Head on over to Victory Journal and dig into Brin-Jonathan Butler’s story on our man El Duque (lavishly illustrated by Mickey Duzjj).
Head on over to Victory Journal and dig into Brin-Jonathan Butler’s story on our man El Duque (lavishly illustrated by Mickey Duzjj).
This profile by Peter Richmond, first published in the April 1998 issue of GQ (and reprinted here with the author’s permission), is a classic lion in winter piece. It shows Ali dealing with Parkinson’s but still sharp, charismatic, and more revered than ever.
Muhammad Ali in Excelsis
By Peter Richmond
He is in mellow middle age now. Parkinson’s disease has silenced the voice once full of preening, arrogant poetry. But in his stillness he has become the god he always wanted to be.
On the table in front of him sit a copy of the holy Koran and a plate holding three frosted raspberry coffee cakes, and when he leans forward on the couch and reaches out it is not for enlightenment. It is for a piece of pastry. With his right hand wobbling just this side of uncontrollably, he guides it, slow inch by slow inch, toward the mouth that once yapped without stopping but that now, largely mute, chews slowly, as the eyes stare straight ahead, seeing nothing; only the patter of a cold rain splashing the leaves of the trees outside the window mars the silence. Flecks of frosting tumble in slow motion to light on his belly, which gently swells beneath a black sweater. I am sitting next to him. Close enough to see the tiny scar on his eyelid that looks like a birthmark. Close enough to hear him chew. Close enough to taste the cake as he tastes it. The look on his face is the fat and happy near smile topping the fat and happy body of all the renderings of Buddha you’ve ever seen. It is an expression of bemusement and contentment and wonder at the beauty to be found in the simplest things.
As I watch him eat, I have never been more sure of a man’s inner contentment. Except maybe when he eats the second piece.
It’s not supposed to be Buddha. It’s supposed to be Allah, because it is Allah who has ruled his life since even before Liston, and Allah who controls it now more than ever before. The contents of his briefcase say so. He is carrying the briefcase as he enters the room, so still even in walking that he does not disturb the air around him. He opens the briefcase to reveal hundreds of well-thumbed sheets of paper filled with typewritten words. It is the briefcase a man would carry if he were to knock on your screen door to convert you to his faith, and on this day, dressed in black, shoulders slumping toward his paunch, gray sprinkling his temples, he looks like such a man.
He shuffles through the papers, finds one, hands it to me.
“First Chronicles 19:18,” I read aloud while he listens. “‘Then the Syrians fled before Israel. David killed 7,000 charioteers and 40,000 foot soldiers of the Syrians.’ Second Samuel 10:18: ‘Then the Syrians fled before Israel, and David killed 700 charioteers and 40,000 horsemen of the Syrians.’ Was it 700 or 7,000? Was it foot soldiers or horsemen?”
“The Bible has contradictions,” he says to me, the voice sandpapered raw by the disease. “Not in there,” he says, nodding at the Koran. His briefcase also holds a black-and-white photograph of three boxers—Ali, Joe Louis, and Sugar Ray Robinson; it looks like a snapshot from the turn of the century—but most of the case’s contents are there to do Allah’s work.
It’s easiest for him to talk about Allah, although it is not easy for him to talk, because the muscles of his face don’t work as well as they once did. His wife, Lonnie, has asked if I want her to sit with us so she can tell me what he is saying. Lonnie is a strong woman who walks through a room like a beautiful storm approaching. But right now I ask her if Ali and I can be alone and if she could close the door, which she does, leaving the two of us in silence in a small room in the suite of offices on Ali’s southern Michigan farm. The farm used to belong to AI Capone’s bookmaker. A workman doing renovations recently dug some bullets out of the floorboards from back in the days when people were shooting one another here. Now it’s just about the quietest place on earth.
After he hands me several more tracts, I tell him I’m pretty much a nonbeliever, and at this his eyebrows arch up and the words come quickly.
“Do you believe that phone made itself?”
No, I say.
“Do you believe the chair made itself?”
“Do you believe the table made itself?”
“Do you believe the sun made itself?”
“The Supreme Being made it.”
The Bible’s inconsistencies don’t persuade me, nor do the sermons. It’s when he levitates that I start to come around. Well, not when he levitates—when he pretends to. His levitation trick is like his handkerchief-in-the-fake-thumb trick or the trick where he rubs his fingers together behind your ear and what you hear sounds like a cricket. He’s been playing pranks since he was a kid, to complement his verbal trickery, but now his pranks are the currency with which he communicates.
It’s when he’s pretending to levitate that I figure out what’s happening with Ali now, and it sounds an awful lot like something involving divine intervention. At the very least, it sounds like the sort of parable that ought to be typed up and carried around in the briefcase of someone trying to convert you.
“For decades,” it would read, “Allah had Muhammad Ali doing Allah’s work. Ali was the most remarkable young black man the nation had ever seen, unafraid to take on the mightiest of the white man’s institutions, speaking out, yes, for the black man, but even more for Allah, in a fashion that Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad never could have.
“But the older the disciple grew, the more he began to lose fights to people like Trevor Berbick. And the more he began to lose fights, the more he threatened to fall into the black hole wherein reside all the great athletes who tried to hang on too long. Allah knew that the closer Muhammad Ali got to the ultimate indignity of punch-drunkdom, the less use he was for Allah as an emissary on earth. Yes, a million faithful would line the airport runway in Malaysia, and he could move the masses in Syria and in Algeria and in Turkey, but it wasn’t working in America, where the enemy lived.
“So Allah hit upon a plan. Where Ali’s voice once moved mountains, Allah struck him mute. Where Ali’s swift fists once rained upon opponents with the precision of a surgeon, Allah struck them with terrible tremors so that they struggled to hold a piece of cake. Where Ali once had more physical vibrancy than any athlete the world had ever known—a face like a thousand different masks, a dancer’s body, all of it always in motion—Allah wrapped him in an invisible cloak of paralysis, and he had to labor to move any muscles at all.
“And this is how Allah made sure that Muhammad Ali would be doing his work again. Tenfold. For in infirmity, Ali came to mean much more than he ever had before.”
“I can levitate,” he says, and he tries to get up from the couch, but he cannot. The couch is too deep, and he is growing heavier; he will be Buddha-like in girth at some point soon. I reach out to help him, but he dismisses me with a gesture of his left hand; the closed fist that sits rocking back and forth at his side opens slightly and motions me away. He speaks with his hands now, even though they are constantly trembling and not much good to him. It has taken me a full hour in his presence to begin to recognize the nuances in his shaking fingers, and it has taken me equally long to understand the nuances of his facial expressions, from the eyebrows shooting straight up in true surprise to the rare half smile to the flat, expressionless expressions that are differentiated by the degree to which the eyes and the eyelids move.
All the gyrations and the mugging and the shouting have been distilled into a thimbleful of expressions, but it is a bottomless thimble. So when with a single slight crook of an index finger he tells me not to help him, it’s as if a healthy person had slapped my hand away. Then he tries again, rocks against the back of the couch and vaults himself up. He walks over to a corner of the room, where he turns away and, with his back to me, slowly rises off his feet.
His body appears to levitate—his left foot is off the ground. I cannot see his right foot. Maybe he is levitating. This sounds absurd, but it would make more sense if you were in the room with him and could feel the otherworldliness his utter stillness and oddly detached gaze now impart. In the lasting silences between long questions and short answers and magic tricks, as he stares straight ahead, I begin to feel a mounting sense of disorientation. It’s as if the room is growing smaller or he is growing bigger, as if the space is too little to hold whatever he is becoming now. It’s as if Euclidean rules are being bent.
I’d expected the disease to have robbed him of the vitality that once exploded from him. I’d expected the disease to represent the ultimate cruel triumph of the world that had always wanted the black boy from Louisville, Kentucky, to shut the hell up.
But up close, I am discovering that his affliction has taken nothing away, none of the energy, none of the wit, none of the pride; it has only bound all of it, captured and constricted it, with the entirely unexpected result that, as an aeon of geologic forces can compress a large vein of coal into a very small diamond, whatever was the essence of Muhammad Ali is now somehow magnified. He is at last what he always pretended to be but never was: the Greatest. For it must be axiomatic that if someone calls himself the Greatest, as Ali did for years, he cannot possibly be; the Greatest would never have to label himself as such. Only when he was forced to stop proclaiming his greatness did it become possible.
Never has he been more mortal—struck dumb and slow, crumbs spilling down his shirt—and never have we deemed him more godly.
On the afternoon prior to the kickoff of the Louisville-Penn State football game at Cardinal Stadium on the Kentucky fairgrounds, he was sitting alone in a golf cart behind the grandstand next to the locker room, waiting to be driven to midfield for a pregame ceremony. Suddenly, a few feet away, there stood Joe Paterno leading his team out of the visiting locker room door, dozens of huge, young Pennsylvania mountain men lined up snorting behind the little man in khakis and a sweater and thick glasses, stamping their feet behind Paterno, his energy bubbling out of his body—a game to play!—oblivious to anything else, even to the dozens of folks who had turned around in the top two rows of the bleachers to look down at the man in the golf cart just a few yards away from the football team, oblivious even to the several hundred more fans who had quietly filed out of those bleachers to form a line on each side of the golf cart, like sidewalk crowds at a parade.
Standing directly behind the golf cart, I saw the world as he must always see it, looking straight ahead, looking out through the tunnel of his illness: people crowding to be in his field of vision, chanting his name, some smiling, some shouting, some staring with mouths agape.
Joe Paterno, something of a god himself, saw none of it; he was minutes from the kickoff. When an official signaled for him to enter the stadium, he began to jog, the general leading his infantry, past the golf cart, glancing over his shoulder—and then he stopped. The Penn State players behind him ran into one another like confused cattle. Now shaken from his reverie, stunned, Paterno walked over to the golf cart and crouched and shook the hand of the champ. Then he rose and led his team onto the field.
The golf cart followed. “Ladies and gentlemen,” rang the public address voice, “at the 50 yard line, please welcome the heavyweight champion—” But the announcer didn’t get to finish his sentence; the swell of the roar blotted out the words. Forty thousand people were on their feet singing his name in a two-syllable mantra. Finally, he waved—a quick flip of his right hand—and the cart wheeled around, the beery bleachers still chanting “A-LI!” as the cart disappeared behind them.
In the first half, I sat next to him in the front row of the stadium. We could not watch the football game because we’d been seated behind the Louisville bench and the players blocked our view. Even if Ali could have seen the field, he could not have followed the game, because his head does not move back and forth quickly. So he sat there looking pretty much straight ahead while people such as the former governor of Kentucky came and sat on his other side and called him champ. We did not speak at all. I spent the half handing him peanuts. He would take each one out of its shell and deliberately raise it to his mouth and chew until finally, with a motion of his right hand, he signaled that he didn’t want any more, and he reached out for his soda, which sat on top of the concrete wall in front of him, and very carefully guided the cup to his mouth. The liquid in the cup roiled like a sea, but none of it spilled.
In the limousine back to town, he did not speak, either, except to say, as he threw a left jab and looked out the window, “Gonna make a comeback. Exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. Twenty million dollars. Champion of the world at 55.” It was the only time I heard him voluntarily refer to the man he had once been, but it was enough to confirm what I had suspected—that if he were not hindered by disease, he would indeed be trying to make a comeback at the age of 55, and he would be humiliated and pummeled. Frazier tried; Holmes tried. Tyson will try. And while Muhammad Ali was smarter and better than any of them, he is still a boxer.
When the limousine pulled up at his mother-in-law’s house in the suburbs of Louisville to disgorge its passengers—Ali; his best friend, Howard Bingham; his attorney Ron DiNicola; another attorney; and me—l was surprised to see that they all walked quickly up the driveway, leaving him behind to take baby steps up the asphalt toward the house. No one who’s around him a lot treats him as if he’s infirm, because they know he isn’t.
“Oh yeah, he’s all there; he gets it all,” Bingham told me, a little wearily and a little impatiently, as if he were surprised I had to ask.
Then Ali’s wife came out and saw him.
“There he is,” she said softly and went to his side.
That night 11,000 people filled Freedom Hall at the fairgrounds to see an entertainment-extravaganza tribute to Muhammad Ali, starring Natalie Cole and Jeff Foxworthy. After the gospel choir sang, a boxing ring was wheeled to the front of the stage and a series of embarrassing boxing exhibitions ensued, including one in which former heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis faced Louisville basketball coach Denny Crum and took a dive as an expressionless Ali watched from a mezzanine seat.
Then a 13-year-old-boy bounced into the ring—a thin kid with gloves as big as his head, his face, nearly in shadow, framed in the padding of the protective headgear. But I could see the eyes and the mouth; they were the features of a boxer before a fight. It turned out he was the youth boxing champion of South Carolina, and he was going to fight Muhammad Ali. I do not think that the youth boxing champion of South Carolina had the slightest idea of the significance of the man who was going to join him in the ring.
I glanced at a man seated next to me, and the look he cast back mirrored the anxiety in my eyes. Then someone raised the ropes for Ali, and as he slowly ducked to climb into the ring the applause swelled, but it was a worried ovation. The bell rang, and the kid charged, fists flying out like misdirected darts; he wanted to kill the old fool. But before anyone could wince, Ali was dancing to one side and then dancing back the other way—not the Ali of 1965, but not a cripple either: It was the dance of an overweight former athlete who was perfectly healthy. The kid could not land a punch.
Then, as the cheers of relief started to rise, he did the Ali shuffle. I’d forgotten about the Ali shuffle. This was not the shuffle of 1966 but the shuffle of an overweight former athlete in perfect health. Ali did not do one dance and one shuffle. He kept it up for a full minute.
Finally, he reached down and grabbed the kid in a bear hug and smiled the best smile he could, although it was just a wink of a smile, and that was the end of it.
When I found him a few minutes later in a room behind the stage, dining on fried chicken, he did not resemble the man in the boxing ring, except for the face. He was surrounded by friends and family, and women—one was fetching him a piece of cake. There was an inordinate number of women in the room, watching him avail himself of the post-event spread, making sure he got enough to eat, wearing expressions that seemed quite maternal. They were not the expressions I’d seen on the women at the black-tie banquet the night before. After Louisville’s high society had grazed its way through a two-hour open-bar cocktail party, Ali had slowly made his way to the dais, and I saw on the faces of the pearled women with low-cut gowns and bustiered girls in impossibly high heels the distinct expression I’ve come to recognize as the one women wear when they’re looking at a man they want.
The boxing match was the last official event of Muhammad Ali’s weekend, but the last unofficial event took place at midnight in the bar at the Seelbach Hotel. It is a historic place, often cited in those stories about great old bars in the great Old South. Natalie Cole and her band were lounging at the bar. I was with one of Ali’s counsel and her boyfriend when Howard Bingham, sloe-eyed and cool, slid a chair up to our table and ordered a beer. Bingham, a photographer, has been by Ali’s side from the beginning, and he is the only one who never left it.
I waited until Howard was halfway through his beer before I asked him what had happened at Freedom Hall that evening.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
The dancing, I said. The shuffling.
“Oh yeah, he can do that; he does that sometimes.”
He can? Then why doesn’t he do it more often?
Bingham had no immediate answer. He was not looking at me or at anything when a moment later he took his right arm and started to windmill it, like an old Ali punch. Then he stopped, and the hand wrapped around the mug of beer.
“Sometimes,” Bingham said, “I just want to…” But he did not finish the sentence. He said something else: “He could be 100 percent better.”
