|PHILLY BOXING HISTORY SOULVILLE A Boxing Novel by Mike Spector (Part 6)||
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.
INSTALLMENT #6 (CONCLUSION)
Moish and Andrew were a perfect boxer/trainer match. Moish was autocratic in his methods, dictatorial in his demands. Andrew listened and followed without question. Moish understood the nuances of Andrew’s body—his powerful left jab and ease in moving in that direction—his weakness in going right and inability to throw anything while backing up. Andrew understood the nuances of Moish’s looks—direct eye contact meant he’d better pay attention. Moish looked out in the distance when he was just talking to keep a rhythm. As fighter and trainer they knew each other intimately—each playing off the other in perfect synchronicity. On a personal level they didn’t know each other at all.
Andrew was soft-spoken and articulate—unusual in the fight game.
“What are you, a college kid or something?” Moish asked one afternoon after Andrew had showered and was leaving to catch the bus.
“No, sir. I graduated high school but didn’t go to college.”
“What high school?”
Moish could see Andrew was in a hurry but knew he would be too polite to say so.
“Don’t worry about the bus. I’ll give you a ride home.”
“I graduated from Lower Merion High.”
“Lower Merion? With all those rich kids? How the hell did you do that?”
Moish didn’t know much about Andrew Franklin, but he did know where he lived. His North Broad Street address was a planet away from the wealthy Lower Merion section on Philly’s Main Line.
“My dad had been out of high school for a few years, working at the airport. He had just been accepted to the University of Pennsylvania and had switched to the night shift when he died. We were in Atlantic City when it happened.”
Moish hadn’t expected that. Andrew rarely spoke— had never mentioned anything about his family except for a few passing comments about getting home for dinner with his mom. Now he was talking.
“A woman started screaming that her kid was drowning. My dad couldn’t swim but he ran into the waves where she was pointing anyway.”
“Jesus Christ,” Moish said, shaking his head.
“He was twenty-one and strong—had been a star running back at Overbrook High. He wanted to be an architect—wanted to redesign the black neighborhoods in a way that would be nice and affordable for black people. That was his dream.”
Andrew was up on his toes, shadowboxing as he talked.
“Both my parents believed education was important and wanted me to have the best. After my dad died, we struggled. My mom knew the schools in the neighborhood were pretty bad so she applied for an out-of-district enrollment at Lower Merion. I wasn’t too happy about it. All my friends were from the neighborhood and I had my dad’s love for playground hoops.”
The clear, distinct vocabulary, the polite manners, it all made sense. Andrew was the product of a high-end suburban high school. His penchant for boxing made sense, too. A ghetto kid with a love for playground games—no harm, no foul—he’d have a hard time fitting into the organized world of suburban sports. And, being probably one of a handful of black kids in a school with a couple of thousand upper-middle class whites— that would explain the soft-spokenness.
“I’m sorry about your father. Whatever happened to the kid he went after?”
“Ends up he was never in the ocean. He was building sand castles under the boardwalk.”
Moish looked at Andrew. He wasn’t emotional. He’d come to grips with the hand he’d been dealt. Suddenly he didn’t look so young.
“Hey,” Moish yelled out, breaking the intimacy of his conversation with Andrew and loud enough for me and a couple of others close by to hear.
“Speaking of schools, there were three third-graders; a Jew, an Italian, and a black kid on the playground at recess. The Jewish kid suggests they play a new game.
“Let's see who’s got the biggest shlong,’ he says.
“‘OK,’ they all agree.
“The Jewish kid pulls down his zipper and whips it out.
“‘That's nothing,’ says the Italian kid. He whips his out. His is a couple of inches longer.
Not to be outdone, the black kid whips his out. It is by far the biggest, dwarfing the other two in both length and width. The Jewish and Italian kids are stunned.
“Wow, that thing is huge!’ the Jewish kid says.
“That night, at dinner the black kid’s mother asks him what he did at school today.
“Oh, we worked on a science project, had a math test, and during recess my friends and I played "Let's see who has the biggest shlong."
"‘What kind of game is that?’ asks the mother.
"‘Well, me, Solly, and Anthony each pulled out our penises and I had the biggest. The other kids say it’s because I'm black. Is that true, Mom?’
"‘No, honey,” she says. ‘That isn’t true. It's not because you’re black. It’s because you're twenty-three.’”
Everyone burst out laughing—everyone except Andrew.
“Then,” Moish said looking directly at Andrew, “at the same school the following week the same Jewish kid comes home from school and tells his mother he's been given a part in the school play.
“‘That’s wonderful, Solly. What part is it?’
“‘I play the part of the Jewish husband,’ the boy says.
“‘A Jewish husband?’ she says, so angry that her face turns bright red.
“‘You go right back to school tomorrow and tell that teacher that you want a speaking part.’”
Andrew sat in front seat looking out the window, not saying a word, focused on the trolley lines running above the street. Moish had Sports Talk on the radio.
And with the addition of Jerry Sisemore to the offensive line this could be the year the Eagles go all the way…
“Yeah, that’ll be the day,” Moish said to himself.
A few blocks from his house Andrew broke the silence.
“Why do you disrespect Blacks and Jews so much?”
“Is that what you think? That I disrespect my own people?”
“Those jokes. They’re not funny.”
“If they’re not funny, why is everyone but you laughing?”
“You shouldn’t laugh at someone else’s expense.”
Moish didn’t say anything until he pulled over in front of Andrew’s house. He turned off the engine. Andrew started to get out. Moish put a hand on his shoulder. The conversation wasn’t over.
“What’s not to laugh at? Listen, Andrew, life is rough. Most people struggle everyday just to get by. It ain’t easy. I don’t know what the hell happened. Somewhere along the way some schmuck decided that we’re all different from each other and then some other schmuck decided that not only are we different, we’re better than each other. So the Jews think they’re better than the blacks, and the blacks think they’re better than the Jews, and the Catholics, they think they’re better than everybody, and on and on and on. Blacks can run faster than whites but they’re dumb—all Jews have big noses and they stink— ENOUGH ALREADY!”
Moish paused for a second.
“If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry. Boxing, it evens things out. Once you’re in that ring it’s just you and the other guy—don’t matter what his color or religion is. But most of life ain’t that simple. Laughing, it helps, and anyone can do it. Besides, it’s better than boxing ’cause you don’t usually end up getting punched in the face.”
“You would if you told those jokes in my neighborhood.”
“Listen, kid. Why make things any worse? You laugh a little at yourself, you laugh a little at somebody else; it cuts right through all that ‘we’re different’ bullshit. I’m telling you Andrew, most of what people get all put out over, it’s not that serious. You’re young, but you’ve already lost a parent—already had a taste of life’s hard side. There’s enough real stuff like that to cry about and enough stuff like relationships, like you and your mom to appreciate and never take for granted. The rest, its just entertainment. Life’s short. Lighten up. Laugh a little! Believe me, you could use it. It won’t kill you.”
Moish looked over and saw the same look he had seen when he showed Andrew how to slip a jab.
Andrew easily won his next two fights, both at the Blue. They even wrote an article in the Daily News calling him Philly’s newest and best up-and-comer.
I spent every afternoon at Champs. The patterns there were pretty much the same each day, with a few minor changes. Moish was no longer the first to arrive. In fact now he was usually the last, making the half-hour drive to Germantown first to pick up Spoons. I was a part of those patterns, too, not like the fighters or the trainers or the Boardroom, nothing big like that, but my camera, it gave me a small part.
Sometimes in my quiet moments I wondered what it would be like to be a fighter. The closest I was ever going to get was through their stories. I was an observer. They were participants. When Carvin Davis did that slow-motion 360 before falling from Andrew’s right uppercut I thought about Chiller’s description of the shot he took from Maceo Parker: “It made my teeth hurt.” What would it be like to be knocked out in front of thousands of people? “That’s the thing about being a fighter,” Gene Roberts had said that day at Mike’s Luncheonette, “once you’re in the ring, ain’t no place to hide.”
Photography was all about hiding, the camera always between me and any encounter with life. If the shot didn’t work I just took another, moved on, tried again; no one ever knew. Even in the worst cases like that time I didn’t have any film in the camera for Elaine Brown, the embarrassment and humiliation I felt from Jack Wolf never got beyond the two of us.
A part of me wanted in the worst way to know what it would be like to publicly put it all on the line. But I was chicken shit. It was never gonna happen. Not in my safe-behind-the-camera lifetime. Chiller had given me a glimpse with that line about his teeth hurting. One afternoon I pressed him for more.
“I don’t know, man. The crowd? It’s like they ain’t even there. You hear them when you first in the ring, but it’s kinda like the ocean in Atlantic City. When you first step out on the boardwalk you hear them waves hittin’ the shore, woosh, woosh, woosh. But after a while, you stop hearin’ them. You know they there, you just don’t hear them no more.”
“I been knocked out three times. Never saw any of ’em comin’. It was like I was lookin’ at the guy I was fightin’, and I could see every detail, every drop of sweat on his face. And things were movin’ in slow motion. I could see every move he was about to make, like he was telegraphin’ it, givin’ me plenty of time to move out the way. Then I heard a crack and it was like everything stopped, like in a movie or somethin’ when the film gets stuck. Then everything started to get real bright, until all I could see was white.”
Word was that Tyrone was back in town.
“I hear Tyrone up at Cloverlay sparrin’ with Bennie and Worm and all them,” Blue Washington said.
“When you rise to the top through the likes of Eddie Eisner, it’s a pretty short fall to the bottom,” Quinny added.
“From title shot to sparring partner.” Chiller shook his head. “Um-Um-Um. Ain’t that a bitch? Why he ain’t come back here?”
“Fool,” Blue answered. “Why you think he ain’t come back here? He embarrassed, dat’s why. Let me ax you a question: if you was him, would you come back?”
Moish just listened. He never mentioned Tyrone’s midnight visit—or the missing cash.
Andrew’s star was rising. He was undefeated in his first five fights. His sixth fight was against Lenny “the Hitman” Hartman at the Blue. Hartman was a journeyman from Queens. The fight was scheduled for twelve rounds: the main event.
Hartman had been ranked number eight a few years back. He trained at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn, a gym every bit as tough as anything in Philly. Hartman was a few years older than Andrew with twenty-six pro fights. He had a reputation for knocking his opponents out early, which he had done in sixteen fights. He also had a glass chin, which would account for his being knocked out in the other ten.
Andrew had become a local favorite and the Blue was almost at capacity for the bout. Moish had set the strategy. Andrew would box for the first six rounds—stick and move—not trade.
“He’s got a left hook that will send you to Jersey,” Moish said. “But you’re not gonna let him. He’s a power puncher—never gone past six. If you stick and move for the first five or six rounds the rest of the fight will be yours. He’s strong, but he’ll run outta gas early.”
Andrew did exactly that. He’d double up on his jab and then back out—double jab, back out, up on his toes—dancing. Hartman tried to muscle him. He wasn’t fast enough. Shortly into the third Hartman backed Andrew into the ropes.
“GET OUT OF THERE!” Moish screamed.
