SI Vault
A. J. Liebling
December 12, 1955
Continuing his tour of Dr. Stillman's campus, the center of the Sweet Science in America, boxing's eminent historian pays a visit to its renowned saloon
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December 12, 1955

Part Ii: The University Of Eighth Avenue

Continuing his tour of Dr. Stillman's campus, the center of the Sweet Science in America, boxing's eminent historian pays a visit to its renowned saloon

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Sullivan, although it is scarcely likely that he had read Egan, held with the Old School of nonsparrers. He had a chopping left and a swinging right, and believed in bottling up his energy until he saw the other fellow in front of him, when he would simply rush. Anybody who read his daily menu could have predicted that he would outlast Ryan, who breakfasted on "mutton chops or beefsteak, medium cooked, with just enough salt upon it to make it palatable," dined on "roast beef and sometimes a leg of mutton," with a bottle of Bass or Scotch ale, but then weakened and took for supper "a couple of boiled eggs, some toast and a cup of tea." He obviously lacked stamina. Ryan had won his claim to the world championship by beating a man named Joe Goss in 87 rounds, but Sullivan did him in in nine.

One of the results of high maintenance costs is that a good many kids go to work. This is a test of dedication. Ernie Roberts and Earl Dennis, two fine colored welterweights I know, do their roadwork in the streets at 5 o'clock in the morning, shower, change into business clothes, go into the center of Manhattan and work an eight-hour day, do their sparring after hours and then go home to their respective wives and families. The menace in this situation, from a cultural point of view, is that the fighter may get to like his job. Roberts is already betraying an alarming interest in the hardware business. Dennis appears to have a more definite vocation. "I have fighting all through me," he told me once. "Before I turned professional I used to walk down the street and hope somebody would give me a hard look. But then I decided if I get my head beat in I want to get it for money." Dennis won a voice contest at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, however, and now every time he sings a cadenza in the shower, a shadow crosses his manager's face.

A visitor who brightens the Neutral Corner whenever he shows up is Charlie Goldman, Rocky Marciano's trainer, leading claimant of the American derby-hat-and-double-breasted-suit championship since the death of James Joy Johnston, the great manager known into his 70s as the Boy Bandit. The championship fell into Johnston's handkerchief pocket when Jimmy Walker skipped the herring pond in 1931, and when the Boy Bandit died, Goldman was left in a class by himself. Mr. Goldman, who is on sabbatical leave from the University of Eighth Avenue during Marciano's professional life expectancy, is a jockey-sized man with a mashed, intelligent face, who had 400 fights as a bantam-weight, 60 with the same adversary, a contemporary named Georgie Kitson. They were as well known in their field as Van and Schenck, or Duffy and Sweeney. In the late '30s Goldman used to train a large stable of fighters for Al Weill, for whom he trains Marcia-no now. Weill kept the whole herd in a brownstone house on West 91st Street, near the Central Park Reservoir, and Goldman had the front parlor bedroom so he could check on them. "In those days," Goldman said, joining one of the conversations on commissary problems, "Al would give each fighter a $5 meal ticket good for $5.50 in trade at the coffee pot on the corner of Columbus, and most of the kids made the week on one ticket. We were feeding four and a half fighters for what one costs today, and they were all feature fighters." It is a dismal statistic that a four-round fighter eats as much as a star.

Mr. Goldman, however, does not blame the present low level of artistic competence upon either television or the high cost of living. "It is compulsory education," he says. "You take a kid has to stay in school until he is sixteen, he is under a disadvantage. All the things he should have learned to do when he was young he has to start at the beginning. How to move his feet, slip a punch, throw a hook—like finger exercises on the piano. [Here was Egan's old analogy with the drummer, proving that the Sweet Science is indeed a perpetuum, like the Manipuri dance or My Darling Clementine. The tune of Clementine was old in 16th century Spain.] A fighter shouldn't have to think about those things, he should think about how to use them. A kid learns them before he begins to think about girls, they are the most important thing in the world to him. Sixteen is too old, especially the way kids are today."