And he could. If he spent more time in boxing rings. It turns out that only when Muhammad Ali is in a boxing ring can he, or does he choose to, turn back the clock. It’s only a boxing ring, fittingly enough, that moves him to movement. Perhaps he believes that if some of us are now finding divine inspiration in his metaphysical majesty, his real power will always derive from his ability to outwit, outpunch, and overpower everyone else.
What Parkinson’s disease does is make you brittle. Ali’s version of the disease is a slow one, but it’s making him brittle nonetheless. The way to fight being brittle—to keep the disease at bay—is to work at being limber. And the only time he feels like working at being limber—at fighting the disease—is when he’s in an environment where he’s always been accustomed to fighting.
“He won’t exercise in a regular gym or do the Nautilus or a StairMaster; he will not do it,” says Lonnie. Her voice is exasperated, because she is exasperated. “I have bought him state-of-the-art equipment. He won’t use it. He says it’s for sissies. That’s why I’m building him a gym on the farm, with a ring and mirrors and a heavy bag. Because that’s what he knows. And that’s how he wants to do it.
“Sometimes Muhammad, unfortunately, might use this illness. Don’t get me wrong, but Muhammad knows when to turn it on and off. And sometimes I think he does it deliberately. Turns it off. He’s a master manipulator; I’m not going to kid you. He will look more fragile than he actually is. Why he does it, I don’t know.”
Perhaps I do. Perhaps if I were being worshiped by flocks of followers, my every whim attended to, and all I could see from behind the smoked glass was legions shouting my name and feeding me cake, well, I would have stopped trying to get better a long time ago, too. Especially if the crowds were finally affirming what I’d been saying for 40 years: that in me you see a god.
“I began to suspect that he was a special vessel that might be ordained for special things,” a writer named Mort Sharnik once said of Cassius Clay as the writer tried to come to grips with the essence of this strange new champion.”Esse est percipi,” an eighteenth century bishop named George Berkeley said many years earlier as he tried to figure out what it meant to exist, to be. After a lifetime of considering the notion, Berkeley decided that to be is to be perceived. And so it must be now with Muhammad Ali. If he is a vessel, it is not only his own self that fills it; it is filled up by all of us, filled with whatever it is we need to find in him. He is what we perceive him to be.
What we see in him is purely an individual matter. It might be something in the eyes, which seem particularly expressive because everything else on the face has shutdown—a sense in his eyes of not only the playful jester but also the kind and compassionate man whose clowning and belittling of opponents often obscured the goodness of the soul within. It might be forgiveness: of him, for adopting a racist religion or acting like a self-centered showman at so many people’s expense—like the cruelty he showered on Joe Frazier (“See how ignorant you are?”); or forgiveness of ourselves, for not realizing how special he was beneath the bluster and the lunacy. For not sensing what we had in our midst.
It might be reverence for the physical embodiment of the greatest man ever to fight, and for the greatest athlete we’ve ever known: The title of heavyweight champion, before its devaluation, was a kingly title. And no one has ever ruled the sport as gracefully, or as magically—although his crowning triumph, his victory over Frazier in their third fight, in Manila, was the most brutally beautiful heavyweight championship fight in history, a battle won not with wits but with soul. If the disease came on while he was fighting—if it was not inherited, as his wife insists—then this is the fight during which it must have taken root.
It might be simple awe at the survival of a man who had the balls to stand up to white America and risk its wrath when most of us would have shut up and joined the damned army. In 1967 to be a young black man from Kentucky who refused induction—one year before Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis, three years after three civil rights workers were murdered in Mississippi—was to be made of a singular fabric.
And it might be pity, although if it’s pity, he neither merits it nor wants it. When l ask him, after he levitates, if we should feel sorry for him, he says, “No,” and slumps hack against the couch in a manner that l recognize as meaning he will have more to say on the matter in a moment. This happens only three times in our two hours in that room: There are three questions he wants to answer slowly, not reflexively. This is not to say that some of his quick answers aren’t honest ones. When I ask if he misses boxing and he quickly answers, “No”; when l ask if he’d want his son to be a boxer and he quickly says, “No”; when l ask, “Are you a happy man?” and he quickly answers, “Um-hmm.” But three times when l ask him questions, he slumps back on the couch and closes his eyes, then opens them and speaks.
Sometimes he gets only the first three or four words out and then has to stop and try again before uttering a complete thought—like a car turning over several times before catching on a cold morning.
So when l ask if we should feel sorry for him, he says, “No,” and then a few moments later he says, “Everything… everything… everything has a purpose.”
Another time I ask if he’d change anything in his life. After several seconds, he says, “I wouldn’t change nothin’. It all turned out to be good.”
The third time, l ask how he wants history to remember him. This is the one he takes the most time to think about. He closes his eyes and slumps against the back of the couch for what seems to be a very long time. Then he opens his eyes, leans forward, and says in quick bursts of words, “I want people to say, ‘He fought for his rights. Fought for my people. Most famous black man in the world. Strong believer in God.’”
I have a million more questions, but he is tired, and I am not going to get the answers I want. When I ask what lessons he has learned on his long and troublesome journey—when I lean in and, in tones drenched with meaning, ask him what we should know—he says, “Do a lot of running; eat the right foods.”
And when I tell him l think that it was the third Frazier fight, not the Foreman fight, that was his best, he looks at me and rasps, “You’re not as dumb as you look,” which makes me laugh in delight—how sharp he is—until I remember that this is exactly what he said to the Beatles when he met them in Miami Beach in 1964.
We shake hands—it’s a soft handshake but not a sickly one; it’s like a gentleman’s handshake—and he picks up the briefcase and rises to walk down the hall to say goodbye to his wife, who is working in another room, before he walks over to the main house. I take a tour of the rest of the office suite. One room’s windows overlook an expanse of emerald green grass bordering a river, and stacked against the wall beneath the windows are 13 translucent plastic cartons with the words PROPERTY OF THE U.S. POSTAL SERVICE printed on the sides. Each is overflowing with letters and envelopes. Perhaps a thousand pieces of mail.
“A week’s worth,” says a woman whose job is to open them and answer them: the well-wishers, the autograph requesters, the charity seekers. Most of Ali’s life is given over to good works now. Last fall a Roman Catholic nun who cares for Liberian children at a missionary center in the Ivory Coast wrote Ali to ask for his help.The next month, she was surprised to see him there in person, giving out food.
In another room sits a woman who presides over the memorabilia being packed up to be shipped to the nascent Ali museum in Louisville: the autographed Golden Gloves, the photograph of Ali standing over Liston’s prone body in Lewiston, shouting at his defeated foe. Glass trophies and engraved plaques line walls, huddle atop tables, rest on floors—too many to examine any particular honor; the cumulative effect of the glittery clutter says enough.
My tour has taken 10 or 15 minutes, and as I turn down the hallway toward the door that will take me outside, I see that Ali is standing exactly where l saw him last; he hasn’t moved an inch. He is standing in a doorway looking at his wife, who is sitting in front of a computer wearing a telephone headset. She is a woman with discernible soft and humorous sides, but she is also a no-nonsense person, and right now she is talking to a lawyer in tones as authoritative and sure as those of a general commanding troop placement from a bunker, discussing some award Ali will be receiving in New York next month; she is running the business of Muhammad Ali.
He leans down to whisper something in my ear. By now l know not to expect anything profound.
“I like my office,” he says, and I nod, understanding instantly what he means. That he likes standing and watching people testify to his power and his goodness. That he likes all these tangible testaments to how important he has become. Also, I think he likes the women.
He escorts me down the stairs, out the door, and we stand for a moment beneath the outstretched arms of the giant elms. This is where I leave him, surveying his kingdom. As l walk to my car, he is still standing there, and as I drive away down the long, winding driveway toward the iron gates, I have no doubt that as soon as I’m out of sight he will turn around and go back upstairs to eat the last piece of coffee cake.
“If the Beatles meant a lot in England, they meant very much more in America,” wrote Nik Cohn in his brisk, entertaining history of Rock n Roll, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: Pop from the Beginning. “They changed everything. They happened at a time when American pop was bossed by trash, by dance crazes and slop ballads, and they let all of that bad air out. They were foreign, they talked strange. They played harsh, unsickly, and they weren’t phoney. Just as they’d done in England, they brought back reality.”
Cohn spent 7 weeks in the spring of 1968 writing his tour de force of pop music. He had just turned 22. “My purpose was simple,” he remembered years later, “to catch the feel, the pulse of rock, as I had lived through it. Nobody, to my knowledge, had ever written a serious book on the subject, so I had no exemplars to inhibit me. Nor did I have any reference books or research to hand. I simply wrote off the top of my head, whatever and however the spirit moved me. Accuracy didn’t seem of prime importance (and the book, as a result, is rife with factual errors). What I was after was guts, and flash, and energy, and speed. Those were the things I’d treasured in the rock I’d loved.”
Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. What better time to revisit Cohn’s chapter on the Fab Four? (Keep in mind that it was written before the band broke up.)
Cohn is a ton of fun even when–or especially when–you don’t agree with him.
By Nik Cohn
Next came the Fab Four, the Moptop Mersey Marvels, and this is the bit I’ve been dreading. I mean what is there possibly left to say on them?
In the beginning, I should say, the Beatles were the Quarrymen, and then they were the Silver Beatles, and there were five of them—John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best. All of them came from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds in Liverpool and the only ones with any pretensions to anything were Paul McCartney, who had racked up five ‘O’-levels,.and Stuart Sutcliffe, who painted.
The heavies at this time were Sutcliffe and John Lennon, who were at art school together.
Sutcliffe was something like an embryo James Dean, very beautiful-looking, and he wore shades even in the dark, he was natural image. Of all the Beatles, at this stage, he was the most sophisticated and the most articulate and Eduardo Paolozzi, the painter, who taught him for a time, says that he was very talented indeed.
As for Lennon, he was a roughneck. His father, who was a seaman, had left home when Lennon was still a small child, his mother had died, and he’d been brought up by his Aunt Mimi. And by the time he got to art school, he’d grown into a professional hard-nut, big-mouthed and flash, and he rampaged through Liverpool like some wounded buffalo, smashing everything that got in his way. He wrote songs with Paul McCartney. He had hefty intellectual discussions with Sutcliffe. He was rude to almost everyone, he was loud and brutally funny, his putdowns could kill. A lot of people noticed him.
The Beatles, at this time, were still total Teds: they wore greasy hair and leather jackets and winkle pickers, they jeered and got into fights and were barred from pubs.
The music they played then was souped-up rock, much influenced by Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly, not notably original, and they were less than an explosion. In 1960, they managed a tour of Scotland with Johnny Gentle, one of the lesser figures in the Larry Parnes stable, but mostly they alternated between random gigs in Liverpool and seasons at the Star Club in Hamburg, where they played murderous hours each night and halfway starved to death.
At this point, Stuart Sutcliffe left the group to concentrate on his painting and, soon afterwards, died of a brain tumour. He was twenty-one. Meanwhile, the Beatles had begun to move up a bit—they’d made some records in Germany, bad records but records just the same, and they’d built themselves a solid following, both in Germany and at home. And musically, they’d become competent and they had their own sound, a crossbreed between classic rock and commercial R&B, and they were raw, deafening, a bit crude but they were really exciting. At least, unlike any other British act ever, they didn’t ape America but sounded what they were, working-class Liverpool, unfake, and that’s what gave them their strength, that’s what made Brian Epstein want to manage them.
Epstein was the eldest son in a successful Jewish business family and he ran a Liverpool record store. In his early twenties, he’d wanted to be an actor and he’d gone to RADA [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] but now, approaching thirty, he’d resigned himself to being a businessman. Intelligent and loyal and neurotic, painfully sensitive, he was nobody’s identikit picture of a hustler but he was civilized, basically honest, and he had capital. So he asked the Beatles to let him be manager and they agreed.
Soon after this, Pete Best, the drummer, got flung out and was replaced by Ringo Starr. Best had laid down a loud and clumsy beat, quite effective, but he’d been less sharp, less clever, less flexible than the other Beatles and they’d got bored with him, they wanted him out.
Ringo Starr’s real name was Richard Starkey and he’d been playing with Rory Storme and the Hurricanes, Liverpool’s top group of that time. Actually, he wasn’t too much of a drummer and he had rough times at the hands of vengeful Pete Best fans; he was given a fierce baptism. But he had his own defences, a great off-hand resilience and a deadpan humour, and he survived.
Meanwhile, Epstein acted like a manager. Privately, he had huge inhibitions about hustling, but he fought them down and sweated. So he had demos made and touted them round the record companies; he pleaded and spieled and harangued. And having been first turned down by Dick Rowe at Decca, the King Dagobert of pop, he finally got a contract with E.M.I. and everything began.
From there on in, it was fast and straight-ahead: the first single, Love Me Do, made the thirty and the second, Please Please Me, made number one and the third, From Me To You also made number one (louder) and the fourth, She Loves You, made the biggest hit that any British artist had ever cut. All of them were written by Lennon and McCartney.
By spring of 1963, they had taken over from Cliff Richard here and, by autumn, they were a national obsession. At the beginning of 1964, given the most frantic hype ever, they broke out in America and stole the first five places solid on the chart. Summer, they released their first movie, Hard Day’s Night, and it smashed and that just about rounded things out. Altogether, it had taken two years from first big push to last.
At the end of all this, they had become unarguably the largest phenomenon that pop had ever coughed up and, even more remarkably, they’ve hardly slid since. To the time of writing they have sold upwards of two hundred million records and they’re coming up for their twentieth straight number one.
Beyond that, they had made millions of pounds for themselves and many more millions of pounds for the Government and, in reward, they were all given the MBE [Member of the Order of the British Empire] for their contributions to the export drive. This was a clincher—assorted worthies sent their own medals back in protest but everyone else was delighted. That’s how respectable pop had become and it was all the Beatles who’d made it like that.
Beyond their music itself, their greatest strengths were clarity of image and the way they balanced. It’s a truism that no pop format is any good unless it can be expressed in one sentence, but the Beatles went beyond that, they could each be said in one word: Lennon was the brutal one, McCartney was the pretty one, Ringo Starr was the lovable one, Harrison was the balancer. And if Lennon was tactless, McCartney was a natural diplomat. And if Harrison seemed dim, Lennon was very clever. And if Starr was clownish, Harrison was almost sombre. And if McCartney was arty, Starr was basic. Round and round in circles, no loose ends left over, and it all made for a comforting sense of completeness.
Completeness, in fact, was what the Beatles were all about. They were always perfectly self-contained, independent, as if the world was split cleanly into two races, the Beatles and everyone else, and they seemed to live off nobody but themselves.
There is a film of their first American press conference that expresses this perfectly. Hundreds of newsmen question them, close in and batter and hassle them but the Beatles aren’t reached. They answer politely, they make jokes, they’re most charming, but they’re never remotely involved, they’re private. They have their own club going and, really, they aren’t reachable. They are, after all, the Beatles.
Throughout this, they are very subtly playing image both ways—they are anti-stars and they’re superstars both. They use Liverpool accents, they’re being consciously working class and non-showbiz and anti-pretension but, in their own way, they’re distancing themselves, building up mystique for all they are worth. With every question that gets thrown at them, they spell it out more clearly: we are ordinary, modest, no-nonsense, unsentimental and entirely superhuman.
For some reason, such built-in arrogance hardly ever misses—it’s the same equation that the inherited rich sometimes have, the way that they can be charming, gentle, humble as hell and still you know you can’t ever get to them, they’re protected and finally, they only function among themselves. They’re in their own league and you’re insulted, you sneer but you’re hooked and, kid, would you ever like in.
This is the superstar format, the only one that really works, and the Beatles had it exactly, they were a whole new aristocracy in themselves. And, of course, they’d have been huge anyway, they’d have come through on their music and their prettiness alone, but it was this self-sufficiency, this calm acceptance of their own superiority, that made them so special.
