Foreword for Do or Die Viking Press, 1993
Foreword for Do or Die Viking Press, 1993
In 1979, a young woman boxer named Toni Tucker took me to her gym in a basement on 163rd Street in New York. She wanted me to take a picture for a poster promoting her next fight. I'd never been in a gym before. We went down a dark staircase, past a boiler room. The gym had a low ceiling, clean white walls, and black and red ropes around the red-painted ring. Above the ring hung a picture of Rocky Marciano, framed in wood and painted silver, and two pairs of old brown boxing gloves. In that small space, many fighters were training.
A child was there, six-year-old Carlos Villafane. He stood outside a corner of the ring. His eyes went through my heart. He had just finished patiently bandaging his hands by himself, and now he was waiting to spar.
I was fascinated by Carlos's will. Every day at 4:00 p.m. he went to the gym. He knew that I would be there too. I would see the smile in his eyes. No words. He was working hard. In the ring he once complained softly to his father, who was training him, that he was too tired to spar another round. Urgently his father said, "You can't be tired. You've got one more round to go. Work that body---give it to him. I know you can do it!"
Carlos's brother Jimmy was seven years old. Jimmy jumped rope next to the ring where Carlos was sparring. He didn't want to be a fighter. He wanted to be a schoolteacher. Both Jimmy and Carlos were trained by their father, an ex-fighter. He explained, "Jimmy, my son, is not for the ring. I just teach him to defend himself when he needs it in the street."
Artemio Colon, the owner of the gym and one of the trainers, was wrapping the hands of a little fighter named Angel: "Son, what time did you go to bed? I want you in bed early. Did you do your homework? Did you help your mother? Mi hijo, my son." Colon's voice was soft and low. They all called him "Pop". I could feel he was a father/mother to each one of them.
Right away I knew I had to be respectful and inconspicuous. I could feel how serious the relationships between the fighters and trainers were. I knew the trainers were checking me out. Would I open my mouth while they were working out? Would I get in the way? Would I know to turn my head when they were changing clothes? I had to learn to sense the mood of the boxers and disappear when they weren't able to concentrate. I enjoyed developing the agility to move quickly within the narrow space where jump ropes whirled, punching bags swung heavily, and speed bags cut the air. The place was quite small, yet so many people could fit inside and outside the ring.
Every day at the same time, I went to the gym. It was as if I were coming to train. I was learning: the uppercut, the jab, the combination....left hook! By nighttime I felt as if I were a fighter myself, feeling the movement of my legs, holding in my stomach and tightening my butt. "Don't drop that right hand. Give it to him! Double up your jab!" I was taken by the sound of each command.
Sometimes eight-year-old Papo Morales would come home with me. With a good eye, he would examine the fight pictures that I did for the boxers. He would comment on the action in the photos, analyzing the fighters' moves. He would spend long periods of time gazing intently at pictures of himself. After Papo called his sister and his mother, a seamstress, we would eat an early dinner, just like two fighters. The next morning he would wake up at 5:30, in time to jog before going to school. Papo, my little friend with the big serious eyes, told me how he frequently "jumped the train," as he called it, from Newark to go to the Gleason Gym in Manhattan. He couldn't afford the fare. He would tell me about his dreams for his mother and little sister, who was blind: "I want to be a champ for them so we can eat good and my sister can go to the best school. I don't want my mother to have to work overtime at the factory no more."
After a while, I could close my eyes, yet still know who was in the gym. Just by listening I could tell who was sparring in the ring, punching the bag, jumping rope, punching, breathing... The breathing was also purely individual.
With a doo-rag covering his hair, Jose was looking at himself in the mirror, correcting his punch. Even though the sweat was pouring down his face, he knew he would look good coming out of the gym. Every hair in place, Jose was like every fighter.
He loved his body! It was the instrument of his life's work.
