Another sure shot from Pete Dexter. From the May 31, 181 issue of Inside Sports.
The Apprenticeship of Randall Cobb: The Late-Booming Karate Fighter From Abilene Wants to Be The Baddest Ass In Boxing
By Pete Dexter
The face suggests more than 21 fights, but that’s how many there have been. Counting the two as an amateur. There is a scar over the left eye, a missing tooth. The nose is flat and soft, without cartilage.
Apart from that, it’s a face that’s been hurt.
On March 22, a 26-year-old fighter named Randall Cobb lost a majority decision on national television to Michael Dokes. Two of the judges gave the fight to Dokes, one called it a draw.
Dokes was supposed to win. He is the fastest fighter in the division, maybe the most talented. He was schooled through a long amateur career and brought carefully through 20 fights as a professional. The only problem Dokes ever had was a lack of size, and in the last year he has grown two inches to 6-2 and filled out to 218 pounds, and there is a feeling among some people that after Larry Holmes retires, Dokes doesn’t have any problems at all.
Given all that, there are people who like the other guy’s chances.
At 22 years old—a long time after most professionals were polished fighters—Randall Cobb had his first amateur fight. He had a second and then turned professional, saying he was going to be the heavyweight champion of the world. Ali was the champion then. Cobb would have had trouble naming five other men in the division.
He spent three years knocking out people like Chebo Hernandez (the former heavyweight champion of Mexico) and then, with 18 lifetime fights and 18 days to get ready, he crawled into the ring with Earnie Shavers and won on a TKO in the eighth.
He lost a split decision to Ken Norton and then dropped the fight to Dokes. In each of the fights he got better, and he is still just learning. He has the best chin in boxing and in the Dokes fight—when he caught much of what Dokes threw on his gloves and arms—the people who have watched Cobb got their first sign that he wasn’t going to be proving it the rest of his life.
After the fight Cobb sat with ABC’s Keith Jackson, who asked if he had been surprised Dokes hadn’t run more. Cobb said, “I don’t know how it looked from here, but to me it looked like I was running my ass all over the ring trying to catch him.”
As he said that Dokes dropped into the chair next to him. Cobb smiled. “We’ll have to do this again, Mike.”
Dokes shook his head. “Oh, no,” he said. “No, I don’t think so.”
“I’m going to go back and start all over,” Cobb said later. “I’ll do whatever I got to do and I’m going to keep doin’ it until it’s right.”
His mother heard that and nodded. “Some day that dog’s going to lie in the sun,” she said.
Randall Cobb is my friend. I know him, he won’t cheat himself. And after it’s over—it doesn’t matter how many times he’s hit in the face—he’ll be able to look in the mirror and not be afraid of what he sees.
Saturday night they called the police. He was killing the girl. The crazy Irish who was supposed to be a fighter, they’d seen him take her into his place. Now they could hear her moaning.
The cop didn’t know. He got out of the car and listened. Nothing, then a scream that wasn’t exactly a scream. Nothing again. A moan that was a moan. The cop leaned back in the car and called for a back-up, then he rang the bell and waited.
The man who came down the stairs was Randall Cobb, and there was nothing about the way he looked to say he wasn’t a killer. Four years later, in fact, after he’d ended Shavers’ career with a broken jaw and was getting ready to fight Norton, he would briefly consider “The Sun City Assassin” as a ring name.
This was the first year in Philadelphia, though, so Randall came to the door with a nosebleed. That was because twice a week they were breaking his nose at Joe Frazier’s gym. “Of course they’re breaking my nose,” he once said. “I’m the white boy, I’m a redneck, sissy-ass kick fighter from Texas and I don’t know enough about boxing to break their noses back.”
Even Duane Bobick broke it. He’d been the white boy before Randall showed up. “I can understand Bobick’s position,” he said. “I walked in off the street and could hit harder than he could.”
Randall came down the stairs blotting the nose with a brassiere. He was wearing a black hat and Wrangler jeans that collected in puddles around his boots. Randall wears a hat because when he doesn’t you can see his hair, which has a way of matting together and growing toward sunlight. He opened the door.
