It's four days before fight night and here is Jimmy Lange, about to have lunch at an Italian family restaurant in Arlington he's patronized since childhood, and he's acting like the altar boy he was when he was 12.
He holds the door, smiles sweetly, waits for the elderly man with the walker to make his way painstakingly out the door. A photographer wants him to go out in the parking lot for pictures? He stands here, stands there. Takes off the sunglasses when asked. Back inside, he is solicitous of his lunch companion. A menu? Dessert?
His voice is soft. His face unblemished. After years in the pro boxing game, he still, miraculously, looks like an altar boy as well. Tonight, he'll step into the ring at George Mason University's Patriot Center, try to knock a guy named Perry Ballard unconscious, and he'll revel in every minute of it. But it's impossible to see any of that now.
Then again, at the moment, he's faking it.
Okay, faking it is not the precise term. On an average day, it's natural for Lange to go out of his way to help others, dote on his family, be the nice guy.
Just not this week. Want to know what he's really thinking at this moment? Here is the truth of the matter: He would very much like to tell the photographer with the annoying sunglasses request to stick it (in less polite terms). Sure, sure, he was raised to be nice to little old ladies, but can't they just get on with it already? Yeah, he's using the soft-spoken voice because he wants a reporter to like him -- in the fight game it's all about publicity and he's no dummy -- but does he really want to be sitting here eating spaghetti marinara with a side of mashed potatoes and talking about his childhood?
Are you kidding?
Well, a couple of minutes ago his dad told him his haircut was too short and Jimmy lit into him with a string of invectives. Which, he can get away with, because Dad is Dad -- his manager, the one who introduced him to boxing, the one he's most like.
For the rest of us, he fakes it.
"I'm putting on an act right now," Lange says. "I'm being nice to you."
And then he tells the story of when he was a little kid and he sneaked down through the stands to be close to the sidelines at a Redskins game. And there was fearsome linebacker Wilber Marshall. There were tears coming out of his eyes and snot running from his nose. That, he says, is what it feels like to box.
"He looked like the devil," Lange says. "It was so scary."
"Scary" -- that's the word his wife, Katie Lange, uses to describe her husband's demeanor as a fight approaches.
"I can tell by the tone of his voice when a fight's two to three weeks out," says Katie, who has been married to Jimmy -- now 30 -- for three years and has three children with him: toddler twins Angelo and Jack and infant Talia. "It's a little more on edge."
Katie, 26, has learned what to say, and what not to say. When to be around, and when to let him be. How not to take it personally when he snaps at her, because it's just a byproduct of his mental pre-fight process. Like his father, she's someone he can be natural with, even if natural is sometimes, well . . . scary.
"To do what we do, you have to go to such a dark place that you're not yourself," Lange says. "I may be a decent guy when we're sitting here at lunch, but the guy that you meet today is not the guy that's going to be in the ring Saturday night. Don't make a mistake about it: You're going in there to hurt somebody. Or to be hurt. And there's no way around that."
Most times, Lange does the hurting. He's never been knocked out, not as an amateur or since he turned pro nearly a decade ago. A junior middleweight (at 154 pounds, he's all lean, tattooed muscle), he has a 25-2-1 professional record, with 17 knockouts. A longtime local hero at boxing venues like Michael's Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie, he's also had his share of fights at places like the old Washington Convention Center and the D.C. Armory.
Lange made a national name for himself last spring on "The Contender," the boxing reality series backed by Sylvester Stallone. (He lost his first-round fight but endeared himself to the audience, which voted him back for a "fan favorite" fight -- which he won, earning $200,000.) Now he's returning to his old stomping grounds, hoping his newfound celebrity will up the boxing profile of this region -- and his own profile in return.
Tonight's fight, against the undefeated Ballard, is for the World Boxing Empire (WBE) title. In a sport littered with acronyms, the WBE is not, shall we say, boxing's creme de la creme; but it is a steppingstone to Lange's dream: The chance to be a challenger -- and, eventually champion -- in one of the leagues recognized at the top of the sport. It is not an unrealistic goal. Lange, no overnight sensation, has been slowly climbing his way up the ladder; his father considers him to be "80 percent" of the way to the top of his game.