Every Friday or Saturday afternoon we all met at the gym for that night's fight. Sometimes we would drive very far away, over the bridges of Brooklyn or the South Bronx to the Bed-Stuy Gym, the Spartan, the Lunar, the Paradise, the Jerome Boxing Club, the Apollo, the Fort Apache, the Coney, or the Uptown Gym. These were always long rides, accented by the sounds of the elevated subway cars rattling overhead, as intense as the streets were long, dark, and deserted.
Sometimes there wasn't enough space in the cars, with all the headgear, gloves, well-pressed robes, little brothers and best friends. So I would take the train. Often on these train rides I would miss everyone and feel lonely. But then, late Saturday night on the train is special.
Lovers and friends are going out dancing.
I learned a lot about the techniques of boxing---especially the importance of footwork---from Joe Louis's How to Boxand about boxing rules by reading The Amateur Boxing Federation Handbookduring the long subway rides to the gym. For instance, the pros can choose their opponents, and they can look over an opponent's records before making a final decision. Among amateurs, the selections are made randomly within the appropriate class: Novice-class boxers are those with fewer than ten fights: open-class fighters have ten or more. The two classes never mix.
The amateurs have many more rules and restrictions than the pros. Professional fights uniformly consist of three-minute rounds; amateur rounds range from ninety seconds to three minutes, depending on the age of the fighters. Amateur boxers can hit each other only with the small section of the glove that is marked white. If they punch with any other part of the glove, they can lose a point. The referees are very careful that the amateur fighters don't get hurt too badly. While amateur fighters win prizes, pros win money. In the pros, the fight can't be stopped as easily: they have to fight for those millions.
The only enemy I ever made in boxing was John Condon, the president of Madison Square Garden, during the 1981 Golden Gloves. When he heard that I was taking pictures of Mark Breland using the door of a toilet stall in the men's room as a background, he threw me out of the Garden. He wasn't interested in hearing how perfect the light in the bathroom was for photographing Mark. My friends, the trainers, hid me in the locker room, where I was unable to watch or photograph Mark's fight. At another match, Condon threw me out of the arena when I moved between rounds from my chair at ringside to the corner of the ring. I was trying to capture the image of the cornerman and the training caring for their fighter between rounds. My shame at being thrown out was overshadowed when the alluring Rose Trentman, a writer for El Diariowho is beloved by all the fighters, flashed me a look of encouragement. I've always wondered if John Condon realized that the Mark Breland photo appeared full page in the New York Times Magazine.
The Spanish Gloves in one of the major tournaments leading up to the Golden Gloves, the main nonprofessional event of the year. For the amateur, few things compare with the feeling of the small, solid-gold glove with its diamond center hanging from a chain around his neck. It marks the first step toward making the Olympic team. The first time I went to the Golden Gloves the tournament was held at the Jerome Boxing club. A poster outside declared:
"COME OUT AND SEE YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD BOXERS DO THEIR THING."
A Mexican family had come to make a few bucks cooking tacos, burritos, rice, and beans. They came prepared with hot plates and cooking utensils, big green avocados and ripe, red tomatoes. Their young daughter, decked out in pink frills, white stockings, and black patent-leather shoes, was trying to put her baby sister to sleep in a playpen. A James Brown tune followed the sounds of merengue, which pumped through huge speakers. Gladys, the girlfriend of the gym's director, Adonis Torres, was selling two-dollar tickets at the door to help pay for the gym's rent and electricity.
I ran upstairs to the locker room, hoping I hadn't missed the weigh-in. The fighters were in their sweatshirts, waiting in line to be checked out by the doctor. It was very cold. They kept their sweatshirts on until the doctor asked to listen to their hearts.
The cracking of a jump rope drew me into the next room. Between two rows of steel-grey lockers, a fighter with his head wrapped in a drab green sweatshirt was jumping rope under a naked light bulb. His trainer sat on a carton in front of him, stopwatch in hand. "Faster, faster! One more pound to lose." He went back to the scale. He had lost two pounds. His trainer dried him carefully with a big white towel.
