|PHILLY BOXING HISTORY SOULVILLE A Boxing Novel by Mike Spector (Part 4)||
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.
Something was off. You could feel it. It wasn’t anything in particular, just a bad feeling in the air. I was two blocks from Champs, parked in the usual spot. Champs was a safe haven. The North Philly neighborhood around it was anything but. I looked over my shoulder—nothing. I didn’t belong on these streets. A middle-class white kid with a couple hundred dollar’s worth of cameras on his shoulder? What the hell was I thinking? Champs felt like home. The jungle around it didn’t. I picked up the pace.
Safe inside, I saw the regulars huddled together, Tall Boys in hand. Moish was working the mitts with one of his amateurs. Nobody looked up.
Quinny McCallum nodded and Billy Dee stopped his conversation.
“What do you say, youngster?”
“Hey,” I said looking around, that uneasy feeling from outside still there. “Where’s Tyrone?”
“You ain’t heard?” Blue Washington said, moving his chair over to make room for me.
“Tyrone in Vegas. Done up and lef’ Moish. Went to Vegas with Eddie Eisner.”
“Lawd have mercy,” Spoons mumbled, shaking his head.
“Hard to say,” Blue said, looking over to where Moish was impatiently showing a young fighter how to tuck his elbows in, again.
“He ain’t talkin’.”
I sat there trying to get my arms around what I had just heard. I felt sick. The longer I sat, the worse it got. I took out my Leica and moved toward the back of the gym where Moish was showing the young fighter how to move in and out with the heavy bag. When Moish saw me, I nodded.
“Nick!” Moish stopped what he was doing and grabbed the big leather bag signaling his fighter to stop.
“Nick, this is Andrew Franklin.”
The young fighter looked about fifteen. He was my height, maybe five-eight or nine and couldn’t have been more than one-thirty soaking wet—a tall skinny kid with tight, knotty muscles and a big Afro. His skin was light, the color of coffee with lots of milk. When he spoke his voice was so quiet I could hardly hear him over the gym noise.
“Nice to meet you,” he said, extending his wrapped hand. His handshake was soft, just like Tyrone’s. Before I could respond Moish was talking again.
“Andrew made it to the semi-finals in the Golden Gloves last June. Got a helluva left hook. Now he wants to turn pro. He stops tripping over his own feet, he just might have a shot.”
Moish looked at the young fighter.
“What the hell are you waiting for? Get back to work.”
Andrew responded without question—on his toes—moving in on the bag. Moish came over and whispered,
“Can you get a couple shots of the kid?”
I tossed and turned that night, unable to get anywhere close to sleep. Moish had taken Tyrone from a street kid who knew nothing to the brink of a title shot. But it wasn’t just that. The breakfasts after the roadwork, the film sessions at night, the monthly drives with Mavis to Graterford to visit his brother, Dante´—it wasn’t just business.
How could he do that to Moish? I turned one way, then the other.
Moish and Tyrone had opened a door for me. A door to a place where for the first time in my life I felt like I really fit in. What would I do now? It hadn’t been that long—my going to Champs—but it had become my routine—as regular as my morning coffee. At some point I drifted, not asleep but not awake either.
I couldn’t concentrate on work. Visions of Tyrone in Las Vegas with Eddie Eisner left over from the night filled my head. What would Champs be like without him? I watched the clock. The day was moving too slow. With an hour still left on my shift, I headed out.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. Champs had always been Tyrone and Moish. When I walked through the door it was business as usual. The regulars were in the Boardroom. Moish was there, too, working with Andrew Franklin. At Champs Tyrone had been a star—a charismatic personality who filled the room—a kid with so much promise it seemed like the whole place was part of his entourage. His absence should have created a void. It didn’t. There was a lot going on just below the radar of the Tyrone Braxton show—a lot I hadn’t seen. Champs, it seemed, had defined Tyrone more than Tyrone had defined Champs.
On one level it was just another gym—a means to an end—a place to train, to get in condition, to prepare. On another level Champs was an end in itself—a self-contained world, a parallel universe. Champs was a community of sorts. A community where young boys struggled to conquer the basics of footwork, combinations, and throwing off the back foot through their hips—where seasoned fighters struggled to hone the subtleties of same. It was a community where old men sat sipping 16-ounce Tall Boys, watching and comparing who was with who is—a community marked not in linear time but in here-and-now time—a time punctuated in three-minute increments with one minute rests in between. I was starting to get it—starting to really see what Blue Washington meant when he said that fights aren’t won in the ring, they’re won in the gym.
Instead of Tyrone’s boom box blasting, a radio tuned to soul station WDAS now played in the background. It was late afternoon and, at least in Philly time, that meant the Butterball show.
Butter was the coolest of the ‘DAS radio personalities, and at four o’clock each afternoon, just as the first fighters were starting to warm up, he’d come on with his opening rap about girls and sex and more girls and hips grindin’ to the rock-and-roll, perfectly delivered between Freddie Stone’s guitar riffs in Sly and the Family Stone’s raw instrumental: Sex Machine.
With the radio playing Curtis Parks was on. He’d open his pint and chug a quarter.
“Movin’ toward the line.” He’d say.
“What does that mean?”
“The line be ’xactly halfway through,” he said, pointing to an imaginary division across the middle of the orange label on the bottle.
“Anything before that, I’m good. Anything past that, I’m on a ripper.”
With a broomstick for a microphone Curtis would perform throughout the afternoon to Smokey, the Temptations, and the Impressions. Toward closing time, when the bourbon had moved from a slow burn on the back of his throat to a soft buzz in his head, he’d kick it up a few octaves to Diana Ross and the Supremes or Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.
Curtis loved music. His early education came, from his Aunt Yvette. Yvette Simms had been the lead singer for the Sugar Drops, a local doo-wop group who had made it all the way up to an appearance on American Bandstand before their break-up due to one pregnancy, one jealous boyfriend (not Yvette’s), and an increasingly hard time juggling the gigs at the record hops with their day jobs. Aunt Yvette would show up maybe once every other month, unannounced, and take her favorite nephew to a Saturday matinee at the Uptown Theater where groups like the Drifters, the Vibrations, and even James Brown and the Flames performed. The rest of Curtis’ music knowledge came from the ever-present transistor radio he kept tuned to WDAS, Philly’s premiere soul station. He knew every song, every artist, every move, and his imitations were spot on.
Growing up in a neighborhood without any friends his own age Curtis wanted in the worst way to hang out with the older guys on the corner. When Eddie Turner, one of the Gypsy Kings, saw him standing on his grandmother’s stoop singing Jackie Wilson’s To Be Loved, it was one of those moments. It happened on a muggy August day, the kind of day where the stifling heat and humidity made it almost impossible to do anything other than hang out and not move around too much. Eddie invited Curtis to join him, mostly to break up the boredom. His singing and dance impressions did just that. Curtis became a regular entertainer on the corner for the Gypsy Kings, a mascot of sorts.
The September following that first day with the Gypsy Kings, Curtis was on his way home from school and partway through the chorus of Lee Andrews and the Hearts’ Long, Long and Lonely Nights when three boys came out from behind an abandoned car demanding money. He was about to say he didn’t have any, which was true, when a fist connected with his stomach. He felt a sharp pain and fell to the ground in that panic that hits when you can’t breathe. Shoes and fists started flying from every direction. When it was over Curtis lay there for a long time: hurt, scared, and wondering what he would tell his grandmother.
He cut through the alleys to avoid being seen and would have made it all the way home had he not run smack into Donald Butler, a Gypsy King with the distinction of having done time at Yardville in Jersey, who had stopped for cigarettes at Collins Groceries.
Donald was older than the rest of the Gypsy Kings by a few years and spent most of his time on the corner shooting craps. He never looked up when Curtis performed, staying focused on the game. Curtis guessed he had somehow rubbed Donald the wrong way, but he never had the nerve to ask. The sight of him coming out of the store set off a whole new wave of fear.
