|PHILLY BOXING HISTORY SOULVILLE A Boxing Novel by Mike Spector (Part 3)||
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.
Tyrone knew that one day he’d be middleweight champion—it wasn’t an option. When the last fighters at Champs were showered and the regulars were done for the day and heading to Loretta’s High Hat Lounge, Tyrone still had a night of study ahead. He’d spend it with Moish watching films of the classic fights, listening to Moish’s history lessons, and going over strategy—but not before dinner.
Tyrone’s mom, Mavis Braxton, was usually asleep in her favorite chair when Tyrone came in. He’d pick up dinner on his way home, usually burgers or pizza. It was their nightly routine, their connection. Neither had time to cook and Tyrone wouldn’t know how to even if he had. Wednesday was Mavis’ favorite: fried chicken from the Colonel. He’d gently touch her arm and without opening her eyes, she’d smile.
Mavis was a nurse’s aide at Hahnemann Hospital where a permanent shortage of help turned the double shifts she usually volunteered for into a regular 70-hour workweek. The time-and-a-half just about got them by.
Mavis and Tyrone shared a small one-bedroom apartment at Broad and Tioga Streets. It was cold in winter and hot in summer on one of those blocks where after so many hundred calls the police no longer bothered. Against Tyrone’s protests Mavis had insisted he have the bedroom. She slept on the couch. There was an old fireplace in the living room, a testament to a time when North Philly was a different kind of neighborhood. Mavis used to tell her kids about how their whole apartment was once somebody’s bedroom. The fireplace hadn’t been used since they moved there in the summer of ’65, which was probably a good thing. It most likely would have burned the place down.
Above the fireplace was an old wooden mantel, home to Mavis Braxton’s prize possessions: her pictures. There was a formal portrait of Tyrone’s older brother Dante´ standing proud in a black suit with his girlfriend, Chandra. It was taken at their high school prom in 1968, a year before his first arrest. Dante´ was in Graterford now doing twenty-five-to-life for aggravated assault and armed robbery. Moish drove Mavis and Tyrone there each month to visit. Next to the photo of Dante´ was a smaller picture of his sister, Latisha. It was a snapshot taken on Easter Sunday 1966. She wore a pink dress and had a smile that even in the photo seemed to make the whole room a little brighter. Latisha’s body had been found two years earlier in a West Philly shooting gallery. She had been there four days before anyone noticed. Dante´ and Latisha weren’t bad kids—just casualties of bad timing and bad circumstances—the kind that defined most of North Philadelphia.
The section where Tyrone and Mavis lived was what the newspaper called “urban blight”—a repository of poverty, crime, fear and desperation, a socioeconomic war on human dignity. It was just the two of them now—both in the war zone—each in their own way representing the small minority who refused to surrender.
The rest of the mantel was a tribute to Tyrone. Tyrone as a skinny fourteen-year-old smiling through his boxing headgear, Tyrone with his arm raised at his first amateur victory, Tyrone at the Golden Gloves, and the latest portrait taken by me, the one with the crease lines down and across the center from where it had been folded.
Thoughts of becoming middleweight champion filled Tyrone’s every waking moment and a good share of his dreamtime too. His cocky, brash predictions sounded like a lot of ego talking—they weren’t. He could describe his eminent ascent to the top in every detail to anyone who would listen, and he did—every detail except one.
From all the hours with Moish and the regulars in the Boardroom Tyrone understood that boxing wasn’t just about the win, it was about respect. For him it was also about something else, something bigger. Tyrone knew that with a championship came big money, and big money meant getting him and Mavis out of their nightmare.
He knew exactly how it would play; he’d buy a house in the suburbs, somewhere on the Main Line. Not a big house that would be too much work, but a nice house, in a nice neighborhood. He’d take Mavis to Atlantic City for a vacation. On the way home he’d say he had to make a stop and surprise her with her new address. He had kept it a secret—even from Mavis—until the night he came home for dinner and saw her asleep in her usual chair. He knew immediately that something wasn’t right. Moving closer he saw the tears, still wet on her cheeks. It broke him. He went in his bedroom, gently closed the door so Mavis wouldn’t hear, and cried uncontrollably. When he woke her, both of their cheeks stained with tears, he shared his dream.
“Don’t you worry none, Mama. I’m gonna win me that title and get us both outta here.”
“Baby, I’m so proud of you. You just keep on being the best you can be. I don’t need no big house. I just need you. That’s all. Nothing more. You already my champion.”
She put her arms around him and hugged him for a long time.
In 1974 my life revolved around Champs Gym, starting at breakfast with Moish and Tyrone and ending most nights back at Moish’s place. In between, my assignments at the paper took me from political press conferences to the Philadelphia Flower Show. There were two other stringers like me at the Journal, Joe Delpino and Robin Pincus. When we weren’t on assignment the three of us would sit over coffee in the cafeteria sharing plans for the future and bitching about the shitty assignments—comrades in arms— bonded by hopes, dreams, and a common enemy: the staffers. I loved our time together. At first I, too, dreamt of globetrotting assignments and Pulitzer Prizes. But that changed. Joe and Robin were fueled by journalistic passion. My passion had shifted. The profession they so desperately sought to succeed in for me had become just a day job. The chase for front-page pictures and bylines had lost its luster. My images now hung on the walls at Champs Gym.
Moish lived on Lehigh Avenue in the Strawberry Mansion section of the city. He had a second-floor apartment over Ace’s Pawnshop.
“I grew up in this neighborhood,” he said one night while we watched Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta in their second fight from Detroit. Sugar Ray had won their first contest four months earlier at the Garden in New York. I could hardly hear Moish over the click-click-click of his old movie projector.
“The pawnshop downstairs used to be Gersky’s Delicatessen, best corned-beef-and-Swiss in town. We moved here when I was fourteen. We moved….”
Moish stopped mid-sentence to watch LaMotta nail Robinson with a vicious shot that put him on the canvas. It was only round 1.
“Anyway, we moved up from Sixth and Ritner in South Philly. My parents wanted a better life—better life my ass. The Mansion may have been a better neighborhood, but better life? PLEASE! It was mostly a bunch of spoiled rich kids going to Simon Gratz High School thinking they were gonna end up better than everyone else. I hated it. I grew up in South Philly. That was where all the action was. That was home.”
Rounds 2 through 10 were trading rounds, each giving, each taking. Sugar Ray was relentless with his combinations but the Raging Bull kept coming.
“In South Philly you didn’t have to be smart or good looking. You just needed to know how to make people laugh or how to fight. It was that simple. Back then I only knew the latter. Boxing and comedy were part of the neighborhood. Guys like Lew Tendler and Larry Fine of the Three Stooges, they were local heroes. Not that South Philly didn’t have its share of doctors and lawyers and guys like Bobby Rydell and Frankie Avalon. But they were special, had god-given talent. Fighting and comedy, that was there for anyone willing to work at it.”
Moish looked at the movie image projecting on the wall. A bloody Jake LaMotta was raising his arm in victory. LaMotta had won by decision, his only victory over Sugar Ray in their six meetings.
“LaMotta, he knew how to fight and he was a funny guy to boot. I’ll never forget what he said after his last fight with Sugar Ray, the one they called the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The two had fought each other six times. When some reporter, might have been Bud Schulberg, asked about one of the greatest rivalries ever, LaMotta said, ‘I fought Sugar Ray Robinson so many times I almost got diabetes.’”
Moish was laughing so hard he could hardly get the words out.
“Get it? Sugar Ray? Diabetes?”
“Yeah, Moish, I get it.”
“Anyway, growing up I hated living here, couldn’t wait to get back to the old neighborhood. About twice a week I’d skip school and catch the number nine trolley—we called it the Jerusalem Express—straight to the YMHA at Broad and Pine. That’s where all the Jewish fighters trained. Eventually I started training there myself.”
