Willie took K.O. to her first fight in 1961. It was Joey Giardello vs. Jesse Smith in Philadelphia's Arena. Then the next year she saw Giardello, a local favorite, decision Henry Hank. "I never seen so much blood," she recalls. "I says, 'Willie, I'm not going back.' A week later he gets his coat and I says, 'Where you going?' And he says, 'To the fight.' And I says, 'I'm going with you.' " She's been going ever since.
When Chandler was fighting at the Spectrum in the late '70s, Willie and K.O. used to follow him to his dressing room to congratulate him. They always had ringside seats. Chandler wasn't a stylist then; he was strictly an arm puncher whose best shot was his overhand right. On a whim, with no formal training, he had walked into Philadelphia's Juniper Gym in the fall of 1975. Two months later he turned pro. Soon after, he asked Willie to be his handler. Willie showed Chandler how to block punches with his shoulders instead of his gloves, and use his jabs to set up more damaging punches. Chandler, who had only one knockout in his first nine bouts, K.O.'d his next three opponents.
Willie is a gentle, soft-spoken little man with thinning white hair, a stubbly chin and a pack of Camels bulging from his shirt pocket. He dispenses fight wisdom and red-hot cherry gumdrops with equal facility. He speaks in a murmur. To hear him, you almost need a stethoscope. But he's plenty loud when scolding Chandler about his comportment in the ring. "After Muniz beat me, Willie got all over me," says Chandler, "and Becky chopped my head off with a long-handled ax."
K.O. shows up at Chandler's fights decked out in a red velour jacket with her name stitched in black letters on the front and Jeff's on the back. She pads around in black moccasins with little beaded birds stuck on the toes. Itsy-bitsy leather boxing gloves dangle from her ears, and around her neck is a 22-karat gold mezuzah that comedian Georgie Jessel gave her in 1945.
K.O. used to be in vaudeville. She was Tiny in the Al Fisher, Tiny and Lou comedy team, later known as Fisher and Marks. She worked with some of the biggest names in show business: Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, The Three Stooges. "Those Stooges were as funny in person as in their films," she says with a laugh that makes her shoulders rattle.
As part of her act, K.O. would dress up as a waitress and heckle Fisher from the audience. "Sometimes I'd put a blonde mop on my head and pretend I was one of the Andrews Sisters," she says. "I did jokes, jitterbugging and try-to-pick-me-up. The usual." K.O. has this amazing ability. She's only 82 pounds, but no one has ever been able to lift her by the elbows. It's almost as if she's welded to the floor. Even Muhammad Ali wasn't able to budge her when she visited the heavyweight champion's camp in the '70s.
Chandler's boyhood idol was Jeff Chandler, the late actor who played Cochise in the movie Broken Arrow. One day while glancing at the TV page of a newspaper, the fighter discovered he had a double. "Wow!" he said. "I'm in a movie."
As with many fighters who come out of the Philadelphia ghetto, Chandler learned to fight as a means of survival. Thanks to a decade of gang wars, his scar-lined forehead looks like a roadmap. A hideous circular scar between his shoulder blades came compliments of a street rumble just last March. To hear Chandler tell it, it was nothing more than a light workout. He was cruising down South Philly's Carpenter Street in his '79 Pontiac. The driver ahead of him stopped and got out of his car to chat with some friends sitting on a wall. After five minutes had passed and the guys still hadn't moved, Chandler blew his horn.
"Excuse me," Chandler said, "could you please move your car to the side and let me pass?"
The other driver walked back to Chandler's car and peered in through the open window. His reply landed flush on Chandler's chin. "I thought, 'Wow! I don't take too many shots like this in the ring,' " says Chandler. So he got out and introduced himself with a right hook. "Then the 15 guys jumped off the wall," he says, "and were hitting me—bip, bip, bip—on the chin. I was thinking, 'Wow! These guys are bigger than me, and I'm still standing here.' I got a lot happier then. I finally got my hands moving. They were moving just fine. It was a good fight. I started to drop them one by one. I was doing just fine."