|PHILLY BOXING HISTORY SOULVILLE A Boxing Novel by Mike Spector (Part 5)||
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’s dressing room at Caesar’s in Las Vegas looked more like an after-hours disco party than a pre-fight staging area. Celebrities moved in and out in. Sports artist Leroy Neiman worked furiously with colored chalk and sketchpad. In a corner just outside all the action Tony Razzo taped Tyrone’s hands, carefully layering a thin white strip of adhesive tape between each finger and another across the gauze padding on his knuckles. When he was done Tyrone shadow-boxed for a few minutes, then posed with five round girls wearing sequined pasties and G-strings for Caesars’ official photographer. Eddie Eisner came in with a large gift-wrapped box. In it was a red satin robe with white script on the back:
Tyrone “The Assassin” Braxton
Tyrone nodded. Just below the name was a plug for Eisner Fight Productions.
Gladys Knight and the Pips blasted through the in-room sound system while camera crews scrambled to find the best position for the interviews that would take place before and after the fight, all under the watchful eye and proud smile of Mavis Braxton.
Mavis lived in a condo a few blocks off the strip with a swimming pool and a 24-hour coffee shop; bought and paid for by Eddie Eisner. It was part of the agreement that had lured Tyrone there. Mavis had never seen Tyrone fight—didn’t want to. But she was always there right up until the opening bell to support her baby and take part in her favorite Las Vegas activity—celebrity watching.
Maceo Parker was the challenger. He’d go out first. Tyrone stayed in the dressing room an extra five minutes, icing his opponent. When he started down the aisle it wasn’t the hood-up-hands-on-shoulders walk that Moish had taught him. The new Tyrone danced, giving high-fives and stopping along the way for a quick word with Muhammad Ali, James Brown, and Doctor J.
The press conferences leading up to the fight had started a month out as a scripted publicity show, part of a careful marketing plan to create the proverbial good guy/bad guy showdown. That lasted about five minutes. As each fighter questioned the others’ athletic ability, intelligence, and ultimately his manhood, it became personal; each ready to show the other who was the champ and who was the chump.
At the bell signaling the start of Round 1 there was no feeling out, no strategy, just fists and elbows flying in every direction. It was a contest of both who could give and who could take—a street fight with gloves and cups that went non-stop for three rounds. The crowd at the Convention Center was on its feet. Neither fighter showed any sign of letting up until Tyrone threw that left hook. With less than a minute to go in the third, Tyrone loaded up with a show stopping roundhouse hook. Had it connected, it probably would have sent Maceo Parker across town to Circus Circus. But it didn’t. Both fighters were fighting with offense only—you take your shot, I’ll take mine. Tyrone’s hook was just short of its mark. It glanced off its target and Maceo Parker saw his opening. A short, crisp right to the face and Tyrone found himself sitting on the canvas. He looked to his corner in disbelief. “Two Ton” Tony was furiously waving his fat arms upward. Tyrone was up at the count of five.
Rounds 4 through 6 were a reverse of the first three; controlled and strategic. The crowd wanted a return to the earlier action. By round 6 they were demanding it.
Maceo Parker was gassed. So was Tyrone. Tony Razzo tried to keep him focused.
“OK, you’re behind on points so you’re gonna have to get busier. He’s tired. You can see it. He’s breathin’ through his mouth.”
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Eddie Eisner was in the corner screaming.
“YOU’RE BLOWING IT, TYRONE! GET THE FUCK OUT THERE AND GET BUSY! YOU’RE BETTER THAN THIS!”
Razzo and Eisner weren’t telling Tyrone anything he didn’t know. He understood the situation—knew what was on the line. He also knew that whatever he had, there wasn’t much left. It was round 7—no way he’d make 8. He had a short window to make his move.