Moish’s apartment had a small living room, a bedroom, and a kitchen with a table that served as both a place to eat and his office. That first night he invited me to join Tyrone for their nightly film session we stopped for Chinese take-out. Moish cleared the newspapers and stacks of bills off the table, lining up the white cartons of beef chow mein, Egg Foo Yung, and Tyrone’s favorite: Kung Pao Chicken.
“Hey,” Moish said, piling a sampling from each carton over a mound of fried rice, “did you hear about the black guy who found an old lamp in the backyard with a genie in it?”
“The genie tells him he can have three wishes. So the guy says,
‘OK, I wants to be rich,’
“And a suitcase appears with a million dollars in it. The guy looks at the money, thinks for a second, and says,
‘OK, I wants to be white,’
“A mirror appears and he sees that now he’s white, with blonde hair and blue eyes. The guy can’t believe his good luck! Knowing he only has one wish left, he thinks very carefully,
‘OK,’ he says, ‘I don’t want to work another day in my life,’
“And he was black again.”
Tyrone laughed so hard he almost choked on a mouth full of Moo Goo Gai Pan.
Moish was on.
“So there’s a raffle at the synagogue.”
“When they announce the prizes, the announcer calls out”—Moish cupped his hands around his mouth— “‘Fourth prize goes to Benji Kramer: a Rolls Royce.’
“Huge applause breaks out as Kramer collects his keys and shakes hands.”
Moish cupped his hands again.
“‘Third prize goes to David Sussman: a Rolls Royce and a check for ten thousand dollars.’
“Again, huge applause as Sussman collects his keys and check.
“‘Second prize goes to Nate Ginsberg: a piece of fruitcake.’
“‘What the hell do you mean a piece of fruitcake?’ Nate yells. ‘Fourth prize was a Rolls Royce; third prize a Rolls and ten grand. All I get is a piece of fruitcake?’
“‘Ah,’ says the announcer, ‘but this is a very special piece of fruitcake. It was baked by the rabbi’s wife.’
“‘Fuck the rabbi’s wife,’ Nate angrily shouts back.
“‘What?’ says the announcer, ‘you want the first prize, too?’
One wall of Moish’s living room was empty. It was where he projected his films. The other walls were filled with photos, mostly cut out from the newspaper and yellowed with time. There were pictures of Moish in his fighting days, and a framed poster advertising “Battling” Moskowitz vs. “Midget” Rosenberg at the old Ice Palace on Market Street. Another photo was Moish and a young Tyrone, and there was an 8x10 gold framed photo of Moish with a very attractive woman on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City.
“Moish, you’ve been holding out! Who’s the lady?”
“That, is Anna Moskowitz: my wife.”
I hesitated. I had never thought of Moish with a wife.
“She passed in ’68: cancer.”
“Moish, I…I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. We were married for 34 years, and they were the best years of my life. You should be so lucky to have 34 seconds of what I had with Anna. Believe you me, she was more than an old gym rat like me deserved.”
After dinner we moved into the living room. Moish moved two chairs next to the couch to create a makeshift projection room. His selection for that night was Joey Giardello’s title defense against Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in 1964. It was a war. Moish would stop the film every few minutes to make a point.
“See that?” Moish asked Tyrone when it was over.
“Giardello beat him. That shaved head, that goatee, that stare; they didn’t mean shit against the left jab. POP. POP. POP.”
I watched Tyrone. He hung on every word. Moish had invited me to join their party. Once the film started the party was over. Once the film started, school was in session. When it was over Moish turned on the lights, leaving the projector fan running to cool the bulb.
“You see how intimidating Hurricane looked? That shaved head and those beady eyes?” he asked Tyrone, not expecting or waiting for an answer.
“Reminds me of Bad News Wallace. Hurricane intimidated everybody in the joint that night with that look, everybody except Giardello. Joey knew that inside the ring looks don’t mean shit. It’s just two guys, two animals in the jungle goin’ at each other.”
Tyrone nodded, quietly processing.
Tyrone had the skills to be in with the best. Moish knew it. But being in with and beating are two different things. The other Philly middleweights each had a unique style—a signature that under the right circumstances could beat the other. Cyclone had a left hook that could knock anybody out. Bennie Briscoe, he was just relentless, the tenacity of a bulldog. The Worm had his slick footwork and upper-body moves. Moish knew Tyrone had the body skills to hold his own with any of them. He also knew that body skills wouldn’t be enough. Tyrone needed an advantage—an edge that would put him over. Moish was betting that edge would be strategy, a strategy grounded in history. At Champs Gym Tyrone body. At Moish’s apartment, he trained his mind.
I couldn’t stop looking at that picture on the wall, the one from Atlantic City. I thought I knew Moish. I was wrong.
“Moish, tell me about Anna.”
“Now you want conversation?
“Please. How’d you two meet?”
“It’s ten o’clock. Forget it.”
“We met at Levis Hot Dogs, about a month after I beat Midget. She was sitting on a stool at the counter and when I saw her,” he hesitated, momentarily caught in the memory, “it was like the rest of the world just faded out. I pretended like I didn’t notice her, but she saw me and came over to my table anyway.
“‘A Champ Cherry soda for the champ,’ she said.”
Moish stopped talking, carefully putting a rubber band around the grey metal canister that held the Giardello film.
“That’s it?” I asked.
“No, shmendrik, that’s not it. But that’s all you get tonight.”
Three weeks before Tyrone’s fight with Bad News Wallace I walked into Champs at the usual time. Neither Moish nor Tyrone was there. The regulars were in the Boardroom. Blue Washington, in a burgundy leather jacket with matching leather pants and a yellow paisley shirt, motioned me over.
“Moish called. Said tell you Tyrone gots food poisoning. Nothin’ serious, but they ain’t comin’ in.”
I had never been in Champs by myself. Tyrone and Moish had always been there. I turned to leave, then turned back.
“Mind if I sit with you guys?”
“Pull up a chair youngster,” Billy Dee said.
A deep conversation, well, deep by Boardroom standards was in progress about Tyrone and his upcoming fight.
“Tyrone, he a serious motherfucker,” Chiller said, opening his throat and taking a long pull on a Tall Boy, “but I ain’t never seen him this serious.”
“That’s cause it all on the line,” Billy Dee countered.
“What it mean ‘on the line’?” Spoons asked.
“On the line ’xactly that, fool, on the line. Bad News Wallace ranked ten in Ring magazine. Tyrone whip his ass, them boys uptown gonna have to reckon with him. This be his shot, and he know it.”
A dull light with just a hint of orange sunset struggled through the gym windows as the last fighters were finishing their routines. Curtis Parks looked over at me.
“Quittin’ time. We movin’ the party up the street to Loretta’s. You comin’?”
The invitation caught me off guard. Champs was comfortable. I wasn’t so sure about Loretta’s High Hat Lounge. It was the kind of neighborhood you wouldn’t want to be surprised in.
“Yeah, boy, you. You see anybody else here ain’t on the regular guest list?”
Everyone laughed. I figured what the hell?
I was halfway through the High Hat door when Blue came up behind me.
“Boy…you sho’ nuf in Soulville now.”
I ordered a draft, then another. We sat in a round black leather booth listening to Dinah Washington on the jukebox. The room was dark. It felt much later than it was. We were six blocks from the Journal. It might as well have been six million miles. Blue’s comment bothered me, took me back to the first time it came up. The embarrassment. But it wasn’t just that. I still didn’t know what he was talking about. As much as I wanted to be part of things, I was an outsider. This was their world, not mine.
“You mean the neighborhood?” I asked.
Blue was about to answer when Quinny jumped in.
