About The Author
El Faraón del Alfabeto
In my mid and late forties I came to boxing by choice and by chance. But I had already been there as far back as the mid thirties. I huddled with my father in front of the radio and listened eagerly to the driving voices of ring announcers like Bill Stern and Clem McCarthy as they covered the great fights of the time. Weeks later, at ten-cent matinees, I would watch grainy newsreels of the same fights. Watched in 1939 as “Two Ton” Tony Galento knocked down “the Brown Bomber,” Joe Louis.
Madison Square Garden would become Camelot for me. I saw Bobo Olson fight Paddy Young there in a middleweight elimination bout in June ’53. But I saw the Garden for the first time in 1952. Eighth Avenue between Forty-ninth and Fiftieth, slinky-eyed fight guys standing out front. Greek restaurants, Irish bars, four-dollar whores. The Garden was home to me as much as Shubert Alley.
My father was an ardent fight fan, and I adored him for making me a part of something he loved. Like many another Mick and Paddy who came over as indentured slaves in the bottom of boats, who saw 30 percent of their own dumped dead at sea, he took heart from stories of the great Irish fighters. Sullivan and Corbett. Tunney and “the Toy Bulldog,” Mickey Walker, who fought in every division from welterweight at 147 to heavyweight. We listened to Don Dunphy give the blow-by-blow description of the Louis-Conn fight.
I remained a fight fan through the years because I was as fascinated with the science and the art of boxing as I was with the men who dared to put every ounce of body and soul on the line, I was as taken with the losers of boxing as I was with the champions, because they had risked every bit as much as the winners.
But what did the “manly art of self-defense” actually mean? What made it possible?
What intrigued me most on the physical side of fighting was how boxers could fight round after round, do it again and again, fight after fight. Taking a horn in bullfighting is always a possibility even an inevitability, but many more times than not a bullfighter leaves the ring unmarked. But a boxer getting ready for a fight takes punches daily, and then the punches increase with murderous intensity during the fight. Hit and don’t get hit, that is basic to boxing. But all fighters get hit, even the best ones. So what kind of men were these who could take that kind of punishment long enough to become contenders, much less champions?
And what was it, and how much exactly did it take, before some kid with a dream of glory could learn enough to climb between the ropes? And how hard is it, not only to train and to fight, but to learn the science of the game, the actual mechanics of throwing punches–throwing them again and again?
Damn hard. And underneath it it all is the question What makes a fighter?
In my mid forties I decided to learn. I did my best for a year or so in a bust-out gym in Ocean Park, California. I didn’t learn much because I didn’t have a trainer, but I did manage to get my nose broken another time — because I was sparring with dummies like myself. A pro would have played with me, because pros know when it’s time to “work” and when it’s time to fight.
It was about that time that I had to quit my boxing education to pursue family issues. But a couple of years later I was back at it. That’s when the magic of boxing caught up to me and saved my
I went to a gym that’s a parking lot now. Gym guys spot a beginner in a New York minute. After I’d been working out a few weeks, I had reason to show up in the gym dressed well. Harris tweed jacket and tie, flannel pants, that sort of thing, a splash of paisley in MY coat pocket. All sorts were in the gym, from bantam to heavyweights, black and Hispanic, but I was the only white boy–white boy is what whites are most often referred to in fight gyms, whites being in the minority. You never hear blacks, old or young, referred to as black boys-although you will hear that a black fighter was robbed of the fight because of his paint job.
After I had finished my workout, I waited at the desk to speak with the gym manager. As I stood there, a middle-aged black trainer I’d noticed in the gym came up next to me. I thought he was waiting for the manager, too. His heavyweight watched on the far side of the desk. But instead of speaking with the manager, the trainer whispered to me and held out a Buck 110 jackknife with brass fittings and a bone handle. It’s the kind of knife can shove through a car door or use to field-dress a deer. He eyeballed me like a pimp and said, “You ever see one of these?”
I looked at the knife. I reached calmly into my back pocket. I came out with my own Buck 110. Since he hadn’t opened his knife, I didn’t open mine, but I could have with the fingers of one hand. I held the Buck in my palm the way he held his. I said, “You mean a knife like this?”
The trainer jumped back–whup!—and his heavyweight went down on his knees laughing. He stayed there as the trainer sailed out the door with his head down. The heavyweight staggered behind him, hardly able to breathe. A few people saw it. But I didn’t have any more trouble because fight gyms are calm places, places of peace, despite the machine-gun racket of speed bags and the slap of leather jump ropes on hard wood floors; despite the sound of leather gloves thumping into rib cages; despite the fact that big bags would be hanging corpses if the punches they took were delivered to living flesh and bone.
