Some people drink to forget, I’m one of those who drink to remember. It’s not that I need alcohol to fuel my thoughts on the past; it’s just that it makes the memories come easier. A few beers and I get in a nostalgic mood, especially when it’s about my brother. Like I said, I don’t need it, but it sort of lubricates the way. I mean, it’s hard not to think about my brother. The bar that I own, that we used to own jointly, is a living monument to him. You might have heard of him, if you were a fight fan back in the seventies and eighties; Dave Sturgis, AKA the “Iron City Lightning Bolt” the so called uncrowned welterweight champion.
Late at night, after I close up and the help have left, I occasionally draw myself a few beers and sit at one of the tables and reminisce. As I said, the bar is a tribute to his career; there are pictures of him and action shots of some of his fights all over the walls. The far wall is a kind of tribute to great old fighters that he’d read about and admired as a kid; Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis, Mickey Walker, Ray Robinson, Archie Moore, Tony Zale and of course no mention of fighters from this area would be complete without Harry Greb and Billy Conn. There are too many more to mention. It was his own personal little hall of fame. As I said, it’s hard not to think of him. Even the name of the bar, “The Neutral Corner”, evoked memories of his career.
So, where do I start? I think the best place would be the night that Curley Bannon and his entourage showed up; the start of my brother’s so called comeback. As I tell this little tale, I may drift back and forth between his first and second careers whenever I feel it is necessary, because the both are tied together; it really was just one career. You can’t have one without the other. Bear with me, please, and remember this is the ramblings of an aging beer soaked saloon keeper.
I remember the night Curley turned up unexpectedly at the bar like it was yesterday. Curley had been my brother’s manager before Dave quit the ring. We were both working that night, or I should be honest, I was working. Dave was mostly glad handing the customers, telling about his days in the ring, taking them to the far wall and pointing out various old timers and telling what he knew about them. I’m not complaining, it was great for business and it made him happy. Dave was never comfortable with his “retirement”; he missed the excitement and attention he used to get when he was fighting. This was his way of making up for it.
Curly literally burst into the place, that was his style; loud, bombastic. Curley was a short man with delusions of grandeur. He was connected with the rackets and made no secret of it, bragged about it actually. He wanted people to believe he was some big shot mobster when, in reality, he was a gopher and front man for the real syndicate boys. Curley was never one to let reality stand in the way of his image. He started out running a few sweatshops in the garment business, but wanted something more glamorous. He wanted something in sports, something “manly”, and boxing to him was the height of machismo. So the boys set him up with a stable of fighters, small timers, his function was to provide opponents for up and comers and local favorites on fight cards in the northeast part of the country. That was in the late fifties, in the waning days of overt mob control of the fight game. They still control it pretty well, make no mistake about that, but now they use other, more subtle ways, once upon a time they had complete control.
But, anyway by the late sixties Curley had wrangled his way into getting a few quality boys sent his way; not many, but enough to keep him happy. The problem was, despite all his years in the game, Curley didn’t know much about boxing. Like a lot of guys, he thought he knew a lot but in reality he didn’t. His view of fighters was based on what he’d seen as a young guy; the Graziano-Zale bloodbaths, Basilio and Fullmer slugging it out, Willey Pep and Sandy Saddler beating the hell out of each other, that sort of thing. He wanted every fighter he handled to be another Rocky Marciano, the irresistible force. But more on that later, I’m getting off track, I’ve warned you that I might do that, now back to that night.
When Curley showed up he spotted me first. He came over, arms widespread, the ever present cigar clutched between his teeth, grinning broadly.
“Charlie, my boy, how the hell ya’ been? God damned good to see you again.”
I thought for a moment he was going to hug me, but at the last minute he grabbed my hand with both his and began pumping it up and down. Then still grasping my hand with his right, he slapped my hard on the shoulder with his left. At least I’d been spared the indignity of an embrace. I really didn’t like the sawed off little blowhard.
“So, Charlie, we was passin’ through town, and I figured I had to stop and see yoos guys. You remember Huffman, a course, and the nice smellin’ one there is Marie.”
He was right, I remembered Huffman. Huffman was a trainer and, unlike Curley, he knew boxing. However, he fit Curley’s mold. He too favored hitters over stand up boxers and trained everyone in his charge to punch, hard and often. He dismissed efforts towards scientific fighting as a lot of “Fancy Dan bullshit”. The problem was my brother’s ability was as a boxer. He was a natural defensive fighter with a talent for stick and hit tactics. But he admired the aggressive, heavy handed guys. So when Curley and Huffman started pressuring him to come down off his toes and trade punches, he bought into it hook, line, and sinker.