The cop looked at Randall. Six-three, 230 pounds, sniffing a bloody brassiere. And there was something in his eyes…. It isn’t like looking at Darryl Dawkins, but you want to be polite. “Excuse me,” the cop said, “we’ve got a report of a disturbance….”
Randall said, “Don’t worry, partner, it’s just a dance instructor.” He noticed the cop looking at his hand, then he noticed the hand himself and what was in it. He’d picked the brassiere up in the dark when he’d gotten up and felt his nose start to leak, and if he didn’t know anything about living in the city yet, he knew enough not to try to explain that. “They’re responsive people….”
The cop nodded yes, he knew about dance instructors. He couldn’t keep his eyes off the brassiere. “It’s good, knowing how to dance,” he said.
A woman’s voice came from upstairs. “What is it, Randall?”
“There’s a cop here wants to know if I’m killing you.”
“Oh.” There was a pause. “Well, tell him no.”
Randall said, “I’m not killin’ her.”
Fifteen minutes later the cop was back. “Sorry, but we got another call. They say you’re doing it again.”
“I haven’t done it once yet,” Randall said. He stepped outside and looked down the narrow street. Rowhouses, parallel parking, snow. “These people beat their wives in the street, in broad daylight, with table legs,” he said, “and nobody even looks out the window.”
The next morning, one of the old women from the street stopped a friend of Randall’s to apologize for the police. “It wasn’t me,” she said, “told on him for what he was doin’ to that girl.” She thought a minute. “Hey, you think he’d talk to my husband how he does that?”
Randall Cobb came to Philadelphia 10 days before Christmas 1975. He showed up one night at Frazier’s gym carrying everything he owned in a sack, and asked for manager Joe Gramby. He’d gotten off the plane from Texas with $22. The cab ride from the airport had left him with six.
At the time, Gramby had been in boxing about 150 years and Randall was the greenest fighter over 11 he’d ever seen. He couldn’t’ box, he’d never seen snow and he had the flu when he walked into the gym. It is still widely accepted in Philadelphia boxing circles that Texas is part of the world where they don’t develop immunity to disease. Gramby got on the phone to El Paso to ask his partner in the deal exactly what it was that just walked in the door.
The partner was a man named Mel Rabin. Rabin had made some money in the collection agency business in Philadelphia, he’d made some money in Mexican-made imitation Navajo rugs and lost some in Cuban tomatoes. And then he came up with the idea for the fan-clapper, a machine to replace applause. “You shake it, it makes a clappin’ noise, one hand. Open it up, it’s a fan for hot days. It was perfect….”
The fan-clapper was still in development when Rabin looked at the newspaper one day and saw a story about a 21-year-old full-contact karate fighter who had just knocked out his sixth-straight opponent.
Rabin got on the phone and eventually found himself talking to a wrestling promoter, Paul Clinite. They made a deal. A boxer who had never boxed, a wrestling promoter, a Philadelphia manager and the man who invented the fan-clapper. Randall came north and signed a 10-year contract.
“The understanding was that all I had to do was learn to fight, that Rabin would take care of the financial end of it,” Randall said. “It sounded better than shoveling cement with Mexicans, which is what I’d been doing, that or breaking somebody’s kneecaps for $75 a fight. But it’s not like I didn’t have other opportunities. Or ambition. I’d stand out there in the sun and daydream about driving a truck that delivered potato chips.”
Gramby put Randall up in a room at the downtown YMCA, an unhappy place crawling with men who wish they were lady dance instructors. In the morning he ran and in the afternoon he took a bus into the heart of North Philadelphia to get his nose broken at Frazier’s gym. One morning he slipped on some ice, ran into a light pole and broke it himself. And for a while that’s all there was. He was cold, he was beat up, he hated to run. He was learning everything about being a fighter except how to fight.
