He's out there again. He'll be 65 in May. He gets chest pains. His back hurts. His eyesight's lousy. But there he is, Rocky Coleman, ex-lightweight pug from the Bronx. He's out in his back yard, throwing jabs at an Everlast heavy bag strung from a limb of a tree.
And as he jabs, he shouts, "WHAM! ... See me? ... WHAM! Emphasize! ... WHAM! Emphasize! I want you emphasizing every damn punch you throw! ..."
Taking it all in is Jo-Jo Holloway, 17 years old, 132 pounds stretched on a 5-foot-10-inch frame, a wealth of raw talent, at least in Coleman's eyes.
Holloway started working out nightly at Coleman's home in Cheverly last fall, which was about when Coleman thought to make his suburban back yard what it is today: a full-blown boxing gym, with a lit-up ring, and bags, and cigar smoke in the air, like some outdoor fight camp in the Catskills.
His next-door neighbor is beside herself at the noise and unsightliness of the whole thing. Zoning violation notices keep showing up in Coleman's mailbox, and Prince George's County authorities are taking him to court this week. They're exasperated enough, they may even try to put him in jail.
But Coleman just shrugs. He has labored for too many years as a fight trainer swabbing cuts in the loser's corner, waiting to be blessed with a great champeen, to give up hoping for one now.
The gym stays.
"Know what I'm doing?" Coleman says. "I'm building this kid. Like an artist drawing a portrait, y'know? Or a sculptor. I'm creating the kid. He didn't know a boxing glove from a baseball glove when he came here."
Great fighters have had a way of eluding Rocky Coleman in the four decades since he left the ring in New York -- where he'd only been taking up space, anyway -- and settled by the turnbuckle as a sometimes trainer, sometimes manager. Just a tired, pitiable march of mostly four-round punks and disappointments. And, he says, life otherwise hasn't been swell, either, what with the boozing and the gambling and all the money flushed away -- and let's not forget the three years in Sing Sing for armed robbery, although that was back when Eisenhower was president.
Now he's semi-retired, living with two of his daughters, both schoolgirls, from a broken marriage and his common-law wife, who's 32. And if Cheverly authorities and the woman next door see him as a man vastly out of place and time, and their complaints about his gym keep piling up, Coleman says they just don't understand.
"See, in this game, you're always hoping," he says. "... You're waiting for some kid to come along that'll stick. A new Joe Louis, y'know?"
At the moment he has Holloway, who shows promise.
But he'd better stop turning when he jabs. "Watch the old man here," Coleman says. His voice is from the Bronx, dense and deep from nose fractures, with a gravel edge from gin and cigars. "Look at me, WHAM! ... See that? I'm stepping right at the bum! And where's my shoulder? ... WHAM! ..." Another jab, and, when it connects, Rocky Coleman is staring down his straight left arm to the bag like a man sighting a rifle. And only then does he spin out.
And when he does, there's the vestige of a lightweight's bounce and rhythm. But he's heavy through the middle now, with sore joints, eyeglasses and matching hearing aids from long-ago blows to the head. He's 5 feet 8 inches tall, has stocky arms, callused hands, a square face and no neck to speak of. Around the gym he wears T-shirts and jeans held up by suspenders. His hair is gray, and he keeps it in a small ponytail.
He lowers his fists and says to Holloway, "Now go ahead, Joey... ."
Later, as Holloway skips rope between rounds with the bag, Coleman sits in a lawn chair and says over the patter, "This kid, I want to make him one of the greatest things that ever lived. I never had a kid fight the way he fights at this age. Amazing kid. Going to be a very famous fighter.
"Jo-Jo, he's the one inspired me to do all of this."
A Neighbor's Lament
By all of this, he means the gym, spread out behind the 10-room brick house he rents on a shaded avenue in a town of 6,000, an unhurried, mile-square bedroom community that calls itself "a lovely island of green in a sea of dual-lane highways," close to where Prince George's meets Northeast D.C.
