Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Remembering Papa and The Friday Night Fights

The wonders of You Tube!
by Charlie Leck

My old man was a great boxing fan. He taught me lots
about pugilism and I watched a lot of great fights with

My old man, loved The Friday Night Fights. Unless you are my age, or older, you probably don’t know what I’m talking about. Let me explain.

First, a little digression. In the early sixties, I began reading Ernest Hemingway. Geez, what did I read first? I think it was, in my opinion, his greatest novel – The Old Man and the Sea. My, oh my, what a wonderful, perfectly splendid book this is! It turned me on to Hemingway and I began reading everything he wrote. He wasn’t the greatest guy in the world. He may rank as one of the champion chauvinists of all time; yet, he knew lots about a few things --- bull fighting, fishing, hunting, boxing, war, Africa, Europe and subservient women. I have a full collection of Hemingway’s works, in leather, and I get a wonderful sense of comfort when I look over at those books, as I am doing right now.

Hemingway was a tough guy! Rugged! Masculine! And, wow, how he loved pugilism. He wasn’t tough enough, however, to face his declining masculinity and poor health as he got older. He took the easy way out.

My old man was not a tough guy. He was not rugged. He wilted before my mother’s commanding voice. He avoided controversy like the plague; but, boy, he loved pugilism and he understood it like you just can’t believe – maybe as well as Hemingway. And he toughed out life in the toughest of times.

I don’t think he ever read The Old Man and the Sea. He really didn’t get much reading time. He would have loved it because he also loved fishing on the sea.

I was always interested in getting closer to my old man. He was so busy all day long and every day of the week tending the general store that provided our family with its living. By ten o’clock at night, however, everything was closed down, cleaned up and tallied. It was time for my dad to watch a little television. He stayed in the store and turned on the TV that hung behind one of the candy counters. It was quiet and peaceful and he’d watch a ballgame in the summertime or some kind of drivel in the winter – he didn’t like winter sports. But, on Friday nights, it was always The Friday Night Fights. That was kind of a rule of life around our house. Pop watched The Friday Night Fights. As youngster, I would sit there with him and enjoy watching him enjoy the boxing. He’d explain it all to me. He knew everything about pugilism.

He knew when a guy was tiring.

“His hands are dropping just a little bit,” he’d explain to me. “He’s gunna get in trouble.”

Sure enough, the fellow would start taking some nasty jabs to the face. He couldn’t get his fists up fast enough to deflect the blows. It was the beginning of the end.

Most boxing fans liked the heavyweights the best. My old man didn’t have much time for them. Very few of them were boxers. Joe Louis was the exception, until Ali came along. Most of them were brawlers and didn’t understand the art of pugilism. Pop liked the guys who could move on their feet and do some dancing – swaying and bobbing, as if to a nifty beat.

Sugar Ray Robinson was one of his favorites. Oh how I remember them! With my old man, I watched several wonderful fights that featured Sugar Ray. The old man would chatter all the way through them, pointing out little tricks that Sugar Ray was using, luring his opponent into making mistakes and then lashing those guys with those rocket fast fists he had. Snap! Snap! Snap! The opponent’s face would start to redden and the cheeks below his eyes began to rapidly swell. Then the blood spurted from the nose and the guy had trouble breathing and it was a sure sign the end of the fight was near.

They were great moments to share with the old man. I don’t have a lot of memories of close times with my father, but these Friday Night Fights allowed us to really be close.

I thought my pop was a wizard and a genius to be able to call all those fights and tell me just what was going to happen.

And now, in the wondrous twenty-first century, I’ve got You Tube and I can nearly relive those moments. I watched Sugar Ray win the Middle Weight Championship from Carmen Basilio last night and it was like I was right there, sitting up on the counter, with all the rows and rows of cigarette packs at my back and those giant showcases of candy bars out in front of me. My old man had pulled a chair from one of the luncheonette tables and he sat near me, with a can of beer in his hand.

Basilio’s face took such a pounding that he could barely see Robinson’s fists in the latter part of the fight.

These were the days when the ringside announcer didn’t say much – only a few explanations during the entire round.

“Watch the referee when he breaks these guys up,” the announcer shouted into his microphone.

“What, Pop? What did he mean?”

“He’s warning Basillio because he’s head-butting Sugar when they make their break. There, there! See? He just popped his head up under Sugar’s head.”

“Charles Henry!” It was my mother shouting at me from the living room, just one thin wall behind the store where we sat. “It’s past your bed time.”

“He’s all right,” my father would shout back. “It’s Friday night for heaven’s sake. Let him watch the fight.”

There was only silence from the other room and I knew my mother was stewing. She didn’t like my father to disagree with her. She’d have words for him later.

It was after eleven o’clock when the fight ended. Sugar Ray won, but it was a split decision between the three judges. That irked my old man. How could anyone call it for anyone other than Sugar Ray?

How many good fights I watched with him, sitting there near the chewing tobacco and cigars, getting the okay to snitch a Milky Way and taking the tiniest sip from his glass of beer!

Jake LaMotta was one of his favorites, too. How I remember the extraordinary fight in February of 1951! I would have been eleven. They were fighting for the sixth time. It was a ferocious fight for “the undisputed Middleweight Championship.” The fight ended in the 13th round when the referee stopped it because of the inability of LaMotta to protect himself. LaMotta was furious and stormed around the ring, arguing with the referee. My old man loved LaMotta, but he agreed with the decision. The fight was depicted in the Martin Scorsese film Raging Bull, as were a number of the Robinson-LaMotta fights.

"I fought Sugar Ray so often,” LaMotta was quoted as saying, “I almost got diabetes!" Some of those fights were before we put a TV up there behind the candy counter, but I can remember sitting with my father, ears bent toward the big old radio in our living room, listening to the blow by blow descriptions of the fights. A few times my old man went into the city to see some of those fights with my Grandpa Svejda. Pop would get back home very late and, the next morning, he would give me the round by round details.

Boxing was really different in those days. Robinson fought 16 times in 1950. That’s more than once a month. I guess they had to. They didn’t have those mega-million dollar guarantees in those days. And, my old man would always warn me that a lot of fights were fixed. The Mafia was very involved in the sport and they wanted the fight to go whichever way they could make the most gambling money on it. Often, my old man explained, the fighters didn’t know until the very last minute, just before they went into the ring, that they were supposed to take a dive. The story goes that Sugar Ray wouldn’t go along with the Mafia and he defied them throughout his career. My old man didn’t believe it. He thought he saw Sugar Ray throw a fight or two.

“Watch this Kid Gavilan,” my old man would holler at me, and he’d stand up and imitate Kid’s incredible bolo punch, swinging his arm in a wide arching circle that ended with an uppercut blow coming up beneath the opponent’s chin.

“Watch for that bolo punch,” he’d command me. “It’s just something else.”

Sure enough! There it was. Kid Gavilan staggered the guy and then descended on him, to finish him off.

The Friday Night Fights with my old man! I thought those times were gone forever. Now, here they are again, right in front of me on this spectacular display. And the old man is next to me, telling me what to watch for.

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