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It has been no secret that disaffection with the military is killing off intercollegiate sports at West Point. But by the end of the last football season, concern became panic. Army needed a hero.
Al Fracker, a shy, polite, yet ultimately defensive loner who may develop into America's top amateur light heavyweight (he hopes to win the AAU title next week), needed an education. The 22-year-old and West Point made an unlikely and, for a while, uneasy couple. They are getting along better now.
Fracker's concessions to military discipline were few and grudging. By Christmas he had spent 44 hours "touring the area" (marching alone in full-dress uniform) for rule infractions. His grades were only fair. The one thing that kept him going was the knowledge that he was about to become the first cadet ever to enter the New York Golden Gloves. But the most difficult adjustment for Fracker came after he had defeated his first two opponents in the Golden Gloves preliminaries in February. To his complete and somewhat horrified surprise, this very private young man from a small town in Michigan had become a West Point hero—Army's hope.
"Why me?" Fracker asked a visitor to the gym one day, while taping his hands to work on the heavy bag. "I win a few fights and everybody's making a big deal out of me." Fracker refused help in lacing on a pair of bag gloves; he tied the left one with his right hand, the right one with his teeth. "It makes me uncomfortable. I mean, what if I get knocked out of the preliminaries? I'll let everybody down. You're better off forgetting about me. If I win, I win."
He seemed to almost stalk the heavy bag, circling it methodically, then moving in for the kind of breathtaking combination that zonked Gregory Hammond after 51 seconds in the first preliminary bout. "Sometimes you hit a guy so hard your whole body tingles," Fracker said after the Hammond fight. "It's like in baseball, when you really get hold of one and you know it's gone." Flurries of punches kept the massive bag whirling and dancing on its rope like a marionette.
After three minutes a bell sounded and Fracker stopped swinging and began running in place. "Another thing that upsets me is the way people are saying I represent Army, or I represent the United States."
"Why should that upset you?"
"I don't want people relying on me and I don't want to rely on them. The best thing about boxing is that you go into the ring alone." The bell rang again and Fracker resumed pummeling the bag. "Back home in Michigan Center (Umph! Umph!) I did a couple of stints at Goodyear (Umph! Umph!) and people asked me how I could stand it (Umph!) working at a machine all day (Umph!). But I kind of liked it, in a way (Umph! Umph!), because it was just me and the machine (Umph! Umph! Umph!). Nobody else around to mess up (Umph! Umph! Umph! Umph!). When I go into the ring (Umph!) I can't protect the reputation of the Army (Umph!) or America (Umph!) or anything else (Umph! Umph!). I've gotta protect my own (Umph!)." When the bell rang once more, Fracker took off his gloves and began skipping rope.
"I started boxing as a kid, at 13, I think. My coach back home in Michigan Center, Glenn Pringle, kept telling me I was a natural. I lost a lot, but Glenn never gave up on me, and I kept at it because I loved going into the ring with another guy, even when I lost. Then everything came together. I don't know what happened exactly. People just started going down." Fracker won the Michigan Golden Gloves in 1970 as a middleweight. In '71 he won the AAU state championship and was runner-up in '72 but did not try out, as expected, for the Olympic team because he broke a finger slugging a fellow in a bar who wanted to see how tough the young amateur really was.
"As a kid, did you do much street fighting?"