Then there was Marie. She wasn’t a bad looking woman, but she wasn’t great either. She had kind of a pretty face, but nothing special, and her build was slightly on the plump side, not fat but well cushioned. Aside from her full bust, there wasn’t anything physically outstanding about her. But there was something else; she radiated sex; it was like she was built for it. I’m not trying to sound misogynistic, I’m just trying to describe her. I was to find out later, that was her curse.
“So kid,” Curley blared out, “where’s our Davey-boy, he’s here isn’t he?”
I looked over at the wall, Dave was talking to a customer. His fist swung in a tight arch, ending in a weak kind of uppercut. I knew from the gesture he was explaining Kid Gavilan’s bolo punch. I pointed in his direction.
“Right over there.”
“Then you’ll pardon me, you know I got to talk to him.” Then he shouted out, “Hey, Davey boy, long time no see.”
Dave turned, surprised, and then broke into a big grin. He was happier to see Curley then I was. He turned to the patron he’d been talking to, said a few words, and shook his hand. Then he headed for an empty table, gesturing for Curley to join him. I chose not to and stood watching as the threesome walked away. Actually, I was watching Marie’s bottom and its side to side motion as she sauntered along. Her dark hair came down past her shoulders and swayed with every step. It was a sensually fascinating sight; like I said, she generated sexuality.
I went on about my business, overseeing the bar. The trouble with working in a hospitality based business is you have to be hospitable, even to people you don’t like, so I felt obligated to go over to the table to get them a round of drinks. When I got there, Curley was deep into explaining something to my brother. He kind of clamed up when he saw me, I should have known he was up to something. There drink order was predictable; Dave and Huffman, ever the proletariats, want a couple of drafts, Curley, a want to be elitist, asked for a Scotch on the rocks, and Marie, the eternal female, a wine spritzer.
When I brought the drinks over, Curley and Huffman both nodded in acknowledgement, you get used to it in this business; the phony pleasantries. Marie thanked me; she was the only one of the three that seemed genuine. Maybe it was the exchange of two people who had no pretentions of grandeur, I’m not really sure.
As the evening wore on, every time I looked over they were deep in conversation. I assumed they were talking about the old days. There was much to talk about, Curley and his connections had carried Dave to his best days in the ring. It had culminated in a match up against then welterweight champion Manuel Rojas in Vera Cruz. Manny had just won the title and wanted to defend it in his hometown. Truth be told, Dave got the nod because, while being a creditable opponent, Rojas’ people figured he wasn’t quite good enough; he could make a fight of it but couldn’t win. They might have been right, but the champ went in overconfident and Dave gave him the fight of his life. It happens a lot in boxing, an upstart comes along and upsets the apple cart. There’s an old boxing axiom that you should respect anybody with two fists, two legs, and comes to fight. A lot of guys forget that one, including Rojas apparently.
There’s something else that’s a lot more common in boxing than people like to admit; the hometown decision. That’s what Manny got that night, or that’s what a lot of people, including me, thought. It was a night, I’ll never forget. I was in the corner with Curley and Huffman so I had a bird’s eye view of the whole thing. Theoretically I was the cut man and I was praying to God he wouldn’t need me. I only had a rudimentary knowledge of that art. It started quick, in the first round Davey got of a couple of fast jabs, catching the champ off guard. Then he stepped in and threw a short hard straight right that knocked Rojas off balance, sending him down on the canvas. It was really a mechanical knockdown, his feet got tangled up and he fell. At no point was the champ out or even close to it, but in sports momentum is an important factor and Dave had just seized it.
Embarrassed, Rojas tried to regain control, but he was trying much too hard and got sloppy. In the last seconds of the round, he unleashed a barrage of fast light punches, putting on a show, hoping to intimidate Dave and impress the judges. It’s called stealing the round and it was a mistake. Covering up amid Manny’s flurry of fast light punches, Dave bobbed low, threw a left to the champ’s midsection, then came up with a short uppercut. It was a clean knockdown, Rojas’ knees buckled and he dropped down on his ass, ending up sitting on the canvas, leaning back on one arm, looking confused and bewildered. The bell rang and a badly shaken champion got to his feet and walked unsteadily to his corner; saved by the bell.
The next three rounds were all Dave’s. Rojas was now overly cautious, almost timid, fighting strictly defensively. By the fifth, he started to come back, trying to regain the momentum. But Dave wasn’t backing down, he continued chip away at the champ, this was the pattern as the fight continued. At the end of the tenth, the way I saw it, eight rounds belonged to Dave, and the other two probably were his but were close; they could have been given to Rojas. It seemed to me, even giving it eight rounds to two, the only way Dave could lose was by knockout. I told Huffman to advise him to keep moving, to play it safe and box, don’t slug it out.