Between them, the four of them being so complementary, they managed to appeal to almost everyone.
Lennon, for instance, trapped the intellectuals. He started writing books and he knocked out two regulation slim volumes, In His Own Write and Spaniard In The Works, stories, poems, doodled drawings and assorted oddments.. Mostly, they were exercises in sick, sadistic little sagas of deformity and death, written in a style halfway between Lewis Carroll and Spike Milligan.
Predictably, the critics took it all with great solemnity and, straightaway, Lennon was set up as cultural cocktail food, he got tagged as an instinctive poet of the proletariat, twisted voice of the underdog. He himself said that he only wrote for fun, to pass time, but no matter, he was turned into a heavy Hampstead cult.
Meanwhile, he sat around in discotheques and tore everyone to pieces. He was married and had a son. He lived in a big suburban mansion in Weybridge and he was sharp as a scythe. He wrote songs as if he was suffocating. Still, he was powerful and he generated a real sense of claustrophobia, he had great command of irony and he owned one of the best pop voices ever, rasped and smashed and brooding, always fierce. Painful and obsessive, his best songs have been no fun whatever but they’ve been strong: I Am The Walrus, A Day In The Life, Happiness Is A Warm Gun and, most racked of all, Strawberry Fields Forever.
On stage, he played monster and made small girls wet their knickers. He hunched up over the mike, very tight because he couldn’t see an inch without his glasses on, and he’d make faces, stick his tongue out, be offensive in every way possible. On Twist and Shout, he’d rant his way into total incoherence, half rupture himself. He’d grind like a cement mixer and micro-bops loved every last dirty word of him. No doubt, the boy had talent.
Paul McCartney played Dick Diver. He was stylish, charming, always elegant and, whenever he looked at you, he had this strange way of making you feel as if you were genuinely the only person in the world that mattered. Of course, he’d then turn away and do exactly the same thing with the next in line but, just that flash while it lasted, you were warmed and seduced and won over for always.
He was a bit hooked on culture: he went to all the right plays, read the right books, covered the right exhibitions and he even had a stage when he started diluting his accent. No chance—Lennon brought him down off that very fast indeed. Still, he educated himself in trends of all kinds and, when he was done, he emerged as a full-blown romantic, vastly sentimental, and he wrote many sad songs about many sad things, songs that were so soft and melodic that grannies everywhere bought them in millions.
In their different styles, then, both Lennon and McCartney had gotten arty and their music changed. In the first place, their work had been brash, raucous, and the lyrics very basic—She Loves You, Thank You Girl, I Saw Her Standing There. Good stuff, strong and aggressive, but limited. From about 1964 on though, they got hooked on the words of Bob Dylan and their lyrics, which had always been strictly literal, now became odder, quirkier, more surreal. Message and meaning: suddenly it was creative artist time.
My own feeling is that Lennon has heavy talent and that McCartney really hasn’t. He’s melodic, pleasant, inventive but he’s too much syrup.
Still, they do make a partnership: Lennon’s toughness plays off well against McCartney’s romanticism, Lennon’s verbal flair is complemented by McCartney’s knack of knocking out instantly attractive melody lines. They add up.
Of course, when McCartney runs loose with string quartets, some horribly mawkish things happen—Yesterday, She’s Leaving Home—but he has a certain saving humour and he’s usually just about walked the line.
At any rate, he looks sweet and more than anyone, he made the Beatles respectable at the start and he’s kept them that way, no matter what routines they’ve got involved in. Even when he confesses to taking acid or bangs on about meditation, he invariably looks so innocent, acts so cutely that he gets indulged, he’s always forgiven. Regardless, he is still a nice boy. Also, not to be overlooked, he is pretty and girls scream at him.
More than any of the others, though, it was Ringo Starr who came to sum the Beatles up.
America made him. In England, he was always a bit peripheral, he always sat at the back and kept his mouth shut but, when the Beatles hit New York, they were treated very much like some new line in cuddly toys, long-haired and hilarious, and Ringo stole it.
Big-nosed and dogeyed, he had a look of perpetual bewilderment and said hardly anything: “I haven’t got a smiling mouth or a talking face.” He only bumbled, came on like some pop Harry Langdon and women in millions ached to mother him. In fairness, it has to be said that this was not his fault—he looked that way by nature and couldn’t change.
Every now and then, out of deep silence, he’d emerge with some really classic line. No verbal gymnastics like Lennon, not even a joke—just one flat line, so mumbled and understated as to be almost non-existent.
My own favourite was his summing-up of life as a Beatle: “I go down to John’s place to play with his toys, and sometimes he comes down here to play with mine.”
He’s solid. When he got married, he chose no model, no starlet, but a girl from Liverpool, a hairdresser’s assistant. He’d known and gone steady with her for years. And when all the Beatles went meditating in India with the Maharishi, he said that it reminded him of Butlins and came home early.
Really, he summarizes everything that’s best in the English character—stability, tolerance, lack of pretension, humour, a certain built-in cool. He knows he’s not a great drummer and it doesn’t upset him. Not very much upsets him in fact: he only sits at home and plays records, watches television, shoots pool. Simply, he passes time.
He is hooked on Westerns and he loves new gadgets and he spends a lot of his time just playing. He sits with his wife and his children. Well, he may be slightly bored at times because he has nothing much to do any more but he isn’t too bothered and, quite genuinely, he would make out all right if the Beatles went broke on him and he had to get a nothing job again. No matter what, he ticks over.
George Harrison is more problematic.
To begin with, he wasn’t much more than a catcher, a trampoline for the others to bounce off. On stage, he’d set himself a little way back from the mike and play along without smiling. He hardly moved and he’d look cut off, vaguely bored.
His big moment used to be when he and Paul McCartney would suddenly bear down hard on the mike together and, cheeks almost touching, they’d shake their heads like mad. This gesture used to provoke more screams than almost anything else. But when it was over, Harrison never followed it up, he only dropped back and looked bored again.
In interviews, too, he was less than impressive. He was slower than the rest, less imaginative, and he tended to plod a bit. In every way, he was overshadowed by Lennon/McCartney.
At this stage, his most publicized interest was money and he got very tight with Epstein, who used to explain the complexities of Beatle finance to him. Epstein, who worshipped the Beatles and was greatly afraid of losing touch with them, loved this and used to speak of Harrison as his most favourite son.
Still, as Lennon/McCartney got increasingly arty, Harrison was stung and he began chasing. He went on a heavy intellectual streak himself.
First up, he got interested in Indian music and took lessons on sitar from Ravi Shankar. Second, he was to be seen flitting in and out of London Airport wearing beads and baggy white trousers. Third, he started writing Indian-style songs, all curry powder and souvenirs from the Taj Mahal, very solemn. And finally, he went up a mountain with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the stars, and came down again a convinced mystic. From here on, he was a philosopher, a sage, and his interviews were stuffed full of dicta, parables and eternal paradoxes. Sitting crosslegged in Virginia Water, he hid his face behind a beard, a moustache, two Rasputin eyes and he was almost unrecognizable as George Harrison, guitar-picker.
Ringo apart then, all of the Beatles had gone through heavy changes. In 1963, they’d epitomized everything that was anti-pretension: they’d been tough and funny and cool, merciless to outsiders, and they’d had the most murderous eyes for pomposity of any kind. That was one of their greatest attractions, their total lack of crapola and, even after they’d made it so huge, they didn’t lose out. Well, maybe they read more books, went to more theatres and so forth but, basically, they stayed as hard as ever. Paul McCartney wrote a few sentimental ballads, Harrison learned sitar. Lennon put smoked windows on his Rolls but the wit was still dry, the put-downs fierce, the lack of sell-out total.
It wasn’t until the release of Rubber Soul, Christmas 1965, that the cool first began to crack. Musically, this was the subtlest and most complex thing they’d done and lots of it was excellent, Drive My Car and Girl and You Won’t See Me, but there were also danger signals, the beat had softened and the lyrics showed traces of fake significance. One song at least, The Word, was utter foolishness and hardly anything had the raw energy of their earlier work, there was nothing as good as I Saw Her Standing There or I’m A Loser. Simply, the Beatles were softening up.
The next album, Revolver, was further on down the same line. Again, there was a big step forward in ingenuity and, again, there was a big step back in guts. Eleanor Rigby was clever but essentially sloppy. Harrison’s Love You To wasn’t even clever. And then there was Tomorrow Never Knows.
What had happened? In general, it was probably the inevitable effect of having so much guff written about them—they got told they were geniuses so often, they finally believed it, and began to act as such. In particular, it was acid.
In the context of this book, it doesn’t matter much whether acid was good or bad for them. All that counts is that it greatly changed them. Right then, they quit being just a rock group, Liverpool roughnecks with long hair and guitars and fast mouths, and they turned into mystics, would-be saints.
Soon after he’d owned up to using acid, early summer 1967, I did an interview with Paul McCartney and he was into a whole different level from anything I’d ever read by him before. No putdowns, no jokes, no frivolity whatever—he was most solemn and his eyes focused somewhere far beyond the back of my head. “God is in everything,” he said. “People who are hungry, who are sick and dying, should try to show love.”
Having gone through acid, the next inevitable step was that the Beatles went into meditation: George Harrison climbed his mountain with the Maharishi and soon the others had swung behind him, they’d renounced acid and devoted themselves to lives of total spirituality.
Undoubtedly, all of this was a major triumph for Harrison: it must have been sweet indeed to have Lennon and McCartney follow his lead, he made the most of it, he came out on TV and looked beatific and scattered dicta like chaff. “This is going to last all our lives,” he said, and he sat crosslegged on the floor.
Meanwhile, during the first weekend that the Beatles spent with the Maharishi, September 1967, Brian Epstein had died, aged thirty-two.
Inevitably, being so successful, he’d been the butt of much schnidery within the industry and, generally, he’d been rated pretty low. Paraphrased, the party line was that he was really a less-than-averagely shrewd businessman but he’d gotten lucky one time, very lucky, and he’d happened to be hanging round as the Beatles came by.
Also, beyond incompetence, he was meant to be weak, vain and maudlin. Most of this was true. Just the same, I liked him.
The main thing about him was that he wasn’t moronic, he wasn’t even entirely fascist. He wasn’t much criminal and he didn’t have people beaten up and he didn’t automatically scrabble on his knees each time someone dropped sixpence in a darkened discotheque. More, he read books and went to theatres and understood long words. No use denying it: he was intelligent.
By the conventions of British management, this was all eccentric to the edge of insanity and it changed things, it set new standards. After Epstein, managers became greatly humanized: they weren’t necessarily any more honest but they were less thuggish, altogether less primitive and, sometimes, they even liked pop itself.
Beyond the Beatles, of course, Epstein had handled whole Liverpudlian armies—Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer, Cilla Black, the Fourmost, Tommy Quickly. In the beginning, around 1963–4, these were all hugely successful but, mostly, they were light on talent and, Cilla excepted, they didn’t sustain. Still, Epstein always stayed remarkably loyal to them, never kicked them out. Partly this was due to injured pride, but partly it was conscience, principle, integrity—the whole bit.
Just how much did the Beatles really owe him? Well, he was no Svengali, no alchemist and, obviously, they would have happened without him. He wasn’t greatly imaginative, he pulled no outrageous strokes for them but he was steady, painstaking, and he didn’t flag. Occasionally, his inexperience betrayed him into raw deals but, taken overall, he worked well for them.
Most important, he was a mother figure—he cared for them, reassured them, agonized on them, nagged them, even wept for them. He needed them. Even towards the end, when they’d outgrown management and would no longer take orders from anyone, he was always there, always available, devoted and doggy as ever. He could always be fallen back upon. And, most of the time, his advice was good and they took it rightly. After all, in all the time he managed them, they never once made fools of themselves.
His major problem was anti-climax.
Having managed the Beatles, having helped make maybe the biggest entertainment phenomena of this century, he still had to manage the rest of his stable and he’d been a lonely, neurotic man at the best of times but, in his last two years, he got quite frantic—he financed bad plays that flopped and promoted tours, sponsored a bullfighter called Henry Higgins, turned the Saville Theatre into a would-be pop shrine, and he kept thrashing about for new diversions to keep himself amused. Nothing worked. Everything bored him.
Already, in the last days of Epstein’s life, the Maharishi had been taking his place as resident mother, as adviser and comforter in chief (a development that must have struck him as a betrayal), and now, with Epstein dead, the guru had the field all to himself. Like I said earlier on, meditation was a logical progression from acid, just because it did the exact same things for you as acid did, except that acid-love was artificially-induced and nirvana was natural. And so, when the Beatles jumped, half the hip end of pop followed dutifully behind them. Donovan and the Beach Boys and Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon and the Doors, and the Maharishi’s Indian headquarters got all clogged up with hair and hippie beads.
As for the guru himself, he was less than impressive and, by spring 1968, the Beatles had left him.
Meanwhile, Christmas 1967, they’d shown Magical Mystery Tour, their first self-produced film, and it was bad; it was a total artistic disaster. It was the first real failure they’d ever had but still it made profits and hardly weakened them at all. That’s just how secure they’d become—they were establishment, institutionalised, and nothing could touch them.
More important, they launched Apple. In the beginning, this was conceived as a huge artistic and business complex, covering records and films, merchandising and electronics and music publishing, TV and literature, plus any other assorted media that might arise, and it was going to straddle the world in one vast benevolent network, handing out alms to anyone and everyone that deserved them. Young poets that couldn’t get published, musicians and designers and inventors, unrecognized talents, everyone, they were to come straight to Apple and the Beatles would review their case in person, the Beatles would help.
Inevitably, such saintliness was short-lived: the Beatles promptly found themselves besieged by massed no-talents and maniacs and charlatans, bummers of all descriptions, and they began to cut back fast. Within a year, the whole Utopian structure had boiled down to not much more than one indie record label, no better and no worse than any other.
Undeterred, the Beatles plunged on headlong into project after abortive project—there was a full-length cartoon film, Yellow Submarine, which did nothing much in England and cleaned up in the States, and there was a stage adaptation of John Lennon’s In His Own Write, which was successful, and there was also a John Lennon art exhibition, which wasn’t, and there was an excursion into boutique-management, which was a mistake, and, finally, there was a mammoth double-album ninety minutes and thirty tracks long, which was mostly just boring. And John Lennon got divorced from his wife and took up with Yoko Ono, a Japanese lady, and, between them, they came up with an album full of squeaks and squawks, Two Virgins, with nude pictures of themselves all over its cover. And Paul McCartney called Lennon a saint. And George Harrison wrote further mock-Orientalisms on the soundtrack of a film called Wonderwall. And Ringo Starr, of course, went right on shooting snooker.
In America and in England, they have become two entirely separate things: in the States, where pop is followed with great solemnity by almost everyone intelligent under the age of thirty, there are still many people who take them seriously, who see them as divinities and hang upon their every utterance, while in England, where pop remains mostly entertainment, they’re seen as cranks, millionaire eccentrics in the grand manner, vaguely regrettable, maybe, but quite harmless.
Either way, they continue to sell records in millions, they’re still flying, they’re up so high by now that nothing can bring them back down again. Simply, they’ve gone beyond.
The thing that fascinates me most in all this is that it’s happened so fast, that it’s taken only five years for ultimate hardheadedness to get changed into ultimate inanity, and I’m puzzled. There are, of course, lots of easy explanations—too much acid, too many ego-trips, too much money and success and wasteable time—and maybe the easiest answers are the right ones after all but, myself, I’m not so sure, I sense that there’s something here that I don’t yet understand, that’s only going to become clear in retrospect.