Both fighters circled at the bell, Maceo Parker moving forward first, backing Tyrone down. Tyrone leaned against the ropes. He’d been there before, knew how to use the ropes for leverage. As he moved from side to side, not giving Parker anything to work with, his plan started to work. Parker’s punches were slowing down, hurting less. Tyrone angled his body, waited, angled his body again, and waited some more. Maceo was frustrated. Tyrone kept angling, waiting, angling, waiting. He knew at some point Maceo would slip up and at two minutes and twelve seconds into the round, he did. Loading up to take an unresponsive Tyrone out, Maceo Parker did exactly what Edgar “Bad News” Wallace had done, he dropped his left shoulder. As Parker’s fist began its trajectory, Tyrone dug deep. With all his chips on the line he cashed out with a straight right to Maceo Parker’s cheekbone that connected so hard he was sure he heard the bone in Maceo’s face crack. He also felt a sharp pain reverberating through his hand, which he guessed had broken, too. His plan had worked. Just like Bad News, Maceo was done.
But instead of going down Maceo Parker took the shot and answered with a combination of his own, then another. Tyrone weathered the first. The left jab that led the second flurry snapped his face to the right so fast that one moment he was looking at Maceo, the next he was seeing the crowd. The right cross that followed snapped his head the other way as the whole Convention Center started to see-saw like the Tilt-A-Whirl at the State Fair. Tyrone felt his body rock one way then the other as more shots connected. It was all a blur. Later he’d remember looking up in time to see Eddie Eisner holding Maceo Parker’s hand in the air.
The day after the fight Tyrone woke up with a pounding headache. The mailman was knocking on the door with a certified letter from an attorney with Eisner Fight Productions. It was short, citing the clause in his contract that said continuation was contingent on winning, and that, based on the loss to Maceo Parker, they were severing “any and all ties.” It ended wishing him luck.
“I told y’all,” Chiller Williams said the following day. “Maceo Parker a bad motherfucker. That right in the seventh from Tyrone—shot shoulda put the motherfucker on Queer Street. The boy didn’t even blink!”
The conversation at Champs about Tyrone’s loss continued through the week. Moish never said a word. His focus was on Andrew Franklin. Andrew had moved up to the six-rounders. The contrast between his clean-cut looks, soft-spoken polite manners, and Philly-style aggression in the ring was a reporter’s dream; and it was starting to bring him some attention. The Daily News profiled Andrew as a hot up-and-comer—even compared his punching power to Bennie Briscoe. Moish knew Andrew’s potential—he also knew the risks. Andrew was still green. Every fighter runs the risk of moving up too fast. It was Moish’s job to not let that happen.
Fight people move around a lot, following the action and the work. The life of a boxer, a trainer, a cut man, it’s a never-ending continuum of seedy hotels, walk-up gyms and short money followed, with any luck, by a shot and a beer. Fight people tend to stick with their own creating an informal communication network, not unlike the one used by inmates in prison systems.
It didn’t take long on the network for word to get to Philly that Tyrone had fallen in with a bad crowd. He was working in Vegas collecting for a local drug dealer. Word was he wasn’t just collecting.
A few weeks after Maceo Parker put a nightmare twist on Tyrone’s fairytale dream, I was sent to Las Vegas on assignment for the paper with Walt Richards. Richards covered boxing for the Journal and was doing a feature on “Two Ton” Tony Razzo. Razzo had been a street-tough welterweight in Los Angeles in the 1950s. In 1955, his best year as a pro, he had made it to number five in the Ring magazine rankings, enjoying a local celebrity status with the Hollywood crowd. He might have become world champion had he not spent more time eating pan-fried pork chops at the Pantry and chicken pot pie at Chasen’s than he did at the gym. By 1975, long retired and carrying over 300 pounds on his five-foot-five frame, “Two Ton” Tony was living in Las Vegas where, having first cut his teeth with fighters in club fights at places like the Silver Slipper, he had established himself as one of the top boxing trainers in the country. Razzo had been with Tyrone through both the Vito Milano and Maceo Parker fights.