Professor Goldman himself, who is a modish 67 if you accept the birth date in the record books, began to box professionally when he was 9 years old, having been a mere street fighter before that. Goldman lived near Terrible Terry McGovern in South Brooklyn then—McGovern was a veteran still in his teens, with a string of knockouts as long as your arm. McGovern had a kid brother about Goldman's age, and Sam Harris, McGovern's manager, used to set them to fighting. Harris was George M. Cohan's partner in the theater. He bought the boys boxing gloves and tights—real fighters wore tights that covered their legs then, a vestigial relic of the bare-knuckle days. Combining his flair for the ring and theater, Harris used to present the boys in three-round bouts at smokers. Terry would work his kid brother's corner and another Brooklyn fighter named George Munroe would second Charlie. "We learned a lot that way," the savant says. "They always had a bet going, so we had to take it serious." By the time he was 14 he was traveling around the country, arranging his own fights and collecting his purses when possible; and when he was 16 he could place women in their proper perspective. "I never married," the Professor says. "I always live a la carte." Women are probably the most delicate pedagogical obstacle a trainer has to temporize with. "You can sweat oat beer," the great aphorist Sam Langford once said, "and you can sweat oat whiskey. But you can't sweat oat women." There is a theory among less profound exponents of the Science, though, that love, once legitimized, is no longer vitiating, and athletes with proper religious feelings who have been wary, moderate sinners sometimes become self-destructively uxorious after the church has solemnized the union. Professor Goldman sometimes has to function as a marriage counselor despite his inexperience, but he finds it a handicap. "One guy said to me his wife told him, 'What does Goldman know about it? He's never been married,' " the Professor says.

Marciano is the partial exception to all Goldman's rules. The heavyweight champion started late, but take him all in all, his preceptor says, he is a hell of a fighter. He always takes Charlie's advice. Also he is the hardest-working heavyweight who ever lived, training as if he purposed to make up all the lessons he missed before the age of 23. (He is 31 now.) His great assets are stamina and leverage, but the Professor has taught him a lot about how to use them. "I don't like to be away from him long," Professor Goldman said. "He forgets. It isn't like he learned them things when he should. We got to have half an hour every day for review." Mr. Goldman was in the Corner not long ago when a resonant old gentleman—wiry, straight and white-haired—walked into the saloon and invited the proprietors to his 90th birthday party, in another saloon naturally. The shortly-to-be nonagenarian wore no glasses, his hands were shapely, his forearms hard, and every hair looked as if, in the cold waterfront metaphor, it had been drove in with a tenpenny nail. On the card of invitation he laid on the bar was printed:

Billy Ray

Last Surviving Bare Knuckle Fighter and he wouldn't let anybody in the joint buy a drink. His purse-bearer, a large subservient Irishman who looked like a retired cop, put the money on the bar for him; the protocol recalled the days when every fighter had his retinue, with a first, second and third accredited toady.

I asked Mr. Ray how many fights he had had, and he said: "A hundert forty. The last one was with gloves. I thought the game was getting soft, so I retired." A minute later he was telling an affectionate but indelicate story about his seventh wife, now of course dead, and shortly after that complaining of the high cost of living for a male these days, citing with regret the consumer price index on Water Street, near the East River, in 1885. "Four bits then was as good as $8.15 today," he said.

He said he had fought George Dixon, the immortal Little Chocolate whose yellowed photograph hangs among the immortals over the Neutral Corner bar, and I felt as if he had said that he once wrestled Abe Lincoln. "But the best I ever fought was Ike Weir, the Belfast Spider," he said. "He was the cleverest man ever lived, only his hands were so broke up he wouldn't hit you a hard one on the jaw. Jabs and body blows is how he done it." Weir fought between 1885 and 1894, Dixon from 1886 to 1906; my own father saw him lose the featherweight championship to the much younger Terry McGovern in 1900, and he held Dixon was the cleverest man ever lived. He had never seen Weir. The older you are, the further back your candidate is likely to be. Ray said he had fought Dixon before the latter won his first world's title as a bantam in 1890. They were thoroughly illegal fights, for trifling sidebets in the back rooms of saloons, and they do not appear in the record books, nor do hundreds of other fights the oldtimers had.

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