"Boxing has been dead in this town for 25 years, but us fight people live on. It's in the blood."
Fuzzy Wilson of Findley's Gym
"Blood flowed steadily from his nose and mouth and down his chin, forming a scarlet river from his chest to his boxing trunks.
The vacant-eyed philadelphian middle-weight sat slackly on his stool, his shoulders unnaturally far forward as though he might pitch slowly face-first to the canvas.
The snaggle-toothed fighter, breathing through his mouth because of his smashed nose, stared blankly across the D.C. Armory ring at Keith (the Sweeper) Broom, the man who had been torturing him for five rounds.
"You all right?! You all right?! probed the cornerman, searching for any sign of consciousness.
The youngster blinked, his only sign of acknowledgement. Perhaps he was too exhausted for more.
"Then why don't cha do the stuff I been teachin' ya?"
For a moment, the scarlet knight's face lost its expression of wordless suffering. His lower lip quivered with hopeless frustration; he seemed ready to burst into tears.
Instead, he turned and spat and mouthful of blood in the direction of the old handler behind him holding a water bucket.
The red gob missed the bucket and drenched the old man's wrist and shirt cuff.
The fighter answered the bell like a condemned man - one final round of sweepings for the Broom.
"I wish," said Keith Broom of Washington, "that I could have finished him. It would have been a favor to both of us.
"But the man just stood there and took the punishment. On every shot, I was catching nothing but flesh. But he wouldn't fall. I almost feel like I should apologize to him for not hitting him harder.
"It's no fun to take a beating. I know."
For the professional fighter, that vanishing and endangered species, the canvas is the most loathed enemy of all. "I've never been stopped," is the pug's red badge of courage.
"TKOs, I've had 'em. I bleed sometimes," says Brook. "But I've never been knocked out."
That is important, he says.
"When you are badly hurt, you train your subconscious to take over. I've fought almost whole fights when I was unconscious, you might say. The other man was a blur. And some of those fights," he says, "I won."
Once in his amateur days Broom swore to himself that he would quit fighting if he were ever knocked down. Then he was decked twice in one fight and got up to win. He had to change his plan.
Now, before he goes to sleep at night, Broom sometimes feels the knockout punch hit him, feels the sickening gurgle of his own mind flushing down the drain of unconsciousness.
In the darkened room, Broom tells himself, "You're going to get up. Tighten up. Get up. Get up."
"Muhammad Ali is great because of his will," says Broom. "He has been out on his feet many times against (Joe) Frazier and (Ken) Norton. But no one knew."
Broom knows about reaching to the bottom of the well of will. And coming up dry. In the Olympic trials in 1976, he had to fight a whirlwind named Michael Spinks three times, including a "box off" to see who would go and collect the Olympic gold for the U.S.
Now Spinks is known worldwide, while Broom, by a split decision, is starting out at fame's bottom rung again as a pro. Inescapably, Broom thinks about the recesses of the mind.
"They say you can work on your neck muscles so you can absorb a punch better," he says dubiously, "but I think it goes deeper than that. A fighter has unknown resources.
"Sometimes the day afterward, the fight is like a dream you can't quite remember. People tell you the things you did, the beautiful combinations, the knockout, and you say, 'I did?"
Broom reflects for a minute on this grizzly thing to which he has devoted his life, even his subconscious.
"After a fight, the boxers gather around," he says. "It is a fraternity of warmth. Perhaps we are the only ones who understand each other. After the fight, there is nothing but love."
Broom is the exception - a fighter with talent, reputation and even a bit of world travel - from the Soviet Union to Africa to Samarkand - to show for his pugilism.
If he has no job, no immediate plans except his next fight - "I'm floating; I'm not sure" - he has hope. If his first few pro purses have been slim, at least when he says, "I want to be the champ," no one laughs out loud.
Malik Dozier, steamfitter's apprentice and four-round prelim heavyweight, is the rule. He is what the oldtimers call a "short heavyweight" - short on everything.
"I'm not looking to be no world champion," says Dozier, of Palmer Park, Md. "If I could make enough money out of this game to buy a piece of property of my own, I'd gladly leave boxing the way I came in . . . very quietly.
"I've never had nothing in my life," he says without emotion, "why should I expect something now?"
But even for a man who expects nothing, boxing has been a disillusionment.
"If you got a name, like Sugar Ray Leonard, boxing's great," says Dozier, "but not if you're at rock bottom like me."
Dozier caught punches from a 6-foot-6, 239-pound behemoth in the preliminary to Leonard's gross: $30,000. Dozier's cut: $150. Before expenses.
"I got four rounds with a beast for $150," Dozier spits out a curse. "Jaw broke, teeth broke. That doesn't cover dental bills for one good punch.
"I'm reaching in my own pocket to fight. I sacrifice, risk my body. Hell, I risk my life. Who's going to care? Nobody."
The primal magnetism of what may well be the world's second-oldest profession often seems inexplicable.
