When I was a kid, I’d get excited to learn that someone had a couple pairs of boxing gloves lying around the house. This discovery would cause me to coax the host to bust them out and urge others to square off.
Naturally, I’d be one of them.
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s on the South Side of Chicago, someone was almost as likely to have gloves lying around as they would a basketball. Lacing them up was always a nervous thrill. As I’ve said before, few feelings equal that of punching somebody in the nose in front of a crowd.
Muhammad Ali’s passing has brought forward a cavalcade of remembrances of a man who transcended the sport. The recollections include his battles in and out of the ring and the terrible beauty that he created.
In the midst of all this, I got to thinking about how utterly forgotten the sport of boxing has become. I used to be able to name every champ from John L. Sullivan to Evander Holyfield. But I had to go to Google to look up who’s the current heavyweight champ. His name is Tyson Fury, an Englishman of Irish descent with a pretty apropos fight moniker.
Years ago, I thought I’d have my sons share a bit of my childhood. I bought two pairs of junior gloves, headgear and mouth guards. My wife was never keen on the idea and their little friends’ mothers looked at me like I was urging them to take up Brazilian knife fighting. The gloves largely remained unused.
For years, I’ve lamented the Lost Art of Boxing, although the term “art” is a way to adorn the act of two guys beating each other up.
We as youngsters became fans of boxing because of Ali. Part of it was that many of the adults in our white, Irish neighborhood opposed his politics, so rooting for him was an act of youthful rebellion. Mostly, though, we just liked seeing him knocking someone senseless.
Boxing was part of the family DNA. My gramps used to say my dad was born between the 5th and 6th rounds of the first Dempsey-Tunney fight — Sept. 23, 1926. Jack Dempsey, the raw but over-the-hill champ was battered for 10 rounds in a driving rain by the disciplined and “scientific” Gene Tunney.
Dempsey famously told his wife, “I forgot to duck.” Strangely, I always thought that taking a noble beating was more heroic than winning an effective fight and so, I learned to take a shot.
My grandfather, a gruff retired fire chief, taught the basics: Keep your hands up, elbows in, twist and snap your punches and rotate away from your opponent’s power.
I was shy, scrawny and largely unsure of myself. Taking a beating was normal in the neighborhood but once the gloves were on, things evened up. There was just one opponent, he was in front of you and generally your size. And the bouts drew onlookers, which ensured maximum performance. Once you laced up, there was no backing out.
I liked boxing guys who tried to emulate Ali. The champ kept his hands low, which was fine if you were the greatest fighter ever, but not so wise if you were just another kid not knowing what you were doing.
Later on, in the 1980s, I fought in Golden Gloves tournaments and in many “smoker” bouts. Sometimes it was visiting a town and fighting the guy who used to play high school football. Or the fellow who just got out of jail. The list of opponents included a coal miner, a cop, a lawyer, a short-order cook, and a medium-security prisoner.
Whoever you were, you were equals or even comrades in arms — at least until the bell rang.
The beatings were never personal, although they sometimes seemed that way. I once bought an opponent a beer after an especially brutal encounter. A lady walked up to us and shook her head, not believing the apparent incongruity of the moment.
The act of preparing for a fight instilled a deep discipline within me. There is an intensity in the run-up to a bout, both in the physical training and the psychological focus needed to summon up the courage to walk up the steps and then duck between the ropes.
The start of a bout is quiet. You can’t hear anything other than the plywood under your feet groaning as you move about, vying for position and feeling out an opponent. The lights are bright and, yes, you actually do see stars when hit. Sometimes things slow down, or sounds from the crowd magnify, like an otherwise kindly old man yelling for the other fellow to finish you off.
Ali talked about experience as the “half-dream room” where “bats blow trumpets, alligators play trombones and snakes are screaming.”
I never experienced musical reptiles, but his was an eerily apt description of the brain enduring something it shouldn’t. Ali’s greatness in the ring was in a large part his ability to absorb punishment, which ultimately became his undoing. It was also one of the reasons Americans turned on the game. The proud icon became a shuffling advertisement against the endeavor.
I’m forever thankful I could write better than fight. And that my sons had no use for it.
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