Andrew ignored Moish. Instead he did something he’d seen Tyrone do when he was trapped. He leaned back slightly, moving his body at angles to neutralize the shots. Despite Hartman’s occasional flurries, Andrew was ahead on all of the judges’ cards going into the fifth, four rounds to none. Round five looked to be a repeat of the first four except that Hartman was starting to slow down. Andrew could feel it. His punches when they connected had slightly less sting, and he was breathing through his mouth. It was just what Moish said would happen—just a round earlier. Two minutes into the round Andrew tested the water. Standing flat-footed in the center of the ring he threw a combination that easily slipped through Hartman’s gloves, momentarily stopping him. It brought the crowd to their feet. It was Andrew’s show. Moish was yelling something from the corner. Andrew couldn’t hear him. Another double jab connected with Hartman’s face opening a cut off the side of his right eye. Andrew loaded up his left and let it fly. Hartman bent his knees ducking the blow. Andrew was about to answer with a straight right when he heard an explosion. Lenny “the Hitman” Hartman’s ten-ounce Reyes glove came out of nowhere, crashing directly on his ear. The room was spinning and Andrew felt sick to his stomach.
The overhead lights were the first things that came into focus. Andrew though it was interesting how symmetrical they looked, little white dots all lined up in rows. Then there was just one. The ringside doctor was moving the beam of a small flashlight from his right eye to his left.
Sitting on a training table in the dressing room with an ice pack on his head and another one on his neck, Andrew wondered what had gone wrong. The room was crowded, fighters, managers, and trainers everywhere. Andrew had never felt so alone. Moish was standing in front of him.
“Don’t worry about it, kid.”
Moish put a hand on each of Andrew’s shoulders.
“Tonight was a school night.”
Over Moish’s protests Andrew was back in the gym the next day. If there was such a thing as a honeymoon in boxing, his was over. Andrew stepped up his training. He was a good student. Hartman had provided a capstone lesson. Andrew had a strong physical game, getting better every day. Hartman showed him that without the mind game to go with it, physical didn’t mean shit. Moish stepped up with him. In between the lessons on footwork, balance, and power, he’d talk.
“Every time a fighter throws a punch it creates a counter opportunity for his opponent.”
Two months went by with no calls from Harold Feldman or Sam Simon. Philly wasn’t a “for better or for worse” kind of town. As long as you were winning, the City of Brotherly Love stood by its name. Anything less—well—there was an abundance of other talent waiting. The weekly visits and calls from the local promoters had stopped. Moish didn’t care. He knew it was just a matter of time. Until then they had work to do. Andrew felt the same.
On an early spring day in April after he was through training, Moish joined the regulars in the Boardroom. Blue, Quinny and Chiller were huddled in conversation.
“Hey, fellas,” Moish interrupted the conversation.
“How do you start a black parade?”
Moish looked around like a teacher asking for the answer.
“Roll a bottle of Thunderbird down the street.”
“Moish, I ran into Lenny Robinson at the State Liquor Store this morning,” Blue said.
“Lenny the Clam? How’s he doin?”
Lenny was one of those guys who always seemed to know everything about everything. He’d been around the boxing scene in Philly for as long as anyone could remember. It wasn’t clear how he got his information, or his nickname, as Lenny never stopped talking. For a six-pack of Budweiser or a bottle of Thunderbird Lenny would give you the inside story on who was doing what with who. The crazy thing was, he was never wrong.
“He alright. Been spendin’ time at Cloverlay mostly. Say Tyrone up there sparring for a few bucks.”
“Yeah, that’s nothin’ new.”
“He say Tyrone lookin’ to make a comeback. Say he lookin’ for a fight with Andrew.”
Moish didn’t show it but Blue had caught him by surprise. He stood, turned to leave, and then turned back.
“He can look be lookin’ all he wants. It ain’t gonna happen.”
The next day Andrew was hitting the speed bag when Moish heard a small commotion by the entrance to Champs. He looked over and saw Izzy Perlman. Izzy was the premier boxing promoter in Philly. He usually divided his time between a small office at the Spectrum and Cloverlay Gym. He didn’t come into Champs unless he was looking to make a fight. Izzy saw Moish at the speed bag and walked over.
“How you doin’, Moish? Can we talk for a minute?”
“I’m workin’, in case you didn’t notice.”
“OK, can I wait and we’ll talk when you’re done?”
“TIME!” Moish shouted.
Andrew picked up the pace on the speed bag until his fists were moving so fast it sounded like a continuous drum roll, finishing with three consecutive power shots.
“How’s it going, Andrew?” Izzy said as Moish toweled off his face.
“Fine, Mr. Perlman. Just fine, thank you.”
Moish worked Andrew a little longer than usual. He wasn’t in any rush to talk to Izzy Perlman.
“Two more rounds on the heavy bag.”
“I’ll miss my bus.”
“Forget the bus. I’ll drive you.”
Izzy and Moish sat on two chairs in a quiet corner while Andrew showered.
“So,” Moish started. “What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing in a joint like this?”
“Good to see you, too, Moish.” Izzy smiled, not taking the bait.
“Moish, I know you’re a busy guy, so let me get right to the point. Tyrone’s been training at Cloverlay—mostly giving the other guys there some work. He wants to fight again.”
“So? What’s stopping him?”
“He’s been hittin’ it pretty hard. ’Course you never know with Tyrone, but, tell you the truth, I think he’s serious this time. He’s not what he once was, but he’s not half bad either. You know I’ve got this card coming up, Jerry Conn and Eddie Greg. Conn’s outta Brooklyn, was a sparring partner for Antefermo when he fought Griffith. You know Greg. It’s New York verses Philly. I was thinkin’—a fight between Tyrone and Andrew—veteran versus up-and-comer—Champs versus Cloverlay—another rivalry. Be a hell of a card—draw a hell of a crowd.”
“What do you mean, ‘forget it’? You won’t even think about it? See what Andrew thinks? Be a big move for him. I think he can beat Tyrone. If he did, I’d start putting him on my cards—see where it goes from there.”
“First of all, shmendrik, I’m Andrew’s manager. I’ll decide who he fights and when. As far as Tyrone goes, like I said: forget it. You want I should say it a little more clearly: No. How’s that?”
“Moish, at least give it some thought. It would be a great fight!”
“What? You think I’m stupid? I know it would be a good fight—for you. You’d make a bundle. But it don’t do shit for us. Tyrone beats Andrew, Andrew’s done—you know that—wouldn’t even be able to get him a fight at the Blue. Andrew beats Tyrone, he beats a has-been use-to-be who spends as much time putting shit in his arms as he does using them to throw punches.”
“Moish, I . . I . . I”
“Moish, I . . I . . I what? You think I don’t know about that, you putz? He’s usin’. And you know it.”
“Alright, Moish. I hear what you’re sayin’. But at least think about it. You change your mind, you call.”
“What did Mr. Perlman want?” Andrew asked on the way home.
“He wanted to put you on the undercard of the Conn/Greg fight. Wanted you to fight Tyrone.”
Moish looked over. Andrew was smiling.
“I told him no. You’re not ready.”
“What do you mean I’m not ready? I can beat Tyrone. I hear he’s just hanging at Cloverlay playing punching bag for handouts.”
“Maybe he is, maybe he ain’t. It don’t matter. You don’t need him. You’re moving up, getting better with each fight. Tyrone, he’s going the other way. He’s ring savvy, he’s street savvy, and on top of that he’s desperate. What’s he got to lose? You beat him—they’ll say he’s a joke—a shell of what he once was. He beats you, well… you think it was bad after the Hartman fight? No one in this town will look twice at you. It’s not a good fight for us.”
“But nothing. Forget it.”
Andrew got out of the car, grabbed his gym bag from the back, and closed the door without a word.
Andrew and Moish had intensified their training after the Hartman loss. After the visit from Izzy Perlman, Andrew took it a notch higher. Only this time it wasn’t in partnership with Moish. Moish was still there, but there was a distance between them. Andrew had the kind of intensity a fighter usually has training for a title shot or a make-or-break fight. The kind where a fighter is so focused on an upcoming opponent it’s all he can think about. But Andrew had nothing scheduled.
A week or so after the visit from Izzy, Andrew was in the gym already shadow boxing when Moish arrived—sweat shooting off his hands and face with every jab.
“What the hell?” Moish said. “Starting the party without me?”
“Decided to loosen up. Didn’t feel like waiting. There a problem with that?”
Andrew was pushing his own physical limits as well as his limits with Moish. He still listened to everything Moish said, but the connection was gone.
“Let’s go six today,” Moish said, upping Andrew’s sparring from the four rounds he’d been doing.
“Can’t,” Andrew said. “I’ll miss my bus.”
“Forget the bus. I’ll drive you.”
“Rather take the bus.”
Moish grabbed the heavy bag Andrew was pounding and stood directly in front of it.
“Did I ask if you’d rather take the bus?” Moish raised his voice loud enough for everyone to hear. “I said we’re doin’ six. Now get your ass up in the ring or get the hell outta here.”
On the ride home Andrew kept his eyes glued to the window, focusing again on the trolley lines. Moish asked something about his mom. He ignored the question. Halfway there Moish pulled down an alley barely wide enough for a car between the two blocks of row houses and turned off the engine.
“OK, what’s eating you?”
“‘Just drive. We got nothing to talk about.’”
“Just drive? We got nothin’ to talk about? Listen, we’re at least ten miles from your house. It’s cold out and it’s gettin’ dark. Looks like it might even snow. You can either tell me what’s eatin’ you or you can grab your bag and walk.”
Andrew sat there, silent. A few minutes passed, then a few more. He wanted to get out of the car so bad—just start walking and never look back. But it was cold, really cold, and besides, it would only make things worse.
“I have some friends from the neighborhood,” Andrew started, still looking out the window.
“You have friends?” Moish interrupted, feigning surprise.
“Stop. It’s always a joke with you. You wanna hear what’s eating me? Just shut up and listen.”
“I’m all ears.”
“My friends were at Cloverlay the other day watching Bennie train and Tyrone was there. Somehow he knew who they were and told them I was afraid to fight him—that it was good I was keepin’ my punk-ass at Champs because that’s as far as I’m ever gonna go.” Andrew hesitated a second.
“‘Tell your chicken-shit faggot-ass friend he be smart to steer clear.’ Those were his exact words. That’s what he said to tell me.”
Moish started the car. They drove the rest of the way in silence. At the house Andrew grabbed for the door handle hoping for a quick exit. Moish was quicker. He put his hand hard on Andrew’s shoulder holding him in place.
“Tell your mother you’ll be home late tomorrow night—you’re having dinner with me.”
Andrew didn’t know what to expect. He and Moish went through their routine at Champs without saying a word to each other. On the way home they stopped for take-out at the China Doll. It was the first time Andrew had been to Moish’s—the first time since Tyrone left town that anyone had. Dinner was filled mostly with uncomfortable small talk and even more uncomfortable lapses without any talk at all. When they were through, Moish told Andrew to sit on the couch while he adjusted his old movie projector. They watched a silent 8mm compilation of Muhammad Ali highlights starting with his two victories over Sonny Liston.
