Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Ring

It really was a long time ago, the first Ali-Frazier match at Madison Square Garden on March 8, 1971. All day yesterday I was trying to remember what significance March 8th held for me. And it wasn't until just this very moment, when thinking about Lou Duva, that I remembered it was the date for that first of the three epic battles between the two; the first time undefeated heavyweight champions met. It was doozie.

It was a Monday, and was also the day Aqueduct shook off its winter hiatus and thoroughbred racing returned to the NYC area. And ever since that March 8th date when my father and a friend of mine from the office were at that fight, last row blue seats, $20, obtained in the mail directly from Madison Square Garden, that I started to really follow boxing.

For decades I was hooked on boxing. Attended fights in as many places as I could, live and theater pay-per-view. Boxing can attract a crowd as tough as the guys in the ring. Once at the Felt Forum, often referred to as Madison Square Garden's finished basement, a bartender from Gallagher's Steak House was fighting someone from Philadelphia, someone...Kid Chocolate (honest). I really don't remember who won, but I suspect something was going badly for the bartender at one point because chairs were suddenly taking flight. Things settled down, but I remember reading in the paper the next day that the bartender was never asked to fight again at anything the Garden was promoting.

My father never talked too much of what fights he might have seen growing up in Manhattan, but I'm sure his world was dominated by the radio broadcasts of the big fights. The German Athletic Club was half a block down the street from the family flower shop, over Joe King's restaurant at 190 Third Avenue. I'm sure he might have seen guys being groomed there, or probably watched his older brother, who was an amateur boxer and fought collegiately as a midshipman at the Naval Academy. My uncle George was also my godfather, and I do remember he had a nose that had a bit of bashed in look.

One of my enduring memories is of my father spotting a guy one evening at the 16th Street entrance to the BMT's Broadway line who was unloading newspapers from a truck. My father got excited and told me that was Paul Berlenbach, a light-heavyweight champion from the 20s. Considering the man we saw in the early 1960s was not wearing a pair of boxing trunks or gloves, I'd have to say my father's memory of what the guy looked like was very good, nearly 35 years later.

And because the ring can be a dangerous place to be, it is always good to keep your mind on business. There was one fight at the Garden between Christy Elliott, a good light-heavyweight prospect and someone else. Christy was having his way with his opponent. Christy, being of Irish persuasion, and likely looking forward to the end of the sexual-abstinence period that was legendarily imposed on fighters until their match was over, nearly got decapitated when he stopped punching his opponent just long enough to look up and wave to a pair of young ladies who had jumped up in the crowd from about 10 rows back, waving an Irish flag and blowing him kisses. There's a time and place for everything.

It's been a while since I've gotten even remotely excited about boxing. So, when I read today that Lou Duva passed at 94, a flood of boxing memories came back. There are some great quotes from Duva, but to me, surprisingly the obituary writer, Richard Goldstein, who does so many of the NYT sport figure obits, didn't seize on Duva's nickname, Fred Flintstone, because surely Lou's squat, hefty stature and hair, did remind you of the cartoon character.

If you've ever been to a boxing match then you might know that at the end of any fight, the ring suddenly seems to be holding more people than a car on the No. 6 line during rush hour. Where they all come from is amazing, but suddenly you can't see the bottom of the ring there are so many pairs of legs jumping around.

As mentioned, a boxing crowd can a tough crowd. Consider the mention in the obituary of when excitable Lou jumped in the ring when Andrew Gulota was disqualified for repeated low blows. Bedlam.

Lou was carried from the ring on a stretcher when his portable cardiac unit gave him an unwanted electrical shock. I distinctly remember as Lou was being attended to and carried from the ring on that stretcher there were people reaching for his arm trying to take his watch.

Sometimes, you just get no respect.


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