“What the hell? Curtis, who done that to you?”
“Nobody done nothin’ to me.”
“I said, who done that to you, boy?”
“Nobody, nobody done nothin’ to me.”
“Nobody done nothin’ to you my ass. Your eye ‘bout twice the size it’s s’pose to be and judging from that blood all over your coat, I’d say your nose busted too. Boy… you better tell me who done that to you.”
“I said nobody done nothin’.”
Curtis was embarrassed, and scared. It was late. He needed to get home. He was hurting all over and feeling like he might start to cry. Donald Butler was the kind of guy his grandmother told him to stay away from. She had no idea where he’d been spending his time. Had she known, Donald Butler would have been the least of Curtis’ problems.
“Them hoodlums on the corner like that Butler boy ain’t nothin’ but trouble waitin’ to happen,” she had said. “I best never catch you hangin’ ’round them boys.”
Now Donald Butler was moving in on Curtis. He grabbed him hard by the collar and pulled him in so close that Curtis could smell his stale cigarette breath. Curtis swallowed hard, fighting back the tears welling up in his eyes.
“Nobody done nothin’, huh? Let me tell you somethin’ boy. That nobody that done nothin’ to you, they ain’t never gonna do that nothin’ to you again.”
Donald let go of Curtis’ collar and Curtis stumbled trying to keep his balance, then he broke into an all-out run not stopping to catch his breath until he was within sight of his stoop.
When school let out the next day Donald was there waiting, a duffel bag hanging over his shoulder. He grabbed Curtis by the arm and dragged him through an alley to a vacant lot. As their feet crunched over rusted metal, bald tires and broken glass Curtis figured he was in for another beating. Instead Donald Butler pulled out four old gloves that smelled really bad. It was the first of what would become Curtis’ daily lessons in the sweet science: the fundamentals of how to fight.
I’d been thinking a lot about Spoons ever since that conversation about him losing his place. It didn’t seem right. I didn’t really know much about him. Spoons was rail thin and wore old clothes, the kind you might find at the Salvation Army. His hair and beard looked like month-old growth, and his head was always full of little grey lint balls. I knew by the way he shuffled and his childlike naïveté that something wasn’t quite right—I assumed it was the result of too many blows. On a day when Spoons wasn’t around I asked Blue Washington.
“That stuff about Spoons losing his place—that’s not right. Have you ever heard of the VBA, the Veteran Boxers Association?”
“Yeah, I know them.”
“Can’t they help? I thought that’s what they’re about?”
“What? You thinks Spoons the way he is from too many punches?”
I knew immediately I had figured wrong.
“Spoons ain’t never been inside no ring—probably couldn’t lace up a glove if he tried,” Blue said. “He just slow, das all. Been dat way his whole life.”
A few weeks after Tyrone left for Las Vegas a cold front moved into Philly. Temperatures dropped overnight from the mid-forties to the low twenties with the promise of snow by afternoon. It was the kind of day I’d been waiting for—cold, overcast, but bright. I got to Champs early, just as the first fighters were starting to warm up.
I loaded my camera with a roll of Kodachrome film and set it on a tripod facing the storefront window that looked out onto the street. I’d been studying this scene since my first day there—an urban landscape softened, just a touch, by sweat-steam, perfectly framed by a wooden window casing with peeling paint. But the light had never been quite right. On sunny days there was too much contrast, too many distracting shadows. On overcast days it was too gloomy, too gray. I set up a slow exposure, 1/15 of a second I think, hoping to capture the motion of a passerby with a slight blur. I was staring through the viewfinder when a voice from behind startled me. It was Moish.
“Nick, I know I’m not a photographer but can I give you some advice?”
Looking up I saw that Moish had the attention of the regulars. I just wanted to get back to my picture.
“The ring,” Moish said, pointing in the opposite direction of the camera. “It’s that way.”
I smiled. Moish walked away. I could hear the regulars laughing as I refocused through the viewfinder.
I shot a whole roll of film on that window scene—with people, without people. When a man bundled against the cold in a black overcoat and leaning forward into the wind hurried across my viewfinder like a shadow ghost, I knew I had my shot.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Moish and his remark. Since hearing about Tyrone I’d been feeling something in my gut—a resentment of sorts—a slow burn. Tyrone—who the hell did he think he was? Mine was a quiet anger, but it showed. I had an edge, and Moish’s silence on the subject said that he did, too.
“The ring. It’s that way.”
Moish’s humor was back. He had moved past Tyrone. I couldn’t.
I shot some more photos of Andrew Franklin. He always seemed confused as Moish patiently pushed, “Slip the jab first, then get your shot off. Counterpunch.”
After a few rounds of sparring Moish called it a day. I’d been waiting. I knew not to interrupt him when he was training.
“Hey.” I said.
Moish was packing his gym bag and stopped.
“I miss our breakfasts. You think maybe you and I could meet some morning? Just the two of us?”
“Sure, why not?” Moish said. “But not at Mama Rose’s. I never liked that joint—can’t stand grits. We’ll go to Murray’s Delicatessen at Broad and Dauphin—best lox and eggs in the city.”
“OK, Murray’s it is. How about Friday?”
“Hold on, let me check my busy social calendar,” Moish hesitated a split second. “Yeah, Friday’s good. Eight o’clock. Hey, did you hear about the elderly Jewish woman who was leaving her job in the garment district on her way home from work?”
Moish never missed a chance.
“A man walking toward her from the opposite direction blocked her path, opened his overcoat and flashed her, shvants and all. She looks down for a second, then back up and says,
"‘This you call a lining?’"
The smell of kosher pickles, corned beef, and pastrami mixed with the eggs and home fries sizzling on the grill at Murray’s Delicatessen made my mouth water. Moish had already staked out a booth. I’m not a big breakfast eater but a few seconds inside Murray’s and I was starving. The waitress came over with two Farmer’s Brothers coffee pots; one with an orange rim, the other brown. I slid into the seat signaling brown for regular. She poured mine and topped off Moish’s.
“I’ll give ya’s a few minutes to decide.”
Murray’s was a big room with tables, booths, coat hooks along one wall, and enough noise to drown out the occasional screaming grandkid. A counter with a glass case front ran along one side. Inside the case beady-eyed whitefish with shiny gold skin lined up next to sheets of bright orange lox, mounds of cream cheese, and rows of knishes. There was a shelf for desserts, cheesecake or bread pudding, and a menu board on the wall above advertising the daily specials that never changed: brisket, baked chicken, kasha and bow ties, matzo ball soup. A row of red heat lamps hung over the top of the counter where several orders sat waiting.
The tables at Murray’s were set with paper placemats and dull silverware. Bottles of Heinz Ketchup, Gulden’s mustard, and a container of sugar packets sat in the middle. There was a stainless-steel bowl filled with pickles and green sour tomatoes on each table along with a black plastic ashtray and a napkin holder with laminated menus clipped to the side.
“So?” Moish said. “Nu?”
It felt weird. I wasn’t used to talking to Moish over breakfast. The morning conversations had always been Tyrone and me.
“What do you mean?”
“What do I mean? I mean, Nu? What’s exciting in your world?”
I thought for a minute. There really wasn’t anything. Everything exciting was at Champs, Moish’s world.
“Nothing, really. Nothing exciting.”
“What do you mean, nothing exciting? Don’t you have a girlfriend or something?”
The question caught me by surprise. We had always talked boxing. I occasionally dated, usually dinner followed by a session with the camera—still my most successful approach to sex. Hell, it was my only approach. But that was the extent of it, nothing close to a girlfriend.
“Yeah, I got plenty of girlfriends,” I shot back. “How about you? You got a girlfriend?”
“Listen shmendrik. Once you have what I had with Anna, that’s it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. When it’s over—it’s over.”
This was uncomfortable—not the same as before.
“Moish, what about Tyrone?”
“What about him?’