The money didn’t happen. Rabin says now that he never promised Randall a cent. A minute later he says he spent $55,000 making him a contender. Randall got a job cleaning bathrooms at night, then he got a job watching the door at a center city bar. He moved out of the YMCA.
In the fall, somebody at the gym noticed he couldn’t breathe, so they took him down to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital and had what was left of the cartilage taken out of his nose. It would be almost four years before he would have any money to pay for the operation.
In December 1976, Randall hitch-hiked back to Abilene for Christmas. He’d been promised $500 to get home, and when he saw that promise was as empty as the others, he almost quit. “They called me from Philadelphia and said to come back, that it was all a mistake and they were sorry and they’d be nice. They said they’d even get me some fights. I said, ‘Well, if you’ll be nice….’”
He came back and began knocking people out. He was crazy in the ring, wild and strong and unpredictable, but he could hit and you couldn’t hurt him with a baseball bat.
In his fifth fight he knocked out a San Diego heavyweight, David Wynne.
Randall says the fight against Wynne was a setup. “Rabin told me he’d had the same number of fights I’d had, that he was about at the same place. Afterwards I heard he’d told Gramby that I needed to be taught a lesson. Wynne was a lot more experienced, and he was killing people.”
Rabin denies he tried to set his fighter up, but acknowledges the problem. “I remember him always tellin’ me, ‘Just don’t give me orders.’ He never wanted nobody to tell him what to do.”
Randall ran his record to 7-0, all knockouts.
The relationship with Rabin deteriorated. Rabin’s position was that he had a 10-year contract, and Randall belonged to him and Joe Gramby.
Randall’s position was that he didn’t belong to anybody. He explained it to his lawyer, Jim Greenlee. “A contract ain’t nothin’ but a piece of paper you can tear up or eat. I don’t let people tell me what to do, and I’m sure not going to let a piece of paper tell me what to do.”
Greenlee understood. He had worked his way through college sewing up bodies at a morgue to become one of the highest-priced, most respected lawyers in the city.
Greenlee said, “Yeah, I figured he was probably crazy—I mean, here’s a kid with no fights telling me he’s going to be the heavyweight champion of the world within a year—but he’s such a likeable kid. I thought, ‘Well, if he wants to try that, he ought to be able to try it.’ I realize now that every lawyer needs one.”
Which is how Randall Cobb, who until last spring had never made more than $2,000 a fight, came to have the best legal counsel money could buy, without charge. And which is how, finally, the 10-year contract with Rabin and Gramby was declared illegal—you can’t sign a fighter for that long in Pennsylvania without permission from the state athletic commission. It was not, however, the only contract Randall had signed.
“The thing about Randall,” Greenlee said, “is he’s lovable but he’s not the kind of guy you can tell, ‘do this, do that.’ You sort of suggest things. Right now we’re working on not signing contracts…. God knows what kind of paper is floating around out there with his name on it.”
The night Randall beat Shavers, Greenlee and a couple of Randall’s friends were sitting around a hotel bar, figuring the damages. It had been a brutal, sobering fight, the kind you come away from with a headache. Somebody said he’d heard Randall had hurt his right hand.
Greenlee smiled. “Really?” he said. “The one he writes with?”
Mel Rabin snaps his fingers for the waiter and points to a $24 bottle of Italian wine sitting on the table. “Pour us some of that slop,” he says. Enough slop has already been poured so Rabin doesn’t care what his lawyer advised him, he’s going to tell it all.
Rabin traces his career through Cuba and Philly and Florida and Texas, through Randall’s first seven fights. “At that time I’d decided to sell him. I had a guy who wanted five more knockouts and he’d give us a million dollars. Five stiffs and we sell him for a million. I call Cobb up to tell him—he wants out as bad as I do—and suddenly nobody knows where he is. Not Gramby, not his friends, nobody. Then I find out he’s in Florida makin’ a movie. By the time he gets back the deal is dead. Me with two heart attacks….”
