|PHILLY BOXING HISTORY SOULVILLE A Boxing Novel by Mike Spector||
It was a place where the extremes of life came together, busted apart and re-connected in a continuous pattern of survival. A place where hopes and dreams collided regularly with nightmares and disappointment.
It was a place where one was judged not by wins and losses but rather on perseverance, strength of character, and a willingness to stay in the game.
It was a place where boys became men riding on fate, fear and the never-ending challenge of a fair one, and girls moved up from double-dutch to double dates trading on that sweet smell of love, lust, and the chance for a ticket out. A place where life was often filtered though a cheap bottle of Thunderbird or an over-used vein from a cooked spoon, a place where good people didn’t stand a chance.
It was a place they called Soulville.
Some say a man’s life ain’t nothin’ mo’ than a ’cumalation of all his days, from the time he born to the time he die. I say that ain’t how it is. A man’s life, most time, come down to a moment—one single moment—a moment where everything come together and give him a chance—a chance to find out ’xactly who he is. What he do in that moment, will define him for the rest’a his life.
Blue Washington, Custodian, Champs Gym
The disheveled figure in the army fatigue jacket moved in and out of the late afternoon shadows along San Diego’s waterfront, in-between the locals and vacationers waiting for the ferry to Coronado. He walked the walk of old boxers, more of a shuffle really, chin tucked, shoulders rolling, an occasional jab shooting out at no one in particular.
His left leg dragged a little. The point where the lead pipe had cracked his kneecap and separated the tendons had long since healed, but the constant pain from the arthritis that set in had been with him ever since. It made sleep all but impossible except in short, restless spurts.
A boy wearing shorts so big he had to hold the waist to keep them from falling ran past him. He couldn’t have been more than nine or ten and was lightning quick. A moment later a second boy, about the same age and wearing the same big shorts but taller and heavier with a trickle of blood running down the side of his face came running from the same direction. He pulled up just ahead of the man, stopping momentarily to catch his breath.
“BITCH,” he yelled in the direction of the first boy who had since disappeared among the crowd of walkers, joggers, and families looking out at the sailboats skipping silently across the harbor. “I’M GONNA CAP YO’ ASS.”
The man stopped to watch the small drama unfold. He remembered when he was their age on the streets of North Philadelphia, Converse All-Stars, bell-bottom jeans, Afro picks, and sweet soul music. A lot had changed since then, the language, the styles. One thing hadn’t. The street was still a jungle, still a proving ground filled with sweat, swagger, and the hunt for a fair one. Kids growing up on the street still sorted things out city-style.
No one standing in the crowded entrance to Anthony’s Fish Grotto noticed the man. He looked like most homeless who prowled restaurant row along the waterfront except for the scar tissue around both eyes.
It was the usual summer crowd, tourists mostly, impatiently fighting mosquitoes and the occasional vagrant. They’d be there through Labor Day. An older couple stood in front of the glass-encased menu ignoring the others lined up behind them.
“Sol, they have the lobster. You love the lobster,” the small woman said.
“I don’t want lobster,” the man snapped. His bright red sunburn was starting to blister. He wished he had listened when she’d insisted on slathering him with aloe vera lotion before they left. But when she started with that nagging voice, he always did the opposite. It was the principle.
“But you love the lobster.”
She wore too much lipstick. It exaggerated the words as they came out of her mouth—east coast Jewish—dark red lips in stark contrast to the white shirt she bought from B’nai Brith at the last fundraising—the one with the sequined letters across the front that read Sexy Bubbie.
“Enough already. I don’t want the lobster.”
“We’re on vacation. Don’t worry about the price. Get the lobster.”
“WILL YOU FORGET THE GODDAMN LOBSTER!” he yelled, waving her away with his hand.
“OK, OK, don’t get the lobster. Geez.”
The disheveled man stood there quietly. Most homeless looking for a buck along the row from tourists too guilty not to give before dropping a couple of hundred on dinner wear a distinct expression—an expression that says; Please Help. The man’s expression was different. His had an edge. Not an angry edge. Not like the psychos when they go off their meds, just an edge. An edge that said,
“I’m not really bad. But if you mess with me, I’ll hurt you.”
He stood there for a long time watching the people come and go as the oil-slick bay ebbed and flowed against the dark wood barnacle clustered pilings. Then, climbing up on the railing he leapt to the first piling, landing softly in a Chaplinesque stance; toes pointed out with a slight bend in his knees. His feet barely fit on the circular surface. A young couple in mid-conversation stopped talking and looked up. A little girl with a helium-filled balloon from Sea World tied to her wrist watched intently.
At five-foot-eight with brillo-like tufts of dirty, nappy hair, grease-stained pants, and an old rucksack bulging on his back, he looked nothing like the man who once, on a sweltering June night in Lima, Peru, stood before 33,000 screaming fans with his arms raised in victory having just beaten the South American middleweight champion. Scars on his right forearm all but obliterated the tattoo of a fisted glove with the quotation underneath:
“I shook up the world!”
The man stood still on the piling, taking in every detail.
The fog was starting to roll in off the ocean. Everything
looked so vivid. He smelled the sweet, salty sea air. Then,
looking at the little girl, he smiled—winked—and jumped.