“So, what do you think?”
“It’s a simple question. I’ll say it again slow. What…do…you…think?”
“Ali’s the best. So what?”
Andrew was angry, the politeness gone. Moish knew there was a dark side—always is. That wasn’t necessarily bad. In fact, Moish thought, it was a place that Andrew would ultimately need to get comfortable with if he had half a chance of becoming champion.
“Why is he the best?”
“I don’t know—he’s quick, strong, smart…”
“Exactly—smart being what we need to talk about. When do you think he starts to win those fights?”
“Round one?” Andrew rolled his eyes. He wasn’t in the mood to play teacher/student.
“No,” Moish said.
He turned on the lamp next to the couch. There was a Radio Shack cassette tape player on the coffee table. Moish hit the play button. It was Ali’s voice—words Andrew knew well. There was the stuff about Sonny Liston being an ugly bear, Quarry, Bugner and Terrell going in certain rounds, and calling Floyd Patterson “the Rabbit.”
“That’s where he starts to win.” Moish pounded his finger on the stop button.
“He baits his opponents—the spider and the fly. I know some of those guys—Patterson, Terrell—they’re smart guys. But when he starts fucking with them, starts getting in their heads, they get stupid. That’s what Tyrone’s trying to do to you. Don’t let him make you stupid.”
“I want this fight. He’s wrong. You’re wrong. I can whip his ass.”
Moish didn’t recognize the byline on the article in the Daily News. Somebody new, he figured—somebody trying to make his bones with a story—somebody who didn’t know shit about boxing. The headline read:
Andrew Franklin: Big Fish in a Small Pond?
Tyrone was quoted extensively. So was Izzy Perlman. The reporter questioned Andrew’s ability to deal with adversity, particularly in light of the Hartman loss. It went on to reference some book called The Peter Principle and wonder whether Andrew had reached his level of incompetence or some shit like that. It wasn’t exactly textbook journalism but then again, the reporter, Bill Goldstein, wasn’t exactly a textbook journalist—he was Izzy Perlman’s brother-in-law.
At Champs there were two copies of the paper in the Boardroom, Blue holding one, Quinny the other. Quinny was explaining the Peter Principle.
“It means that each fighter has a level where he’ll win, and a level just above that where he’ll get beat. If he’s matched up to that first level, whether it’s a club fight or a world championship, he’ll look like a champion. If he’s matched against someone on the level above, he’ll look like a loser, a bum. The Peter Principle says that most fighters are matched right up to their limit which is good, and then matched one notch up which destines them to failure.”
“So he sayin’ Tyrone one level above Andrew. I ain’t buyin’ that shit,” Blue said.
“I hate to interrupt this convention of Einsteins.”
Moish’s tone said he wasn’t trying to be funny. It stopped the conversation cold.
“And not that I have to explain myself to any of you schmucks, but Andrew and Tyrone? Ain’t gonna happen—end of story. Any questions?”
“Moish,” Quinny stood up. “We’re just talkin’….”
Moish was already walking away before he could finish—his hand held up signaling he was through. As he walked Moish heard Spoons in the background,
“So who’s Peter?”
A new tension filled Champs. Moish stopped spending time with the regulars. He’d nod but that was it. Andrew went through his routine but he was still stewing. It was uncomfortable. I couldn’t stay away.
Izzy matched Willie the Worm against Kitten Hayward at the Spectrum that month and we all went. I sat with Moish and Andrew—Blue, Chiller, and Billy were a few rows back. Quinny was working as a second in Worm’s corner for Mitt Bailey who was down with the flu.
I got the tickets from Izzy. He’d been unusually nice, giving me seats in the second row for face value. Moish would have bristled had he known and probably not gone out of spite. I lied, told him I got the tickets through the paper.
It was a great fight. Kitten landed some good shots on the Worm but Worm stayed behind his left jab, peppering Kitten’s face. By the sixth both of Kitten’s eyes were hidden behind swollen purple masses making it impossible to see. Ringside doctor Alfred Ayello stopped it in the seventh.
As the cheers for the Worm faded and everyone started to work their way toward the exits, Tyrone got into the ring. Shouting into the announcer’s microphone he publicly challenged Andrew. Tyrone was too close to the mike and the feedback screeched through the loudspeakers. He backed off a few inches and proceeded to question Andrew’s management, his record, and then his manhood.
“Gimme a chance, sucker. I’ll knock yo’ ass clear to the boardwalk in Atlantic City.”
“Das right, champ, you tell ’em. Knock his ass clear to Atlantic City,” echoed some wino following Tyrone in a bad Drew “Bundini” Brown imitation.
Andrew stood up, facing Tyrone directly. Moish grabbed him by the coat.
“Come on. Let’s get the hell outta here.”
Andrew shook him off, not breaking eye contact. Tyrone danced down the ring steps bobbin’ and weavin’, followed by a few fans hanging around for the entertainment, and the press. I saw Izzy off to the side, smiling, and understood why he had been so easy with the seats. A few feet from Andrew, Tyrone started again.
“I’ll knock you out so hard, you think you be hit by a truck on the ’spressway.”
“A truck on the expressway,” the wino repeated.
“So hard you be cryin’ to that little old man next to you to call yo’ mama.”
“Das right, be callin’ yo’ mama.”
“I’ll knock you out so hard….”
Before Tyrone could finish Andrew—the soft-spoken, well-mannered, Lower Merion High School-educated fighter who addressed everyone as Sir or Mister said something that if I hadn’t been standing right next to him, I would have never believed.
With his eyes still locked on Tyrone’s, Andrew raised his hands, palms up, in a questioning gesture:
“Knock me out right now motherfucker.”
Tyrone lunged and a crowd from both sides separated them. Moish had Andrew by the back of his collar yelling in his ear.
“You happy? Now, let’s get the hell outta here.”
As Andrew hustled up the aisle toward the exit with Moish’s hand still tightly gripped around the back of his neck he heard the Bundini-like wino still yelling in his direction,
“Jack him up, side-a-the-head.”
Moish was just finishing his dinner of sardines on Ritz crackers when Blue Washington called.
“You listenin’ to this bullshit?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Tyrone, he on Sports Talk, on the radio. With Lee Goodman.”
Lee Goodman ran a nightly call-in show with guests each night. It was one of those shows that thrived on controversy.
“So what? I’ve heard enough of Tyrone for one lifetime.”
“Moish, turn it on. He talkin’ ’bout you.”
Lee Goodman was talking as Moish adjusted the dial of the old Philco transistor radio he kept on the kitchen counter by the toaster oven.
“Tyrone, are you saying that your fall from ranked contender to local sparring partner was because of bad management?”
“What I’m sayin’ is that my manager here in Philly hooked me up with Eddie Eisner in Vegas. You know, one of them tribal deals. When Eddie turned me out I came back home to start over—pick up the pieces. I went right back to the gym—workin’ with anyone I could. Now I’m in the best shape I ever been in, ready to make a comeback. But my former manager ain’t lettin’ it happen.”
“By former manager, just so the listeners know, you’re referring to Moish Moskowitz. Your relationship with Moish before going to Vegas was like father and son. Why would he block your attempt at a comeback?”
“Eddie Eisner—he dropped me like I was yesterday’s news. I make a comeback, how that make him look? Like I say, one a them tribal things.”
“What exactly doest that mean?”
“You’re implying that there’s a conspiracy between them because they’re both Jewish?”
“Well—if the shoe fits…”
Moish smiled. It was Ali without the charm. Tyrone sounded like an idiot.
“It ain’t right,” Tyrone continued. “Some little old Jewish guy, still livin’ in the past. He got a good fighter in Andrew Franklin. But if he that good, how come he won’t fight me? Moish was a good fighter in his day, too. But he was never the best. Benny Leonard was the best. Maybe that’s it. Maybe he don’t want none of his fighters gettin’ what he couldn’t get for hisself.”
Moish turned off the radio.
PLEASE! He laughed to himself.
Tyrone’s act was a joke, an embarrassment. But as he lay there thinking, the words started to fester. It wasn’t the Jewish conspiracy bullshit or the Benny Leonard jab; those were kind of funny. It was the part about not wanting his fighters to get what he never had for himself. Around ten Moish fell into a restless sleep. He woke with a start. The clock read just past midnight. He felt around on the nightstand for his glasses and fumbled through the pages of his address book. The phone rang seven times before a sleepy voice answered.
“Moish, what the hell…”
“We’ll take the goddamn fight.”
“OK, OK, great!” Izzy Perlman was stumbling, trying to wake up and process what he had just heard.
“I’ll get the contracts over to you tomorrow. Moish, this is the right move. It’s gonna be a hell of a draw.”
Izzy got no response. Moish had hung up.
The fight was six weeks away. It wasn’t long enough. Moish thought about talking to Izzy about a date further out, but decided against it. Six weeks or six months, it wouldn’t matter. The odds of Andrew beating Tyrone were long. Whether or not Moish could get him ready wouldn’t be a matter of prep time.
Andrew was ecstatic.
“Listen to me, Andrew. You’re not ready for this fight. I told you that before. If the fight was tomorrow you wouldn’t last two rounds. We have six weeks. If you do everything I tell you—and I mean everything—you might have a chance.”
Andrew knew Moish was serious. He just couldn’t stop smiling.
“Moish. I won’t disappoint you.”
As Andrew and Moish began to prepare for the biggest and riskiest fight of Andrew’s short career, the atmosphere at Champs changed again. The tension between Andrew and Moish was gone, replaced by a new sense of urgency. You could feel it as soon as you walked in—a heaviness in the air—a pressure. Moish was focused, no time for the regulars, no time for me. I had gotten used to hearing, “Get a shot of this,” or, “Get a shot of that.”
Now, he rarely spoke. When he did it was, “Nick, you’re in the way.” And that was on a good day. On most days it was simply,
“Get the hell outta there.”
I hadn’t seen this side of Moish—all business, impatient, unfriendly, and worst of all, he had stopped joking. I gave him his distance. He didn’t give me a choice. I stayed with the regulars. They even kept a seat for me in the Boardroom. I listened to the ongoing debate about the fight—their voices ratcheting down whenever Moish was close by.
The Boardroom had the odds at about even with a slight edge to Tyrone. Someone said Moish was working after hours with Andrew. I knew exactly what that meant. They were studying the films. I hadn’t been invited. At that point I didn’t care who won, I didn’t like Tyrone or Moish. Our breakfasts at Murray’s were on hold until after the fight. As far as I was concerned it could be indefinitely. Moish had closed the circle. It was a circle of two.
“Tyrone is strong as a bull,” Moish told Andrew one afternoon. “His muscles have muscles.”
Moish usually talked strategy while Andrew worked the heavy bag. He could judge by the subtle and sometimes not so subtle way Andrew’s punches landed whether or not he was getting his point across.
“You need to break those muscles down.”
Pop—pop—pop. Andrew threw three successive hooks.
“I was in San Francisco once with a fighter named King Kong Williams. We were on Fisherman’s Wharf where they sell all these giant crabs and lobsters.”
Pop—pop—pop. Three jabs cracked high on the bag.