The movie was The Champ. One day the casting people had come through the gym looking for somebody to play Roland Bowers, who kills Jon Voight. They saw Randall and stopped looking. They paid him $10,000—10 times as much as he’d made in most fights—and put him up in a house in Coconut Grove.
Voight returned a call in 20 minutes. “I’ll do anything I can for Randy,” he said. “It’s interesting he wants to be a fighter—if he wanted to be an actor instead, he could be.”
Rabin calls the waiter to pour more wine. “I found this kid when he wasn’t shit,” he says, getting loud. “I did everything for him, and he’s screwed me….” The appeals judge has just tossed out the contract, a ruling that apparently has jeopardized a deal Rabin had made with a Philadelphia car dealer to sell his part of Randall’s contract for close to $250,000.
“I gave up my health for Cobb,” he says. “After all these years, my wife says it’s either him or her. I gave up my rug business, my TV GUIDE cover business, I gave up everything.” He is red in the face now, coming up out of his chair.
“I gave up my fan-clapper for that bum.”
It’s one o’clock in the afternoon at Frazier’s gym, in the shadows of the train tracks in North Philadelphia. There are half a dozen kids working in front of mirrors, skipping ropes. Everywhere you look are pictures of the first fight with Ali, the one Frazier won.
The old champion stands near one of the heavy bags with a kid who is short for his age, a little fat, shoulders clear to his elbows. Frazier at 15.
Frazier points to his face. The kid throws a tentative jab there. Frazier walks through it and taps the kid in the ribs with an open left hand. He taps the kid again and again. Frazier is talking. The kid begins to flinch.
Randall watches from a dressing table. “I hate it when Joe shows me something,” he says. “It always hurts. He can’t help it, it’s like askin’ him to weigh 90 pounds….”
George Benton is taping Randall’s hands. Benton is the trainer, an enormously talented middleweight who never won the title, who in a 21-year career got hit with fewer right hands than Randall ran into during the fifth round against Shavers.
“I seen this program last night,” Benton is saying. “There’s this lion, big mother standin’ under a tree, and then the snake drops on him off a branch and ties him all up. The lion starts strugglin’, this way and that way—just like you with Shavers, Tex. Pushin’, wrestlin’….” Benton fights the snake a while, then looks back over his shoulder to bite its head off. He stops.
“He can’t get at him, even when he goes in the water he can’t get this nigger off his back. And the lion is gettin’ worn out and turnin’ blue, and then finally he goes like this….”
Benton goes quiet, gathering himself, then shakes everything at once. “That’s how he got him off,” he says. “He quit tirin’ hisself out strugglin’, just saved it up and hit him. And the lion, after he got him off, he went on his business and he didn’t mess around under no trees no more.”
Randall looks at Benton. “That’s the end? The lion doesn’t mess around under trees? Nobody dies?”
“C’mon, Georgie. Marlin Perkins doesn’t even stand up at the end and say, ‘In the animal kingdom, lions protect themselves and their families by not messin’ around under trees, but for the kind of protection we need, go talk to Mutual of Omaha.’” Benton shrugs.
Randall says, “I like stories where something dies.”
That morning Randall had finally gotten a tape of the Shavers fight. He’d gone to a store that sold Betamaxes to watch it.
The fight had ended in the eighth round on a technical knockout, Randall’s 16th knockout in 17 fights, and for most of that time he and Shavers had stood in the middle of the ring beating on each other, both of them dead tired. Randall had taken the fight on 18 days’ notice, and it showed.
“One day Georgie called me up and said we had a fight for $75,000,” he said. Until then the best Randall had done was $2,000. “I said, ‘Who do we have to fight, God?’”
For as long as Randall had been boxing, Earnie Shavers had been the hardest hitter in the world. “The thing about being a fighter,” Randall said, “you lie to yourself.
You don’t say, ‘He’s bigger than me and meaner than me and uglier than me, and his breath’s worse and he’s gonna beat my head off.’ You say, ‘Screw it, I can rumble with anybody.’ You got to say, ‘Prove it, kill me.’ You need a little of that to get in the ring in the first place.
