Adam and Darryl were waiting in front of the gym when I arrived.
How you feeling, Bawb? Darryl asked.
I feel fine, I said.
Adam shook my hand.
My boy is ready to rumble, he said.
They were there for me. It felt strange to be with them on the steps of the gym in the late afternoon.
You got everything, Adam? Darryl asked.
Headgear, mouthpiece, cup…?
I got it, Adam said and shouldered the bag of gear. We began to walk down Twelfth Street.
Do you got your handwraps, Bob?
In the Gloves we going to have to use gauze but in these shows it doesn’t matter.
What train do we take, I asked.
Out to Gleason’s? You gotta take the F, Darryl said.
As the F rocked toward Brooklyn, Darryl kept up a stream of jokes and advice.
In the first round I want you to be careful, he said, ‘cause you don’t know what he’s gonna bring. Work the jab and use your defense. Remember, you can’t think about what he’s gonna do because you don’t know what he’s gonna do. You gotta think about what you’re gonna do.
The train stopped and a slim, black woman boarded. Darryl eyes meandered along her person.
Hey, how ya doin’? Darryl asked, You got a smile for me today? Just a smile? It don’t cost nothing.
The woman looked away from us, at the hand rail, the tunnel, empty space, anything.
It don’t cost nothing to smile, does it, Adam? Darryl asked.
No, Adam said, Smiling is free.
Maybe, Darryl considered, Maybe she ain’t smiling ‘cause she don’t got not teeth.
Darryl and Adam burst out laughing and slapped hands together in the air over my head.
It was the middle of December and we rose from the station to an orange night sky. For all the artists stampeding into the overpriced lofts, DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge) at night in 1996 was still an eerie place. We walked alone on streets where asphalt had sloughed away from cobblestones. The warehouses and factories were dark and the bridge with its mass and shadows rumbled above us like an active volcano. A faint mist came up from the river. Dumbo seemed the Brooklyn waterfront of legend. I had no idea where I was or what I was doing. I followed and said nothing.
We reached the unmarked entrance to the gym as a van with the logo of a South Bronx boxing club pulled up and disgorged a crew of black and Spanish fighters. The fighters wore jackets with the same club logo. They laughed and shoved their way into the building, their trainer shouting behind them.
Darryl continued talking as we entered the building.
I won’t put you in with anyone who’s had more experience than you.
Okay, I said.
What if they had one fight already? Will you fight a guy with one fight?
Sure, I guess.
How about two fights, Bob? Will you go with someone who had two fights.
I considered it. Two was more than one.
I don’t know, I said, Whatever you think.
How about if he lost both his fights? Would you go with him then?
I don’t know. Sure.
I didn’t know. I was afraid. Fear in flashes. Fear as a low buzzing dread in my stomach.
My first boxing performance was to be at Gleason’s gym. Gleason’s is the boxing gym in New York City since the Times Square Gym lost its lease (you can still see its faded logo a block south from Port Authority) [TK]. In Munich, Horst had told me to look for it when I returned to the States. Originally located in [TK], Gleason’s relocated to Dumbo in [TK]. It’s where the pros bring their camps in the days before a fight at the Garden. It’s the place where Riddick Bowe was knocked out sparring. Yet like every old style boxing gym, Gleason’s seemed makeshift and squalid, the plumbing exposed, the windows opaque with grime. After Darryl registered me, I removed my shoes and weighed in. One hundred thirty-two and one-half pounds. Fighters waited for their turn at the scale while the trainers greeted one another.
At the registration table, officials juggled the fighters’ books, trying to make matches. The spectacle around the table, especially at the bigger shows, is astonishing, with something of the medieval market and a slave auction. The selection is a tense occasion. The trainers must consider their young fighters and their brittle confidence. The trainers know they might lose their fighters forever if they overmatch them and so they study the books and scrutinize the official who are desperately trying to make fights in the swarm of bodies. The officials in their white uniforms [TK notes from Yonkers].