Now, a fifteen round fight was a different animal, it takes a lot out of guys. Dave had never gone more than ten; I don’t think any of Curley’s boys had ever gone beyond that. Dave had no idea how to pace himself for it, Manny obviously hadn’t thought about it going the distance, at least not as a contested fight. He’d figured he’d have either stopped Dave by now or would be far enough ahead he could cruise to an easy decision and hadn’t trained for it. Both were exhausted. There were some furious looking exchanges, but the punches lacked steam and not as effective as they appeared. Still, it looked to me like three of the last five rounds should have gone to Dave, two were in doubt. I was sure of one thing, Dave had won. The champ hadn’t dominated in a single round, at most only four could have been given to him.
Of course, that’s not what happened. Both judges and the referee gave the fight to Rojas. That was bad enough, but it wasn’t even close; looking at all three cards you’d have thought Dave wasn’t even there. It was universally agreed that it was a bad decision. Sports writers began referring to Dave as “the uncrowned welterweight champion” and calling for a rematch. It had been one hell of a night, full of wild ups and downs. But beyond the angry disappointment, there was an equal sense of proud accomplishment; he had taken the fight to the champion and humiliated him. Even amongst the hometown crowd there had been a considerable number of boos and catcalls when the decision was announced. It may have been a small consolation, but it was better than nothing.
But that was the far past, back to the night in the bar. Every time I looked over at the table, Dave seemed to be in a heavy conversation with Curley and Huffman, listening intently and occasionally nodding his head in agreement. The girl seemed to be left out of the discussion, I was wondering who she was there with. Was she Curley’s piece of arm candy or Huffman’s? No telling and I honestly wasn’t that concerned. When I went over to see if they were ready for another round, the talk seemed to have gotten really serious. Dave looked up at me.
“Hey Charlie, I might be making a comeback.”
“A comeback, a comeback to what?”
“Curley, explain it to him, will ya?” Then turning to me, “Get a chair, this is good.”
I grabbed an empty chair and sat down on it backwards. The back was between my legs so I could lean on the top of it.
“Yeah, you’re going to have to do some explaining here Curley.”
“OK,” he seemed enthusiastic, “it’s like this, Wade is Junior Middleweight champ, but he doesn’t draw worth shit. He’s not very good, not very exciting. Word is the big boys would like to match him up against a white boy, you know, the race card. The problem is, they ain’t got a good paleface to go against him.”
“So, you figure a guy that’s been out of the game for five years, who’s over thirty, he’s the one to go up against a champion? What are you smoking these days?”
“Same thing I always been smoking,” he held up his cigar and laughed, “Garcia y Vegas. Charlie, have you forgotten the first Rojas fight?”
“No, no I haven’t, the problem is I haven’t forgotten the second one.”
That was the problem, the rematch. Rojas, tired of the bad publicity, showed up looking for vengeance. Dave on the other hand was overconfident. Memories of the two first round knockdowns clouded his thoughts. Curley and Huffman had convinced him he could win with a fast knockout and Dave showed up ready to slug it out. Instead of fighting like a cat, he tried to fight like a bull, and Rojas fought like a matador. When the fight was stopped after eight rounds, Dave was a bloody mess. He had a real cut man in the corner that night, not me, and he couldn’t stop the bleeding from multiple cuts. He was a gory mess; deeply cut over the left eye, right eye swelling up, a broken nose, and a badly split lip. It had been all Rojas that time, his night and the champ had shown no mercy.
“Yeah,” Curley agreed, “that was a bad night, but remember the payday? That was our biggest purse ever. We can do this Charlie, no shit, it’s doable.”
“Yeah Charlie,” Dave spoke up, “Curley’s got it all figured out. A couple of local fights against some small timers to knock off the rust, one fight against a name contender, and I get the shot. Ain’t that right Curley.”
Curley nodded in agreement. I didn’t know what to say, how do you tell your brother that he wasn’t up to the job? How do you tell him, he was only a little better than these small timers he’d just mentioned? That he’d really been a glorified small timer himself, a local big name who was handled by a guy with connections? He was the proverbial big fish in a small pond who’d swam out into the ocean and been hit by sharks. Boxing’s full of guys like him, guys who didn’t know their limitations, filled with delusions of grandeur. There’s a never ending supply of them.
“But I’m saying he’s been out of the game for five years, doesn’t anybody see the problem here?”
“Aw, he’s still in good shape,” Curley wasn’t going to let go, “he says he goes to the Y and works out regular.”