“Leon [Spinks] is like that, and Vito Antuofermo. Vito, in fact, is every reason I’m afraid to go into New York. Leon, you got to love him. A purist. He’s a perfect ‘screw-you’ fighter who never got the hang of civilization. The one-way streets, the dope, partying all night, fighting his ass off the next day. He did that before he was champion and after he got the title he never joined up with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Leon Spinks never let success change him a bit.”
Randall put the Shavers fight in the Betamax. The fighters come to the center of the ring for instructions. “Right here,” he said, “I was thinkin’, ‘The worst he can do is kill me. He can’t eat my body…. I don’t think he eats bodies.’”
Randall watched himself have two good rounds. His mouth comes open in the third and Shavers begins to hit him. He hits Shavers back. They do that for five more rounds, nobody getting out of the way. Faces swell. They fall into each other, again and again, exhausted, beat up.
The fight is being taped for television, and Ken Norton is one of the color men. He is saying Cobb is slow.
The salesman came by in the sixth round to ask how Randall liked the set. Randall pointed to himself in the ring. “I’m not sure. It looks like distortion there in that boy’s face.”
In the eighth the referee stops it. Shavers, bent and covering and done, is hit 20 or 30 times on the back of the head with right hands. The damage, though, comes mostly from the left. Short uppercuts and jabs.
The referee steps in. Randall follows Shavers back to his corner. “Here I’m thanking him for giving me the opportunity to fight him,” he said.
He starts back to his side of the ring, changes his mind and goes back to hug Shavers. “Here I’m askin’ him to please never give me an opportunity like that again.”
At the gym, Benton finishes lacing Randall’s gloves and pinching his face into head gear, and is talking to him again about economy of movement, about snakes and lions and living right. It is the genius of Benson that it all makes sense.
Randall nods at the right times, tells Benton that he played the tape of the Shavers fight that morning. “I can see your concern, George,” he says.
It is nine days until the fight with Norton. Randall begins his work with three rounds against a big French-Canadian kid who speaks almost no English. Frazier sends the kid into the ring saying, “Remember, he killed your mother.”
He says that as much to Randall as to the Canadian, but it doesn’t make any difference. Randall slides, moves, works on form. He throws light jabs at the kid’s body, lighter ones to his head. He stops once to show him not to look away when he throws a jab. Frazier shakes his head and says, “When you two gettin’ married?”
There are people who think Randall hurts himself by not throwing harder punches in the gym, who think that you fight the way you train. Every now and then he’ll drop somebody accidentally, but that’s what it is—an accident.
“I won’t hurt somebody in the gym,” he says. “I remember what it’s like having somebody kick your ass every time you make a mistake, then having them kick your ass when you do it right.
“I’m not interested in being the baddest ass in Joe Frazier’s gym, I want to be the baddest ass in the world.”
Randall finishes three rounds with the Canadian, does two more with a quick middleweight, then four with Jimmy Young. In the third round Young—who can still play the game—slides inside and hits Randall with an uppercut. It isn’t a big punch, and it doesn’t land flush, but it’s the kind of thing that can cut you. He makes the move again and Benton tells him to stop. “Don’t throw those uppercuts, Jimmy,” he says, “we goin’ to Texas tomorrow.”
Randall says, “Screw it, George. Throw them, Jimmy.”
Benton says, “Don’t throw no more uppercuts, Jimmy.”
Young stops fighting. Randall is suddenly mad. “Goddammit, throw some uppercuts,” he says. “Let’s see what happens.”
There is a look on his face now that you wouldn’t want to see if you were Jimmy Young, but in the five seconds before they start again he cools off. It isn’t Young he’s mad at. It isn’t even Benton, who he knows is right.
He says that later, in the car on the way home. “Georgie was right. What pissed me off was I felt like he was keeping me from learning. The way the Lord set things up, your life is learning, and there’s a lesson you learn or you can’t go any farther. The Lord says, ‘Son, you got to keep runnin’ into that wall until you get this shit tight.’”