“What he did . . . leaving like that . . .” It had been brewing inside of me. Now it was pouring out and I couldn’t stop. I was shaking. Moish interrupted.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about. Tyrone did what he needed to do.”
“You gotta be kidding me! You had so much riding on him and…,”
I stumbled for a second, “…and so did I. I’m pissed…and…and… you should be too. You had a lot more in it than me, Moish. What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Wrong with me? Listen ya little putz, there’s nothing wrong with me. You’re the one who’s got the problem.”
“Yeah,” my voice was louder that I planned. “I got a problem, and so should you. I thought the three of us were in this together. And you! I been hanging out with you guys for what? A few months? But you and Tyrone—Jesus, Moish—you were with him from the jump. He owes you.”
“He owes me nothing.” Moish was firm—but not with the macho I’m-a-tough-guy-and-nothing-hurts-me kind of firm. It was something else.
“OWES YOU NOTHING?” I was shouting. Fortunately, like I said, the noise in Murray’s was loud. “WHAT ABOUT….”
“What? You need a hearing aid? Tyrone did what he did and that’s that. And he doesn’t owe me or you shit….you….you….you with your I-got-plenty-of-girlfriends.”
Our food arrived. I played with my hash browns. Moish seemed lost in his lox and eggs. I’d had such expectations. Things couldn’t have gone worse.
“Moish, I didn’t want it to be like this. Those breakfasts at Mama Rose’s were some of the best times I ever had. It was like, after that, nothing could go wrong with the day. I know Tyrone is gone and I’ll agree to disagree with you on the other stuff, but I’d really like to keep going with what we had.”
“The new kid, Andrew, I think he’s got a shot. Doesn’t know shit about defense but he’s got a helluva hook, and he’s just growing into that body.”
Moish pushed his plate away and held his cup signaling he was through eating and wanted more coffee. I smiled. I guessed we were back.
“So, You think Tyrone owes us and screwed us by going to Vegas.” Moish wasn’t through. It wasn’t as much a question as it was a statement.
“I…,” I started to explain, not really wanting to get back into it but Moish was talking, not listening.
“Maybe he does, maybe he don’t. What’s the difference? Ya know, I was like you once; young and stupid.”
“Young and stupid?” I interrupted, smiling.
“I’m gonna tell you a story. And if you listen, which would be a first, you might learn something. A couple years after I met Anna I was still fightin’, but I was on the tail end of things. I don’t know…. after that fight with Midget it seemed like I just couldn’t get back in the kind of shape I was used to. I lost a step after that fight and I started losin’ more than I was winnin’. Anyway, it was gettin’ harder and harder to get fights that would pay worth a damn. Then Anna got sick. It wasn’t the cancer; it was one of those female things. She ended up in the hospital for almost three weeks and when she came home we had so many bills it was just too much.
“We had a Cadillac I had bought with some of my winnings. I loved that car. Made me feel like a real champion when I drove it; like a king. Anna loved it, too. One night three guys came and repossessed it. Then we started gettin’ these notices that we were gonna lose the house.”
Moish hesitated for a moment and I shifted forward, leaning my elbows on the table.
“I was angry,” he continued, “didn’t know what the hell to do. Outside of fighting I didn’t have any skills so to speak so I was stuck with low-end jobs that barely paid enough to get by on without all the bills. Then like a gift from God, a mitzvah, my manager Sol Goodman got me a shot against Jake Sharky. Sharky was ranked number three at the time. It was a shot that would pay enough money to square us, and a shot I should never have gotten. But somehow Sol Goodman, who was a real gonif though I didn’t know it at the time, he made the fight and I wasn’t about to argue.
We fought in New York at the Garden on a rainy night in March 1935. Sharky beat the hell out of me for five rounds before the ref stopped it on cuts. Like I said, it was a fight I should have never taken. But at that point—win, lose—I didn’t care. I had bills to pay. In the dressing room after the fight Sol made sure I was all right then said he was going to get our money while the local doc stitched me up. It was the last time I saw him. When I finally found the promoter after everyone else had left he felt sorry for me and gave me bus fare back to Philly.”
I wanted to say something but couldn’t find any words.
“I’m telling you, you think you’re angry about Tyrone? Tyrone is nothin’. When I got home that night I had nothin’ to show except a broken nose, fifteen stitches in my face, and the blood I pissed for a week from all the liver and kidney shots.
“My body healed after a few weeks. But in here,” Moish said, pointing to his head, “In here it never went away. I was mad—mad as hell at everybody and everything. Two months after the fight we had to move in with Anna’s sister, Julia, and that pain-in-the-ass Goyisher husband of hers, Richard. It was the most humiliating thing I ever faced. Me—the King of Catherine Street—sponging off relatives. I was angry and it filled me like a poison.
“I took it out on everyone around me. I didn’t give a damn about anybody or anything. I had done everything I was supposed to do; busted my ass, took five rounds of punishment that no man should have to take so that that prick, Sol Goodman, could take my money and disappear? PLEASE! I can feel my blood start to boil even now just thinking about it.
“Soon the few friends we had left stopped coming around and I had managed to get fired from every job I had. Things were bad, then they got worse. Sarah, a good friend of Anna’s, was killed in a car accident. It tore her up. We were getting ready for the funeral and I was complaining about having to go and be around people I didn’t care about anyway, and I said, ‘Ya know, it’s not that bad. At least Sarah doesn’t have to deal with all the shit we do anymore.’
“That was it. Anna snapped. She grabbed me by both lapels like a man would do, put me up against the wall, and started yelling in a way I had never seen her do.
‘GODDAMNIT MOISHE,’ she screamed.”
Moish was yelling at me, almost like Anna was channeling through him. I looked around. An older couple sitting across from us looked over, then went back to their meal. Murray’s was a live-eat-and-let-live kind of place with a pretty high tolerance for screaming grandkids, elderly hard-of-hearing conversations, and the occasional mild but loud domestic squabble.
“‘ENOUGH OF THIS FEELING SORRY FOR YOURSELF BULLSHIT,’ she screamed. ‘I’M SICK OF IT!
Then she got really calm, and it kind of scared me.
“I don’t like the situation we’re in any more than you do. But where is it written that life is supposed to be all ice cream and cherries? Tell me? Where is it written? We’re lucky, we have each other and a roof over our heads. Sol Goodman? He was a gonif bastard and what he did to you was wrong—more than wrong. But goddammit Moishe, that was six months ago! He’s gone, long gone. And what he did, as despicable as it was, it’s nothing compared to what you’ve been doing to us and everyone around us ever since.’
“It was like she had punched me in the face, punched me harder than I had ever been hit in the ring. But instead of hurting, it felt good. Like everything, all of a sudden, made sense.”
Moish stopped for a moment and looked at me.
“Tyrone’s gone, just like Sol Goodman was gone. Forget about it. Right, wrong, it don’t matter. Anything from here, it’s on you.”
Breakfast at Murray’s on Fridays became a regular thing for Moish and me. We’d talk about everything, local news, photography, Philly history—anything but boxing. Boxing talk was reserved for Champs or Loretta’s High Hat, that is unless Moish decided otherwise.
“Who was the greatest fighter during the reign of Jewish champions?” He asked one Friday.
“That’s easy,” I said. “You were.”
“OK, Benny Leonard.”
“No. Benny Leonard was a great champion—had the most belts and was the most well known—but the best fighter was Lew Tendler. Tendler in any other era would have been world champion, a household name. But he had the misfortune of coming up at the same time as Benny Leonard, kind of like Frazier coming up the same time as Ali.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Benny Leonard was great. But he had a ton of natural athletic talent and ability. Lew Tendler didn’t. What he did have was chutzpah, enough to keep workin’ it, keep comin’ against the odds. In my book that not only makes him the better fighter; it makes him a mensch.”
