This used to be a fight town. Baltimore produced five legendary champions: Joe Gans, the turn-of-the-century "Old Master" who died at 35 of tuberculosis; Kid Williams, who was Johnny Gutenko from Copenhagen, 5 feet 1, 117 pounds, and lived into his reminiscing late 60s; the late and loved Dundee brothers, Joe, the brawling welterweight, and Vince, the middleweight artiste; and, the lone survivor, Harry Jeffra, formerly Ignacius Pasquali Guiffi. Monday night was Fight Night for them. TV killed it.
"The fighters today, they're just as good," says gentle Buddy Ey, who fought in the street and in the ring. "The only trouble is, there aren't as many of them. Used to be, you'd knock on a door, a fighter would answer. Today, they're all gone."
Poodles pool room is on the corner of Milton and Hudson streets in East Baltimore. Everywhere are narrow row houses with scrubbed marble stoops. Poodles is a long room with two ceiling fans and four tables. The late Joe Poodles Sr., who fought preliminaries, ran the room for 43 years. Joe Poodles Jr., who also fought, runs it now. Old boxers, about 60 of them, sit on benches against the walls. Sun shines on them through big, clean windows.
Six thousand -- 6,000! -- photos of fighters are hung. They're posed shots, little cut-out figures, as many as 40 to a frame: fighters crouched forward, fists upraised, faces feigning serious purpose. The hair is always combed. Sugar Ray Robinson and Joey Giardello, Rocky Marciano and "Irish" Jimmy Mulligan, "Prettyboy" Felstein and Tubby Griffith, bare-knuckles battlers and a hundred club fighters who knew empty pockets and heartache. A newspaper headline from March 14, 1925: "Bass Scores 2 K.O.'s; Puts Shattuck, Baker to Sleep in Rapid Succession." Nick (Double Knockout) Bass, 83, sits next to where his story hangs on the wall.
The old boxers meet on the first Sunday of every month, a support system called the International Veteran Boxers Association, Inc., Ring 101, about 500 strong. They do what they can to keep the fight game alive. They help keep one another alive.
Al Salkowski, Ring 101 president, calls the meeting to order.
"We're unable to find the bell," shouts Salkowski.
"Thank God," says one of the old boxers.
"I hear 'em all the time," says another.
You can tell them by their hands. They have the mammoth hands of boxers. Could there have been any man with hands larger than Joe Louis?
Everyone stands for the pledge of allegiance. "Since our last meeting," Salkowski says, "one member has passed away, Nick Transparenti. Please stand and, in our minds, in deference to Nick and his friends and his family, let's toll the count of 10."
Absentees are accounted for. "Julius Weiner is celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary, so he chose to celebrate rather than attend this meeting," Salkowski says. "I don't blame him."
Two chairmen of the sick committee report that several members are ill, one hospitalized. Flowers have been sent, fellow members are urged to visit. Ring 101's founder, Vince Cala, is ailing. "He's a fighter," Salkowski says. "He wants to be here as long as he can. You know why? So he can talk about Ring 101. He speaks 75 percent of the time about Ring 101. He'd love to be here, shaking your hand, that's what Ring 101 means to him."
As a get-well card is passed, Salkowski reminds everyone "how important it is to visit the sick, how important it is to be with a family at the funeral parlor."
A half-hour later, Salkowski says, "You've been waiting for the victuals. They're here now. I'll entertain a motion for adjournment."
