrested be­tween leaving his dressing room and entering the ring. Ali made a joke at the Mayor’s reception about Spinks still owing a thousand dollars on his $500 suit. Not only did Spinks lose the fight but they had trouble backing his huge white car out of the Superdome.

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The political, cultural, and entertainment establish­ments were rooting for Ali. His victory would be seen as another sign of sixtomania now sweeping the country, because even though some of his most heroic fights occurred in the seventies, he would still remind us of the turbulent decade, of Muslims, Malcom X, Rap Brown, The Great Society, LBJ, Vietnam, General Hershey, dashi­kis, afros, Black Power, MLK, RFK. He represented the New Black of the 1960s, who was the successor to the New Negro of the 1920s, glamorous, sophisticated, intelligent, in­ternational, and militant.

The stars were for Ali, but the busboys were for Spinks. They said he lost because he was “too wild.” His critics claimed that he drank in “New Orleans dives,” where the stateside Palestinians hangout — the people the establishment has told to get lost. The people who’ve been shunted off to the cities’ ruins where they live next to abandoned buildings.

They could identify with Spinks. If they put handcuffs on him for a traffic offense, then they do the same thing to them. If he was tricked into signing for a longer period in the armed forces than he thought, the same thing happens to them. For seven months, he was “The People’s Champ.”

Ali and his party left the stadium, with people lined up on each side to say farewell to the champion. The night before, the streets were empty, but now they were crowded, remind­ing one of the excitement among the night crowds in Ameri­can cities during the 1930s and 1940s, or when the exposi­tions were held in St. Louis and Washington. The black players’ bars were filling up. The traffic was bumper to bumper. Hundreds were milling about outside of the Hilton, or standing body-to-body. In the French Quarter, many more moved down Bourbon Street as the sounds of B.B. King and Louis Armstrong came from the restaurants and bars. Every 36-year-old had a smile.

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After returning home I learned that Butch Lewis had been fired from Top Rank for, according to Arum, taking a $200,000 kickback from Louisiana Sports. Don Hubbard told me that a press conference had been called by Ali, who had remained an extra day, to blast two officers of Louisiana Sports, Jake DiMaggio and Philip Ciaccio, for filing suit against the black partners, Hubbard and Copelin. Ali was joined by Joe Frazier and Michael and Leon Spinks. They wanted to show support for Butch Lewis.

Ali said that those who control boxing believed that “the black man’s role in the sport should be limited to boxing and carrying the bucket while the white men count the money.”

He said that if he heard anymore about a suit against Cope­lin and Hubbard he’d go see President Carter about the mat­ter or bring it up during his world tour. “I don’t know all the details of this suit,” he said, “but I know this is a racist suit.”

I called Arum. He said that Ali had apologized to him for the press conference. He’d talked to Ali the night before and accused Copelin, Hubbard, and Lewis of “steaming Ali up” so bad that Ali “got intemperate.”

“Ali is contrite,” Arum said. “Jesus, when they steam him up they almost make him drunk on rhetoric. Everybody in Chicago is concerned. Herbert Muhammad leapt to my defense. Hubbard, Copelin, and Lewis concocted the press conference to attack me, but Ali thought they were attacking the other guys [DiMaggio and Ciaccio]. Ali was ill-used and is going to say so today. I talked to Muhammad last night.”

“Why did Spinks lose?”

“I thought Spinks was going to win based on his having George Benton as trainer,” Arum said. “He lost because he received no guidance from his corner. None.”

I asked about the quote attributed to him by Newsweek that Spinks was “drunk every night.” Sports Illustrated re­peated the claim.

“I didn’t see him every night, but every time I saw him he was drunk. A young fighter can drink and abuse himself and not affect his conditioning, but it has a mental effect. Spinks has great raw talent. His wife Nova reputedly has joined the Muslims. If he joins the Muslims they will straighten him out. If he goes on like he is now, forget about him ever fighting again. His life will end up being a personal disaster.”

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Arum said he’d fired Butch Lewis because “I found out he was working a scam on me amounting to $200,000.” It had been reported that Lewis received the amount as a kickback from the fight in the form of letters of credit. I thought it in­credible that Ali didn’t know the contractual details of the “Battle of New Orleans” and asked Arum why he thought this was the case.

