Ah, “the sweet science of bruising,” as The New Yorker’s A.J. Liebling famously termed it, i.e., fisticuffs, pugilism or, to put it another way, boxing. Is there anything sweeter than lacing up the gloves and wailing on one another, man to man, mano a mano? In the streets of my youth, the answer was “only one.” That only one was watching someone else do it. All of the pumping testosterone, none of the pain.
When I was growing up, every little Italian-American boy aspired to own a piece of one of two things, a racehorse or a fighter. If you ever realized either of these dreams, you immediately repented of it and wanted nothing more than to get rid of your aspiration. My cousin-in-law bought into a racehorse, then couldn’t believe how much the nag ate in oats. My grandfather owned a piece of a boxer named Dulio Spagnolo, who never polished off an opponent but polished off three Porterhouse steaks a day. If only he could have eaten my cousin-in-law’s horse.
Despite all the real-world drawbacks, the dream of victory never quite died away. That’s because victory, while rare, was real. Somewhere out there, among all the bums and ham-
and-eggers, was the next Rocky Marciano, the next undefeated champion of the world. I kid you not. Someone had to take that belt home. Why not you? And by “you,” I mean some pug in your stable.
Besides, boxing taught you something. It taught you to keep your left up and never lead with your right. But more than that, it taught you to take punishment. As my father often observed, it’s one thing to dish it out, but it’s another to take it. In those days, you had to learn to take it. The Rock could take it, and all the time he was taking it, he’d be hammering your arms – and by “your,” I mean the other guy’s fighter
– and they’d be getting heavier and heavier from the pounding, and you’d be holding them lower and lower, until that sledge-hammer right came in over your guard and stretched you out on the canvas. Just ask Roland La Starza, when he wakes up.
There’s a basic honesty to boxing, all other things being equal. It’s not just about beating each other’s brains out. It’s about getting down to the root of things, seeing the other guy for what he is. It’s a way of understanding each other. When you box, you’re not carping at each other. You’re not nit-picking. You’re putting everything on the line. Often, something good comes out of it, if you live.
That’s why, in the old movie, Boys Town, Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan sends Mickey Rooney and some other kid into the boxing ring to settle their differences. It works, because the other kid beats Rooney’s wise guy to a pulp. When a wise guy gets beaten to a pulp, the effect is generally salutary. I know this because my best friend in college was a Golden Glove boxer named Chico. He taught me how to fight more than one guy at a time. He said, “Pick the littlest guy on the other side and cream him first. That’ll make the rest of them think.” He was right. Paradoxically, thought is what separates man from the animals, but a man must sometimes act like an animal to get the thought process rolling.
This brings us to the story for which all of the proceeding serves as introduction, a tale my father told me. It is, as you have by this time surmised, about boxing.
In Depression-era Boston, as in most other American cities of the time, club fighting was a popular sport. Television did not yet exist (when it did, its “Friday Night Fights” telecasts would spell the end of club boxing), professional sports had limited exposure and the tenor of the times was more of the hands-on, DIY variety. It was incumbent on every young man to learn how to defend himself. So, in the constant search for self-improvement, honest competition and local glory, boys and young men joined private, amateur boxing clubs and participated in club boxing.
One of these Boston boys called himself “Ronnie Mason.” His real name was Joe Pantalone, but he started calling himself “Ronnie Mason” in the fight game. Soon, all his friends called him Ronnie Mason. In time, everybody, including his mother, called him Ronnie Mason.
Ronnie’s ambition was to break out of his amateur status into professional boxing. The trouble was, he wasn’t terribly good, which made him a popular sparring partner at the local club. He got a lot of practice, but he was making no progress.
Ronnie latched onto a local fight promoter ‘Cicci (prounounced, “Chi-Chee“) Buonacorso. ‘Cicci was a classy character and something of a swell. He wore spats on his shoes and he carried a cane. He regularly made the rounds of the local clubs looking for talent. He had looked at Ronnie a number of times without seeing any.
