|PHILLY BOXING HISTORY SOULVILLE A Boxing Novel by Mike Spector (Part 2)||
In addition to the novel, Spector also gave us the photos he took back in the day in and around the gyms of North Philadelphia. Enjoy the latest installment here, but if you want your own copy of the paperback book, follow the Amazon.com links below to make your purchase.
Getting the job at the paper had not been easy, but it was amateur hour compared to breaking into the cliquish circle of staff photographers there. Photo editor Jack Wolf was an advocate. The other photographers, they were a different story. When I heard the talk at Champs about the Monroe/Marks fight I knew I had to be there.
Jack said that Sam Kinslow, a staffer who regularly covered boxing had already been assigned. I scrambled, said something about shooting for the paper’s archives. Jack just sat there. I pulled my ace, showed him some recent nude studies I had done of my neighbor. He agreed to a second photo credential.
“Remember,” he warned, “you’re on your own time.”
The Arena at 45th and Market streets was old and decaying, just like the neighborhood. A winter storm mixed with a month’s worth of street grime had left a slick black coat on the street. Red and yellow taillight reflections danced across the dark shiny asphalt in a rainbow ballet of oily color against the grey buildings. The air smelled like two-day-old garbage.
Inside the hot overhead lights filtered through a smoky cigarette and cigar haze like a scene from some old black and white noir movie. Not much had changed since the Arena began hosting fights, since Lew Tendler had fought there in the ’20s, Benny Bass in the ’30s, Sugar Ray in the ’40s, and Joey Giardello in the ’50s. Photographers still jostled along the canvas ring apron just outside the ropes, elbowing each other for position, 35mm cameras instead of Speed Graphics with flash bulbs about the only mark of time. I saw Sam Kinslow staked out halfway between the judge’s seat and the corner, two motorized Nikons defining his territory.
Sam was about fifty, short, with the same body style as Jack Wolf, a style cut from too many plates of free food in too many pressrooms. He always had a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth and a Marlboro hard-pack in his shirt pocket.
“How’s it going, Sam?”
“Listen, kid.” He said, clamping his fat hand on my shoulder and bringing his face a few inches from mine. His breath was a rotten a mix of Jack Daniel’s, cigarettes, and poor dental habits.
“This is my beat: has been for twenty years. We get one ringside spot: mine. You can sit back there with the writers.”
He pointed to a row of reserved seats a few rows back.
“And this is my assignment, too. I heard about that line of bullshit you fed Wolf to get the credential. On the off chance you get lucky, don’t even think about turning anything in. Got it?”
“Yeah, Sam, I got it.”
The writer seats were about fifteen feet back. They were fine for reporting, but impossible for photos. Standing I’d block the view of the seats behind me. Sitting was out too; the ropes were in the way. I tried a low angle, getting down on the floor. All I could see were the elbows of the ringside photographers leaning on the canvas.
The main event was an hour away. I hung the press credential around my neck and worked my way back to the dressing room. The room was small and crowded with a mildew stench. Wilson Pickett’s Midnight Hour blasted from a radio. There weren’t any other photographers or reporters there, just fight people.
Cut man Nick Belfure´ straddled a bench going over his assortment of tools for the evening: Vaseline, Q-tips, adrenalin hydrochloride, a small pile of gauze pads and a couple of bottles wrapped with white adhesive tape. Heavyweight Ernie Williams from South Philly had fought on the undercard and lost—a TKO in the eighth. He sat on a training table with his head hung down, sipping water from a plastic cup. Ernie’s manager had disappeared. He wondered how he’d get home. In the far corner Willie “the Worm” Monroe sat backward on a folding chair—his well-muscled arms draped over the metal backrest. Trainer Eddie Futch sat facing him, carefully wrapping each hand with gauze and tape. Eddie added a few extra folds of padding over the knuckle of the left ring finger—the one Worm was prone to breaking. Trainers, managers and fighters were moving in all directions—a Grand Central Station of boxing. I recognized a few from the gym and exchanged nods.