In any case, they’re still young, they have time to return inside their skulls and then, just possibly, they’ll do what they promised in the first place, they’ll purge pop of pretension. Meanwhile, though, they’ve only killed off one style in bullshit to replace it with another.
From here on in, I have only one or two final evaluations to make and then I’m through. First, their music.
What do I say? They’re good. They have talent and Lennon/McCartney are the most inventive, wide-ranging and melodically ingenious writers pop has produced. They’ve added whole new dimensions to pop, they have introduced unthought-of sophistications, complexities and subtleties. And Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, their best album, really was quite an impressive achievement.
For all this, I don’t enjoy them much and I’m not at all convinced that they’ve been good for pop. So all right, the Beatles make good music, they really do, but since when was pop anything to do with good music?
Sergeant Pepper was genuinely a breakthrough—it was the first ever try at making a pop album into something more than just twelve songs bundled together at random. It was an overall concept, an attitude: we are the Lonely Hearts Club Band, everyone is, and these are our songs. It was ideas, allusions, pastiches, ironies. In other words, it was more than noise. Some of the songs were dire (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, She’s Leaving Home, Within You Without You) and others were pretty but nothing (When I’m 64, With A Little Help From My Friends) and a few really worked out (Lovely Rita, A Day In The Life, I’m Fixing A Hole and Sergeant Pepper itself). In any case, the individual tracks didn’t matter much—what counted was that it all hung together, that it made sense as a whole. Added up, it came to something quite ambitious, it made strange images of isolation, and it sustained. It was flawed but, finally, it worked.
So, if Sergeant Pepper passes, what am I grousing for? Well, it did work in itself, it was cool and clever and controlled. Only, it wasn’t much like pop. It wasn’t fast, flash, sexual, loud, vulgar, monstrous or violent. It made no myths.
And why should the Beatles limit themselves to pop? Why can’t they just expand and progress as they want, not thinking about categories? No reason—they’re responsible only to themselves and they can work whichever way they like.
The only thing is that, without pop, without its image and its flash and its myths, they don’t add up to much. They lose their magic boots and then they’re human like anyone else, they become updated Cole Porters, smooth and sophisticated, boring as hell. Admittedly, the posh Sundays say they’re Art and that’s true but, after all, what’s so great about Art? What does it have on Superpop?
The way I like it, pop is all teenage property and it mirrors everything that happens to teenagers in this time, in this American twentieth century. It is about clothes and cars and dancing, it’s about parents and high school and being tied and breaking loose, it is about getting sex and getting rich and getting old, it’s about America, it’s about cities and noise. Get right down to it, it’s all about Coca Cola.
And, in the beginning, that’s what the Beatles were about, too, and they had gimmick haircuts, gimmick uniforms, gimmick accents to prove it. They were, at last, the great British pop explosion and, even when their songs were trash, you could hear them and know it was mid-twentieth century, Liverpool U.S.A., and these boys were coke drinkers from way back.
They’ve changed. They don’t belong to their own time or place any more, they’ve flown away into limbo. And there are maybe a million acid-heads, pseudo-intellectuals, muddled schoolchildren and generalized freaks who have followed them there but the mass teen public has been lumbered.
What’s more, because the Beatles are so greatly worshipped by the rest of pop, most every group in the world pursues them and apes them and kneels at their feet, and that’s why there’s no more good fierce rock ‘n’ roll music now, no more honest trash.
And at least, with the Beatles, there has always been a certain talent and wit at work but, with their successors, there’s been little but pretensions. Groups like Family and the Nice in England, the Grateful Dead and Iron Butterfly in America, they’re crambos by nature and that’s fine, they could be knocking out three-chord rock and everyone would be happy. But, after the Beatles and Bob Dylan, they’ve got into Art and so they’ve wallowed in third-form poetries, fifth-hand philosophies, ninth-rate perceptions. And, who’ve lost out? Teenagers have.
In America, admittedly, kids have tended to take anything they’ve been given and like it, they’ve come to talk in the same crapola terms as their groups. But in England, they’ve mostly shrugged and walked away, record sales have crashed and everything’s gone stale.
It’s bad: originally, in the fifties, the whole point about rock was its honesty, the way it talked so straight after all those years of showbiz blag, and now it’s become just as fake as Tin Pan Alley ever was.
So it isn’t really their fault, you could hardly blame them, but, indirectly, the Beatles have brought pop to its knees. It’ll get back up again, it must do because somehow it’s needed, but I don’t think it’ll be the Beatles who’ll revive it, I think it’s already too late for that.
In some sense, they have opted out and they can hardly come back in again. They’ll keep progressing, they’ll make better music yet and they won’t ever fall. Only, in thirty years, I don’t think they’ll have meant so much as Elvis Presley.
In the end, Bert Berns may still have summed them up better than anyone.
As I mentioned in an earlier chapter, Berns was a most shrewd man and he understood pop perfectly. And one afternoon, about three years ago, he sat in some decaying West Hampstead café and looked gloomy over a picture of the Beatles. Then he shook his head in infinite sage sadness. “Those boys have genius,” he said. “They may be the ruin of us all.”
Yesterday, I brought my Stacks show on the road to The Daily Beast. I’ll have a reprint there each weekend. First up, John Schulian’s great Mike Royko profile.
They were drinking their dinner in a joint outside Chicago. It was just Mike Royko and his pal, Big Shack, and whatever their bleary musings happened to be that night three years ago. They probably never even gave a thought to the fact that they were in Niles, Illinois, which qualifies as a suburb and therefore should have been treated by Royko as if it were jock itch. But Niles is where a lot of the Milwaukee Avenue Poles he grew up with fled when they started finding themselves living next door to neighbors named Willie and Jose. So this was shot-and-a-beer territory after all. The only thing it lacked was a DO NOT DISTURB sign.
“Hey, you’re Mike Royko!”
It happens to him all the time even though newspaper guys are supposed to be bylines, not recognizable faces with bald heads, crooked smiles and ski-jump noses. How Royko, who is a baggy-pants character no matter what he wears, cracked the celebrity lineup is no mystery, though. Nor is it a tribute to the tiny picture of him that has decorated his column in each of the three Chicago papers he has worked for. The secret is words. The words that in 1971 paid off with a Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper commentary and a best-selling book called Boss, in which he dissected Mayor Richard J. Daley. The words that now appear, via syndication, in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, and 223 other papers. The words that always have originated in his hometown, Chicago, five times a week, year after year after year.
“I’ve read you all my life.”
Royko’s admirer was male, white, crowding 40, with a pretty wife who quickly made it known that she was a more voracious reader than her husband. Soon the three of them were so wrapped up in one another that they failed to notice Big Shack, all 220 pounds of him, lumber off to the can. But Big Shack is important to this story, first, because he is the source of it, and second, because he returned just in time to save Royko.
“The guy was choking Mike,” Big Shack says. “I guess his wife had gotten a little too friendly, and Mike, well, you know Mike. So there I was, peeling the guy’s fingers off Mike’s throat one at a time.”
Big Shack can laugh about it now.
“What can I tell you? In ten minutes Mike went from hero to bad guy.”
It wasn’t his maiden voyage.
I recently had the chance to catch up with him and chat about Phil Jackson and the craft of writing a biography.
Dig in to this holiday Banter treat. Then go pick up the book.
It’s a good one.
AB: This is your sixth book and second biography—the first was on Peggy Lee. What was it like writing another biography?
PR: It was terrific because the first one taught me that to be a biographer, you’ve got to be a very different kind of writer.
AB: Different from being a newspaper or magazine writer?
PR: To write a biography, you have to become something of a different animal. You have to become a PhD in your subject. When Peggy Lee died, and I was asked to write her bio, I said to the editor “Thank you, it’s flattering but maybe you should get someone who knows the music of the ‘30’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s.” But he said, “No, we want you to come in from the outside. We think you’re a good enough writer to come in and surround the subject.” And that’s the only good book I’d ever written. When I was approached to write a Phil Jackson biography, and figured I wasn’t going to get him to cooperate — he was writing his own book — it freed me to surround his life objectively.
AB: He’s got a library of books he’s written himself.
PR: If you go into Barnes and Nobles to the sports section there’s seven categories – baseball, football, basketball, hockey, golf, boxing and Phil Jackson. Maverick and Sacred Hoops are worth reading. Mine might be, too.
AB: Don’t be so modest. It is. What have you learned as a writer since the Peggy Lee book that allowed you to do the Phil Jackson story in a way you might not have previously?
PR: That you should never judge anyone, or their actions, or their legacy, before doing everything you can to try and see the events of their life through their own eyes, from their own perspective–but then use that perspective as only one of your lenses. Phil had left behind his books, and gave his approval for friends to talk to me. I’d interviewed him several times in the past and we were cool. I had every lens available to see the guy’s life objectively and thoroughly.
AB: What was the difference between writing a bio of a dead singer, whose career arc had already ended, and someone who’s still got a few chapters left to go in his career?
PR: Peggy’s role in history had been predetermined. She was the only white top 5 jazz singer of all time. With Phil, everybody had ideas about him, but nobody had out them all together for an objective portrait. Some think he’s overrated because he coached Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Shaq and Kobe. Then there are those who say, “No, the man is a genius.” Nobody had ever gone in and found the middle ground, the third space. The truth is never black or white. And freed of his subjective perspective, I was able to enter this gray Twilight Zone where I could assemble the pieces that led to assembling the puzzle of the most successful coach in the history of sports — if you go by numbers, anyway, which I do. As Earl Monroe says in the book “Sports is a strange animal, in that you can make all the money in the world, but if you haven’t won the championship, you don’t have the same respect.”
AB: At the same time, Jackson briefly played with a guy named Neal Walk who was comfortable with himself even if he didn’t win. If he lost, he was like, “Oh I’m the first place loser.” Wouldn’t you believe that Neal Walk was a guy who was happy even though he didn’t get a ring?
PR: Oh, God yes, absolutely. Neal Walk and Eddie Mast were his blood brothers on the Knicks, and neither put all their stakes into winning. Those were the people who were saying to “Phil, dude, cool out, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose the game. You’re a Buddhist. It’s the journey not the destination.” Phil seems to be possessed by an almost surreal degree of competition. He needed Walk and Mast as early role models to temper that mania.
AB: But he was able to combine the two.
PR: You got it. He managed to incorporate and meld all of those ingredients. Here’s the bottom line: He never stopped questioning what’s real and what counts in this very short lifetime. Native American Indian culture, Buddhism, Christianity, mysticism — he kept exploring and he kept questioning.
AB: And that’s authentic right? That’s not an act.
PR: Completely authentic. None of his former players that I spoke with said it was for show. Burning sage in the locker room, giving his players books. Every one of them was affected. Whether it was 10% or 90% they were affected.
AB: I thought it was interesting that for some of them, the gesture was enough, it didn’t even matter if the book spoke to them or not. It was the act of him being thoughtful in that way that did have a certain meaning for them.
PR: Exactly. For a few it was both of those things. I’m thinking Craig Hodges, the three-point shooter who was showed up at the White House after the Bulls’ second championship and chastised George Bush and was blackballed from the game — until Phil Jackson brought him back to be the shooting coach of the Lakers. Hodges told me that the book Phil gave him—The Passive Warrior—changed his life. So yes, it was all authentic — and that’s why I actually wrote the book. I would never have written this book if I thought that Jackson was inauthentic in any way shape or form.
AB: You write about Jackson as a teacher, a searcher, and a survivor. How much of that resonates with you at this stage in your life?
PR: It felt as if it were time for me to write a biography of a guy who, in a weird sort of way, was paralleling my own life, at least in terms of trying to never lose curiosity about everything when you reach Act III of your life. In a way, as I wrote, I sort of thought that not talking to him almost didn’t matter, because the more I read his books and interviews over the last 40 years, and the more people I talked to, the more I recognized this innate need for searching, the more I seemed to understand him. Obviously, I’m not comparing myself to him in terms of career success, but I came to quickly sense that we shared a few psychological things in common, both on the ultra-competitive side and the intellectual-searching side. Which gave me the confidence to write the book authentically and truthfully.
AB: Would you have had to force this book had you written it 15 years ago?
PR: Absolutely. It would have been forced even five years ago, truth be told. But now, somehow, researching his life not only vibed with some of the exact questions I was asking myself, but I was finally mature enough to accept the validity, the intent, of some of his teachings and searchings and questions. That’s not to say I lost objectivity; just that, in a way I was finally receptive enough to learn from his philosophies — which only enhanced the book.
AB: Speaking of teaching, one of Jackson’s most important teachers was his coach with the Knicks, Red Holzman.
PR: Absolutely. Red taught Phil just about everything he ever learned about coaching, on the court and off. Phil couldn’t be on that first championship team because he had had back surgery that season, so he was Red’s defacto assistant coach—back then you couldn’t have an assistant coach. Red knew Phil had something going on, intellectually. In the locker room after games, after Red had given his post-game talk, he’d turn to Phil and say, “Did I do alright tonight?” Red knew.
AB: Now, you first covered Jackson when he was coaching Albany in the CBA.
PR: And before that, when I was a weed-smoking teenager and lover of sports, a rebel without a cause, fan of the Knicks, I just loved Phil Jackson. I loved the way he looked, I loved the way he tried so hard, I loved that he was clumsy, I loved that he was different. I’d read those same New York Post columns that I quote in the book. Everyone was so attracted to this guy who clearly didn’t fit the paradox. Fast forward to 1986 when he was coaching the Albany Patroons and I was working for the New York bureau of the Miami Herald. So we met for a column, and I could immediately sense that he was just a normal guy. Unlike any pro coach I’d ever covered. He was so normal, I became normal — not a writer, just a guy I was talking with. I wasn’t there as the sports writer trying to get something and he wasn’t there as the coach trying to give the right answers. It was like a couple of hours “Let’s talk about stuff.” I thought, “Wow, that’s really cool. I hope it works for him.”
AB: Was it that he was necessarily charming?
PR: Oh no, he wasn’t charming–I mean unless we’re all charming, unless you and I are being charming. He was being human and social and friendly.
AB: Did you ask him how come the Knicks hadn’t called on him after he’d won a CBA championship?
PR: Yes. He said, “I don’t know. I’m not political enough, I guess. I don’t say the right stuff, But hey, do you want a chocolate chip cookie?” He was getting ready to leave the CBA, and had no idea what he’d do next, which happened to be opening a health club in Montana. He was thinking of the law, or the ministry. Then, a few months later, the Bulls called. A few years after that he was the head coach. So I profiled him again, for the National Sports Daily, during his first season, and hung around Chicago for a couple of days, and wrote a piece whose gist was basically, “How bizarre! An actual person is a really good NBA coach. A real person you could have a conversation with about philosophy or the triangle or Bill Bradley or Wounded Knee was actually a good coach.” You could tell, just from the way Jordan and Pippen were listening to him.
AB: One of the things that’s interesting to me, you alluded to it already, here’s this guy, he’s a seeker. He’s a curious guy and he’s interested in all these different kinds spiritual pursuits. But the other part of him enjoys throwing quips and keeping people — essentially the press–off balance, as if even that were a competition.
PR: I came to understand him as a man trying to reconcile those two pulls, the pull of the peaceful “mindfulness” and the pull of the competitor. I think he was smart enough to see that when he was questioning all of reality — spiritually, intellectually, philosophically — he also had to succeed in a corporate world, and the fact that he was able to reconcile the two to the degree that he could is what really intrigued me. I think he knows that there’s a third space where it can all work out. Ultimately, the he was able to incorporate that corporate trope, that philosophical trope, that spiritual trope, and communicate it all to his players. He coached hundreds and hundreds of players for many years and every one of them, with a few exceptions, would say “Phil looked at me as if I was an individual” — and that, for me, is the road map for success in life. My guess is that Phil would say he’s a teacher. Not a coach but a teacher.