"The lofty and the realistic are always the same," Jimmy Lange says, "and if anyone can tell you that, that's me -- the fact that I've gotten as far as I've gotten."
He was raised in Arlington, and then Great Falls, sixth in a family of 10 children. His father, John Lange, is a plumber; his mother, Mary, was "the warden," as he puts it, of a houseful of kids. The Langes are a devoutly Catholic family, and Jimmy remains so. He doesn't talk much about his religious convictions, calling that a "personal" subject, but his dad volunteers that he never misses Mass and is a regular at confession.
John Lange first took his son to the gym to see boxers train when the boy was about 6 years old. They'd already been to fights together, so Jimmy knew the sport. He remembers climbing up on the ropes and getting yelled at by the owner. "Get off them ropes!" He started to train immediately afterward, and has never taken a break or considered another career option since. Sure, 10 years ago, when he had occasional doubts about how far he'd make it, he'd imagine growing up to be a plumber like his father. But boxing was always the dream.
In a family as big as his, everyone got a shorthand identity. The gymnast. The cheerleader. Jimmy was the boxer from the beginning. And it was an identity with an added benefit: alone time with his dad.
"We're a lot alike," says John Lange, who boxed on an amateur level himself. "He spent a lot of time with me -- time that was good for me and good for him."
John says he never allows himself to think about his son getting hurt. Well, there was that one fight, back when Jimmy was maybe 15, and he squared off against an opponent at least seven years his senior. It was clear from the beginning that Jimmy was overmatched. Dad wanted to stop the fight, throw in the towel, but he didn't. Thinking back now, he thinks he probably should have. Instead, Jimmy fought to the end and took a particularly bruising loss.
"It's definitely hard to watch," says Katie, "but I have a lot of faith in his dad that he's not going to get in a bad situation."
Katie and Jimmy met young -- she was friends with his little sister Marie when Marie was in high school -- and she'd seen him fight, and became a fan, before they started dating.
"There is a point in every fight where I say, 'Knock the guy out,' " Katie says. It's not mere enthusiasm. She's reached a point where she's had enough of seeing her husband pounded.
"I don't want to see five more rounds of this," she says.
But that's a part of the life, along with long separations. When Lange trains for a fight, he heads south to Florida and his trainer, Buddy McGirt. He'll be gone for six, seven, eight weeks at a time. He likes the family to stay away -- not only is it a distraction, but it disrupts his diet. Katie is a cookie maker. The kids are big cookie eaters. He prefers his temptations kept out of the house.
When he gets back, though -- as he did this past Monday, in preparation for the fight -- he's in the mode where Katie knows to tread gingerly. He's headed over to the dark side, with all that that entails. Immunity is reserved for the kids.
He just fights better when it's on, and when it's been simmering for a while.
"What my wife has to go through when I'm coming up on a fight and I'm as nasty as can be . . . " he says, then trails off, a forkful of spaghetti in his hand. Halfway through, he pushes the plate away, reluctantly. Now is the time for denial.
"We make lists of the restaurants we're going to go to after a fight," Katie says. It's Jimmy's way of dealing with his cravings.
"I'm thinking a lot about Chinese now," he says.
It is two days after the lunch. He's on the George Mason campus for what is supposed to be a publicity event: He and the other fighters will work out in a makeshift ring. Only the ring hasn't been put together. The venue was changed at the last minute. And so Lange finds himself in a student union ballroom jumping rope and sparring with the air in his gloves.
Afterward, he walks over to a spectator in a wheelchair and makes small talk. He smiles and chats with two students carrying rolled-up posters bearing his likeness. He grants an interview to the college paper.
Then he turns aside and, when asked about the publicity snafu, his eyes flash. His voice changes, hardens.
"It's ridiculous," he seethes. "I do not tolerate failure."
It is two days to fight night.