Moish and I got to know each other’s hot buttons and we each liked to push them. It was part of our shtick. Moish was a creature of habit—always ordering his bacon extra crisp with his lox and eggs—always opening with the same line:
“So you got a girlfriend yet?”
“Like I told you, I got plenty of girlfriends.”
“I’m not talkin’ about some one-night shtup, I mean a real girlfriend.”
“Like I said, I got plenty.”
“That means no.”
“Speaking of girls,” I said one morning, trying to move the conversation away from my pathetic social life, “did you see that story in the paper on Gloria Steinem trying to form a union for woman?”
“Yeah, I saw it, goddamn women’s lib crap,” Moish said, making a dismissive gesture with his hand. He hated the whole women’s movement thing and I couldn’t resist.
“What? You don’t think woman are equal to men?”
“Listen, I love women. When Anna was alive I worshiped the ground she walked on. But women are women, and men are men. You think I’m a throwback to another time? Maybe I am. But let me tell you genius, you could do worse. I’m a man. I’ve got a man’s perspective. And I don’t have to explain, defend, or apologize for that to anyone, especially a schmuck like you. You got that?”
“OK, OK. Geez, Moish, calm down. You’re gonna give yourself a heart attack. I was just askin’.”
I had him. My non-existent social life was off the table. Now I was having fun.
“Just askin’ my ass.”
I knew he couldn’t let it go.
“Listen ya little pisher, I been lucky. A good part of my life’s been spent in boxing gyms and in the company of good women, one in particular for 34 years. And let me tell you, both had their place. This women’s lib crap—you ask me, it’s just a bunch a lesbians and woman who, for one reason or another, can’t get a man. Let me ask you a question, smart guy: you ever seen one that’s good lookin’?”
Moish didn’t wait for an answer.
You could tell that Murray’s Delicatessen had been around a long time; a mostly older crowd with regular booths, regular orders, and regular waitresses. Moish knew a lot of them and they knew him, too, some from the early days. They’d always make it a point to stop by our table. When Moish would introduce me they’d point back to Moish like I didn’t know him,
“This guy—he was a helluva a fighter,” or, “I was there the night this guy made mincemeat out of so and so.” Sometimes one would come over, rub Moish’s shoulders and say, “This fuckin’ guy.” It seemed to sum it all up.
Moish was quick to divert the conversation toward me.
“He’s a photographer—with the paper.”
The paper, I thought, like it was really something special. Then I remembered… it was something special—at least it had started out that way.
The Philadelphia Journal was number five of the top ten newspapers in the country, winning at least one Pulitzer Prize each year for the past decade. Some years we won several.
The stringer job had been a storybook start for a young photojournalist whose mission was to use his camera to show the world the truth. When I wasn’t out shooting or in the darkroom printing, I was at the public library studying all the greats, Robert Capa to Gene Smith. Photojournalism wasn’t just a career, it was a calling, a powerful calling grounded social change. Lewis Hine, one of its earliest practitioners, described it as:
“There are two things I want to do, show the things that need to be corrected, and show the things that need to be appreciated.”
The paper was the perfect entry, a place where I could hone my skills and get paid for it. And it might have continued that way had I not seen that picture.
It was a photograph by André Kertész in a book about the New York School of Photography. I first saw it at the library and then checked the book out to study it further at home. The photograph was a street scene, shot from a high angle at night, lit only by streetlights. The street was covered by a pristine blanket of freshly fallen snow broken by a solitary set of footprints. The title of the picture was Footprints on MacDougal Alley.
Footprints on MacDougal Alley had none of the high-drama that photojournalists bank on. In fact, at first pass I had flipped to the next page without paying much attention. But that night I woke from a deep sleep, the image of those footprints burning in my head. The digital clock on the night table read 3:12 in bright orange numbers glowing through the sleep film in my eyes. I rolled over and closed my eyes. The image wouldn’t go away. Stumbling into the living room I opened the book and sat for a long time.
When was it taken?
Must have been just before dawn because snow in New York doesn’t stay virgin-fresh like that for long.
And those footprints? An early worker—maybe a baker heading out to start the day’s bread and pastries? A thief? A lover sneaking back home after a night of secret passion?
The more I looked, the more the stories emerged. As the first trace of morning light filtered through the sheer curtain covering my living room window, my whole take on photography had changed. It was no longer as clean as just showing the truth, providing the answers. Photojournalism was a powerful art, and, in its heyday with Life magazine and Look magazine, just “showing” probably was enough. But it was no longer enough for me. In that one photo by André Kertész: Footprints on MacDougal Alley, everything changed. Photography was no longer about finding answers—it was about creating questions.
I tried my new way of seeing on the job. The paper wasn’t interested.
“Too artsy-fartsy,” Jack Wolf said.
This new area of photography came from a different place from where I’d been as a journalist, a place I now desperately sought. The photos I shot at Champs Gym, they took me there.
Everyone at Champs had a routine. Fighters started with a jump rope or shadowboxing to loosen up, the speed bag next followed by a couple rounds on the heavy bag and sparring. They’d finish with sit-ups, push-ups, and a cool-down. Trainers started with their amateurs and then moved to their pros. The regulars both started and ended with their Tall Boys, and a whole lot of conversation in between. I had my routine, too. I’d start with the amateurs, just like the trainers. It was my version of loosening up. Then the gym itself became my focus—sometimes the regulars, sometimes details of hands being taped or gloves being laced—sometimes scene-setting overviews or tight, detailed still-lifes of bottles, buckets, Vaseline and other potions and props that define boxing. I’d finish with the pros and then sit with the Board Room. There was a comfort in the routine—the patterns that defined Champs Gym.
Moish always worked with Andrew Franklin last. That way he could spend as much time as he needed. Watching Andrew and Moish play off each other a casual observer would think they’d been together for years—it had only been a month. Andrew seemed to fill Tyrone’s void for Moish, for the Boardroom, and for Champs. I was the only one who couldn’t let go.
Blue Washington was reading the sports section of the Daily News in his usual spot as Moish toweled off Andrew’s face after his cool-down set. Their day was done. Blue wore a white leisure suit with a purple satin shirt; a walking fashion show. Thinking back, I don’t think I ever saw him wear the same thing twice. A photo of Muhammad Ali entertaining a sea of villagers in Zaire filled the top half of the Sports cover.
“Zaire, Africa,” Blue said to no one in particular. “Boxing be a ticket to a whole lot a crazy places.”
There were a few “Un huhs,” from the Boardroom and then a familiar voice.
“Yeah, it took me a lot of places.”
It was Moish.
“Gleason’s in New York, Chris Dundee’s Fifth Street Gym in Miami, “Two Ton” Tony Razzo’s Gym in Vegas. I seen a lot. I remember this one time I had a heavyweight from North Philly, King Kong Williams, fightin’ a prelim at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. We were training at Newman’s Gym in the Tenderloin when this little black guy with these big, bug-eyes and a nasty attitude came in, demanding this and demanding that. I didn’t pay too much attention ‘cause we were tryin’ to get ready for a fight. But when he got in the ring and started sparring, he wasn’t half-bad. I asked Don Stewart, who owned the joint, who the little guy with the big chip on his shoulder was?”
“‘You don’t know,’ Don said, like I had just dropped in from Mars. ‘That’s Miles Davis.’”
“Miles Davis?” Curtis Parks repeated. Curtis, a jazz lover, was duly impressed.
“I seen Miles take cats apart on stage with his playing—make them wanna go home and forget theyselves. Guess he played the gym the same way he played the clubs.”
“Hey,” Moish said. “Speaking of travel, did you hear about the customs agent at the Tel Aviv airport who stopped an elderly Jewish man when he was immigrating to Israel and asked him to open his two suitcases? In the first suitcase the agent found over a million dollars in ten-dollar bills.
“‘Excuse me, sir’ he asked the man.
“‘Where did you get all this money?’
