Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Sweet Science

Somewhere during my youth, probably after age 10, my father taught me to box.

This was the age when the “Brown Bomber” Joe Louis was heavyweight champion of the world. He was considered “an inspiration for his race” in the newspapers and was the very first ethnic African national hero. Up to that time, his most famous bout was pummeling former champion German Max Schmeling in June 1938 ending the fight in 2 minutes 4 seconds of the first round. In many ways this fight was more a political contest against two nations about to clash in an epic war.

The Olympic Games were held in Berlin in 1936 and Jesse Owens was the star of the games winning 4 gold metals. Hitler and his propaganda machine had been sending out the message that the Aryan race was far superior to the ethnic African race, so Owens delivered a crushing blow to this concept.

So Hitler was anxious for Schmeling to revive the Aryan superiority with a victory and FDR met with Louis a few weeks before the fight, telling him “we need muscles like yours to defeat Germany”. Schmeling, to his credit, considered himself a fighter and not a Nazi but at the time his protestation received no press.


 One memory that stands out about boxing was listening to the second Billy Conn, Joe Louis fight. My father and I attended a high school basketball game the fight of the fight in 1946 and sitting behind us was a man you had the newest technology gadget, a portable radio. After the game was over, the fight was still going on and about 15 of us gathered outside the gym huddled around the man with the radio, listening to Don Dunphy describe the fight, hoping the batteries would last to the end.

I was tall for my age and skinny, with my arms longer for my body that normal. One of the statistics used to describe boxers is “reach” so in that respect my long arms were an advantage. I learned to jab with my left and cross with my right, to keep my guard up, to stay on my toes and dance out of range of my opponents blows.

In my day, young men frequently settled their disagreements with fisticuffs. We didn’t carry knives or guns. And due to my boxing skills I could hold my own with anyone in my class even the few bigger or taller than me. I would frequently get into minor skirmishes on the playground when I was challenged or I challenged someone. I never started a fight but I never backed down from one either.

As it turned out, most of the boys with whom I had fist fights, became my friends later. When we moved into team sports, having individual disputes seemed to vanish in the interest of working together with team mates to accomplish a goal.

After we got a TV in the early 50’s, I watched the Friday Night Fights every Friday night I was home. I watched Sugar Ray Robinson beat Jake LaMotta so badly they had to stop the fight because Jake, the Raging Bull would not go down. I remember other champions of Rocky Marciano, Jersey Joe Wolcott, Willy Pep, Floyd Patterson, and welcomed the arrival of Sonny Liston, Joe Frazer, and Cassis Clay (who changed into Mohammed Ali).

I remember going to a movie theater with my mother in Dayton to watch the Clay-Liston fight. Most people around us before the fight thought Liston was indestructible and mother and I tenuously voiced our confidence that Clay would win.
My last fight was an epic event. During recess or before school when I was in 9th grade, anyone that wanted to join in played soft ball where you got to bat as long as you didn’t make an out. If you hit a fly ball, the person who caught it replaced you at bat.

There was this boy Rudy, who decided that the rules didn’t apply to him. And when I challenged him about it, he threatened me, probably thinking I would back down. Wrong!

Since fighting on the school yard during school would result in serious consequences, arrangements were made to meet after school in nearby Bayliss Park.

I arrive first with many classmates there for support or for the same reasons people watch NASCAR. Rudy arrives and before we start fighting, he shows everyone that he is wearing a ring which had a miniature saddle as the centerpiece. The ring is meant to cut my face. My sense of fair play was enraged and Rudy became the villain to the crowd.

Rudy was a wrestler but I knew how to box, and I had a longer reach. Occasionally, Rudy would land a punch and it hurt. The inside of my mouth got chewed up from the braces on my teeth. But his ring didn’t leave any permanent marks. Nothing compared to the beating I gave Rudy. He didn’t show up in school for a week afterwards. I blacked both his eyes and to save face, he didn’t return to school until the discoloration went away.

Rudy was a bully before we fought, but not afterwards. No one ever wanted to challenge me after that. I retired on top and never ever did I fist fight again.

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