AB: You didn’t talk to some of the superstar guys, though. Before we get to that, I want to know why you didn’t speak to Jackson’s children or the women in his life.
PR: I didn’t want to.
AB: Why is that?
PR: Because I’m not a writer first, I’m a human being first and I just don’t want to go places where I’m not invited. I wrote a book about Phil Jackson because it seemed like the right book to write and I got offered money for it. But I have rules. I don’t compromise humanity. There’s something in me that just doesn’t allow me to step from person into journalist. I just can’t do it. I’ve been told that it has hurt my career. Somebody once told me, “Oh man, you’re such a soft core journalist, can’t you be a hardcore journalist?” And I said, “No I can’t because I’m a person, period.” If I can make money writing books about Phil Jackson and the other people I’ve written books about, that’s really cool, but don’t ever ask me to stop being who I am. Phil Jackson doesn’t want me to find his first wife. I could have tracked her down but I wasn’t going to find her because whatever happened with Phil and his first wife is between them. Am I a biographer of Phil Jackson? Yup. Am I a biographer of Phil Jackson on my own rules? Yup. Does that mean my books aren’t going sell as many? Yup. Do I care? No.
AB: As a reader, do you like reading those biographies that are lured in that kind of person detail?
AB: So this is about knowing who you are as a writer?
PR: How old are you?
PR: Alright. I’m 60, so when you get to 60 you’ll realize what I mean. There comes a point later in life where you realize that exploiting somebody else’s life for your own advancement is not only stupid, it’s destructive. I have my agenda, the reader has their agenda, but in between, there is a space where you can tell the truth and when you do that, people are going to buy your books, people are going to give you advances to write your books, and you don’t have to break news or have sensational stuff. There’s a point where if you’re just telling somebody’s truth or maybe your own, it works. I really feel as if I surrounded Phil Jackson. I really feel as if I understood him and could show the readers why Phil Jackson could be both a Buddhist, spiritualist, off-the-wall guy and the most competitive insane asshole ever and therefore won 11 rings–the combined total Vince Lombard and Pat Riley. I feel as if I am the first guy to tell it right but I don’t think I compromised any of my inner ethical rules writing the book.
AB: How much of an obstacle was it that you didn’t talk to Jordan, Pippen, Shaq or Kobe?
PR: The two best stories I ever wrote for GQ were about Ray Carruth, who took out a hit on his pregnant girlfriend, the number one pick of the Carolina Panthers, and Jason Williams, the former Net who shotgunned his driver to death. Neither of them talked to me. What I was able to do was approach their stories without them and that’s the best way to approach any subject. To answer your question, at the top, I had an editor who didn’t care that Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippin wouldn’t talk to me. “This is your book,” he said. “I don’t care about what Scottie Pippin thought about him or John Paxton or Kobe, just tell me what the hell is going in Phil’s brain.”
AB: Stars don’t generally give the most insightful interviews, either.
PR: You’re exactly right. In this case, none of the superstars would have told me anything about Phil that they hadn’t already told a hundred other writers. The last guys on the bench are often more valuable for a writer. They’re all looking at their coach to see what they could learn from the guy — about the game, about what it is to be successful. They take notes in their head. I could go on and list the number of people who have been his 11th and 12th player who have gone on to tremendous success as athletes, as athletic directors, as high school coaches, as really enlightened individuals. Unlike Michael Jordan, who is clearly the unhappiness man on Earth. Do you think we’ll ever be able to talk about how happy Kobe Bryant is? I don’t think so. But talking to those who had seen him through a truly authentic lens—and that includes Diane Mast and his old friend Charley Rosen—I think I was able to get to why he was the most successful coach ever. Anybody who is truly a success is a guy who inspires people to follow him and I think every guy Phil ever coached was willing to follow him. They wanted to follow him out of the foxhole because he treated them as equals.
AB: There’s a great story you tell about Jud Buechler. Jackson asked him how his wife was doing and Buechler was blown away because no coach had ever asked him anything personal about himself. It seems like such a common gesture. It made me think how impersonal and screwed up the world of professional sports is.
PR: If you get a new job at Wall Street at Morgan Stanley, does somebody sit you down and ask you if your wife is happy that she’s moved from Indiana to Manhattan and Westchester, and how’s the school district? Phil did, and he didn’t do it because that’s what you’re supposed to do — because clearly that’s not what you’re supposed to do. He did it because clearly that’s who he was. That’s the point of the book. Phil was a guy who was guided by what you and I are guided by, which is that we’re all part of the same social fabric. If Jud Buechler becomes the 12th man on a team that includes Scottie and Michael , Phil wanted him to know not only that it’s important that he knows his role on the team, but to know that I consider him an equal as a person. That’s a gift, a gift that most people in charge of corporate entities never consider bringing into the equation. I’m not sure that’s why he won 11 rings, but I can’t think it wasn’t part of it.
AB: How did Jackson grow in his second go around with the Lakers?
PR: I’d like to think the time off made him examine how he fucked it up the first time around. He had great players and everything fell apart. He understood when he came back that teaching is a two-way street, and I think Kobe was finally willing to listen to someone who could teach him. He’d grown up, too.
AB: And Shaq was gone.
PR: I don’t think its coincidental that once you lose Shaq, you’ve got to completely reconstruct the entire paradigm. The second generation of Lakers he took over wasn’t as stable as his first go-round but he had Kobe. He needed Kobe to be the guy to hold the shit together. Phil went back in after writing a book that ripped Kobe as uncoachable. But when the two of them came back together, and then produced more championships, that was an example of both of them learning and both of them growing up. The two of them had an understanding and got to a place and that to me is what is great about Phil Jackson. He’s still willing to learn.
AB: I love the thing from the Lakota Indians, where one of the guys said, “Phil saw that for us, spirituality is everything in life — that spirituality is everyday life.” That sort of spoke to me about what Jackson seems to be about.
PR: The difference between Vince Lombardi and Phil Jackson is that Lombardi would wake up every morning thinking, “How do I game plan to win next week?” Jackson wakes up and asks, “How can I understand why I’m here?” Weirdly enough, the guy who asks “Why am I here?” every day winds up statistically a greater winner than Lombardi, Joe McCarthy, Red Auerbach or any of them.
AB: That’s funny.
PR: This guy whose entire life who has been built around non numbers, about how you cannot quantify success, happiness, whatever, ends up statistically winning more championships than anyone in professional sports history in the United States of America. At that point you say to yourself, “Why is it that a guy who can’t even show up on the radar of all the barometers and quantifiers of coaching success in American sports, how is it that a coach who doesn’t need any of those things turned out to beat everyone at the one statistic we worship? Is it a coincidence that Phil’s thinking outside of the box and treating his players as people as opposed to product resulted in him winning the marathon? Is that coincidence? That’s why I wrote the book. The guy never stops thinking. He simply doesn’t close his mind to anything.
Go here to order Phil Jackson: Lord of the Rings.
[Photo Credit: N.Y. Times, Albany Times Union, L.A. Times, SI, ESPN. Drawing by Michael Pitts]
In Game 5 of the 2000 World Series, Mike Piazza represented the tying run with two out in the bottom of the ninth. Mariano Rivera was on the hill for the Yankees protecting the 4-2 lead and attempting to shepherd home another World Championship. Rivera uncorked an 0-1 cutter and Piazza appeared to make solid contact and drove the ball to center field.
The ball took off and spun Bernie Williams around as he raced back in pursuit. But Shea Stadium isn’t a band box and the last second cut of Mariano’s signature pitch guided the ball past Piazza’s sweet spot and down towards the end of the bat. Bernie caught up to the ball easily before the warning track and the Yankees were champions again.
Mike Piazza flied / flew out to center field.
Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct and expert linguist (among other things), says, “In baseball, one says that a slugger has flied out; no mere mortal has ever “flown out” to center field.”
Before you trust him implicitly, be careful, dude’s a Red Sox fan.
Let us know your preference in the comments.
That’d be Tom Seaver and Pat Jordan. Head on over to Sports on Earth and check out Jordan’s nice, long profile on Seaver:
We walked between the rows of vines, up and down the steep terraces in the hot sun. Tom’s three Labrador Retrievers romped around us. Big, playful, doofus dogs with their tongues hanging out. He told me their names. “Major, Bandy, Bricks.” I said, “Bricks, like in chimney bricks?” He said, “No, Brix.” I said, “Bricks?” He said, “No, Brix.” I said, “Who’s on first?” He didn’t get it, so I said, “Spell it.” He spelled, “B-R-I-X. It’s French for the sugar content in grapes.”
We stopped at a vine drooping with clusters of grapes. He snipped off a cluster and handed it to me. I held it over my head, like in one of those old paintings of Roman orgies, and ate the small, black, sweet grapes off the cluster. “Delicious,” I said. Tom explained that each variety of grapes had different characteristics that you could only tell by tasting them. That’s why each row was numbered.
I said, “Very good, Thomas. You always did explain things precise.”
“Ly,” he said. “Precise-ly. You’re supposed to be the fucking writer, and you don’t know your grammar.”
“Thank you very much. You know I got a journalism degree from USC.” Irony of ironies! Tom Seaver, trying to impress me.
I said, “Yeah, and I had a better fastball than you.”
But he went on. “I was always like that about pitching. I had to be precise. I couldn’t just mail it in!” Then he began to explain more about his vines, about the cordon and proper height for each vine. I tuned him out and ate my grapes, the juices running down my sweatshirt. He looked at me, annoyed, and said, “Pay attention. I’m gonna give you a fucking lesson.”
“I don’t want a fucking lesson.”
“That doesn’t matter. I’m giving you one. Now, if the secondary fruit grows too high, you have to snip it off or else they’ll take energy from the vines.”
I feigned interest. “How high?”
“Each row has to be only to a height of 14.”
“Fourteen what? Inches, feet?”
“I don’t know. It’s just a standard height. Stop asking questions and just listen. This is important, for Chrissakes. If you didn’t talk so much you might learn something. If the vines are too high, you have to trim them.” He reached up with his snips and trimmed a vine.
“Oh, I see. The height of each vine is a template for the row. Your job is to go down the row trimming the tops, to make them conform to the template. I can see how the monotony of this appeals to your precise, fucking methodical nature. It’s therapy for you.”
“Bullshit. You think too much. You always did.”
“I had a better fastball than you.”
“In your dreams.”
“Yeah, and between us we won 311 major league games.”
“Abso-fucking-lutely! I tell everybody that!”
I asked him if he’d still have his vineyards if he hadn’t missed out on today’s big baseball paydays. Tom made more than a million dollars a year only twice in his career. If he were pitching in his prime today, he’d be making $30 million a year.
“I started to lose interest,” he said. “I wanted to go home. I couldn’t do it anymore. I never was pissed I missed the big paydays. Be careful what you wish for, you might get it. If I’d made that $30 million a year, maybe I’d just have bought that huge, finished vineyard and let others do it all. I’d have missed out on the pleasure of being in the vineyards every day. My pleasure has always been in the work, not the ego.”
Since his character is part of the story, Rodriguez wanted me to talk to a character witness, and his choice was an odd one: Cynthia, his ex-wife. “You’re going to love her. She’s an amazing lady. I love her to pieces,” he said, “and she’s one of my best friends.”
Cynthia met me in a café in Coconut Grove and then a second time in the elegant though hardly ostentatious home she designed on Biscayne Bay. She’s not just toned but muscular, an attractive, petite blonde with smooth skin and piercing eyes and two bright diamond earrings. She met Rodriguez when he was 21 and she was 22. She wasn’t a sports fan. He told her he played baseball. “That’s great, but what do you really do?” she’d said. Cynthia is a traditional girl from a close-knit, religious family who lived a few blocks from her parents for a time—and she was a college graduate, which impressed Rodriguez. She’d earned a master’s degree in psychology and had practiced as a therapist.
She had every reason in the world to dislike Rodriguez. He’d humiliated her in the press; there were reports of Madonna and Rodriguez together shortly after the birth of their second child. But five years later—they divorced in 2008—she simply said, “I was disappointed.” She still esteems him. In the aftermath of the separation, he was generous and thoughtful. “He really made sure that everything was taken care of,” she told me. “It was a very nurturing process.” For her, that wasn’t an exception. “I saw something in him that I still see in him, and what I see is still very good.”
But she also sees damage. She spooled out the now-familiar story as to its causes. His father left the family when Alex was 10; he lived with his mother and lost touch with his father. The absence of a father made him the man of the house, big pressure for a teenager. “I was in a full sprint to make sure my mother never worked again,” he said.
Rodriguez’s success added to the emotional distortion. “Everything was about growing him as a baseball player,” Cynthia said. “He wasn’t learning anything but how to hit the fastball.
“What happens to everything else? It’s stunted, completely.” Without an authority figure, he listened willy-nilly to the advice of whoever was with him at the time.
“I used to say to Alex, ‘Don’t you just know what to do? Don’t you just have that voice in your head that tells you?’ He said, ‘No. I don’t.’ I think, looking back, he was probably uncomfortable with his place in the world.”
Later, when their marriage was crumbling, Cynthia thought a lot about Rodriguez’s issues. One day, she ran into Cal Ripken, one of his baseball heroes and a friend.
“What is it about Alex that I’m not seeing?” she asked Ripken. “What is it that I don’t get?”
“Cynthia, let me tell you the problem,” he said, and told her a story. “I might be wearing a suit, and Alex will see me and say, ‘Cal, I love your suit. Where did you get that suit?’ Then somebody else might walk in the locker room, and they have a completely different kind of suit on. And Alex might say, ‘Hey, I love your suit.’
“Cynthia, he tries to please everyone. That’s the problem.”
Rodriguez would often be charged with insincerity, but Cynthia didn’t see it that way. “He’s trying to say the right thing, trying to fit in. I would say immature, not insincere.”
[Photo Via: USA Today]
Despite being a Dodgers fan, Gould was pulling for the Pirates in the playoffs. “I’m into wishful thinking,” he said. “But the abstraction of rooting for a team, and personalizing it, affects me emotionally, and I don’t want to be affected emotionally by what other people do. Life is not about winning and losing. Even when people talk about luck, there’s a deep part of me that doesn’t believe in it. I believe in timing.”
My conversations with Gould inevitably circle back to sports, reinforcing his resemblance to his character in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming — the father figure who always seems to call at the right time to “discuss the Knicks-Bulls exhibition game” at dizzying length. On October 9, the day after Andy Pafko died, I called Gould for his reaction. “Pafko had the biggest forearms I ever saw. He came up to the Catskill Mountains when I was staying there and hit a softball over the biggest tree in center field. It was breathtaking.” He recounted how thrilling it was when the Cubs traded Pafko to the Dodgers in 1951, and rattled off the other players acquired in the deal: Johnny Schmitz, Wayne Terwilliger, and Rube Walker. “I’d have to look at the roster and tell you who I remember, because I don’t lie. It’s too easy, being inventive and creative, to spin things.”6 He scrambled around for a baseball almanac to verify his claim, but laughed when the only book at arm’s length was The Complete Conversations With God.
Gould so often couches his reminiscences with allusions to sports and sense memories from childhood that his response to whether he had any allegiances to the Brooklyn Nets came as no surprise. “No, none whatsoever,” he said, bluntly. Had the franchise started from scratch and not been a New Jersey transplant,7 would he feel the same way? “What comes to mind is Jell-O,” he continued. “Then I was thinking more in terms of My-T-Fine chocolate pudding, which my mother used to make. She would pour it into little cups and let me clean the pot. That’s Brooklyn to me, that’s home. The Nets? That’s not Brooklyn to me.”
