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Not so long ago, Ezzard Charles, whose attitude toward his profession even when he had the skills was dispassionate, and now, on the slide of years, is that of a man in sober pursuit of the buck, sat in a dressing room at New York's St. Nicholas Arena. A few minutes before, he had been the first ex-heavyweight champion to appear at St. Nick's, the oldest operating fight club in America, which, although it seats only 3,500, is known to millions from the Monday night telecasts. Charles had also just been defeated by an opponent 12 years his junior.
"When I was a boy," he said gently, "I used to listen to the fights from St. Nick's and wonder if I'd ever make it there on the way up. Well, I didn't, not until now when I'm going down."
What Charles finally came to is a three-story building fronting nearly a quarter of the somber block between Central Park and Columbus Avenue on West 66th Street. It is bordered by a bowling alley and bar and one of those tall garages which, unlike St. Nick's, has cool innards even in summer.
St. Nick's is built in the grim lines of the Italian Renaissance, but it has its crust of latter-century furbelows, which architects used to squeeze on their urban structures like pastry cooks. Hanging out over the sidewalk is a crazy orange fire escape, dependent from chains and a system of pulleys, which looks more like a run for mountain goats than a way out.
The arena was erected in 1896 for the hockey club of the same name. According to the most reliable account, the first boxing matches were staged there in the summer of 1911. It has also been used for roller skating, bowling, basketball, ballroom dancing, social gatherings and wrestling. Today, only fitful performances of the last three go on inside.
It did, however, like Ozymandias' works, have a glorious past not apparent from the remains. The past resides truly, if not accurately in all its details, in the memories of those who moved in it. Such a longtime mover is Doc Moore, a spare, alert old gentleman who saw the fighters at St. Nick's when they were, as he lovingly tells it, "masters who learned their trade and knew all the moves": masters like Jack Britton, Ted (Kid) Lewis, Harry Greb, Kid Chocolate, Sam Langford, Jack Blackburn, Joe Walcott (the original), Abe Attell, Terry McGovern, Stanley Ketchel, Tony Canzoneri, Al Singer and Benny Leonard.
Doc Moore was one of the finest of managers, matchmakers and trainers, or, as he would prefer it, teachers. "Sure, there are millions of trainers today," he says, "but very few teachers."
"St. Nick's hockey rink," Moore recalled recently, "had one of the first machines that made ice, and people used to come and buy it in big cakes. They didn't like to put that artificial stuff in their drinks, though. Scared it had chemicals in it.
"Cornelius Fellowes first owned the place, a fine-looking man and a real sport. I read the other day that he's alive in Florida somewhere. Harry Pollock was the fight promoter then and the manager of Freddie Welsh, Young Corbett—lots of them. A great dude he was; drank champagne, carried a cane and dressed to kill. Only time they'd run a fight at St. Nick's would be in the summer, on account of the hockey. The other night I went back there. It was pretty warm inside and no air-conditioning. You don't see any rich people going to fights on a night like that. They're home with their air-conditioning and television. That's the way it was then. No high-hats and gowns. Just the workingman. You know, in the summer the fights at St. Nick's are back with the people they always belonged to—the workingman.
"After Pollock it was either the McMahon boys or Jimmy Johnston who ran the boxing. I was preliminary matchmaker for Johnston when a boy would get $5 for four rounds and $15 for six [the current St. Nick's scale is $75 and $150].