I’ve been in love with the place since I first walked up those long steep stairs. You can’t see whats up there and the noises and smells insinuate it is something worse than the street you just walked in from, and the street is horrible.
Posters paper the walls, bags are patched up with duct tape, and buckets hanging from the ceiling keep drips off the mat. The first time I met Frank he tried to talk me into going to Bally’s because its nicer.
My first trainer had a scar, razor thin, stretching from his temple across his nose, down to the opposite jaw. He wasn’t in the greatest shape but never wore a shirt. He made me shuffle step in a straight line, taught me to jab, and gave me a notebook with diagrams of footwork and metaphors comparing a jab to an arrow and a hook to an ax.
My next trainer, “Joe Black” approached me after my first trainer stopped coming in. He told me he could get me ready to be the next great white hope, “but ya see the thing is… I’ze charges.” He wanted $50 bucks a month. Frank almost kicked him out of the gym for asking that much, but all these years later Joe is still there.
When Joe went AWOL “pad man” was always there to step in. Working with more than one trainer is a no-no but so is going AWOL. Pad man claimed to be the all-prisons champ and he had a way of making anyone he worked with look like a pro. He did this mostly by slapping the pads against his boxers fists making a loud noise and then shouting, “whooooie! This kid can punch!”
David Bey made me sign a form when he started training me. His paperwork even had a hand drawn logo up top. It was a pyramid and a third eye sort of deal. He took the Zen master approach rather than the whoop hollering style.
He trained me well enough to win the golden gloves in my first fight. Frank tried to get me to retire after the victory. “You can walk away an undefeated Golden Gloves champ. Who has to know you only had one fight?”
I didn’t listen.
In that gym I sparred the kid in law school, swung at air trying to hit that one middleweight, and broke my rib getting pummeled by that 300 lb Jamaican. There was that one mystery kid who walked in and just wanted to spar someone, then left with his left eye swollen shut, the light heavyweight with the tattoos who got his lip split, and then the truck driver who split my lip and blacked my eye. I loved it.
Willie Rush sat and watched me train without a trainer for three months before he slid over and asked me who my trainer was. He knew the answer.
We worked together every weekday for a year. He was always there with his stories about Mike Tyson or his days in the local 33 labor union. He wrapped my hands for me and spent hours slapping me in the head with a swim noodle.
We won our first fight together. It was the first round of the Philadelphia Diamond Belt and my victory forced me into my third match; one more than my original goal of two. The guy had fast hands that got tired by the third round. I hammered him again and again in the third but he just wouldn’t go down. I tried to shake his hand afterward but he just patted my shoulder and gasped for air.
It is hard to get knocked out in amateur boxing. You wear big soft gloves, a big padded head gear, and the ref is intent on no one getting hurt. They stop the fight well before anyone gets in trouble. I never got in trouble, but neither did that one last guy.
He was better than me plain and simple. He would step in, pop me three quick shots, and by the time I swung or poked a jab, he would be out of reach. Pop, pop, pop… whiff.
Tired of this I just started walking in on him trying to get him cornered. As I lumbered forward he would flurry down combinations against my gloves and head. The ref stepped in to stop it.
He waved us back to action, and the whole previous cycle was repeated, complete with the ref stepping in to stop us. After the third cycle of this pointless match I tried to duck under a wild hook and tripped on a loose part of the canvas. The ref waived his hand above his head, looked at me, and told me I was done.
The kid jumped and screamed like he just beat Ali. The announcer held my opponents arm up in the air and the awarded us both identical “participation” plaques.
I was too tired to take much notice and I guess the other guy was too excited to care.
After I changed into street clothes I lingered around the gym watching the remaining bouts. Standing at the top of the stairs I hear my wife shout from down below, “Hurry up, I’m getting tired of holding this thing.”
I had no idea what she was talking about and schlumped down the stairs to find out. Out on the sidewalk she handed me what looked like a pile of towels. I took it, unwrapped it, and hoisted the champion’s trophy.
Frank had pulled her aside and quietly told her to give it to me. He never even told her what it was. When I asked him the next day he said he just thought I deserved it; just wanted me to have it. He called me champ for a minute, but now he just calls me the preacher. The other guys still just call me the white heavyweight.
I’m happy with all those names.