“Anyway, they got this thing called abalone. It’s like a big clam only sweeter than any clam you ever tasted. It’s a delicacy. But it don’t start out that way.”
Andrew’s knees bent. He dipped left just as Moish sent the bag hurling his way. It sailed past him. Pivoting off his back foot, he cracked a hard straight right as it swung back.
“When they first pull this abalone out of the ocean and open its shell, it’s tough—tough as nails—cause it’s all muscle. It don’t appreciate being pulled out of its home to begin with, and it definitely don’t want to become dinner for some shmuck in a restaurant. So it fights—fights with everything it’s got—all muscle. The guys on the Wharf, they take these wooden mallets and they start hammerin’—over and over—bam, bam, bam.
“Eventually the abalone can’t hold out any more. It’s got nothin’ left to give. The constant pounding breaks down the muscle till there’s nothin’ left but soft meat. You understand what I’m getting’ at?”
Pop—pop—pop. Three more hooks connected louder than the earlier ones signaling yes.
“That’s what you gotta do to Tyrone. His arms are like that abalone. Your fists are the mallets. You gotta hammer and keep hammerin’ till you break that muscle down. Then you can go headhunting ’cause he won’t have nothin’ left to defend with.”
Andrew followed every word Moish said. Watching from the sidelines you could see the transformation. Each day his punches were a little crisper, more accurate, his movement more fluid, and there was a whole new level of focus. Moish was leading Andrew Franklin to the dark side—shape-shifting him from polite and personable to all business—to that place where champions live. At three weeks out the Boardroom odds were starting to move in Andrew’s direction.
During one sparring session Andrew hit Tiny Morris with a right cross that broke his nose. Tiny fell back against the ropes, blood pouring from both nostrils. Instead of backing off and letting a new partner take over Andrew went off on him, firing combinations from both sides. It took Moish and two others to pull him back.
“Lawd have mercy,” Chiller Williams said. “Moish done pulled a Houdini.”
I was late for work and walking fast to the newspaper from the parking lot when I saw Blue Washington. He was leaning against the wall outside the employee entrance wearing a full-length black leather coat over a black turtleneck sweater, a cigarette dangling from his lips. It was a cold Philly morning. The collar of his coat was turned up and a cloud of smoke streamed from his mouth through the crisp morning air. Blue looked like he could have been a double for Richard Roundtree in Shaft. It was ten days before the fight.
I had never seen any of the regulars outside of their world, it was always at Champs, at the fights, or Loretta’s High Hat. Standing outside of the paper, Blue looked bigger, more intimidating. I could see the security guard inside the entrance watching as he paced the sidewalk.
“What’s happening?” I asked.
“It’s Moish. He dead.”
I grasped for words and came up empty.
“What? . . How? . .”
“This morning. When he didn’t pick Andrew up for his roadwork this morning Andrew waited on the corner for about an hour, then ran all the way to Moish’s place. No one answered so he called the police. When they got there they busted in and found him in bed. The ambulance guy said he could tell that he had died sometime last night—died in his sleep. Said he didn’t suffer none.”
The funeral was held at Congregation Adath Shalom on Ritner Street in South Philadelphia, Moish’s old neighborhood. The rabbi was old, I guessed around ninety. Someone said he had been there since the twenties.
He would have known Moish from the old days, I thought. Would have been here when Moish fought Midget.
The rabbi was talking to a small woman with a black shawl over her head. After a few minutes he gently put his hand on her shoulder. She nodded and took a seat off to the side, the area usually reserved for family.
The main room in the temple was big. Every one of the old wooden chairs was filled, latecomers spilling into the balcony. There was a group in front, older Jewish men and woman who must have known Moish when he lived there. I scanned their faces wondering if Becca Rosen was among them. I wondered if she and Hymie were still married, what she’d look like today, or if either of them were even alive.
Sitting in the section next to the older Jewish crowd was Bennie, Worm, Kitten, Cyclone and both Joes—Frazier and Gypsy. Tyrone Everett and his brother Mike were there, too, as were Russell Peltz, Georgie Benton, Eddie Futch, Andrew and everyone from Champs. The Boardroom took up a whole row. It was a who’s who of Philadelphia boxing except for Tyrone. Tyrone was a no-show.
The crowd crossed both demographic and cultural boundaries, each group talking among themselves, each keeping a cautious eye on the other. When the rabbi stepped up, the room got quiet.
“I’ve done a lot of funerals,” he started in a dark, somber tone.
He was dressed in black with a long grey beard, bushy eyebrows, and a white silk scarf-like garment filled with Hebrew symbols hanging from his shoulders. He spoke with a heavy accent.
“I don’t know, maybe too many.”
“Ven somebody dies, everyvon talks about it like it’s something special. Of course I don’t say anything to interfere vith their grieving, but I alvays tink to myself, Vat’s the big deal? You liff long enough, you get old—you die.” He shrugged his shoulders. “It happens.”
His words caught me by surprise. A few from the older Jewish group laughed. A few in the black section uttered “amen.” Some, including me, were nervous, not exactly sure where this was headed. I looked around the room. There had to be at least 200 people on the main floor, maybe 75 more both seated and standing in the balcony.
“But, to liff as long as Moishe Moskowitz did,” the rabbi continued. “Seventy-eight years—long past his loving vife Anna—long past his parents, may they rest in peace, and vithout any children of his own—to liff dat long and still fill a room vit dis many people,” the rabbi made a sweeping gesture with his arm across the room,
“Dis many people of all ages and colors who are here just because they loved him—dat vud be something to talk about. Dat vud be a big deal.”
A graveside service followed. I stood with Blue and Chiller and the others from Champs. When it was over Curtis Parks said, “We headin’ to the Loretta’s. You comin’?”
Most of the cars and mourners had gone. I looked back one last time. The little woman with the black shawl was the only one left. She was kneeling at the grave next to the tent that shaded Moish’s coffin.
“I’ll catch up with you guys.”
I was never comfortable at funerals. Now it was just me, a couple of workers waiting to lower the coffin, and the woman in the shawl. Though I had never seen her before she was somehow familiar. I waited by a big oak tree. She was smaller than I originally thought, maybe five feet at best. Her face was old, filled with wrinkles and age spots, but her nose was perfectly straight and sat between two high cheekbones. Her brown eyes sparkled in the sunlight. When she stood, I walked toward her.
“Hi,” I said, extending my hand. “I’m Nick. I was…”
“Oh I know who you are, young man. You’re Nick Ceratto.”
She took my hand in hers.
“You were very special to Moishe.”
Her hand was soft, warm.
“I’m Julia, Anna’s sister.”
I stood there fumbling. She continued like we were old friends.
“Ha!” she laughed. “Moishe never knew what to say around women either. Would you like to have a cup of tea with me?”
As we walked toward where the few remaining cars were parked, Julia slipped her arm through mine.
We rode in the limo that Julia had arrived in. She insisted, saying her driver would bring me back for my car. When I hesitated she looked around the cemetery.
“Don’t worry, dear. It’s not like anyone here is gonna steal it.”
I don’t remember much from that ride until we turned into an entrance bordered by two large black wrought iron gates, somewhere just off Lancaster Avenue in Bryn Mawr. The house that sat at the end of a cobblestone drive was bigger than some apartment buildings I had lived in.
Julia led me to the living room. It looked more like an art museum. She disappeared, returning with a tray of tea and cookies.
“Not exactly lox and eggs at Murray’s, but the cookies are pretty good.”
I looked at her.
“Oh, I know all about your Friday-morning breakfasts at Murray’s. It was your special time with Moishe, right? Well, Moishe and I, we had our special time too. Sunday morning brunches, right here.”
Julia had a way about her.
“This is quite a house,” I said.
“Yeah, not bad for a working-class girl from West Philly, huh? My husband, Richard, he’s been gone for some time now but he did pretty well for himself, real estate mostly. Looks like I’m pretty rich, don’t ya think?”
I was about to answer but Julia continued talking, just like Moish.
“I guess some would say I am. But let me tell ya, I’ve seen real wealth and it ain’t this. Real wealth is what Moishe and Anna had, even when they didn’t have a dime to their name.”
Julia continued between sips of tea. Two cups of Earl Grey later I knew more about Moish than I had learned in all my time with him.
“Oh, they had their share of troubles. Anna’s health and Moishe’s not finding work when the boxing was over, and then that horrible accident that took Anna’s best friend. Theirs was not an easy life. But they had each other and with that, it was like the rest didn’t matter. Well, except for maybe that time they repossessed Moishe’s Cadillac. He loved that car.”
“My Richard, he was a good provider as you can see, but that was about it. We didn’t have what they had. We needed the Main Line. They would have been happy living in a box. The four of us weren’t close. Richard and Moishe, well, oil and water would have made a better couple. Richard was jealous of Moishe, and he never missed a chance to annoy him. Whenever we were out together, which wasn’t that often, Richard would always start. First it would be something sarcastic, usually about Jews. Once he got Moishe’s attention he’d start in on that car.
“‘So,’ he’d say. ‘You’re driving a Cadillac but you still live on Catherine Street.’
“Then, when he saw Moishe was just about to lose his temper, he’d call him ‘nigger rich.’ I always hated that expression.
“Moishe would turn deep red and clench his fists. But he always walked away. That’s how much he loved my sister.”
Julia laughed at the memory. Her laugh was soft.
“I don’t think Richard had any idea how many times Moishe’s love for Anna prevented Moishe from beating the hell out of him.”
Julia smiled at the thought.
“I kinda wish that just once it would have happened.”
“Moishe and Anna, they had love, real love. And when my sister died I saw a part of Moishe die with her. Oh, he went through the motions, had his friends at the gym and such, but it was like that spark that was so much a part of who he was had gone out.” She paused again. “Until he met you.”
“Yes. You, Nick Ceratto. You were very special to Moishe. He loved you.”
She must have seen the shock on my face.
“Of course he’d never show it. He was Moishe Moskowitz. And you being a man, and,” she laughed again, “stupid in a way that all men are, you wouldn’t know it either. But he did. How do you think I know so much about you? It was about all he talked about. When you won that prize at the Press Club, he was so proud of you!”
“I can’t say I ever got that sense from him.”
“You wouldn’t. That’s Moishe. A man in a man’s world.”
“I have heard that line.”
“Ya know I hadn’t thought about this in years, but there was a time…”
Julia took another sip and leaned back with her eyes closed. For a second it was like she went back to another place, another time. I faked a cough and she snapped back.
“When Moishe and Anna first got together, they talked a lot about a family. That was their dream. A daughter that Anna could dress up and a son that Moishe could mold in his image ….”
Julia closed her eyes and smiled again.
“It was all they talked about. ‘I’ll start him in the gym early,’ Moishe would say. ‘Ya gotta start ’em early. I’ll teach him everything I know.’ He would go on and on. ‘So hurry up and start this perfect family already,’ I said. ‘I’m tired of hearing about it.’ ‘Believe me,’ Anna said. ‘We’re tryin’.’ Moishe was so embarrassed!”
Julia’s smile faded.