It was morning, a late Indian Summer morning just warm enough to open the French doors while I sipped my coffee. Sunlight filtered through the canopy of the big maple tree that stood guard in front of our house, dancing in patterns across the hardwood floor. The leaves had been turning for a few weeks now, blanketing the sidewalk with a soft carpet of red and gold where they fell. My name is Nick Ceratto. I’m a photographer at the Philadelphia Journal.
My first assignment that day was a back-to-school feature at Germantown Friends, a local Quaker elementary school. With digital cameras and a laptop I no longer had to go into the office—I’d go right from home and transmit from the back seat of my car. It was one of the few aspects of technology that really had made life easier.
Life is balanced now—winding down toward retirement. We’ve got enough money to pay the bills, we enjoy our modest lifestyle, and my prostrate cancer, that monster that took so much of what I had defined myself by, it’s been in remission for almost two years. I’ve come to grips with it—well, sort of. Mornings are sacred, a cup of dark Sumatra coffee, oatmeal with a handful of walnuts, brown sugar and a pinch of Saigon cinnamon, and The New York Times.
The roller coaster of life we used to ride had changed—planed out—slowed down. It’s not that those adrenalin-fueled-globe-trotting assignments weren’t there anymore. They were. It was me. I had changed. I no longer cared to compete. That part of the business was best left to the young photographers, the “young Turks” as my old friend Jack Wolf used to say. These days a bunch of nine-year-olds adjusting to the confines of a classroom after a summer of freedom seemed just as good a subject, if not better, than any presidential campaign or baseball playoff game.
Linda came in wearing one of my Everlast T-shirts. We’d been married just short of thirty years. I’d been at the paper three years longer than that. I never missed an opportunity to catch a morning glimpse of her legs, especially when she’d reach for a cup raising the bottom of her T-shirt. I’d pretend not to look while she intentionally stretched for a cup on the highest shelf. It was our morning ritual. When I didn’t look, she stopped reaching. I was staring at the obit page. There was a picture of a young boxer in a classic boxing stance. The headline read:
Tyrone Braxton dead at 52—middleweight champion of the 1970s.
“Oh my God!” Linda stood next to me, staring too. “Is that . . ?”
In 1974 Tyrone Braxton was a wannabe middleweight in Philly, a town full of already-theres. I was a part-time photographer at the paper—a stringer—the kid who got the shit assignments and graveyard shifts the full-time staffers didn’t want. Tyrone and I, we were both headed for bigger triumphs and even bigger tragedies. But that winter of 1974 we were both just a couple of yet-to-bes—both riding on that crazy energy of hype, hope, and dreams.
Tyrone’s story—my story—it’s more than a quarter century old now. It’s a story that took place in and around Champs Gym in North Philly mostly; in a place they called Soulville. It happened over a relatively short period of time, maybe a year, and centered on a few big events—fights, mainly—events that seemed significant at the time. Like most seemingly significant events they ended up less than expected, their significance diminishing further with each year. Today those fights are barely a footnote in sports trivia. That Tyrone’s obit even made The New York Times at all, let alone as the lead story with a photo was probably the result of nothing more than it having been a really slow news day.
But the moments that occurred around those events—ordinary moments—the ones I so easily dismissed back then as just time in between—those moments played out over the long haul to be pivotal in shaping both who we were and who we became. In retrospect it wasn’t the events but rather those moments that were truly significant, and, looking back, they weave a rich tale.
This is the story of those moments, moments that remain suspended in my memory—a memory blended over time with the stories of others. Stories told to me by boxing people like Blue Washington and Chiller Williams and Battling Moskowitz. Stories told in sweaty gyms and crowded dressing rooms, told over early-morning breakfasts at Murray’s Delicatessen and late-night drinks at Loretta’s High Hat Lounge. Stories that, quite unexpectedly, re-emerge today to help make sense of things, to fill in the gaps. I’m not certain of all the details, not certain of some of the sequences and times and dates. I’m not sure about a lot of things these days. But one thing I am sure of, this is a story worth hearing. Because when it comes to newspaper people and boxing people, one thing is certain: with very few exceptions—Sonny Liston being the most notable—we both tell a damn good story.
It was February when I first met Tyrone Braxton, February 13th. I remember because it started with a fender-bender on a slush-filled street. I was on my way to photograph some lame Valentine’s Day feature of roses being unloaded in the snow for the next day’s paper. Our paths crossed that afternoon at Champs Gym, paths that would become inextricably bound by a mutual love for both the world of boxing and for one man: Moish Moskowitz. Moish was Tyrone’s trainer, manager, and mentor. To me he was much more. But that would come later.
All Aboard………….the Night Train.
James Brown blasted from a silver boom box as the worn leather jump rope clicked against the concrete floor. It was how Tyrone started his daily routine—just like Sonny Liston. He’d seen it on Wide World of Sports, Sonny training in Miami, Sonny training in Denver, Sonny training right here in Philly. The gyms changed with each new fight venue, but the music—James Brown’s Night Train—it was always there—always with him—always setting the tone.