“Soulville’s not a neighborhood, at least not the kind of neighborhood you know. Soulville is wherever a Philly fighter steps in the ring at the gym on an ordinary afternoon and fights like a world title is on the line, wherever you and a pretty girl slow dance to Smokey Robinson. It’s the guys on the corner standing around a fire on a cold night sharing a bottle of Thunderbird, the way Blue’s dresses and Curtis sings. Soulville’s an attitude. It’s a state of mind.”
“Quinny…. you sho’ has a way with words,” Billy Dee added.
That was it. Soulville. It was the culture—everything—the sounds, the smells, the risks, the fears, the respect, the style. I got it. In 1974 I thought Soulville was just about the coolest place in the universe. It was a place where I felt at home in, a place where I was part of the action, a place where, some 25 years later, I would find out how little about it I really understood.
The essence of Soulville was black culture. Yet Moish was part of it, a “blue-eyed brother.” How did that work? Had it not been for the confidence of four beers that night at Loretta’s, I’d probably never know.
“So what’s the deal with Moish?” I asked Billy Dee.
Billy and Moish were around the same age. He’d have known him the longest. And there was something else. Something about the way Moish was around Billy—different from the way he was with the others. There was a kind of, I don’t know, a kind of respect, or something.
“What’s the deal?” Billy repeated like he didn’t understand the question.
“I mean… some of that stuff he says?”
“You mean how a crazy old white fool fit in with all us dark meat?”
The whole table laughed.
“I’m serious,” I said, and Billy Dee stopped laughing.
“Moish,” he said, reflecting for a moment,
“You see a little old man who like to act the fool. That just about what he is most time. But it wasn’t always like that. Moish was one tough cat in his day—fought anybody and everybody—sometimes guys two, three weight classes above him. He was a tough white Jew with a black style.”
“Them days the Jewish fighters was all out of South Philly. They trained down at the YMHA. They was some tough brothers around that time, too, but we stayed up North Philly mostly. Them days white gyms was white, and black gyms was black—period. We wasn’t even black back then, we was colored. But Moish, he used to sneak up our way and mix it up with us a little. Said Jews fight with power but blacks fight with style, and he be lookin’ to learn some style.”
“Moish was a star in South Philly. Never hit the big time like Lew Tendler or Benny Leonard, but in South Philly that didn’t matter. He was a local cat willing to put it on the line, didn’t duck nobody. In South Philly, that made him a king. They even called him that. Moish Moskowitz: the King of Catherine Street. Had himself a king’s ride, too, a big old Cadillac Fleetwood Convertible Coupe, burgundy with white leather. He’d drive down the street all nice and slow, and every kid on the block be chasin’ after him. Moish was somethin’ special. Then everything changed. October 24th, 1933.”
“I know that date,” I interrupted. “I saw it on a poster at Moish’s apartment. That’s the night he beat Midget Rosenberg. Came back from two knockdowns to win on a TKO in the twelfth. It was his biggest fight.”
“Not exactly,” Billy Dee continued.
“Moish beat Midget on the 23rd, the night before. And it wasn’t no fight, it was a knock-down-drag-out war.”
A couple “yessirs” and “that’s rights” sounded around the table. I guessed by his age that Billy Dee might have been there.
“Anyway,” he continued, “that was one tough motherfuckin’ fight, but nothing compared to what was comin’. What I’m talkin’ ’bout didn’t happen in the ring, it happened at Club Harlem. That night after the fight with Midget, Moish went out with the rest of the Jews from South Philly to celebrate. We was celebratin’ too, but Moish was with the white boys that night. Like I said, we didn’t exactly mingle back then and, besides, we wasn’t all that big on the Manischewitz.”
Another round of laughter broke out around the table.
“Didn’t nobody know it that night but during the fight, while Hymie Rosen was there watching, somebody done broke in his house and raped his wife, Rebecca, beat her up pretty good, too. Leastways that’s what she said. When he got home she told him—said it was two brothers like the ones Moish knew from the gym. Hymie went crazy… got a bunch of guys from the block.”
“The Jews in South Philly in them days took care of their own. You got sick, you went to Doc Perlman—wanted to find a husband or a wife, Hedda Lipshitz would match you up. If you had a problem with a neighbor or even a family problem, there was this old guy, Shlomo Goren, he was the man to see.”
“Let’s talk to Shlomo. He’ll know what to do.” One of Hymies’ boys said.
“‘No,” Hymie snapped. “He’ll just want to talk it out. I ain’t talkin’ shit till I see the nigger that done this strung up.”
“Moish was still out celebratin’. Didn’t know ‘bout none of this.”
“The next night Moish came uptown and took us all to Club Harlem. It ain’t there no more, used to be up on Columbia Avenue. He wanted to buy us a few rounds, said it was that style we taught him that helped beat Midget. He didn’t know it, but Hymie and his boys had followed him.”
“We was drinkin’ and laughin’ and havin’ a good time when they busted in. Hymie was carryin’ a baseball bat.
“‘The hell is this?’ Moish said.
“Hymie told Moish what had happened. Now Moish, he knew Becca from the neighborhood—from Catherine Street, where they both lived—knew Becca had a wild side—knew she had been with a whole lot of South Philly boys before Hymie—knew she had a taste for the brothers, too. He seen her a couple times up North Philly when he was at the gym. So he wasn’t completely buying her story.
“‘So what do you think you’re gonna do?’ Moish asked.
“‘I’m gonna bust a couple of them niggers’ heads till I find out who done this is what I’m gonna do,’ Hymie said, pointing to where we was sittin’.
“Moish hesitated a moment, then moved in a position that was directly between Hymie and us.
“‘That won’t change anything,’ he said.
“‘Some nigger raped my wife. She says it’s one of them.’
“Hymie’s face was red—crazy red—with veins poppin’ all out his neck and shit.
“‘Well,’ Moish said, as cool as I ever seen him, ‘that’s a good plan Hymie, except for one problem. If you wanna get to them,’ Moish said motioning to us, ‘you’re gonna have to go through me.’
“Hymie started yellin’, ‘Get out of my way, Moish.’
“But Moish, he just stood there, not movin’ an inch.
“‘Like I said, only one way it’s gonna happen.’
“The two of them stood there for a long time, just starin’ each other down, waitin’ to see who blink.
“Finally, Hymie lower the bat and look at Moish,
“‘This ain’t over you nigger-lovin’ son of a bitch.’
“Moish had backed Hymie and his boys down just like he done
Midget the night before.”
“When Moish got back to South Philly that night the word had got out. Nobody was talkin’ ’bout what happened, ’cause they didn’t want Shlomo to find out. But no one was talkin’ to Moish, neither. He was an outsider in his own neighborhood—had crossed over—and they didn’t want no parts of him, no how. We loved Moish—loved him like a brother. But he wasn’t a brother, know what I mean? Things was different back then. He was white, and we was colored. So that night, Moish became his own man, with nobody or no place to belong to.”
Billy Dee paused, shaking his head slowly from side to side.
“He was still the king, but he los’ his kingdom.”
I lay in bed that night unable to sleep. Moish had seemed so simple. He wasn’t. I don’t know what kept me awake. Thoughts of Hymie Rosen? That scene in the bar? A king without his kingdom? Maybe all of it—or maybe it could have been the five beers I had at Loretta’s.
A few restless hours and two cups of coffee later I sat in the grey darkness that blankets the city just before dawn, hoping Tyrone and Moish would show. Someone had left a day-old copy of the Daily News on the bus stop bench. The streetlight wasn’t bright enough for reading, but I could see the headlines. On the top of the page was the boxing story of the day; the Worm had signed to fight Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts. Moish pulled up just as I was squinting to read the details.
Tyrone had been down for a day with food poisoning. He never mentioned it—didn’t miss a step that morning on his roadwork, and, judging from the mounds of butter he lumped on his grits, he was feeling much better.