I remember coming home from school for lunch the day Len Bias died. I fixed myself something to eat, turned on the TV, and heard the news.
Bias would have been 50 today. Here’s Dave Zirin.
From our man Pete, republished with her permission, this story originally appeared in Playboy back in 1988.
By Pete Dexter
Back in the early Sixties, when Floyd Patterson was still heavyweight champion of the world, an intelligent and high-spirited boxing writer named Jack McKinney was passing an afternoon in Darien, Connecticut, with Cus D’Amato, talking, among other things, about Patterson’s upcoming fight with Sonny Liston. D’Amato, of course, was Patterson’s manager. P
In its way, it was a melancholy conversation. The question was not if Liston would win but if Patterson—a limited fighter—would be maimed. D’Amato cared more for the fighter than the title.P
“Cus had vision,” McKinney said, “but he didn’t need it to see what was about to happen to Patterson.”P
And then, after they talked about Patterson and Liston, and the way things were and the way they ought to be, D’Amato leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling and began to talk about a different kind of fighter. P
He told McKinney that if he could find the right athlete—someone with intelligence, concentration, hand speed, coordination and courage, who had never boxed a minute—he could turn that athlete into a world champion.P
The guess is that my friend McKinney—who had once disappeared from his job at thePhiladelphia Daily News for most of a week, only to surface in Sandusky, Ohio, knocking out a professional middleweight fighter in a four-round preliminary—began to think this might be his own shot at the title. But no.P
“He wanted someone fresh, who hadn’t been around boxing,” McKinney said. “Usually, by the time you were good enough to be noticed by Cus, you had acquired habits that couldn’t be changed. Things had been set in motion.”P
D’Amato eventually got such an athlete into the ring, but nothing came of it. At least, not right away.P
Six or seven years after that conversation in Connecticut, a child was born in an unhealthy part of Brooklyn called Bedford-Stuyvesant to a woman named Lorna Tyson. He was the youngest of her three children and the most like her—timid, soft-spoken, shy. He played mostly with his sister. On the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant, he was sometimes called “little fairy boy,” and no place outside his apartment was safe for him. When the boy was ten, his mother moved from Bedford-Stuyvesant to Brownsville, which is also in Brooklyn. The neighborhoods are different in that in Brownsville, the weak and the timid are not teased, they are eaten. The boy was beaten up again and again; his shoes were stolen; the little money he had belonged to whoever saw him first. P
He kept pigeons on the roof and called them his “babies.” I am thinking now of his square, dimpled hands stroking and feeding his babies; I am thinking of the revelation that must have come when he finally used them as weapons. The story, of course, has been told. Ten-year-old Michael Tyson, who would turn over his shoes or his coat or his money, drew the line at his pigeons. P
An older boy tried to take one of them away, and Michael began to swing. The revelation was not so much that he won the fight but how much he enjoyed it.P
“I was beating the shit out of this guy,” he said, “and I was so happy. To this day, it makes me happy. The fight itself, when all the talk is over and there is nothing left to say, nothing else to do but fight. That’s the best part, in the ring. The rest of it, being the champion, I don’t get so much pleasure from that as you might think.”P
So young Michael kicked the shit out of the kid who had tried to steal his pigeon; then he kicked the shit out of some of the kids who had stolen his clothes and money; and then he kicked the shit out of a bunch of people who just seemed to need the shit kicked out of them.P
Noticing this, members of the Brownsville community began to include him in their activities. “They held the guns,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1986.”I just put everything in a bag. I was 11.” P
The stealing bothered Michael’s mother, and it bothered the cashiers in the stores that were being held up, and eventually it bothered the police. And so, just when he’d finally adjusted to Brooklyn, Michael found himself moving to the Tyron School for Boys in Upstate New York, which is sort of a prep school for youngsters trying to get into Attica.P
And it was there, at the age of 13, that he met Bobby Stewart, who taught him the fundamentals of boxing. Five years before, Stewart had been the 178-pound national Golden Gloves champion, which is to say he could fight. Within a few months, however, Tyson was giving him all he could handle.P
Stewart took the boy to his friend Cus D’Amato, who watched him spar three rounds, talked with him a few minutes and saw the fighter he had been waiting for all his life.P
D’Amato had become reclusive in the last years, at least as distrustful of the Don Kings and Bob Arums as he had been of guys like Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo back when they owned and operated the sport. He lived in a large farmhouse outside Catskill, New York, overlooking the Hudson River, and trained his fighters in the gym on the third floor of Citizens Hose Company, in town.P
He educated the boy in his house and in his gym; and if you were looking for the difference between Mike Tyson and the other fighters D’Amato had taught, it probably lay in the depth of Tyson’s understanding of the things D’Amato was teaching him.P
It is one thing to know what words mean and accept them, it is another thing to believe them. You may understand intellectually that courage is not a constant in anyone and that discipline is—or can be. Discipline will get you through the times when your courage fades. But for discipline to help when everything inside you is suddenly calling in sick, you have to believe it. It has to be true, or it’s useless. P
So what I mean by teaching is not that D’Amato put anything inside Tyson but that he showed him where it was and how to use it. At any rate, Tyson stayed with D’Amato in the house overlooking the Hudson until the old man died on November 4, 1985. He was 77 years old. Tyson was 19, a professional fighter for only eight months. His mother was dead. He had fought 13 times and knocked 13 people out. Nine in the first round.P
The funeral for Cus D’Amato was held at a Catholic church in Catskill, and among the pallbearers were two men who would guide Mike Tyson the rest of the way to the championship, Kevin Rooney and Jimmy Jacobs. Rooney had been one of D’Amato’s fighters, too—a tenacious welterweight who had fought successfully without exceptional tools—and would take over as Tyson’s trainer.P
Jacobs was one of Tyson’s co-managers and was as devoted to the old man in his way as the kid was. He is the owner—along with Tyson’s other manager, Bill Cayton—of the greatest collection of fight films in existence. The number is close to 26,000. He and D’Amato used to show up in Philadelphia from time to time and show them at benefits for retired fighters. He was also arguably the greatest handball player who ever lived, and perhaps because of his own success as an athlete, he could appreciate boxing and its players the way D’Amato appreciated it—in a pure way, for the sport itself. Jacobs did not need to see himself in its reflection—not now, not back in the Sixties, when D’Amato had talked with him, just as he had talked with McKinney, about taking an athlete who had never fought a round and turning him into a world champion. The difference being that the athlete D’Amato had sought was Jacobs himself.P
A year and two weeks after D’Amato’s funeral, Jacobs and Rooney had Mike Tyson in a boxing ring at the Las Vegas Hilton with a heavyweight fighter named Trevor Berbick, whom you would call undistinguished, except that he happened to be the World Boxing Council heavyweight champion of the world.P
Berbick had once survived 15 rounds with Larry Holmes—the first man to do that after Holmes became champion—but he hadn’t tried to win, only to last; and in the end, the distinction of staying 15 rounds was forfeit to his lack of ambition.P
At any rate, it was the wrong night for Berbick to try to make things right. The wrong night and the wrong ring and the wrong opponent. You never know what gets into somebody else’s head, but Berbick went right at Tyson—a man with twice his ability—tried to back him up, and in two rounds he was gone.P
And Mike Tyson, 20 years old, was the youngest heavyweight champion in the history of the sport. That night, he said he felt Cus watching.P
I don’t know.P
I’ve never been much of a believer in being watched by the dead, but I do know that Michael Spinks, the man who had taken Larry Holmes’s International Boxing Federation title, was watching at ringside and shortly afterward backed out of the contract he had signed with Home Box Office to fight the winner of a heavyweight-champion elimination match between Tyson and the World Boxing Association champion.P
On one hand, you cannot fault Spinks. One minute, you’re fighting Tyson, the next, you’re up there with Cus, watching the doctors work over your body. P
On the other hand, what Spinks did seemed to drop him into the same category as the other heavyweight “champions” of recent years—guys like Berbick and Pinklon Thomas and Greg Page and Tim Witherspoon and Bonecrusher Smith and Michael Dokes—who had cheapened what was once the most prestigious title in sports until it had no meaning.P
You cannot talk about cheapening the heavyweight title, of course, without mentioning the three ruling bodies of boxing—the W.B.C., the W.B.A. and the I.B.F., each of which has the integrity of a Cleveland pimp. In the long years since boxing was divided into ruling bodies, you sometimes forgot that being heavyweight champion of the world was once a serious job.P
And part of what Tyson holds out is a return to that. It is part of his appeal, a return to a time when the heavyweight champion of the world could fight.P
The night I decided to write a piece on Mike Tyson, I was sitting on the couch watching theDick Cavett Show with my dog McGuire. I have been trying to teach the animal the rudiments or house watching for a long time, without results.P
The scarier somebody looks, the friendlier he gets. A Hell’s Angel once gave him a hamburger at a Burger King and he never forgot it.P
So you start at the other end, with a twerp.”You see that guy in the suit’” I said to him when Cavett came on. “Anybody like that comes near the house, you fuck him up, all right? Him and his suit.” P
McGuire studied the set a long time, memorizing Dick Cavett. I had the sudden thought that l might get him on David Letterman’s show, which features a segment called “Stupid Pet Tricks.”P
“Well, Dave, McGuire here fucks up Dick Cavett…” and they bring Cavett in, and the dog breaks his legs. Then I take him to Burger King as a reward.P
And so, not wanting to distract the dog from Dick Cavett, I left the television on and went into the kitchen for some Oreo cookies, which McGuire loves. If a Hell’s Angel had given him an Oreo cookie, he’d be riding around on the back of a Harley right now.P
Anyway, by the time I got back to the couch, Cavett was talking with Mike Tyson, dazzling him with that precious twerp wit. And then Cavett, in as memorable an attack of little man’s disease as I have ever seen, stood up, in front of a television audience that must have run into the thousands, and induced Tyson to try to hold on to his (Cavett’s) wrists.P
Tyson moaned. You could see he did not want to grab Dick Cavett’s wrists; you could see he was embarrassed by what was happening.P
Tyson took his wrists.P
“Now hold on,” Cavett said.P
Tyson held on.P
Cavett made an oblique reference to his 80-some-year-old martial-arts instructor and then moved his arm against the place where Tyson’s thumb met his fingers and pulled free. This, obviously, is invaluable stuff to anyone grabbed by the wrists on television and, just as obviously, means that hidden underneath the wonderful suit and all that wit is a very dangerous guy who can probably handle himself with the ladies, too.P
And I wondered, sitting there as McGuire finished the Oreos, what a 20-year-old kid made of rich little white guys who wanted him to hold on to their wrists, and decided to ask.P
I caught up with Mike Tyson a month or two later in Catskill, New York. It was two months before the fight with Bonecrusher Smith, his first day in the gym since taking the title from Berbick.P
The gym had once been an auditorium, and Tyson was undressing in a room off to one side of the stage. Jeans, a sweat shirt, tennis shoes. I think there was an American flag in the corner. One of the truly horrifying things about Tyson is that in loose clothes, he looks pudgy, like somebody you might pick on in a bar. Alright, that is not exactly all of it.P
What is horrifying is the similarity to the movie Alien, in which Sigourney Weaver and a bunch of ordinary guys are sitting around having lunch in space when all of a sudden, one of them goes into convulsions and this awful thing eats its way out of his chest and leaves him lying there in his plate. I mean, you’re just naturally terrified to find out somebody you might know has something like that inside. P
And there is something like that inside Tyson, and he isn’t the one who gets eaten.P
Anyway, thoughts of pudginess disappear as he takes off his shirt. He is not the most muscular heavyweight I have seen, but there has never been another, at least to my knowledge, who carried as much muscle and could fight as long without seeming to tire. A lot of that is conditioning, of course, but a lot of it is simply a gift, like speed or natural power.P
Tyson covers his chest and arms in grease and then slips into a black leotard. “I like this,” he said. “It feels good.”P
I ask him then, while he’s tying his boots, what it’s like to grow up in the streets, get saved by Cus D’Amato and turned into a professional fighter, fight all the way to the top and knock out Trevor Berbick in two rounds for the title and then have Dick Cavett get up on national television and ask you to hold his wrists. P
“That didn’t bother me much,” he said in that familiar soft voice. “I think they must pay him to act like that; I don’t know why. There’s always somebody wanting to tell you something about a fight they had—might go back to sixth grade. I don’t pay too much attention. Or they tell you how bad they were, but their mother made them stop boxing. I don’t know what to say to somebody like that. I don’t even know for sure what they want.P
“I’m a serious person, but I don’t take this for more than it is. I like the fights themselves; I love that moment before it starts when you’re scared and excited and you know it’s time. The talk doesn’t mean much. I’m not going to tell anybody how bad I am; I’ll do that in the ring.P
“And when I’m through in the ring, that’s it. I’ll find something else. You’ve got such a short time. You can’t go around being the legendary champion because that’s what people expect you to be.” P
That is one of the things that bother Tyson about his celebrity—the obligations to people he does not know. “Society puts these things on you,” he said. “Some of them are saying you are insensitive to be part of this brutality; they don’t know the first thing about who you are. At the same time, here are all these articulate people they look up to, sitting in the best seats at the fight. What about that?P
“I do not see that I’ve got to be the focus of a bunch of bullshit. I do what I do. You’ll never hear anybody leaving this camp thinking anything bad about me. I don’t try to hurt anybody in the gym; I leave the 16-ounce gloves on, even if somebody else is wearing 12s. I will always put myself at the disadvantage; that’s when you learn. P
“I have my fights, and people say things about them. About me. But you can’t confuse that with what I am and what I do. Fighting is all I do, but I’m something else besides the fighter.”P
And somehow, that is at the core of things. Think of the heavyweights over the past 30 years. Patterson, who hid behind beards and sunglasses after Liston beat him, and never really quit hiding. Liston, dead from an overdose, probably murdered. Muhammad Ali, the best and the brightest, fogged in and showing up from time to time with Evil Knievel. Joe Frazier, who never learned to live with his losses to Ali, sending his own kids into the ring with Larry Holmes and then with Tyson, when the kid had no chance. Holmes, who has never learned to live on the same planet as Ali, and, assuming his comeback fight with Tyson comes off, never learned from him, either. Leon Spinks.P
All of them out of place in the world, because after the ring they had no place.P
A few minutes later, Tyson is in the ring. The fighter with him is a new sparring partner, who has come in with his trainer. I do not know exactly what the fighter and his trainer have in mind for the afternoon, but as soon as they see that Tyson spars without headgear, the sparring partner removes his.P
He begins the round moving to his left, away from Tyson’s hook, throwing jabs. There is some feeling that Tyson is vulnerable to a fighter who moves and can jab, and the sparring partner is clearly here to take some rounds from the champion. P
Fifteen seconds into the round, however, Tyson throws a jab of his own—it is not a slow punch, but it carries all his weight—and staggers the sparring partner. The sparring partner is shocked; I am shocked. Tyson isn’t supposed to have a jab.P
The first fighter who took Tyson the distance, in fact, was a man named Quick Tillis, and Tyson went 10 rounds that night without throwing any jabs that I remember. If he had thrown jabs, Tillis would not have been there at the end.P
The hand is gone from the sparring partner’s face less than half a second when it returns from the side—a hook, and then a right hand. A minute and a half into the round, the new sparring partner is holding his head, defenseless, and Tyson, not wanting to embarrass him, pulls his punches and holds, giving him time to recover; but the new sparring partner has lost interest, and Tyson stops altogether.P
For the ten or 15 seconds it takes the sparring partner to get through the ropes, Tyson ignores him. It is exactly as if he wasn’t there.P
Another sparring partner comes into the ring, a good-natured journeyman heavyweight named Irish Mike Jameson, who goes the rest of that round and two more. Jameson is not quick enough, but he takes a punch well and is not afraid to mix it up.P
He is the kind of fighter who makes Tyson look unbeatable, which right now he may be. No one in the division boxes well enough to keep him off—witness Tyrell Biggs—no one with enough power and speed to stand in one spot and trade.P
Three times in Tyson’s career—against Quick Tillis, Mitch Green and Bonecrusher Smith—he has been taken to a decision, but each of those opponents gave up on winning early (if any considered winning) and held on to Tyson for the entire fight.P
You cannot win like that, of course, but you get to live.P
At least for now. It would seem to be only a matter of time before Tyson reacts better to holding, giving up some of the powerful arc punches for shorter, straighter jabs and rights. It is a harder proposition to hold on to someone who is three feet away, on the other side of the fist, than it is to hold someone who is standing under your chin, trying to reach your head with off-angle hooks. But I’m going to leave that end of things to Tyson and Rooney.P
What I am more interested in is what happens after that.P
Tyson is still a kid.P
He seems to know things that 21-year-old kids shouldn’t know, and some of that—most of it—comes from Cus D’Amato.P
In the end, though, you drive your own wagon. When the training and the fighting are over, when things are not clean-cut, the way they are in the ring, and the old man’s words are not so fresh, it will be easier to talk about who Tyson is. I know this much about it—there will be something to talk about.P
Tyson is smart; he feels things; he has standards.P
D’Amato did not teach that; he helped him find it.P
The old man was a visionary, and it did not begin or end with boxing. When he saw Tyson, I think he saw the rarest kind of heavyweight there is:P
The one who would not break his heart.P
[Photo Credit: Richard Harbus/Corbis]
Rich Cohen’s new book, Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football is a keeper. I’ve been a fan of Cohen’s writing ever since my pal Steinski hipped me to Tough Jews. A few weeks ago I talked to Rich about his career and the new book.