Tyrone felt a strong connection to Sonny Liston. Sonny, too, had made his home, at least for a time, in Philly. And like Tyrone, he, too, was something of an outsider. Years after Sonny died in Las Vegas under suspicious circumstances, Mike Tyson won the heavyweight championship, proclaiming himself, “the baddest man on the planet”—it was a statement that would ultimately prove false. When Tyrone finished his workouts he liked to spend time with the old guys at the gym—the regulars—the ones who’d been around in Sonny’s day. He knew from them that though Sonny never said it—Sonny never really said much of anything—that in his day, what Mike Tyson had boasted, Sonny was.
Tyrone had a 16-1-1 record, a penchant for standing toe-to-toe, and a preference to step in and bang rather than dance. It bought him entry-level respect at Champs Gym where he trained in North Philly. In any other town he’d have been a star. But this was Philadelphia 1974, home to five of the toughest middleweights in history: “Bad” Bennie Briscoe, Willie “the Worm” Monroe, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, Stanley “Kitten” Hayward, and Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts. They trained up on North Broad Street at Cloverlay Gym. They were at a whole different level, all ranked in the top ten by Ring magazine. They were good—so good, in fact, that no one wanted to fight them. So they fought each other. That was Philly. Even among the well-established provinces of pugilism—New York City, East LA, Detroit—Philadelphia stood apart as a fight town.
“Those guys in Philly, they’re some tough guys,” promoter Lou Duva once said. “They don’t have gyms down there, they have zoos.”
Most took it as a compliment.
I’d been to Cloverlay Gym a couple of times. Along with the middleweights, Joe Frazier trained there, too. I tried to photograph Joe training for his second fight with Ali. But with all the celebrity came a lot of restrictions—where to stand, where not to stand, when to shoot, when not to shoot. It wasn’t like Champs. In Philly the easiest night for a boxer is fight night. The daily gym wars are the hard part. At Champs where these wars took place, I had free rein.
Tyrone was cut from Philadelphia fighter cloth. After winning the Golden Gloves competition he had turned pro, compiling a record of sixteen wins, one loss, and a draw over two years. Tyrone loved the contact—loved to mix it up. He’d lay in bed at night unable to sleep, questioning himself if something didn’t hurt really bad. As a fighter he was disciplined—it wasn’t an option: a 5 AM run through Fairmount Park, a day job for the city, back in the gym at 4.
Like I said, in 1974 I was a part-timer at the paper—a stringer. In those days there weren’t any summer internship programs for rich college kids like there are today. The newspaper was a gut-it-out business drawing only from the school of hard knocks.
I was fifteen when I first picked up a camera, still in high school. I wasn’t big on academics, in fact I almost dropped out. It’s not like I was riding on the short bus or anything, I just didn’t have any time for the books. What I did have was a talent for attracting trouble, a taste for the street, and a sense of urgency to get the hell out and get on with my life—whatever that meant. It was at Germantown High that Mr. McFadden, the shop teacher, for reasons I’ve never understood, asked if I was interested in photography. I wasn’t. But he asked on a rainy January day—a day I just happened to have spent too much time getting high in the boys bathroom and was facing an hour wait outside for the next bus. Mr. McFadden ran the after-school photography club. The room where they met was warm and dry.
That afternoon I watched the group shoot pictures on black-and-white film and then print in a darkroom. They even let me try one myself. Seeing the image start to appear in the developing tray that first time, there was an immediacy that resonated: a connection. I joined the club.
Photography had a magic to it. At the weekly meetings I learned about composition, the rule of thirds, apertures, shutter speeds, and the effects of different developers on the silver-sensitive paper and film. Outside the meetings I found the magic affected the photographer as well as the subject. I was antisocial by nature, didn’t talk to anyone. The camera gave me a newfound confidence to engage, even with strangers. And there was something else—something even more important. A camera, I discovered, was the quickest way to get a girl to take her clothes off.
Photography consumed me. After graduating from Germantown High I took a job in Center City delivering art supplies. It took me through every back alley and side street in Philly, a hand-truck in one hand, my camera in the other. I converted the bathroom in my apartment into a makeshift darkroom, prowling the city by day, developing and printing at night. Eventually I had enough work to put a portfolio together. It was pictures of street people mostly, mixed with a few select nudes of girlfriends from the neighborhood. At some point I got up enough nerve to show it. The newspaper was my first stop.
Jack Wolf was the photo editor at the Philadelphia Journal. He was a big man with one of those bodies that looked like it may have been pretty strong a long time ago. By the time we met most of his upper body had migrated south, sitting just above pants that hung well below his waistline. Jack wore thick, black frame glasses that matched the color of his slicked-back-little-dab’ll-do-ya hair.
I was expecting a lot of technical questions. Instead he asked me how I approached someone I didn’t know to get their picture. I don’t remember what I said but it must have been the right answer because when we were done, he offered me a job. Either that or else he liked the nudes and figured there might be more where they came from.
My first assignment was a story on Gene Roberts, an ex-con who had learned how to box at Grateford prison. He was running a boxing program for kids at the PAL Center in North Philly.
A crisp wind whipped down Girard Avenue swirling Styrofoam cups, Twinkie wrappers and crumpled up sections of old newspaper along the gutter. I wrestled with my new company-issued bag filled with cameras and lenses. The strap wasn’t set right. I had to keep bending to the side to stop it from slipping off my shoulder.