“So, Moish,” I said, “let’s get back to Anna.”
“Always with the questions, this one,” Moish said, pointing to me but talking to Tyrone.
Tyrone shrugged, stirring the butter into his grits to get the perfect slush.
I had a whole different image of Moish after listening to Billy Dee at the High Hat. But Billy never mentioned Anna.
“Like I said, we met at Levis Hot Dogs. She was from West Philly, which was Catholic then, but she loved Levis hot dogs and she loved boxing. It was a bad time in my life. I was going through some personal shit.”
Moish wasn’t elaborating. I guessed it was the Hymie Rosen stuff.
“She said she had seen the fight with Midget.
“‘I was pretty good, huh?’ I said.
“‘Better than the creep I was there with,’ she said with a wink.
“That night we took a walk through Mifflin Park. I was never any good around girls—could never think of nothin’ to say. Besides, like I said, I was pretty angry about some stuff. So she did all the talkin’. When she saw I wasn’t even answerin’ her questions, she asked,
‘Did you hear about the ninety-year-old Jewish man who got hit by a bus on Broad Street the other day?’
“I thought she was serious.”
“‘Yeah,’ she said, ‘happened in the middle of the day. A big crowd gathered around him. He was hurt pretty badly and someone ran to call an ambulance. Then someone else ran to call the police. Somebody else yelled for a priest. Just by chance there happened to be one in the crowd. He came forward and leaned over the dying man,
“‘Do you believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost?’ He asked.
“The old Jewish man looked up, rolled his eyes, and said,
“‘At this stage of the game you’re asking me riddles?’
“It was funny, but I wasn’t sure how to take it. I didn’t really know Anna that well, but I was falling in love with her and …. and I knew she wasn’t Jewish. So I forced a smile. She wasn’t done. Anna never just settled.”
“‘Did you hear about the Jewish businessman who warned his son against marrying a shiksa?’
‘It was like she knew exactly what I was thinking. She could do that sometimes.’
“‘The son says, ‘But she's converting to Judaism.’
“‘It doesn't matter,’ the father said. “A shiksa will always cause problems.’
“After the wedding, the father calls the son who was in business with him, and asks him why he’s not at work.
“‘It's Shabbos,’ the son says.
“The father was surprised, ‘But we always work on Saturday. It's our busiest day.’
“‘I won't work anymore on Saturday,’ the son insists. “My wife wants us to go to synagogue on Shabbos.’
“‘See,’ the father says. “I told you marrying a shiksa would cause problems.”
“That was it! I laughed so hard I cried—almost peed my pants. Anna had opened some kind of floodgate. I wasn’t used to laughin’ like that. I was a fighter. Fighters weren’t supposed to laugh. We were supposed to be tough. But it felt good. It was like everything that had been weighing on me came out. Just from one joke! We were still walkin’, but I felt light—like I was walkin’ a couple a feet above the ground.
“‘That looks good on you.’ Anna said. You should wear it more often.’
“I had worn a black beret—they were popular in boxing circles—I figured that’s what she meant and started to adjust it.
‘Not that,’ she said, ‘the smile.’
“That night at Levis—Anna taught me how to laugh. It changed everything.”
The days at the paper dragged. I couldn’t get through my assignments fast enough—couldn’t wait to get to Champs. A few months earlier the stringer job had been the high point of my life—an entry into the profession. Now it was just a day job. As far as day jobs go, though, it was a pretty good one. The assignments had lost their luster but I could see the benefits of the day-to-day work. Photography is like anything else; the more you practice, the better you get. The technical part was becoming second nature. More and more I was able to see past the F-stops and shutter speeds, concentrating on content and composition.
Tyrone continued to train hard both in the gym and outside the gym with his visualization. It was all he talked about. As the fight got closer his imagery became the focus of every conversation, every day. At breakfast he’d load up his grits with butter and salt and start talking.
“I see Bad News standin’ in front of me wit that big ol’ ugly head of his—he bobbin’ and weavin’—then 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 a hook—I duck—throw him off balance.”
A week out from the fight I had heard the story so many times I was starting to visualize it myself. I’d jump in at the end with my best Tyrone Braxton imitation:
“Then, before he even know what hit him—BAM—I nail him with a perfect left uppercut—end of story.”
Even Moish would smile.
Edgar “Bad News” Wallace had presence. At five-foot-seven, a-hundred-and-sixty-pounds sitting mostly on an upper body of solid sculpted muscle, he wasn’t really all that big, but he seemed to take up the whole room. Even his shaved head looked like he spent time working it in the gym. At the weigh-in the scale balanced out at exactly 160. Stepping off Edgar flexed his sixteen-inch biceps, glaring at Tyrone. He must have greased up his body with Vaseline for effect because he glistened under the lights. Then he got in Tyrone’s face.
“Your ass is mine, faggot,” Edgar growled as their noses touched.
Even his low, gravelly voice was intimidating. Tyrone didn’t flinch. Bad News Wallace was everything his name implied. But this was Philly, Tyrone’s town. As trainers and corner men from both sides separated them Moish whispered in Tyrone’s ear,
“That’s exactly what Hurricane tried with Giardello.”
Tyrone responded with the slightest nod. It was hard to say what was going through his head.
“He shoot the hook—I duck—throw him off balance…”
The Blue Horizon wasn’t near as big as the Spectrum or the Arena, but with all 1,500 seats including those in the old broken-down balcony filled for the Braxton/Wallace fight it felt like a full house at the Garden.
Tyrone had modeled his pre-fight routine in his first eight pro bouts after Ali, filling the room with poems, predictions and general mayhem. The fight with Bad News Wallace was different. He sat quietly while Moish wrapped his hands. The usual high-energy crazy atmosphere that had become the norm with a Tyrone Braxton fight was gone.
“Remember the plan,” Moish told him, laying a thin strip of adhesive tape between each finger.
“Stick and move. Use your jab. Box him. He’ll try and bait you. Don’t trade with him. Stay out of his range. Concentrate on the body. Body shots. Don’t go headhunting. Don’t trade with this son-of-a-bitch. He’s only as dangerous as you let him be. Don’t let him be.’”
Tyrone nodded. He had heard it a million times. It all came down to the same thing.
“He shoot the hook—I duck—throw him off balance…”
Tyrone wasn’t big on predictions, but in his mind’s eye the fight never got past the fourth.
Edgar entered the ring first. He wore his standard black trunks and white waistband with “Bad News” inscribed on it and black boxing shoes without socks. From his dressing room Tyrone heard what he thought sounded like “Boos”. They were actually chanting “News.”
Tyrone wore a new pair of teal-colored trunks he had specially made for the fight. On the right side was a white Star of David.
“What the hell is that?” Moish asked as Tyrone pulled them on.
“The color is for my moms. It’s her favorite. The star is you. You ain’t gonna be jus’ in the corner tonight. You gonna be right out there with me.”
Moish thought for a moment.
“I hope no one mistakes you for Sammy Davis Jr.”
With the hood of his robe up over his head and a glove on each of Moish’s shoulders, Tyrone made his way down the aisle to an explosive cheer from the hometown crowd. He barely heard it. He was in the zone.
“He shoot the hook—I duck—throw him off balance…”
Both fighters had warmed up in their dressing rooms before entering the ring, their skin glistening under the hot overhead lights. Edgar stared Tyrone down during the referee’s instructions. Tyrone didn’t respond. He knew the plan. Moish had been drilling it into him for two months.
“You need to box him. Don’t make it into a street fight. He’s too dangerous. Stick and move, stick and move. Use your jab. Don’t trade. Be smarter than him.”