We met at World Class Gym, a few blocks off the strip. Razzo’s substantial girth pushed through a World Class Gym T-shirt with the word “trainer” across the front, stretching the letters like a fun house mirror. He had a square-shaped pug face full of lumps. I wondered how he shaved. ‘Two Ton’ Tony had a boxing-tough attitude—not so much macho, more one of someone who had been there, done that, and seen it all.
Walt started his interview by asking about the influence of the new venues like Caesar’s Palace in elevating boxing to a level of popularity it hadn’t enjoyed since the Gillette Friday Night Fights of the early 1960s. Razzo loved talking about fighters and the game.
He talked about Maceo Parker who he was currently training for a title fight with Carlos Monson, and he talked about Tyrone.
“When Tyrone got here he was all business. I’m pretty hard on a fighter in the gym when he’s gettin’ ready for a fight. When we were gettin’ ready to fight Milano, I never had a chance to push Tyrone because before I could, he was already pushing himself.”
Razzo described Tyrone’s discipline as that of a consummate professional.
“Milano had a ton of experience compared to Tyrone. Going into that fight he had fifty-two wins, tremendous ring generalship, and had been around long enough to know exactly how to get inside an opponent’s head. But when they stepped in that ring you would have thought it was the other way around. That night Tyrone really came into his own. Afterward, things changed.”
“Two Ton” Tony paused, inhaled deeply through his nose and let out a long sigh.
“I don’t know…Vegas, it’s a tough town for a fighter, too many distractions. Boxing’s a bread-and-butter sport, fits good in places like L.A. or Stockton or Detroit or Philly. But Vegas? Vegas is champagne and caviar, a tough place for a bread-and-butter guy to stay focused. Tyrone, he got lost in the glitter. He wasn’t the first—won’t be the last.”
Razzo’s comments weren’t judgmental. For him it was just business. He’d been there too many times, had learned not to become vested.
Walt had his story. It wasn’t scheduled to run in the paper until the following week so there was no hurry to get back. I dropped him at the airport, checked into a hotel, and called Mavis. We met the next morning for breakfast.
The Space Age coffee shop with its black booths, white tabletops, black-and-white checked floor and plenty of chrome and glass sat adjacent to her condo. Bright morning light spilled through the big windows that ran along the front of the building, the side facing the street.
Mavis looked great. She wore a deep fuchsia satin-like top with nail polish to match. Gold hoop earrings swung from her ears.
She smothered me with a big hug and the smell of her perfume stayed on me as the hostess led us to a booth. Mavis talked non-stop. She knew we had a short amount of time and a lot to catch up on. She had won a hundred dollars at bingo the week before, couldn’t believe the prices at Neiman’s compared to the department stores in Philly like Wanamaker’s or Gimbels, and wanted to make sure I knew that the Space Age squeezed their juice from fresh oranges. She seemed so relaxed, so happy.
“Do you ever miss Philly?”
“Honey….look around you. The sun shining, the sky blue, and everybody famous at one time or another gonna be within a few blocks of here. Miss Philly? Ain’t nothin’ to miss. I was at the Sands last week and do you know who I saw? That’s right, Al Green! Sittin’ right there close as you is to me.”
Mavis closed her eyes and laughed.
“Closest I ever came to any celebrity in Philly was the time I was workin’ at the hospital and this transvestite came in dressed like Marilyn Monroe with a bad sinus infection.”
Mavis even liked the fights, or at least what took place around the fights. She described them as social events starting with the limos dropping off the stars and ending with the after-fight parties for the high rollers.
“You know I don’t never watch my baby in the ring, and I’d a never be caught dead at a place like the Blue Horizon, but here, it’s a whole different world.”
Mavis never mentioned the loss to Maceo Parker. For her Tyrone was still in the game.
“You gonna see my Ty before you have to go back, baby? He’d love to see you. He ain’t like his momma. He misses home.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Tyrone was the last
person in the world I’d want to see.
