SI Vault
John Schulian
March 04, 1974
That has long been the lure of Baltimore's notorious strip, and the gym over the Jewel Box is no different. There aspiring boxers rehearse for shows in the local bucket of blood
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March 04, 1974

On The Block: Way Of All Flesh

That has long been the lure of Baltimore's notorious strip, and the gym over the Jewel Box is no different. There aspiring boxers rehearse for shows in the local bucket of blood

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There still isn't, as far as gimmickry is concerned. Fisher and Goldberg once had a heavyweight named Curtis Sheppard who was putting opponents' lights out upon request. That wasn't enough for them. They bought a hatchet, painted it gold and gave it and the nickname Hatchetman to Sheppard. He carried the hatchet into the ring with him every fight after that. When he fought Jersey Joe Walcott, someone had to carry it out for him.

"The people that come to Steelworkers don't want no gimmicks," says Hanover. "They don't want no free T shirts. They don't want no free boxing gloves. They want to see blood, that's what they want to see—blood. As long as it isn't theirs." The boxers who turn up regularly on Eli's cards seem eager to draw it or give it. "They are," he says, "ath-a-letes. You can't give the people what I call tomato cans. You know, no fluff-fluffs, no boo-boos, no ha-has. You do, you're out of business. You got to give the people ath-a-letes."

One of the fights Eli dreamed of would have matched Wes Unseld, the redwoodthighed center of the then Baltimore Bullets, with 6'5", 280-pound Bobo Renfrew. This is the same Bobo Renfrow who, when asked to sing his school song during a tryout with the old Boston Patriots, warbled the Schaefer beer commercial. Bobo turned to boxing when football rejected him, and when boxing became too hard, he went underground. "He's working on the subway in Washington," Eli says. "I think he's holding up the street."

So Hanover must settle for fighters of lesser physical stature but equally strange reputation. Light heavyweight Josh Hall's performances at Steelworkers have led to rumors of a jaw made by Libbey-Owens-Ford. But he is 4 and 0 in the parking lot of The Frigate lounge in suburban Glen Burnie. It is surprising that welterweight Buddy Boggs has time for boxing at all. He claims to have wrestled alligators, driven a motorcycle off a bridge for the Annette Funicello classic, How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, and come up swinging after falling 20 floors in an elevator on a construction job. "Ronnie McGarvey, he's my Jesus freak," Hanover says. Once Eli paid McGarvey $650 for a main event at Steelworkers that the undefeated featherweight thought was worth more. "But I didn't argue the case with him," says McGarvey. "I just want to praise God."

Eli, meanwhile, is studiously watching the development of Leo Saenz, a 19-year-old middleweight whom Greyhound brought him last spring. Saenz is one of 14 children born to an itinerant Mexican-American fruitpicker in Edinburg, Tex. When he was 14 and his family had journeyed to Kalamazoo, Mich., Leo set out on his own. He survived a brush with the law over some stolen pants and began learning his way around the ring. "I was just practicing with those other dudes," he says. "They was using me. They thought I wasn't going nowhere. And one day, this old guy—his name is Johnny Gale—he sees me practicing for the Golden Gloves and he said, 'You got it, man,' and he sent me to Baltimore."

Gale's judgment has held up through Saenz's first 13 professional triumphs, eight by knockouts. Relentlessly aggressive, Leo is always hunting them. Trainer Terry Moore remembers Leo's reaction to one of the five decisions he has won: "Leo kept saying, 'I gotta knock him out, I gotta knock him out." I said, 'Leo, you already done punched holes in the man.' He said, 'I know, but I gotta knock him out.' "

"This guy," Eli says of the kid, "is the best fighter I seen in the past 30 years potential-wise. If he don't become a champion, it's because he didn't try. He can be what you'd call your Rolls-Royce of boxing." Of course Eli says that, or something equally flattering, about every local product who appears on his shows and whose fists are worth taping. "If Buddy Boggs doesn't revive boxing in Baltimore," he once said, "then I'm getting out of the game." Bobo Renfrow was "the hottest, livest fighter in the country" and Ronnie McGarvey still "may be the best featherweight in the country." To every such pronouncement, regardless of its accuracy, Eli adds solemnly, "May this building fall on my head right now if that ain't the truth."

The carny barker's pitch is for the public, but the boxers aren't immune to Hanover's salesmanship, either. More than once one of Josh Hall's opponents has shown up over the weight limit. "My manager will be standing there," Josh says, "and I'll be trying to listen to him and Eli. Well, you know how Eli can talk. He'll look me right in the eye and say, 'You want to fight, don't you?', and the only thing I can say is, 'Yeah.' "

Hanover begins to wonder if his magic is evaporating when he has fight nights at Steelworkers like the one just past. The regular clientele showed up—Jack Pollack, Baltimore's fading political boss, and Simon Avara, Governor Marvin Mandel's barber, and a gang of old pugs remembered only by each other—but they wouldn't fill the place. The thought of it grated Eli so badly that he made friends of his non-paying customers buy tickets. "I'm sorry," Eli said, "but even the pay phone ain't workin'."

Neither were the somnambulists in the first preliminary. "Hurry up and knock him out," a fan in the balcony yelled to lightweight Billy Bell, the local entry. "I got somewhere to go tonight." "Yeah, knock him out," cried a ringsider. "The man's got somewhere to go." Bell couldn't oblige them, but he remained upright and proved again that is the best way to ensure victory in Baltimore over an outsider.

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