Moish had said it so many times it had become a mantra—melded into both Tyrone’s body and his mind. It was the perfect strategy for beating Bad News Wallace and it would have come off exactly as Moish designed it, had it not been for that weigh-in. At the weigh-in Bad News had gotten in Tyrone’s face—called him out in his own house. Moish’s strategy—as good as it was—was in the wind.
At the opening bell both fighters charged to the center of the ring and started unloading—power-shot for power-shot. No defense, no jabs, no stick-and-move—you take your shot, I’ll take mine.
Tyrone had never felt anything close to the power of Bad News Wallace. Each punch rocked him. They didn’t hurt, exactly—they just rocked him. Neither heard the ten-second warning, or the bell as the referee broke them up. In the corner Moish was furious.
“WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT? STICK WITH THE PLAN. DON’T TRADE WITH HIM. YOU HEAR ME?”
Tyrone couldn’t help but hear him, Moish was screaming in his face. It didn’t matter. He looked straight ahead. Cut man Mitt Bailey held one of two silver dollars he kept chilled in the ice bucket over the right eye where a small mouse was beginning to form. Tyrone had visualized every detail of the fight. It wasn’t happening anything like he had pictured.
Round 2 was a continuation of round 1—both fighters toe-to-toe in the middle of the ring. Somewhere between the first and second minute of the round Tyrone connected with an overhand right that split Wallace’s nose. Fans as far back as the twelfth row heard the pop. Blood started to trickle. Wallace responded peppering Tyrone’s face with a flurry of continuous jabs. One of them busted the mouse over Tyrone’s right eye opening a three-inch cut that immediately started gushing.
Between rounds Mitt Bailey had one minute to work his magic. He dabbed the gash over the eye with a clean towel then cauterized it with Epinephrine to stanch the flow. He followed with Avitine, a chemical that forms a temporary scab. Moish continued his tirade.
“DON’T DO THIS, TYRONE. WE WORKED TOO HARD FOR THIS!”
Tyrone wasn’t hearing it. He had shut Moish out. His concentration honed down to a single point—a point focused across the ring where Bad News Wallace sat on his stool glaring, a vinegar soaked Q-tip sticking out of one nostril.
Both fighters started round 3 like the first two, each leaning on the other—both trading shots—neither giving ground. The crowd was on its feet. With thirty seconds left in the round Wallace took a half step back and unloaded a hard uppercut that connected flush with Tyrone’s chin. A photo taken at the exact moment of impact by a ringside photographer would show Wallace’s fisted gloved connecting with Tyrone’s face, contorting it like one of Salvador Dali’s clocks. Tyrone instinctively started to counter with a right when everything went dark. The overhead lights were the first thing he saw, sparkling dots shining directly in his eyes. For a moment he didn’t know what had happened. He knew he was in the fight but he couldn’t hear any sound—and everything was moving in slow motion. Must have been knocked out, he guessed. It was the first time in his career. Moish had talked about it—said Ali had described it as a room where bats flew around playing saxophones. Tyrone didn’t see any bats but he knew from the way the room was slowing turning that he had rolled on his side. Then the sound started to come back.
Tyrone felt his legs coming up under him, their muscle memory responding a step quicker than his head. He was up as referee Chuck Weaver counted eight.
“Are you OK?” Weaver asked.
“Yeah.” Tyrone responded without thought.
Weaver wiped Tyrone’s gloves off on his shirt.
“Do you want to continue?”
Tyrone was still shaky when Wallace charged in. Wallace sensed it, walking him down, backing him into the ropes. With ten seconds left in the round he loaded up with a left hook intent on ending the night, and just like Tyrone had pictured in all his visualizations, he dropped his shoulder. Tyrone pulled back. The hook glanced off his cheek. He threw an arm around the back of Wallace’s head locking him into a clinch. By the time Chuck Weaver was able to separate them, Tyrone’s head was starting to clear and the round was over. Wallace strutted to his corner, raising his arms in victory. Tyrone staggered to his.
Mitt jammed another swab of coagulant above Tyrone’s right eye, packed it with Vaseline, and held the cold heavy coin over the left. The clouds in Tyrone’s head had dissipated, replaced by a loud pounding. He tasted something in his mouth like copper pennies and felt a little sick. Turning his head slightly to the side he spit into the bucket, watching the mix of blood and saliva start to swirl in the ice water. Moish was no longer screaming.
OK,” he said, his lips close to Tyrone’s ear bringing his attention back from the kaleidoscope pattern of blood, spit, and ice.
“You get what you want out there? That what you wanted?”
Tyrone just looked at him, his eyes pleading with the same silent look Moish had seen that first day in the gym.
“You ready to stick to the plan now?” Moish asked.
“Then get in there and get with the program. Use your jab. You’re faster than him. But you got to get off first. Bang to the body. When he shoots that left hook duck under and—BAM—nail him with a liver shot.”
Wallace came charging out at the bell. This time Tyrone danced. His head was pounding. Suddenly Wallace was facing a boxer. The more he moved in loading up with power shots, the more Tyrone danced. The crowd didn’t like it. They wanted action—like the first three rounds. Mitt Bailey had done his job—the gash over Tyrone’s right eye was no longer bleeding—but it was beginning to swell. As the swelling grew the pressure on Tyrone’s eyelid mounted, closing the eye to barely a slit. He could see out of it, but not much, and Wallace’s jabs were starting to get through. At the end of the fourth, a frustrated Wallace again bulldogged Tyrone into the ropes. Tyrone kept his hands up, finding angles to deflect most of the blows. Falling back on what had worked earlier Wallace took a half step back, dropped his shoulder, and threw the left hook. Tyrone leaned back, this time just far enough—hearing a wooosh and feeling a stream of cool air on his face as the hook sailed past. As Wallace bent his knees to regain his balance Tyrone used the ropes for leverage, unloading three successive hooks into Wallace’s ribcage—Pop-Pop-Pop. The sound resonated through the Blue bringing the crowd to their feet.
When the last of his three consecutive hooks connected, Tyrone heard what sounded like the air being let out of a balloon. Wallace dropped to one knee favoring his right side. Chuck Weaver jumped between them directing Tyrone to a neutral corner. Wallace was up at five.
“Now you’re workin’ it!” Moish yelled from the corner.
The ventilation system at the Blue Horizon was never that good when it was working, and the hot smoky air had taken its toll. Both fighters had given their all in the first four rounds—both needed a blow. The next four rounds were survival rounds; each trading body shots with an occasional combination—neither with enough power to do any damage. Wallace usually initiated, Moish desperately trying to coax Tyrone on from the corner.
“YOU GOT TO BE FIRST, TYRONE! YOU GOT TO START WORKIN’!”
A fight in the cheap seats between two women during round 7 provided more action in the stands than the ring. Tyrone continued to dance—protecting his right eye—using his jab. He tried to exploit Wallace’s right side where he had done the earlier damage but couldn’t get in. Wallace showed his veteran experience and ring savvy taking most of each round off and then finishing with a shoeshine flurry to impress the judges. By the eighth Blue Washington had enough. He ran up to the ring shouting,
“TYRONE! THIS IS YOUR MOTHERFUCKIN’ HOUSE! GET BUSY! GET OFF FIRST.”
Security escorted him back.
At the end of round 11 both fighters stumbled to their corners. By Moish’s count Wallace was ahead nine rounds to two. He looked at Tyrone on the stool. The mouse over his right eye was the size of a small rat. He wondered if he’d make it through the twelfth. Hands clapped and feet stomped in anticipation of the finale. The noise was deafening.
“Tyrone, You still in this?”
Moish was hoarse from all the screaming he had done in the first three rounds.
Tyrone glared. “Hell yeah, I’m in this.”
Moish cupped his hands between his mouth and Tyrone’s ear.