“‘Vell, I'll tell you,’ the man said,
“‘I love Israel. For years I traveled all around the vorld and stopped at all de public toilets in all de major cities: New York, London, Madrid, Prague, Paris. Everyvhere I vent, I vent into the cubicles vher de men ver peeing, and I said to dem, ‘Gif me ten dollars for Israel or I'll cut off your testicles vit my knife.’
“‘That's quite a story,’ the customs agent said. ‘What's in the other suitcase?’ ‘Vell, you know,’ the man said, shaking his head, ‘not everyvon likes to gif . . .’
Everybody laughed except Spoons, whose brow wrinkled.
“So what was in the other suitcase?”
I understood why Tyrone left to join Eddie Eisner in Vegas—understood the promise of the big fights and the big money. So the announcement of his first televised fight against Vito Milano, a seasoned veteran from Italy, shouldn’t have come as any surprise. But when I walked into Champs and heard the regulars debating Tyrone’s aggressive Philly style against the European style boxer who could stick-and-move with finesse—I don’t know, I just wasn’t prepared. I’d gotten used to Tyrone not being around, it was almost like he never existed. Enough time had passed that my anger and resentment had faded like yesterday’s Sports page. News of his upcoming fight brought it all back.
Quinny McCallum was the intellectual of the Boardroom.
“Tyrone is tough—but tough doesn’t always win against experience.”
Quinny carried about a hundred extra pounds on his five-foot-five frame, most of it around his middle. His small face, big frame glasses, and medium length jerry curls gave him an odd look, like a black Mr. Potato Head. Quinny looked out of place with the other members of the Board until he started talking. When Quinny McCallum spoke it was clear that what he lacked in physical attributes, he more than made up in book smarts.
Quinny, Blue, and Chiller had known each other long before they joined the Boardroom. They grew up together on Cambridge Street, a few blocks from the zoo. Cambridge was a dead-end street in a neighborhood fat with drugs, prostitution, and other assorted urban crime. For kids growing up there in the 1950s, turf wars were the primary source of recreation.
Blue and Chiller were products of the street. Both knew how to use their fists, a brick, a bottle, the roll of dimes they carried in their pocket or any other object within reach to defend their block. Quinny couldn’t fight for shit. But he was smart, even in grade school.
Blue and Chiller didn’t bother Quinny, he being from the same block and all. But they didn’t come to his defense either. Rivals from bordering neighborhoods would routinely block his path, take his lunch money, steal his bike, and say the kinds of things that street kids say when they are trying to sort things out, establish a pecking order.
Blue and Chiller both loved doo-wop. It was part of the fabric of Philly. They’d spend most nights on the corner singing a cappella until well after midnight, getting most of their sleep in school. Quinny would listen through his bedroom window. He’d pictured himself out there with them quietly singing along to Hushaby, There’s A Moon Out Tonight, and his favorite, Since I Fell For You, knowing it wasn’t even in the realm of possibility.
Blue and Chiller’s world was defined by action; rival gangs, house parties, corner nights, and their treasured time with girls who were either really pretty or really willing. Quinny lived in isolation with his books, his fantasies, and a constant fear of the other kids. That all changed in May 1956, his last month of eighth grade.
Blue Washington was a poor student at best and that was when he showed up for class. Most teachers preferred it when he didn’t. He got by mostly on the low standards of Philadelphia’s inner-city school system and his teachers’ desire to move him on. Eighth grade English was the exception; eighth grade English was Mr. Brill. Mr. Brill had a passion for literature surpassed only by his low tolerance and take-no-shit attitude for anyone who didn’t share it. He took particular pleasure in reading grades out loud to the class. It wasn’t as much to acknowledge the students who took his class seriously as it was to humiliate the ones who didn’t. That April in 1965, he gave the final assignment for the year.
“Your final paper is due four weeks from today. It will count for one-third of your grade. For some of you, Mr. McCallum for example, I expect this to be the icing on the cake.”
Quinny shrank down in his chair—knowing Mr. Brill—knowing what was coming next.
“For others, and I won’t mention any names Mr. Washington”—Blue heard a few laughs from the back of the room and felt a balled-up piece of paper hit the side of his head—“this assignment will be the difference between your advancing to ninth grade or spending another enjoyable year reading the classics with me.”
Blue worried about the paper on his walk home. Write an essay on the most evil person in Richard Wright’s Native Son, some book about the urban black experience. Who needs to read that shit, he thought. We livin’ the urban black experience. Write an essay? Hell, he could hardly read. He thought about having to repeat eighth grade. Maybe he’d drop out. Then what? Work? The thoughts swirled through his head all the way to the corner.
His corner boys were already halfway into a bottle of Mad Dog they had paid a local wino named Harry “The Hat” to buy. “The Hat” got his name both from the old black fedora he wore and his aversion to being touched. He would tip his hat forward and collect the money. Coming out with the order in a brown paper bag he would simply reverse the process for the pick up. Blue took a long pull from the half full bottle and felt the warm liquid slide down the back of his throat. It was the last time he would worry about school or Mr. Brill or that assignment.
It was May in Philadelphia. School would be over in a week and summer on the block was in full swing. When the wind blew right the musky smells from the elephants, crocodiles, and lions pacing in the Big Cat House just a few blocks north filled the air. Blue and Chiller had picked up a little side work running “deliveries” for Philly Mike, and Blue was seeing Denise Chantrella, the prettiest girl in the neighborhood. They met in December at a house party. Now she was three weeks late. A couple boys from Girard Avenue had come by the night before talking shit, and the music of the Good Humor ice cream truck filled the street every hour on the hour.
Blue had come to grips with the fact that his days as a student at Simon Gratz High School were over. He wasn’t about to repeat the eighth grade while all his friends, including Denise if she wasn’t pregnant, moved on to the ninth. He skipped school the week the final paper was due, didn’t even attempt to write it. Now, on the last day of eighth grade, he was prepared for Mr. Brill to seal his fate.
Mr. Brill started out by reading the top grades first. He liked to savor the best for last. Blue sat there listening, debating whether or not he should wait for his teacher in the parking lot when everything was over and beat the shit out of him.
“Mr. McCallum: A-plus. Excellent paper, excellent analysis. Good luck next year.”
There weren’t many other “A” grades but there were a fair amount of Bs and Cs. Blue’s mind drifted to Denise. He wasn’t ready for a kid. He was still one himself. He was halfway through figuring out where he might turn to fix things when the sound of his name snapped him back.
“Mr. Washington. Surprise of the year, you actually got through. C-minus. Quite honestly, I didn’t think you had it in you. And, since you know I don’t accept late papers, you can thank Mr. McCallum for bringing yours in last week while you were out sick.” Mr. Brill used a hand gesture symbolizing quotation marks as he said the words, “out sick,” making his doubts clear. “Had it come in with anyone else, I would have wondered….”
Blue could hear the laughter around him but all he could see was Quinny McCallum who sat, head down, staring at the floor.
“Milano’s got fifty-eight fights under his belt—fifty-one wins, forty-two knockouts. That’s a lot of experience,” Quinny continued.
“That don’t mean shit,” Chiller shot back. “They’s all against other European fighters: pretty boys. He ain’t never fought no Philly fighter. Gonna be a tough fight but when it all said and done, Tyrone be the only motherfucker raisin’ his hand.”
“You’re right about the finesse of the Europeans. But European or not, ring experience is ring experience.” Quinny kept an even, intellectual keel during debates. He also stood his ground.
Spoons had been listening quietly like always. He never said much, particularly when the conversation got testy among the three of them, which was about every conversation. When he spoke, everyone stopped to listen.
“I jus’ hope Tyrone beat the boy,” he said quietly.
The fight was a month away. The daily debate in the Board Room continued. They talked about it like any other fight. But it wasn’t any other fight. I wanted Tyrone to lose—be humiliated—pay for his actions. I wondered if Moish was thinking the same. He never weighed in, always getting up and finding something else to do when the conversation started. I waited for a quiet moment during breakfast at Murray’s to ask.