"These fighters take that pain and agony and they put it on their shoulder and they walk it," says George Peterson, a local fight manager. "Sometimes, I think everybody in this game is searching for a ghost."
Fuzzy Wilson has been tracking his specter for 50 years.
"I've always been in hopes of training a champion," says Wilson, 66, the Street NE. "I guess I haven't gotten to close, though sometimes it felt like it."
Finley's is a small, ancient, one room gym in a loft above a repair garage. No one is certain who Findley is, or was.
Findley's only entrance - a single, unidentified knife-and-graffiti-scarred door at the intersection of three unlighted alleys - makes the cave mouth leading to Dante's inferno look like a "welcome" mat.
If Beelzebub wanted to take a coffee break from the nether regions, he would look perfect leaning against the door to Finley's Gym, puffing on a sinner.
The stairway to Fuzzy Wilson's lair is narrow and steep. At the top is a hand-lettered sign. Instead of, "All hope abandon ye who enter here," it says. Box at your own risk."
"One in a thousand that comes up those stairs is the right one," says Wilson, adding with a chuckle, "Looks hole in the floor, doesn't it?
"I should be old now," he says, "sitting back in a rocking chair with a cane. But it keeps me young sitting here waiting to see who will come up through the floor."
Wilson, quiet, kindly and a light year from bitterness, knocks an ash on the floor. "I was raised in fight gyms. I couldn't wait to be a man and get this cigar in my mouth," he laughs.
"Your fighters are like your children," says the trainer. "There's a psychic wave between you and them in the ring. It's like your mind in their faces is like changing a baby's diaper. You're tied to them in spirit. And they worry you so. Gotta call them at all hours. Are you doing your running? Are you eating right? You got a woman there with you, son?"
Fuzzy leans back like a man who has thought seriously about going on the wagon many times. "These damn fighters have cost me one wife, two good women and four automobiles."
But then, Wilson acknowledges, it has been many years since anyone in Washington with good sense got into the fight game for money.
"Used to be that the rotten managers would take your fighters spin their heads around and rob 'em blind. The managers and promoters were tied into the mob and they'd sit back and live off the fat of the lamb," he said.
"But it's a fool who tries to make money off boxing now. The turnip's given up its last drop of blood.
"I saw there the Cinderella Boy (Leonard) and his manager, Mr. Brains (Angelo Dundee), made $40,000 for his first pro fight. That's great. Maybe it'll revive interest.
"If it's true, that means I can now name on one finger all the Washington fighters in 50 years who have made $40,000 in their entire careers.
"Maybe Holly Mims did, too, even though he couldn't ever get enough work, or a title shot. And Gene Smith made some money."
Wilson looks around the poster-papered walls of his little office as though running the names of a life-time through his mind. Tiger Flowers, Sonny Boy West, Pop Whitney.
"Tommy Toughy vs. Young Rat Moore," says one placard, yellowed and crisp as parchment, dated Nov. 18, 1821.
"Yes" said Wilson. "Far as I can recall, that's the whole list."
And he held up one gnarled, accusing finger.
Richard Jackson, young yet full of self-reproach, and Roland Pryor, balding and full of regrets, have come out of retirement. That old familiar scent - the revival of boxing - is in the wind again.
Jackson was Leonard's peer coming up through the Washington amateur ranks. "We'd stand toe-to-toe and bang for three rounds. It was an eyelash between us," recalls Jackson.
But Jackson figured if he wasn't even the best junior welter in Palmer Park, why bother. "I just wanted a place in the street. You know, be a big man . . ."
The night Leornard won Olympic gold, Jackson wept. "I kept thinking, "That could have been me," he says.
Now Jackson is a Leornard reclamation project. "Ray takes me everywhere, so I can meet people, stop dreading the world I don't know," says Jackson. "I'm fighting on his cards. This is my only second chance."
Pryor, 34, is what Wilson calls a "gypsy fighter," changing managers, trainers, gyms. Going in and out of retirement.
For several lean years, Pryor was managed by his father, a gospel preacher who saw Satan behind the eyes of every matchmaker and promoter. Perhaps with reason.
Finally, sick of long payoffs and "I-was-robbed" decisions when he could get fights, Pryor worked Metro construction for four years. But steady money and the civilian life were not enough.
"Man, this isn't me," said Pryor, looking at his waistline one morning. And the crusade began again.
As one of Pryor's acquaintances, Melvin Smith, an ex-Golden Gloves champ says, "Fighting is the perfect Spartan lifestyle. We all know it. You feel like a walking razor, clean and sharp. All your tensions and angers are released into road work and sparing.
"Eventually, you know the truth of what you have made out of yourself is going to show within those four corners of ring," Smith says.
"But out of the ring, you'll do anything to avoid a fight. You know how good you are. You wouldn't dream of hurting your hands on some dummy's head."
