It's a great thing to be in on the making of a champ. I know, because my buddy, Tom Farley, and I had the experience a long time ago when we were both about 15. It was during the Depression, and our hero was a promising young welterweight named Jimmy McGonnigal. He was a kid from a family of Scottish shipbuilders who had left the banks of the Clyde to stake their hopes on the bright new world and ended up in my home town of Weymouth, Mass.
Jimmy had decided to forgo shipbuilding for the quicker rewards of the prize ring, and, after a couple of years of club fighting, he got his big chance—a match with Lou Brouillard. Lou was a battleship of a boy who had come out of the north woods and chopped his way close to the top of his division. Everybody said he was a cinch for the championship.
The match was to be a 10-rounder, the main event on a card at Keene, N.H. Keene is not now and never exactly was the boxing capital of the world. Nonetheless, it took on the character of a holy city for me and Tom. We determined to make a pilgrimage there.
To the mobile, affluent youth of today, a trip of 60-odd miles from Weymouth to Keene is merely a Coke hop. In that pre- Honda era, it loomed as a cross-country leap. Nevertheless, we got parental permission for the trip and thumbed a ride to Keene the night before the fight despite the fact that we had not a single cent in our jeans. For lodging, we did what many kids did in those days. We went to police headquarters and stated our case. Once the desk sergeant had satisfied himself that we were not a pair of out-of-town hoods in to make a killing on the big fight, he let us sleep in a cell. Not, however, before warning us that our boy McGonnigal was outclassed.
Tom and I hung around town next day until the hour for the fight drew near. Then we made our way to the hotel where McGonnigal was staying. Dressed in khaki pants and a sweat shirt, Jimmy grinned out at us through his unshaven face and asked, "How did you guys get here?"
We told him how we had spent the night in the jailhouse, figuring that this would qualify us as loyal rooters if nothing else would.
He looked at us, shook his head, then asked, "You kids had anything to eat lately?"
We mumbled something about a big breakfast. "Here," said Jimmy, and handed me a dollar. "Go downstairs and grab a bite. Be back here in 20 minutes. After that, we'll see what we can do."
Half an hour later we all drove to a barnlike arena on the edge of the city. At the door, the ticket-taker nodded to McGonnigal and asked, "Who are these guys?"
"They're in my corner," said Jimmy, winking. The man grinned, and we swept by. Except for watching Jimmy train at our local gymnasium, I had never seen a prizefight. The noise, the smell of sweat and smoke and steaming breath, the sight of glistening bodies grappling in an island of light filled the place with a bright magic. I knew at that moment what it was like to be a prizefighter—it was all bright, endless excitement and glory and swaggering triumph.