His hands taped and wrapped, Willie was up on his toes shadowboxing. The door opened and a voice shouted,
“FIVE MINUTES, WORM.”
He picked up the pace for about thirty seconds—stopped—and took a deep breath through his nose.
“Willie, I’m Nick Ceratto from the Journal.”
I moved close so he could hear through all the distraction.
“Can I get a quick shot before you go out?”
Had I bothered to look I would have seen the glares from around the room. I had broken protocol—disturbed a fighter in his moment before going on. But I didn’t look. I was focused on Willie Monroe who hesitated a second before answering.
Willie stood in front of a grey concrete wall just below the exposed pipes that plumbed the Arena. With a tape-wrapped hand on each side he opened his canary-yellow satin robe revealing an upper body that looked like it was sculpted out of milk chocolate marble. Willie wore a pair of yellow satin trunks that matched his robe with two white “W” initials scripted on the side. Looking through the Leica’s viewfinder I framed the colorful figure against the stark backdrop, held my breath, and pressed twice. It was one of those moments.
There was no reason to wait around for the fight. I had my picture. Later I’d hear how the Worm had gone ten punishing rounds with Carlos Marks winning by decision.
Rushing through the tunnel that led from the dressing room to the street I saw Moish standing along the wall. He was talking to a black guy in a full-length white fur coat and a burgundy hat with a peacock feather sticking out of it.
“C’mere. I want you should meet someone.”
“Can’t. I’m right on deadline.”
Moish ignored my words.
“Nick, this is Sugar Jones, connoisseur and supplier of the finest round girls this side of Vegas. Sugar, this is Nick, photographer extraordinaire.”
We each nodded. I started walking. Moish wasn’t through.
“Nick, did you hear about the Jew who took his Passover lunch to eat outside in the park. He sat down on a bench and began eating. A blind man comes and sits down next to him. Feeling neighborly, the Jew passes a sheet of matzo over. The blind man handles the matzo for a few minutes, looks puzzled, and finally says,
“‘Who the hell wrote this shit?’”
“I gotta go, Moish. I’m right on deadline.”
“What about the fight? Sugar’s got his best girls saved for the main. Wait’ll you see the tukhes on Round 3.”
“I can’t. I’ll see ya at the gym.”
“How ’bout a quick shot?” he asked, putting his arm around Sugar. Sugar Jones had a foot of height and at least fifty pounds on Moish. It was too much to pass up. I raised my camera.
At the paper I headed straight to the darkroom, not bothering to take off my coat. As the image began to appear in the developing tray it was exactly as I had pictured. The print was still wet when I ran it out to the desk.
“Get that goddamn thing outta here! You’re dripping all over my desk,” Jeff DePauli, the night sports editor, yelled loud enough for everyone in the newsroom to stop and look.
I felt a hot flush of embarrassment. I was still wearing my coat. Sweat was pouring down the side of my face and in my eyes making them sting. I grabbed an early edition of the paper from a trashcan and laid the wet print on it. DePauli looked.
“Not bad, kid. Bring me a dry copy. We’ll run it as the centerpiece on the Sports cover.”
Sam Kinslow was just getting back from the fight. He, too, was rushing toward the darkroom. Thirty minutes to deadline. It would be close. I thought about Sam’s warning.
What the hell, I thought, I didn’t come here to make friends.
I turned in a finished print and grabbed my bag. On the way out I saw Sam Kinslow through the window overlooking the newsroom. He was at the news desk having an animated conversation with Jeff DePauli. From the way he was pointing his finger and waving his arms, I figured he had heard about my shot.
I couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t stop thinking of the Sports cover with my portrait of Willie “the Worm” Monroe in the center. I tossed and turned and had just drifted off when the thump of the morning paper hit the door. I grabbed the paper so fast off the doormat that the rubber band holding it together caught on something, popped, and went flying across the room. Riffling through to the Sports section I looked and felt a lump began to form in the back of my throat. The story of Willie the Worm’s victory over Carlos Marks was the centerpiece story, right under a photo of Monroe’s left hook connecting with Marks’ midsection. The credit under the picture read:
Journal photo by Sam Kinslow
The story jumped to an inside page where a postage-stamp-size headshot of Monroe had been cropped from my portrait. It ran without a credit.
I knew the regulars at Champs and they knew me. Tyrone had been my entry. Being from “the paper” along with the 8x10 prints I handed out each week established a credibility of my own. The guys at Champs had no idea what a stringer was. At the Journal I was nobody, the bottom rung, the kid who got the nothing assignments no one else wanted. At Champs, I was someone. I was the Picture Man.
Champs was my first real connection to the black community. At first I had been a little nervous, but soon felt as comfortable there as I did anywhere else. I wasn’t prepared for the Church of the Advocate.
Racial tensions were nothing new to Philadelphia. A few years earlier, in 1969, then-Philadelphia Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo was attending a black-tie dinner when he heard about an impending racial confrontation in the Grey’s Ferry section of the city. He left the dinner event and headed to the scene, strutting down the street for the media with a nightstick tucked inside his tuxedo cummerbund.
“My men, my army,” he boasted.
At six-two, two-fifty, with a cop attitude, Frank Rizzo was an imposing figure. He had worked his way up to police chief from a beat cop on a take-no-shit platform—a tough white Italian with a reputation for no particular love of the black community. Two years after the Grey’s Ferry incident Rizzo was elected mayor.
Licking his hand to get the lint off his favorite robin’s egg blue suit at the inauguration Mayor Rizzo was asked if he planned to continue his tough stance on crime (which many interpreted as an assault on the black community).
“I’m gonna make Attila the Hun look like a faggot.”
The Church of the Advocate in North Philly was run by one of Rizzo’s nemeses: the Reverend Paul Washington. When Elaine Brown, the head of the Black Panther Party came to town to give a speech there about discrimination against blacks by police, I knew the all-white photo staff at the Journal wouldn’t want any part of it. It was no surprise when the assignment came my way.
The Church of the Advocate had none of Champs’ friendly atmosphere. Whispered conversations broke out across the congregation as soon as I walked in, followed by looks that made it clear I wasn’t welcome. A tall man with arms bulging through a black leather jacket asked what I wanted. I held out my hand introducing myself. Ignoring my hand he pointed me toward a side door.
Elaine Brown sat at a desk in a small, dilapidated office putting the finishing touches on her speech. She looked up for a second then went back to work. I found my angle, aimed my camera, and waited. The door opened. Two more men in leather jackets and berets came in. The room felt claustrophobic. A few minutes went by. It seemed like a lot longer.
“Ms. Brown,” I finally said, “I’m with the Philadelphia Journal. If I could just get one quick shot, I’ll get out of your way?”
Elaine Brown put her pencil down and raised her eyes. Her expression made it clear I was intruding. I fired off two frames with the motor drive, thanked her, and exited just short of a run.
In the parking lot at the Journal I opened the hinged back of my Nikon. A wave of nausea in the pit of my stomach started moving north. I took a deep breath and held it. In all the tension at the Church of the Advocate I had forgotten to load any film. It was forty-five minutes until deadline. No time to go back—not that it was even an option. Jack Wolf was waiting. I sat there with a sick taste in my mouth, running through all the lies I might use. The camera jammed—they wouldn’t let me in to shoot—I got mugged—nothing I could think of held any promise.
“Jack, you wouldn’t believe that place,” I started.
I had heard Jack and the staffers constantly trading racist and anti-Semitic comments. I thought maybe he’d be sympathetic.
I told him about the guys in the leather jackets and berets, about Elaine Brown’s attitude.
“So when she finally gave me 10 seconds I grabbed the wrong camera, one without any film.”