Shake hands with a fighter someday. You’ll see bow soft his hands are from being steamed in gauze and leather and sweat, how small his hands are compared with other athletes the same size, and how his handshake is as gentle as a nun’s. Many have high voices — Jack Dempsey as a young man did. Many have cartoon -character lisps. Larry Holmes does, as does Mike Tyson, who also has the high voice.
So there I was, didn’t know squat from boxing. Was slapping rather than punching, on my heels instead of toes, sticky instead of slick. But I sparred with eighteen- and twenty-year-old beginners anyhow. Had teeth cracked and inlays fall out. I got hit more than I should have, because without my glasses I couldn’t see the shots coming, but I did okay for an old man. The spell was cast. I would subsequently have to stop sparring because I had to wear braces to correct a jaw condition, one unrelated to boxing. But by then I was in. I had also hooked up with a first-class trainer, Dub Huntley, the guy who would become my partner. I had gone to him to train me after three months or so, because I saw the results he got. I offered to pay him up front, but he refused. Instead, he put it on me like he was training Marciano. He’d take me through the usual four 3-minute rounds on the punch mitts, which would leave me gasping, my left shoulder hanging dead from throwing close to a hundred jabs a round. I’d lose four pounds from the workout. But sometimes he’d work me three rounds, then take me straight through the one-minute rest period between rounds three and four. And then we’d go right on into and through the next three minutes of round four. That’s seven minutes, nonstop.
Jab, jab, double up. Jab. Do it again. Jab. Two of them. One-two. One-two-hook. Do it again. Two jabs, right-hand, hook, come back with a right-hand. Two jabs, right-hand, hook, come back with a right-hand, and jab out of there. Hook to the body, hook to the head, come back with a right-hand. Move. Double up. Do it again. Jab. Jab. Jab. Do it again. Double up, Do it again. Do it again. Do it.
I thought I would die. We’re talking about an old man here, one with white hair who had been into the sauce for twenty-five years, someone whose drug of choice at three in the morning was female companionship till dawn.
But gym guys would stop and stare. Tourists would take photos. Pros stopped what they were doing to watch. One day, wearing one of his famous caps, the great former light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore, “the Mongoose,” stood ringside, his elbows on the ring apron.
At the bell, Archie said, “Looks like I’m gonna have to make a comeback.”
I knew my trainer thought I’d fade that first day, that I’d go away. But I didn’t go away. I stuck and so did he. And as I began to get into shape-four rounds of warm-up and shadowboxing, four rounds on the punch mitts, four rounds on the big bag, four rounds on the speed bag, four rounds on the big bag, four rounds on the speed bag, four rounds on the jump rope, and enough sit-ups to shame a contender–I began to learn and to understand what had drawn me to boxing as a boy. It was the science of fighting, and the heart it takes to be a fighter. Boxing was an exercise of the mind. I also began to realize that despite my age, I was someone who could play the game. I was spellbound. I still am. God has blessed me with the sweet science, and with three children who love me.
In 1988, without prior symptoms or warning, my arteries began to close despite the great shape I was in. I had a heart attack, and then 1 had angioplasty three times in six months because the
arteries kept closing down. During the last angioplasty, my cardiologist said, “The faster we run, the farther we get behind. Operation is tomorrow morning.” No alternative, no problem. Once they’d hopped me up the following morning, I started singing songs in Spanish. The Mexicans pushing my gurney sang along with me.
Open-heart surgery ain’t no walk in the park. But three months after a triple bypass and the complications of what is called an ileus, my memory half shot from morphine and the other junk they pumped into me, I was back in the gym jumping rope. Only a minute at first, but then three minutes. And then three rounds. I couldn’t do four, because I never regained the conditioning I had before surgery, and because I have pain in one foot that apparently resulted from their taking a vein in my leg to rewire my heart. So there I was, doing the same workout I’d done before but only three rounds instead of four. Except that by then I had already been training fighters, working corners, bringing my own magic, and stopping blood. In fact, the morning after one of the angioplasties, I drove to Del Mar and hung out all day at the fair so I could work a title fight that night.
F.X. TOOLE DIED ON SEPTEMBER 2, 2002
He died as he had lived, wanting to write.
“Doc, get me a little more time, i gotta finish my book”.