“He’s easily deceived,” Arum said. Would Arum promote another Ali fight? He said that he’d do nothing to encourage Ali to fight again. There was a rumor making the rounds, the source of which was said to be Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s for­mer doctor, whose book Fight Doctor annoyed Ali. The ru­mor was repeated in Newsweek and New York magazine, whispering that Ali is showing the symptoms of brain dam­age. I taped a press conference that Ali gave after a grueling 15 rounds in the ring with a 26-year-old man and detected not one bit of slurring, or lapse in his usual comical bril­liance. In fact, he could have been a Bible-toting Kentucky evangelist on the stump; the audience in the room belonged to him. They were spellbound by his oratory. Had he com­manded they would have permitted him to walk out of the room on their backs.

DiMaggio and Ciaccio sued Hubbard and Copelin later withdrew the suit saying it was the result of a misunderstand­ing. The “internal problems,” Hubbard said, “had been resolved. We don’t want to spread our dirty linen all over the nation.” But according to a report on Thursday, September 28, from Oakland radio station KDIA, the linen would be spread, and scavengers would dine. A grand jury was going to look into the promotion of the Spinks-Ali fight.

Ali apologized just as Arum said he would. He termed his press conference “unfortunate”:

“Certain people whom I regarded as my friends gave me a distorted version of events which so enraged me that I made unthinkable, angry remarks. I never met Mr. Ciaccio or Mr. DiMaggio and hold no personal animosity. Even if they are wrong I should not have called them a name, particularly a name which offends a whole nation of people.”

DiMaggio had threatened Ali with a $10 million libel suit unless he returned to New Orleans to “apologize” for the remarks Ali made against him.

In defending Arum, Herbert Muhammad said, “He came to me with a contract to guarantee Ali 3 million, 250,000 for training expense, and 250,000 for any other sources of ex­penses, and Butch Lewis came to me working for Top Rank, and Arum’s a white man. And Lewis is a white man. And Top Rank is a white organization, so I think Ali was not that informed.”

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Toward the end of his extraordinary press conference, Ali had indicated that “blue-eyed Jesuses” and “Tarzan, King of the Jungle” were on his mind, which reminds us of Tarzan’s Anglo origin and that in many black churches, Jesus resem­bles Basil Rathbone. This brings us to Ali’s last challenge: The Anglo-Saxon Curse on black Heavyweight Champions.

The “white hope” legend was born in the mythic Pacific White Republic of California with its Anglo Saxon ruling capital, the city by the golden gate. Early California poetry boasts of how the Anglo Saxons were destined to conquer and rule California and become its supreme race. Jack London was the lingering myth’s chief philosopher and fantasist and, for London and others, when Jack Johnson defeated Jim Jefferies, the claim of Anglo Saxon superiority received a se­vere setback. They went scrambling about to find someone to break Jack Johnson. Finally, as a historian observed, the white hope appeared in the form of legislation: The Mann Act.

The pride blacks felt in Johnson’s victory led them to cele­brate. They were lynched for “boasting.” Other victims were accused of “strutting about.” FRENZIED NEGROES EXASPERATE THE WHITES, screamed headlines in the London Daily Express, July 6, 1910.

A curse seemed to be laid that, thereafter, black cham­pions would retire in defeat: “the good ones,” like Joe Louis and Ezzard Charles, suffering as much as the “bad guys,” Sonny Liston, possibly killed. If he’s a historian as I believe he is, Ali will retire, undefeated. If he’s a “businessman,” as he said at his press conference, he’ll fight Larry Holmes for “the other” championship and the phantom woman who attends his fights, her chauffeur-driven car outside the stadium, will be there at rightside, awaiting Ali’s destruction. She won’t be the only one.


Thai Prison Drama “A Prayer Before Dawn” Feels Scarily Authentic

In director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s riveting Thai prison drama A Prayer Before Dawn, Peaky Blinders sensation Joe Cole stars as Billy Moore, an English-born amateur boxer living in Thailand. A meth-head who lights up before a fight, the twentysomething Moore is arrested for gun possession and thrown into the infamous Klong Prem prison. Within ten minutes of the film’s start, Billy is in a cellblock surrounded by throngs of Thai inmates, who berate him in a language he doesn’t understand. They force him at shiv-point to witness the gang rape of a young prisoner — a scene as harrowing for the men’s nonchalance as for its violence.