“Are you gonna watch the fight next week?”
“What are you, an idiot?” Moish quipped. “Of course I’m gonna watch. Why wouldn’t I?”
“I was thinking.”
“That’s new.” Moish was in a mood.
“There’s this bar I go to sometimes, Dirty Ed’s. They have a bunch of TVs and they show the fights. Wanna watch it there with me?”
There was something about the idea of watching Tyrone’s fight with Moish—solidarity. If Tyrone won we could drown ourselves in a few beers. If he lost we’d savor the redemption.
“Sure.” Moish said. “Why not?”
We got to Dirty Ed’s an hour early. Tyrone’s fight was being televised from the Las Vegas Civic Center. It was a prelim to the main event, a rematch between Joe Frazier and Jerry Quarry at the Garden. Moish didn’t want to miss any of it. He was afraid with Joe in the main the place would be packed. He was right. We sat at the bar directly in front of a TV that was mounted just above the terraced bottles of Jim Beam, Dewar’s, and Johnnie Walker Red. Ed’s was dark, dark wood paneling, a dark wood bar with a soft, black vinyl-covered edge to lean on. A big glass jar of pickled eggs sat to our left. We each ordered a draft and started in on a bowl of stale peanuts.
Moish had taught Tyrone to enter a fight in traditional boxing style—hood over his head, one glove on each of Moish’s shoulders—focused on the fight, not on the crowd. Now, in Vegas, he was surrounded by a small entourage of unfamiliar faces—smiling and nodding as he danced his way to the ring.
The fight went just as Quinny had called it. Vito Milano showed his ring experience—dancing just outside of Tyrone’s range. He’d move in, throw a jab, and move out before Tyrone could counter. Moish yelled for Tyrone to move to his right. Each time he did he connected, bringing a cheer from the crowd at Ed’s. I joined the cheering for Tyrone, secretly celebrating every time Vito slipped a jab or connected with a combination.
The fight was even after five. When the bell rang for the sixth Tyrone moved in with two quick jabs. Both got through. Moving with confidence he unloaded a combination. Vito backed up. Another jab from Tyrone connected followed by a right that glanced off his chin. Vito countered with a hard left snapping Tyrone’s head back. Tyrone’s legs started to buckle but he kept his composure taking two steps back, leaning on the ropes. Now Vito moved in with a flurry, setting up for his signature left hook.
“GET OFF THE ROPES!” Moish screamed, cupping his hands the same way he had done from Tyrone’s corner. As if on cue Tyrone responded. Moving to the center of the ring Tyrone started wind milling his arm for a bolo punch. Vito knew the move and backed away. Again the fight was even. The next two rounds were too close to call. Vito was tiring, the odds of his winning getting shorter the longer the fight continued. Sitting on a stool in his corner between rounds 8 and 9 with an ice pack on his head and his cut man pressing the flat side of one of those dimpled metal spatulas used to tenderize meat against his swollen left eye, Vito Milano made a decision; the ninth round would be the last. At the bell he charged off the stool, walking Tyrone down, backing him into the ropes. It caught Tyrone off guard. He staggered backward trying to keep his balance.
“USE YOUR BODY. STAY OFF THE ROPES.” Moish was off his stool standing with his hands still cupped aimed directly at the TV.
Feeling the sensation of the ropes against his back Tyrone did exactly as Moish commanded. Vito dug deep and threw a game-ender left hook. Tyrone shifted his body at an angle. Vito tried to pull up and adjust but it was too late. The momentum of his thrust sent his head through the ropes. He would have landed right in the ring judge’s lap had the rest of his body not gotten tangled between the second and third ropes. The referee called it a slip. Vito came back steaming mad, a little off by what had happened but still set on ending the fight. Leaning his head on Tyrone’s shoulder Vito dug into Tyrone’s body with two hard shots and then lowered his guard, baiting him to trade punches.
“Come on, nigger,” he hissed through his mouthpiece. “Show me what you got.” Tyrone kept shifting his body in angles, slipping punches and moving just out of range.
“Stop dancing. Fight like a man,” Milano snarled in frustration.
Tyrone popped a jab in Vito’s face and danced away. With a minute and five seconds left in the round Vito again bull-rushed Tyrone into the ropes. He squared his shoulders, loaded up and threw another left hook. This time Tyrone leaned straight back. He could feel the rush of air as Vito’s glove sailed across the space where his head had been. Vito stepped back to regain his balance but it was too late. A hard right connected with Vito’s liver causing him to gasp for a breath. Now it was Tyrone’s show. He had Vito Milano and knew exactly how it would finish. He cracked one more shot to the body. Vito dropped his hands and Tyrone positioned himself for the final play. Just before unloading a right-cross-left-uppercut combination that would end the night, Tyrone moved in close, his mouth inches from Vito’s ear.
“This man enough for you, motherfucker?”
It was the last thing Vito Milano heard. As his vision cleared he saw ringside doctor Mark Williams asking him if he was OK. In the background Tyrone stood on the ropes, arms raised high. Both bartenders at Dirty Ed’s scrambled to meet the demand for celebratory boilermakers.
Moish and I didn’t hang around for the celebration. Neither of us said much on the drive home. I was angry, figured Moish was, too. I’d wanted redemption—payback—a balancing the karmic scales. It didn’t happen. Tyrone had fought a beautiful fight, a perfect blend of strategy, training, and a Philly gut-it-out-never-give-it-up intestinal fortitude. But Moish wasn’t angry. Instead he was filled with pride, a pride that transcended personal feelings—the kind that exists among players—the kind of pride lost on those not in the game. As we pulled in front of his apartment Moish looked at me.
“Did you see that move in the ninth when Milano had him on the ropes—the one that changed the whole fight?”
“Yeah, Moish. I saw it.”
Moish just sat there, not making any attempt to open the door.
“I taught him that.”
Tyrone’s fight with Vito Milano was the topic du jour the following day at Champs.
“Tyrone put that boy on Queer Street!” Blue Washington said, raising his Tall Boy in a toast.
“Yeah,” Billy Dee said, holding a copy of the Daily News. The headline on the back page screamed:
ONE STEP CLOSER!
“Paper say they lookin’ at Maceo Parker next. Tyrone get past him he lookin’ at a title shot with Monzon.”
“Maceo Parker?” Chiller Williams said. He knew the name all too well. “He ain’t no walk in the park.”
Maceo Parker was a street thug who had grown up in Flint, Michigan. By the time he was fourteen he’d compiled enough of a juvenile record that, when he robbed Archway Liquors cold-cocking the owner and sending him to the hospital for a week with a severe concussion, he was tried as an adult. Maceo was sentenced to four years at the Ryan Correctional Prison in Detroit where he took up boxing. When his sentence was up he stayed in Detroit, finding a home at Kronk Gym. Kronk was one of those inner-city boxing gyms where the talent was so good that they didn’t have any sparring partners per se. Every time a fighter at Kronk stepped in the ring, he figured the other guy was the sparring partner.
Chiller Williams knew all about Maceo Parker. When Maceo was just starting his pro career Chiller’s was winding down. The two met at the Spectrum on the undercard of the Joe Frazier/Oscar Bonevena fight in ’68. Maceo toyed with the aging veteran, taunting him for two rounds before taking him out in the third with an uppercut that Chiller still remembered. It had made his teeth hurt.
“I fought Parker when he was just starting out. I was ‘sposed to be the veteran with all the experience,” Chiller said, slowly shaking his head from side to side.
“The boy don’t play.”