Dig in and enjoy.
(Be sure to check out this excerpt on Dough Plank over at Deadspin and this one on Jim McMahon at SI.com)
AB: Not counting the book you wrote with Jerry Weintraub and the children’s book, this is your eighth book. Let’s start with your family memoir, Sweet and Low. Was that the book you always wanted to write?
RC: It’s hard to say exactly because usually when I’m doing a book I feel like that’s the book I always wanted to write and I genuinely feel that way, it’s not just something I’m saying. I think maybe you have to get yourself into that state of mind to do it. Sweet and Low was kind of the thing that I look back at and I say, “I can’t believe I did that, that was an insane thing to do.”
AB: You mean just to be so candid about your family history?
RC: Yeah and about my uncle. I could have got sued in a million ways, horrible things could’ve happened. It was just crazy.
AB: But you were driven a little bit by your mom being screwed out of her inheritance.
RC: Definitely, but it’s like when you get older and you have kids, you just play a little more safe, I think. Sweet and Low really worked well. Everything went really well with it and I’m really glad I did it, but if it went wrong, it could have gone really wrong. You always take that risk with a book, but usually you’re talking like it could go artistically wrong, you could not sell any copies, but it’s not like you could like never talk to your parents again kind of wrong.
AB: Right, or have these horrible lawsuits from family.
RC: Or worse, completely wrecking your family relationships. The most important relationships.
AB: Did you show your parents portions of the book before you finished it?
AB: Really? So you really were taking a risk.
RC: I couldn’t show it to them, especially my father, who would’ve attempted to re-write i. It’s like his story too. I knew I had to finish it and not only finish it, kind of get it almost perfect into my mind at that time and be so it was like unassailable in my mind. I felt really strongly about it.
AB: That’s one thing I always get from reading it. You have a very strong and sure voice narration. Sometimes that can even be when you’re being funny, you’re confident. There’s an authorial confidence that I always get reading your stuff. Did that grow after you did Sweet and Low?
RC: I think the big breakthrough book for me was The Record Men, the book right before Sweet and Low. Something in my head changed, I realized something.
AB: I haven’t read all of your books, but in those two, everything just seems so sound. The tone is really fluid throughout.
RC: Something just happened.
AB: Is writing hard for you?
RC: Of course, it’s impossible for me. Hardest fucking thing in the world.
AB: Good. I know that that’s the case for pretty much every writer that I’ve ever admired. Yet there are some writers that you read and love so much that it is easy to buy into the fantasy that they just wake up and do it with ease. That’s sort of the effect that your books have, there’s an ease to the way that everything flows.
RC: I don’t think it’s true for anybody. It feels that way maybe when you’re writing it, but then you go back and read it again and realize it’s a piece of shit basically. I start with what I call the vomit draft. You sort of put every single thing into it the first time, but I never believe when I’m writing that I’m writing a finished book.
AB: Well one thing that you say in this book which I thought was great–you said that as you’ve gotten older you’ve said that one thing you’ve really come to believe is true is that, I don’t remember exactly how you phrased it, but something like hard work and determination is a talent.
RC: And it’s connected to my own thing because sometimes those qualities of persistence and trying again and again, they’re dismissed because they’re not genius. Then there’s this idea that there’s genius and then there’s the other stuff, but the other stuff – it’s just that the hard work is it’s own kind of genius. That was my point about Walter Payton. You write a book like this and you think about yourself and the people you know in the best possible way. When I came out of a college, I was suddenly in an environment where everybody went to a much, much better school.
AB: When you were aware of wanting to become a writer did you say, “Yeah I want to write books one day?” Was that your ambition?
RC: When I was a little kid, my dad wrote a book, sold a lot of copies. Not really a writer, but he wrote a really big deal book. It was exciting, I was around for it and we’ve always, in my family, held books in the highest esteem. We had a library in our house that you could actually add to that library something with your name on it that you wrote was the greatest kind of achievement. It was just held as the greatest achievement to actually write a book so I had in my head that it was almost impossible to do. My father was in his way, for a guy that had to work all the time, he really liked good writers and he really liked good writing. I always had this idea of really excellent writing and wanting to do that. What happened was I came out of college and I got a job at the New Yorker and I always said I wanted to be a fiction writer. ThenI realized that the stuff I liked at the New Yorker, not just when I was there, but the old stuff, was non-fiction. The stuff I didn’t like about fiction – the whole idea about plot I found maddening and boring.
AB: You were a pop culture junkie as a kid. You’re a huge music fan, you’re into movies, so were you naturally drawn to non fiction just as a way of acquiring information about things?
RC: I really was a big fiction reader but I think what happened was, in high school and in college, and I don’t know if it’s different if you go to a different kind of college, but I would take English classes and you’d read great writers and you’d take history classes and you’d read bad books. I never read the great non-fiction books. So there was this idea that real writing was fiction and the history was writing like the history teachers.
AB: Did you read Pauline Kael and movie criticism or Hunter Thompson or Rolling Stone and Creem or any of that kind of stuff?
RC: I definitely read Rolling Stone and I read Hunter Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke and I didn’t really get into Pauline Kael until I go out of college which is too bad because I love Pauline Kael so much.
AB: I sent her a post card once when I was in high school actually and she wrote back to me.
RC: I knew her when I was a kid briefly because I was a messenger at the New Yorker and she was still there. She was like the kind of person that if you’re a messenger, she still treated you like you actually might be a person.
AB: Oh nice. Well so Monsters. The Bears. How did this book come up? Was this something you wanted to do for a while?
AB: So how did this book come up? Was this something you wanted to do for a while?
RC: The really good stories to me are like Sweet and Low. They’re so close to you and important to you. You don’t even recognize them as stories, you don’t even think about it. It doesn’t occur to you and that’s how this was to me because this team was completely essential growing up. You completely thought about this team all day for many years and these guys.
AB: Is this just the ’85 Bears or is this the ’83, ’84, ’85, ’86 Bears that culminate with ’85?
RC: Absolutely, I would say probably like really ’79 to ’89 or maybe even ’79 to ’90 or ’91. I was supposed to write a story for Harper’s about my father, but I just couldn’t do it. I was talking to an editor there and she said, “Okay well what else do you want to write about, why don’t you write about sports?” Because I’ve written a bunch of sports stories for them, as you know, because you’ve excerpted that one thing and I said, “I don’t know.” And she said, “Do you want to write about the Knicks?” I said, “Why the fuck do I want to write about the Knicks? I hate the Knicks.” And she goes, “Well I like the Knicks,” so I said, “Then you write about the Knicks.” She said, “Do you have any sports team that you really love?” I said, “The ’85 bears.” I thought maybe I’d write about the ’85 Bears. One of the problems you run into with sports stories is the guys aren’t that interesting when you talk to them. I’ve written a lot of stories about guys playing now. I decided the first person I’d talk to would be Doug Plank. You’d think he’d be this because he was such a ferocious player and kind of a borderline player, and I called him up and it was like, it was the greatest interview I’d ever done. He had been so thoughtful about his career, what it meant, that time in his life, the game, what the game meant, what it means to succeed, what it means to fail, what it’s like to have to leave the game and your friends continue on without you, what’s it like to barely not win the Super Bowl because he retired too early. All these things about fame and what’s the Gay Talese book–Fame and Obscurity? All the big things not just about football, but about like being a human being and being alive and getting old.
AB: And how reflective the guy is. He talks about–who is the guy, you end that one chapter with him talking about a guy who tore his cartilage?
RC: He never told me the player’s name. He’s obviously protecting the guy and he’s talking about hitting a guy low.
AB: Yeah and he just says that you live with these things for a long time and you kind of–it’s real powerful stuff there.
RC: I thought so and his whole thing about Roger Goodell coming up to him and saying, “You’re a great player.” It’s sort of like that’s what everybody wants–to just really be great at one thing, I think.
AB: What’s interesting to me about that quote is the idea than an authority figure’s compliment would validate him so much, there’s still that adolescent need in Plank.
RC: It’s interesting too because Goodell didn’t play.
AB: That took me back actually because of all the things he said, and this guy’s pretty deep, yet he still craves that Dad kind of approval.
RC: But there’s another way to look at it too. That’s definitely true, but there’s also the idea of how you’re remembered. It’s like what Ditka said. I mean, I read it, I still sort of break up and cry over Ditka’s eulogy of Payton about how he played. It’s like how did they play, that’s just like life. How did you play the game? Did you play hard? Did you play clean? Did you obey the rules of the game you were playing? And all these things and there’s that too in Plank, I mean yeah it’s Goodell so that’s totally true what you’re saying, but it’s also here’s somebody remembering so many years later, you were a great player. It’s so long ago and he wasn’t on the ’85 Bears.
AB: And talk about fame and obscurity—say for instance they didn’t win in ’85 then really who would have remembered him? What I remember most about the Bears that year was that they were like the bad guys in The Road Warrior. They were just terrorists. They’d knock guys out, they didn’t just beat guys, it was ridiculous and they reveled in it too, that was the thing.
RC: Absolutely man. I tried to put that in the book because I was a Joe Ferguson fan for whatever reason because I used to love to watch him run all around. Remember how great he was? I remember him on the Bills. He was also the subject of the greatest, funniest referee’s call ever. Remember that? The guy giving him the business. That was Ferguson, “giving him the business.” Which shows people like to pound on Ferguson for some reason, he’s always getting “giving him the business.” It’s one of those guys who you associate him with one team. Always with the Bills. When Wilber Marshall just laid him out and it was the most vicious hit that I’ve ever seen and they say that the game has gotten so much quicker and so much more violent, I don’t believe it when I see that hit. That’s as violent as any hit you’ll ever see ever. You look at even the size of a guy like Ditka. Ditka could still be a great tight end now, he’s the same size as those guys. When he was playing, if you look at how big he was, now they work out more, but they were big fucking guys. Just to see him like–to watch him kill Joe Ferguson I just suddenly got, “Oh, this is what it must be like for every other team in the league.” To understand the greater context of it, the Cowboys have been beating the shit out of the Bears my entire life. Every now and then we’d get a Cowboy player and he wouldn’t be good anymore. Like Golden Richards came to the Bears, I was like “Oh we got one of these guys!”
AB: Well it’s like you said, it’s like who cares what happened with the rest of the season, win this game. At the time of that game, it’s like a poor man’s version of when the Red Sox beat the Yankees in ’04.
RC: It’s how I used to feel when I was a kid, I was a big Michigan fan and watched Michigan play Ohio State. It didn’t really matter what happened in the Rose Bowl, the main thing was that Michigan beat Ohio State. Woody Hays went psychotic, punched out a cameraman.
AB: I remember the Monday night game vividly. What I didn’t realize was that it wasn’t just Marino, it was Shula and it was maybe the fact that the Bears were a little cocky and that that loss proved to actually be a really good thing for them.
RC: Yeah like if the Patriots maybe a couple years ago had not had a perfect record. Maybe it would have been good for them. Sometimes you go in kind of arrogant and it’s like the Bears were rigid. They were rigid because Buddy Ryan had this idea, which was right that year, but look at what happened to him later. He was a rigid guy. He would draw up his plan and he wasn’t a pragmatic person, he was an ideologue. Rex is a little bit like that. Ditka, that’s why they were really complimentary, Ditka is the ultimate pragmatist, he doesn’t give a shit, if he goes to a team that has a great running back, he’ll run the ball every play. If he goes to a team that’s got a great receiver, he’ll throw, whatever he can do to win, he’ll do it. The 46, Shula figured out how to beat the 46 for one half, that’s all he had to do because the Bears didn’t score a lot of points and McMahon was hurt and the Bears had this idea that Marino was immobile and he just couldn’t move and they designed roll-outs and they suddenly had Wilber Marshall having to cover Nat Moore down the field and he just couldn’t do it and Marino was one of the best quarterbacks ever and that was it. If Buddy Ryan had switch to the nickel, which he finally did in the second half, they could’ve probably stopped him because not only did he have 46, but they also had great players, four hall of famers, three on defense I guess. Some of those guys could have been like Wilber Marshall.
AB: Well it’s like the Big Red Machine. It’s like the guys who aren’t in the Hall of Fame are still pretty fucking awesome.
RC: Right and they’re not in the hall of fame and they’re the reason why the other guys are in the hall of fame.
AB: They can’t put the whole damn squad in the hall of fame.
RC: Exactly so you have McMichael who is borderline and even a guy like Fencik who I guess is nowhere close, but if you look at the amount of interceptions he had and the amount of tackles he had.
AB: Now Fencik sounds like a great interview too.
RC: Well Fencik is a really smart, kind of regular kind of guy. Plank would always joke and Fencik would say the same thing and say, “Hey it’s Gary Plank.” They played side by side for a whole bunch of years. They were kind of like mirror images of each other. They’re both these like little, not very fast, hard-hitting white guys who would run around and completely crush people. I was watching a game the other night and they were trying to use the safety like that. It just wasn’t good enough. They would pick him up and he would suddenly be trying to get by a guy who was 100 pounds heavier than him and they just didn’t and as a result there was somebody open down field. It was a disaster. But just to see when you’d see Fencik come creeping up just before the snap and suddenly he’s the extra guy coming through on the safety. In that game against the Rams, the first tackle is made by Fencik of Dickerson in the Rams backfield. That’s crazy.
AB: Absolutely. The only drag to me about the way that that season ended, well there’s two drags and you go into it in the book. I was pissed they didn’t give the ball to Walter Payton to score a touchdown, but I actually understood it a little bit more, reading your book that he was a perfect decoy.