“OK, there’s only one way to win this fight. You’re losing on points. He’s still got a little gas left. Go out and let him back you into the ropes. Keep your hands up and give him a minute to run out of steam. When I give you the signal—and don’t make a move until I do—go after him, but don’t go headhunting. You busted up his right side earlier. Find a way to get back there and nail him with a liver shot—it’ll make him drop his hands. When he does—and not before—when he drops his hands, you dig down inside yourself and you find what you’re made of—you find whatever it takes. Then you go upstairs and find an opening, and take this motherfucker out. Understand what I’m sayin’?”
“OK, remember, nothing till you hear my signal,” Moish said. Then he took a large cup of ice, pulled the elastic waistband of Tyrone’s trunks out, and dumped it down. Tyrone stood up, his eyes open wide.
“What the fuck?” he hissed.
“SECONDS OUT.” Chuck Weaver shouted, signaling that the final round was about to start. Both fighters were on their feet, dancing in their corners.
“This is it,” Moish yelled. It came out as a loud, hoarse whisper.
“Last round, Tyrone. Champ or chump. No overtime tonight. Wait for my signal.”
Both fighters touched gloves. Everyone in the room stood up. Wallace started moving in. Tyrone let himself get backed into the ropes. He leaned back, gloves up, protecting his face. Wallace started to land one body shot after another. Eleven rounds of sweat soaking the horse-hair-filled Cleto Reyes gloves made them feel like slabs of concrete pounding on his ribcage. This time it wasn’t just pounding. This time it hurt. Moish stood on the floor with one eye on his fighter, the other on his watch. He worried Tyrone wouldn’t hear his signal. Halfway through the round Moish took a long pull off the water bottle and held it for a second in the back of his throat before swallowing. With exactly sixty seconds left in the fight he cupped his hands,
“OK, TYRONE. GO TO WORK.”
On cue Tyrone unloaded a quick combination. A surprised Bad News Wallace had taken the bait—he had assumed Tyrone had nothing left. They moved into the center of the ring, both with their hands up. Tyrone shot two quick jabs with his left. Wallace blocked them both but still seemed confused by the unexpected burst of energy. Then Tyrone started to swing his right arm in a circle, loading up a Kid Gavilan-style bolo punch.
“NO!” Moish screamed from the corner.
Wallace braced. At the last moment Tyrone switched and nailed him with a straight right.
Now Wallace was backed against the ropes. He heard the hometown crowd screaming. This wasn’t the plan. Tyrone landed a flurry to the body working both sides, looking for his opening. Wallace pulled his elbows in. Tyrone moved upstairs throwing shots from every direction. Wallace blasted back with barrage of his own, all missing their target until a right cross connected directly above Tyrone’s right eye busting open the mouse and sending a rooster-tail of blood spatter across two photographers and onto the starched-white shirt of one of the judges. Tyrone felt an immediate release from the pressure that had built up forcing his eye shut. Instantly his vision was back. Two quick jabs to Bad News head connected forcing Edgar to raise up and protect his face. Tyrone unleashed three body shots to the right side in a mirror image of round 4. When Wallace responded by dropping his gloves, Tyrone let loose with a crisp combination to the head. Edgar Bad News Wallace collapsed through the ropes landing hard on the press table just below the ring apron. Tyrone moved to a neutral corner, bouncing on his toes. Chuck Weaver started his count.
“One… Two… Three…”
Wallace crawled back into the ring, kneeling on the canvas on all fours. He spotted his mouthpiece and clumsily picked it up, sticking it halfway in his mouth.
“Four… Five… Six…”
When the count reached seven, Wallace started to stand, but the blows to his head had disrupted his equilibrium. He fell over, rolling on his back. The fight was over.
The Monday after the Wallace fight Moish arrived early at the gym. He always spent the first hour working with his amateurs. The Boardroom was already full, halfway through their first Tall Boy.
“Waddaya say, fellas?”
Moish usually spent a few minutes with them before getting started. He got a couple of token nods and knew something was wrong.
“So a black guy and his girlfriend are in a car. Who’s driving?”
They looked at him.
Again he got a couple of forced smiles.
“What? Somebody die and forget to tell me?”
“It’s Spoons.” Blue Washington said.
Spoons probably had a real name, but no one could remember it. The regulars had been hanging out together at one gym or another for a long time, and for as long as they could remember Spoons had always been just Spoons. Spoons sat there with his head down, eyes on the floor.
“His daughter done sold his place right out from under him,” Blue continued. “Gonna stick him in some nursing home in Germantown. Say he can’t take care a hisself no mo’, and she can’t be comin’ round to take care a things for him.”
“She can’t do that,” Moish countered.
“She gots some power of attorney or some shit say she can.”
Tyrone walked in at four o’clock sharp like always. He was never late. It was a light-workout day, no sparring. He wouldn’t spar again until his face healed. The talk among the regulars was still on the fight. When Tyrone joined them, Blue asked, “So who next?”
“I don’t know, man. I’m waitin’ on Moish.”
Moish was still on the gym floor standing in front of a kid who couldn’t have been more than twelve.
“Keep your hands up. OK, now…,” Moish said, holding his hand on the base of his throat, “Keep your eyes right here. That way you can see either shoulder when I start to move.”
When the kid finally got it, Moish told him it was enough for the day, then joined Tyrone in the Boardroom. He sat down next to Spoons.
“Hey, did you hear about the Jewish family who needed a nursing home for their grandfather?”
Spoons looked up.
“Yeah,” Moish continued, making sure he had his full attention.
“All the Jewish homes were full and they had to put him in a Catholic home. Come to think of it, I think it was in Germantown. After a few weeks the family came to see him.
“‘How do you like it here?’ the son asks.
“‘It’s great!’ the guy says. ‘You couldn’t have picked a better place. The people are so respectful!’
“‘Thank God,’ the son says. ‘We were so worried!’
“‘Let me tell you how respectful the people here are,’ the guy says. ‘There’s an 80-year-old musician here—hasn’t played in 20 years. They still call him the ‘Maestro’. And there’s a doctor here, too. He’s 91. Hasn’t practiced medicine in 25 years but everyone still calls him ‘the Doc’. And me, I haven’t had sex for over 30 years and they still call me the ‘the Fucking Jew.’”
For the first time that day Spoons smiled.
Tyrone knew his next fight would be a big one. He just wasn’t sure who it would be against. Cyclone, Boogaloo, maybe Kitten or the Worm? He could picture any of them. A month after his victory over Edgar “Bad News” Wallace no one had called.
“Moish, you gots to make a move. Ain’t nobody callin’. I’m tired of everybody askin’ who’s next?”
“Relax. They’ll call.”
Another month went by. Tyrone was frustrated—and angry.
“What the hell, Moish? What’s it gonna take? I beat Bad News. They sayin’ it might be the best fight of the year. You’s supposed to make stuff happen. I did my job. You needs to do yours.”
Moish looked at Tyrone. He didn’t like the insinuation. He, too, was surprised no one had called.
“OK, I’ll call Izzy. Take the weekend off. Your face could use the time to heal. It’s even uglier than before.”
Tyrone smiled. Moish had re-established things. Izzy Perlman was the top boxing promoter in Philly. All the Arena and Spectrum cards with the middleweights from Cloverlay were his.
The Philadelphia Press Club held its annual awards banquet at the Belleview Stratford Hotel the weekend after the Braxton/Wallace fight. Jack Wolf had asked me earlier in the week if I was going.
“I don’t think so. It’s fifteen bucks a head. Why would I want to pay good money to spend my Saturday night eating a shitty chicken dinner with a bunch of hack photographers I don’t like?”
“Ya know, that’s exactly why you’re in the position you’re in with them. But that’s your shit. My shit is our participation in the Press Club’s fallen off the past few years and now my boss is on my ass. I committed to make a good showing this year. I strongly suggest you be there.”
