In 1951 Haywood won the Kansas City Golden Gloves championship in the featherweight division and reached the semifinals of the national tournament. He married Geraldine Thomas, the girl across the alley, started a family—the Haywoods now have 10 children—and began working as a construction laborer most days and a professional fighter some nights. Because of his family, he never took fights more than two days' driving or hitchhiking distance from Kansas City. Although Klice sometimes helped out in his corner, Haywood never had a manager—or a main-event fight. However, as a preliminary fighter, he amassed a 50-4 record and says with pride that no man ever put him down.
The hardest fight he ever had was against a middleweight named Billy Novak. (Because of a lack of willing opponents in his own class, Haywood, who has never weighed more than 126 pounds, would book himself against welters and, rarely, against middleweights.) Haywood remembers the Novak fight vividly but without much pride because he lost both a four-round decision and his cool. He had worked that day carrying lumber and was a bit stiff when he arrived at a small arena in Kansas City, Kans. He thought he would be fighting a lightweight but the promoter had substituted Novak. A friend told Haywood that Novak weighed 164 and suggested that he withdraw, but Haywood said he did not think Novak looked that heavy. The first time he got hit, Haywood says, he knew that Novak weighed at least 164 pounds. Novak continued to belt him through the first two rounds and came as close, Haywood thinks, to knocking him out as any man ever did. Between the second and third rounds, someone in Haywood's corner gave him an ammonia-and-brandy cocktail, which had a powerful stimulating effect on the nondrinking Haywood. In the third round, he stayed in close, working on Novak's body. The bigger man began to tire and grow a bit gun-shy. With a few seconds left in the third round, Haywood knocked him down and thought he might put him away in the last round. But Novak came out butting and opened several cuts, the scars of which Haywood still has. Enraged, Haywood forgot he was a boxer and an athlete and, he says, "Ah juss began fighting like on the street. Ah even try to bite Billy Novak." Beyond losing, Haywood still feels he shamed himself and his profession by reverting to such tactics.
Haywood never officially retired from the ring—indeed, he says it is conceivable that he is not retired—but he last fought professionally in 1974 when he was 45 years old. He took that fight for $100 and the excitement, and because his opponent was lefthanded and southpaws were always his meat. "Ah got this punch," says Haywood, tilting back the derby and demonstrating, "call the six inch over the top right. Old time fightah called The Boston Tar Baby [Sam Lang-ford] have that same punch, cause Ah see pictures in a book a man show me. It come to me cause when Ah was a young man, Ah was mule skinnah, crackin that whip get me the snap to come ovah the top on the southpaw. That lass time Ah take that young man in six and feel good."
About five years before that, Haywood had finally and emphatically retired as a street fighter. "Ah come out of this ice cream stoah eatin a cone," he recalls. "Young man he pull his cah up tight on mah truck so Ah caint move. Ah say Ah obliged if he pull back, but he laugh and he say he ain't goin no place till he ready. Ah get in mah truck and back up and bump him to get room. He leap out and fling open mah doah and fling me against that truck. He big, chunky young man, dress in a suit, but Ah sink mah teeth right through the suit, and there is blood and he fall down moanin, and Ah push the cah away and drive off.
"Two weeks laytah Ahez back to get anothah cone, and young lady come up and she say Ah should be ashame of myself. That young man, she say, his chess swell up and he caint go to work for five days. Ah say she is right and Ahez wrong. Ahez too weak to stan and lick my cone and let the young man cross and mock me. Caint stan to have anothah man think Ahez weak, cause Ahez not sure Ahez strong. Thass the way of the beast, and man who know moah should be ashame. Ah thank that young lady for speakin to me, and Ah nevah do that once again."
Though he was never more than a part-time moonlighting boxer and a fringe figure in the K.C. fight crowd, Haywood decided in 1975 that he would like to show some closed-circuit TV fights in a local theater. Specifically, he wanted to bring the second Muhammad Ali-Joe Bugner fight to Kansas City audiences. This ambition amused local fight hustlers, who thought such an enterprise far beyond his means and ability. "Everybody they say, naw, Nick, man like you caint do that, thass big stuff, but nobody splain why Ah caint. Ah keep thinkin about who hep a man like me, and Ah sit down at the telephone an Ah ask the operator to let me speak to Senatah Johnson in Atlanta, Gawgia, and she do. He say he glad to talk to me and what is mah problem. Ah say it is how to get the close-circus TV heah. He say, 'Nick, where you at?' and Ah say, 'Ahez at mah home.' Senatah Johnson say juss sit right there and he call me back, and pretty soon he did and he say, 'Nick, you call this man name Goldstein in New Yawk,' and he give me this number and Ah remembah it and Ah call. Mr. Goldstein ask, 'Nick, what can we do foah you?' Ah tell him about the close-circus, and he say thass easy, and he sen me some paypah and Ah sen him some money and thass how the people get to enjoy Ali-Bugner."
Randy Vanet is a Kansas City attorney and a former Republican candidate for Congress. He has been Haywood's friend for nearly 20 years. "Nick put on three or four of those TV shows," Vanet says. "They didn't make any money—in fact, I think he lost on them—but that doesn't worry him. He does things that he thinks are interesting or should be done. Nick is a creative thinker who operates outside the paper world. Everybody who is as smart and imaginative as he is can read and write and has been conditioned to accept a lot of restrictions on what they can do or even think about doing. Sometimes I think Nick feels a little sorry for us because shuffling papers has made us so slow and timid."
In the course of making his promotional arrangements, Haywood was told by somebody that it was not seemly for a common laborer to be messing around with closed-circuit TV, that only valid businessmen should engage in that sort of activity. To satisfy this apparent requirement, Haywood rented a downtown pool hall, which he operated in the early morning and in the evening after he had finished his construction job and his gymnasium workouts. An incident occurred at the pool hall that markedly changed Haywood's life, his image and his reputation in Kansas City.
"Late at night," Haywood remembers, "mostly the youf come to the pool hall cause they doan have no other place. Ahez very busy and it is cold and windy, and a youf say, 'Nick, you got to take care of me.' He say, 'Nobody care about me and Ahez gettin bad.' Ah say, 'Boy, what you talkin about? Ah ain't here to take care of you,' and Ah turn from him and two weeks laytah that youf is killed with a knife in the street and I caint get him outta my heart. Ah think a man like me who have good fortune, he got to care about the youf or he caint respec his-self. Ah think what this world gonna be soon if nobody care foah the youf, cause they gonna be the world and it's gonna be a bad world for mens."
Haywood rented an empty loft above the pool hall and turned it into a free, free-form recreation center where kids could at least congregate in security. He and his wife began taking hard-pressed youngsters into their home, sometimes offering a few days of sanctuary and food, sometimes becoming formal or informal foster parents.