As I stood on the scale in my briefs, I watched Darryl’s solid little form pressing between bodies at the edge of the table. I saw him crane his head to study the books. After I put on my jeans and shirt, Darryl waved me over to the table.
Bob, we got a match. That’s him. He’s got zero fights.
He pointed to an open book on the table. I looked at the photo-booth picture of a scowling Spanish kid with a thick head. It looked like a mug shot (of course, I also resembled a convict in my book photo).
What do you think, Bob? Do you want him?
I didn’t know if Darryl was trying to tell me something important. What was I supposed to discern from a photograph of someone’s head? The official at the table in his clean white uniform paid no attention to us.
I guess so.
Darryl didn’t help my confidence with his next statement.
Just a second. I know this guy’s trainer and I don’t trust him one bit, he whispered, Wait here.
Darryl approached the trainer who was the same that had led in the South Bronx team. An old white guy with a desolate face. He could have been Ollie Kreuger’s twin.
So your guy doesn’t have any experience? Darryl asked.
Nope. Yours neither, right?
Yeah. But did your guy fight in the juniors at all, or PAL?
Nope. He’s as green as grass.
I don’t know if we should believe that, Darryl muttered as we walked away.
Next came the doctor. The fighters, now dressed, lined up outside the door of a little room. My opponent stood behind me. Darryl had pointed him out to me. A solid bodied man perhaps an inch shorter than I. He saw me look back at him in the line and stared at me. Our eyes caught. Staring into the eyes of another man is something I rarely do. I can remember no more than a handful of times in my life when I’ve looked a male friend or family member in the eyes for more than an instant. My 13 months younger brother, once or twice. I remember his Mediterranean eyes, warm and long lashed. My father, never. I can’t recall his eyes. When we speak his head is usually averted, as if he is addressing someone else. Staring into the eyes of a stranger in New York City is unwise. Violence follows the stare. In those instants before a fight there is the staredown, the narrowing of the eyes and the tightening of the mouth. You see it on the subway occasionally. Men on the verge. “What are you looking at?” comes snarling. You look up to see someone looking at you (‘Is he looking at me? He’s looking at me!’). It creates a frantic, caged feeling. You must submit and let your eyes fall or attack.
As we looked at each other I felt those emotions. This is my enemy, I should look at him. This is my enemy, I should not look at him. ‘It’s not polite to stare,’ I thought, and a weight pushed my gaze to the floor. I instantly regretted it. I had been weak. Before I could do anything, it was my turn for the doctor’s office.
The screening process for amateur fights is far from strict. The cold stethoscope to the chest, a brush of a penlight by the eyes and you’re ready to go. ‘Good luck,’ the doctor said. I wondered how much he was getting paid for his services. Certainly more than anyone else in the building.
Darryl retrieved me as I left the office and his stream of advice continued to run. I couldn’t focus on his words but it didn’t matter. His talking kept me from having to face silence.
I want you to fight smart, he said, In the first round use the jab and don’t go inside so much. Double jab. Move your feet. Then in the second round, we’re going to turn it up. Surprise him with your left hand. He probably never fought somebody left handed.
After the weigh-in, the match-making (what strange couplings!) and the doctor there was nothing to do but wait. For obvious reasons, the fighters must arrive at the shows hours early, sometimes as many as four (and the shows inevitably begin at least an hour late). It is a cruel necessity. The fighters languish in the dirty rooms for hours, forced to consider their bouts and covertly eye their opponents. They sit and talk with their crews. Boast. Fall silent. Listen to headphones. Too much time to think. Little homework or reading is done. It would be inappropriate, like boozing in church. With experience the wait becomes easier but it is never easy.
I sat in the bleachers with Darryl, Adam and Louie, another of Darryl’s part-timers. Louie was a heavyweight from the Bronx, half Puerto-Rican and half Italian (the Boricua predominating in style and manner). Louie had entered the Gloves with little training and bludgeoned his way to the semifinals where a black kid with a few skills stopped him (Louie claimed he’d had the flu). On his rare appearances in the gym he would talk about how the next Gloves would be his gloves but he seemed much fonder of talking than sweating.
