THE NIGHT BEGAN with a seven-year-old kid named Eric. He found me near the roof of the Capital Centre, sitting (because I have pull with Prince George's County politicians and am a personal friend of the sports editor) next to the seat reserved for the Ecuadorian press and surrounded by people who have been given tickets to make this look like a sold-out heavyweight fight. The place has been prepared like a Baltimore fund-raiser and somehow Eric got in. At the moment, he is in a panic. He thinks Muhammad Ali has been knocked out.
Down below, past a belt of snog that would do L.A. proud, a young Mexico native named Carlos Becerril is lying on the canvas. One knee is up and one arm is extended. An arm is twitching a bit, as men kneel by his face, trying to determine the extent of the damage and maybe get him on his feet. Alfredo Escalera, still junior lightweight champion, is dancing around. He has apparently brought his own band with him from Puerto Rico and now he is dnacing in the ring. He has his hands over his head, a big smile on his face, a green champion's belt on his waist and two big blood smears on his white shorts. It is Becerril's blood. That's why Escalera is dancing.
"Is that Ali?" Eric asks, pointing to the man on the canvas.
"No," I say, "that's someone else." I check the program. "That's Becerril." Eric is relieved. This is his first fight, he tells me. This is my first fight also, I tell him. He gives me a disbelieving look and we both stare straight ahead. I do not tell him why I have come. I have come to do a hatchet job on boxing. I will gather color and detail, experience the thing, and when I find the right opening, I will tell the story of Punchy.
Punchy was both a person and a joke and he used to come into the luncheonette where I worked. He was one of those people for whom there were instructions - one of those people like pad, writing down the items he stole so his family could later pay the bill. Punchy had his ways. Punchy had been hit too many times in the head and now, in his 40s, he couldn't work much and he couldn't remember much and he had nothing to show for his years in the ring but a nickname. Some people thought he was funny.
So one day when it was busy, Punchy came in asked to use the bathroom. Punchy had asked before, but I gave him the instructions anyway - be sure to turn left. Do not turn right. A left turn is the bathroom. A right turn is the dark, steep stairway to the basement. Punchy took it all down in his head, nodded and went off to the bathroom. He turned left all right, but then when he left the bathroom he walked straight ahead. He fell down the stairs with a thud, and when they brought him up his face was bleeding and his expression was pathetic and made you want to look away in shame at what a sport had done to a man.
So I had Punchy in my head when I climbed down to the street level and went back to where the dressing rooms were and somehow I got into this procession. There were about half-a-dozen black men and they were walking as if the man in the middle with the goatee was the president of the United States and they were the Secret Service.
They looked menacingly at me and I looked at them, and I tried to get out of the moving circle, but it kept moving and there seemed to be no place to go. Finally, we stopped at the entrance to the corridor that led to the dressing rooms and they said they were with Ali. They were some of the several thousand persons who went in to see Ali.
I was one of the few who stayed outside.
People kept coming. They would go past the policemen and the security people and Ali's people and into the corridor. They walked past Escalera who was being interviewed in Spanish and sometimes they would stop, slap him on the back, cup his hands in theirs and say a couple of words to him. Escalera always smiled back and the man who was interviewing him would smile and then say something. Escalera would say, "Si, Si" and sometimes he would point to the blood that was still on his shorts.
Nearby a man in a blue leisure suit called a meeting. He was holding a clipboard and peering into the arena from time to time. Out in the ring, a fighter named Javier Muniz and it looked like the fight might be over soon. "We got a four-rounder if we need it," the man with the clipboard said. "What's happening?" everyone asked. They looked out into the ring. Muniz was getting murdered. He might not last.
I was leaning against the wall, watching. The man next to me was big and dressed in a black-and-white checked jacket. He said he handled Ali's endorsements.
"What endorsements?" I asked.
The man looked straight ahead. "Endorsements," he said out of the side of his mouth.
"What? secret endorsements. You keep the endorsement secret?"
"You got a card?" the man aksed. "I'll call you in the morning with the inside scoop of what's happened." I gave him my card. From then on, he called me Richard. I called him Mr. Endorsements. But not to his face.
For some reason, I was having fun. I had been here before, I thought - but where? Then a short man came by. He was smoking a cigar and he was wearing an expensive suit and I recognized him as an advance man for political candidates. He once worked for Humphrey or Jackson. I can't remember. But he put the whole thing together for me. This fighting business, it was like politics - the same arenas, the smae hallways, the same waiting for the candidate, the same being pushed around by nobodys, the same retainers and hangers-on and security and cops and, especially, that same winner-take-all smell to the thing. Don't lose, Ali. If you lose, you'll find Meet The Press has lost your telephone number.
So now it's close to fight time. A woman named Tina is ushered into the corridor. Everyone makes way for her. She is tall and beautiful and for some reason important. The time is drawing near. Howard Cosell comes out of the dressing room area wearing a brown tuxedo and looking like a band leader who plays Bar Mitzvahs. Someone yells for a man named Patterson. From the area the introductions begin: Joe Louis, Louis Stokes, Walter Fauntroy, Sonny Bono . . .
There's a stir. Alfredo Evangelista, the challenger; comes by. He looks confident. Now there is movement. The people who have been allowed down the hallway start coming out. They keep coming until, finally, the man with the goatee appears and then the handlers in white and then Ali. He is expressionless, pitched forward a bit, being pushed from the back, led from the front. He is like a race car being rolled out to the race. His engine is not yet on.
I am thrust into the mob. We move out into the arena. The music is playing very loudly. The beat is so heavy you can walk on it. Women are dancing in waves. I feel like I can touch the sound.The procession keeps on moving - through the music, through the sound, through the chanting - "Ali, Ali."
I have been this before. Bobby Kennedy, for starters, once with Jerry Brown. The chanting continues. "Ali, Ali, Ali, Ali . . ." The noise is incredible. I drop back. Ali climbs into the ring. Percy Sutton, who is running for mayor of New York, throws an arm around Ali, flashing his Cab Calloway smile for the photographers. By now, I am climbing the stairs to my seat. When I get there, Eric is waiting.
I am too thrilled to tell him about Punchy.