But Ronnie was not one to be discouraged. Whenever he saw ‘Cicci, he accosted him, in the club, on the street, across the street. “Can you get me a fight, ‘Cicc? I’m ready for it, ‘Cicc. All I need is a chance, ‘Cicc.” ‘Cicci’s usual response was, “Buzz off, kid. You’ll get killed.”
Never let it be said that persistence fails to pay off. One afternoon, ‘Cicci found himself in a bind. One of his fighters had gotten sick and couldn’t make it for a bout in lovely Lowell, Massachusetts. ‘Cicci called all over town, but couldn’t find anybody to fill the empty slot in the card. He dreaded scratching the 8:00 PM match. It would be a black mark on his professional standing. What could he do? Who could he get?
He remembered Ronnie.
‘Cicci called this one and that one and, about dinner time, located Ronnie at the Pantalones’ apartment on Prince Street in Boston’s North End. The family didn’t have a telephone, but the landlady answered hers in the downstairs hallway. The significance of a call from Mr. Buonacorso was not lost on this woman. She sent her third-born son running upstairs to knock on the Pantalones’ door. He found Ronnie about to sit down to a meal of spaghetti and tomato sauce.
Ronnie dove headfirst down the stairs. He snatched up the receiver. The call was the answer to his prayers, the realization of his lifelong ambition. ‘Cicci told him they had to be in Lowell by 7:30; his car would be in front of Ronnie’s building within a half-hour. Beside himself, Ronnie hung up and raced upstairs to share the good news with his family.
But his mother was not amused.
“Ronnie, how can you fight on an empty stomach?”
“But, Ma, I don’t have time.”
“But you can’t go without eating.”
“Ma, I’ll eat later.”
“You are not going out of this house without your supper.”
“Do what your mother says.”
So Ronnie sucked down a half-pound of spaghetti – once you start, it’s hard to stop – kissed his parents goodbye for luck, and ran downstairs just as ‘Cicci’s Cadillac pulled up in front of the stoop. The door opened, Ronnie jumped in, and they were off to Lowell.
For a half hour, ‘Cicci said nothing. He didn’t need to. Ronnie did all the talking.
“Thanks, ‘Cicc. This is my big chance. I won’t let you down. You’ll see. I’ll pulverize this guy. I’m ready. I’m so ready for this. It’s my big chance. And you’re the guy I’ve got to thank for it, ‘Cicc. I’ll make you proud of me. I’ve been working on my combinations – Bang! Boom! And I’ve been practicing my footwork. He won’t lay a glove on me. He’ll never touch me. I’m like greased lightning.”
And so on and so forth.
Until ‘Cicci broke in about ten minutes outside of Lowell. “Kid, I want you to go down.”
Ronnie couldn’t fathom the words. “What are you saying, ‘Cicc?”
“I’m saying I want you to go down. You dance around for two rounds, you make it look as good as you can. But, when you come out for the third round, you go down.”
Ronnie sunk into the Cadillac’s cushions as the weight of the proposition sunk into him. “You want me to throw the fight?”
‘Cicci nodded. “I want you to throw the fight, at the start of the third round.”
“But why, ‘Cicc? Why?”
“Because I said so. Because I’ve fixed the whole thing up and everybody expects you to go down. Because you’re no fighter, kid. You keep this up and you’re gonna get yourself killed. If you know what’s good for you, you’ll put your share of the night’s purse in your pocket and never lace up a pair of gloves again. You got me?”
The bright night had turned dark for Ronnie. He muttered, “I got you.”
‘Cicci’s corner-man, Vito Calabrese, was waiting for them at the Lowell Auditorium. The place was all decked out for the evening’s card and held a full house. Ronnie changed into his trunks in the dressing room. Vito bandaged his hands, then fitted them into the gloves, then laced them up. In the process of all this, Ronnie heard the crowd cheering and jeering the first bout. He sunk lower and lower.
