popularity of boxing as big-ticket public entertainment in this country may
have surprised a lot of people—but not the little town of Pekin, Ill., and not
prizefights were a common form of diversion in small towns; Pekin escalated the
spectacle by staging public fights between—of all things—twins. The Stolley
twins—my brother, Jim, and I—were one of the star attractions of the late
1930s. I'm stretching the point—we were, after all, living in middle-class
comfort at home—but Jim and I could almost say we made our living as
professional boxers at the age of eight. Our motive was to raise pocket money,
not an easy thing back then. Pekin was receptive because it had a history of
using twins as entertainers. In that town of 17,000 there were two other sets
who performed regularly: The Hines sisters played clarinet duets, and the Tibbs
brothers put on gymnastic exhibitions.
We were simply
following a precedent set by another, older pair of boxing twins, Tim and Henry
Soldwedel, whose family owned the local dairy. They were identical, which made
them, I suspect, even more fun to watch than us fraternal twins—sort of like
swinging at a mirror. The Soldwedels began boxing about 1916 when they were
only six years old, kept it up for five years and finally bought identical
soprano saxophones with their earnings when they retired. The Stolleys came
along about 20 years later.
arranged our first match—the Don King of Pekin—is lost to memory, but our
parents became our trainers, managers, seconds and promoters. Needless to say,
my father, a good high school and college athlete himself, was the more
enthusiastic; my mother seemed close to tears every time we entered the
Our training began
after Jim and I came home one afternoon and complained to Dad that a new kid in
the neighborhood had turned out to be a bully. He said we would have to learn
to fight back (do fathers still give such advice to sons? I have only
daughters) and he bought us boxing gloves. He also hung a punching bag in the
basement. It was a speed bag, and we never really mastered the knack of keeping
it going with that rapid tattoo of punches I've admired ever since. In an early
attempt, Jim recalls, he "hit the bag and it rebounded and smacked me in
the face." We also did roadwork around the block, to amused comments from
matching shorts for us—one yellow with blue stripes, the other blue with yellow
stripes—and our professional career was under way.
Our first fights
were in private homes at stag bridge clubs. Enough men would gather for one or
two tables of bridge; they would play cards and drink highballs, and at the
midevening break for sandwiches the Stolley boys would arrive for three
one-minute rounds in the living room. The men would laugh, egg us on as we
flailed away with gloves the size and softness of puppies, and at the end toss
their pocket change onto the rug. Jim and I would rip off the gloves, scoop up
the silver and go home to bed.
We boxed by
invitation at the country club and even at the Woman's Club, an august
collection of the leading ladies of Pekin. My mother actually booked that
fight; our public reputation had overcome her distaste for watching her twin
sons pound each other.
Our biggest fight
took place at half-time at a Pekin Community High basketball game. High school
basketball in Illinois is not a sport but a sacred ritual; the gym was filled
to the rafters. We boxed in and around the jump circle, and with each punch the
cheers were deafening—at least to eight-year-old ears. It was an exhilarating
experience; from that early moment on, nobody ever had to explain to me the
noisy narcotic of the crowd. I think Jim won the fight; he hit me more often
than I hit him.
In the end, having
to hit each other is what terminated two possibly promising pugilistic careers.
Nobody ever kept score at our fights or declared a winner. It was supposed to
be fun, and it was—except to us. Twins grow up very close to each other,
whether identical or fraternal; you're together all the time. Fighting because
you are mad at your twin is acceptable; fighting to entertain others turned out
not to be. Eventually I had braces on my teeth and my mouth was declared
off-limits, but I am pleased that brotherly love is what finally closed down
the Stolley boxing show.