Adapted by Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese from Moore’s 2014 memoir, this is a film where men communicate in grunts, slaps, and head locks, which Sauvaire (Johnny Mad Dog) and cinematographer David Ungaro shoot in long takes and unrelenting close-ups. Billy’s cellmates, tattooed from head to toe, are played by ex-cons, and since Sauvaire filmed in a recently abandoned Bangkok prison, A Prayer Before Dawn feels scarily authentic, and may be too much for some. But there are moments of grace amid the setting’s despair. Billy joins the prison boxing club and gradually comes to know the inmates, who embrace him as one of their own. A scene where they tattoo his back is filmed as a reverent laying on of the hands — the inverse of all the violence that came before. And the year seems unlikely to offer acting as exquisite as the small moment when the warden hands Billy unexpected letters from his family. Surprised, Billy freezes, and yet, somehow, in that non-movement of his body, Cole suggests the life-renewing soul-shock Billy is experiencing. It’s a great performance in a film that’s likely to become a classic of its kind.

A Prayer Before Dawn
Directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Opens August 10, Village East Cinema
Available on DIRECTV


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RIP: Bert Sugar. Iconic Boxing Journalist Dead At 74

The first feature I wrote for the Village Voice when I came to New York was a profile of Bert Randolph Sugar. It appeared in the May 3, 1983 issue. When it was published, I got a note from Sugar: “Not bad, but you violated one of the cardinal rules of journalism – you buried your lead. You didn’t mention me ’til midway through the second paragraph.”

He was right, and I’ll never do it again (except for right now).

Bert Sugar died yesterday in a hospital in Mt. Kisco, New York, of cardiac arrest following a battle with lung cancer, which I didn’t know he was suffering from. I spoke with him once every couple of weeks for close to 30 years, but he never told me when he was ill. You can still call his home phone in Chappaqua and hear his voice say, “This is Bert. I’m not here, I’m out training for a comeback …”

Comeback? Hell, Bert never left us. 


In the early 1980s, he was the editor of Ring magazine, a
publication that once ruled the world of boxing –“The Bible of Boxing”
it was called — and which he brought back to respectability after Don
King had dragged it down by inducing some of the magazine’s editors to
pad his fighter’s rankings. Bill Veeck, the late great baseball owner
and promoter, told me “He dragged Ring from the jaws of disaster, and for that, if nothing else, he would be the savior of modern boxing.”

Well, as it turned out he wasn’t. He had a falling out with his partner Dave DeBusschere and soon moved his association to Boxing Illustrated,
where he served as editor for several years, and his office to
O’Riley’s Pub near his beloved Madison Square Garden. Every time I
called to meet with him, that’s where he said to come. He even handed
out business cards with O’Riley’s printed for his address.

He wrote books there, though, I don’t know which ones. In fact, I
don’t know how many books he wrote, and I don’t think he did, either. I
never even saw many of them, let alone read them. But I did read some,
and they were outstanding, particularly the Thrill of Victory, his book on the history of ABC Sports, The 100 Greatest Boxers of All Time
(Sugar Ray Robinson was number one) and The SEC, his history on college
football’s greatest conference. Bert knew as much about boxing — and
almost as much about baseball and football — as any man I ever met.

Let me relate just a few memories. The first time I went to a fight
with him at the Garden, he had an armful of the latest issue of Ring. He
nudged me, “Hey, is that Bill Murray over there?” I said yes. “Hey,
Bill,” he said, rushing over to a delighted Murray, “Have you seen the
March issue?”

One time we were on a CBS Sunday morning show together, and I
disagreed with him on something (I forget, exactly, on what). Pulling
his 6″ long unlit cigar out of his mouth, he said with a laugh, “Well
you have to remember Allen writes for the Village Voice, where boxing is the sport of queens.” (Ah, c’mon, people it’s funny.)