The PAL Center was a converted storefront next to what used to be something called the Afrotique. The Afrotique was completely boarded up except for a graffiti-covered sign above the doorway. Two men in worn-out overcoats sat underneath, huddled against the cold, sharing a bottle of Thunderbird.
Inside was warm, with a musky smell of sweat, liniment, and old building. Jump ropes clicking, speed bags clacking, chains and swivels creaking and the dull thud of fists pounding against heavy leather bags blended in a staccato symphony—all set against the tribal shouts of trainers directing their fighters.
“Move your feets.”
“Stick and move.”
“Keep your hands up.”
“Use your jab.”
“Crack to the body.”
Faded posters advertising fights at the Spectrum, the Arena, and the Blue Horizon—the “Blue” as everybody called it—covered exposed cracks that ran deep along grey concrete walls. It was unlike anyplace I had ever been.
I knew boxing, or so I thought. I had watched Ali and Frazier and Foreman and Shavers. But this was different. This wasn’t a couple of stick figures on a TV screen in some bar or someone’s living room—no million-dollar purses, no celebrity-studded entourages, no Howard Cosell. This was real—dark, soulful, risky. This was just blood, sweat, hard work, and hope. And there was something about it.
With my first paycheck from the paper I bought my dream camera: a Leica. It wasn’t new—new was way out of my price range. In fact, it was as old as I was: a 1954 Leica M3 double stroke. I loved that camera—the smooth double-action film transport, the butter-soft shutter release, the silent rangefinder. I’ve bought and sold dozens of cameras since then and more lenses than I can remember. They were just tools of the trade. But that Leica, it was more than just a tool. Moving quietly around the PAL gym with one unobtrusive little rangefinder camera, I was carrying on the tradition of the great documentary photographers: Eisenstaedt, David Douglas Duncan, Cartier-Bresson. That Leica defined me. I still have it today.
Something inside of me changed during the time I spent with Gene Roberts at the PAL center. Not a big change—more like the sands under my foundation shifting slightly. I offered to buy Gene lunch and tried to describe what I was feeling over a couple of fried flounder sandwiches at Mike’s Luncheonette.
“Yeah, boxing,” he said, hearing me fumble for the right words.
“It’s a crazy world—crazy people. Gots the best and the worst of ’em. The ring’s a lot like life—once you in there, ain’t no bullshit—it either is, or it ain’t. And I know what you sayin’, cause it’s like dope, hooks ya. But this ain’t nothin’. You really wanna see some boxing, go to 33rd and Dauphin; Champs Gym.”
Champs was on the corner of what had once been a bustling urban marketplace: Jermain’s Smoke Shop, Big O’s Soul Food Kitchen, the Philly Sound Connection, Lucile’s Fine Wigs and Hair Salon. By ’74 they were all gone, their ghosts dancing in and out of cracked, faded signage behind nailed-up sheets of plywood and padlocked doors. Shooting galleries filled what had been apartments just above the storefronts where the business owners and their families had lived; a reminder of how fast things can go south.
It wasn’t any one thing in particular that took this North Philly neighborhood down. The drugs and violence creating a whole new option for kids on the promise of the quick and easy was part of it. Parents spending a lifetime building mom-and-pop businesses only to stand by helplessly watching their work eradicated by hard economic realities and the big discount chains, that was part of it too. Those were the obvious reasons. But it was more than that. North Philly in the 1950s and 1960s had a Zeitgeist, a climate of aspiration, self-respect and promise for the black community. Drugs, increasing violence, racial tensions, the economics of a greed-based economy; any one of those could have been dealt with. But all hitting at once from every direction, they formed a cancer—a cancer that ate away the hope, the pride, and the respect until there was nothing left. The original owners and their families moved on, usually on the heels of foreclosure. Now it was mostly pimps, junkies, whores, and nickel-and-dime hustlers, along with the rats and roaches who didn’t seem to discriminate over who they shared space with.
Champs Gym was the last holdout—a reminder of everything good that used to be. The big empty building, formerly the front office for a paper manufacturing plant, had an industrial feel with exposed brick walls and a long row of wire-mesh windows just below the ceiling. There was a 15-by-15-foot ring in the middle, three heavy bags hanging on chains from the rafters, two speed-bag platforms bolted to the wall, and a large open area for jumping rope and shadow boxing facing a mirrored wall, the mirror mottled with sweat, spit, and snot.
Champs was dark inside, the wire-mesh windows so caked with pigeon droppings that even the afternoon sun when it lined up directly in February and March had a hard time getting through. The large storefront window facing the street provided what little light there was along with a perfectly framed view of the neighborhood—not exactly Norman Rockwell.
Champs opened at 4 each afternoon. By 4:30 the first fighters were well into their routines, steaming up the windows and transforming the view from one of dilapidated urban decay to something more like an Impressionist painting—a melding of grey and brown with multi-colored droplets of red and blue sparkling from the neon sign over Big Al’s taproom directly across the pothole-infested street.