An older mug with a pushed-in nose stuck it in through the door. He announced with a high degree of confidence that the match in progress would be over within five minutes. Ronnie banged his gloves together, trudged up the ramp and down the runway. It was the last mile of his stillborn pugilistic career and he knew it. It came across in the heavy way he dragged his feet. The crowd caught the mood of the unknown newcomer and matched it with a restless murmur.
‘Cicci sat in the first seat of the first row, just off one side of Ronnie’s corner. Ronnie climbed through the ropes. Vito followed him onto the canvas and sat him down on a stool. ‘Cicci climbed up and stood outside the ropes. Vito gave Ronnie’s gloves a last going-over.
“You remember what I told you, kid?” ‘Cicci asked over the buzz of the crowd.
Ronnie’s listless voice came back. “I remember.”
The master of ceremonies had already announced the favorite, a sleek youngster who moved into the ring like a shark, Kid Cavanagh. The crowd cheered him. He was a known quantity. The corner-man pulled Ronnie to his feet and whisked the stool away. The MC beckoned. “And in this corner…”
‘Cicci pushed Ronnie toward the center of the ring.
The preliminaries ended. The referee sent the fighters back to their corners. The opening bell rang. Ronnie staggered forward.
The Kid’s first, gentle left-handed jab woke Ronnie out of his stupor. He started to dance. He traded a couple of jabs with the Kid, felt his fists’ impact on the Kid’s body, felt a few harmless blows glance off his arms and shoulders. The crowd catcalled, urging the pair to mix it up. The jeering stung Ronnie. He got into it. He let go with a few combinations. The Kid didn’t go down; he didn’t even wince. But when he hit back, Ronnie hardly felt anything.
The bell rang.
Vito had the stool ready for him. Ronnie dropped onto it, sucking air all the way down to his toes. This, he said to himself, was living. Vito threw a cup of water into his face and mouth. Ronnie spit it out into a pail.
‘Cicci’s face loomed into his field of view. “You feeling OK, kid?”
“I feel great, ‘Cicc. Great!”
“Good. You got one more round to go. Then you kiss the canvas and we go home.”
“Naw, ‘Cicc. You can’t be serious. This guy hasn’t touched me. He’s got nothing. I can take him.”
“Don’t be a moron!” ‘Cicci grabbed him by the shoulders. “I told you, you go down at the start of the third. You hear me?”
“I hear you. But…”
“No ‘buts.’ You do what I tell you. Understand?”
Ronnie dropped his head. “Yeah,” he said. But his heart wasn’t in it.
The bell rang for the second round. Ronnie sucked it up and met the Kid in the middle of the ring. Heart or no heart, Ronne was determined to make it look good. At least, he’d show the Kid he was in a fight. Ronnie fired off a left-right-left combination to the Kid’s mid-section. He made contact. He knew it.
The referee pushed them apart. Ronnie drifted back. The Kid, that bozo, made it look like he hadn’t felt anything. But Ronnie knew better. He’d connected, but good. He could tell by the look on the Kid’s face. The poor bastard was being held up by nothing but string and spit.
The Kid threw a round-house left at Ronnie. It was so slow, Ronnie saw it coming all the way. He dodged it easy, then let go with a one-two to the Kid’s face and stomach. More solid contact. It should’ve staggered the Kid. But, you had to hand it to him: he was a good actor. He made off it didn’t bother him at all. But when he came back with a flutter of blows to either side of Ronnie’s head, Ronnie caught them all on his forearms, and there was nothing to them, no zip, no pizzazz, no nothing.
The bell rang again.
Back in his corner, Vito rubbed Ronnie’s shoulders down. ‘Cicci stayed off the canvas, but grabbed Ronnie’s arm and pulled his head to the ropes. He spit the words into the youngster’s ear. “Soon as he hits you, you go down, flat on your back.”
Ronnie shook his head. “You got to be crazy, ‘Cicc. I can take this guy. There’s nothing to him. He hits like a mosquito.”
“Don’t be stupid,” ‘Cicci snarled at him. “He’s playing along. Do what I tell you, or you’ll never fight again.”
