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Yes, he could punch--James Butler had just won the first of two Golden Gloves titles. He could kick, too. The first time Ness laid eyes on him, James was kicking in the glass door at a fast-food joint at 155th Street and 8th Avenue whose owner had just given him the heave. He was a teenager from the Harlem projects--absent father, party-loving mom--who had served time for petty larceny. "Kid, you should be boxing," Ness told James. "You got a lot of anger in you."
James showed up at the gym. He looked as if somebody had just stolen something from him, and it might've been you. That's what trainer Bob Jackson said.
"You think I could hit like the Hammer?" Sam asked Ness.
"People are born with that pop," said Ness, "but I'll teach you balance and defense. You won't get hurt ... unless you're chicken."
"I ain't chicken!"
Sam joined Ness's boxers and, like the Hammer, basked in the nickname he got from the trainer: the Baby-Faced Assassin.
An older kid jumped brother Harry at school. Sam called Max at college for advice. "All depends where you see yourself in the food chain," said Max. "Are you predator or prey?" Sam bloodied the kid's face. Damn, Sam was tough. He got into a scrape with an Albanian punk, opened a gash in the kid's head, then raced into a deli, grabbed a fistful of napkins and got down on the sidewalk to stanch the kid's wound and comfort him. No matter how well he learned to use his fists, Sam was still the boy who, every visitors' day at summer camp, had gone straight to the sister of a fellow camper--the girl whose face was discolored a shocking pink--to sit beside her and lean so close, with such warmth, that she always lit up. The kid who identified with the victim, the outsider.
So, of course, Sam's heart went straight to the brooding Hammer. But James kept his distance, suspicious of Sam's charm. What could a dropout from the projects have in common with a Shakespeare scholar?
It wasn't that Max condoned the casual violence he'd begun scribbling about in his bedroom and rapping out on street corners. How could he, after what his family had been through? Rap was just a genre, Jack, like the Jewish partisan songs he and his brothers sang in Yiddish, or the soliloquies from Antony and Cleopatra that Sam recited. Another way to explore old Kellerman terrain: the quicksand between weakness and strength.