It was cold the afternoon I met Tyrone, a nasty, biting, winter cold. I was looking through the viewfinder of my Leica as two amateur welterweights sparred in the ring when a gloved hand tapped my shoulder.
“Hey. Picture Man. Take me a picture.”
He stood there striking a standard boxing pose. I raised my camera, held my breath, and pressed the shutter twice. Preferring the quiet rangefinder without a motor drive for my serious work, I always pressed twice in case the first shot caught a blink. Later the same fighter was in the ring shadowboxing while a little old man holding a stopwatch yelled for him to bend his knees and keep his hands up.
A man with a silver-grey Afro pointed to the ring and said, “That’s Tyrone Braxton. Gonna be middleweight champion someday.”
The next day I was back with prints in hand. Tyrone was late and brushed by me.
“Tyrone,” I yelled.
I handed him an eight-by-ten black-and-white print of his boxing pose. He smiled.
“Now that be a picture of a real champion.”
“Thanks. I’m Nick.”
Tyrone folded the print in quarters and put it in his gym bag.
“Would it be OK if I shoot some more of you training today?”
“Does a chicken have lips?”
I had no idea what that meant so I took it as a yes.
I reached in my bag for a 180-millimeter telephoto lens. I’d start with a scene-setting overview from a high angle before moving in close.
“Hey,” Tyrone said, pointing at the oversized lens, “Just like me; long and black!”
It wasn’t hard to recognize Moish Moskowitz. Besides me, he was the only white guy in the gym. Moish was somewhere north of seventy and stood about five-foot-five, though he might have been closer to five-seven if he straightened out the stooped shoulders. His face was covered with three-day-old stubble, the kind that young guys today look good in but on old guys it just looks shabby. His top two shirt buttons were undone framing a small tangle of grey chest hair and a thin chain with two golden gloves. Moish was probably about ten pounds lighter than his fighting weight of one-thirty-five. He’d have looked like any other little seventy-something-year-old except for his eyes—pale blue—almost turquoise—with the clarity and sparkle of a much younger man.
Moish fought as a lightweight under the name Battling Moskowitz during the 1930s; the reign of Jewish champions. When his ring career was over he dropped the “Battling” and just went by Moishe. But the guys in the gym, especially the black guys, never pronounced the “e” on the end, so he became just Moish. He trained and managed a small group of amateur fighters and Tyrone, who stayed with him after turning pro. Moish never just said hello. He always started with a joke, either Jewish or black.
“So there’s a line in front of St. Peter waiting to get into heaven,” Moish started that first day. The regulars stopped what they were doing and moved in close to listen. They knew the drill.
“The first guy in line is Ike Williams and St. Peter says,
“‘Ike, you’ve led a good life, raised a family, worked hard. Entry to heaven comes with one wish. You can have anything you like. What’s your pleasure?’”
“So Ike, he thinks for a minute and says,”
Moish paused, slipping into perfect black street vernacular,
“Well, I’d like me a Cadillac—a big red El-Dog wit white leather seats, chrome wheels, and…and a TV in the back.’”
“‘Not a problem,’ St. Peter says, and out of nowhere the car comes rolling up.”
“Next in line is Leotis Jackson. Again, St. Peter compliments him on an exemplary life, mentions his volunteer work with the church and in the neighborhood, and asks what he wants.”
“‘I wants me a mansion, just like them rich white folk in Bryn Mawr lives in.’”
“‘Not a problem. You can have that one right there’ he says, pointing to a cloud where a mansion bigger than any Leotis had ever seen appears.”
“Next in line is Abraham Rabinowitz.”
“‘Abe,’ St. Peter says, ‘I can’t believe you’re here. You cheated people your whole life, always tried to get the biggest share for yourself, didn’t care who got short-changed in the process. You were dishonest, selfish, disrespectful to your family, and bigoted. I can’t believe He let you in—but—you’re here. You, too, can have one wish. But let me warn you, it better not be much.’”
“So Abe looks at St.Peter and says,”
Moish paused again, this time shifting into a heavy Yiddish accent,
“My vants are simple. Gif me fifteen dollars verth of junk jewelry, and the nigger’s address.”
My stomach clinched. I stood frozen—eyes glued to the floor—waiting for the inevitable. The room exploded in laughter. It didn’t make sense. But a lot about Moish Moskowitz didn’t make sense. He had a way. When it comes to race stuff between Blacks and Jews there are lines you just don’t cross. For Moish it was like those lines didn’t exist.
The focus shifted back toward the ring where two welterweights were just getting started, but Moish wasn’t through.
“Wait,” he shouted.
“Do you know why Jewish men are circumcised?”
He looked around making sure he again had everyone’s attention.
“Because Jewish women won’t touch anything unless it’s twenty percent off.”
This time when the laughter subsided, Tyrone Braxton stood next to Moish, an arm around his shoulder.
“Man, you’s a crazy motherfucker.”
Moish shrugged his stooped shoulders, both hands turned palms up.
Tyrone had come to Champs seven years earlier, a fourteen-year-old kid with a roll of dimes in his pocket, a chip on his shoulder, and a reputation on the street for not taking any shit.
“I’m lookin’ to kick some ass,” he announced shortly after his entrance to no one in particular.
A heavyset gentleman sitting in one of the folding chairs along the wall responded.
“This here’s a boxing gym son, a place to develop your skills. You lookin’ to kick some ass, you best go back to wherever you come from.”
“All right, all right, maybe I could use some new moves. How I develop my skills?”
“To start with, you needs a trainer. Best one in the city standin’ right over there.” He pointed to a little old man putting tape strips on the hands of another boy about Tyrone’s age.
“That old white guy?”
Tyrone approached Moish without waiting for him to finish his taping.
“Hey, Pops. They say you pretty good. How ’bout showin’ me some moves?”
Moish told the fighter in front of him to make a fist. He checked the tape on his handwraps—then looked at Tyrone.
“Get the hell outta here.”
“Forget you then, Pops,” Tyrone said in a huff. “I ever see you on the street, I be showin’ you some moves.”
Moish wasn’t listening. He was focused on his fighter who was now on his toes, hands up, shooting jabs and hooks toward the mirrored wall.
Moish didn’t think much about that first encounter with Tyrone—just another wise-ass from the neighborhood, he figured. It was North Philly. There were as many punks like Tyrone thinking they were bad-asses on the street as there were roaches in the walls of the row houses that lined the blocks. They’d drop in from time to time, usually to get warm or when they were on the run. This one showed up again the next day.
“Hey, Pops. You gonna show me some moves today?”
“I told you, get the hell outta here.”
The same routine went on everyday for two weeks. On the Monday of the third week Moish relented.
“OK,” he said. “Put these wraps and gloves on and let’s see what you got.”
“Wraps? Man, I don’t need no wraps,” Tyrone said, pulling on the dark, sweat-soaked leather gloves held together by an old pair of grey shoe laces that probably at one time were white. Moish knew immediately that he didn’t know what hand wraps were.
Tyrone and Moish moved into the ring.
“Shadowbox a little to warm up,” Moish said.
Tyrone launched into a series of Hollywood moves—standing on one foot in a preying mantis pose making a high pitched sound; part Bruce Lee, part back-alley street fight.
“Keep your hands up,” Moish shouted, “like this.” Moish pulled Tyrone’s fists up in front of his face and tucked his elbows in. “Use your arms to protect your body.”
Tyrone held the posture for a few seconds, and then went back to his dance.
“Hold your arms up like I showed you. Protect your body.”
“Man, my body don’t need no protectin’,” Tyrone said, bouncing from one foot to the other, “’cause I already done busted the motherfucker up.”
“OK,” Moish said ducking under the ropes. “You wanted me to show you some moves. I showed you some moves. Now get the hell outta here.”
Moish had seen it a million times. North Philly was one big maze of mean streets. Kids growing up there were tested early. Those who survived thought they were tough. But boxing wasn’t just about tough. It was a science—a sweet science—a discipline. It wasn’t as simple as picking up a brick and cracking someone over the head.
“Man, you call that some moves? That ain’t shit,” Tyrone yelled.
Moish was already at the heavy bag working with another fighter. He figured he had seen the last of Tyrone. He was wrong. The next day he was back.
“Man, you gonna show me some real moves today?”
Moish was about to toss him when he saw something, something he hadn’t noticed before. Moish had figured Tyrone for just another street punk, which he was. But now he saw something else, a look—desperation maybe—a quiet, reaching out look.
“All right. You wanna see what boxing’s about? I’ll show you. But first, let’s get one thing straight. You’re right, I am a man—smart of you to notice. But ‘man’ isn’t my name. You wanna talk to me, you use my name. Understand?”
“OK, Mr. Moskowitz.”
Moish stopped. Tyrone had surprised him. It wouldn’t be the last time.
“Now go see Eddie over there. He’ll fix you up with some gear, then you can spar with Youngblood. He’s got a fight comin’ up and can use the work.”
While Eddie Machen helped Tyrone with his hand wraps and headgear, Moish quietly talked to Youngblood Williams.
“Give him a couple easy rounds. Kid’s got no idea what the fuck he’s doing. I wanna give him a taste, but I don’t want him to get hurt.”
As the two fighters entered the ring Moish talked to Tyrone.
“Remember—keep your hands up and your elbows in, like I showed you.”
“TIME IN THE RING,” Eddie Machen shouted.
Tyrone moved in with his hands up, just like Moish had showed him. The two fighters circled each other once, then again. Youngblood shot a jab right through Tyrone’s gloves landing flush on his mouth. Tyrone dropped his hands and raised his knee, falling back into his Bruce Lee dance. Youngblood stayed just out of range, trying not to laugh through his mouthpiece. As Tyrone started to tire Youngblood closed the gap, peppering his face with a series of light jabs. Tyrone raised his gloves to protect himself. Youngblood nailed him with a liver-shot knocking the wind out of him. Tyrone gasped for a breath as Youngblood’s right connected with his nose. Tyrone felt a pop. The room was spinning as he dropped to the canvas. By the time he realized what had happened Youngblood was standing in the opposite corner, Eddie Machen removing his headgear. Tyrone looked up at Moish—who was smiling—then back at Youngblood who hadn’t even broken a sweat.
“Hey motherfucker,” Tyrone yelled through his mouthpiece making him sound like he had a slight lisp, “we ain’t through yet.”