“Then Anna got sick. It wasn’t the cancer, it was the other thing. She got better, but the doctors told them the chances of her getting pregnant weren’t good and, even if she did, it would be very risky. After Anna got home from the hospital they stopped talking about a family, never mentioned it again.”
A small tear ran down Julia’s cheek.
“When Richard died, Anna and Moishe started including me in everything. We had dinner together every Sunday. Then, when Anna died, Moishe and I stayed close. We kept our regular Sundays, just shifted from dinner to brunch.”
It was an unexpected ending to what should have been a sad day. But it wasn’t. Talking to Julia and hearing about Moish, it was like he was still there. I left promising to come back for another visit. I never did.
The fight between Andrew Franklin and Tyrone Braxton took place on Monday, a week after Moish’s funeral. Blue Washington and Billy Dee were in his corner. It had been promoted as an evening of rivalries; both city and neighborhood bragging rights at stake. In Philly that generated enough local interest to fill the Spectrum. Andrew and Tyrone were up first. As the announcer stood with the microphone he paused.
“Before we start, let’s take a moment to pay tribute to one of the top lightweights of the 1930s, one of Philadelphia’s own. A true boxing legend who passed away a week ago Friday: “Battling” Moish Moskowitz.”
Heads bowed as the bell rang ten times, each chime reverberating through the silence.
Andrew entered the ring first. He worked his way down the aisle the same way he had always done with Moish, hood up, on his toes, a glove on each of Blue Washington’s shoulders. Blue held the top and middle ropes as Andrew ducked into the ring, dancing to a thunderous cheer. Tyrone would keep him waiting another five minutes. Some things never change. When Tyrone finally did start his journey from the dressing room, there was none of the dancing and smiles he had done in Vegas, no high fives or stopping to talk along the way. He walked down the aisle with hood off and eyes focused—more of a swagger than a walk—one with bad intentions.
Tyrone and Andrew eyed each other in the center of the ring as referee Tommy Lane went over the instructions. It wasn’t the typical stare-down; more like each looking through the other. They were only a few years apart. Standing there under the hot Spectrum lights Andrew looked about five years younger than his twenty-four years and Tyrone, at least a decade older than his twenty-nine. As they touched gloves Tyrone leaned in toward Andrew.
“Ain’t no Moish wit’ you tonight. Jus’ you and me now, chump.”
Round 1 was a feeling-out round—feeling out Philly style. Each landed power shots; each showed the other they could take it. Andrew was tense—not intimidated or nervous—just tense. Tyrone was detached, loose, almost mechanical.
Andrew’s hands were fast, his jab continually jackhammering Tyrone’s face. Tyrone shifted back enough to not let most of them do any damage. At the end of the round Tyrone sat in his corner taking a series of deep breaths. Andrew refused to sit.
“Work the body,” Blue said. “Dig to the body first. Then come on top with the two.”
In Tyrone’s corner were two Cloverlay regulars: Sonny Williams and cut man Arch Anderson.
“Take your time,” Sonny said. “He’s comin’ in desperate. Keep movin’ to the right and let him play himself out.”
Andrew stepped up the intensity in the second round, nailing Tyrone with three consecutive body shots that stopped him cold, followed by a hook to the head that barely missed.
“FINISH HIM!” Blue Washington yelled from the corner.
Andrew heard, but the power shots and nervous tension had taken their toll. He was momentarily gassed. Tyrone countered, stepping up his attack, backing Andrew into the ropes and unleashing eleven unanswered shots.
Andrew continued his attack to the body in rounds 3, 4, and 5. He landed almost twice as many shots as Tyrone. Tyrone showed his experience and ring generalship, moving forward and stepping up the exchange just before the bell at the end of each round.
By round 6 each fighter had inflicted damage, and each had paid a price. Andrew was the busier fighter, Tyrone picking his shots. Tyrone had landed a hard uppercut just under Andrew’s left eye in the fourth followed by a series of jabs to the same spot in the fifth. The eye was swollen and starting to reach grotesque proportions. On the advice of his corner Andrew continued to break Tyrone’s body down with repeated liver shots. Tyrone felt a searing pain with each breath.
Going into the tenth Tyrone was ahead six rounds to three on two of the judges’ cards, five rounds to four on the other, and he was tired. Up on his toes through the first minute of round 10 Andrew stalked Tyrone. Tyrone’s legs started to give and Andrew backed him into the ropes. A left hook to Tyrone’s midsection brought his arms down just enough for Andrew to connect with a three-punch combination to the head. Tyrone raised his gloves, weathering the storm.
Andrew backed off for a blow. It was all Tyrone needed. A straight right followed by a left uppercut followed by another right had all 8,000 fans out of their seats. Andrew’s legs buckled. He locked on to Tyrone’s neck in a clinch that was the only thing holding him up. Referee Tommy Lane broke the fighters and Andrew danced away awkwardly on his toes, desperately trying to get his legs back. He danced until he heard the bell.
Blue was right in front of him, studying his eyes.
“Andrew, we need these two rounds. Whatever you gots, you gots to give it now. You understand what I’m sayin’?’
Andrew took a pull from the water bottle, swirled it in his mouth, and spit in the bucket. The cool liquid felt good on his throat.
Somewhere in the sixty seconds between the time he could barely find his corner at the end of the tenth and the beginning of the eleventh, Andrew Franklin found a second wind. Charging out at the bell he landed three hard jabs on a surprised Tyrone Braxton. Tyrone backed into the ropes. Andrew unloaded a flurry that looked as crisp and fresh as round one. Tyrone blocked most of the shots until a short left hook connected flush on his liver with such force that his mouthpiece went flying. He dropped to one knee gasping for air. Tommy Lane waved Andrew to a neutral corner and started his count. Tyrone was on his feet at eight. Andrew moved in to finish his now defenseless nemesis. Tyrone instinctively moved in angles to minimize the barrage.
When Andrew connected with another hook to the liver, Tyrone grimaced and instinctively dropped his hands to protect. It was just enough. Andrew landed a right cross that cracked flush into Tyrone’s nose. It was a knockout shot—one of those shots that Moish would have said, “define a fight.” Andrew felt a pop and knew he had connected. He took a step back clearing a path for Tyrone to fall forward. He didn’t. Instead Tyrone just stood there looking directly at Andrew, like nothing had happened.
Andrew would remain fuzzy on exactly what happened next. His vision on the left was limited. The swelling around his eye had softened the edges of everything. He couldn’t see detail, only shadows; shadows without boundaries. He never saw the haymaker that landed on his right ear. It, too, came as a shadow, a fast-moving cloud across a field under an otherwise clear blue sky. He didn’t feel it either, but he heard it. BOOM! It sounded like and explosion, like the roof had fallen in. As percussive sound waves bounced back and forth between Andrew’s middle and inner ear, the space that controls the equilibrium, the Spectrum became a roller coaster. He staggered, trying to negotiate a canvas that had turned into a series of hills, dips, and curves. Andrew did see the right uppercut that followed, but he couldn’t respond, he could only watch. It snapped his head forcing his feet out from under him.
Almost ten minutes would pass before the ring doctor would let Andrew get up. The sound around him was still jumbled, like a bunch of white noise mixed with a ringing. He was dizzy. Blue and Chiller each put an arm around their shoulders and led him back to the dressing room. Andrew looked at the faces of the fans on his way out. It didn’t make any sense. They were on their feet applauding him. The doctor checked him again in the dressing room. A half-hour later they opened the door for the press.
The room was dark. What little light there was hurt Andrew’s eyes and his head pounded with every blink. Blue had turned the overhead fluorescent off. When the door opened the spillover light from the hallway bathed the room in a soft glow, reducing everything to shape and shadow.
Andrew sat with a towel wrapped around his waist and an icepack across the back of his neck. Blue and Chiller were still trying to figure out what had happened.
“Andrew had the motherfucker,” Blue said. “Tyrone should have never come back from that body shot.”
Chiller just shook his head.
Spoons sat in the corner, eyes watering.
Everyone in the room was down, everyone except Andrew. Andrew sat on the old training table, legs hanging over the side, posture perfectly straight, trying not to move his head.
Walt Richards, a sports reporter with the Daily News, sat next to him with a notebook balanced on his lap scribbling notes in the dark.
“I did exactly what Moish told me to do.” Andrew said. “I gave it everything I had—we both did. I left it all in the ring. So did he. Tyrone is a great fighter. Tonight he was the better man.”
Outside the dressing room Quinny McCallum was giving his take on the fight to Walt DelPalazzo from the Evening Bulletin.
“Tyrone beat Andrew by the same principle that allows the rabbit, when chased, to outrun the fox.”
DelPalazzo looked at Quinny, who paused for effect.
“The fox is built bigger, stronger, faster, and with more endurance. But the fox is only running for his supper, the rabbit’s running for his life.”
I stopped going to Champs after that fight. I thought about it—thought about Blue and Chiller and Spoons and everyone—but without Moish, I don’t know, it just wasn’t a place I wanted to be. For a while I stayed connected from a distance through the Sports pages. I followed Andrew’s three fights after the loss to Tyrone. He won the first two. In the third he took a brutal beating from Tim Withers. Withers had fought for the title in ’72. When he faced Andrew his career was pretty much done. He was just looking for one last payday. The unexpected win put him back in the mix. Boxing’s a funny game.
Andrew announced his retirement after that fight. At age 26 he intended to fulfill his parents’ dream: he was going to college. Tyrone—I had expected to start seeing his name regularly again. It didn’t happen. I asked the Sports guys at the paper. No one seemed to know anything. It was like he walked out of the Spectrum that night and disappeared.
I focused on work. Besides boxing, it was the only thing I had. After the Press Club win I started getting some of the better assignments. Life changes. Just like when Tyrone left for Las Vegas and I started to see a whole other level of things at Champs. When I stopped looking at the paper as a day job, it, too, took on a whole new depth.
I loved music. My assignments took me into the heart of the city’s jazz scene. I volunteered for most of the club assignments. No one else wanted them anyway. After work I’d go back and catch the jam sessions that followed the sets. When I wasn’t working I’d hang out in the rundown apartments and basements where the locals played, rehearsed, drank, rehearsed and played some more, quietly capturing every detail with my Leica.
Boxing faded from my life, until that phone call from Dr. Perry Johnson.
“I was wondering if you’d be interested in showing some of your work at the Temple University Gallery.”
Perry Johnson was a local fight fan. He was also an art history professor at Temple University and in charge of the gallery there. He had been to Champs and had seen my photos.
Five months after Moish died and Tyrone beat Andrew Franklin, The Gallery at Temple University held an opening for a one-man show entitled “The Middleweights.” There was wine and cheese. Framed 20x24-inch black-and-white images of Tyrone and Andrew and Bennie and Worm and Kitten and Cyclone and the regulars in the Boardroom hung on the freshly painted walls. Just inside the entrance to The Gallery was a table and a guest sign-in book. It was the first thing you saw. On the wall above the guest book was a photo of a little old man, his bare fists up in a classic boxing stance. The title under the photo read:
Moish Moskowitz: Boxer, Trainer, Friend.