Andrew Franklins’ professional debut was set for the first Saturday in October at Blue Horizon. He’d be fighting Carvin Davis from Camden in a four-rounder. Moish had stepped up their training, focusing the first hour on fundamentals then throwing Andrew in to spar with some of the more seasoned fighters. The pros at Champs were there for the same reason as Andrew, training for their upcoming fights. They didn’t see themselves as teachers. Andrew was just another body for target practice. When Moish told Andrew he’d be sparring the first three of six rounds with Tank Johnson, Andrew looked to make sure he had heard right. Johnson was a local veteran with a 30-8-4 record. He was training for a fight with Hedgemon Lewis, the number six-ranked welterweight in the world. Johnson bullied Andrew from the start, pummeling him with jabs, power hooks, and everything in between. Moish yelled to stick and move, stick and move. Andrew tried but Tank cut off the ring every time. Andrew was in over his head. He had never experienced anything close to the power of Tank Johnson. It felt like the floor shook every time a punch connected. After two rounds Andrew was completely gassed.
“Had enough?” Moish asked.
Andrew looked at him, turned his head to spit in the bucket and went back out for the third round.
“Adversity,” Moish said toweling him off afterward. “It’s a helluva teacher.”
Moish held the water bottle to Andrew’s mouth,
“Swoosh and spit.”
“All this stuff you’re learning—the basics—it all makes sense, right?” Moish asked continuing the day’s lesson.
“Yes sir,” Andrew replied.
Moish had told him to forget all that “sir” stuff. After a while he figured it was just part of who Andrew Franklin was.
“I’m telling you Andrew, the pros is a whole lot different than the amateurs. When you’re in that ring and some animal like Tank Johnson is right on top of you slobberin’ and blowin’ snot and throwin’ elbows you’re gonna wonder what the hell you’re doin’ there. The basics are gonna be the last thing you’ll be thinkin’ about. But the basics are the only thing that you got—the only thing that can save you. That’s why we keep goin’ over them. So that when your mind forgets, your body will remember.”
The talk in the Board Room had shifted from Tyrone to Andrew Franklin. Andrew’s fight was a week away.
“Andrew lookin’ good. Shouldn’t have no problem,” Chiller Williams said.
Watching Andrew spar in the ring that day I thought he looked a little tentative. Considering he was in with Cyclone Hart, that wasn’t a surprise. Cloverlay Gym was closed, some kind of plumbing problem or something. Cyclone had moved his training to Champs. Cloverlay fighters weren’t usually inclined to mix it up with beginners like Andrew Franklin. But when Moish asked, he usually got. Cyclone stalked Andrew, unloading power shots every time he got near the ropes.
“Yeah, Andrew lookin’ good,” Blue Washington agreed. “And Moish lookin’ even better. I ain’t never seen him put so much a hisself into a fighter—’cept for Tyrone.”
I thought about that. I hadn’t been around that long but it was long enough to know what Blue was saying. Moish was a top-notch trainer. He trained with a certain detachment like a lot of trainers did, drilling the basics, toweling off the sweat, wrapping his fighters’ hands. Nothing personal—almost mechanical.
With Tyrone it had been different. There was a connection—a spirit energy, like Moish was fighting through him. Now it was the same with Andrew—almost. There was the same morning roadwork, but no breakfast afterward. They worked each afternoon in the gym, Moish sharing his philosophy and strategy just like he had done with Tyrone. But there were no evening film sessions, no Chinese take-out. It was just like it had been with Tyrone—almost.
It rained all day the day before and the day of Andrew’s fight. The dressing room at the Blue was jammed with fighters, trainers, cut men, family members and friends. Andrew had prepared well. He was in top condition. He’d survived eight weeks of training at Champs—six rounds of sparring each day. A victory over Carvin Davis was certain—everyone said so. Moish wasn’t so confident. He looked at Andrew and saw all the right things. He was loose, relaxed, smiling, making small talk with everyone around him. But something was off—something in his eyes. Moish moved Andrew to a corner and started wrapping his hands.
“What?” Moish asked.
“What?” Andrew repeated not sure what Moish was asking.
“Nothing wrong. Everything’s good.”
“Everything’s good? Everything’s good my ass. Don’t bullshit a bullshitter. What’s bothering you?”
Andrew looked away.
“Everyone’s expecting me to win. I don’t want to disappoint them.”
“Is that what you think?” Moish said grabbing Andrew’s chin hard and turning his head so he had to make eye contact.
“What the hell? I been wastin’ my breath talkin’ to you? Listen, you’re ready—you’re more than ready. You’ve trained hard and you’re in perfect condition. You should win this fight. But like I told you when we first started: boxing’s like life—no guarantees. Remember?”
“What else did I tell you?”
Andrew looked at Moish. He had no idea what he was talking about. It didn’t matter. Moish answered for him.
“I told you it’s not just about winning. It’s about respect. You go out there—you give it your all. You fight with everything you’re made of and you leave every ounce of yourself in that ring. You hear me? When it’s over, win or lose it don’t matter. You’ll have something even bigger.”
Andrew thought for a minute and didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Moish looked in his eyes and saw what he needed to see.
The roof at the Blue leaked. Moish and Andrew stepped around the puddles on their way to the ring. The tunnel smelled from mildew and rust. Andrew was nervous. Moish could feel it. It was the way he gripped his shoulders as they made their way toward the ring. Carvin Davis was introduced first, citing his record and hometown of Camden, New Jersey. Andrew was on his toes, eyes focused on the canvas. He had yet to look at his opponent.
“AND IN THE BLUE CORNER MAKING HIS PRO DEBUT, NORTH PHILADELPHIA’S OWN, ANDREW FRANKLIN.”
Applause peppered with a few whistles sounded as Andrew looked for the first time at Carvin Davis. Davis was tall, a good four inches taller than he was with cornrowed hair and dark skin that reflected the overhead lights as he bounced up and down. Moish looked at Andrew who was now staring directly at his opponent, no longer nervous.
At the bell both fighters moved to the center of the ring and touched gloves. Each connected with a jab then backed off and circled. It was a feeling-out round. Round 2 started out the same. Boos began to fill the room.
“My grandma fight better than that,” someone shouted.
Welcome to the pros, Moish thought.
The fight crowd in Philly came to see a fight. They didn’t pay the five-dollar admission and three more for a hotdog and beer to watch a chess game. Anything less than trading shots was unacceptable. Moish cupped his hands,
“Get busy Andrew. You only have four rounds.”
Instantly Andrew doubled his jab, muscling Davis into the corner. He connected with two body shots and loaded up a power shot. Davis grabbed the back of Andrews’ neck, pulling him into his shoulder. More boos.
“GET OUT OF THE CORNER,” Moish yelled.
With thirty seconds left in the round Moish banged his hand on the ring canvas just like he told Andrew he would do. Andrew started throwing fast combinations, none that really connected or hurt, but enough to impress the judges.
In the third round Andrew’s confidence continued to build. Carvin Davis had yet to throw a hard shot. This wasn’t anywhere near as tough as what he’d been through at Champs. It was just like everybody said.
Andrew showed his ring generalship—walking Carvin Davis down, keeping him against the ropes, building momentum. Halfway through the round he squared up, peppering Davis’ face with a series of three crisp jabs. Davis just stood there hiding behind his hands, not answering. The crowd, mostly locals with a good showing from Champs, was on its feet showing appreciation for Andrew stepping up the action. Then, out of nowhere, Carvin Davis landed a straight right directly on Andrew’s temple followed by a left hook. Andrew’s legs buckled. The house went silent. Referee Jack McClusky started the mandatory count. At eight Andrew was up.
“DANCE!” Moish screamed.
Andrew instinctively started moving up and down on his toes. The remaining forty-five seconds were spent moving on instinct, just enough to stay out of range. He wouldn’t remember much from the round.
In between rounds Andrew seemed lost. Billy Dee held an ice-chilled coin on his temple where a mouse was starting to swell. Moish provided the voice that had navigated him through eight weeks of sparring—the same voice that had been there when Tank Johnson had manhandled him and Cyclone Hart had stalked him—the voice he trusted.