Between each bout there was music: merengue, salsa, rap. The party would go on while the fighters were in the locker room, waiting for their bouts. the luckier ones had shiny, perfectly pressed robes awaiting them on hangers that dangled from their father's or best friend's hands; robes with big letters splashing the fighter's name across his back. Virgin-white bandages enveloped their hands, wrapped every so carefully by the trainer. "I give my fighter a rubdown the day before the fight. I put Vaseline on his body to keep him from getting cut," explained George Washington, a trainer, while giving his fighter final advice before entering the ring.
Sometimes the fighters sat for three hours, waiting for their turn in the ring. Amateur fights are three rounds of three minutes each, with two minutes in between each round. Kids fifteen and under fight rounds lasting a minute and a half to two minutes, with two minutes between each round. In one night there could be up to twenty-eight bouts. Sometimes they would last until two in the morning.
Most of my time was spent backstage in the locker room, waiting with the fighters. The weigh-in is crucial. The fighters are lined up, hoping to be matched with an opponent of the same experience and weight class. The moment when the fighter is weighed is especially tense. All the trainers are around the scale to determine whether a fighter will be given an opponent or get dressed and watch the fight from the crowd, which is always devastating. The only alternative is to sweat in the steam room or to frantically jump rope to lose more weight. Sometimes there just aren't enough fighters in the same weight class.
Throughout these preparations, the kids are all concentrating, trying to make themselves mean for the fight. Mark Breland once explained to me that feeling of buildup, of trying to "get mean." I loved their rituals of preparation for the fight, but at these times, more than ever, I had to be invisible.
Sometimes I would follow the fighter, trainer, and cornerman as they entered the ring. Occasionally, two fighters I knew from different gyms were to be opponents. At these momentsI could feel the panic arise inside, yet I knew it wasn't the time for sentiment. I knew it was impossible for both of them to win. All I could do was hope that the fight would be fair, and beautiful. I would crouch in the corner to take my pictures, hoping no one from the audience would yell that I was disturbing their view.
Once the bell rings, the boxer must walk alone to the center of a four-sided stage, surrounded by hot spotlights, screaming crowds, clouds of cigar and cigarette smoke.
... I still swell with admiration for the guts it takes to get to the center of that ring. After their fight, the kids might get a hamburger or a hot-dog that their trainer or father would buy for them. Rare occasions brought hot food, usually rice and beans. Neil Ferrara, a trainer at the Lunar Gym, used to bring a big bag bursting with oranges for his many little fighters. At the Apollo in the South Bronx, the beautiful Nilda often sold warm food to the fighters. Her husband, Nelson Cuevas, the director of the gym and one of its trainers, would spend part of the evening before the fight cleaning and decorating. He would buy several trophies and line them u on the tables when the families sat during the fight. After the winners received their trophies, Nelson "would give trophies for the most regular attendant, the most gentlemanly, the most improved.... I encourage kids like that."
I remember Gabriel Bracero, a ten-year-old fighter. His opponent was the same weight but three years older. I knew Gabriel couldn't win, but his father and trainer explained to me that they wanted Gabriel to learn to love. He had never lost a fight. You can't be a fighter and not know how to lose. After the fight, Gabriel left the ring with a big white towel covering his head and his white silk robe draped across his shoulders. He was flanked on either side by his father and trainer. Tears were running down his face. I couldn't take the picture.
For long periods I would go to Times Square Gym and Gleason Gym, where most of the fighters were pros. This was serious business. Punchers on the bag--- and during the sparring---were really loud. Great masters of boxing were trainers there, men like Sandy Saddler, Eddie Futch, Angelo Dundee, Al Smith, Victor Valle. I learned from them all.
At Gleason, I would circle the ring from behind the ropes to watch Victor Valle work. In every ring the ropes reverberate, but at Gleason, the ring is very high off the ground. So even if a fighter hit the ropes across the ring from where I was standing, the ropes' vibrations could throw me from the ring's narrow outer periphery and onto the floor far below. Victor trusted me to be careful, not to interfere, andnot to get hurt.