In 1987 I went with a friend to Las Vegas to do a story for the Voice
on the Sugar Ray Leonard-Marvin Haggler bout for the middleweight
championship. The town was in a frenzy and the rooms were sold out when
we got there. Bert let us sleep on blankets on the floor of his room.
We stumbled blurry-eyed back into the room at about 2 am. Shortly after,
Bert shuffled in and collapsed on his bed. Three hours later – I
glanced at my watch – he was up doing radio interviews in his socks,
garter, underwear, and his trademark fedora hat – again with the unlit
cigar chomped between his teeth. No method actor ever got so deep into a
character as Bert did into playing himself.

When room service knocked, he put his hand over the phone and said
“Come in.” He muttered “Coffee, orange juice,” then yelled down at us,
“You guys want some Danish? Hey, bring some Danish!” He then went right
back to his interview without missing a beat.

He was the link to the New York of Damon Runyon, A.J. Liebling, and
Red Smith. No fight, scarcely any big sports gathering, was complete
until Bert arrived. I am so glad that last summer, at a screening for
the HBO John McEnroe/Bjorn Borg special, Fire and Ice, I was able to introduce my teenage daughter to him.

Bert Sugar was the real deal, and if you make it to heaven and want
to meet him, go straight to the press room — just look for the guy with the
typewriter with a fedora and unlit cigar.

From The Archives JOCKBEAT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

How Donald Trump Hooked Mike Tyson

Three days before he stage-managed the July 26 press conference that presented Mike Tyson as an ath­lete in charge of his own affairs, Donald Trump and attorney Thomas Puccio had a series of conversa­tions at the billionaire autobiographee’s midtown office. Although he has kept it secret, the Voice has learned that Trump had been giving Tyson advice since March and, last month, arranged to re­ceive a share of Tyson’s future earnings as payment for financial expertise (insid­ers estimate Trump’s cut at around 5 per cent of Tyson’s future fight purses). Trump had intended to stay offstage but was forced out of the shadows when Ty­son filed his lawsuit against manager Bill Cayton, who is represented by Puccio (the former Abscam prosecutor who defended Claus von Bulow and Stanley Friedman). Facing the threat that Ty­son’s earning power would be tied up in a long court battle, Trump had to step in as mediator; he insisted his motivation was Tyson’s welfare.

Working to structure a deal that would maintain everyone’s slice of the heavyweight champion, Trump and Puccio sweated out a compromise: Cayton would settle for a reduced cut (from one-third of Tyson’s purses to one-fifth) but would save face by retaining the title of manag­er; Tyson would make a little more than his previous two-thirds, but would lay off a share to Trump, who would now have his hands on the hottest commodity in the sports-entertainment industry.

Trump has refused to specify his ar­rangement with Tyson, but he has said that any payments for his advice will be donated to charity. What Trump doesn’t mention is that he will keep the millions reaped by his Atlantic City casinos when gamblers flock to the Boardwalk during the Tyson fight weekends Trump is now in a position to orchestrate. (According to a Trump Plaza spokesman, the casino drew approximately 25 million dollars over the three days preceding the Tyson-Spinks fight — eight times more than nor­mal.) Although New York State boxing rules prohibit promoters from having any financial interest in a boxer, New Jersey rules are far more lenient; Garden State boxing commissioner Larry Hazzard says he hasn’t found any regulation that bars Trump from having a stake in Tyson.

Somewhere in the background lurks promoter Don King, who has become uncharacteristically quiet. “Trump gets his piece of Tyson,” explains a source close to the negotiations that resulted in the out-of-court settlement. “He’ll be in the boardroom, helping Tyson set up other business ventures. The managing and promoting will probably be left to King.”

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According to sources close to Trump and Tyson, when Jim Jacobs, Tyson’s co-manager and surrogate father, died in March, King received Trump’s bless­ing to openly court Tyson. King used the press, the champion’s new wife, Robin Givens, and her mother, Ruth Roper, to fan the flames against co-manager Cay­ton. As the money man behind the Ty­son-Spinks bout, Trump laid low, letting King draw the headlines. “It’s one of Trump’s best skills, picking the right mo­ment to catch flak,” says a member of the casino operator’s team. “Until the fight, he let King play the heavy. But you must understand that Trump and Tyson had been talking months ago. This wasn’t an overnight revolt. Mike knew Jacobs was dying but he didn’t feel comfortable with Cayton — and Trump knew that.”