Jack looked up—his usual friendly demeanor gone. I had heard about his propensity for tantrums—I guessed I was about to see one first-hand. Instead his voice got quiet.
“You’re shittin’ me.”
He picked up the phone and told the news desk they’d have to go with a file photo on the Elaine Brown story, then looked back at me.
“Nick, You haven’t made any friends here, and I’ve taken a load of crap from everyone for bringing you on. A camera without film? How fucking stupid are you? I don’t know, maybe they’re right. Maybe this was a mistake.”
“But Jack, I…”
Jack held up his hand.
Tyrone both loved and hated the local fights. Moish had taught him the basic moves; left hooks, right crosses, combinations, the power of a good jab, and how to throw off his back foot through his hips. He had also taught him the local boxing history, from Lew Tendler and the reign of Jewish champions in the 1930s through the predominantly black pugilists of the 1970s. Tyrone knew the whole story—the champions and the chumps. He knew he was living right in the middle of the golden age of Philadelphia middleweights. They fought regularly at the Arena and the Spectrum.
Tyrone’s record and reputation earned him a complimentary ringside seat at the monthly fights. The local promoters even introduced him, along with the other local celebrities and fighters in attendance. Sitting at the Arena or the Spectrum watching Bennie or Cyclone or Kitten or the Worm, Tyrone knew he was witnessing something special. He was one level down from them. As long as they were around to fill the card, there’d be no room for him. His devastating left hook and willingness to stand toe-to-toe and trade—it earned him a ringside seat. It was as close to the big fight canvas as he was going to get.
Tyrone was seen as an up-and-comer. His record should have put him at least on the undercard of the big-ticket battles, working his way toward a title shot. In any other era it would have. In Philly 1974, Moish was lucky to land him a club fight at the Blue.
A month after Monroe beat Marks, Moish agreed to a fight for Tyrone with Edgar “Bad News” Wallace, a veteran southpaw out of Phoenix. Wallace was ranked number 10 by Ring magazine. It would be a good test. Tyrone was just finishing on the speed bag when he heard. He was less than excited.
“Bad News Wallace? He been around,” Tyrone said as Moish toweled off his face.
“He ranked—been in with some of the best. Ain’t that I don’t want to fight him—I should be fightin’ him—but at the Spectrum for real money—not the Blue for chump change.”
Tyrone had heard that Kitten had bought himself a new Coupe DeVille after his win over Perry “Lil Abner” Abney. It didn’t sit well. He was still dependent on the bus, the subway, and occasional rides in Moish’s old Chevy Nova.
“How much?” Tyrone asked.
“Eight hundred dollars? Eight hundred dollars? That ain’t shit. After you and everybody else takes they cut, ain’t hardly gonna be enough lef to buy me some pussy.”
“So get a real girlfriend,” Moish shot back.
Moish had been with Tyrone for seven years, since he was a skinny fourteen-year-old amateur. He knew the conversation, knew exactly where it was headed. Tyrone was a tough kid, but he loved a good pity party.
“Eight hundred dollars,” Tyrone repeated, slowly shaking his head.
“Stop kvetching and get back to work.”
Tyrone moved through his routine; three rounds on the heavy bag, three on the speed bag, some shadow boxing to loosen up followed by four rounds of sparring. His body focused on the training, but his mind was on the money.
After his training Tyrone took his usual seat with the regulars. Still frustrated, he complained to Blue Washington.
“Ain’t right. You know I should be up there with Bennie and Worm and them. I done paid my dues. I deserves it.”
“Boy…. you good. You know you is,” Blue told him. “But as long as them boys up at Cloverlay around to bang on each other, your chances of breaking in are slim to none.” Washington paused, his toothpick moving up and down.
“And slim just lef’ town.”
The Wallace fight was two months away. I pitched an idea for a photo essay on Tyrone preparing for the fight to Jack Wolf.
Jack hadn’t paid too much attention to me since the Elaine Brown fiasco.
“It’s an old idea and Tyrone Braxton’s not that big.”