All of his fighters were pros, training and sparring hard. Watching and listening to him carefully made me understand the art of boxing. He used to explain to his fighters that they were performers. "You have to add a little color to your performance, to make your movements more graceful, to keep your rhythm and to attract the crowd so they will love you. You gotta bounce, move in a cushioned way, make it smooth and subtle. when you put a rhythm in, it's like ballet dancing. Boxing is not just throwing punches, it's like punches with rhythm and color, dancing around the mat with smooth movements. It's an art you're presenting. Ray Robinson had that--rhythm and color. That's why people like him, because he was spectacular. He had a spark. That's boxing."
From the corner of the ring, I would observe Sandy Saddler, the former featherweight champion of the world, as he taught his combination punches. I would admire the smooth, simple beauty of his strong, lean hands. The contrast between smoothness and violence is the irony of the boxer's art.
Every Saturday at noon, he could be found in front of Woolworth's on 125th Street inHarlem. Friends and admirers would be waiting for him when he got there. His fans would tell me about his famous style of boxing. Sandy was an "outside" fighter. He used his long arms to keep opponents at a distance.
Sandy would arrive with his best friend, and a path would clear among the crowd as if he were about to enter the ring. The crowd would grow larger s he told stories about his biggest fights. He could recall them all round by round. He spoke proudly of his 109 knockouts and his three fights and two wins against Willie Pep: "I took the featherweight title from Willie Pep, September 8, 1950. Oh Jesus! Nothing in the world is better than that!"
Often Sandy would take me out for an early dinner of smothered chicken and peach cobbler while he told me about his life outside the ring. He was used to seeing me in my uniform of sweatshirt and sneakers; so to make him happy, I would wear red high-heeled shoes and "dress like a lady." He would speak proudly of his discipline. "Every day, I get on that road and job around Yankee Stadium in my combat boots. It makes me feel good. The less you fool around the better it is for you. You can't fool around with women, at least (not for) three months before a fight. It takes away your strength, and (then) you can't stand up if you get punched in the face. You'd be finished."
Now when I visit Sandy Saddler I must go to his very small room in a Bronx nursing home. His well-shined combat boots are perched above the small wardrobe. Taped to the wall is a photocopy of his boxing record. He says he wishes he could leave the home and "show the young boxers what to do." He misses the gym.
During the time I spent in Harlem, I heard many stories of Kid Chocolate, the famous lightweight champion from Cuba who lived in Harlem for many years. Finally, in 1984 I went to Cuba to look for Kid Chocolate. My first day there, while walking the streets of La Havana, I approached a group of men playing dominoes. I mentioned to one of them that I knew from the way he held his shoulders that he had been a fighter. He was so surprised that I could tell! When I asked if he knew where I could Kid Chocolate, he answered, "He is my best friend!" That afternoon we drove in a taxi---a big red 1940 Packard---to Kid Chocolate's home.
He was sitting in a bamboo chair under the shade of a huge tree, surrounded by his grandsons and admirers. He lived in a house with his sister. The house had many rooms. He had wardrobes filled with dozens of tailor-made suits, shoes, many pairs of boxing gloves, and piles of old photographs. I went through his closets with him. If I held up a suit to admire the cut, just seeing it could send him back in time. With his back arched and his head thrown back, suddenly it was as though he were a lean young boxer again, arm in arm with the most beautiful dancer of the Cotton Club.
There was so much kindness in his eyes! I spent many precious afternoons listening to him. He could recall every punch of the seven-round fight against Benny Bass that won him the World Junior Lightweight Championship. While showing me pictures of his championship belt, he told me that the crowd had clamored for the fight to be stopped. They screamed so much during the seventh round that the referee had to raise Kid's arms to show that the fight was over. He proudly informed me that fifty of his 130 wins were by knockout, and that in 1959 he was elected to the Hall of Fame. Still, he proclaimed that Joe Louis was the greatest fighter he had ever seen. "The Brown Bomber knew exactly what punch to give to kill; he never punched the air. He was famous for his lethal left jab."