I arrived an hour before the opening. Dr. Johnson was already there talking to a large balding man in a white suit with a pink carnation in the lapel. He looked like one of those floats in the Thanksgiving Day Parade. I immediately recognized him.
“Nick, I’m glad you’re here. I want to introduce you to Hardy Prince. Hardy is . .”
“I know who he is. I’ve been to F8 many times.”
F8 was the premier gallery in New York for documentary photography. Hardy Prince represented Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and Gordon Parks. His gallery was a who’s who of the arts’ elite. I had been there several times. Going to F8 for a documentary photographer was a pilgrimage. It was where I first saw an actual print of Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the man being executed in the streets of Vietnam.
“Your boxing photos are very powerful,” he said.
“I’d like to show some in my gallery. I have a business meeting that I’m on my way to across town. Maybe we could talk over a glass of wine after the show?
Blue, Quinny, and Chiller came together. Blue, in a three-quarter-length chocolate brown leather coat with a belt over a light beige turtleneck and brown alligator loafers looked like a celebrity at the Oscars. The four of us toasted being back together as Quinny gave a history lesson on Temple University and its commitment to keeping an institution of higher learning in the inner city.
“I don’t know ‘bout all that higher-education shit,” Blue said. “But let me tell ya’ll somethin’, year before last, when Steve Joachim was quarterback for the Owls and Henry Hynowski was his leading rusher, that was one tough motherfuckin’ team.”
Billy Dee came with Curtis Parks. Andrew Franklin was invited but had to work. No one thought to arrange for a ride for Spoons. I didn’t invite Tyrone—wouldn’t have known where to find him had I wanted to.
The room was filled with fighters, friends and colleagues from the paper, musicians, and a whole lot of art students from the university. About an hour into the opening there was a commotion near the entrance. I looked over and saw a crowd begin to congregate. As the crowd started moving I could see Dr. Perry Johnson using his arms to clear the way for Joe Frazier.
As the evening wore down Billy Dee found me in the crowd.
“We headin’ to the High Hat. Come on with us.”
“That’s the best offer I’ve had all night,” I said. Then I saw Hardy Prince. He was back from his meeting.
The show was reviewed the following day in the Arts & Entertainment section of the Journal.
“The gritty black-and-white images of Philadelphia’s boxing world are the work of Nick Ceratto, a contender in his own right who seems destined for championship status.”
That summer, a new club, Just Jazz opened on Arch Street. It had a dozen small cabaret tables and a menu that featured ribs, burgers and a special Sangria that defined that summer of 1975 in Philly. George Benson was booked for the opening. Benson hadn’t come into the mainstream music success he would see a few years later and the small room was filled mostly with jazz people. In between sets I went to the bar for a glass of water. John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things was playing.
The bartender was blonde with long hair, long legs, candy-apple red nails, and a flower print blouse just loose enough that when she leaned over to take my order, the rest of the room faded to black. Her name was Linda. We went out the following week. She was a student at Moore College of Art. I suggested lobster at Bookbinders. She countered with hot dogs at Levis. It was where Moish and Anna met.
Our first date was on a warm August night. After getting to know each other for a couple of hours over foot-longs and cherry cokes we drove to Fairmont Park. Sparkling yellow fireflies danced across the blue/black city skyline. We took off our shoes and sat on the hood of my Buick Riviera, her head resting on my shoulder. That February we were married.
The wedding lasted well into the night courtesy of my new musician friends who jammed with improvisational takes on Hava Nagila until almost 3 AM. We spent most of the night working the room to make sure everyone had a good time. When we finally got undressed and into bed at the hotel we were both ecstatic and exhausted. I reached in my camera bag, saying I needed to document the moment. Linda started to protest, then smiled. Instead of a camera I pulled out a bottle of Dom Perignon and two crystal flutes.
While my career continued to ascend, some 2,000 miles away another was slowly crashing. Tyrone Braxton sat in a dressing room he shared with several dancers at an after-hours club called Fat City in Stockton, California. It was a strip club from noon until 1 AM when they closed the doors and opened up a private, guest-only party. Boxing was the featured entertainment. It was Tyrone’s third fight that month.
He was still a middleweight, still exactly a hundred and sixty pounds. But the six-pack abs and chiseled biceps were softer now, the hardened scar tissue that formed along the ridges above both eyes now also lined the veins that ran along the inside of his forearms. These were new scars, scars from an opponent more formidable than any he had ever faced in the ring. Tyrone had fixed that morning, part of an advance on the night. It was his routine, the routine that produced his best fights. This night would be different.
An infection in his arm just below the elbow had swollen to a golf-ball size lump. He had drained it with a razor blade but the infection had taken its toll. He was tired, lethargic. He was fighting a new guy in town, a white guy with Aryan Nation tattoos across his chest and back. It was the usual deal. He was to make sure there were at least three good rounds—letting his opponent get in a few shots, landing a few himself—nothing too damaging. After the third round he was free to finish any way he liked. Typically that meant a knockout in the fourth.
An unexpected perk that came with the heightened career status was some pretty good money. Not championship money like Tyrone had dreamed about, but more than I had ever thought I’d see. It was enough to buy us a nice house on a tree-lined street and a one-caret diamond for Linda. I was successful, we were flush, and my Leica could open almost any door in town. It seemed like life couldn’t get any better.
The strippers at the club loved him. He’d hang out on the floor for a few hours before closing time and, more than once, stepped in when a patron crossed the line. He usually had his choice of who he went home with.
The club supplied Tyrone with a room in a nearby hotel, meals, and the heroin he now depended on—high-quality stuff delivered regularly to his door along with some pocket money. He had found his niche: an ex-athlete-current-junkie-Philadelphia-street-tough dream come true.
When Fat City owner John Ruby knocked on the door, Tyrone was just waking up. It was half past noon. Ruby had a proposition. The Aryan was a heavyweight pro, recently retired from a career that had gone down fast. He had lost his last four fights. Ruby had been at the last two. He’d be an easy mark for Tyrone.
“He was overmatched in the last one,” Ruby said. “You know how that is, Tyrone.”
“Anyways, I’m thinkin’ the two of you, you know, two ex-pros, black against white, bangin’ it out for the Championship of Fat City. It’ll be a hell of a show. I know there’s the weight difference with him bein’ a heavyweight and all, but hey, that’s never been a problem for you.”
Tyrone had taken all comers at Fat City regardless of size, shape or condition. If you wanted to take a chance on beating the one-time pro who almost made it to the top, he’d give you at least three rounds.
“If you’re game, there’s an extra thousand in it for you.”
Tyrone ate light that day, eggs and toast for breakfast and a salad for lunch. He wasn’t worried, just tired. And his arm had started to throb. Tyrone hadn’t followed professional boxing in a long time, but he knew the Aryan’s name. He wasn’t sure exactly what the night would bring. The delivery came at the usual time.
“I got a present from Mr. Ruby. He told me about tonight. Gonna be a hell of a show. Listen, let me make a suggestion. Cut your fix this morning in half, just enough to take the edge off. Tonight, about an hour before the fight, do the other half; and add a little of this. It’ll put you on top of the world. The motherfucker won’t have a chance.”
It sounded like a good strategy; as good as any Moish had ever designed. That night Tyrone Braxton experienced his first speedball. It was everything Diamond Jim the deliveryman had said. Tyrone danced into the ring, bouncing on his toes. He glared at his opponent who was about five inches taller than Tyrone with “White Lightning” tattooed across his chest, no front teeth, and a body that looked like it might have been in shape once upon a time.
This is gonna be an easy grand, Tyrone thought.
The fight lasted exactly forty-two seconds. It took Tyrone several minutes to figure out where he was, several more to get up. He could hear the boos from those in the crowd who had bet heavily on their local favorite, and the cheers from the few who had gone the other way. John Ruby was charging toward the ring. Tyrone knew by the way he was moving that he had bet according to his sentiments. He heard Big Pete, the bartender who doubled as the announcer in the background,
“And the winner, by knockout in forty-two seconds of the first round: Len…“White Lightning” …Lewis.”
Then he heard John Ruby.
“That was pathetic you washed-up piece a shit. Don’t think you’re gettin’ a dime for that poor excuse of a performance.”
Time is a funny thing. Turns out my idea of photos creating more questions than answers that Jack Wolf had dismissed from a young stringer as “too artsy-fartsy” took on a whole new significance from an older established veteran. The concept hit just at the right time; just as newspaper photography was starting to get lost in the sensory override quagmire of coverage by two fledgling 24-hour cable TV programs: CNN and ESPN.
My approach was different. I didn’t tell the story through the peak moments of the events; the networks now covered that. I focused on what was happening in between. It created a whole other perspective, a parallel universe with a different point of view. By a combination of good timing and good luck, it was the shot in the arm the photography profession was searching for.
Linda would occasionally bring up the idea of children. She was careful, picking her moments and keeping it casual. I always responded the same,
“Absolutely. But it’s too crazy now. Let’s wait until work slows down a little.”
She’d smile and drop it, both of us knowing it was just my bullshit way saying no. I guess I was too absorbed in me to see how important it was to her.
Black-and-white photo reportage was an art whose images had defined history. What boomer could ever forget the shot of a three-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s coffin? We grieved together over that photo! Or that fear and uncertainty we felt seeing Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, James Beard, and Billy Kyles standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis over the body of a slain Martin Luther King Jr. pointing in the direction of where the shots had been fired? Or that photo of four long-hair musicians from Liverpool descending the Pan Am steps at Kennedy airport for their first U.S. visit, the one that showed the over-thirty population what we already knew; a significant musical change was in the air. Those images and hundreds like them are burned into our collective consciousness. They speak directly to where we came from, to who we are.
Almost overnight that kind of photography was gone, replaced by postcard-like pictures of the Albuquerque Balloon Race and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was color over content, color for the sake of color, and everybody loved it; everybody except the traditional photographers—like me.
Though it would take years to fully play itself out, USA Today signaled the end of an era. Soon after its publication the old darkrooms with their acrid smell of Dektol developer and potassium ferricyanide and their soft, warm glow from amber-colored safelights vanished. With them went most of the old-school photographers, too.
Today it’s mostly a bunch of college kids with digital cameras and laptop computers using Photoshop. USA Today revolutionized the industry. Many in the business would say it was the best thing that ever happened to newspapers. Color was the new world order. Digital took it one step further, eliminating the darkroom and chemical mess. For me, it ranked right up there with the Iowa plane crash in February 1959 that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper. It was the day the music died.
After living together for almost 26 years Linda and I had pretty much built a life around the assumption that we’d grow old together. We had fallen in love a year before the Bicentennial and had brought in the Millennium together. We were both past the half century mark, and, while fifty may very well be the new forty and neither of us thought of ourselves or each other as anything close to getting old, we did find ourselves more and more in conversation about what was ahead. We knew we’d be together. But should it be in the mountains, or at the beach? It had been more than a quarter century since I first walked into Champs Gym. I had all but forgotten Tyrone Braxton and Andrew Franklin and Blue Washington, Chiller, Billy Dee, Quinny and Spoons. I hadn’t thought about Moish either.