Spotlights shone harshly on the ring. The canvas was patched in places and scuffed with grime. The empty bleachers looked ugly and cheap. Away from the ring the room lay in gloom, heavy bags vague and out of place, the gym as gym pre-empted by the spectacle to come.
Relax Bob, Darryl said, Close your eyes. Take a nap if you want. You’ll be ready when it’s time. It’s too bad they make us get here so early. We’ve seen guys crumble before fights, hunh Adam?
Adam laughed. After all, he wasn’t fighting. I wondered why Darryl had said that. Did he think I would crumble?
It doesn’t matter if you lose, Bob, Adam said, Just don’t go through the canvas. If you get knocked out you won’t be able to fight for thirty days and you’ll miss the Gloves.
Cold comfort, like telling a convicted criminal that his firing squad in Utah might postpone his electric chair in Florida. Still, the three men were there for me. Adam had come all the way from 100th Street at the edge of El Barrio, Louie from the Bronx. Darryl had taken the day off work to trundle his bag of equipment out to Brooklyn. I felt an obligation to them. I had to perform. More than any soccer game in college, it felt like the wait before going onstage in a play. Except that the other actor would be trying to kill me.
Darryl left us to discourse with the other trainers (for if trainers are scornful of each other in private they no less enjoy the opportunity for professional chatter at these soirees). Louie seized the conversation. His mouth was huge and always smilingly open, like a Muppet’s. It would be easy to become a heavyweight with a mouth like that. Pies, cakes, whole hams and entire chickens would vanish into that mouth without struggle.
Louie informed me that he was a filmmaker.
I’ve made a couple of short films, he said, But this summer I’m planning to do my first feature.
Some of my friends are filmmakers, I said, One of them might come here to shoot my fight tonight. What kind of stuff do you do?
Horror movies. My big influences are Dawn of the Dead and Nightmare on Elm Street. I’m going to make a zombie film in the parking lot of a supermarket near my house. What kind of films does your friend make?
I thought of Ying’s last film, which consisted of long shots of an enormous plastic awning over scaffolding on the Brooklyn Bridge. Just the awning shot from various angles, moving in the wind.
He makes documentaries and stuff, I said.
You should introduce me, Louie said, Maybe we can work together.
I tried to imagine Louie working with Ying, who liked to wear women’s clothing.
Oh definitely, I said. I had made Ying promise that, if he did arrive to shoot, he would dress as a man. No sequined bustiers, no high heels, no silk parachute pants or lipstick.
Louie went on to talk of all the bathing-beauties on Orchard Beach in the Bronx. He promised to take me there when the weather became warm. Louie and I had almost never spoken but the fact of my fighting brought him closer to me.
Even Louie’s enthusiams couldn’t fill that bleak space forever. While he and Adam settled down with Louie’s back issues of Fangoria, I tried to read a book of stories in Spanish. I couldn’t concentrate from one line to the next. My body phased through levels of anticipation. I would think about the coming fight and accelerate on a wave of jumbled thoughts, images of defeat and victory, Darryl’s advice, random words coupled in nonsense rhymes. Then the wave would crash and I would be left bored and nauseous. I sat still, trying to keep the anxiety from my face.
From his vantage of two fights, Adam instructed me on the difference between sparring and the real thing.
Man, those gloves they give you is light. You notice it right away. They feel like you got nothing on your hands. You’re going to get real tired in there, too. You won’t believe how long the two minutes is. But when you get tired, just step back and work your defense. And remember, he’s going to be tired too.
Reasonable enough statements but they went right through me and it was back to the surge, the scrambled phrases, the climbs and crashes. As we sat, the first spectators trickled into the bleachers around us.
Darryl returned to tell me it was time. Already time! I was fighting first (novices and lighter weights tending to come early on the card). It was time; so slowly and much too fast. We walked back to the locker room to prepare. I had never felt so helpless. Events dragged me along, a conveyor belt logic to which I had submitted. To quit was impossible. I would never be able to face Darryl or Adam again. I had sold myself to the night.