Kid Chocolate was equally known for his elegance. He would often reminisce about Paris, the nights he spent in Montmartre. One of his good friends, Ramon Castilo, a Cuban boxer who had become famous in Europe, took him to a nightclub there as a surprise, but on two conditions: that he neither look at the pictures on the wall nor read the marquee. Once they got to the elegant cabaret, a table was reserved close to the stage and at its center was a placard reading "Kid Chocolate, World Champion."
Kid recalled: "Lots of lights were changing colors, and the champagne was flowing. Suddenly the lights went out and a strong spotlight lit the center of the stage. With a broad smile, Carlos Gardel, the world-famous Argentinean tango singer, appeared. Gardel saluted his public, and in between the applause, he announced, in a solemn tone, words I will never forget: "Today, we have among us the glory of boxing, who like myself has traveled thousands of miles to reach Paris, the city of lights. I feel extremely happy in embracing a Latin American like myself." A spotlight shone on both of them, as Gardel continued, "If you allow me, Champion, especially for you, (I'll sing) Rosas de Otono .'
I had never heard anything like it. Campolo, a fighter, gave me the record a few years ago."
Kid Chocolate knew that song well. He later sang it for me, his eyes glowing.
At the end of the performance Gardel sat at the Kid's table. They enjoyed the rest of the evening together like old friends until the morning came. According to Kid Chocolate, Gardel's congenial personality was as attractive as his voice was genuine and humble. "We spoke of our childhoods, about trying to survive in very poor neighborhoods. He spoke a lot about his distant Buenos Aires." Like the Kid, Gardel loved the nightlife and was especially passionate about horse racing.
Years later, Kid Chocolate was glad to meet him again in New York. If Gardel knew Paris, Kid knew Spanish Harlem, and he was glad to return the courtesy. "When he died, it left a deep wound in me. He told me he wanted to die in Buenos Aires. Destiny gave him a low blow. He died in a plane crash".
Kid Chocolate had great memories of the ten years he'd lived in Harlem. His dream was to go back for a month's visit. He loved to hear about his fans in Harlem and how they hadn't forgotten about him. He would have me repeat stories about his fans who had seen him fight, and frequently he asked to look at my pictures of them, hoping he would see someone he recognized. I would tell him how the old-timers always said: "The Kid was the rage. He was famous for the way he dressed. He took out of dancers of the Cotton club." Many years later, as Kid Chocolate recounted these evenings during my visit, his eyes still sparkled and shone.
As we sat in the shadows of his garden, his sister would bring coffee and the children would gather to listen to his stories. "In 1949, I was invited to watch Kid Gaviland fight in Harlem. One night I was coming out of the gym when a man came up to me and said, "A good friend of yours from around 1931,'32 would love to see you." Outside the gym, a car was waiting for us.
"Well he didn't have to ask me twice. We drove to an elegant restaurant in Harlem. The man took me to the bar, told me anything I wanted was on the house, and then disappeared. He came back in a few minutes with another man who was slender and graceful, with a light gait. This man clasped my hand in his two and asked me, "Think back to the early Thirties." I looked closely at him and thought back almost nineteen years. The man said, "You were famous for giving five dollars to the boy who shined your shoes. Do you remember that fresh boy on Lenox Avenue who asked if he'd be able to dress as sharp as you if he learned to box? You told him that he could if he realized that boxing was not brutality but an art, a science, and if he could punch someone without getting punched back, he would win lots of money, fame.....and all the women he wanted!"
"I knew who he was. 'Sugar Ray Robinson, that boy was you!' We laughed and hugged each other.
"Sugar Ray said, 'Because of you, I am what I am today---a boxer. Can I ever repay you? Can I do something for you?' This made me smile, so I said, 'I'll take another drink.' But he insisted on helping me. He'd heard that I had no money."