Randall Cobb, dead center, will not be protected.
SAN ANTONIO, 1980
It turns out Randall’s mother cheats at cards. It is two days after the fight with Norton, and she and Priscilla Lowe are teaching Arthur Bourgeau and me to play cribbage. We are trying to teach them to drink, but it is beginning to look like they already know how.
Priscilla lives with Randall, Arthur owns a bookstore and spars with him, and cribbage is a game that depends on putting cards together to count 15. Like a 10 and a five. Or, if it’s Norma counting, a nine and a four, or a nine and a seven, or a seven and a four. “Fifteen-two, fifteen-four, fifteen-six, fifteen-eight and a double run makes 16,” she says. “A real barn burner.” She writes down the score while Randall leans over and glances at her cards.
“Norma,” he says, “you can’t do that.”
She gives him a deep, thoughtful look. “Son,” she says, “what’s done is done.”
They are sitting in a suite at the Holiday Inn, and there are half empty bottle of all kinds of liquor stuck to the dressers and tables, left over from the party. The fact that there is liquor left—or maybe that there is a suite left—speaks to the split decision, which went to Norton. At least 50 of Randall’s friends from his karate days had come for the fight, from all over the Southwest. There is a popular conception of masters of the martial arts which has them sitting cross-legged in corners, arranging space and time until somebody big beats on them with a hammer, and then they get up and kill him.
In Texas, they don’t do a lot of waiting. The friends have mostly checked out now, though, and tomorrow the rest leave. Randall and Priscilla are going to Hawaii for a week, then back to the house they rent just outside Philadelphia.
The place has a porch and a lawn and a boxer puppy. “The house gives Priscilla a sense of security,” he said. “That’s how women are. But there ain’t no security, not in this world….”
Willard Cobb died in 1961 of cancer, leaving Norma with four sons, Glynn, Dan, Randall and Mardy, which worked out to a trip to the emergency room about every 45 minutes. Randall was six at the time, the third oldest.
Some of the things that does to you—losing your father when you’re a kid—it does then. Some of it you find out later. You get protective, for instance.
And some of it you don’t really know about until you have a kid of your own. That part is still out there in front of Randall. One night, maybe driving through Iowa with her asleep against your arm, a set of car lights makes ghosts of you both and you’re face to face with how helpless you are.
Norma moved the family from Bridge City, Texas, to Abilene. She took two jobs. “Randall was the most vulnerable,” she said. “He was like his daddy that way. Sensitive and introverted. For a long time after he died, Randall wouldn’t go near his daddy’s chair. He was always good at art, then all he’d draw was gravestones. He’d see the other boys his age and ask how come God didn’t take their daddies too. I always told him God chose us because we could handle it.
“Sometimes he’d be out playing ball with the other youngsters in the neighborhood and he’d just stop. When that happened, I put down whatever I was doing and went out and took his place. I made him stand on the porch and watch. It wasn’t easy, but there were things he had to be shown….”
He came to San Antonio in the best shape he’d been in for a fight. Besides his running and the daily workouts at Frazier’s gym, he was sparring three mornings a week with Bourgeau. There was karate twice a week and most nights he played basketball. Three times a week he went to Temple University and trained on its weight machines.
“Not only that,” he said. “Every day I have to practice my menacing, snarling and how to stare. It’s something you absolutely got to practice. And tell people how bad you are all the time. Next time you hear somebody getting a million dollars for a fight, try to remember what goes into it.”
The day before he left for the fight, Randall lifted for 28 straight minutes before he had muscle failure.
And he came into the fight confident and building a case against Norton. Before the weigh-in: “You know what he said? On television? He said I was slow.”
And when the promoters came to Randall two days before the fight to tell him Norton wanted a bigger ring and a change in officials, Randall agreed. Without talking to Gramby or Benton or Greenlee or anybody else.