Darryl massaged the joints of my fingers. He had never done this before. It was soothing. Then he began to wrap my hands. On a bench at the other end of the locker, my enemy was having his hands wrapped, in gauze.
Darryl, I whispered.
They’re wrapping his hands in gauze.
So I want gauze.
We don’t have gauze.
You told me they used hand wraps in shows.
Usually they do. What difference does it make? I felt betrayed and wondered if gauze would make it easier for him to knock me out. I wondered if gauze of my own would save me.
When the referee tells you to touch gloves, hit his hard. He’ll probably try to stare you down when the referee is giving you instructions. Don’t let him. Guys try to get in your head that way. Stare at the space between his eyes if you can’t stare into them. He won’t know the difference. I know this referee. He’ll call a clean fight. Listen to him when he tells you to break or go into a neutral corner.
I pulled my shorts on over my belt. That was new, also, in the gym for sparring I wore my belt outside of my shorts. The rituals were finished, I had been anointed. We left the dressing room and waited behind the bleachers for the summons. An amplified voice buzzed incoherently and loud music played. As we waited, Darryl warmed me up. He had me throw punches at his hands and step under his swinging arms. I had never felt so awkward. Darryl’s arm kept hitting my head and I stumbled over my own feet. I could see my clumsy movement mirrored darkly in the wall mirrors behind Darryl. Laughter came from somewhere close by. I turned to see the fighters from the South Bronx club standing together beneath the bleachers, watching me and laughing. Darryl made a few more passes and stopped.
Don’t worry, he said, I made you look bad in front of them so they’d get overconfident.
I didn’t know what to make of his words. Was he lying to make me feel better? Was he telling the truth? And if he was telling the truth, was he out of his mind? I was helpless as an official ordered us to the ring, a cow on the kill line. Someone moved my arms and legs. I floated on the noise from a house suddenly full and eager for blood, a sacrifice, me. Adam shouted in my ear.
Just fuck him up, Adam said, a real warmth to his voice, I hope you fucking kill him.
Adam’s words comforted me. Adam was on my side. He wanted me to kill this other man. Killing him would be an escape from the hours of unhappiness.
I stepped through the ropes, Darryl talking all the while, Adam standing there with a bucket in his hands. I faced away from my enemy, listening to Darryl. I must have looked like a lamb with my back turned and my skinny white legs. From behind me came a loud booming noise. I turned to see my opponent staring at me and banging his gloves together.
Don’t worry, Darryl said with disgust, He’s just trying to scare you.
I was scared. Not so much of the man across the ring as of the fact that I had no idea what would happen next. I had seen many fights and this was not connected to any of them. If the judges had grabbed me at that moment, forced me to kneel and shot me in the head, I wouldn’t have been even mildly surprised.
The referee called us forward. My opponent was stocky, his hairless arms and legs thick and well-defined. A small Puerto Rican flag shone on the front of his white sleeveless T-shirt. The referee muttered his ritual phrases (‘Clean fight…standing eight count…neutral corner’) while my opponent tried to stare me down again. Good manners and worry tried to bend my neck but I kept my eyes steady. After a few seconds, his eyes fell. This transformed him. He remained the tough guy banging his gloves but he was now also someone I could beat. This was his first fight, also, and for all his muscle his face has a boyish softness (his book said he was 19). I felt tenderness for him, then.
After we returned to our corners the bell rang and we approached each other. I was tentative and before I even lifted my arms his first punch cracked the center of my face. I stumbled back in shock and humiliation. A noise rose from the bleachers at my pain. My enemy followed his first punch with blows to my body and head.
