As a boy Murray shined shoes across from the old Champs Gym in Strawberry Mansion, and he remembers paying a quarter on weekends to see private "gym wars," in which boxers pummeled each other not for money or trophies but merely out of pride, to prove who was the better man. In those days the neighborhood was middle-class and integrated, but it has devolved into a crack-ridden slum. The original Champs is long gone, but a couple of years ago, Murray and some friends created a new version of it on one of the most bedraggled and dangerous blocks in the city. The brick buildings nearby are all gutted, burned or trashed, broken glass is everywhere, and crack vials are strewn in the weeds.
The new Champs is plain and windowless and doesn't seem much larger than a two-car garage. It feels airless at times, too, and pitiless and punishing. About 30 boxers, all African-Americans, were going about the oddly monastic business of training when Murray arrived. They were doing sit-ups and peppering speed bags, shadowboxing and skipping rope, and their efforts produced a soundtrack of grunts, groans and thudding blows that blended with the funk pouring from a boom box. Such warmth as there was in the room came from a gallery of appreciative older men observing from some folding chairs. Faded fight posters adorned the gym walls like so many blissful memories, and every stick of furniture, from the wobbly bar stools to the gritty rubbing tables, was patched with duct tape. A small ring, its canvas also patched, was framed on one side by an arch of hand-painted wood, as bright and colorful as a work of folk art and offering a litany of Philadelphia boxing greats—more than 200 names inscribed to form a pantheon that progressed from the ancient Skinny Davis to the current and still-feared Tim Witherspoon.
Murray went looking for Taylor and found him sitting among the older men, only inches from the ring, where Tony (Pound for Pound) Martin was doling out some thunder and lightning to an ill-fated sparring partner. Taylor, lanky and tightly muscled, wore tattered sweats and chewed a big wad of green bubblegum. At 30, and with a record of 9-1, he is a late bloomer on account of all the time he wasted in prison, where he spent the better part of eight years for the robberies he committed to feed his dependency on crack and booze. Now he has to rely on his pals for a place to sleep. Taylor runs six miles almost every day and reports to the gym religiously every afternoon. He is a bout or two away from a good TV payday—and would earn $1,000 for his star turn at the Blue Horizon the next day, more than anyone else on the card.
Taylor rose to his feet after a while, laced on some gloves and took over for Martin in the ring. (Martin had whipped three sparring partners by then and looked fresh enough to whip three more.) For the sake of confidence, Taylor often told himself that whatever anybody might throw at him on a fight night, however hard and fast he might go down, it wouldn't be any tougher for him to deal with than the life he once made for himself on the streets—homeless, strung out and unable to imagine a future. He doesn't want to wind up that way again, so he has invested his faith in boxing and the support of mentors such as Murray, who wanted to plaster Taylor's penitentiary number, AY 2989, on the fighter's trunks as a vivid reminder. In the Champs ring he bounced around on his toes, warming up, until Naseem Richardson, a stocky Muslim who assists with his training, joined him with a pair of catcher's mitts. Naseem held up the gloves as targets and urged Taylor to double up on his jab, so as to open an opponent's body to an attack.
The 20 boxers on the Blue Horizon's card showed up for a weigh-in at the Pennsylvania State Boxing Commission in a downtown high-rise on Friday morning. Jammed into a suite of sterile offices, the waiting men avoided eye contact and displayed a wide variety of prefight attitudes that ranged from anxiety to panic to cautious optimism to sheer Ali-esque braggadocio, although nobody spouted poems. The 10 opponents, no longer faceless, were almost uniform in projecting a melancholy humility, as if to practice the defeat that was likely in store for them. They hung their heads and studied the linoleum, while hangers-on in flashy gold jewelry and NBA-licensed togs whispered free and probably worthless advice in their ears.
Only Napoleon Pitt, from Richmond, who was slated to take on Taylor, appeared to be a serious contender. Like Taylor he was tall, slender and muscular. Nervous energy billowed from him as he sat on the floor and tapped his right foot repeatedly against the tiles. He seemed to be concentrating on a point in space that only he could see, drawing sustenance from it and engaging in a kind of juju meditation. Taylor ignored him, naturally, and stayed far across the room, a Walkman echoing in his ears. He had skipped breakfast and was eager for a meal, but the examining physician had gotten lost on his way to the commission and was late, so everybody had to wait.
Meanwhile, the boxing commissioner, a young man who had no more presence than a midget in the midst of so much brawn, interviewed the fighters one at a time at a desk, snapping a Polaroid of each man for ID purposes and checking his Pennsylvania license. Dennis Cain, a slump-shouldered opponent from Maryland, looked embarrassed when the commissioner asked, "When did you have your last fight?"
"In June," Cain said. "Back in Baltimore."
"How'd you do?"
"Lost in five."