Kid Chocolate grew quieter as he told me, "I made a million dollars in the ring. I shared what I made. So even though my pockets were empty, I felt like a million dollars. Because I shared my happiness.
"Here you have the difference between the poor rich and the rich poor. The rich need pills to sleep. I sleep soundly because I have the most important of all treasures---the warmth of my people."
One of the many stories I heard about Kid Chocolate's legendary generosity was told to me by my friend Herbert Gentry: "I was a student at P.S. 184, on 116th Street, with Ray Robinson and Danny Cox. One day when I went to school, all the boys started telling each other that Kid Chocolate had rented a big candy store across (the street) and everyone could get ice cream, candy, hot dogs---'Everything you want,' he'd promised---for that one day. He was a big sport."
Sandy Saddler, like many of my old-timer friends in Harlem, was really happy when I came back from Cuba with pictures of Kid Chocolate. So many of them asked me for his picture; they had all thought he was dead! "Kid Chocolate had good punches and power. He was smooth, fast, and clever. I wasn't too bad myself. ... He saw me fight." sandy remembered.
"He could really punch hard," recounted Mike Capriano, the famous trainer of Jake La Motta. Capriano still trains his fighters at Gleason Gym, always dressed in his silk, tight-fitting, blue-and-white trainer's jacket, the traditional uniform. "I saw him fight in 1928. He beat Sammy Tisch in a ten-round decision. He beat Johnny Erickson in a ten-round decision. He knocked out Emile Poluso in eight rounds. He was a hell of a fighter. He fought everyone, not like today. Today, the fighter picks who he wants to fight. The (audiences) today only go for the big fights. Back then, there were real fights--full house, full of smoke.They were really fans in those days."
"Back then there were fights every week," reminisced Frank Haywood, a Harlem old-timer. "At that time the ring was smaller. The Kid would lure the opponent into the corner and then he would score a lot of fast punches. And the next thing you know he was killing him. He was very artistic with his legwork and punches. I used to sell newspapers as a child, (so) I'd always find a way to his fights. Sometimes he would give me a ticket. I remember that, even though he was a big star, as a black person the Kid couldn't stay in the Theresa Hotel. Black people could only stay at the Braddock or Woodside."
I'm still working in Harlem and meeting people who've heard how much I welcome their memories of Kid Chocolate. A couple of days before Thanksgiving in 1991, I was sitting with my elegant friend Cindy in her popular coffee shop on 137th Street. We were eating her famous biscuits. There was lots of excitement as people ran in and out, carrying huge turkeys. As in previous years, Mike Tyson was giving away six thousand turkeys at the community center next door. Cindy and I were soon joined by Frankie Richardson, manager of the Renaissance Ballroom from 1922 to 1942. He enthused, "Oh, Kid Chocolate! He revives some great memories for me. Those were some good days. Him and his buddy Al Brown would go to the famous tailor Mr. Orye on 125th Street, who used to dress the performers at the Apollo. They'd have their suits cut in the same pattern, but different linings. They both drove the same model car too---a silver Packard.
"Whenever the Kid and Al Brown showed up, everybody would hang out with them beneath the Tree of Hope in front of the Lafayette Theater, their headquarters. They always refused to fight each other, because one of them had to lose. They were two nice, lovely fellows. And they both could fight."
Lemuel Hamilton, a very sweet man and a regular at the Rhythm Club, which used to be on 132nd Street, told me, "I used to go to the fights twice a week---on Wednesday (at) St. Nicholas arena (and) on Saturday (at) Madison Square Garden. Kid Chocolate was my very first hero. Now I don't go to the fights; it would tarnish my memory of those days when Kid Chocolate and Al Brown used to hoist their bodies over the side-bars of their silver Packards and go into Frank's Famous Steak House, where only white people were admitted at that time. (Frank's) made a special exception for celebrities like Kid Chocolate and Al Brown, just like the Cotton Club."
At the Doral Bar, Sammy "Destroyer" Straw, an old-time Harlem boxer, recalled, "we used to hang out together. Even if he hadn't been training, if they asked him to fight, he would go to the arena that same night---and win."