“Yeah, but that’s not the same.” I pointed at Huffman, “You know what I mean even if Curley doesn’t, am I right or wrong?”
“Yeah, right now, but there’ll be time. Those two warm up fights’ll get him back in the groove.”
I looked over at my brother, it seemed odd to me to be talking about him like he wasn’t even there. Then a funny thing occurred to me, he was two years younger than I was, but due to his battered appearance, he looked like he was the older brother. When he talked though, he sounded kind of like he was still a teen-ager. It was the result of too many shots to the head, I knew this. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t completely punch drunk, but the signs were there; he’d had his bell rung one too many times. I still wanted to hear his thoughts on the subject.
“Dave, do you really think this is possible?”
“Well, yeah, I do. Why not? I’m not that old, I didn’t quit the game because I was done, I left because I didn’t think I was going to get another chance. Now I got the chance, I want to take it. You’re nothing in this if you didn’t get a title belt.”
“Well, I think it’s dumb, but if it’s what you want, who am I to say no? Just think about it long and hard before you decide. Either way, I’m behind you.”
“At’s the way Charlie,” Curley burst out. “I knew you’d see it our way. We were hoping you’d come on board.”
“I still think it’s a bad idea, but it’s Davey’s life, he has to make the choice.”
“Fair enough, Charlie boy, fair enough.”
I went back to work, but I couldn’t help watching what was going on at the table. One thing I did notice, Dave was paying more attention to Marie than he had originally. I can’t say I blamed him, as I’ve said, she had a kind of magnetism about her; she would have been hard to ignore. That’s when I realized what her part in this whole thing. She wasn’t with either Curley or Huffman, she was bait, to put it bluntly.
I don’t want to sound crude, I didn’t know if she knew she was bait, something to sweeten the pot, to lure Dave into agreeing to the comeback. There’s a certain type of women that are attracted to fighters. I don’t mean to say every girl who goes with a fighter falls into that category, most don’t. But anybody who’s spent time around boxing has seen the type I’m referring to. They’re not necessarily bad women, but they are hangers on. They seem to like the excitement, the chance to share in the limelight, or just the general thrill of it all. And, that’s what I figured she was. I wasn’t sure how deep her involvement was in this little game, but she was rapidly becoming less and less appealing in my eyes.
Finally they all got up, laughing. Dave shook hands with Curley and Huffman then kissed Marie on the cheek. I knew what his decision had been. Curley came over to me at the bar.
“Charlie boy, good to see you again,” then he stuck out his hand. “Glad to have you on board, it’s gonna be good to work with you again.”
I extended my own hand, he grabbed it and began pumping it vigorously.
“This is gonna work just fine, you’ll see. Don’t worry, with this team what can go wrong? Ain’t nothin’ can stop us.”
No, nothing but time, age, and the diminished skills that comes with them; that and the champ, of course. It was all against my better judgment, but I had told Dave I would back him up no matter what he’d decided. I would stay true to my word.
Two days later I went with Dave to the YMCA. Theoretically, I was there to spar with him, but the truth was I wanted to see firsthand what kind of shape he was in. There was something fitting about this, I was the one who taught him how to box originally. As a teenager I had dreams of becoming a fighter. Our father was a big fight fan, so I was raised watching the fights on TV and developed an affinity for them. To me, boxing became the essence of sport; one man against another, matching speed, strength, guile, stamina, the whole athletic spectrum. I didn’t see it as violence, just another sport. You could be too small for baseball or football, too short for basketball, but boxing was divided into weight classes; there was a place for you no matter what size you were. It was a proletarian sport.
I used to come to this same YMCA to work out. I put what I’d learned watching the pros with my father to use, I sent away to Ring Magazine for a couple of Nat Fleischer’s books on how to box and how to train. I put all this to work, I had an old pair of sixteen ounce gloves and was willing to put them on with anybody who wanted to. I was pretty good, actually, at least at a gym rat level. Dave tagged along and I showed him everything I’d learned. I never went any farther than that. I talked to a couple of local promoters and “managers”, but never signed anything. Then I got drafted and sent off to fight in Lyndon Johnsons war, actually it was Nixon’s war by the time I got there. However, during my time in the army, I discovered the joys of alcohol, tobacco, and easy women. Two years later when I got out, the idea of living the Spartan life of a fighter was of no interest to me.
Dave, on the other hand, took it serious. By the time I was discharged, he was already fighting six rounders as I recall, semi-prelims on local cards. He’d developed a small following and was a neighborhood celebrity.
