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Abercrombie is rather less breathless than she was 32 years ago. By way of explaining how she "got into all this," she crosses one ankle over the other and folds her hands on her lap in the demure manner of her station and says, "When I was a girl my mother had me take lessons in everything. I learned ballet, riding, piano, golf, tennis, swimming, ballroom dancing, elocution. She would have adored it if I had put on a hat and gloves and gone out to have lunch or tea with the girls. But I didn't want to do that.
"She wanted me to make my debut, of course, but I didn't want to come out. You know, one of those debutante things at the Allegro Club or the River Oaks Country Club. I thought it was like being put up on an auction block with someone saying, 'Here she is, come and get her.' She would have adored that, too. But I was different. My friends have always thought I was odd, different, because I don't enjoy the things I'm supposed to enjoy.
"I like a man's world. I like what happens in a man's world. I have lots of friends who are women, but I'm more comfortable with a man than I am with a woman. I love competition, and boxing is the ultimate one-on-one competition. You see so much courage displayed; you see chickenism happen, too. You see it all. At the end of the fight they are just exhausted because they've put so much into it. I just adore it."
By now. her ankles are still crossed, but her hands have become fists and are up near her temples in the manner of Floyd Patterson. Peekaboo-style.
Boxing is about the worst advertisement for a free-market system imaginable. It doesn't say much for states' rights, either. Even though the preponderance of commissioners, rulings, hearings and owners tends to sap some of the delight out of baseball, football and basketball, overwhelming them with a righteous brand of bureaucracy, boxing is something of an outlaw game, rife with greed, confusion and sleaze. The only rules are Marquis of Queensberry; outside the ring it's open season. Without a national boxing commission to police it, to enforce and improve safety regulations, some promoters and even some of the state commissions live only by the color of money.
"I want to make boxing better," says Josephine Abercrombie at the HBA gym. "That's what I want more than anything." With sweaty pugs all around her. she is as cool and self-assured as Jackie Kennedy at the Paris Opera. The place is nothing like the gyms of Body and Soul and The Harder They Fall. Carpeted, clean and warm, the gym is bad for movies, good for athletes. There is even a curious lack of stink in the air. although, Abercrombie assures her visitor, "sometimes, late in the day, the place smells just like Gleason's. Just lovely."
In the back there are Nautilus machines, computer-monitored speed bags, a water-filled heavy bag, and a series of conditioning geegaws: a "flexometer" to increase the speed with which a fighter ducks a blow; a "tensionmeter" to measure his isometric strength; a "balanceometer" to help him keep his feet; and. most heinous of all, the StairMaster, a revolving climbing machine that causes the thigh and butt to burn. "I've got one at home," Abercrombie says. "Keeps you hard for skiing."
When the fighters are not working out in Houston under the watch of trainers, a nutritionist and other cornermen, they are often training at the 6,000-acre Abercrombie Cannonade Ranch near Gonzales. Texas. The ranch, which was loaned to the 1984 Olympic boxing team, is a spartan place with a three-mile running course, a gym and a converted bunkhouse that sleeps 13. The fighters eat with the cowboys.
Abercrombie"s programs are financial as well as physical. She recently set up a $2 million investment plan for her fighters that they help control. The fighters can live rent-free in a 20-unit apartment building. She also provides health-care insurance. profit sharing and other benefits not usually associated with sweet scientists. Says HBA middleweight and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Frank Tate, "'She takes care of us. Like a second mother."
There is no doubt at all that Abercrombie's enthusiasm for boxing is pure. She knows the sport imperfectly, but well enough to realize it is "a dirty game that needs cleaning." What's more, she loves everything that is right with it, "the competition, the chance to be better, the art of it all." To explain why she bothered investing her time and "about $1 million up front," Abercrombie has a kind of sanitized version she tells. It is like an oral press kit and goes like this: