My inglorious, but brief, boxing career lasted precisely three minutes many years ago, but the memory remains vivid and painful to this day.
The place was New York, and the occasion was the annual Sophomore-Freshman Day at my high school. Of the many events in which the two classes competed for supremacy, a highlight was a boxing match between the chosen representatives of each class.
By some sort of classic miscasting, I was selected to defend the honor of the freshman class. How or why I was so honored I have no recollection. Presumably it had something to do with my supposed athletic ability in basketball and baseball, but in reality it probably had much more to do with the selectors, whoever they were, knowing a sucker when they saw one.
My sophomore class opponent was Gay Keith, a tall, slim, wiry fellow, with coal-black hair and a solemn manner.
He was, as I recall, about two years older, but more important, he was three or more inches taller than I -- I was not yet fully grown -- and it quickly seemed that his reach exceeded mine by 10 or more inches.
A boxing ring was set up in the center of the basketball court in the high school gym, and around it on rows of chairs were assembled the noisy freshman and sophomore classes. I can still remember the feeling of nervous apprehension--dare I say terror--when I climbed through the ropes into that ring, appropriately attired in boxing gloves and trunks, and no headgear, amid what seemed to be a rising wave of sound.
We stood in our respective corners, then were escorted to the center of the ring for the traditional words of instruction and warning (fight the clean fight) from the referee, a math teacher reliving, I sup- pose, his past athletic glories. Then the bell rang.
Jack Dempsey I was not. Nor Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson or any of the other great winners of the time. But unfortunately, neither, in my earnest foolhardiness, did I try to emulate Billy Conn. "He can run, but he can't hide," the wonderfully phlegmatic Joe Louis had said of challenger Conn after finally catching and flattening him. I simply pressed forward and tried to bull my way through Gay Keith's defenses. To say it didn't work remains the understatement of my lifetime.
I never even got close. To this day, I don't know if I landed a single punch. But I know all too well how Keith did. He kept those long whiplike arms pounding at me again and again and again. I was his punching bag.
Three times he knocked me through the ropes and out of the ring into my screaming and, I'm sure, jeering classmates. And three times, in stubborn stupidity born surely only of youthful ignorance, I climbed -- or perhaps was pushed? -- back through the ropes and into that ring of torment. I can still feel those leather gloves slapping me about as my relentless opponent kept striking at will while I tried, to the end, to get close enough to reach him. I never did.
Although the entire experience lasted only three minutes, it seemed then, and seems now, to have been an eternity. Mercifully, the fight was scheduled for only one round, and I could take some solace, and perhaps pride, in at least finishing on my feet, although thoroughly beaten.
In the next two years, before he graduated, Keith and I became friends and teammates on the varsity basketball squad. Eventually, when fully grown, I had the satisfaction of soundly defeating him in a school wrestling match. But I never again competed with him in a boxing contest and never again put on the gloves or climbed into the ring. Later, Keith was killed in Korea.
All of these memories came flooding back after the latest boxing tragedy, in which Korean Duk Koo Kim died after being knocked senseless by the American, Ray (Boom Boom) Mancini, in Las Vegas eight days ago.
I will not presume to offer another sermon on the ills of professional boxing and the even sorrier state into which that big business continues to slide. Similar ones about the glorification of violence have been preached, I'm sure, since the days when the Roman gladiators "entertained" bloodthirsty masses by hacking each other to pieces before cheering throngs. Certainly enough has been said over the years about the corruption that has tainted the so-called sport of boxing, and little enough has been done to change anything.
But this latest episode, coming after a number of professional ring deaths in recent years, at least ought to compel an examination of the kinds of mismatches being held and the rules that govern the prize-fight world.
Perhaps I have missed it, but I have yet to read a serious response to this situation from U.S. authorities. A sensible and modest one was made in Paris the other day by Jose Sulaiman, the World Boxing Council president. Press associations reported his suggesting a series of reforms. They included cutting the number of rounds in championship fights from 15 to 12, adding another 20 or 30 seconds to the break time between rounds and compelling referees to give a mandatory eight-count break to fighters in trouble.
He also said:
"We must change the regulations in boxing to make it safer and more humane, regardless of the pressure that we have from the public, because unfortunately, in some parts of the world, the public is looking for violence -- for blood. I personally believe that a boxer can be in optimum condition for 12 rounds. After that, they just don't have the reflexes or the physical condition. They just punch each other badly."
Speaking from admittedly limited experience, I can testify they sometimes get punched about rather badly in only one round.
But I can laugh at my experience now. Duk Koo Kim can't.