Was this the way
life worked? One circumstance leading like an arrow to the next and then the
next? If it were, then a forceful and logical man might begin to foresee those
circumstances, might blaze his own trail of cause and effect ... and determine
his fate. Max began to sharpen his power of reasoning, to strip the sentiment
from an argument and make it stand on the legs of logic, knowledge ... and
will. The dinner table became his workshop. Pick a topic. Any topic. Hakeem
Olajuwon, best center in basketball? How can you say he's better than Patrick
Ewing? Didn't matter what the conventional numbers said; Max unearthed factors
that nobody else at the table knew, debated in a way that made you feel he'd
already rifled through the closets and drawers of your argument and discarded
it. He became an animal of logic. That's what brother Jack said.
One boy kept
entering the animal's lair. Sam, as a fourth-grader, wrote a story about a
monkey in a barrel whose keeper pelted him with numbers--big, heavy ones like
110--until the monkey heaved back a huge one, 1,186, the sum of all the numbers
hurled at him, and knocked out the shocked keeper. All the brothers, as sons of
a shrink, knew it was a story about Sam and Max. Sam could think and articulate
as fast as his big brother, lie in wait listening and then wreak havoc with a
reply. Once, debating why man had invented sports, Sam unloaded this haymaker:
"Sports is man's joke on God, Max. You see, God says to man, 'I've created
a universe where it seems like everything matters, where you'll have to grapple
with life and death and in the end you'll die anyway, and it won't really
matter.' So man says to God, 'Oh, yeah? Within your universe we're going to
create a sub-universe called sports, one that absolutely doesn't matter, and
we'll follow everything that happens in it as if it were life and death.'"
Which delighted Max, because he craved a foil, someone who would compel him to
hurl ever bigger and heavier numbers.
On a dry debating
day they'd resort to the King of All Games, a joust they'd invented in which
they'd select a subset--condiments, say--and then hammer out its hierarchy,
haggling over whether salt, butter, mayo or ketchup was the king, the prince or
a mere jester. Then they'd analyze each other's analyses, exposing hidden
psychological motives, louder, louder, with younger brothers Harry and Jack
chirping from the sidelines, until their father would shout, "Time out!
Time out! I can't take it!" and their mother would flee to her easel and
their friends would flee to the bathroom, choking back laughter, leaving Max
and Sam at the table arguing, their debate disintegrating an hour later into
Ahhh, you're full of s--- and You're such a f------ moron! ... two boys growing
closer than any brothers you've ever known.
kept coming after Max and his scarred lip. He sat beside his dad one night and
watched Muhammad Ali fight on TV. He disappeared into his bedroom with Ali's
autobiography and emerged spouting Ali's poetry. He decided at age eight that
he needed more control over his response to his antagonists, more
science--Ali's science. His father started taking him to a gym for boxing
lessons, which lasted until Boom Boom Mancini battered Duk Koo Kim to death on
national television in 1982. The boy's horrified mother and grandmother retired
him at age nine.
Max stomped ...
then sulked ... then sublimated. If he couldn't be a boxer, he'd be a boxing
know-it-all. He began memorizing five boxing magazines a month, reading them
during classes at Hunter, the hotshot public high school he tested into in
seventh grade. He compiled lists all day, the more obscure the better: Top 10
left jabs. Top 10 middleweights of 1986. Top 10 middleweights of 1968. He
turned his living room into a ring, with a cooking timer to ding out the
rounds, and began tutoring his three brothers, all within six years of his age.
At 14 he was sneaking back up those grimy stairwells into boxing gyms and
writing to Bundini Brown, asking Ali's shaman to train him to the world title
while Mom wasn't looking.
One Sunday, just
after he turned 16, Max was watching Boykin on Boxing on a Manhattan
public-access TV station. He turned to his dad. "I could do that," Max
said. His father and grandmother Esther had schooled Max, Sam, Harry and Jack
in public speaking from the day they'd begun to babble. "Of course you
could, Max," said Henry.
Four days later
he took Max to the Manhattan Neighborhood Network studio and paid the $27
studio fee for a half-hour slot. The engineers pinned a microphone to Max's
lapel, seated him in front of a camera and flashed a signal. Off he soared,
making references to fighters from a half century before he was conceived,
sorties into the psyche of Mike Tyson, allusions to Sophocles and Star Wars.
All the phone lines lit up within 30 seconds. When he walked off the set, the
whip Marciano, Louis and Dempsey in the same afternoon!" Max would crow,
his big, expressive eyes sparkling and his thick, dark eyebrows hopping with
each feverish opinion. "I don't think that's an opinion! That's a
fact!" Lowlifes and Columbia professors called his weekly show, Max on
Boxing. So did Dustin Hoffman, who asked Max to his house for dinner. David
Letterman had Max on his show. The kid became a Manhattan cult phenomenon.