Nick Haywood started fighting for money in the mid-1930s when he still had some of his baby teeth. A decade later he had grown into a featherweight and he fought for another 20 years, sometimes as a licensed boxer, sometimes in savage ways in places beyond the reach of boxing commissions or public acknowledgment. Now he is 51, a scarred little black man who can neither read nor write and who earns his living as a laborer on a Kansas City construction crew.
By popular tradition and by all logic, Haywood should be a tragic case, a living prototype of the character who often appears in "serious" boxing stories, fictional and factual: the victim of sleazy manipulators, bloodthirsty crowds and a sadistic culture who becomes a derelict, a burden and a reproach to respectable society, a punchy ghost mocking the aspirations of the rising contender.
That's not the role Nick Haywood plays, nor does anyone who knows him think of him that way. In fact, in Kansas City—both its Missouri and Kansas versions—there exists an informal association that has no name but that could properly be called the Nick Haywood Admiration Society. It includes, among others, a mayor, a county executive, a councilwoman, a judge, two lawyers, a certified public accountant, a banker, a former NFL star, several journalists, 20 natural and foster children and a couple of hundred hard-looking street kids.
When members of the Society meet, they swap Nick Haywood stories, compare observations about him and sometimes speculate on the nature and significance of this phenomenal man who fascinates them so. With outsiders, members are often initially tentative, not wanting to appear foolish. But get them to talking and, a bit self-consciously, they will describe Nick first as such a likable little guy; next, as a uniquely entertaining, instructive, imaginative, independent and generous man; and, finally, as a visionary, a kind of improbable urban hero. Then they'll apologize for their effusiveness.
Usually, when Nick's People, which is how Society members often identify themselves, discuss Haywood, three rhetorical questions tend to be asked: "How about that hat?" and "Did you ever see anybody smile as he does?" and "Have you ever heard such a talker?"
The hat. Some of Haywood's longtime acquaintances have never seen him without a derby. He has a spiffy one that he saves for formal occasions, but the real crowd pleaser is his everyday working derby—he wears it on his construction job, when he is training kid boxers, everywhere. The brim is flexible now and is attached to the damaged crown with fishing line; long exposure to both indoor and outdoor elements has given the hat a fine greenish patina, such as may be seen on old copper plumbing. A gifted pantomimist as well as a nonstop talker, Haywood uses the derby as a prop, pushes it around, tips it, sweeps it, flourishes it—somewhat in the way a geisha uses a fan. Derby Nick, he is called in various Kansas City sporting circles.
The smile. Below the derby is a triangular, trusting and trustworthy face, of a smallish size suitable for a featherweight. Despite scars and other mementos of his fighting years, Haywood's face is genial, almost elfin; it would look right rimmed with fur and peering out of the woods, as in uplifting children's books. When he smiles, his eyes squinch, his crooked nose wrinkles and his lips stretch two ways: up and down from septum to chin and side to side almost to his ears. The smile exposes a lot of begonia-pink tongue and gums and a set of heavyweight-sized teeth. Keep the teeth in mind. They have been as important to Haywood's success as inches have been to Abdul-Jabbar's or skin to Tiegs'. Sometimes when he smiles, Haywood raises both hands to cover his lower face, as if fearing he might accidentally overwhelm bystanders, but this is an unnecessary precaution. Like Arthur Bryant's famous barbecue, another Kansas City resource, the more of the Haywood smile there is, the better.
The talker. Haywood will smile because of something somebody else has said, but more often because of something he himself has said. That is as it should be. The chances of Haywood being with anyone who has as many interesting things to say as he has or who can say them as well are very small. Like all notable talkers, Haywood is a monologist. Colloquy may be democratic and useful for committee work, family reunions and Monday night sports broadcasts, but memorable discourse is usually one way, flowing from talker to audience. Casey Stengel, for example.
The subject of Haywood's marathon monologues is always the same, never-finished story, in which all experiences, ideas, people and places are ultimately related, as, say, a Kansas City sirloin is related to solar energy. Reproducing any single passage does not provide an adequate sample for the same reasons that a picture of a trunk does not adequately represent an elephant. And Haywood has a strong, uneducated, southern-black accent. He says Ah for I, ahm for arm, youf for youth, splain for explain, Ahez for I is or I was. He seldom pronounces a terminal t (fis for fist) or d or g or an interior r. He rushes some passages, slows down on others. To render his accent precisely in print is possible, but it may leave the impression that the writer is patronizing Haywood, which is not possible.
Nick is sitting on the apron of an antique boxing ring set up in a dimly lit, dank warehouse in Kansas City, Mo. He owns the ring himself, and he says it has special inspirational powers because Joe Louis fought in it some 40 years ago. In it this day, six youths of assorted ages, colors and degrees of skill are shadow-boxing. Haywood appears to be coaching them, but he demurs.