Robert Earl Jones, a vital actor and founder of a theater group in Harlem, noted, "People would be talking for days on end about how the Kid had won. He was a real talent. After his fights he would say from the ring, 'Hello everybody! I am glad I win.'"
In April of 1992 I visited Mr. Reid, a man for whom I have much respect. Over the last sixteen years I have enjoyed meeting him in his dry-cleaning shop to listen to him talk about "the good old days." The tuxedos he used to rent to the famous stars of the Twenties and Thirties still hang in rows above where he tends to his sewing. He has been a cleaner in Harlem for the last fifty years. "I dressed them all: Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington, Kid Chocolate, he was my man---a hell of a fighter (and) a heavy dresser. He had a style of his own. The last time I saw Kid Chocolate was when he made an appearance on-stage at the Apollo Theater. He rushed to the Apollo from the St. Nicholas Arena, where he had just beat a guy to death. Nobody expected to see him there. He got a standing ovation."
At the end of his life, Kid Chocolate was honored as a former world champion. He was awarded a pension from the Cuban government. When Kid Chocolate's son wrote me of his death in 1988, I was very saddened that, despite all my efforts, I hadn't been able to help him to realize his dream of coming back to Harlem one last time.
Another ex-fighter I met was Archie Moor, "the Great." In 1983I went to see him and his family at their home in California. His big studio had a large pool table and an enormous collection of jazz albums. While we listened to Dizzy Gillespie, I gazed at the famous photograph of Archie punching Rocky Marciano in the fourth round of their fight. As a young champ, Archie would use his money to help young jazz musicians make their recordings.
We went to the gyms in Compton and Watts where he trains young boxers through his program, any boy Can. Archie drove very fast. I loved it. I enjoyed his energy and power. We laughed a lot together.
"Give me a boy that nobody wants," he said, "the boy from the ghetto who is covered with grit and grime and dirt, the boy who otherwise might go bad. The main thing I teach a boy is self-respect. But I also teach him to defend himself...The boy who can defend himself doesn't have to prove it. For a while the other kids will tease him for training with me, but I teach them to be able to walk away from a fight. After a while his reputation gets around and he can do what he wants in peace and serenity. If he wants to play the violin, nobody will bother him. What (these boys) are looking for is an identity."
Archie and I wrote to one another through the years. His letters are precious to me. One of the gyms where I most enjoyed working was the Bed-Stuy Gym, where George Washington trains his fighters. As soon as you walk in, the sound of hip-hop music is blasting, pumping a rhythm that makes the fighters move. On the door, there is a sign that reads
"BED STUY DO OR DIE. WE DO, WE DON'T DIE."
The gym had a large window that opens out onto the street. Mothers, sisters, and passersby watch and sometimes come in to tell the fighters that they look good, or to watch the guys sparring in the ring. Kids are sprawled round the ring, doing their homework. On Friday nights when the fights take place, all the friends and families show up. The "hottest rap acts" make special appearances. Four beautiful little ring girls ---Vanessa, Cynthia, Crystal, and Tiffany---circle the ring, holding placards high above their heads announcing the next fight.
Medina Kiser, a smiling woman who calls herself "the Matriarch," has attended every Friday-night fight since the gym opened in the Seventies. Every week she brings a grill and sells hot dogs and hamburgers for $1.50. "When the kids don't have it (money), I just give it to them. I want them to eat!"
Every day at 3:00 p.m., George opens the gym. The fighters are already there, outside, waiting to share their problems and to receive advice. Often they come to share their successes. I remember when one of the fighters presented George with his college degree bound in leather. His face lit up at the pride George felt for him.
The other day while George was bandaging the hands of Leo, a determined little manwho is small for his age, Leo looked up from the bandaging and said, "George, I got me a job. It's my birthday tomorrow. The manager of the supermarket next door told me I could start carrying bags for the ladies once I turned eight. I been waiting for that day t come for a whole year. I will go every day after my training."
