Thursday, March 27, 2008

Fat City, Bay Ridge Style

If you refer back to this earlier post about the Golden Gloves , last night I experienced Golden Gloves Redux, going back to see the same boxer from my classes, Ben, on his meteoric rise in the competition that found him tagged with the nickname The Hebrew Hammer. Since that fight in Harlem, he had won two more bouts, in the Bronx and Yonkers, and received one bye, leading him to this last semi-final bout in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Winner goes to the finals in two weeks in Madison Square Garden.

Took me forever to get out there on the R Train, an hour and a half from Times Square. (Wish I’d known my trains better in Brooklyn, and taken the N Express, thus shaving a half hour off the trip, but life went on.) I was hoping to get there early, grab two slices of pizza, eat them folded in half, check out how my fine new leather shoes compared to the same pair in the window of the local haberdashery, and strut down the street carrying two paint cans in my hands while “Stayin’ Alive” by The Bee Gees blasted on my iPod, but no such luck. I had to bolt from the train to the gym, which was at a prep school near a golf course about seven blocks from the train.

And what an odd set-up this was as compared to the Harlem PAL gym. I was walking by where I thought the school should be, seeing only golf-course style expanses, saw a guard at an isolated gate with no one in sight for blocks, and asked him if he knew where the Prep School was. He said this is it, go through this gate, follow the road through the grounds, and the field house is at the end. The grounds? Field house? I should have asked for a golf cart to take me there. The grounds had two ponds on it that were swarming with migrating geese, quacking and shitting away. I know from harsh personal experience on golf courses to leaves geese alone: nasty animals that will bite. So I hustled through there, and sure enough found the field house. Understand that the only human being I had seen in the past 10 minutes was the lone guard at the gate. Brooklyn. 7:30 at night. Big boxing event. This was strange.

While the gym wasn’t a day/night change from the PAL gym in Harlem, it was a good bit nicer, which is what happens with swanky private schools. Powerful lighting, much larger gym, camera crews. Then again, this was also the last round before the finals, and thus more heavily attended. The same master of ceremonies who was dressed like a Trojan in Harlem was there – turned out he’s a DJ for Hot 97, the local Top 40 station, and he was doing the same thing, hustling the crowd with his microphone. This time, there was a bevy of white girls in hot pants, all of whom looked Italian and about 16, walking around handing out raffle tickets for a Harley. A lot of white folks in the crowd, too, as opposed to the night in Harlem. Again, not a totally different vibe, but surely not the same either.

Ben’s match wasn’t slated to go on immediately, so I got a chance to see a few fights in the lighter weight divisions: good stuff. It was the difference between seeing baseball games at the Class A level, and then Class AAA, as compared to that earlier night in Harlem, where there were a few fighters who should have thought twice about entering. These guys in Bay Ridge were on the cusp of the finals, a few wins under their belts, and the level of competition was that much better.

After awhile, I saw Kid, Ben, and his dad/cornerman Ron, a few feet away warming up by the bleachers. Ben was in his standard-issue Golden Gloves robe, can’t recall if it was blue or gold, as they go with those colors, and looking all business. I was worried with this “Hebrew Hammer” nickname that he might have shaved his head and had the Star of David tattooed on it. But he looked much the same, in a different place, shuffling around, not focusing on anything. Understand that when I see him like this, Kid guiding him through some small combinations, Ron looking just as intense as his son, I have zero urge to go over and talk to them, as I feel like I’d be breaking some spell. It’s a definite vibe I saw, not just with them, but with all the fighters, some strange zone where the two corner guys and the fighter are truly alone, know what has to be done, and don’t want to be bothered with anything else. On one hand it seemed overly serious and a bit campy to me; on the other, I could see that this was like any sporting event in public, i.e., if you’re participating, you’re nervous as hell until that first tip-off/punch/pitch/etc. And with boxing, you get in that ring, you’re all alone: a much different head from team sports.

Another thing about the Hebrew Hammer: I was worried that with the press coverage he was getting in the Daily News, this would put a target on his back. He’d received two glowing write-ups – earning “fighter of the night” status – in his earlier wins, along with the information that his boss had fired him from his investment banking job upon finding out why he was phoning in sick the day after each fight, and that he was spending his days focused in completely on training and winning the Gloves, with a quote along the lines of “even if I come up against a boxer more skilled than me, I’ll find some way to win.” I can gather that the remaining fighters in his weight class must have read things like this and thought, “We’ll see about that.”