There's the ring. It's standard size, with super-watt stadium lights mounted on poles high above the corners. To keep dirt from gusting in, Coleman covered the ground with 20 tons of sand. He brought in tables, buckets, towels, tape, hand wraps, gloves, headgear and a ring timer. He set up a shower and changing room in the basement of the house and equipped it with a treadmill and some apparatus called a Soloflex. In the yard, next to the ring, he nailed down a cushioned, 600-square-foot workout platform, with a mirrored wall, seven feet high, running the length of one side. The platform surrounds an old shade tree. Coleman bolted a wooden rack to its trunk, screwed four speed bags in place and strung four heavy bags by chains from its limbs.
"I've probably got 10 grand out here," he says. Then he dismisses the price as small for the pleasure it brings him, watching Holloway dance in the ring with a sparring partner.
"Boxing's a beautiful thing," he says. "... It's murder, yeah. It probably ain't even a sport. But it's beautiful, y'know what I mean? It's one-on-one. You're out there naked, like back in the cave man days."
To Helen Adams, Coleman's next-door neighbor, it didn't matter that he installed a privacy fence. Her house rests on a higher elevation than Coleman's, and so after work, she sits down to dinner in a mezzanine seat at her kitchen window, just a few feet up and away from the lights, the salty chatter and the mad drumbeat of sometimes a half-dozen men thumping bags.
"I'm going to be honest with you," she says, "a lot of days I just pray that it rains, so I can get a little rest when I come home."
Since the spring, Adams, 44, a marketing representative, has renewed complaints that she began making in 1985, when Coleman first set up a ring in his yard. She's protested about the gym to Cheverly police, the town administrator, the mayor, the Town Council, the county's zoning enforcers, the Prince George's sheriff, the County Council, the county executive, the state's attorney, even the governor. And she has written to her congressman and one of her senators.
"Someone out there's doing a lot of covering up," she says.
But as long as Coleman can hold down the noise and doesn't collect dues, officials say, there's nothing illegal about his gym -- except perhaps the ring itself, and then only if someone fights in it. Otherwise, to the county, it's just "a detached sun deck with ornamental ropes."
Coleman, of course, does put fighters up there, which is why he and the county's lawyers are headed for District Court this week.
"Boxing's what I do," Coleman says, adding later, "God didn't give me no education." In fact, the little he knows about reading and writing he learned from a tutor in Sing Sing. What God did give him, he says, "is the ability to teach fighters. ... I've got lots of knowledge up here, lots of experience, y'know? And there ain't no sense in taking it to the grave."
All that knowledge, all that experience is focused now on Jo-Jo Holloway. He's an infant: 11 fights, six wins, all amateur bouts, all the wins against novices like himself, and most of the losses against older, more seasoned opponents. Those who've watched him, and know what to look for, see a future. "The kid's got it in him, man. You can see it," says Dave Jacobs, who helped train Sugar Ray Leonard.
" 'Course, I've seen a lot of kids like that," Jacobs says. "Most of them, they don't stay in the gym. They don't keep their minds healthy."
Holloway, who comes from a broken family in Southeast Washington, dropped out of high school and had minor scrapes with the police before an uncle in District Heights took him in. To make sure he gets to the gym six nights a week, Coleman gave him an old van. He took him to a dentist for a custom-fitted, $250 mouthpiece, and won't quit reminding him of the Golden Gloves tournament coming up, and maybe the Olympic trials down the road.
"A fighter's like a baby," Coleman says. "They're tough guys, and they think they know it all, but you gotta lead them by the hand. ... And let me tell you, I've been double-crossed so many times, it's ridiculous."
Yet even now, with the county's attorneys and zoning authorities closing in on him, Coleman won't give up "this miserable racket."
As for why, he pauses, digging up an analogy. "This guy I met in the penitentiary, I'll never forget it," he says. "I'm just coming in, y'know? And they make you line up for chow in there. They march you past the death house and up the hill to where the mess hall is. And this guy standing next to me, he's getting ready to go home, see? He's been in three years or whatever, I don't know. And he couldn't wait to get a shot of dope. Them days, it was heroin. Coke wasn't so popular. And I says, 'Why? How come you want to mess with that?' And the guy looks at me and he says, 'Because I love it! I love it!'
"So try to explain why a guy goes back to the gym," Coleman says. "It's like you're a goddamn junkie, y'know?"
