Maybe that was
what drew him to boxing, the chance to creep to the frontier of frenzy, to
bring under control, through strategy and skill, that which was always so
frighteningly close to the edge. The edge, Mike—that's what you said you loved
about boxing, remember?
never a bore," Mr. Futch would write one day to Yvonne, "for it could
hardly be called dull hanging over a precipice suspended on a rotten
Not long after
the incident with the Legionnaires, he began working out at the Brewster
Recreation Center. Within three years he was lightweight Golden Gloves champion
of Detroit. Joe Louis outweighed him by more than 40 pounds, but he would
motion Mr. Futch into the ring to spar. "When I'm sharp enough to hit
you," Louis would say, "I know I'm sharp enough to hit anyone."
In 1936, when Mr.
Futch was 25, he was 37-3 as an amateur, married and a father of three, and
about to turn pro. A doctor put a stethoscope to his heart before a fight.
Thump-thump-pffffff. Thump-thump-pffffff. A trainer's heart could make that
noise, but not a boxer's. Mr. Futch had a heart murmur. Mr. Futch became a
It's hard to put
this into words, Mike, but, somehow, all that reading and thinking he had been
doing about quiet bowers and Grecian urns helped him teach other men how to
take their opponents' heads off. Maybe the connection was what you were trying
to get at too, that day you started telling me about how you had read some
Hemingway and George Bernard Shaw—"that strange, skinny-looking dude,"
you called him. What art is to life, boxing—more than any other sport—is too.
Somehow, everything Mr. Futch taught about one applied to the other—and he
could teach you a left hook like a buggy whip, besides.
Ten kids, 15- and
16-year-olds, knocked on his door one day in 1941. Neighborhood kids. Teach us
to box, Mr. Futch, they begged. He was working eight hours a day as a
playground director in the summer, running the boxing program at the Brewster
Center the rest of the year, and was about to take a job rebuilding the
furnaces at Ford. He sighed and said to the kids, "You come to my door at
nine each morning. If there's 10 of you, I train you in the backyard. If
there's nine, don't bother knocking."
One of the 10,
Mr. Futch's paperboy, Jimmy Edgar, became a world-ranked middleweight and
fought Jake La Motta three times, once to a draw. A second kid, Bob Amos,
became a light heavyweight contender and twice fought Archie Moore. A third,
Big Boy Brown, became a ranked heavyweight. A fourth became a surgeon; a fifth,
a school principal; a sixth, Gordy, founded Motown. Neighborhood kids.
Coincidence, Mike? Or him?
Gordy remembers about Mr. Futch. Like the time Gordy lost a fight and people
told him it was O.K., not to let it get him down. When they were finished, Mr.
Futch approached him. "They're wrong," he said. "You should feel
bad. You made mistakes, that's why you lost, and if you don't feel bad about
that, it means you don't care."
"Sure, I may
have had heart before I met him," Gordy says, "but it didn't come out
until I did meet him. Seems like all the principles that I used to build Motown
came from him. Often I think that in Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Michael
Jackson there's a little bit of Eddie Futch."
Futch's reward, Mike, far more valuable to him than any headlines or money. At
77 he's like an inner-city teacher whose former students keep coming up to him
to say, "That year I spent in your class, it changed my life." And
every time he hears that, another memory of being overlooked or mistreated
because he was small and quiet and black, another swallow of the old poison,
dissolves, loses all its venom.