(As for the job, Ben’s boss must have been a flaming asshole. Not the norm for investment bankers, despite their bad rap. I spent four years working in an investment bank, and many of those guys fancied themselves as worldly financiers who would have delighted in having one of their underlings fighting in the Golden Gloves. Sounds like Ben got that disappointingly rote corporate boss with no zest for life outside of work. He’ll probably be better off in the long run not having to deal with such douchebaggian behavior on a daily basis.)

The time came, and Ben and his opponent lined up. Right off the bat, I got worried. This guy looked like a fighter. Same height as Ben, but with that sort of wiry, natural muscle tone that always looks intimidating. He moved right: smooth, controlled, relaxed. I later found out this was a 17-year-old kid in his first Gloves competition, but it was clear that someone had been training him well, on top of whatever natural abilities he had.

Wish I could detail a fight for the ages here, but the reality this time was Ben got whacked. He came out swinging, his style, and within 30 seconds, his opponent had tagged him hard enough to require a Standing 8 count. This had happened in his previous fight, so I think the expectation was he’d do the same: weather the round, come back and win in the next two rounds.

Unfortunately, this kid was a monster – he really looked almost professional, and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t take the title. (If he doesn’t, the other guy will have to be an Olympic-caliber boxer.) With a few seconds left in the round, he tagged Ben with a hard overhand right that you probably could have heard landing in the Bronx, just a crushing blow. Ben went down on his knees, but not out, and it was clear that was the end of the fight. This kid simply did what I’d seen a few fighters already do. When a guy comes out charging like that, cover up, don’t let him hurt you, wait for the right pause, then drop in a knock-out punch. I’d seen one of the boxers in Harlem, who was like a bouncer rushing a crowd of drunks, lose a tooth like that when his opponent calmly side-stepped his barrage and belted him square on the jaw.

Gratefully, Ben didn’t come up bloodied – I was just glad he didn’t lose consciousness as this was surely “that punch,” one I’m sure he’s not going to forget any time soon. Afterwards, I just got the fuck out of there. No other way to put it. Didn’t want to hang around and console anyone, as I knew these guys would be inconsolable. Ben had made a great run of it, surely felt himself growing in confidence and experience as he went along, and Ron was there with him. Kid was probably reminded of his own Gloves championship experience and sensed how ragged it felt to go out like this, one bout away from the big one.

So, I sat shiva for the Hebrew Hammer on the subway train, all the way back to Astoria, a long fucking ride by any standards, made even longer after this experience. If you haven’t read the book Fat City by Leonard Gardner, I recommend doing so, even if you don’t like boxing. It’s the best book I’ve read about boxing, not so much the actual experience of it, but all the emotions and situations that spring up around it, and as I sat there on the train cruising through each abandoned station, I felt like those broke-assed guys in Fat City, heading home after a rough match in Stockton, driving through bean fields and woods, beat-up, some winners, some losers, just headed home alone after another night of fighting, in a cramped used car, listening to country music fade in and out on the AM radio.

That’s the main thing I’ve taken away watching Ben go through his Gloves experience: you win and lose alone, and that sense of aloneness is what boxing is all about, for better or worse. When I say alone, I don’t necessarily mean the boxer himself – throw in the trainer and the corner man, and you have these three guys on their own. When I’d glance over and see Ben, Ron and Kid in their pre-fight mode, all I could think was these guys look like they’re waiting outside the gaits of some walled city, where they’ll either be accepted by the king or thrown out on their asses. And either way, whether its friends and well wishers slapping your back after a win, or the same people with tears in their eyes, the core sense of being is still three guys who probably can’t wait to walk out of there and talk about what went down.

And this is not to paint too grim a picture. As far as I’m concerned Ben kicked ass, and pushed this thing as far as he could, before running into a kid who may be destined for bigger things. The quotes in the paper today from this kid make him sound like an insufferable asshole … which is pretty much what you’d expect from a teenager headed to the Golden Glove finals. About the only way Ben should feel bad is in having his ass kicked by a 17-year-old – I know this would make me feel awful – but the reality is this kid is a solid fighter with great training, and as stated earlier, I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t take the crown. Ben came out of nowhere, burned brightly for a few weeks, and found his limit for the time being. (Boxing is also very much about learning your limitations.) He can surely try again next year if he wants, or apparently many more years if he so desires, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he could somehow make it all the way. Whatever impulse compelled him to get into the ring in the first place isn’t going to go away, and the choice is his. I’m just glad as hell that he took a path that most people in his life probably thought was total insanity and made it work for him. There’s some kind of greater moral victory in that, even when you get your ass kicked.

1 comment:

Andy S. said...

"He’ll probably be better off in the long run not having to deal with such douchebaggian behavior on a daily basis."

How did you know that Aram Douchebaggian was a neighbor of mine back in my grammar school days?? And you know, he WAS kind of obnoxious.