While the media chased the story of a heavyweight champion being duped by a gold-digging wife and controlling mother-­in-law in the weeks preceding the Tyson-­Spinks bout, the real story was in the private conversations between Trump and King; in addition to the fight’s logis­tics, they discussed whether Tyson should break his contract with Cayton. Tyson’s new lawyer, Michael Winston, a tax specialist recommended by Ruth Roper, threw the first punch by serving Cayton with a lawsuit on June 27, minutes before Tyson stepped into the ring to earn $21.2 million for 91 seconds of effort. During the postfight press confer­ence, Tyson announced he was retiring. The brawl for it all had begun.

Cayton countered by hiring Puccio, who threatened to put Tyson on the wit­ness stand. In the first weeks of the legal battle, sources say, Puccio and Winston sparred over some of the embarrassing issues that might be raised in court. “It could’ve been real ugly,” says a source in Tyson’s camp. “There would have been dirt on Mike’s family and Jacobs’s family. The public would have seen the worst.”

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The dirty laundry included the claim in Cayton’s favor that he kept Tyson out of jail when he was arrested a year ago in Los Angeles after grabbing a parking at­tendant, demanding that she kiss him, and slapping her supervisor who tried to rescue the woman. (According to the L.A. prosecutor’s office, the assault and bat­tery charges were dropped after a judge was satisfied that Tyson and his manag­ers “made the victims whole” with an out-of-court settlement.) On the other side was the claim that Cayton ignored Tyson’s instructions to help his older sis­ter, Denise Anderson, then living on wel­fare in Queens. (Anderson is now careful to keep a low profile to avoid jeopardizing recent help extended by Givens and Rop­er.) And both sides had damaging interpretations of Tyson’s claim that he didn’t know his trusted co-manager, Jacobs, was dying of leukemia, despite the fact that many boxing insiders knew Jacobs was ill and that Tyson was a frequent visitor to the Mt. Sinai hospital room.

On July 9, days after Puccio and Win­ston told reporters that they expected a court hearing on the lawsuit, Trump flexed his muscles, leaking word of his plans to formally join Tyson’s financial team. At first, sources said, Trump thought of becoming Tyson’s manager but he realized that this could make him vulnerable to lawsuits himself; he decided on the role of “adviser,” who would draw his share of Tyson’s money through Mike Tyson Enterprises, a new corporation. When Tyson unveiled the formation of this company two days later, Trump was announced as one of its directors. Tyson added that his retirement was over.

During the next week, sources say, Trump arranged for prominent entertain­ment lawyer Peter Parcher (who also rep­resents Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jag­ger) to join Tyson’s legal team. In a series of late night meetings, Parcher assumed control of the lawsuit, pushing Winston aside. When State Supreme Court Judge David Edwards asked both sides to ap­pear before the bench on July 19, Puccio and Parcher traded jabs as Tyson, Gi­vens, and Roper lunched with King.

Two days later, in Edwards’s cham­bers, Puccio and Parcher set up an agree­ment to distribute the Spinks purse and allow plans for Tyson’s next fight to go forward. The following day, however, tempers flared and Winston stormed out of a meeting, casting doubt on a possible resolution. “That’s when Trump really went to work,” says a source in his orga­nization. With the court hearing pending, the possibility of a bloody lawsuit threat­ened Trump’s efforts to control Tyson. “If he really wanted a piece of the action, then he had to come out and get it. He had to get involved in a way people would see.” Between July 23 and July 26, Trump played the role of the white knight, the peacemaker for charity.

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With his massive Atlantic City hold­ings, Trump has become boxing’s premier banker and matchmaker, outbidding all others for the top fights. “The heavyweight division is his game now,” says a rival boxing promoter. “He has the money to buy whatever fight he wants and we just get the rest.” For now, Trump’s largesse extends to Don King, who has invested considerable time and energy in building the trust of Givens and Roper. “One Donald has the experience and connections to have Tyson box in Japan, Europe, or Asia,” says a boxing insider. “The other Donald owns the Boardwalk. Now, there’s room for both.” However, Trump’s interest in keeping Tyson’s fights in Atlantic City will re­strict King’s bargaining power. And if he feels he can get away with it, King will undoubtedly try for a coup, using Givens and Roper as leverage. The inevitable clash between King and Trump promises to be the best heavyweight fight since Godzilla versus King Kong. ■