Some years ago the prizefighter Art Aragon delivered himself of the blistering opinion that his chosen profession was a cruel and dirty business and he would quit it in a second if he could think of some other way of making a living without working.
The fight crowd held its sides and laughed hollowly. That Art was a great kidder, always making with the funnies, was the interpretation. Everybody knew Art was living the rich, good life. He had a fancy home, a wife, a car, three kids. He even had his own radio show.
Nobody liked to bask in the glory of the ring more than Art. He loved to swagger in front of the crowds between fights when he would be introduced as "Golden Boy," his curly locks carefully coifed, his hard young body swathed in silk, and his wrists and neck dangling enough bangles to keep a Ubangi tribe happy.
Art had it made, had everything a man could want, in the view of his associates. He liked a few drinks of expensive whisky before dinner and a few after, for that matter. Some of his most spectacular fights were refereed by bartenders. The opponent once turned out to be a cop—which took a lot of the fun out of it.
Art loved show people and show business, of which he considered himself a part. He loved the fast banter of the borscht circuit comedian and soon picked it up and became expert at it. He would rather make a joke than win a fight, and he could always talk faster than he could punch. Unfortunately, the contests in the ring weren't debates or "can you top this?" but elemental struggles of strength. Art was not completely hopeless at this but, all things considered, he would rather play it for comedy, and on the occasions he was called upon to practice his craft legitimately one of two things would happen: a) he would get knocked half senseless by someone more proficient than he—a description applying to more than half the prizefighters extant; or b) he would wind up so badly cut that his classic profile looked more like a Polynesian death mask than a matinee idol.
But Art shrewdly babied his reputation along by having fights in between where neither eventuality was in prospect. He did this often in out-of-town dates, places like Albuquerque, N.Mex. where he was born, or San Bernardino, where he had driven through in his gaudy Cadillac. He took these bouts on condition that he could bring his own opponent. It's usual in such cases for fighters to bring their own brothers—or their mothers if they can get away with it. Art usually brought an old school chum name of Joey Barnum. Art even loved the joke when the wags suggested he should change his name to Bailey.
Art's antics inevitably cost him his marriage when he began indiscreetly showing up at sporting events with young ladies who were definitely not sparring partners. Then, a year and a half ago his good life almost came crashing down around his cauliflowered ears when a judge sentenced him to one to five years for trying to bring his own opponent, fully briefed and rehearsed, to Texas for a fight. Art was up to his cut eyebrows in debt when the appellate court reversed the decision and the district attorney's office did not press for a rematch.
Art then knew he was stuck with the fight game at least until he could bail out. He desperately needed that one more big pay night. Time was running out, alimony was imminent, and Art had to cash in at least one more big pot before leaving the game.
Aragon's matchmakers came up with a daring plan. Carmen Basilio, a swarthy brawler with a face like the sharp edge of a machete and fists to match, needed a fight. He had just had two ferocious meetings with Sugar Ray, he had got an "eye" in the last one, and (they told the public) he just might be exhausted as a front-line contender. Even his style, wide-open, wild-swinging, might be made to order for Art. On a note of high optimism, the fight was made. Art promptly moved out to the desert of San Jacinto to train and promised faithfully to stay away from the fleshpots for the six weeks before fight night. Characteristically, when he slipped into town he didn't do it quietly. He was observed trying to warm up pitchers in the Dodgers' bullpen one night, and he dropped in at a watering place where he ran into his lawyer-manager on another. All his friends doubled up with laughter.
Art lived it up with the press. What especially was he working on in camp, one writer wanted to know. "Self-defense!" Art told him artlessly. "If you were going to fight Basilio, what would you be working on?" When he met Basilio at the weighing-in, Carmen asked him idly how things were going. "Not so good," groaned Art. "Both my wife and my girl friend are here."