The Lot Once Vacant
Helen Adams's house sits to the left of Coleman's. To the right, there used to be a vacant lot. In early spring 1978, just because he felt like it, Coleman built a boxing ring on the lot. He was cash-poor at the time. "I didn't have a quarter to buy an extra bolt."
He did enjoy looking at it, though, usually in the evenings. Sometimes he even climbed inside. "First thing you know, kids are coming around, neighborhood kids," he says. "... I had a kid, won the Golden Gloves for me one year, local tournament. Good fighter. 'Course, he come to bad things, the kid. Started selling PCP, stuff like that... ."
Helen Adams wasn't too bothered by the ring in those years. It was way over on the vacant lot. But in the mid-1980s, with a house going up on the lot, Coleman moved it into his yard. Just the ring and a bag. There was no gym yet.
Adams's first complaint, in 1985, and the many that followed prompted Coleman to seek a retroactive building permit for the ring, describing it as a detached sun deck. He finally got a permit in 1987, after the case had wound its way to District Court, where Coleman signed an agreement promising not to put fighters on the "sun deck" without a special zoning exception.
He says he abided by the agreement, but only for a while.
The boxing picked up again, and so did the complaints. Then last fall, Jo-Jo Holloway came along. Coleman, who had been running a plastering business, had only recently turned it over to his two grown sons. He had time on his hands. And as he watched Holloway work the heavy bag, a vision of a gym came to him.
In the spring, he built it.
"You take a shot," Coleman says. "I could spend $5,000, $10,000, whatever, and buy a fighter. But I ain't going to do that anymore. I figured I'd mold the kid here, see what happens to him, y'know? ... 'Chrissake, I mean, you don't shoot, you ain't going to hit nothing, right?"
Seeing what Coleman had created, Adams also got busy, calling or confronting or writing letters to virtually every public official who represents her, short of the president.
The dispute ripened. Adams says one of Coleman's grown sons hurled racial epithets at her. Coleman says Adams's young son attacked one of his sons with a slingshot. Adams says someone from Coleman's camp put a hole in her Volvo with a pellet gun. And on it goes. Twice, she has filed harassment charges against him. Twice, she and Coleman have ended up in mediation sessions with the Prince George's Human Relations Commission.
What especially angers her, Adams says, is the attitude of Coleman's landlord, Thomas Foley. "He pays his rent," Foley says. "... The town for years has been trying to get me to do the one thing I will not do, which is to evict the man. I've taken a neutral position on all this."
Foley, as it happens, is a member of the Town Council.
One night last spring, watching Cheverly's cable TV channel, Coleman saw Adams upbraiding Foley at a live candidates forum. He rushed out of the house, drove to the town hall and stood up in his landlord's defense.
"Believe me, this man here helped me out when I couldn't hustle up enough to get a shot of gin," Coleman informed the audience, mostly members of the Cheverly Woman's Club. And remembering his younger years in the Bronx, he added, "If I lived in his ward, I'd vote for him five times, like the old days. I'd change my name, go around voting for him. I'd pay people to vote for the guy. I mean, God bless him. ..." And then he was ushered off camera.
"I think it's outrageous," says Cheverly Mayor Alan Dwyer, whose town has no jurisdiction in zoning matters. "The county stands by impotent. It's just outrageous. Colorful and interesting as the guy might be, I'm embarrassed that he's able to get away with what he's getting away with."
But Robert Payne, the county's zoning enforcement supervisor, says someone in authority had to witness the sparring on Coleman's "sun deck" before he could be hauled to court and ordered once again to stop.
"We went by from time to time," Payne says. "... But a lot of the boxing goes on at night. And to send someone out in the evening ... well, suppose a whole bunch of boxers decide to practice on our man?"
Finally, on the Fourth of July, a police officer dispatched to peek over Coleman's fence reported back that he'd seen men with boxing gloves in the ring. This Wednesday in District Court, Coleman will have to explain why he shouldn't be held in contempt, and maybe fined up to $1,000 and jailed for up to 60 days, for violating the agreement he signed three years ago.