Youngblood looked at Moish, shrugged his shoulders, and turned toward Eddie. Eddie adjusted his headgear, looked at his stopwatch, and shouted again,
“TIME IN THE RING.”
Both fighters circled. Blood was streaming from Tyrone’s nose and he was breathing hard through his mouth. Moish leaned against the corner post guessing the nose might be broken. Youngblood continued to jab, then connected with two textbook combinations—not hard—still pulling his punches. Tyrone shot a jab of his own but Youngblood was quicker, nailing him again in the nose with his right. Tyrone felt a surge of pain shoot through his head—then something snapped. Tyrone shoved Youngblood with his fists, backing him into the ropes and unleashed a flurry of blows from both sides. The shots didn’t hurt—didn’t have anything on them—all arms and hands—but they didn’t stop either. Tyrone was wide open—no defense—but his shots were coming fast and Youngblood couldn’t respond, finally dropping to one knee in frustration.
Moish stood in the corner processing what he had witnessed. It wasn’t boxing. Tyrone didn’t know shit about boxing. But boxing could be taught. What Moish saw was something that could never be taught, a spirit—a warrior spirit, the kind of spirit that would plow through any amount of adversity—any odds—until there was nothing left. It was a spirit that everyone in boxing talked about, but very few had. Tyrone was one of the few—the ones who knew that life was indeed a stage, but one where there were no dress rehearsals—knew that in life, every night was opening night.
Moish was no longer smiling.
I burned through twelve rolls of film that first day at Champs. I would have shot more but it was all I had. I captured every detail of Tyrone’s routine, jumping rope, shadowboxing, the speed-bag, the heavy-bag, a couple rounds of sparring. There was something about Tyrone—something special. He was fast—too fast. My timing was off. I could feel it—the missed shots. Moish didn’t help with his constant annoying interruptions:
“Nick, get a shot of this.” Or, “Nick, get the hell outta the way!”
When he was through training each day Tyrone would sit with a group of older guys; the regulars. The regulars sat in a section of the gym they called “The Boardroom.” The Boardroom was six, sometimes eight metal folding chairs separated from the main visitor area by a concrete post and gym credibility. Except for a guest or two on any given afternoon, The Boardroom was always the same group; Blue Washington, Chiller Williams, Billy Dee, Quinny McCallum, Curtis Parks, and Spoons. They’d sit, watching the action, sipping Budweiser Tall Boys and talking boxing. It was a retiree club of sorts. Some of them like Blue and Chiller had their own careers to reflect on, both having fought in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
Blue Washington was dark-skinned, good-looking, and a dresser. The day we met he wore lime-green bell-bottom pants with matching green patent-leather shoes, a white silk dress shirt and a gold chain around his neck. Blue always had a toothpick in one corner of his mouth that moved up and down with the gum he chewed incessantly. Sometimes a Kool menthol dangled from the other corner.
Billy Lee, who had pointed Tyrone out to me as the next middleweight champion that first day, was the elder statesman of the group. He had fought, too, probably around the same time as Moish. Billy had been around Philadelphia boxing gyms in one role or another for almost fifty years, ever since he had been a marquee fighter. He looked like a lot of the old guys that hang around boxing gyms, a little worn and kind of nondescript, until that day of the wedding. It was his granddaughter’s wedding and Champs Gym was on the way to the church. On a whim and against the protests of the bride-to-be and her mother, Billy pulled over.
“Dad, what the hell are you doing? We’re gonna be late!”
“This won’t take but a minute. I wanna show the fellas my beautiful girls.”
When he walked into Champs with his daughter on one arm and granddaughter on the other, the whole place stopped.
“Look here, y’all. Ain’t these the two most beautiful women you ever see’d?” Billy Lee could hardly contain himself.
They were beautiful, his granddaughter in a white dress with pink flowers and lace trim and his daughter in peach satin. But it was Billy Lee who caught everyone’s attention. In a black tux with a white silk shirt and a white rose in his lapel, the transformation from what the regulars were used to seeing was like Clark Kent after the phone booth.
“DAMN!” Quinny McCallum shouted on his way down the steps from the locker room. Then, looking at Billy’s daughter and granddaughter he caught himself. “’Scuse my language, ladies.”
“They said come on down and see Billy Lee,” Quinny continued, “…but I’m lookin’ right in front of me and I’m seein’ Billy Dee!”
Everyone laughed and from that day on, Billy Lee would be known in the gym as Billy Dee. It was Quinny McCallum who gave him the nickname—said that, even at sixty-eight, cleaned up like that he could easily be mistaken for Billy Dee Williams.
Just past his thirtieth birthday Curtis Parks was the newest and youngest member of the Board, only five years past his ring retirement. Aside from boxing, Curtis had two passions: music and the ponies. Curtis was raised by his grandmother on Kingsford Street, right by the Frankford El overpass. There weren’t any other kids on the block his age but there was a group that hung on the corner who were about ten years older, a group known as the Gypsy Kings. Curtis wanted in the worst way to hang with them. The feeling wasn’t mutual.