George laughed and said, "You'll make good tips. But don't forget your homework."
George is one of the great amateur trainers. He is the conductor of an orchestra; with twenty-five fighters around him, involved in twenty-five different things, he still has an eye for each of them.
George is always busy with great big hands, hands that remind me he was once a heavyweight champ. As a fighter, he was called "Lefty" and "Lightning," because he was so fast. His hands are everywhere, working: slipping gloves on and off the fighters' hands, mopping the sweat from their brows, adding grease to their faces, giving them water between rounds, wrapping and unwrapping their hands in bandages...
I remember going with George to Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, where he has been an usher for thirty years. At the end of the service, the congregation joined hands. With my hand in George's, I could feel his strength, the holy spirit. My hand became so small... it was as if it were melting. Always present is his laughter and his spirit---in the church, in the gym. He never stops.
"I boxed until 1956. My amateur record was 16 fights and 6 knock-outs. From '44 to '56, I had 114 pro fights with only 14 losses. I had 86 knockouts.
"I don't see why they didn't talk about me like they did all those other fighters. When I was sparring with (Joe) Louis, I was in the top ten. I was top ten from '47 to '49. I was nominated for the championship. But they didn't say much about me.
"Right after I quit fighting, a guy asked me if I would train his fighter. I told him I didn't want nothing to do with no fighter, because of when they took the championship away from me.
"They took the championship away from me when I fought this kid from Washington. White boy. I beat him, and I cut him all up. I had him bleeding so, his white trunks turned red. I had both his eyes closed. But they gave him the fight. So I told my manager---I didn't want to fight no more.
"I stayed away for two years. I went back to the gym to lose some weight. When a trainer saw me and started bringing the fighters around where I was hitting the bag, I said 'Oh Lord....'
"The first kid I trained won by knockout thirty seconds into our first fight. Next thing you know he'd won seven fights in a row. So then they brought me some more kids. And they started winning. All of a sudden everybody was bringing me fighters. I been a trainer every since.
"I had one kid whose mother would bring him to the gym, so I started to box with him. But the mother said, 'Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!---she got all excited, see. She wanted her son to learn how to defend himself in school, but she didn't want him to gethit!" He laughed. "I said, 'He's gonna get hit, lady. You brought him here to box!'
"A Lot of people tell me I have too many fighters, that I can't train them all. Got one guy who brought me home last night sayin', 'You know, the guys tell me you don't have enough time to put in with me.' I said, 'Look let me tell you something. When you hitting the bag and you do something wrong, I'm always after you, right? Why I got to stay right up under you? I ain't got to be right there on you.' He said, "That's right. I didn't know that". I said, "I be watching you. Even though I got boxers in the ring, I can be watching you at the same time. If I wasn't watching you, how you figure whenyou do something wrong, I holler over there and tell you?" George laughed. "Then he shut up."
To his thirteen-year-old grandson, Gregory: "I don't want you to drop your hand; it leaves you open." Gregory answered, "I've been fighting like this my whole life, for a long time. When I fight in the streets, that's how I fight."
"In street fightin' you leave yourself open too much, they have their arms down in the street. Everything goes, all kinds of grab and punch. In boxing they got scientific rules. Come on, Greg, work! I want a right hand in it. Hit that bag!"
I listen to George, and learn.
My every afternoon was spent with boxers, and every Saturday night I was there for the fight. That was my life.
Fighters talk from the heart. They shoot straight, they look right at you. It is the only sport in which the opponents look into each other's eyes.
Inside the ring, the fighter is for himself, fighting for his life; deep down he is fighting for his life and the lives of his family, for those he loves and for those who love him. In the gym, it's a brotherhood: "He is my friend, he is my buddy, he is my blood!" Here the older pass their knowledge on the younger. They are all in pursuit of the same goal, striving toward a championship belt. As George Washington says, "I STILL THINK I CAN MAKE A CHAMP."
Text for Do or Die Viking Press, 1993