Between the ages of thirteen and seventeen — and this may surprise a reader or two, possibly all three of my readers — I boxed out of Newman’s Gym in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. 312 Leavenworth Street, to be precise. Trained principally by Vic Grupico, I participated in dozens of regional and national Golden Gloves competitions, as well as in AAU diplomatic junkets to Mexico City, Juarez, and Cuernavaca. (If I’d kept at it, I might well have grown up to earn a modest living getting the shit kicked out of me.) What will probably not surprise you is that my nickname — my ring name — was Schoolboy.
Let me explain why I’m mentioning this stuff at all.
For the first three days of my tenure at Newman’s Gym, the joint had a slightly longer name. It was called, rather awkwardly, Herman-Newman’s Gym. Mr Herman and Mr Newman, lifelong friends, had been equal business partners until Mr Herman, in poor health, got bought out by Mr Newman. This had all gone down some years before I arrived on the scene. (On rare occasions, I’m told, Mr Herman — ex-partner but still best friend — would return to the gym to watch the young turks, hang with his old pal, and do what they did: complain. This too was before my time.) On the third day after I started training there, word went around that Mr Herman had died — alone in his apartment, evidently felled by a single cigar, which was of course merely the final cigar of many thousands preceding it. The following afternoon, as I showed up for my workout, Billy Newman was on a ladder out front, holding a dripping paint roller and admiring his work: he had whitewashed the name Herman from history. Exactly one day after the man’s death. Best pal. The color didn’t even match the rest of the background.
So it was with some puzzlement that I watched Creed, twenty-forth sequel to 1976’s The Sound of Rocky. (Or was it Gone With the Rocky? Or maybe Driving Miss Rocky?) Never in my admittedly short career did I hear of, let alone witness, the affectionate sentimentality displayed by the characters in this latest installment. Of the ring rats I knew directly — similarly inarticulate and poorly educated, I’ll conceded, often addled by uppercuts to the brainstem — none proffered secret tactical advice handed down to him from Jack Johnson and Stanley Ketchel. None was best buds with his “old lady.” None spoke gnomic truths. If they could tape your hands without getting tangled up in it, you might feel inclined to use a word like “genius.” Because in a relative sense, given where we were, that’s what it was.
There’s another gripe to be sorted. Boxer’s physiques don’t look much like the ones in this pitcher. Because the biceps bracii are nearly insignificant in generating punching force, these tend not to be wildly hypertrophied in career fighters. (A dangerous punch or a rapid combination emanates from the legs and hips, a reversing torsional action, rather like that of a whip; the arms are merely messengers bearing bad news.) Nor are the pectoralis majors puffed out like silicone-filled man-boobs. Instead, they tend to develop in shallow, striated fans across the upper thoracic ribs. (Recall, for example, that classic image of Ali [then Clay] standing over Sonny Liston in ’65.) To be sure, a lot of these guys are amazing athletes. They can do stuff like those one-handed chin-ups if they want to.* But they don’t train that way, and in any case most of their power and acumen as boxers comes from the exquisite timing of a kinetic chain that develops from the lower legs and fires upward through the torso.
And one more thing. There’s no music. Or if there is, it’s coming from a staticky radio plugged into a sparking 110-volt socket behind someone’s stinky duffle.
*To this day, I can hang sideways — with perfect horizontal symmetry — from the galvanized pole of a bus-stop sign. But any boxer, or former boxer of little talent, can do this, and it has nothing to do with boxing skills. It just looks cool on a windy day when the bus pulls up to take us to the senior center.