“What I said was, ‘You tell Norton he can bring his brother and his mother and a cousin and let them judge it, and it ain’t going to make no difference because I’m going to put him dead flat on his ass in the third round anyway.’” Looking back on it, Randall shrugs. “He did and I didn’t. There’s probably a lesson in there someplace.”
The fight was another train wreck. Twice early on Norton seemed ready to go, and in the ninth round he was close to out on his feet. But he stayed there, braver and better than he’d been since he fought Larry Holmes, and won the 10th going away. And if you didn’t like the decision—and a lot of people didn’t—the fight was close enough and good enough so you couldn’t really complain.
After the fight Randall sat behind a table in the dressing room, holding an ice pack against his eye, keeping the other eye on his friends, talking to reporters. Some of the friends were crying.
A reporter asked Cobb if Norton had confused him, doubling up on the hook after the jab. Randall looked at him. “Some nights,” he answered, “you go out with a pocketful of money, all dressed up in your best clothes, and you can’t pay a seven-dollar whore a hundred dollars to dance with you.”
While Randall talked, George Benton slipped out of the room to go congratulate Norton. “Tex come a long ways,” he said on the way over. “People forget, he still doesn’t have any experience, he’s still findin’ out how to fight. But he’s got that jaw, like Ali’s. He’s got the heart of a champion. He’s smart and he learns fast. There’s nothin’ to keep Tex from goin’ all the way, and the only way he ain’t goin’ to make money now is if they stop printin’ it.”
It was a better fight than the one against Shavers, but Randall took almost as many punches, and the shots you take accumulate. Over the years, just like over the course of a fight.
Benton went into the dressing room. Norton, holding an ice pack to his eye, was talking about Randall to half a dozen reporters. “Don’t mix Cobb up with Scott LeDoux,” he said. “He hits like a mule…. I knew I wasn’t going to knock him out. I was there in Detroit for his fight with Shavers.”
Benton and Norton talked for a couple of minutes. Benton came out smiling. “I told him Tex was going to make a lot of money before this was all over,” he said. “He told me, ‘Not off my ass, he isn’t. He isn’t makin’ another nickel off me.’”
Norma has another barn burner. She squints at a line of cigarette smoke, making 15 three or four times from eights and face cards, then marks another 16 points on the scorepad.
Randall reaches over and hugs her neck. “I wish you’d quit smokin’,” he says, “take up dope or somethin’.” He kisses her nose, then coughs from deep in his chest. There is an infection there that started right after the fight. It sounds like it hurts him when he breathes.
Norma watches him until the coughing passes, then she shuffles the cards. Suddenly, you are thinking of the night in El Paso when Randall took two minutes to stop Chebo Hernandez, and Norma made Glynn—the oldest brother—go into Chebo’s dressing room and tell him Randall was sorry.
You think of her bringing the four of them up—once she actually had to take Dan to the hospital with a homemade arrow in his eyeball—putting down the cooking after work to play baseball when Randall quit. You don’t have to sit up nights wondering where Randall gets his sand.
And the night of the fight against Norton, she sat at ringside, holding a four-year-old granddaughter in her lap, and watched the punches come home, almost without flinching. Afterward what she said was, “I thought both boys did real well.”
And the punches come home and add up, and there’s such a long way still to go.
“By the time you get here,” Randall says, “you’ve already been hurt as bad as you can be hurt. There’s no new kind of pain, there’s nothin’ that you don’t already know about. It loses its meaning, and all that’s left is you’re uncomfortable.” He thinks for a minute. “The only way you can hurt me is to hurt somebody I love. You know what I mean?”
Randall looks across the table now and cups Norma’s chin. His fingers stuff and slow, the left eye and cheek swollen and dark, and there is the feeling his body hasn’t started to heal yet—that it’s still waiting to see if it gets hit again.
His nose touches his mother’s and flattens. He smiles at her with one side of his face.
I know what he means.
This story is reprinted with permission from the author.
(Special thanks to Dina Colarossi for transcribing this piece for Bronx Banter.)
For more on Dexter and Cobb, check out this interview from Vice Magazine.