It was nearly midnight. Moish was asleep in his easy chair in front of the TV. The knock on the door didn’t startle him, but what he saw through the peephole did.
Tyrone had lost about twenty pounds in the four months since his fight with Maceo Parker. His hair was long and matted. When Moish opened the door the smell of filth and body odor was so strong he had to hold his breath, instinctively bringing his hand up to his nose.
“What the hell?”
“Moish. How you doin’?”
“From the looks of things a helluva lot better than you. What the hell happened to you?”
“Can I come in?”
Moish stepped aside, letting Tyrone pass. Tyrone sat on the couch in same spot he sat during all those film sessions. He told Moish about Eddie Eisner and the promises he had made and broken, how he had tried to come back from his loss to Maceo Parker but Tony Razzo said that if he wasn’t with Eisner he needed to pay in advance for his training, and how he had taken the only work he could find: collecting.
“Then one night I went to collect from this guy and his kids were there. They was cryin’ and all and he says if he pay me, they wouldn’t get nothin’ to eat. I could see that they was hungry and all so I gave him another day. The guys I was working for say that didn’t play, so they turned me out.”
Moish knew exactly what he was looking at, he’d seen it too many times; the watery eyes, the runny nose that Tyrone kept wiping on his sleeve, the restlessness, the way his knee kept bouncing up and down.
“So, let me get this straight. The boxing problem was Eddie Eisner’s fault, and the training problem was Tony Razzo’s fault, and your lack of employment was the fault of some Vegas drug dealer?”
Moish got up, walked over to the couch and grabbed Tyrone’s wrist. With his free hand he shoved the sleeve of Tyrone’s jacket up his arm revealing a series of fresh tracks. He let go and smacked Tyrone hard on the back of his head.
“I suppose that’s not your fault, either?”
“Moish,” Tyrone looked up. A tear ran from the corner of one eye down his face.
“You gotta help me.”
“I gotta help you? What can I do? You’re headed for things too big for me to help you with. I’ve done as much as I can do for you. Remember? Isn’t that what you said?”
Moish was angry. He had taken the high road when Tyrone left. Wanted nothing but the best for him—even if it meant Tyrone leaving after everything he had done for him. Moish had wished him success—and meant it. But this? Tyrone had made a mockery of everything they had built, sold himself short. Moish had held up his part of the bargain. Tyrone had played him for a sucker. Moish couldn’t remember the last time he felt so angry. He looked at Tyrone and saw a familiar look. It was the same look he had seen that first day in the gym and again during the fight with Edgar Wallace. A look that now, through watery bloodshot eyes and tears flowing down dirt-stained cheeks once again cut to the very core of Moish’s being—that place inside of him where Anna lived—that place where he couldn’t say no.
“OK, let me tell you how this is gonna work. You can sleep here tonight on the couch. You can pay me later for the dry cleaning it’s gonna take to get your stink off it. Tomorrow morning you’re gonna check in to the detox unit at Hahnemann and get clean. You do that; we’ll talk some more. Until then, we got nothin’ to say.”
“Hahnemann? That’s where my moms worked. People know me there. Can’t we go somewheres else?”
“What? You hard of hearing? I said Hahnemann. That’s it.”
“OK.” Tyrone relented, his head hanging down. Moish got up, went into the bedroom, returning with a blanket and a pillow.
“Thank you,” Tyrone said softly.
Moish turned to leave.
“Moish.” Tyrone looked up through his tears.
“I knew you’d be there for me.”
Moish never used an alarm clock. He woke at six like always. Tyrone was gone—only the blanket, the pillow, and his stink left. Moish went straight to the kitchen. In the freezer was a box of Breyer’s vanilla ice cream where he kept five hundred dollars cash for emergencies. It was empty.
[The sixth installment will follow next month.]
Copyright 2010 - Mike Spector