Curtis’ mannerisms and tastes were like someone much older than his thirty years, more like those of the Gypsy Kings. His reddish-brown hair was conked and slicked down in a process that protruded out from a do-rag. He didn’t indulge in the Tall Boys with the rest of the regulars, preferring the pint of Old Granddad bourbon he kept in his back pocket. Curtis had mastered the art of lip-syncing during his time on the corner. As soon as Tyrone’s boom box started he’d grab a broom handle for a microphone and slide across the gym floor in a perfect James Brown.
Boxing has its own take on aging, its own clock. Some fighters turn pro in their late teens and retire in their early twenties. Others, like Archie Moore fight well into their forties. As long as you’re fighting you’re considered, if not young, at least not old. Once you stop, well, a year or two later you’re eligible for a seat in the Boardroom.
Quinny McCallum and Spoons rounded out the Board. Neither had ever been in the ring, but they had been around the game long enough to trade stories and engage in the endless pound-for-pound, best-of-Philly debates: Sonny Liston, Georgie Benton, Gypsy Joe Harris, Joey Giardello—local champions as much a part of the fabric of the neighborhood as cheese steaks and corner taprooms.
“Didn’t nobody have the all-around power like Sonny Liston.” Curtis Parks said. “Nobody.”
“Sonny Liston my ass, youngster. Joey G was the toughest cat out there; both inside and outside the ring,” Billy Dee countered.
On any given day there might be another guest or two, but the core Board members were always there, without fail. Moish stayed out on the floor working with his fighters. He was certainly qualified for the Board in age and experience and he knew the regulars well—always spending a few minutes with them at the start of his day. But Moish wasn’t part of the Boardroom. He was still in the game.
Tyrone loved the camera, loved the attention. He always made sure I had everything I needed including an introduction to the Board.
“This Nick. He from the paper.”
“The Daily News?” Curtis Parks sounded impressed.
“No, the Journal.” I said softly, feeling somewhat embarrassed that our competitor was the first choice of the group.
“Fact is,” Quinny McCallum said to Curtis, “the Journal has almost twice the circulation of the Daily News.”
Quinny was a walking encyclopedia of facts.
“They’ve won at least one Pulitzer Prize a year for about the last, what, Nick, six years now?” He looked at me like I should know. “It’s a helluva newspaper.”
“Ain’t nobody talkin’ no Pulitzer Prizes, motherfucker,” Curtis shot back. “The Daily News gots the best sports section in town: period.”
I was sitting with the regulars in the Boardroom waiting for Tyrone to start his routine when Blue Washington sat down next to me.
“So Nick, what’s you doin’ here in Soulville?”
I didn’t know what he meant, but I could tell by the way the others were watching that it was some kind of test.
“What’s you doin’ here in Soulville?” he repeated.
“I…I’m not sure what you’re asking.”
The Boardroom moved in around me. Blue had the floor and was enjoying himself. I wasn’t.
“I’m askin’ what’s you doin’ here?”
“You know…. I came here to take some pictures of the fighters and stuff,” I said, stumbling for words. Looking around, the verdict was in. It was a test—one I had already failed.
“Came here to take pictures? And where you think here is?”
“Champs Gym? Champs Gym?” Blue repeated, signifying it was the wrong answer.
Everyone started laughing.
“That’s where you thinks you is?”
I didn’t know what he wanted and was starting to panic.
“North Philadelphia?” Blue repeated in a perfect imitation that made me sound about as white and uncool as one could possibly be.
“Hey, y’all. The boy think he in North Philadelphia,” Blue said again with the same exaggerated Caucasian enunciation.
Now everyone was laughing.
“Look here. This ain’t no North Philadelphia. You see them boys bangin’ each other over there?” He said, pointing to the ring where an intense sparring round was under way. “You hear that music playin’? You smell that funky smell?”
Blue motioned to the Boardroom members surrounding me. “You see the fellas here with their Tall Boys? This ain’t no North Philadelphia. You sittin’ smack dab in the middle of Soulville.”
Now the laughter was mixed with a few un-huhs, one ‘yeah . . .brother’ and one yessir. The room suddenly felt small. Beads of sweat were rolling down my back. I prayed for an escape, promising God I’d do whatever he wanted when a familiar voice came from behind. It was Moish.
“Always with the fakachta Soulville crap. What the hell does that mean anyway?”
“Soulville, Moish. It’s who we is, what we about.”
“Yeah? Well if this is Soulville, what the hell am I doing here?”
“What’s you mean?”
“I mean I hate to be the one to break it to ya, but the last time I looked in the mirror, I was white.”
The room got quiet, all eyes shifting toward Blue Washington.
“What?” Blue said, without missing a beat. “You ain’t never
heard ‘a no blue-eyed
Moish waved him off with a dismissive hand gesture as the group broke out laughing. I felt my chest relax and wondered how long I’d been holding my breath.
The conversation shifted to the upcoming fight between Willie “the Worm” Monroe and Carlos Marks.
“Carlos Marks,” Billy Dee said. “He a tough motherfucker.’”
Billy had seen Marks fight a year earlier.
“But he ain’t faced no Philly fighter yet. The Worm’ll take him to school.”
[Another installment will follow next month.]
Copyright 2010 - Mike Spector