I started in the amateurs, took nights off from my job so I could work three-rounders in VFW halls, recreation centers, and the back rooms of spaghetti joints. Then four-rounders, and ten, and traveling around the world to work twelve-round title fights. I’ve worked seven title fights of one kind or another, and I’ve been licensed in ten states–from Hawaii to New York, from Missouri to Florida. There are plenty of guys who have done much more in boxing than I, but there are many who’ve done less. And I’ve fought in Mexico, France, Germany, and South Africa-where, in Cape Town, by the way, they produce a champion Cabernet Sauvignon, Fleur de Cap, that will do wonders for your spirit.About the only thing I haven’t done in boxing is make money. it’s the same for most fight guys. But that hasn’t stopped me any more than not making money in writing has. Both are something you just do, and you feel grateful for being able to do them, even if both keep you broke, drive you crazy, and make you sick. Rational people don’t think like that. But they don’t have in their lives what I have in mine. Magic. The magic of going to wars I believe in. And the magic of boxing humor, the joke almost always on the teller, that marches with you every step of the way.
There’s no magic in street fighting. Street fighting may be lethal, especially when one guy is bigger and stronger than the other. But boxing is designed to be lethal, designed to test lethally the male will of both fighters, designed to see who’s boss, who will stake out and control the magic territory of a square piece of enchanted canvas.
The magic of the fighter is also part of the mix, the magic that attracts people from around the world to him, the magic of seeing him play Cowboys and Indians for real. The prettier the fighter-and I’m not talking pretty as in girlie-boy movie-star pretty–the
harder that fighter has worked. The prettier the fighter is, the more money he’ll make, too. But what you must understand is that fighting and boxing are as different from each other as hitting is from punching, as different as a wild dog from a Chihuahua. By definition, boxing and punching are lethal. So being able to box pretty and be lethal-that makes the magic that drives the whole world wild.
Ring magic is different from the magic of the theater, because the curtain never comes down-because the blood in the ring is real blood, and the broken noses and the broken hearts are real,
and sometimes they are broken forever. Boxing is the magic of men in combat, the magic of will, and skill, and pain, and the risking of everything so you can respect yourself for the rest of your life. Almost sounds like writing.
Real magic, the real McCoy, imagine! To be a part of that! Whether in the gym or during a title fight. Or standing beside the canals of Picardy at five in the misty morning while your fighter is doing roadwork. It’s magic to hear frogs plop into the water as your fighter jogs by, to smell apples in the air. And it’s magic to see your fighter stretch himself on the rack of his lungs and legs, his goal to take his opponent’s heart as mercilessly as an Aztec priest, to leave him blinking up into the lights with his will so shattered he will take the pieces to bed with him every night for the rest of his life.
It’s magic to hear your boxer gagging in the dressing room after losing a title fight. It’s magic because your fighter had sweated himself dry and he’s drinking fluids for maybe an hour, and he’s waiting for his kidneys to kick in so he can pass his piss test, because if he pisses drugs, he doesn’t get paid. It’s magic because this same guy had the fight won, except he tried to trade punches with a puncher he’d nearly knocked out-magic because in the split second of that mental error he got himself flattened, like Billy Conn did, but this time with an uppercut that traveled no longer than half the distance from wrist to elbow. And it’s magic because his life will never be the same, magic because he would have been champion of the world, and now he will never be. This is the magic of winning and losing in a man’s game, where men will battle with their minds and bodies and hearts into and beyond exhaustion, past their second wind, through cracked ribs and swollen livers, ruptured kidneys and detached retinas. They do it for the money, to be sure. But they do it for respect and for the magic, too. And it is magic of the mind as well, because each thing they do with their whole heart and soul takes them to a new level of under standing. The higher they climb, the wider the horizon, and they begin to see and understand combinations they never dreamed of. Like the writer, the more the fighter knows of his game, the greater the magic for him and for us.
And then there’s magic of stopping blood that maybe another cut man couldn’t, the magic of maybe using stuff you shouldn’t use, but you keep your guy in the fight so both of you can go home
But it’s also magic to see a fight you’re winning end in the time it takes to blink, when a left hook cranks your boy’s jaw into the second balcony. Even though you’ve lost and your guts are churning, it’s still magic. And to be robbed, whether in the ring or with a gun while you are tending bar, even that’s magic–magic because it’s all real, every bit of it, and it’s happening now and lasting forever in your mind and heart. And it’s magic because it’s a war you’ll go back to every chance you get. And I’m still looking for the gentleman who pulled that Magnum on me, who made my heart hit the roof of my mouth, who showed me disrespect. Prior to that experience, I wasn’t sure if I could kill another human being. I know now.