It was a little after 5 PM. The autumn sun was low over the city. The music was turned up loud as I sautéed some fresh garlic and basil for a red sauce. Miles Davis was half way through Round Midnight when the phone rang.
“Nick, this is Dr. Lanciano. I have the results of your test.”
I had known all day that the call was coming. It still caught me by surprise.
“The tumor is an 8 on the Gleason scale, which is not good. You have stage two prostate cancer. But it appears to be localized, which is good. I’m recommending we operate as quickly as possible. I’ve scheduled you for surgery at 6 AM Monday morning.”
Time stopped. It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach and couldn’t catch my breath. I smelled the garlic in the kitchen starting to burn, but I couldn’t move.
“I’m recommending we operate.”
Before he even finished the sentence I knew that the world as I knew it had changed. My world, my safety net of comfort and well-being—that grow-old-together, happily-ever-after world that Linda and I had constructed with such certainty dissolved in an instant. In its wake was a terror of the unknown—a terror that rose up and smacked me in the face like a Tyrone Braxton left hook. I immediately knew the folly of my illusions. There is no net. There never was.
I read somewhere that we create heroes and villains out of a basic need to have heroes and villains. It’s what makes a great fight—justifies those who play outside the lines. I guess that might be true. Moish Moskowitz certainly fell into my hero category and Tyrone, well, let’s just say he didn’t. Moish was all about relationships.
“It’s the moments you have and who you spend them with. That’s it.” He had said. “The rest is just bullshit.”
Looking back I go right to the moments, my time with Linda, family time. It is all about the moments. And I’m right there with Moish. Solidarity.
Tyrone, he was all about himself, his agenda, his championship, his career. If you fit into his plan, he loved you. If not, he wouldn’t give you the time of day. Of course there was that relationship between Tyrone and Mavis. It was a relationship built on moments of unconditional love. But, hey, once you put a villain tag on someone, you have to disregard anything that doesn’t fit the story.
So I remember the selected moments that fit the story: my story. But what about all those awards and trophies that fill the walls and shelves of my home? The ones that stand as testimonials to how I spent almost every moment of the past quarter century, to why I was never home for dinner and always too busy to talk about having children. They would speak to an agenda not unlike Tyrone’s. Maybe it’s not as black and white as I’d like to think. Maybe it is just a series of moments—moments with choices—choices that, depending on how you put them together, in the end come together and define a life story.
What really happened during that short period of time in 1974? I guess it depends on who you ask. Kind of like what they say about the truth: which version? The last big event of the period was the fight: Andrew Franklin vs. Tyrone Braxton—good guy vs. bad. Tyrone won—on that there isn’t any question. But is that the whole story? How the hell did Tyrone get up from that body shot? He not only got up, he went on to take a power shot to the face that would have sent anyone else into retirement. Either of those shots should have ended the fight. Was the cagey veteran really that tough, too much for the up-and-comer? Or was that just one version?
A couple of years after the fight, Tom Fitzgerald, an investigative reporter for the Journal was looking into corruption in the Philadelphia boxing world—kind of like looking into sand at the beach. He came across a loan shark who talked about that fight—said that Tyrone had been into him for ten grand. He remembered a conversation he had with Tyrone prior to the fight. He had asked Tyrone how confident he was that he could beat Andrew Franklin.
“Look here,” Tyrone responded. “I already called my mother and told her to clear a page in her scrapbook—already called the papers and told them to write the story. Ain’t no way at the end of the fight anybody but me be raisin’ his arms.”
The shark told him that was good, because he had bet a lot of his own money for it to go exactly that way. He then said that if it did, it would square the ten large. He also told him what would happen if it didn’t. It was one of those moments.
When the bell sounded for round 1, Tyrone faced two opponents. Andrew Franklin was right in front of him for all to see. The shark holding the ten thousand dollar marker, well, he would have only been visible to Tyrone. And maybe, just maybe, in the eleventh round, when that right cross cracked square into Tyrone’s nose sending signals through every neuron in his body to the primal core of his brain stem saying, “Go down. Give Andrew Franklin his due and live to fight another day,” just maybe, at that moment, Tyrone looked up and saw both opponents. Maybe Andrew, the one following the Marquis of Queensberry rules was the easier of the two. And maybe, just maybe as Quinny McCallum had said, the rabbit really was running for his life. Either way, both Andrew and Tyrone emerged with what they needed. And maybe that’s the end of the story. Or maybe this is one of those stories that isn’t quite finished yet.
But life’s a tough topic to get your arms around. For one thing, at fifty you’re still in the middle of it. Perspective and understanding usually require a stepping out, a detachment, a distance to really see the center.
That phone call from Dr. Lanciano had done that—took me momentarily out of the circle—gave me the distance I needed to see.
“It’s stage two prostate cancer, I’m recommending we operate.”
In that moment a whole new picture emerged. It was that quick, that easy. One phone call—a couple of words. It changed everything.
Moish viewed life with that kind of detached clarity. He had his share of failures. The fight with Midget, it was big on a local level but he never did make a mark past that. And when Anna got sick and he couldn’t fight anymore, there was the never-ending series of dead-end jobs and mounting bills. When Tyrone went to Vegas and then came back and targeted Moish like he did. If anyone had reason to add it up to failure, it would have been Moish. But he never did. For him all of those things were just curves in the road, “Bugs on the windshield of life,” he once said. Moish never really cared about winning, only about the way he played. And up until his last moment, he was in the game.
I spent the weekend leading up to the surgery and the weeks that followed immersed in all the research on prostate cancer, on death, and on everything in between. The surgery was easy. I was in and out of the hospital in two days. What followed was the tough part. I read hundreds of pages in everything from the New England Journal of Medicine to the tabloids. I kept reading the same facts, over and over, focusing on all the statistics and medical terminology, trying to keep my mind off the one word that I was most afraid of: incontinence. I could deal with the prospect of dying, well, at least intellectually I could, but wearing a diaper? Please!
Everything I read said that, caught in the early stages like mine, the odds for survival were very good. I took that for exactly what it was: I was going to die. I found comfort in the writing of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and her five-stages-of-dying model, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. It was a great linear model and I could easily identify where I had moved through each of the stages up through Acceptance. What Dr. Ross didn’t mention, or maybe I just skipped over that part, was that the model isn’t linear. It sounds like a great plan. You tough it out through the first four stages and get to that place of Acceptance, then you can sleep at night with a clear mind and a calm spirit. What the model didn’t show, or, again, maybe I just didn’t see it, is that it doesn’t work that way—that you actually bounce around the five stages like a pinball on the verge of tilt—that when you go to sleep in that calm, tranquil place of Acceptance, there’s a 5 AM wake-up call from Anger that jars you from a perfectly sound sleep like a bucket of ice water in the face.
By the time I had my first follow-up visit with Dr. Lanciano my head was filled with as many facts on my condition as he probably had, along with an understanding of the five psychological stages one goes through when informed of a potentially terminal illness. In my head I was confident, almost cocky in my newfound knowledge. From the neck down I was confused, conflicted, and scared.
Somewhere, in the middle of that place they call the dark night of the soul I found a light, a small beacon to focus on, to guide me through the rough and uncharted waters. The light was from 1974 and it radiated out from Champs Gym, from the heart of Soulville. It first appeared as a memory, a distant voice. It was Blue Washington.
“You think a fighter be who he be by what happen on fight night? Boy…you gots a lot to learn. Fight night ain’t nothin’ but the icing on the cake. A fighter be who he be by what he do right here in the gym, every day.”
It was a simple statement and exactly I needed to hear. Street wisdom. Direct. No bullshit. My world was the new Champs Gym, but my role had changed. In 1974 I was a photographer. I thought I was part of things at Champs and in some respects I was. But behind the camera I was only an observer. Photography was my comfort zone. It opened doors without risk, a voyeuristic dream. I was there. I played a role. But it was a bit part.
The cancer gave me main player status, a full participant. Now I was a fighter, the disease my opponent, and the daily gym wars were on. Dr. Lanciano’s call had signaled the start of round one. His words had taken me to school—put me just this side of Queer Street. But we still in the early rounds.
Cancer is nothing more than one of any number of possibilities that, at some point, might kill you. Along with taxes, it’s one of the two immutable truths—no one gets out alive. Moish was right. In the end winning didn’t matter. It was never really about that. It was about giving it your all, taking the adversity, digging deep and finding out what you’re really made of, and then putting it out there; leaving it all in the ring. The titles, the awards, the prizes and, for that matter, the good health, those were just trophies, temporary, on loan, only yours for the moment. In the long run it was about self-respect, and how you played the game.
When the student is ready, the teacher appears.
I think I read that on the wall of an Aikido dojo once. Or maybe it was something David Carradine said in Kung Fu. Either way, Moish was a teacher of how to live life, at least his take on it. He taught through casual conversations mostly, conversations shared over lox and eggs at Murray’s Delicatessen or sometimes during film nights with Tyrone at his place. Moish talked in stories, in jokes, or sometimes just in the way he made eye contact with you—those pale turquoise eyes commanding you to listen.
I loved listening to him. I never saw the lessons—just the crazy musings of a quirky old man. Now those stories were back—no longer entertainment. What’s important and what’s not, how to laugh, how to cry, and how to deal with adversity. Moish’s words set the strategy for living, loving, and how the rest is all just bullshit. The teacher had appeared. School was in session.
Moish used humor to combat adversity. It was what Anna taught him. No matter how bad things got, a laugh would always help. Linda was devastated by the news, even more than I was. I had a lifetime mastery in denial. She didn’t. She took things head-on.
“Hey,” I said, looking to try out some of my newfound life lessons in using humor.
“Look at it the bright side. You won’t have to worry about having a ‘headache’ on Saturday nights anymore!”
She didn’t laugh.
Memory is a funny thing. That year at Champs, 1974, I remember it in vivid detail; same with everything that has happened since the call from Dr. Lanciano. What happened in between is not so clear. The years in between were career years—years where the work seemed so important that it excluded everything and everybody. The assignments, the awards, being part of the jazz world, it was a twenty-year high. I had no clue about the crash that would follow. In retrospect it was just like those big fights that seemed so significant at the time but ultimately were nowhere near as important as the little things that happened around them.
I remember the events—how could I not? The souvenirs are all around me, framed pictures, awards and tear sheets sitting in portfolio boxes and hanging on my walls like old ticket stubs, reminders of what seemed so important at the time.
Somewhere in the mix I remember Linda saying we had lost our connection.
“What do you mean, ‘lost our connection’?” I asked. “We talk every night.”
I was on the road a lot and spent a lot of time in clubs and at after-hour jam sessions, but that’s where the pictures were. I always called, every night. Linda would tell me about what she had done that day, about our neighbors, our world. I probably heard about half of what she said.
“I know I’m gone a lot but that’s the job. What can I do?”
“I don’t want a relationship with a phone,” she had said.
Linda wanted us to go to counseling. I said no—played the it’s-not-my-fault-I-gotta-make-a-living card. We both knew it was bullshit, but she backed off and we settled for a cooking class together.
