The small vial contained a yellow powder. Into it Dominick Polo, the fighter's trainer, squeezed a clear liquid from an eyedropper. "Adrenalin," he said. "Same stuff they inject right in for heart attacks. I use it for cuts. Coagulates the blood. Any bleeding, this stops it. Until he gets hit again."
Polo's fighter is Gene Wells. They call him Irish Gene Wells because he's white. Sells more tickets that way. Wells is 33 years old, the son of a Mobile stevedore, a professional fighter since 17. On his left thigh is a tattoo of a boxing glove. His face may have been handsome once; now his brow is nearly Neanderthalian with scar tissue. For fights, he lets his beard grow two or three days. Its blackness across a strong chin suggests evil.
Polo is 41, a graduate of UCLA, an amateur boxer who won all but six of 208 fights (he said) until deciding he was, at 5 feet 8 and 190, too short to take on pro heavyweights. Now he's the trainer for a stable of 14 fighters working out of Orlando, Fla., for Pete Ashlock Promotions. Polo brought Wells to Capital Centre the other night to fight a local guy, Ralph Palladin, for the North American Boxing Federation junior middleweight championship.
No one much cared. Barely, 2,000 people bought tickets. Here were two old men fighting for a championship no one ever heard of. There were vague references to the winner getting a shot at the world championship, but that meant nothing, for no one knew the name of the world's junior middleweight champion. Wells had won 55 of his 71 pro fights, beating men named Tiger Brown and Spider Webb and Songbird Williams. His biggest triumph was a decision over Vinnie Curto. "They told me they'd give me a title fight then," Wells said. "But they passed me over for Emile Griffith."
Wells said he didn't really mind that. Titles don't mean anything to him. It's a way of life now, he said. He keeps going, keeps running his three or four miles a day, keeps getting hit in the face, keeps fighting every three weeks (34 fights the last 30 months). He keeps at it because he loves it and since he was a 79-pounder at 9 years old. "I still have the clippings," he said. "I won 67 of 69 as an amateur. When I was 14, I could whip just about any open-class amateur in Alabama."
A half hour until the fight. Wells was in his black boxing trunks, hands taped, waiting on a bench in a dressing room. As the room's door opened and closed, the sounds of the crowd came in. Polo carefully spread Vaseline across the fighter's brow. The stuff causes a punch to slide a little on the skin, rather than grabbing at it. A man with scar tissue needs that edge.
Then Wells was up and bouncing on his toes, warming up. His face glistened. You could see three, four, five scars tracing mean red lines on his chin, his cheekbones, around his eyes. He's been in a lot of fights, not all of them in the ring. "More scars from outside than inside," a friend said. "He has a way of finding trouble."
On April 1 this year, trouble came in the form of two .22-caliber bullets. Polo said his fighter was shot twice by a girlfriend, once in the shoulder, again in the left buttock. "This guy is macho, you know what I mean?" Polo said. "She shot him, and he ran five miles, bleeding, to a hospital."
One bullet passed through Wells' shoulder.The other is permanently in his buttock. "And Gene won't let the police have the bullet because he doesn't want the girl - he call her "Bang Bang" - in trouble," Polo said. "He fought again in three weeks."
Fifteen minutes until the fight. Wells removed his false teeth and put in a mouthpiece.Gloves on. Polo held up his right hand. "C'mon," he said Wells threw a punch at the upraised hand. "Step to it," Polo said sharply. "Step to it . . . Good shot . . . All right, knockout shot."
Done, Wells went into a toilet stall and closed the door. "Getting his head together," Polo said. "Always does that."
Save for a brief seventh-round flurry in which Wells seemed capable of knocking out Palladin, the fight was a bore. Neither man landed more than two effective punches in any round. Palladin's strategy seemed based on plunging head first, fullback tyle, into Wells' face, perhaps hoping to cut the fragile tissue. Wells played defense, never attacking. Palladin's aggressiveness, if not his skill, was rewarded; he lost no more than two rounds on any scorecad.
"I was too scared to hit him," Wells said back in his dressing room. "I was just getting out of his way. He was awkward, so awkward." Wells put a hand to his forehead. "Anything touches my head, it busts open."
Palladin, a happy man, said, "Tonight it was either Gene or me. Whoever lost ought to say goodbye to boxing."
Wells thought he won the fight. The scoring, he said, was ridiculous, an obvious hometown decision. A suitcase in hand, Wells left the dressing room and walked into the dimness of the arena, far from the shining ring. He was headed for Orlando, he said, to get married next week - not to Bang Bang, but to Luzie Ashwell. His daughter, Robin, 14, would be there he hoped. And Wells said he would fight again in three weeks.