Oh, I could have gone peaceably through life without ever taking a poke at anyone or being poked at. But when I got involved in "participatory journalism"—that ugly descriptive—friends would say, "Well, now that you've played professional baseball and are writing a book about it, and you're thinking of basketball and football and playing the tambourine in some music group and all those things, when are you going to fight a professional fighter? When are you going to fight Sonny Liston?"
"Well, I'm not going to fight anyone," I said. "I am going to play tennis. Perhaps I am going to sing. Would it not be interesting to sing in the Metropolitan Opera?"
It was not that my friends turned away and shamed me, or kept badgering me, but that I finally realized boxing was perhaps the ultimate confrontation, certainly the most time-honored one—one man versus another in the most basic terms—and that I could hardly go on as a participatory journalist without investigating the sport.
I had assumed that climbing into the ring with a great professional fighter was something that very few ordinary citizens had done, or wished to do, because one would be hard-pressed to think of a more uncomfortable way of spending time. But that turned out not to be the case at all. The list was long—a curious group of eccentrics, braggarts, publicity seekers, adventurers, aficionados, slightly addled-sounding aristocrats, a large number of writers like myself and certain individuals on whom it was difficult to pin a description.
Archie Moore, who turned out to be the fighter with whom I eventually got in the ring, provided an example of the latter. "Once, I was in Argentina, boxing exhibitions in the little towns in the back country," Archie told me, "and this large blond man with a beautiful girl at his elbow turned up at the cafe where I had dropped in to get the lay of the land. He said he wanted to box a couple of rounds with me. He was a Brazilian. He said, 'You are the most of the champions. Everybody in Brazil think you are the most of the champions.' He was very respectful.
"Well, the next night, suddenly, there he was, climbing through the ropes with these baggy trunks on, and he was carrying his own bucket with a sponge in it. I didn't know how he had done it—bribed one of the officials, I suppose. He had a very weak smile. I didn't see the girl. She must have been sitting out there watching him. So there he was in the ring, the first man on the card. I didn't know how good he was. He looked scared and pretty bad, but you can be tricked. So I tried to find out what he knew. Every time I faked he dropped his hands. I opened up so he could punch and I saw he couldn't do that. So finally I started a big overhand punch, like an Englishman throwing a cricket ball, making it long and easy, like a man stretching and yawning, so this fellow had plenty of time to see what I was doing. But when I started to bring the punch down over my head I saw the man couldn't move. He stared up at the punch coming for him and he accepted it, just standing there with his gloves down by his sides, his face up, like he was looking into a shower head, and of course the punch connected and down he went. He got up after a while and he was all right. He thanked me very much and he climbed down out of the ring. 'Thank you. Thank you,' he said. He forgot his pail with the sponge in it. I guess he didn't have much use for it after that. 'You are the most of the champions.' That's what he kept saying."
Apparently in days gone by it was quite easy to box a professional fighter if one had a mind to. Dozens of people fought John L. Sullivan in the hope of winning purses up to $500 which were offered to anyone who could remain in the ring with him for four rounds. The majority of the aspirants did not last a round and one neophyte was dropped in two seconds. Sullivan kept at it—going on numerous "knocking-out tours" as he called it. Finally, the word went ahead that the odds against surviving for four rounds were not good. Sullivan was forced to raise the purse to $1,000 to entice victims onstage.
A number of Sullivan's opponents thought they could survive the four rounds by fleeing about the ring. It didn't work. Sullivan caught them. Those he met on his "knocking-out tours" never resorted to the strategy of a fighter of small reputation named Tug Wilson, whom Sullivan met in Madison Square Garden in 1882. Wilson utilized the ploy of collapsing to the canvas every time Sullivan touched him. He went down seven times in the first round. In the last three rounds witnesses simply lost count as Wilson hauled himself up and flopped down like a drunk whose legs had gone on him. Sullivan hovered over him, trying to peg him when he could legitimately do so, but Wilson thrashed around, weaving as he arose, and then collapsed as a glove would go by. Sullivan had to pay up.
Years later, Stanley Ketchel, the middleweight champion, embarked on the same sort of theater circuit. But he was a smaller man; contestants gave him such trouble, legend has it, that if he felt himself in difficulty he would bull his opponent across the stage into a curtain that served as the fourth side of the ring. From behind it an accomplice would tap at the bulge of the challenger's head with a lead pipe, which was sufficient to slow him down.
On one occasion, Ketchel himself was turned around at the last minute and he went into the curtain instead of his opponent and got bopped. His knees buckled, and his seconds, staring aghast from the wings, were just able to save him for the next round. By that time his head had cleared and he had enough strength to move his opponent into the curtain, where the lead pipe found its intended target.