In the meantime, in the early evening, he sets a battered tape deck on the ring apron and drops in a homemade cassette, James Brown and the Fabulous Flames doing "Night Train." A long, long time ago, Coleman used to ride the subway over to Harlem from the Bronx and watch Sugar Ray Robinson train. Robinson used to skip rope to the same tune, an older version. Tonight it's Holloway. Coleman cranks the volume, and a throaty saxophone riff carries across the yard, and across Helen Adams's yard too.
Though Coleman seldom spares a moment for anyone else, Holloway isn't alone here working to the music. Other fighters are tolerated on the premises.
One came in just a while ago, a four-round knockabout named Paul Hagans, 35, otherwise known as "The Termite." Some years back, he lost two front teeth to the butt of a police pistol. And over there, wrapping his hands, is another fringe pro, "Tip Top." He's 32. "The Lord has spoken to me and given me this name," says Tip Top. " 'Cause I was one to be on drugs, until the Lord came to me with His message, gave me His tip to get on top... ."
Watching these two, and a few like them who come by, perhaps Rocky Coleman sees a distant hint of himself. "I don't know," he says. "... All I know, like I tell people, is nobody should become a fighter.
"I mean, you know who should become a fighter?" Coleman says. "A guy that's got no other place to go."
Lockers and Lessons
He was born in 1926 and raised by his mother and stepfather in a house that was more like a shack, in an abandoned brickyard.
The brickyard was in a corner of the Bronx called Throgs Neck, where the East River bends out of Long Island Sound. Coleman's stepfather, a cook whose livelihood vanished in the Depression, earned a few dollars a week shoveling dirt for public works projects and sold bootleg whiskey from a still behind the house. He told his stepson once, "If you live to be 65, and you've got one friend in the world, you're lucky. You want a friend, get a dog."
No one seemed to care much when Coleman stopped going to school. He passed his childhood wandering down streets and alleys pushing a baby carriage, collecting scrap for junk dealers. His stepfather, with three kids of his own, was grateful for the change the boy brought home.
Still, he was a mouth to feed. So on March 16, 1942, when Coleman came in waving an affidavit from the Marine Corps, his stepfather was happy to sign it, falsely swearing that Coleman was old enough to enlist in the fight against Japan. "I was 15," he says. "I turned 16 in boot camp."
After three campaigns in the Pacific and the war's end, he was back in New York, just 19 years old, restless, uneducated and out of work.
He'd done some roughhouse boxing in the service and had learned he could stand up to a punch. One afternoon, sipping coffee in a Bronx candy store, chatting with a local rackets guy, Coleman mentioned he'd like to break into the fights.
"The guy tells me, 'Go over to Bobby Gleason's gym, see Joey LaMotta. Tell them Neil sent you over.' See, them days, Jake LaMotta was the big man in Gleason's. Trained there all the time. And Joey was Jake's brother.
"So I go over there," Coleman says, "I walk upstairs to the gym. I tell them Neil sent me. And out of respect, right away, they give me a locker in the back. 'Chrissake, they took me on right away."
He made sure to do what he was told, trained every day in the beginning and picked up the tricks he needed to survive. "But I wasn't cut out to be no great fighter," he says. He'd grab any four-round undercard bout that the handlers in Gleason's could get for him, in all the raucous, smoky fight clubs of that New York era -- Sunnyside Garden, the St. Nick, the Eastern Parkway -- and most nights he'd take a beating, though he'd stay on his feet.
"You'd walk out of the place with maybe $50," he says, "less $2.50 they'd take out for tape and $2.50 for gauze."
After a few dozen fights he quit the ring, and started carrying a bucket for trainers, handing up the sponge, the water bottle, the ice bag.
And that was how Rocky Coleman learned to teach boxing.
"You study the trainers, same as you study fighters," he says. When he wasn't in Bobby Gleason's trying to tune some brawler of his own, he was across the Harlem River studying Ray Robinson and trainer Harry Wiley -- or farther down Manhattan in Hell's Kitchen, in the cultivated dinginess of the great Lou Stillman's gym, where Rocky Graziano and a parade of other champeens used to train in front of a crowd of Runyonesque regulars.
Prizefighting thrived in those postwar years. Yet for Coleman, with the lugs he had for fighters, times could get lean in the gym -- enough that he'd have to look elsewhere for work. And he'd never have to look far. There was a rogues' gallery of low-rent racketeers slouching around the Bronx boxing scene back then, and it wasn't hard finding a loan shark whose delinquent debtors needed a talking to.