Pryor longed to feel like a razor again. "A person can do a whole lot of things," he points out, "but there's one special talent and you can't deny it once you've found it.
"This ring is my school," he says soberly, "and fighting is my life's curriculum."
Pryor talks with manic speed, repeating himself, sometimes brilliant, sometimes dull. His mind works like an old man's, remembering ancient injustices but sometimes forgetting the details of the present.
He worries about the way he stayed awake all night in a state of hyperexcitement before his first comeback victory.
"I've always been a keyed-up person," explains Pryor - handsome, vulnerable, talented, often slighted.
"You wouldn't believe it but I've heard people say I'm getting punch drunk," he says, giving a chilling forced smile that reveals his deep worry about himself. "I'm not punch drunk, that's one thing I know."
The only prompting that the Jacksons and Pryors of Washington need to get their gloves on again is the rumor that the fight game will boom again as in the '40s.
In those days, Goldie Ahearn at Turner's Arena in Washington and, later, Eli Hanover at Steelworkers Hall in Baltimore were colorful promoters who found steady work for club fighters as well as contenders.
Ahearn and Hanover are gone, but they are mourned as though the wake were yesterday.
In their era, boxing had a steady pulsebeat of weekly fights. Today, the sport seems to lie dormant for months; given up for dead until some gaudy extravaganza comes along and, like a huge electric shock, makes it flail its limbs in cruel, mock imitation of life.
In the wake of these shock treatments - an Ali title defense at Capital Centre, a Leonard card at the armory, a Don King fiasco in Annapolis - a hundred anxious hands reach to take the pulse of their misunderstood Frankenstein.
Washington's scattered boxing community still becomes giddy in the regal presence of the moribund sweet science's remaining superstars.
The ring announcer, working last month's Leonard card, became so flustered at having Joe Frazier and Joe DiMaggio at ringside that he intoned, "We will now take a short intermission because there are still lots of people parking their cars in the lobby."
That malapropism perfectly captured the "state of agitate paralysis" that King says grips boxing in Washington and elsewhere.
It is hard to appreciate how desperate Washington's fight folk are for a Moses, until one hears King say that Washington is one of his promotional strongholds.
"I have learned how to manipulate human frailty. That is my coin. The truth takes 10 years to catch up with the lie," blustered King when he brought the Ali-Evangelista circus to town last spring.
King believes that boxing should advertise its larger-than-life appetites and sufferings. "Me? I'm just your run-of-the-mill egotistical maniac. Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get me," he crows.
"Don't bring me mortal men to fight. Bring me giants. Don't mince words when you blast me. Lay me out. Make me big."
Washington, however, has not learned the new carnival methods of selling boxing as a seamy sideshow of sports.
At Washington's main pro gyms - Finley's and Oakcrest and Hillcrest Heights in Prince George's County - the fighters and trainers are still wedded to their razor-sharp vision of the old sweet science, not the new bitter hard sell.
Their world of frayed heavy bags, taped hands, speed bags, jump ropes, weights, mirrors and the small sparring rings stays eternally the same.
If boxing has kept 66-year-old Fuzzy Wilson young, it seems to have made his friend, Henry Thomas, old.
They sit in the back rooom of Finley's and don't say much. Wilson is plump, moon-faced, methodical. A boxing Buddha with a short cigar and a reserve as deep as Siddhartha.
Thomas, only 54, seems the older of the two trainers. He is thin, withdrawn and counts his words before the spends them. "It's hard to find the oldtime smell in the gyms anymore he says. "I don't know where it went.
Probably with his youth. Boxing always had all his love. "I told my wife if I never had to chose between her and the fights, she'd lose a close decision, said Thomas without any hint of amusement. "On our wedding night, I went to work in 'KO' Scott's corner. Didn't get home until midnight. She started to leave me that night."
He paused to smile to himself, "But she didn't.
"Nothing's really changed," he continues. "If you want to fight, you've got to work the little towns. The fellows don't talk about it much, but most of the fighters in this town now are driving 200, maybe 400 miles, for a $75 to $150 fight and sleepin' in cars at night afterward. If they aren't doing it now, they had to do it once. No dues like boxing dues."
Thomas has always been willing to keep his membership paid up. No matter what. When his D.C. job was moved to Bengies, Md, 40 miles north of Baltimore, Thomas continued to live in Washington and appeard magically at Finley's every night.
"I caught the 5 a.m. Capital Transit bus, then transferred to another bus to Bengies," he says. "Many's the morning I'd hear a car's horn blow and I'd jump out of the bed and think 'I've overslept!'"
He still winces and smiles ruefully as he tells the old horn story on himself. Yes, he says, the years of travel took a lot out of him. He had a stroke that left his right hand somewhat palsied. Now he is retired.
Every evening, Thomas sits at the top of the stairs at Finley's Gym, smoking cigarettes and watching the men feinting and suffering and punching before him and he listens to the feet waits for the footstep of a champion.
The sign above his head says, "Box at your own risk."