I decided to do it anyway. Maybe Jack would feel differently once he saw it. The schedule was perfect. The early-morning roadwork, the afternoon sparring, it all fit around my shift at the paper, just like it did around Tyrone’s day job with the city.
The 5 AM runs were hardest to shoot. It was dark, only the streetlights and headlights from Moish’s old Nova for illumination. Hanging out of Moish’s car window the predawn air stung my face until it was numb, the wind cutting a chill right through my coat. Between Tyrone’s movement and the jarring from the potholes that defined Philly streets in winter, it just didn’t work. I didn’t care. It wasn’t really about the pictures anyway. Being with Moish and Tyrone, it was like I was part of something—something special—something where I was a player, too.
After the roadwork we’d drive to Mama Rose’s Soul Food Kitchen on Columbia Avenue. Tyrone didn’t have to be at work until 9, me even later. We’d sit over grits and scrambled eggs, scrapple, and black coffee. The grits came free with the breakfast. Tyrone would load his up with mounds of butter and salt.
Moish wasn’t a morning person. It was a good time for me and Tyrone to talk. Turned out we had a lot in common. We both barely made it through high school, yet were voracious students of our respective games. I spent hours in the studios of local photographers, at camera stores, and at the public library gleaning everything on photography I could find. Tyrone hung around the gym every afternoon with the old guys listening to their stories and spent most nights at Moish’s watching vintage boxing footage on an old 8mm projector. We also shared an intense desire bordering on obsession to make a mark on our game.
“If a fighter wants to be champion,” Tyrone said one morning, “he gots to train hard and not just in the gym. They’s another training be just as important: you gots to train in yo’ head. I see each fight ’xactly like it s’posed to happen. Leastways ’xactly the way I want it to happen:
“I see Bad News standin’ in front of me wit that big ol’ ugly head of his—he bobbin’ and weaving.’
Tyrone dipped to the left, then to the right.
‘He shoot a jab and I block it—he follow with a lef hook but I know it cause he drop his shoulder and telegraph it—he shoot the hook—I duck—throw him off balance. Then, before he even know what hit him—BAM—I nail his ass with a perfect left uppercut.”
Moish jumped in. He may have hated mornings but he wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to talk boxing.
“Every fight has its moments,” he started like a college professor beginning a lecture. “But once in a blue moon things come together so right that one round or sometimes even one punch will define a whole fight. Like Marciano’s right destroying Jersey Joe Walcott, or Sugar Ray’s left hook finishing Gene Fulmer, and, of course, who could forget February 25, 1964, Miami Beach. Liston sticks a thumb with some liniment on it in Ali’s eye and blinds him. Ali survives the fifth even though he can’t see, comes back in the sixth with so many combinations Liston couldn’t get off the stool for the seventh. Those are the shots of a lifetime, shots that define a champion.”
Tyrone reached his arm across the table toward me, palm up.
“Someday that gonna be me.”
On the inside of Tyrone’s forearm was a tattoo of a fisted glove that expanded slightly as he flexed his sinewy muscle. Below the glove was a quote in script:
“I shook up the world!”
They were the words of twenty-two year old Cassius Clay—words shouted into Howard Cosell’s microphone on a warm Miami night by the newest and youngest heavyweight champion of the world.
“It’s the same in photography,” I said. “Like this one guy: Neil Leifer. He was a good photographer, but there are a lot of good photographers out there. At that second Ali/Liston fight, Leifer set up on the ring apron. Most photographers, just like boxers, spend the first round feeling things out, finding their rhythm. But that night he was on his game from the opening bell. So was Ali. Two minutes into round one Liston was sprawled out on the canvas, Ali standing over him yelling to get up and fight. Leifer snapped the picture. It was just one shot, one moment from the thousands he had shot both before and after—but that picture defined both Ali and Neil Leifer from that night on. That shot made Neil Leifer a champion.”
[The third installment will follow next month.]
Copyright 2010 - Mike Spector