The cancer made me angry—angry about everything. It was one of those grief phases—one I seemed perpetually stuck on, and it was beating on me worse than Tank Johnson had beaten on Andrew Franklin. I remembered that day in the gym—that look of helplessness and frustration on Andrew’s face. Then I heard Moish:
“… Let me tell you, 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 thinking about. But the basics are the only thing that you got; the only thing that can save you.”
Prostate cancer was my entry to “the pros,” and it was getting the best of me. What were the basics in this game?
Linda stayed by me through it all—the denial, the mood swings, the anger, the resentment, the hot flashes. She had always been there. I hadn’t. I wondered why she bothered.
“Tell me the truth,” I asked on one of those feeling-sorry-for-myself-I-worked-too-hard-to-end-up-like-this days.
“Why are you still here? You deserve better.”
It’s funny how easily I could project the “you” when I really meant me.
“Nick. We’ve been together for twenty-eight years, since we were kids. You think I’d still be here if I didn’t love you? You really think I’d stay around this long, for what? Obligation? Guilt?”
That was exactly what I thought.
With all the down time through the surgery and the treatment that followed I watched a lot of TV. The Classic Sports channel regularly showed all the old fights. I hadn’t followed boxing in years. After Moish died I moved on to the jazz world. I followed the fights for a while through the paper, but as Bennie and Cyclone and Kitten and Boogaloo and the Worm retired there weren’t any local fighters of their caliber coming up behind them. The epicenter of boxing moved to Vegas where Don King commanded as much press as the guys in the ring.
Sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s a story on an inside page of the Journal caught my eye. It was about a shooting at Garden State Racetrack in New Jersey. Some witnesses said they overheard and argument preceding the shooting over what was supposed to be a sure bet in the fifth race, others said it was over a woman. When the police arrived one man was sitting on a bench with a flesh wound in his shoulder, the shooter was still holding the gun. They shouted to drop the weapon but the shooter raised the gun in their direction and was immediately shot and killed. It was Curtis Parks. The article speculated it was suicide by cop. That didn’t sound like Curtis. I guessed on that particular day, for whatever reason, he must have sipped a little past the line, on a ripper.
Some of the musicians I knew were fight fans. I’d catch an occasional fight with them on TV. Eventually the reign of black fighters transitioned into a game of mostly Hispanics in the lighter weight divisions. Mexico was the new home of the best boxers. They were exciting; Erik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera and Michael Carbajal and Julio Cesar Chavez, but it wasn’t the same. Eventually I stopped watching. Then a new face emerged from an old familiar venue: Graterford prison. It was where Moish used to drive Tyrone and Mavis each month to visit his brother Dante´.
Bernard Hopkins was black, Philly-born, street smart and prison tough: a throwback to the golden age of Philadelphia middleweights. Even if you didn’t follow the sport, which I hadn’t in many years, if you lived in Philly you knew Bernard “the Executioner” Hopkins. I followed all of his fights from the initial free appearances on HBO through the pay-per-view main events.
The undercard for one of Hopkin’s fights featured another fighter from Philly: a lightweight named Jimmy “Candy Bar” Brown. Philadelphia was never short on either great fighters, or somewhat less than great fighters with great fighter names.
When asked about the nickname in a prefight interview, Candy Bar simply said,
“Cause I always hits they sweet spot.”
Candy Bar Brown, like Hopkins, was trained by Bowie Fisher, a legend in Philadelphia boxing circles. But it was his assistant trainer who caught my attention: it was Andrew Franklin. Andrew had aged well. His hair was silver, close cropped, and he wore stylish wire-rimmed glasses. He looked like he’d be more at home in a library except for his body. Andrew looked like he was still at his fighting weight, still in great shape. One of the commentators, I think it was Larry Merchant, mentioned that Andrew was a part-time trainer and a full-time professor at Temple. I thought about how proud his father would have been. I was proud, too.
What was left of my coffee had gone cold. I took one more look at the obit page with Tyrone’s picture, folded it, and put it in the desk drawer. My back-to-school assignment was waiting.
The nine-year-olds at Germantown Friends School temporarily diverted my morning of time travelling as they mugged for the camera and demonstrating their newfound skill of cupping a hand in an armpit and then cranking the arm to make an array of funny sounds. When I returned home I called the San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office.
“This is Nick Ceratto from the Philadelphia Journal. I’m working on an article on Tyrone Braxton and was hoping you might have information on any services being held for him?”
I’d worked enough stories with city officials to know that the medical examiner wouldn’t give me any information over the phone. I thought the line about doing an article for the paper might connect me to someone who would. The public information officer for the city of San Diego called back an hour later. She sounded young and was more than happy to talk.
“The body bounced around the rocky bottom for six days before it washed up. It took a little longer than usual for it to surface because Mr. Braxton had loaded his backpack with heavy rocks. After a week of providing the occasional snack for the seals, sea lions and sharks that make San Diego harbor their home it was pretty much unrecognizable. Dental records eventually provided us with the name.
“Mr. Braxton’s death was ruled a suicide. Since no one claimed the body it was cremated last Thursday.”
No one claimed the body. What about Mavis? Was she still alive? She’d only be in her seventies now.
No one claimed the body.
That must mean that Mavis was dead, too. I hoped that was what it meant, at least a part of me did. If not she would have found out about it just like I did, through the newspaper. It was too disturbing to even consider.
The phone call from San Diego wasn’t what I had expected. Tyrone was a story that in my head was still going on. I hadn’t expected such finality. I got in the car and drove to Champs Gym. It was where everything had started and where it all needed to end. It was time to get back to Soulville. I pictured myself walking through those doors again. There'd be a new crop of fighters, of course, but maybe the Boardroom would still be set up.
I once read that that aromatic memories, smells, reside in a primal part of the brain stem that can produce perfectly detailed recollection. It said something about our ancestors needing instant access to those memories for survival. Halfway there I could smell it; that sweaty, musky boxing smell that was Champs, drawing me in like a magnet. Coming off the expressway on South Street and then Washington Avenue, the neighborhood was the same: still ghetto. The boarded-up buildings were covered with graffiti, only now it was gang stuff mostly. The tags originally sprayed by street artists with signatures like “Cornbread” were now Bloods and Crips. It took a few blocks to realize that I had driven past Champs. It was among the ruins now. Closed down with a weathered "For Lease" sign stuck inside the wire mesh window, just like the rest of the buildings on the block.
I parked in front, my thoughts bouncing back and forth between the sweetness of memory and sadness of what had become. It had been almost 30 years. Billy Dee and Spoons couldn't possibly still be alive. I guessed that Billy would have gone out in style, a hundred crying relatives and an elaborate funeral. What was I thinking going back? Then I heard Quinny’s words.
Soulville? It isn’t a neighborhood.
Soulville wasn’t tied to any particular address or, for that matter, any particular time. It wasn’t Champs Gym or Loretta’s High Hat or Murray’s Delicatessen or 1974. It was a different kind of construct, with a cartography all its own. I was starting to get it—maybe not ready to walk softly across the rice paper or snatch the pebble from the master’s hand—but I was starting to see the connections.
I hoped Spoons hadn't died alone. Blue, Chiller, and Quinny; they must have moved on to another gym, maybe another Boardroom? They’d be the elder statesmen now. Maybe they found the gym where Andrew Franklin was a trainer.
When I got home I parked and sat in the driveway until it got too cold. I needed to walk. St. Gregory's church was five blocks south. The door was open. It was late afternoon and no one else was inside. I sat in the last pew—sat for a long time wondering what the hell I was doing there. I hadn't been to church in years—didn’t believe in organized religion even before the diagnosis and sure as hell didn't now. Whatever it was that brought me there, it felt right. I sat there thinking about Tyrone and Moish—about 1974—breakfasts at Mama Rose's—afternoons at Champs—nights at Moish's. So much promise, so much hope. It was a magical year. I didn't see it.
I went through that time like it was business as usual, the ordinary stuff of life. Moish, Tyrone, Andrew, Blue, Chiller, Quinny, Curtis, and Spoons—they were anything but. They were life lived to it’s fullest, the alchemy of the here and now. They were a state of mind, a state that contained everything I needed to know about how to live, had I not been too young and cocky and stupid to see it.
The twenty-plus years that followed, the career years, ends up they were one big lesson in how not to live. What I wouldn't give to have that time at Champs back for just ten minutes. My thoughts shifted to Linda. I had taken her for granted, too.
I guess it all comes down to the moments; they happen, you make your choices. In the end the only thing that really matters—that isn’t “just a bunch of bullshit” as Moish would say—is what you see when you look in the mirror; what you can feel good about, what you can forgive, and what you just plain, flat-out have to live with.
I lit a candle and said a prayer for Tyrone. There was a florist across the street. I thought about roses. Instead I picked orchids; beautiful sunset orange ones tinged with a hint of purple around the edges.
The drive to Har Zion cemetery in Collingsdale was surreal—images and voices dancing in and out my head.
Tyrone posing in the gym that first day.
“Hey. Picture Man. Take me a picture.”
Blue and Chiller sipping their Tall Boys.
“That Tyrone Braxton. Gonna be middleweight champion someday.”
Tyrone with a big plate of grits at Mama Rose’s.
“I see Bad News standin’ in front of me with that big ol’ ugly head of his…”
Moish’s eyes as he looked at the picture on the wall of Anna.
“In South Philly you didn’t have to be smart or good looking. You only needed to know how to make people laugh, or how to fight.”
There were two headstones to the right of Moish that said Moskowitz: Moish’s parents. On the left was Anna. The sun was just above the horizon reflecting off the chips of Mica in the gravestones and casting a warm glow on the one that read:
September 2, 1897-October 21, 1975
Loving husband, trusted friend, a man who could make anyone smile.
I laid the orchids carefully at the base of the stone and touched the name. Moish’s voice broke the afternoon silence.
“Good to see you, Nicky my boy. It’s only been what? Twenty-seven years? But, hey, who’s counting?”
“I know,” I heard myself answer, like an outsider listening to my own conversation. I looked around hoping no one was there to see me talking to myself. The rows of stones were empty. It was just me and Moish.
“But better late than never,” I said. “Right?”
“What’s with the orchids? Didn’t anyone ever tell you Jews use stones not flowers? They last longer and you don’t have to water ’em.”
I smiled and felt tears tickling my cheeks.
That night I had a dream. It was one of those dreams that seemed so real—so detailed—that I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming. I was standing just outside of heaven—at least that’s where I figured it was from the clouds. There were two golden gates. In front of them was a beat-up brown wooden desk; the kind you see in the back of boxing gyms where old guys with twitches in their eyes sit chewing on cheap cigars. A gold executive nameplate on the desk read “St. Peter,” and there was a line of people in front of it waiting to get in. Tyrone was there, standing second in line. He looked good; young and strong just like the day we first met. He saw me and nodded. In front of Tyrone was an older black man. He looked like one of the regulars from Champs but I didn’t recognize him. Sitting behind the desk in an overstuffed leather chair with the stuffing coming out at the seams wasn’t St. Peter, it was Moish. He was talking to the older man in front of Tyrone.
“Jimmy,” he says. “You’ve led an exemplary life. Entry to heaven comes with one wish.”
Copyright 2010 - Mike Spector