Monday, January 23, 2017

Rob, The Fights Are On

November 1982:   I never even considered boxing, really.

 As a kid, not at all.....But one day, out of the corner of my eye I saw a couple of dudes boxing on the television screen. I believe it was an Alexis Arguello/Aaron Pryor fight.

Out of both curiosity and a wanting to bond, I asked my dad "Who you going for?"

"Neither, really. They're both really good fighters. I just want to see how this plays out."

I was in.

I watched one hell of a fight that Saturday afternoon, one that would be the first of many. Hundreds probably.   I took a seat on the floor to the left of my Dad's recliner, comic books in hand, and absorbed.

The man taught me everything he knew about the fight game, which was a lot. He observed like an objective scientist, taking in the art of it all, while I usually found someone to root for, because that was how my mind worked. Like a moron, I usually asked one too many questions, and got the old chestnut: "Rob, I'm trying to hear the commentary!" which was followed by a knowing glance of sympathy with a twist of "You oughta know" from my Mom.  But this boxing tutelage was among the great unfolding stories of my life.

Dad loved the game. "The Sweet Science", it was poetically called, and I love that phrasing for it. Unlike today's MMA, boxing has a balletic approach, at least when it's done right. There's a strategy, a humming fluidity to it, a savage beauty, that is amplified over it's sometime brutality.

There are rules, he told me decades before UFC, there is an artful game plan.

We did this every Saturday.  I learned and chose sides for the names of Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini (who brought me to a conscience-twisting moment, as an opponent of his died after hitting his head on the ring apron during a knockdown), Bobby Chacon, Pernell "Sweet Pea" Whittaker, Johnny "Bump City" Bumphus, and dozens more.

One night I was an impromptu drink and snack server when my Dad got the Larry Holmes/Gerry Cooney pay-per-view from good old Spectrum TV, for a houseful of his buddies.  I pulled for the "Great Irish Hope", but like many before him, "The Easton Assassin" slowly destroyed him.  It wasn't nearly as embarrassing as the demolition of Randall "Tex" Cobb a few years later, but it was ugly nonetheless.

I had a great time that night, as several of my Dad's friends, in concert with the Old Man himself, tried to teach me the point system and how to apply it to what I was watching.  Sadly, round after round went to The Assassin.  As a kid, I abhored cockiness, and Holmes embodied it.  I still don't care for that to this day.  I roll with humble.  Can't help it.

He provided me with fight ads and a cool Sugar Ray Leonard for my bedroom door.  On a sales trip, he had gotten a rain check with Gerry Quarry's signature on it.  It said "To Dick, Keep Punchin'".  But Quarry's chicken scratch looked like "Kelp Porcini" instead.  I initially thought it may have been a case of the once great pugilist sharing a recipe suggestion for Seaweed Mushrooms.  But I digress.

God, my Dad was wizened in this sport.  He explained footwork, both good and bad, the necessity of a good jab, how the right hook is, while not a desperation move, one to hold in reservation.  He related how petroleum jelly was used to stop bleeding, how swelling was reduced so the fighters could see despite it.  I was schooled in The Standing 8, the referee's taking points for low blows, the TKO, and the reasons for fight stoppage. He had an eerie ability to predict the outcome of the fight, and why it was going to happen.

"He's dropping his right, Rob. He's gonna take one on the chin."

"He's getting tired, he needs to clinch to the bell."

"That's it. He's got a glass jaw."

Dad wasn't just a technician, the man was a history teacher.

I learned of The Greatest, Ali.  His words, his political stance, both the butterfly and the bee.  Sugar Ray Robinson, Jake LaMotta, Rocky Marciano.  Man, the stories my Dad told.  I wanted to see those fighters so bad, as the tales he told of their ring exploits, the vim and vigor of their skills, had me on the edge of my seat. He told me about Cus D'Amato, trainer extraordinaire, and about Don King and Bob Arum, promoters who turned boxing into the million dollar extravaganza it became.

He was a guru, and I his padawan. I'll never forget any of the things he shared with me for the rest of my life.

This went on for years.  Through the 80's, we chuckled at the "Heavyweight Champion of the Month" as no fighter was good enough to keep what appeared to be a hot potato.  We had personal bets on Mike Weaver, Greg Page, Michael Dokes, Pinklon Thomas, Tim Witherspoon.  No one was good enough to hold the damn title until we together watched the rise of Mike Tyson and his inevitable fall.

Even up through High School, where ESPN brought their names into the boxing hat, and my Dad and I watched the fights with great regularity.  I still remember the Doug DeWitt/Tony Thornton barnburner that had our hearts pounding, and how exciting that was.  A USBA middleweight title fight, DeWitt took it in 13, an extra round fought due to the draw at the end of 12.
My Dad and I marveled at DeWitt's heart, as he put on what I felt was one of the sport's great comebacks of all time.  We looked at each other after that one like we had just witnessed history. That was probably my senior year in High School and may have been the last fight we watched together.

I haven't watched boxing in a long time.  I moved away from home the day after graduation from High School, and have tried to watch the fights on a couple of occasions, but without Pop telling me how it is, it's not the same.  I couldn't get my son Aidan to watch boxing with me, as I had always dreaming of passing the symbolic fight book on, but that was a no-go.  However, the mutual love of cinema that my son and I share did indeed make a connection.  I took my boy to see "Rocky Balboa" when it came out a few years back and we toasted Cokes to his grandpa afterwards.  If not for my Dad and our mutual love of the sport, I'd have never seen the original. I reminded Aidan of that, and we both love that film for multiple reasons, not just its ability to return past glory to the faded franchise.

I miss Dad so much.  I lost him a little over a year ago, and it still stings.  Just this last year "Hands of Stone", a biopic about Roberto Duran, and the Vinny Pazienza story, "Bleed For This" were both released and all I could think about was how bad I wanted to take Dad to the movies.  Not too long back, my wife and I were at a book store and they had a great deal on a gorgeous hardbound history of boxing.  I wept a bit when I it dawned on me, only after having the book in my hands and getting ready to buy it for him, that he was gone.  I was so excited at the thought of giving it to him, my mind didn't want to deny the moment.

It's a strange thing, boxing.  Especially being an unexpected connection between a young man and his new Dad.  But it worked, and it was a glue that acted as a bond.

There's a line in "City Slickers" that Daniel Stern executes with the perfection that only he can:

"But when I was 18, and my Dad and I couldn't communicate about anything at all, we could always talk about baseball. Now that--that was real."

Interject boxing for baseball, and there you have it.  When I'd call him in years gone by and beat around the bush for advice, we could always talk fights.  He kept up after I had gone, as it was his favorite sport.  Long after I had graduated, years after my sister and I had bought him a gold boxing glove to go along with the Italian horn and hand that hung from a chain around his neck, decades after I had so proudly bought him a subscription to "Ring" magazine for Christmas, he stayed with it. He still knew the game, regaling me with how quick this one was, the power another one had.

A thing that brought us together, a confirming thread, also provided a space filler, an ice-breaker, through to the end.

Don't worry, we always got to the advice when we spoke, those golden words, he spun through his footwork, as he danced in the ring around our conversations.  Throwing jabs of fight stories, clinching me with boxing memories, until he finally landed the knockout punch of what I needed to hear.

We always got there.

He was a great fighter.