I was on holiday last week and happened to catch the fights Saturday night on HBO. Was I glad I did. I saw a tremendous bout between Miguel Soto and Yuri Foreman outdoors at the new Yankee Stadium in New York. An historic venue [at least in name] and residence, no doubt, to numerous boxing ghosts.
The ghosts would have been happy with the main event. Soto is a very good fighter with a fine record, coming off a couple of losses in recent fights that indicated to some that his career may have passed its apogee. Foreman was undefeated and the champion in his division. Also, Foreman is perhaps the only Rabbinical student to ever hold a boxing title. The experts at ringside felt that Foreman's rapid punching ability and his constant movement about the ring would work a significant advantage over even the more experienced and successful Soto.
Foreman entered the ring wearing a soft knee brace. The brace was no issue until the seventh round when Foreman's knee simply buckled causing him to fall to the mat in obvious severe pain. Staggering to his feet while pulling at the ropes, a cut already open over one eye, Foreman was asked if he wanted to stop the fight for medical reasons. He refused. The round ended and Foreman limped to his corner where nobody viewing the bout could have thought he would emerge to engage in the eighth round. We were wrong. The eighth round began. Stripped now of his ability to move about the ring, and forced to stand toe to toe with a superior puncher, Foreman gave as good as he got until a towel flew into the ring, traditionally indicating that Foreman's side was capitulating. With only fifteen seconds left in the round, referee Arthur Mercante, Jr. asked Foreman if he wanted to continue, saying "you've fought too hard to lose like this". Foreman agreed, the towel was tossed out of the ring and the round was completed. Foreman again defied the experts by coming out for the ninth round where his knee buckled again. Later, and after catching a hard left hook from Soto, Foreman went down in the first true knockdown of the match and Mercante stopped the fight as was proper. It is the only fight I can recall where the winner came over twice after the final bell to shake the hand of his opponent. I have never seen another boxing match like it. It was unforgettable.
Having the opportunity to view a great sporting performance serves to inspire the mere fan in the course of a non-sporting life. Even unmemorable, ordinary sporting performances, however, can provide fine memories and Epic lessons. Such is the greatest value of sport.
In the summer of 1990, I was thirty-one years old and I decided to take up boxing. Not the sport. The training regimen. Peter DePasquale's marvelous book The Boxer's Workout was my guide. I spent several weeks in my garage working on circuits of skipping rope, shadow boxing, sit-ups and attempting to hit a speed punching bag so I could get into a routine. It was the only workout I have ever done that interested me.
One day I was driving across town on a work errand and saw a sign outside a local warehouse advertising an amateur boxing gym, "open to the public". I was immediately intrigued but it took me two more weeks to get the nerve to go inside the door. I was tremendously intimidated, never having been involved in a contact sport other than one or two horrid experiences with wrestling in a High School gym class which left me mentally scarred for life.
The first afternoon, I entered the "A Street" Gym and, when my eyes grew accustomed to the dim lighting [boxing gyms tend to be low budget affairs and saving on utilities is a priority] I saw a circle of VERY fit and tired looking young men sitting around a wizened old man who was about five feet two inches tall and about 110 pounds soaking wet. Mr. [I kid you not] Johnny Walker. A boxing trainer of many years' experience. Glad that I left my sports coat and tie in the car, I took a seat behind the ring of twenty year-olds and listened to Mr. Walker discuss their sparring sessions. At one point, Mr. Walker said
"You aren't here to be regular boxers, tomato cans, unknown opponents. You are here to be champions. Leather and gold, gentlemen! We are here to win belts made of leather and gold!"
The analysis session finally broke up and the fellows went to different parts of the gym to spar, shadow box, do sit-ups and push-ups, work out on bags--exactly the things I had read about in DePasquale's book. Mr. Walker turned my way...
Can I help you sport?
Yes sir. I was wondering if I could come here to train after work. I would really appreciate the opportunity.
[After a long look at my "physique"] So...are you a boxer, then?
NO SIR. I'm just a guy who loves boxing that wants to work out.
[A quizzical look and a pause, then] Come in when you like. Put your bag over there...
That began a six month period that I can only describe as magical. Early each evening, I would come in, do my circuit of different exercises and drills by myself, and keep out of the way. I got plenty of odd looks, but no malevolent ones. After all, I was the only representative of the overweight, over thirty, jacket and tie wearing crowd I ever saw at the "A Street" Gym. I loved it there. It was a completely different world from that of the workaday, and it taught me a lot about humility. Rapidly. I started getting in pretty good shape too.
After a few days, when some of the younger guys would see me gasping and, soaked with sweat, trying to merely walk from the gym to the car after my solitary workouts, they would give me a nod. Not a chat. Boxers in training aren't much for chatting. They are too tired. After a few weeks of regular attendance, I was shadow boxing--slowly working the "one-two", "one-two-three" [jab-straight; jab-straight-hook] in a corner when I heard Mr. Walker yelling from across the warehouse...
Hey! [ML]! That guy you're shadow boxing? He just knocked you out!
Soft chuckles from around the gym. I was one of the guys.
The "A Street" Gym closed up [as boxing gyms tend to do] after about a year because the owner of the warehouse sold the land to a big company that tore it down. I was heartbroken.
Even though I never saw Mr. Walker or any of the boxers again, I carry my memories of the "A Street" Gym close to my heart. And every now and then, when I see a heroic performance in the ring like that of Yuri Foreman I wonder about my boxing friends and I am very proud to have known them. The tremendous way they worked every day, with little or no chance of ever having a professional bout, made them all heroes to me. No bum knee would have stopped any of them either. Every day, they sweat and hurt and gasped for oxygen. For the love of the sweet science. And for the dream of leather and gold. Yuri Foreman stood for all of them last Saturday night, even though he was ultimately defeated. My wish for Mr. Foreman is that he never loses his champion's spirit. And that all the guys in all the backwater gyms around the world never forget his name.
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