They told me he had guts as nobody since has had guts. They said you had to fight him or jump out of the ring or curl up in a ball and get killed.
They told me that the bell would ring and he would be throwing punches as soon as he stepped out of his corner, before he even got near the center of the ring. They said they saw him break his knee, crumple, stagger up onto his other leg and hop after his opponent, wincing horribly, still throwing punches.
They told me it was wartime then, and the only light during Friday-night air-raid blackouts in New York was the orange glow from the vacuum-tube radios that people huddled around, listening to his fights. They said he sold out Madison Square Garden more times than any man in history—attracted the largest live boxing gate ever, $35 million, and ended up without a penny, on his knees, shining men's shoes.
They told me these things in a way that made me think he was dead. People like that don't ever seem to be alive.
One day not long ago, I walked up a stairway into the Fifth Street Gym in Miami Beach. Four decades of fighters had spilled their body fluids there. It was hot and close in the room, and you could smell every drop of those juices. In the ring, something strange was happening. Three large men were taking turns beating up a fourth.
"Throw punches! Throw punches! You don't throw punches, you gonna get hit! Throw punches! Oh my god, have mercy, throw punches! Next! Your turn! Throw punches! Stop huggin' that man like he's your wife, goddam! Throw the left hook! Now! Oh, maaaaaan. Oh my god! Throw punches! Get out! Next! Throw punches!" The words poured from a small, coffee-colored man standing on the apron of the ring.
The victim's arms sagged from exhaustion, uncovering his head. His jaw fell slack from the blows. "Get out!" the coffee-colored man shouted again. "Next!" The aggressor turned away, and one of the other two fighters, refreshed, stepped in and continued the beating.
"If you can't stand this, you're nothin'!" the small man roared at the helpless one. "You gotta get in shape if you wanna fight. Throw punches! Teach him a lesson! Throw it-throw it-throw it! Get out of that cover-up! Goddawg, throw punches! Throw punches!"
I licked the dry roof of my mouth. "What the hell is...?"
A bystander pointed to the boxer getting beaten on. "He's training for a fight this weekend in Vegas," he said.