The food is spread on the last covered table -- cold cuts, potato salad, slaw. Everybody gathers round. They talk of fighters, past and present, a symphony of names: Kid Julian, Young Kid Norfolk, Johnny Ditto, Red Robins, Red Burman, Bip Hodges . . . Chappie Manning, whose fist is as big as a face, remembers Billy Johnson -- "I like to kill him in six rounds" -- and Harold Johnson, who beat him in six. Harold Johnson later became light heavyweight champion. Chappie Manning was a middleweight. "He said he'd never been in a ring with anybody like me. He came to me and told me that," Manning said. "Can you imagine, he asked me for some advice? I gave him some advice -- 'Get a little meaner. You've got championship material in you.' "
Joey Longo, a small man, takes a big bite of a ham sandwich. Longo manages 22-year-old Eddie Van Kirk, the "pride of East Baltimore," a 139-pound junior welterweight. Van Kirk recently got married, and Longo likes Van Kirk's bride. "When we first met her, I asked her, I said, 'Do you really love Eddie Van Kirk? Then you stay away from him two weeks before the fight.' I think she knew what I meant. 'Because if you don't, you don't love him. You'll get him hurt.' She's very lovely."
Boxing is on TV, up in a corner.
A thin, gap-toothed man takes a worn picture of a young fighter from his wallet. The black hair parts in the middle, slicked back. The fighter, in his 20s, is Valentino-handsome. "That's me," says the old man, pointing at the picture.
"These are an amazing breed of men," says white-haired Bob Denning, publisher of the East Baltimore weekly Eastern Times and Ring 101 member. "They could get into the ring and practically beat each other to a pulp. Later on, they'd become the best of buddies."
It's a slow, sticky Sunday afternoon, almost summer. The only signs of life are at the doors of the bars -- the Orioles are on TV and everybody's inside where it's cool.
Denning has stopped off on the way to the Tiffany East Restaurant where he is to receive the Eli Hanover Award -- named for a late Baltimore fight promoter -- for long-time contributions to boxing. The son of Polish immigrants -- his real name is Cierkes -- Denning, 72, once worked in vaudeville as a magician.
Denning pays for a draft. He's ignoring the Orioles on TV and talking about the old fighters of Ring 101. "They're not exactly bitter," he says, "but a lot of times these guys fought for peanuts. Sometimes they couldn't even get their money. Promoters would say, 'We didn't make any. There isn't any.' "
At Tiffany's, a crowd fills the large room. A four-man band plays. Big Bob Pomerlane, a Seafarers International honcho, smacks his right fist into his left palm. He's recalling his three-round charity exhibition of 1984 with Floyd Patterson. Pomerlane has gray hair combed forward into bangs. "Champ, you can't box me without a mouthpiece," he says he told Patterson when they got into the ring. So he ordered somebody to hand up a mouthpiece. "Sometimes, in one of these exhibitions, one of the fighters forgets himself -- hits just a little too hard. Then the other guy hits a little too hard. First thing you know it's a battle."
Al Salkowski provides an update on Ring 101 members: Vince Cala has died; Nick (Double K.O.) Bass is recovering from a heart attack, and his wife died recently. Salkowski spent the day of her funeral with him.
After the buffet -- all proceeds are going to a home for handicapped children -- William Donald Schaefer, Baltimore's mayor, gets up to talk. He says he used to get his hair cut at the same barber shop Eli Hanover did. "Eli would always be in there, solving all the world's problems," Schaefer says.
Bob Denning gets the award, says it's the most precious one he's ever been given, the band plays again and everybody goes back to talking boxing.
"I fell in love with Galiano," says Buddy Ey, leaning forward in his chair. That would be Pete Galiano, who was known in East Baltimore. "Years later he became my dearest friend and teacher. Black, wavy hair. He could fight like a wildcat." In 1937 he fought Jimmy Tramberia. "Jimmy Tramberia, he was one of the best club fighters on the East Coast. All I have to do is close my eyes and I can see them, two guys, back and forth, like gamecocks."
He looks wistful as he glimpses the past.
The current hopes are Van Kirk and Vincent Pettway, who will fight cofeatures June 20 at the Fifth Regiment Armory. It's not Monday night but a Thursday night, it's not every week but a now-and-then thing. There'll be no great hype and glare, but it'll be Fight Night. Bob Denning will put it in the Eastern Times, and the old fighters will be there, maybe even Double K.O. Bass, who's coming back strong, and somewhere there, too, some might bet, will be the ghost of Joe Gans, the restless spirit of a fighter who never grew old.