“OK Andrew, this is what we’ve been talking about. Stay with the basics. Move in angles. Don’t give him a target. Use your jab. Stick and move. He’s protectin’ his head. Shoot for the body. If you can’t get through go for his arms. Wear him down. Stay busy. He’ll eventually drop his guard.”
Both fighters met in the center for the start of the fourth and final round. Andrew threw two left hooks to the body but Carvin Davis’ elbows were tucked tight. A third hook landed flush on his bicep. Just like Moish had said, Andrew heard a soft grunt. Both fighters were tired. Twice Davis backed Andrew into the ropes. Both times Andrew spun out landing several shots from both sides to the arms.
“THAT’S IT!” Moish yelled. “HE’S STARTIN’ TO DROP HIS HANDS. KEEP WORKIN’ HIS ARMS!”
Andrew continued to unload on Davis’ upper arms and shoulders. Thirty seconds into the flurry Carvin Davis dropped his hands just enough. Andrew fired a hard left jab followed by a right uppercut that landed flush on the chin sending Davis pirouetting in slow motion before falling backward, his head bouncing hard against the canvas. Jack McClusky waved his hands—the fight was over.
Harold Feldman was waiting in the dressing room when Moish entered followed by Andrew—a big swollen mass on his temple, a bigger smile on his face.
“Nice fight, Andrew. You put on a hell of a show out there.”
“Thank you, Mr. Feldman.”
“I’d like to put you on next month’s card against Montel Harris. It would be a six rounder. What do you think, Moish? Your man ready to move up?”
“He’s ready,” Moish said, knowing it was way too quick to move up after one fight. He also knew that despite his local popularity, Montel Harris was way past his prime—a six-rounder with Montel was well within Andrew’s level of ability.
“How much?” Moish asked.
“He made what, three hundred tonight? I’d normally double it but, given what a good show Andrew put on, I’ll go eight.”
“Make it a thousand and you’ve got yourself a fight.”
“Forget it Moish. What do I look like? Santa Claus? I was stretching for the eight. Your boy needs me a lot more than I need him.”
“OK,” Moish countered, “Forget it then. Sam Simon offered us a spot on his next card in Atlantic City if Andrew won. Maybe we can do something after that.”
“All right, goddammit,” Harold bristled at the rival promoter’s name. Harold and Sam were in an ugly competition for the fights in Philly that weren’t big enough for Izzy Perlman.
“A thousand and that’s as far as this negotiation’s gonna go. You don’t like it, bring me back some saltwater taffy.”
“Deal,” Moish said extending his hand.
“And Harold, speaking of negotiations, did you hear about the Jewish man who walked up to his wife one morning while she was making their breakfast, pinched her on the tukhes and said,
‘You know, if you firmed this up, we could get rid of your girdle.’
“She thought this was a terrible thing to say but decided to let it go. The next morning the man wakes her up by squeezing her breast and says,
‘You know, if you firmed these up, we could get rid of your bra.’
“Now, the wife had let his comments go the day before, but this was too much. She rolls over, grabs his shvantz and says,
‘You know, if you firmed this up, we could get rid of the postman, the gardener, and your brother.’”
“YOU!” Harold said, shaking his head and waving Moish off.
Two months to the day after Andrew Franklin knocked out Carvin Davis for his first professional win he made short work of Montel Harris with a TKO in the third. The results ran in the Daily News sports briefs right under the big story of the day: the announcement of a date for the Tyrone Braxton/Maceo Parker fight in Las Vegas.
BRAXTON TO FIGHT PARKER, WINNER TO FACE MONZON
Moish and I decided to watch the fight at Dirty Ed’s again. This time Moish insisted on being there at 5:30 for the 7:30 bout. We got our same seats at the bar, right in front of the TV. The telecast opened with the weigh-in, each fighter coming in right at the 160-pound limit. Parker weighed first, glaring at Tyrone as he stepped off the scale. Tyrone stepped on the scale and stepped off.
“One-sixty: even.” The official announced.
Tyrone looked directly into the camera flexing his arm muscles. Moish suddenly felt uneasy. Tyrone’s body looked like something out of one of those muscle-beach magazines—the kind most guys dream about. But something was off. Moish knew every muscle in that body and something wasn’t right. It was his stomach. Tyrone’s abdominal muscles were so well defined from the thousands of sit-ups and meticulous diet he stayed on that even the shadows between the muscles rippled. It was the shadows, they didn’t look right, a little less defined than they should be. Tyrone wasn’t in his best shape. Somewhere he had slacked off on his training. Despite what it looked like to everyone else, Moish knew.
Moish was a tough guy in a tough guy’s world. He was respected throughout the boxing community, a community that didn’t use words like “tough” lightly. On Friday mornings at Murray’s in our usual booth with the brown Naugahyde tuck-and-roll seats and the pink Formica table, I saw a whole other side, a softer side of Moish. We always met at eight. No matter how early I arrived he was already there working on his first cup.
“Nicky, my boy!”
Always the same greeting, like he was delightfully surprised to see me. And it was “Nicky.” I was Nick in the gym but at Murray’s, I was Nicky. His greeting was always followed in a much lower voice by something like,
“Did you see the blond with the short skirt in booth three? She’s not wearin’ a ring. You want I should introduce you?”
“No thanks, Moish. I’d rather just hang out with you.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot. You got plenty of girlfriends.”
The Moish I knew at Murray’s on Friday mornings was different from the Moish at Champs. It wasn’t just the Nick/Nicky thing. We rarely talked about boxing or anything fight-related for that matter. In fact, we rarely talked at all. Most of the time Moish had the floor.
I liked to read the menu at Murray’s. There were several specialty sandwiches named for local celebrities. The David Brenner: pastrami, turkey, and Swiss, named after the comedian who was becoming a regular on The Tonight Show. The Hy Lit and Jerry Blavat, named for two top local radio personalities, and several named for Philly’s sports icons: the Mike Schmidt, the Dave Shultz, the Sonny Jurgensen, and the Chuck Bednarik. The Bednarik was corned beef and chopped liver on Russian rye. I thought if I ever came back for lunch, that’s what I’d order. There were 8x10 photos on the wall by the cash register of the same local celebrities, each standing with his arm around Murray. Murray had owned the place since it opened in 1958 and looked like his own best customer. He wore a food-stained white apron, weighed about three-fifty, and had a double chin that made his head look twice its normal size.
Moish talked continuously at Murray’s. He talked about life—talked about love—about Anna—about Jewish culture and his connection despite his break with the old neighborhood—and he talked a lot about relationships.
At Champs, even when he was joking, Moish’s voice, his body language said he was in charge.
“A man in a man’s world,” as he liked to say.
At Murray’s he was different—not like a different person—more like his edges had softened. It was a side of Moish that didn’t mesh with the gym persona; one he had hidden during his boxing years and would never show at Champs. It was the side that Anna had slowly drawn out of him. The side she continued to live through.
“Boxing,” he said one Friday as we were finishing our last cup. “It’s a seductive world. Grabs ya hook, line, and sinker. Nicky, my boy: you’re hooked.”
“I am,” I said, thinking it was a compliment.
“Don’t be. There’s more to life than what you see at the gym. Get a girlfriend. That’s what life’s really about.”
Moish looked at me.
“I know what your thinkin’,” he said.
“Yeah, what’s that?”
“You’re thinkin’ yeah,
that’s a great concept but where’s a shlep like me
gonna find a real girlfriend?”
I got up to leave. Moish wasn’t finished.
“It’s all about love, Nicky. I learned that from two people: Anna and Sinatra.”
It was weird, even by Moish standards.
“Yeah, Sinatra. What? Something wrong with your hearing? Sinatra, ya heard of him? The Chairman of the Board? He not only understood it, he could sing it in just a couple of lines.”
Moish started to sing, and then he started to dance. He was a lot lighter on his feet than I would have guessed. He soft-shoed his way to the door singing the opening bars to My Way.
[The fifth installment will follow next month.]
Copyright 2010 - Mike Spector