I sat between Joe Delpino and Robin Pincus. It spared me having to sit next to any of the staffers. Sam Kinslow was at the bar with Jack Wolf and some of the others before dinner. As the program began Jack bought a round for the table. When the cocktail waitress asked Sam for his order he grabbed for her ass.
“Jack on the rocks with a twist of this.”
The waitress moved just outside his range and Sam almost fell off of his chair. It was a move Tyrone and Moish would have appreciated. Robin leaned over,
“If nothing else, this is gonna be worth the price of admission.”
Sitting with Robin and Joe reminded me of those endless save-the-world-through-photojournalism conversations in the cafeteria. It felt good to be back together.
Waiters cleared the dinner plates and were starting to pour coffee when the lights dimmed. The Press Club competition was a big deal. The winners were considered the best in the city. With it came a certain unspoken status that was good for a year. In the writing categories portraits of the winners were projected on several large screens around the room as they were announced. In the photo categories the winning images were projected.
Sam Kinslow considered himself a sports photographer, though no one in the newspaper business really had the luxury of being a specialist. He had entered several of his shots of the Eagles, the 76ers, the Flyers, and the boxing matches. Besides being an asshole Sam actually was a pretty good photographer. He had won a ton of awards through the years. A win at the Press Club for him each year was almost a given. Second and third place in the Sports Action category were announced. Both went to Sal DeNizo from the Evening Bulletin. The room got quiet as the emcee paused for effect. Sam pushed back on his chair.
“First place, in the Sports Action category for 1975, goes to Jim Arrando from the Courier Post.”
The table with the staff from the South Jersey paper let out a huge cheer as an image of Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Bill Bergey slamming New York Giants running back Doug Kotar into a muddy turf filled the screens. The picture was titled, “No Gain.”
The rest of the room applauded, too, except for Sam Kinslow who stood up and shouted, “BULLSHIT.”
The last photo category in sports was Portrait/Personality. Sam swirled his swizzle stick around and around an empty glass. It was his last chance of the night for a win. Again both second and third place went to Sal DeNizo. It was his year and it looked like he might sweep the category. Again the room went silent.
“First place, in the Sports Portrait/Personality category for 1975 goes to…… Nick Ceratto of the Philadelphia Journal.”
I looked up, momentarily confused. The portrait of Willie “the Worm” Monroe was on all the screens. Under it was the title: “Ready for Battle.” Jack Wolf had entered it without my knowing. I looked across the table just in time to catch his wink. Everyone stood up and started clapping—everyone except for Sam. I could hear him yelling above the applause, “Motherfucking-son-of-a-bitch.”
Suddenly Sam looked like he was falling backward. Then I saw Jack Wolf’s hand clenched around his collar. He proceeded to walk him out. Robin threw her arms around me and gave me a big wet kiss. Her lips tasted like the whipped cream from dessert.
I hung around for a while after the show was over. The entry, the win, the whole event had caught me off guard. People I didn’t know except through their bylines were congratulating me and telling me what a great photo it was. It felt good—really good. Between that and Robin’s whipped-cream kiss I wondered if I had misjudged the whole day-job thing.
Walking through the hotel lobby on my way out I heard a voice from behind me.
It was Jack Wolf.
“Congratulations. Hell of a shot.”
Moish picked Tyrone and me up for his roadwork at the usual time. At breakfast after his run, Tyrone couldn’t contain himself.
“Did you talk to Izzy?”
“Yeah, I talked to him.”
“And he says he’ll put you on a Spectrum card.”
Tyrone’s heart started pounding so hard he could feel it.
“But not until late next year.”
“He’s got Worm fighting Kitten next month. Then Cyclone has a fight with Boogaloo. After that, Bennie’s got a shot at Valdez for the title in Monaco and then Worm is set to fight either Boogaloo or Cyclone depending on who beats who.”
“What the fuck, Moish? I earned my shot. Didn’t he see the Wallace fight?”
“He saw it. But his schedule is set.”
Moish took a sip of coffee and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table.
“There’s another option.”
Tyrone pushed the untouched plate of food in front of him away.
“I talked to another guy I know, Eddie Eisner. He promotes in Vegas. He’s offering a deal that will get you a title shot.”
Moish explained that the title shot would be against Marcelo Quinones and it would be in Lima, Peru. Quinones was the South American middleweight champion. He would only agree to the fight in his hometown.
“It’s not for the title; the South Americans would never risk an American winning a title in their own back yard. But it’s a legitimate fight and Quinones is the champion. A win would put you in the top ten. Then they’d have to give you your shot, Izzy or no Izzy. It’s a way to deal with the Philly situation by going around it, making them come to you.”
Tyrone understood. Titleholders and ranked fighters were obligated to fight mandatory defenses with other ranked fighters. If he could break into the top ten rankings they’d have to give him a shot. I looked at Tyrone. His eyes started to well up.
“Moish, I don’t care what they say about you, you’s the best.”
Images of a title shot, standing arms raised with a jewel-studded belt draped over his shoulder filled his head.
“That’s not all of it.” Moish wasn’t smiling.
“Eisner wants you to fight a ‘hippodrome’ fight first. A favor to him for the title shot.”
“It ain’t where, it’s what. Eddie Eisner’s a West Coast guy. Moves as much in Hollywood circles as he does in boxing. There’s this actor, Johnny Ford, some schmuck who plays in the soaps or something, thinks he a fighter. You mix it up for a few rounds in an unsanctioned fight and make him look good. It will be in some no-name place in Jersey—won’t even make the papers. Then you get your title shot.”
Tyrone had almost missed it. It had almost gotten lost between the visuals—almost slipped between the cracks.
“You mean take a dive? Forget it.”
“It’s an unsanctioned card. They’ll fill the hall with their friends. It doesn’t mean shit. You give this shlemiel his day, then you get your shot. Your shot, Tyrone, that’s all that matters.”
“I ain’t takin’ no dive.”
“Listen to me. Don’t be a putz. It’s not real—it’s got nothing to do with boxing. It’s a show. That’s all. Think about it.”
Tyrone didn’t say anything during the ride home until Moish pulled up in front of his apartment.
“Tyrone, this might be the only chance you get. You’ll think about it, right?”
Tyrone had one foot out of the door before Moish finished.
“Fuck that. And fuck you.”
It was almost eight AM and Mavis Braxton had already put two hours in at the hospital. Tyrone called work and said he was sick. He spent most of the day pacing the small apartment.
Fucking Moish, he thought. I should just call Izzy myself.
But he knew Moish was right. Izzy had locked into a schedule with no room for him. He watched the clock. The day was taking forever. Tyrone thought about his mom—working so many hours—every day. Moving through his daily routine of roadwork, his job, and the gym, the days never seemed that long. At home in the apartment everything felt like it was moving in slow motion. When Mavis walked in at six she was surprised to see him.
“Moish sick,” he told her. “Gave me the night off.”
Tyrone was used to coming home to his mom asleep in her chair. He wasn’t prepared for how tired and worn down she looked coming through the door. The image haunted him. He couldn’t sleep that night. The next day he called out sick again. A little before six he locked up the apartment and headed to the park. He didn’t want Mavis to know he had skipped work again, didn’t want her to worry. Tyrone walked for an hour before coming home at the regular time with dinner. After dinner he went to Moish’s. Moish seemed genuinely happy—almost relieved—to see him.
“Come on in. I’ve got some schnecken my neighbor down the street made. We’ll watch the Ali/Cleveland Williams fight.”
Tyrone didn’t move.
“Make the deal,” he said, turned, and headed home.
At Champs the next day Tyrone invited me out for a beer. We walked to Loretta’s. He talked about Moish and Izzy and Eddie Eisner.
“You can’t do it,” I said.