The shock of that first punch had released me from stasis, however. I no longer felt uncertain about my role. I knew exactly what I had to do. I had to kill him, this stranger who had hurt me. To this end, I drove him back across the ring with wild punches. He stumbled and the referee tried to call me off to deliver a standing eight count. I kept punching. When the referee finally pulled me away, he gave my opponent the count, then deducted a point from me for hitting after his command to stop. I didn’t understand what had happened, the referee’s hand signals a foreign language. When he clapped his hands together, we raced forward to collide at the center of the ring. What went on had very little to do with boxing. I was so accelerated, my brain spun so wildly, that thoughts crawled past my attention like clouds on a summer day. I wondered if my enemy was in college. I wondered if the blood smeared across his shoulders and spattered on his shirt was mine. I fought in a nightmare but I was also the rageful demon of a nightmare. It had little to do with boxing. At one point I stepped aside of his rush and caught him with a hook to the head, but that was all there was of strategy. Once again, the referee dragged us apart and sent us to neutral corners, after which he jerked and semaphored in the center of the ring (penalizing my opponent for low blows, as I later learned). We came together again and the bell finally rang. I hit my opponent at the last clang and he came after me swinging. One more point lost for him.
Back in my corner, Darryl tried to mop the blood from my face. He dug into my nostrils with a rag to clear them.
This guy is nothing, I said in surprise and bravado, He’s mine.
He don’t want to fight, Darryl said.
And he didn’t. He punched with eyes down and mostly pressed his head in my chest and pushed. The bell rang for the next round and I pummeled him until the referee pulled me away. I didn’t know I’d won my first fight in a TKO even when I saw Louie jump from his seat and heard the jeers from the South Bronx club. The decision to stop the fight was hasty on the referee’s part but I think he’d seen enough of us. In the official photo, I look like the loser. Although the referee has lifted my arm in the air, my face is painted with blood and I look like I’m about to cry. My opponent’s eyes are shut. He seems heavily medicated.
I went to the dressing to find my opponent having the gauze cut from his hands. We congratulated each other and then he muttered, “You really need to come out punching.” This was good advice but from him it seemed odd, considering his own lack of skill. The showers were exactly as filthy as I would have expected.
Back in the bleachers, I found Ying holding a video camera that he had arrived too late to use. With his long hair and velvet pants, Ying was suspiciously androgynous for the gender absolute world of boxing, but at least he wasn’t wearing his usual tell-tale lipstick and mascara. I introduced him to Louie and they were soon enwrapped in a discussion of the camera types and film stock. I settled in to watch the remaining fights on the card.
As I watched a fight between two bulbous heavyweights, Darryl walked to the bleachers and took my shoulder.
Bawb, he said, You better be careful. I been overhearing the crew of that guy you beat talking about how pissed off they are about the TKO. I’m worried that they may jump you outside.
Jump me? But I won the fight. It’s over now.
Darryl shook his head at my ignorance.
You and your friend better take off before the last fight.
It was one more thing that I didn’t understand but I remembered hearing Joey Colon discuss jumping a fighter who had knocked him out with other boxers from Milton’s team. I’d sat there in the locker room at Julio’s listening to extravagant ambush plans that were, probably, just talk. After Darryl walked away, I warned Ying, who wouldn’t have been much help in a brawl and we snuck out in the first round of the last fight. We made our way to Ying’s car without any incident and drove away from the misty waterfront.
Later I drank margaritas and received congratulations from friends at Max Phish, a bar on the Lower East Side. The drinks did little except make my stomach even more uneasy. No woman would flirt with me. The bar mirrors gave the reason why, with my swollen nose I looked like Rudolph. I didn’t feel like a winner. What had happened made little sense. Boxing still seemed an alien country, a place I could never reach, forever shrouded in clouds and fog.
I left the bar early and returned home to a ringing phone. It was Darryl. His voice came more slurred than usual through his missing teeth. He told me that he was proud of me. Then he went into a rambling monologue that included advice about my career and women. He said I had shown him something special that night and went on to talk about the Olympic trials that would be coming up in the spring. He said if I won the Gloves I would have a chance to make the Olympic Team. He said I could be a professional, someday. I listened, wanting to believe him.