The young fight is talking.
"Is he the boy that died?"
The young fighter is talking about Cleveland Denny.
"All I heard was Denny was out of shape, got knocked out and died. I don't know all the story. It don't bother me. I take a pretty good punch."
The young fighter is Chubby Johnson, 22, a lightweight as Denny was a lightweight, a prelim fighter as Denny was a prelim fighter. Come Tuesday night in the Superdome, Chubby Johnson fights a four-rounder on the undercard for Duran-Leonard. Denny fought under Duran-Leonard the first time.
"I've got a helluva chin," Johnson is saying.
The kid is good looking: long blond hair, blue eyes, a neat beard going to reds and browns, an angular face with high cheekbones. Clint Eastwood at 22. Hearing Denny's name, hearing the parallels, Johnson/Eastwood shrugs. He is talking now. His voice is flat. He is saying of death, So what?
"I figure if I go in the ring, I'll go down fighting. If I get killed, at least it will be for something worthwhile. Instead of getting hit by a bus or something."
Women sell their bodies not because they want to; they have to. Men sell themselves as boxers because they have to. For $33, Willie Pastrano fought his first fight. "I was like a hooker, turned out by my pimp," Pastrano said. With nowhere to go and no way to get there, desperate and angry children turn pro. Women die in bare rooms, men die in the ring.
Chubby Johnson would die for his $300 of Tuesday night. It is, he says, honest money. It is money earned alone.
They can keep their $12.50 an hour at the shipyard in New Orleans. They pay him to be a pipefitter. They think that for their $12.50 they own him.
Nobody tells Clyde Johnson Jr. what to do. "I can't cope with people giving me orders," he says. Two weeks before high school graduation in Galveston, Tex., they kicked him out of school. "I was a general mess . . . ," he says. "I was always in trouble, fighting with cops, starting barroom fights. Me and some buddies thought we were real bad. We'd pick fights with the drunks."
He was 17 when a paroled murderer stabbed him twice, once just below the belt, again in the shoulder. Beled some, he says, nothing serious. The same year he shacked up with another guy's woman -- until the guy said he was going to blow Chubby's brains out the back of his head. Said it just that way. "Put his gun in my mouth and said it," Johnson says.
A buddy saved him. Saved him by saying Chubby's name, telling the guy with the gun this was Big Chubby's son. Big Chubby was a rogue who ran the Sunset Lounge on Avenue S. "A local tough," is the way Chubby describes his father. "The guy with gun knew he'd get a lot of grief . . . if he messed any more with me. He left."
Chubby Johnson would die for his $300 of Tuesday night because he wants to show his father something.
His dad told Chubby to get smart at the books. Forget the grass, get away from the coke. Go to college, his dad always said. Instead, Chubby got kicked out of school and left home to live on his own doing construction work, wearing one o those hard hats every day, a hard hat that said he was one of a 100 guys, nothing special, just another hard head in a hard hat.
He had 31 amateur fights, winning 25, before he turned pro at 20. Won his first two fights. Broke his hand in the second one. His manager shot up the hand with cortisone for a third fight, and Chubby lost that one.
"The pimp paid me $175 for the first fight, but I only cleared $70 after paying for examinations and all. The contract was $200 for the second one, but the promoter ran out and I never saw any of it. The check for the third fight was $100. I gave it to my manager and told him to stick it."
Three pro fights. Income: $70.
Then he stayed out of the ring a year.
Construction work. Damned hard hat. Hates it.
Came to New Orleans, a six-hour drive in his tin can Oldsmobile.
First week here, a guy split open his left eyebrow by cracking him with a pool ball. "I was chasing his woman," Johnson said. "I got him outside the pool hall and cold-cocked him."
Someone told him about a gym on Magazine Street. Take your gloves and go there. William Pastrano is there. The old middleweight, Johnny Powell, can train you. So four months ago, here came this skinny Texas into the Magazine Street gym, into the old firehouse with the falling down ring, there in the desperate and angry part of town, next door to the Divine Light Inc. store that sells religious supplies and ritual objects.
Chubby Johnson quit his $12.50-an-hour job three weeks ago to train ful time for his Tuesday night fight against a local veteran amateur, Melvin Paul, making his pro debut.
Chubby has miles to go.His jab is weak. He can't throw a combination. He gets hit. What he has is a big right hand. Little else.
But he wants this fight.
He wants to show his dad something.
"I want to prove to my dad that I'm not . . . around. He thinks everything I do is . . . Just be smart, he always said. He said the smart man will end up on top instead of the tough man. I didn't believe him. He was always tough. He way my idol. I wanted to be just like him. I'm going to make it."
Passion comes with his Texas drawl, now.
"I don't like the fight game. But God gave me something. I don't know if God meant for people to fight. I don't think He did. But it's the only thing I can do and feel good about. I'm gonna get what I want and get out of it before I get all cut up, the scars, the beat-in eyes, punch-drunk, where you have to get up and take drugs to go by.
"That's where it ain't at. I enjoy being straight. It's great. I want to sailboat, get out on the water. And I hate wearing hard hats and listening to them tell you to do this and do that. I want to have my own night club. I don't want to be like Willie Pastrano. I love willie, but I don't want to be a world champ and working in a joint like thim. I want people working for me."
You can't do that on $12.50 an hour haling pipe.
You can do it making it as a fighter
"I can't describe how important this fight Tuesday is to me. It's important for three reasons. It's the steppingstone. I'll have offers coming in. And my dad, he was the best as an amateur fighter. I've got to prove to my dad that this isn't bull . . . "
The big thing, Chubby Johnson said, was that when he beats Melvin Paul, "Then, for the first time, I'll be somebody."