I had about a
month in which to get a questionable apparatus ready to fight Archie Moore, the
light-heavyweight champion of the world. It was January of 1959.
I am not properly
constituted to fight. I am built rather like a bird of the stilt-like, wader
variety—the avocets, limpkins and herons. Since boyhood my arms have remained
sticklike; I can slide my watch up my arm almost to the elbow. I have a thin,
somewhat fragile, nose which bleeds easily. Once, in my military days, I
brought up my hand in a smart salute that banged the tip of my nose and started
a slight nosebleed there in the ranks. A bead of blood quivered at the end of
my nose, like the drop at a shot bird's beak, before it fell to the dust of the
parade ground. A lieutenant colonel stared at me solemnly. He sighed slightly
and went on down the line.
Also, I suffer
from a condition the medical profession refers to as "sympathetic
response," which means that when I am hit or cuffed around, I weep. It is
an involuntary reaction; the tears come and there is nothing I can do except
dab at them with a fist. Charlie Goldman, Rocky Marciano's gnomelike trainer,
once said of fighters built along my lines, "You know them fighters with
long necks and them long, pointy chins, they cost you more for smelling salts
than they do for food."
Yet, I knew that
the first step in getting ready for Moore was to find a trainer like Goldman. I
reached a man named George Brown; I had been introduced to him by Ernest
Hemingway, who always spoke of him with the highest regard as a boxer who could
have been a champion if he had been able to accept the idea that he was going
to be hit once in a while. Still, Hemingway spoke of his skills with awe,
saying that he could never remember having landed a good punch during a
sparring session with Brown.
I also tried the
theory that I could teach myself from books. I paid a visit to the library of
the Racquet Club, on Park Avenue, where a small section is devoted to boxing. I
first selected a thin volume, The Art and Practice of English Boxing,
Containing Explanatory Illustrations of Pugilistic Attitudes in the Art of
Attack and Self-Defence..., first published in 1807. The opening paragraph
includes a reassuring sentence: "...both parties," it goes, referring
to the contestants in the ring, "should keep in the best humour
Then George Brown
went to work. No more reading. In the Racquet Club gymnasium he began showing
me boxing fundamentals—how to throw the jab and duck slightly behind the right
to protect against the counterpunch. Though he taught me one or two
combinations, he said we would "rely" mostly on the jab.
He also ordered
me out into Central Park to run early in the morning. I hated getting up to do
it. In my Racquet Club reading I had learned that one morning Willie Pep saw
Jake La Motta spiking his prerun orange juice with a jigger of brandy.
"Hell, Willie," La Motta explained, "I don't run good, but I'm the
happiest guy in the world."
But once out
there, I enjoyed it. I told Brown how lovely it was in the park; he made a face
and said I was not tending to business. Always I had to remember why I was out
there—and that I should try to work up a controlled rage against Archie Moore,
seeing him always in my mind's eye, shadowboxing as if his presence were just
beyond reach—and to hell with how pretty it was in the park.
I began sparring
sessions with a friend, Peter Gimbel. We usually spent an hour in the gym.
Once, when the three of us were in a taxi after a workout, Brown motioned
toward the street and told me that I now knew enough to take on about 95% of
the people out there. I looked out at the pedestrians, innocently hurrying
along, and I thought, "Fancy that."
As the day of the
fight approached, I began to get notes in the mail—quotations, usually terse,
most of them signed with fighters' names and almost all somewhat violent in
tone. I don't know who sent them. I suspected Gimbel, but he would not