“I can’t do it, ‘Cicc. I can’t take a fall for a cream-puff like Kid Cavanagh,” Ronnie snickered back. “How can I fight again if I let myself be that much of a mamaluk? I’m putting him away. Next round.”
Ronnie’s words landed on ‘Cicci like Joe Louis landed on Max Schmeling. “Have you lost your marbles? Ronnie, listen to me,” he pleaded. “The fix is in. You don’t got no choice. You got to go down.”
“Don’t worry,” Ronnie said as the bell rang. “I know what I’m doing.”
His mouth hanging open, ‘Cicci watched the boy go forth to meet his doom.
Vito swung down from the ring and nudged him. “It’s like a Greek tragedy, ain’t it?”
Ronnie went into his dance, peppering the Kid with furious combinations. The Kid gave them the brush, stepped past Ronnie’s guard, and hit him a glancing blow on the jaw.
Ronnie laughed it off and kept coming. He leveled a right at the Kid’s nose.
The Kid blocked it, stepped inside again, and hit Ronnie another light tap on the jaw.
Ronnie responded by moving in on the Kid with a succession of lefts and rights to the body. The Kid grabbed him in a clinch. As the ref moved in to break it up, the Kid cast a questioning look at ‘Cicci.
‘Cicci frowned and shrugged. He rubbed his hands together in the time-honored manner of Pontius Pilate.
The Kid pushed off Ronnie, glancing over his shoulder at a hefty, dark-suited bull of a man standing behind his corner. The man gave him the slighted, curtest, most bull-necked nod, then scowled at ‘Cicci.
‘Cicci backed away, shrugging one apology after another.
Ronnie advanced on the Kid with a storm of set-up lefts. The Kid stepped through Ronnie’s guard as if it were paper and slammed a piledriver right into his stomach.
Ronnie hurled a half-pound of spaghetti and tomato sauce all over the ring.
On the drive back to Boston, the only sound heard was the hum of the Cadillac’s twelve cylinders. Ronnie, pale of face, sore of belly and sour of mouth, huddled in a clump against the passenger door, his chin planted on the lip at the bottom of the window. The world and his life passed before his blank eyes. ‘Cicci’s eyes, like the Caddy’s headlights, remained fixed on the road.
At last, the Cadillac squeezed through the maze of narrow streets that was the North End. Prince Street couldn’t come too soon for either driver or passenger. ‘Cicci double-parked in front of Ronnie’s building.
Ronnie, still dazed, made no move. ‘Cicci kicked his door open, took the long walk around the Caddy’s hood, and pulled the passenger door open. Ronnie fell to the curb.
“Get up and get out of my car,” ‘Cicci ordered.
Ronnie hung onto the open door and picked himself up. A thought occurred to him. He clung to it, his last shred of dignity. “‘Cicc, I just thought of something.”
“Do yourself a favor, kid. Stop thinking.”
“Wait, ‘Cicc. But, the purse. I fought. I got my share coming to me.”
“You want what’s coming to you?”
“Yeah. It’s a fifty-buck purse.”
“Let’s figure it out. I get my commission.” ‘Cicci tapped the end of his cane against the sidewalk. “That’s five bucks off the top. You got to pay another five bucks for Vito.” He tapped his cane again. “You’re down to forty. You got to pay for the dressing room and locker.” A third tap. “That’s another five. You’re at thirty-five. Then you deduct another five,” he tapped a fourth time, “for the Auditorium’s advertising and exploitation. That leaves you thirty.”
“O.K.,” Ronnie stuttered, “O.K. Then I want my thirty.”
“You want your thirty?” ‘Cicci grinned.
“It’s coming to me,” Ronnie squared his shoulders. “You owe me.”
“Here’s what I owe you.” ‘Cicci raised his cane over his shoulder and brought it down on Ronnie’s head. The kid went down on his ass.
‘Cicci pointed the cane at his nose. “I had to pay the Auditorium thirty-five bucks to clean the ring. You owe me five bucks.”
© Joe Eliseon 2018