Friday night always used to be fight night. On one of those nights I even found myself in the ring getting banged around by a tougher guy than myself, but that comes later.
Fight night was big when black-and-white TV came in and the razor-blade company brought the best bouts, live. Every Friday night at 10. Madison Square Garden. Or St. Nick's. Friday night fights got to be so popular that soon there were Wednesday night fights and Monday night fights.
Of course, TV sets weren't all that plentiful in the beginning, but all the bars had one. Patrons flipped coins to see whether they got to bet on the guy wearing the black trunks or the white. The loser bought.
Don Dumphy did the blow-by-blow on radio and often on television. The distinctive voice of the ring announcer belonged to Johnny Addie. Standing in the center of the ring and wearing black tie, Addie would point to a corner and let it be heard, "In this corner, wearing poiple trunks . . ." Addie always said the name twice, as if the second time made it official.
Often, one of the familiar regulars came up on the small screen: Joey Giardello, Joey Maxim, Gene Fullmer, Carmen Basilio, Chuck Davey. Everybody had his favorite. And quite often, the greats would fight and attract the kind of attention tonight's Sugar Ray Leonard-Roberto Duran fight is: Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Marciano, Walcott, Pep.
In the bars, cries of "Hit 'im in the labanza" or "Hit 'im while ya got the wind wid ya, ya bum" would be heard, shouted by guys who never got hit by anyone except their mothers. I had the disadvantage of knowing what it was like to get hit in the ring.
My brother was a pretty good club heavyweight and fought a lot around New England, winning his share of watches and quickly selling them for cash. Working his corner, always with great concern, was my father, who loved the boxing game.
It was inevitable, unfortunately, that I was pushed toward the ring and found myself at age 17 one Friday night facing a three-rounder at a veterans' smoker against a baldish, muscular guy with tattoos all over his arms. He looked to be about 35, and, in close to him, I tasted my first drink from the whiskey on his breath. He also, I noticed up close, had a face that left nothing more to damage.
It was a street brawl with a little boxing thrown in by instinct, and when he hit I was instantly dizzy and couldn't understand why the crowd was cheering for him. I had never done a thing to any one of them.
My career ended after a few more of these fiascoes, and even today I can't bring myself to shout for the kill.
And I have a slightly less romantic view of the game than A. J. Liebling depicted in "The Sweet Science." He himself got in the ring with Philadelphia's Jack O'Brien and wrote: "It is through Jack O'Brien, the Arbiter Elegantiarum Philadephiae, that I trace my rapport with the historic past through the laying-on of hands. He hit me, for pedagogical example, and he had been hit by the great Bob Fitzsimmons, from whom he won the light-heavyweight title in 1906 . . . Fitzsimmons had been hit by Corbett, Corbett by John L. Sullivan, he by Paddy Ryan, with the bare knuckles, and Ryan by Joe Goss, his predecessor, who as a young man had felt the fist of the great Jem Mace. It is a great thrill to feel that all that separates you from the early Victorians is a series of punches on the nose . . . 'The Sweet Science' is joined onto the past like a man's arm to his shoulder."
To see the young men who are still seeking to have their faces rearranged, I stopped over at Finley's Gym in Northeast the other morning. Finley's Gym is over Jimmy Finley's garage and Finley lets everyone know with a sign that the garage business comes first: "This gym is here because of the garage . . . Not the garage because of the gym."
Young hopefuls walk through a marrow alley alongside the garage, through a spray-paint area and up a long fight of stairs. The gym is small with full-length mirrors on the walls. It could be a ballet studio except for the ring in the back, the weights and the two heavy punching bags. The bags are worn and a sign says, "Do not punch bags with bare hands at any time." Just about where the opponent's stomach would be is heavily taped from wear.
Fuzzy Wilson, the manager, has hand-printed signs along the walls saying, "It takes blood and guts to become a boxer" and "Train at your own risk." A fight poster advertised a Coliseum card. I wondered if Derrick "Sweet" Holmes would ever make it to Montreal, or somewhere, to a title fight.
Jimmy Finley, a onetime middleweight, went five rounds a year ago on his 50th birthday with a young contender. "We fought real hard, no jokes. He hit and I hit. I was good for about three rounds," he said. Attendance always goes up at Finley's around the time of a Sugar Ray Leonard fight but slows up when the young men realize how hard a boxer has to work to become good.
On the way back from the gym, the taxi driver, naturally, was talking about the fight. He predicted Duran. "Next time," he said, "it'll be Leonard. And then the next time they'll go for the real big money." No small thought, considering that tonight Leonard could gross $10 million.
And for that kind of money, I could spend another dizzy Friday night.