Respect is part of the magic of boxing. Most outside the fight game expect the victors to denigrate the vanquished. That would destroy the magic. Ali was yappy before, during, and after a fight, but we always knew he was playing the fool, was a pup so full of life that he had to yip and yap, prance and dance. There are imitators, to be sure, but there’s no fun to what they do.
But even if one fighter thinks he was robbed, and regardless of the trash talked before the fight, fighters will with few exceptions congratulate each other afterward, will say Good fight at the very least. There is a kinship between winner and loser that outsiders don’t understand because boxing, after all is said and done, is about respect. When a fighter doesn’t get respect, say when he’s a ham-‘n’-egger and someone says, “Get a job!” his skin turns to flypaper and dreadful things stick to him all the way to his grave.
Remember the humility of Mike Tyson at the press conference after his loss in the first fight with Holyfield? How he wanted to touch Holyfield, how Holyfield smiled and allowed him to shake his hand? When a fighter gets his ass whipped in a round, you don’t tell him to go beat up the son of a bitch that did it to him. You tell him to go out and get respect. Besides, it’s a small family. The members of it-the members of the fancy–need each other, not only for the money, but they need each other so they can, ultimately, test themselves against themselves.
And there’s the magic that breaks your heart. You’ve got a kid with a bloody nose. If it’s broken, forget it, it’s going to keep bleeding. But just a bloody nose you can usually stop. So you wipe the boy’s face clean, shove a swab soggy with adrenaline into the nostril that’s bleeding. You work the swab around, and you close the other
nostril with your thumb. You tell the boy to inhale, so the adrenaline will flood the broken tissue and constrict the vein and widen the blow hole. But the boy doesn’t inhale. You say, “Inhale!” Nothing. You
say it again,”Goddamn it!” Time is running out, and then you see the boy looking at you like you’ve been speaking Gaelic or Hebrew. So then you understand, and you say,”Breathe in!“
He breathes in through the adrenaline while you put pressure above his upper lip. The adrenaline gets to the tear, and the blood stops coming, and he’s ready to fight again. Blood is pumping in your neck because you almost didn’t stop the blood. But part of you has traveled to the place where the boy lives, to the place where no one uses words like inhale. That’s magic, too, but it’s the kind that hurts you, the kind that makes you better for hurting.
Today in the U.S., for the most part, the white boys of boxing are gone, though the percentage of white fighters who fight well is quite high. In fact it surprises me that more midsized white athletes don’t come into the game.
White trainers, with some exceptions, are faded memories as well. Angelo Dundee, of course, still hangs with the big kids, as do a few others. My situation is unusual: 95 percent of my friends and associates are of a different color than 1. 1 recently gave a rubdown to a 240-pound Ugandan who speaks English, Swahili, and Japanese. By the time I spread extra-virgin olive oil over him and then worked wintergreen liniment into him, he was black and shiny as a berry. He has a temperament sweet as a berry, as well. He’s a polite and gentle Catholic boy–outside the ring. He lives and fights out of Japan. His regular trainer is Hawaiian Japanese.
Several years ago I was working with another heavyweight, was giving him a rubdown. He was a rubdown whore, wanted one every day. Said his wife gave good rubdowns, among other things, but hers couldn’t compare with mine. Always had some little pain or pull. But he was a good guy with heart, so it was worth it. He was berry-black as well. His problem as a pro was that he only wanted one big fight so he could buy a house. He went sour along the way because he never had the drive that would take him through the pain of boxing, both in and outside the ring. He never got that house. If he had aimed for the title, even if he never won it, he would have had several houses.
Anyway, there I was, sweating my ass off on the guy, and about half looped from the alcohol fumes. It takes forty-five minutes to work the tissue in a heavyweight. Into the gym came a recently paroled featherweight two days on the street, broke and hungry and begging quarters, who had fallen in love with “that shit.” He was high on it and talking about how he was framed by the muhfuh white-racist power structure, that he had been a victim of the boot of white oppression, that the pig was out to get the brothers, that white was shit. What he left out was that he had been convicted of robbing, beating, and raping a crack-head street whore from South Central.
So there he was, going on about pigs. I should mention that my heavyweight had a white wife. When he asked the featherweight if he couldn’t see that I was white, and that maybe he should watch his jive-ass mouth, the featherweight didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah, I see he white, but Toole be different.” Magic. It’s why I’m in it. For the voodoo.