Part I: Keeper of the Flame
Sunday, May 31, 2009
"Hey Curtis!" A shout across a boxing gym bites at the soul of Curtis Rawlings. It's another reminder that things aren't the way they used to be. In the old days the kids never would have called him "Curtis." It was always "Mr. Curtis," a sign of their respect.
Now that respect is gone. He sees it every day; the way the kids strut to the ring, the muffled hellos, the eyes that don't make contact. Sure, there are still a few young boxers who smile and address him as "Mr. Curtis." It seems to him that these are also the ones who are dedicated, the ones who always win. And to Rawlings, dedication is what's been missing from these gyms around Washington the last several years.
He shakes his head.
He is an old man now, one of those characters you might find only around a boxing ring, thin and hunched with a weathered face. His voice carries the rural twang of a childhood on the Virginia-North Carolina border. A few weeks ago he turned 72, and his back is a tangle of discomfort, a reminder of another lifetime when he worked as a mailman and a dog knocked him off a porch, rupturing three disks in his spine. Sitting is a torture. And he fidgets in his chair chuckling that he's like an old car -- everything has spilled down to the oil pan and it's going to take a long time to get back up again.
For nearly three decades, Rawlings has been Washington boxing. He is a timekeeper, the man who counts down the seconds and then rings the bell. It is an anonymous task, one he has loved for that very fact. The glare of attention never suited him. And yet it seems there cannot be a fight in the area without him, mostly because people have come to trust him, because he has this peculiar obsession with perfection -- double-checking every score sheet, poring through the fighters' record books, rooting out errors, enforcing arcane rules.
Which is why six years ago he was elected to the D.C. Boxing Hall of Fame despite never having thrown a punch. And why this year he was asked to run it. They told him he was the only one they thought would do it right.
If only these young fighters cared as much. Sometimes their indifference frustrates Rawlings. It wasn't all that long ago that boxing thrived in Washington. Back then, he remembers, when boxers from the area went around the country for important fights on the amateur circuit, their presence alone was enough to make opposing fighters tremble.
Now when Rawlings goes to national tournaments -- he also works as the chief timekeeper for the Golden Gloves tournament -- he senses that fear is gone. If a fighter from a place like Cleveland or Cincinnati or Los Angeles draws a Washington area boxer, he is sure the other boxer believes it will be a walkover.
He uses that word: walkover.
Still he pushes on, fighting for a sport he can't let go.
* * *
It is early on a Saturday morning and Rawlings is inside the Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing Center in the Maryland suburb of Palmer Park. There will be boxing on this night, a preliminary round of the Golden Gloves, and he has made the drive from his apartment in Twinbrook to help run the early weigh-in, even though his back is aching and the trip has taken longer because he hugged the right side of the road in his Toyota Corolla.