"I had a regular route for a while there," Coleman says and shrugs.
He landed in Sing Sing in '55, he says, "for a stickup we did." The prison's records from that era were destroyed in a fire, and Coleman won't discuss details of the robbery or who else took part. "I didn't squeal then," he says, explaining why he was made to serve every minute of an 18-to-36-month sentence, "and I ain't talking about it now."
When he came out, he says, he took up bartending to supplement his thin takes from the fights. Then in the mid-1960s, he drove off with a woman who later became his wife and the mother of his children. They were headed for the West Coast, but figured they'd tour Washington first, and here was where Coleman's Oldsmobile broke down. So here was where they stayed.
He went into the painting business, which led him to plastering, and soon enough he became "Sloppy Rocky's Custom Decorating." "Very well-to-do people used to call me up," he says. The suburban building boom carried him into the 1970s and left him a comfortable man.
Yet he couldn't get boxing out of his head.
In 1974, he retired from plastering and opened a gym of his own in Hyattsville with some of the money he'd socked away. But in those years, most nights, he was half inside of a gin bottle, he says, and losing bets wherever he went. " 'Chrissake," he says, "I'd have bet that that plant over there was going to get up and walk over to the table." There were booze-fueled fistfights and drunken-driving arrests, attorneys' fees and court fines. It wasn't long before the gym closed, his marriage ended, his savings dwindled, and he wound up spreading plaster again, and spotting an ad for a house for rent on a quiet street in Cheverly.
Long after dark, after Holloway and the others have gone home, Coleman pours coffee and settles in a patio chair at ringside. The only sounds in the gym come from crickets and the evening breeze in the trees.
He figures he's about as content in life nowadays as he'll ever be.
He gave up drinking a couple of years ago, stays in most nights, and if his heart isn't so strong anymore, at least it's still beating.
Two of his girls, ages 7 and 12, and Pam, his common-law wife, are all right there in the house. His two sons are on their own with the plastering, another daughter is married, and Coleman takes care of the young ones.
"They're my life," he says.
The youngest, Patsy, he calls "Boo-Boo." He sends her to Riverdale Baptist Academy with her sister and pays their tuition in cash.
"A guy like me, what else do I need?" he says. "... I mean, suppose tomorrow I hit the lottery. What do you think I'm going to do, huh? You think I'm going to go buy a big house or something? I don't need a big house. I don't need anything. I hit the lottery tomorrow, I'm going to help some fighter out. For the satisfaction, y'know? If he's decent."
He's waxing on in this vein, when he hears a voice from the house.
A squeak, really.
"Aaaay, Boo-Boo! ... Boo-Boo, come over here, baby. Give me a hug."
She scoots across the sand from the back porch to ringside in her bare feet and a nightie. "I wanted to say g'night to you, Daddy."
"Ohhhh, Boo-Boo, sweetheart. G'night, baby." He lifts her off the ground with a bearhug, then eases her down and stares at her a moment.
And he says, "Hey, Boo-Boo, you know what? I'm going to smack you right in the face, right here. What are you going to do?"
She's 3 feet 5, 49 pounds.
What she does is turn sideways. Her left foot steps toward her father, and suddenly she's bouncing, glaring up at him. "Okay, Boo-Boo, where's your shoulder, where's your shoulder? ... " He starts with a lazy right hook to her chin, but Boo-Boo's left shoulder is up, where it should be, and her chin drops and hides behind it. "Slip it! Slip it! ..." She keeps her feet spread for balance, but joins her knees, ducks forward and lets her father's right hook glance off the back of her neck. She's slipping and rolling, under a left, a right and another left. "Make me pay, Boo-Boo, make me pay. ..." She slips a right and rolls under, and this time swivels her hips and counters with a combination, a left to her father's ribs, another quick left that falls way short of his head.
"C'mere, baby." He stoops and kisses her forehead, and Boo-Boo turns and trots toward the house, calling, "G'night, Daddy!"
"Okay, baby, g'night," Coleman says. He watches her go inside, then sits back down. "See that?" he says. "See what you can do with a kid?"