I watched him working out on the heavy bag. To a lot of people he was probably impressive. He was throwing fast, hard, sharp punches, but I saw a lot wrong. There was no point in telling him, I was going to have to show him. We put on the gloves and stepped onto the mat that served as a ring. He started out slow, I managed to avoid every punch he threw. He started to get frustrated and began throwing harder and faster in combinations. I still could either block or dodge everything he threw. Finally he stopped.
“OK, what am I doing wrong here? Why am I missing so much?”
“You’re telegraphing your punches all over the place. You’ve spent too much time hitting the bag down through the last few years and you’ve gotten sloppy. Every time you go to throw a left hook, you drop your left shoulder and pull it back slightly before you unload.” I showed him what I was seeing, “Then your jab, you bob your head to the right before you fire it. I could see it coming a mile off. Your straight right is still good, but since you throw it in combinations, the damage is already done. You’ve forgotten, those hands have to shoot out fast and smooth, like a snake striking, you can’t wind up to throw. If I can see them coming, what do you think a guy like Wade is going to do? Work on it, shadow box in front of a mirror so you can see yourself.”
He had the look like a chastised child, but he took it well. He was a professional in the end.
“You’re right, I didn’t realize it, but you’re right. All that time throwing power shots at the bag, I didn’t worry about style just about making noise, impressing the locals. I guess this isn’t going to be as easy as I thought.”
“No, probably not, it wasn’t easy the first time around, and you’re not a kid this time. Plus, now you have to unlearn the bad habits. That’s going to be harder than just learning them in the first place.” I thought he was beginning to see the light. Either way, I was going to do what I could to help. Through hindsight, I have to wonder if that was a mistake.
I went to the Y to meet him every day for a week. It was all coming back to him rapidly. He was getting faster, sharper, regaining his old form quickly. I was beginning to feel this whole thing was possible. That was while it was just the two of us. Then Curley came to town.
I have to give the little, bald headed bastard credit, he moved quickly once he decided to act. He found an apartment just a few blocks from where some locals had set up a gym in their garage. They were small time trainers, hoping to find a gem amongst the local kids, someone who could take them to the big time or at least sell his contract to the bigger boys, establishing them as legitimate players in the regional fight game. They were more than a little happy to have “the uncrowned welterweight champion” using their facilities.
Curley, Huffman, and Marie moved into the apartment. Every morning one would come by, pick Dave up. He’d be gone for the day, training, eating right, relaxing, I guess. I suspected Marie had a lot to do with the relaxing part, but that was none of my business. There has always been a belief by many that a fighter in training shouldn’t have anything to do with women, I’m one of those who disagree. As long as the woman doesn’t get in the way of the training regimen, I’ve never seen any harm in it. I wouldn’t recommend a woman on the day of the fight, but I never believed sex on its own saps your strength. The drinking and late hours that often comes with it, now that’s where the problem comes in. If it made him happy to be with her, I had no problems with that. What I was worried about was the possibility of Curley using her to cloud his vision and control him. I wouldn’t put it past the mouthy little son of a bitch.
I dropped by occasionally, it was actually not a bad set up. They had all the rudimentary equipment; heavy bag, speed bags, double end bag, and best of all, sparring partners. They had enough kids working out there that were willing to put the gloves on with a former name like my brother that he had plenty to practice with. I couldn’t help but think it was probably in a backyard gym like this that Dave first went to while I was in the service.
Training wasn’t the only thing Curley was in a hurry to set up. He’d already booked Dave’s first fight, a six round semi-wind up against a small town hero looking to move up to bigger things. The problem was it was only three weeks away, I protested it was too short a time for Dave to get ready. Curley dismissed me as being too cautious.
“Gotta’ struck while the iron’s hot, take advantage of an opportunity. This kid’s a tomato can, Davey boy’ll bust him wide open.”
“Yeah, six, seven years ago definitely, but now, I think you’re rushing it.”
“Trust me, this is gonna’ work out just fine, everything’ll be OK.”
Dave, on the other hand, wanted it to be an eight rounder. He considered a six round fight to be beneath him. On this Curley and I were in agreement; it was to be six rounds. There was another reason for it, the promoters.
His opponent, a guy named Finley, was another of those common stories in the fight game. Fighting on small cards in his hometown, he was the local hero. If he stayed home and fought there he probably would have been a village sports celebrity for a generation. Unfortunately, they start believing their own publicity and decide to move on to bigger and better things. It usually doesn’t end well. In this case, even though he’d fought eight rounders at home and sported a 16 and 2 record, the promoters didn’t think he was up to fighting a legitimate eight round fight. If Dave wanted to go eight, they would have to find somebody else to fight; this would have thrown off Curley schedule. He couldn’t have that, so it would be six rounds.