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.