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David Remnick
February 02, 1987
Josephine Abercrombie has brought an unlikely new presence to boxing
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February 02, 1987

Fighting Lady

Josephine Abercrombie has brought an unlikely new presence to boxing

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To Pierce Egan, preeminent scribe of 19th-century pugilism, boxing was "the manly art," a science not recommendable to those "who prefer effeminacy to hardihood." Egan's characters were Englishmen of every sort: swells and clinchpoops, champions as revered as Tom Cribb and Jem Belcher, personages as marginal as Jack (the Young Ruffian) Fearby and "Big" Ben Brain. There is not a notable woman in all the magnificent volumes of Boxiana.

If Egan were alive today and furthering his research for his column in the sporting "Weekly Despatch," he might want to cross the Atlantic and attend the Thursday night fights at the Marriott Brookhollow in Houston. A shock would await him. The promoter for the evening's ballroom sock-up does not chomp a cigar or affect an electrified bouffant. Josephine Abercrombie is what Egan might have called a noblewoman of a "certain age," her age certainly being 60. She has been married and divorced five times and lives on a nine-digit oil, gas and real estate fortune left behind by her mother, Miss Lillie, and her daddy, Mr. Jim, the developer of a device that prevents oil wells from blowing out.

Blue-eyed, razor-boned and possessed of what Don King calls "a luminescent femininity," Abercrombie sits nervously at ringside in a silk dress and a fine fur coat, three strands of pearls at her powdered throat. She is nervous for the fighters she promotes and the fighters that her proxy, Bob Spagnola, manages for the Houston Boxing Association. She is, however, unperturbed by the grease, spit, blood, sweat and other airborne spumes that often lubricate a spectator's evening. One night Abercrombie was so enthralled with the victory of her fighter Choo Choo Dixon that she embraced him without mind to her new Adolfo. "The outfit suffered," she admits gravely, "but it survived. I was lucky it was black, blue and brown."

Mrs. A, as many call her, is a discerning sort. When she finds something repulsive, she says it is "not adorable." At ringside tonight she watches a couple of unadorable cruiserweights, Louis Coleman and Sherman Griffith, make mud of Egan's art. In the first round Coleman puts Griffith on the canvas with his first punch, a parabolic right that could not have halved a sheet of balsa wood. Griffith then does the same to Coleman with an equally artless and pillowy left. Soon all hell breaks loose. Griffith batters Coleman stupid for an endless minute. Coleman, a muscle-bound lug the color of bittersweet chocolate, is suddenly slack and the shade of milky tea. His eyes are rheumy and very far away. "It's over," says the referee. "Not adorable," says Abercrombie.

Presently, a tall, guileless girl in a microscopic bathing suit climbs between the ropes holding a card reading round one. Abercrombie is seated near a couple of astronauts, a chirpy Cleveland talk-show host and Michael Hammond, the tweedy dean of the music school at Rice University. Abercrombie notes with evident concern that everyone is watching the snaky way the card girl has thrust herself between the ropes and into the ring, an endearing maneuver that would raise eyebrows even in Rio de Janeiro. "You know, when we started out five years ago, we had the most elegant girls with long white gloves and sequins," Abercrombie says. "That was in the beginning. Then we let the crowd vote on the outfits."

The girl climbs out and another bout begins, this one a snappier affair between a pair of bantamweights. One of them is her fighter Orlando Canizales, and Abercrombie notices a Nixonian shadow on his cheeks. Not adorable. "I do wish he'd shave before his fights, but I guess they'd drum me out of the corps if I suggested it," she says. Such is her sensibility. She has all the delicate reflexes of a Texas gentlewoman and all the savvy of a ring rat. She is, in spirit, a benevolent feudal lord, Tolstoyan in that regard. When she takes her fighters to charity balls, as she sometimes does, she lets them wear the dinner jackets of their choice, "but I won't let them wear blue ruffled shirts." She once brought four of her fighters to a fancy resort in Florida on her private plane. Five miles above sea level she taught "the boys" the intricacies of etiquette: napkin on the lap, this is the fish fork, this is the grapefruit spoon, don't drink from the finger bowl, etc. "I didn't want them to be embarrassed or uncomfortable," she says. "I'd say' 'No! That's wrong!' They were cute about it. They want to be better."

Josephine's own etiquette, when one of her fighters is in the ring, is freewheeling, to say the least. It is an experience to sit next to her. From the moment the warriors come down the aisle in their bathrobes and climb through the ropes she is, she admits, "a shivering wreck." During the referee's instructions she assumes an erect posture, her hands balled into tiny, bony fists on her lap. Her guard is up from the opening bell in a mirror image of Canizales's own defenses. When he bounces off the ropes, so, perceptibly, does she. When a left comes whizzing toward his chin, Abercrombie's head retracts into her shoulders, turtle-like. All the while she is bobbing and weaving, sometimes boring her shoulder into her neighbor's back. A sharp blow to the ribs may follow. "Oh! Did T hurt you?" she will say after belting someone quite unconsciously. "I just completely forget myself!" There is something at once frenzied and repressed about her performance; she is wild, yet mindful of not letting go completely. Which is to say, she knocks no one out.

At the bell ending the first round Abercrombie slumps in her chair. While her fighter is toweled, tutored and greased, she retrieves an ivory linen handkerchief from her purse and, quite delicately, dabs the sweat from her pulse points and brow. Canizales spits into a bucket, though his promoter most certainly does not.

In the second round it seems for a moment that Abercrombie has more endurance than Canizales. Her guard is still up while his is dropping. Canizales takes a stiff shot to the maw, and Abercrombie cringes in sympathetic pain. "Sometimes when he fights I think I'm going to die," she says. But her faith never wavers. Nor does her attention. Suddenly it is over. Canizales stops his man with a cute uppercut to the body and an irrelevant tap to the ear. The telling blow has a deep thudding sound, much like a car hitting a deer. Abercrombie worries for a moment over the beaten man. "I hope he's all right!" A doctor gives the thumbs-up. Now Abercrombie takes on a touching, motherly air.

"Oh, Orlando," she cries. "I'm so proud of you!"

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