“Gots no choice. Besides, it ain’t no big thing. Like Moish say, it just an act. But it set me up for my shot. Might be the only chance I got. And I been thinkin’, it can set you up, too.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean all I gots to do is mix it up with this guy for a few rounds and then let one of his shots slip through. I’ll make sure it happens right in front of you. It’ll be your Ali/Liston picture, just like that photographer you was talkin’ bout.”
“I can’t do that.”
The paper was still a day job, kind of. Since the win at the Press Club I was taking the whole journalism thing a lot more seriously. It still was a day job, but one I could see doing for a long time.
Tyrone continued, “It be like Moish say, ‘a means to an end. ’ “Das it and das all.”
“I can’t do it,” I said, holding firm.
“Man, think about it. At least think about it.”
The fight was held at the Holiday Inn in Vineland, New Jersey. Every seat was filled. As Tyrone made his way to the ring, he looked around. Moish was right. He saw faces that he recognized from TV. The place was packed with entry-level celebrities, not a real fight fan in the house. Tyrone danced into the ring for his introduction. Looking down he saw me and nodded.
When the bell rang both fighters touched gloves. Johnny Ford started bobbing and weaving. Before Tyrone was even in range he was breathing hard through his mouth, an amateur. Ford had a quick jab. He’d probably do all right in a Golden Gloves competition. But his punches were weak—all arm. He didn’t know how to throw off his back foot. In the corner between rounds Moish played it like a script,
“Stick and move, stick and move.”
It was weird. They went three rounds without hurting each other but everyone was cheering. Tyrone went through the motions, no need to focus. His mind wandered, picturing how this fight would have played out at the Blue. The ring there by now would be covered with beer cups, soda cans, and anything else boxing fans could find to throw.
In round 4 Tyrone loaded up a left hook and intentionally missed. Knowing Ford would counter he feigned being off balance, let him land a right cross, and hit the canvas. He heard the referee start the count. At five he raised his head looking for my lens. My camera was sitting on the canvas. As our eyes met we both understood. We had made our respective choices.
Moish and Tyrone walked by Ford’s dressing room on the way out. It was a converted conference room that now spilled over with people looking like they were dressed up for New Year’s Eve. Tyrone had dressed in the men’s room. Champagne flowed into plastic flutes, the kind used at weddings, as waiters moved about with trays of hors d’oeuvres.
“Ford’s manager invited us to join them,” Moish said as they passed. “I told him go fuck himself.”
Neither Tyrone nor Moish spoke during the ride home. Safe in the sanctuary of his apartment Tyrone stood for a minute, listening. Mavis was snoring in her favorite chair. He took the blanket that had fallen to her waist, covered her, and kissed her forehead. If there were any lingering doubts about his choice, they vanished as he stood there in the dark listening to Mavis sleeping, one step closer to their dream.
As promised the fight with Marcelo Quinones took place that June. Moish and Tyrone flew to Lima two weeks early to get acclimated to the altitude. The Peruvians were huge boxing fans. They welcomed the visitors from America with a parade and lines for autographs. Tyrone loved the attention, though he understood that, come fight night, they’d be looking for him to be another notch on the tough South American’s belt.
The fight took place in an outdoor arena on a sweltering night that June, both the temperature and humidity hovering in the low nineties. Thirty-three thousand fans filled the stadium seats. More stood outside the fence in the dirt parking lot listening to the broadcast on transistor radios, cooling themselves with paper fans.
Both fighters spent the first round feeling each other out, and then they got busy. For four rounds Tyrone and Marcelo traded jabs, power shots, and combinations until the heat and humidity had both breathing hard. As the bell rang to start the fifth each came out charging, both feeling a desperate sense of urgency to end things before the heat and humidity did. They met in the center of the ring, Tyrone firing a hard left jab, Marcello a straight right cross. Neither connected but the follow-through momentum put their heads on a collision course. Tyrone’s forehead slammed Marcelo’s brow opening a deep cut on his right eyelid. The referee ruled it an accidental head butt. The crowd thought otherwise.
The fight see-sawed in rounds 6 through 8, Marcelo landing a power shot on Tyrone, Tyrone responding with a combination of his own, then it would reverse. Halfway through the ninth, with blood streaming from the cut on his right eyelid and starting to affect his vision, Marcelo connected with a hard jab momentarily stunning Tyrone. Tyrone backed up leaning against the ropes. Marcelo squared his shoulders unleashing a barrage of shots from both sides. Marcello had been there before, had fought through head butts and low blows and blood-obscured vision. He’d been champion for almost ten years. His record of 42-2-0 was substantial compared to Tyrone’s meager 7-2-1. Marcelo Quinones was a veteran. He knew how to finish.
But Tyrone’s record was only part of his story. Tyrone had been through six years of Philly gym wars. Tucking his elbows he moved up and down, using the ropes for support and leverage, deflecting most of the blows, weathering the storm. With a minute still left in the round Marcelo had played his hand. He was gassed. Tyrone felt the slight shift of energy and went to work. A left hook to Marcelo’s solar plexus forced him to drop his hands. A right uppercut connecting flush on the chin finished him. Tyrone raised his arms as 33,000 Peruvians went crazy. It was his first taste of victory with someone of Quinones stature and it was sweet—sweeter than he had imagined.
Lying in bed in his hotel room icing a swollen left eye, Tyrone replayed every second of the fight—over and over. It was starting to sink in. He was no longer the challenger. The knock on the door startled him. It was Eddie Eisner.
“Hey, champ. You were sensational out there tonight. Can I come in?”
“Thanks, but I ain’t no champ. This wasn’t for no title.”
“Maybe not on paper, but in my book….”
Eddie sat on the couch.
“So, champ, how do you see your future playing out from here?”
“Tonight puts me in the top ten. That means I gots at least one shot coming with another top ten fighter. I guess we’ll just wait and see who want me.”
“Tyrone, it ain’t gonna happen that way. At least not with Moish.”
“Man, get the fuck out of my room.”
“Just hear me out. Believe me, I mean no disrespect to Moish. I love Moish. Why do you think I jumped at the opportunity to work with you when he called?
Moish was a hell of a fighter in his day, and he’s been a hell of a coach with the amateurs coming up now. And, till now, he’s done right by you. He’s part of boxing history in Philly. But that’s my point, Tyrone—in Philly. Moish is all Philly—no outside options. Whatever Izzy Perlman says, he’s stuck with.”
Every instinct in Tyrone said cut and run. Eddie Eisner was a hustler. A prick in a four hundred dollar suit is still a prick, as Moish would say. Boxing was full of extremes—champions and chumps—the best and the worst. Eddie Eisner fell in the latter. But that thing he said about Moish being stuck with whatever Izzy says, that was right. In Izzy’s world, Tyrone was locked out for at least another year.
“Listen, champ. I represent seven pro fighters in four weight classes on both coasts. I have relationships with promoters at the Silver Slipper and Caesars in Vegas, the Garden in New York, and the Forum in LA. I can guarantee you three fights with ranked fighters over the next year and, if you win, a shot at the title six months after that. And I’m not talkin’ ‘bout some local venue like the Arena or the Spectrum. I’m talkin’ big time, Vegas or New York. Think about it, Tyrone. Talk it over with your mom if you want.”
Eddie Eisner had done his homework.
Tyrone and Moish flew back to Philly the next morning. Tyrone didn’t say much on the flight, feigning sleep for most of the trip. Moish figured he was just spent. At the airport they got their bags and waited for a cab.
“So?” Moish asked.
“What? How’s it feel?”
“It feels good to be home.”
As Tyrone stood in front of his apartment waiting for the taxi driver to unload his bags, he looked through the open window to the back seat.
“Moish, we gotta talk.”“So . . . talk.”
[The fourth installment will follow next month.]
Copyright 2010 - Mike Spector