RC: When you go back and watch the game–I didn’t really write about this too much because I didn’t want to and I basically agree with you, but he did get the ball a lot by the goal and he didn’t score. He didn’t have a good game. He just didn’t have a good game and if you look at it, I counted at one point, there were five or six times he was given the ball inside the three. You know what I mean? Even one time when he was throwing the ball and he like dropped it in the end zone. Basically he was pissed at himself I think because he knew he had a shitty game and one of the reasons he had a shitty game was because he was triple teamed every time he touched the ball.
AB: That’s the one thing they could do.
RC: Right, the one thing they said, “Okay, we’re going to stop Payton, we’re not going to let Payton beat us. We’re going to make McMahon beat us” or whatever.
AB: What’s interesting was the way that Payton handled it, which wasn’t graceful. Finally he won the Super Bowl and he was kind of pissed in the aftermath, but also that Ditka was so swept up in the moment that it didn’t even occur to him to let Payton score a touchdown.
RC: Here’s the thing for me. I was at the game and I was a kid, so I didn’t even notice any of that. It’s amazing when you’re at the game–I mean, I noticed that Payton didn’t score, I noticed that bothered me, but I didn’t notice that Payton wasn’t handling it well because I couldn’t see his face. I realized it later and then I read the Jeff Pearlman book a couple years ago and he really went into it, but the thing is when I interviewed McMahon, McMahon who remembered every single tiny detail, McMahon like Ditka said, “I didn’t even realize until after the game. I didn’t even get it.” He was so focused on winning the Super Bowl and he said that the play that he scored that his first touch down was designed for Payton. He looked up and Payton was completely covered and there was a big hole so he just ran into the end zone and that’s the football play.
AB: Absolutely. The other part that I remember about that season being disappointed with was that the Dolphins didn’t make it to the Super Bowl.
RC: I didn’t really write about that in the book because it was a shame. The Dolphins were probably going to lose, but you had a sense that–
AB: Right. Well the Dolphins, I just remember when they lost in the playoffs it was like: the season’s over. They were the best chance to put up a fight against the Bears. That would have been a sort of worthy -
RC: Not only that. As a Bears fan, there was a blemish on the season and there is a blemish and the blemish could have been removed. That’s why it was a bummer. The Bears had a chance–that would have been the perfect Hollywood ending, if the Bears beat the Dolphins. Even looking back on it though, it was so thrilling and it was so fitting that they completely trounced New England, if it had been a close game against the Dolphins. I was listening to The FAN in New York around Super Bowl time and they were just talking about the greatest Super Bowl teams and they didn’t even bring up the Bears. How could that be? Then realized, oh, because all the teams they’re talking about are teams that won in great games, that’s why they remember them. The Catch, the Ice Bowl, the Steelers and Cowboys going back and forth, your team, your era, my era too, Bradshaw, Staubach, and all that great stuff and the Bears game was never close.
AB: If I had to name one of the best teams of all time, I would certainly think of the ’85 Bears. Their offense I think is kind of underrated, but forget their offense. Their defense was an offense.
RC: Absolutely, the defense scored more points than the offense. It was Mike Francesa, I think it was his show. It was just an oversight. I know if you were to talk to him because he was just naming–when you started listening to the teams he was naming, they were all teams involved in great games. He was remembering great games. I heard him recently, somebody was saying the Jets have a great defense right now. This was a couple days ago, somebody was saying that, and he was saying, “Oh, they’re not a great defense, a great defense is the ’85 Bears, a great defense is the ’77 Steelers.” He clearly, on his ranking, has the Bears at the top of all time best defenses, as they should be. I think they’re the best ever. I was thinking about the fact that–If it had been the Dolphins and the Bears in the Super Bowl, and not a team that seemed like they just got hot for a couple of games, under weird conditions and if they had an actual game, then it just would have been the perfect ending. It’s sort of like when you get something you wanted to happen very easily and at first you’re really happy that it wasn’t as much work and then later you’re like you wish it was a little more of a struggle. That’s a little bit what it was like.
AB: After they won it’s almost like, what now? Okay, you’ve climbed a mountain. Now what?
RC: Right. It’s really especially cute, I think and maybe I’m wrong. For Chicago, there had never been a winning team in Chicago my whole life. In my entire life.
AB: That’s another thing. This is all before Michael the Bulls run.
RC: You had to go back to ’63 Bears which was five years before I was born and at that point, football was much less of a big deal than it became. One team did win and the media tried to blow it up into a big deal, but nobody cared, and it was the Chicago Kings in the indoor soccer championship and they tried to make it a big deal and the press went to the airport and there was nobody waiting for the team. There was like one guy waiting for the players like, “Hey you’re the soccer guys man, you won something, congratulations, good job!” Iit always seems like it’s going to happen and it doesn’t. Just the year before that in ’84, the Cubs were 2-0 one game away from the World Series, they lost three games in a row. That was just crushing and the year before that, even though I wasn’t a White Sox fan, I sort of rooted for the Chicago teams, but I got kind of into it when the White Sox won their division by like 20 games. Then they maybe won one game against the Orioles.
AB: I got WGN so when I was in middle school I watched the Cubs all the time just because they were on after school so I was kind of familiar with those Cubs teams in a way that I wouldn’t have been with a lot of other teams.
RC: They’re real fun. There’s that Steve Goodman song, “The Cubs Fan’s Request.” First of all, Chicago has variations, just like every city of accents, so the one they do on Saturday Night Live, like the Super Fans, that’s a real accent, it’s like a South Side accent. Where I grew up is sort of like the North Shore and it’s like heading towards Wisconsin and then ultimately to Minnesota and it starts to be almost like a Minnesota accent, but it’s very particular to like a few towns and Steve Goodman has that accent, so it always makes me feel very warm to hear it. He’s talking about his funeral, what he wants for his funeral, it’s just really great. But he’s listing the things that he wants it to be, Wrigley Field, day, no lights, and he wants of all things, he wants Keith Moreland to drop a routine fly. He just dates it exactly. I think Keith Moreland has a son now and he plays baseball.
AB: So when you, you said that this started with something at Harper’s. Did it start as a magazine piece or did you think this could actually be a book?
RC: It started as me saying I was going to write a magazine piece about the ’85 Bears and then calling Doug Plank and then talking to him for three hours and Brian Baschnagel too, Baschnagel was another great guy. Then deciding, this a book, this is a book I’ve always wanted to write. Then I just talked to my editor and told him I want to write this book and he basically said go, do it.
AB: How long did it take you to do it?
RC: I have to think about exactly when I started. I probably spent about six months or a little more just going around and tracking down and interviewing players and hanging out with Brian McCaskey who is one of Halas’s grandsons. Then I probably spent like another year or whatever writing it, or something like that. Then it’s actually been published, from when I turned it in to when I published it, it was a really short period of time. I just turned it in in the spring, I never had that experience. That’s became if we didn’t make this spring, I would’ve had to wait until next football season which I really didn’t want to do. Plus it’s not really, but things happen, things become dated really, really quickly.
AB: Did the McMahon story in Sports Illustrated, that had come out, but before you finished it?
RC: The weird thing about McMahon is he’s alright. When you talk and when you hang out with him.
AB: I was a little surprised actually because having read that piece, I was expecting it to be worse. I didn’t know what your approach was going to be, but you ended up handling that subject dead on. That was like the subject you couldn’t avoid, right?
RC: As a fan, you can’t avoid it either, the more stuff you read about it. You think about it, you have kids, you think about it, but when you go deal with McMahon, you’re dealing with McMahon and how he is and he seemed like he always seemed. He remembers everything, that’s a short term memory thing, the fact is every now and then I get in touch with him and he always e-mails me right back and seems to know who I am.
AB: The other interesting thing about McMahon is that he plays the part of such a hick but actually did well with his money.
RC: He did a really smart thing, which is, all these guys were getting sports agents and he met Steve Zucker who just lived where I grew up basically and he said, well you represent me, he’s not an agent, he’s a really smart guy. The guy said I’m not an agent. He ended up being an agent because he did so well from McMahon and he ended up representing a bunch of Bears, but he said I’m not an agent and he said I don’t care it’s just that you’re smart and you know the people in Chicago. He said okay because he thought his kids would think it was really cool that he represented Jim McMahon. Steve Zucker was such a smart guy and McMahon told him what he wanted, which was when he stopped playing, he didn’t want to have to work ever again. He invested his money, took care of his money, told him what to do in such a way that–it wasn’t just that McMahon was pulling an investor, but he found a guy he could trust and trusted him. That’s like the same kind of thing we’re talking about, about like hard work. Don’t discount how rare that is. That he knew not to go with the biggest deal, biggest name agent. That didn’t mean shit to him. He just wanted somebody who was local in Chicago and somebody who was smart and seemed to have his shit together.
AB: How did you decide how to weave in the memoir stuff with the interviewing of the players and then include a general history of the Bears?
RC: I think that the structure, I hate to give it away because hopefully people can’t even see it, but underneath it all, all the structure is super, super simple, which is what I always like to have, a really simple structure. The structure is just–it’s almost like the history of the Bears from the time they were started until they won the ’85 Super Bowl. That’s really the underlying structure of the book. Then it’s really in thirds. The first third of it is the history of the Bears, then the history of the league because the history of the Bears and the history of the league are intertwined. So it’s the history of the Bears and it’s also a biography of Halas because it’s all intertwined. That’s the first third. Then the second third is the ’85 season and the last third is what happened after.
AB: How did you have to condense the team’s rich history to fit this story?
RC: That’s like the vomit draft . I don’t know how many words the book is. I knew at one point, it’s probably about 85,000 words or something and the first draft was probably 200,000 words. I completely freak out, lose my mind, think it’s a piece of you know – go through everything and then you keep cutting and cutting and the first cutting is easy because it’s obvious, but then it gets harder and harder so like I said, I had this whole chunk on Red Grange. It was just–Red Grange’s story was so much like Sid Luckman’s story I thought you only get one of those and Sid Luckman was more interesting because he was so important to the history of the way the modern offense evolved and Grange wasn’t. Also, Luckman was still around in ’85, he was still there and those guys knew him and he taught Ditka how to catch. He’s completely intertwined. He’s still in a conversation in a way that Grange is almost like Babe Ruth. He’s so distant from such a different era. Then you look at it and I wrote the Butkus and I wrote the Sayers and you sort of say, this book isn’t the whole encyclopedic history like you said, but at the same point it is a history of the Bears and can you really have a history of the Bears without Butkus and Sayers. I kind of thought–I always need a title, I always want a title to be Monsters–and you sort of thought as long as they’re one of the monsters, they belong in the book. That was true Sayers and that was true Butkus, they both belonged in the book. Also, they were the guys, the Bears from before I was born until they started getting good in the early ’80′s went through this long fallow period, that was my entire childhood and the last two great Bears, who never won because they played in that period were Butkus and Sayers. I’m just justifying this in my head but it all fits within and I wanted it to be–the memoir stuff was sort of like it just fits where it fits, the beginning scene with the Super Bowl and the end story, that’s like a bookend, it’s outside the structure, but it’s like a bookend and it’s a really funny way. It’s what really happened, but I thought it was a really funny story about getting on that crazy plane.
AB: I loved that. It begins the story in such such high spirits. That’s the thing for me that ends up being interesting about the story. I learned about a city that I don’t know a lot about. Great story when, after a loss, the cop yells at you guys and he says, “Pick your fucking head up, it’s another fucking day.” That was like okay that’s the city’s ethos or whatever it is.
RC: Absolutely and also, I didn’t want it to be like, it’s not like even though I love these books, it’s not like David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 or whatever–
AB: Well you wanted it to be–In your previous books, your sense of human, you definitely descend from Buddy Hackett’s blue shows. I always get the sense that you like some good vulgarity in your humor.
RC: Yeah I know and I constantly–you should see how many, those are the letters I get from people I sent the book to, “You probably want to take this out.”
AB: I’m glad you didn’t because that’s the fun part.
RC: I know, it’s just getting back to what it really is and what really makes it great, which isn’t–that’s how I felt about it–which isn’t just the statistics and the numbers and the fantasy football and all that shit and all the graphics, it’s a guy running for his life. It’s such a crazy game. This guy trying to through the ball 30 yards down the field as five guys are coming to kill him. What it takes to stand up in the middle of that and know you’re going to get completely flattened and still do it.
AB: The Bears are a great team because again, there was something so primal and awful and they were almost like a comic book. But there are two cases in your book, Tony Easton and Ferguson. … These are guys that you want to talk to who had particularly embarrassing incidents with the Bears. The Ferguson hit and Easton’s poor performance in the Super Bowl. You even mention Joe Morris too, who got the mystery migraine in the playoff game, but you couldn’t find these fucking guys and I wonder, do you think that there is something about football defeat that’s worse than being a goat in a different sport? Bill Buckner comes to mind.
RC: It’s public humiliation for anybody and if you’ve ever had it at all, it’s an awful thing. You never ever get over it. It’s like getting burned. For these guys who are masters, I mean, every one of them is an unbelievable athlete, the greatest athlete at every level just about. That’s what is interesting about Plank and Fencik, they were not. They were never. Like Tom Brady, they just were not and then they kept getting better but most of these guys like Buckner, he was an incredible player from the moment he came into the league and to sort of have this act of being–and he’s a graceful guy and to be in public in the biggest moment in his life and it’s a clumsy thing. I don’t think it’s just football, I think it’s everything and I think sports is just a magnet. That’s why good sports completely resonate because it should be what you live in a confined area in a really heightened way. You do mention Saul Bellow—I’m a big Saul Bellow fan. He had a line about explaining his books and he said it’s just heightened autobiography. It’s kind of like sports are when they’re working. There was a great hockey player even before my time, but legendary guy, Eric Nesterenko.
He was in the movie Young Blood, he actually teaches Rob Lowe how to fight in that movie and when I was at the New Yorker, somebody there, Adam Gopnik, he’s from Canada, he gave me this story which I’ve never heard of, called “The Drubbing of Nesterenko” and it was about how at the end of his career, Nesterenko got in a fight with, now I’m spacing out on his name, but sort of the enforcer of the Canadiens who later became a coach for the Devils. Nesterenko got the shit beat out of him and it was on national hockey net in Canada and Nesterenko was like 42. The guy he was fighting was like 24. The story is all about–the writer’s a big Blackhawks fan and the guy who beats Nesterenko up is on the Canadiens and it’s like he feels as if his own father is beating him up and he has this realization about his dad and his feelings about his dad and his life gets better at this point because he realizes and all this stuff. A friend and I went skiing in Vail in 1993 and we’d heard that Eric Nesterenko was a ski instructor in Vail and we hired him for a lesson and we spent the whole day skiing with him, talking to him about the NHL. We invited him out to dinner and we went out to dinner with him and at the end of dinner, we’d all been drinking a little bit, I asked him if he’d ever heard of the story called “The Drubbing of Nesterenko” and he lwent fucking berzerk. He’s like, “I fucking heard of it, some fucking candy-ass writer, some fucking asshole, I get my ass beat up, I get humiliated on TV, my kids watch that, my family watches that, and this guy has an epiphany about how he doesn’t like his dad? Fuck him.”
AB: You can’t undo that. What happened to him was a big deal for him, but you take that and you put Tony Easton in the Super Bowl–
RC: And for Nesterenko even though it was a nationally televised game, it wasn’t the biggest game in the world.
AB: You’re not surprised that a guy like Easton would just say, screw it?
RC: Right, I don’t want to talk about it again, you know? Same with Ferguson and I tried to phrase it as somewhat probably dishonestly, which is I want to talk about your entire career and then maybe we could talk about the ’85 Bears. And by the way, I really was a Joe Ferguson fan, so I probably would want to talk about him in Buffalo and if he had talked to me, maybe that would have been part of the book, more about Ferguson. He at first, he called back and he said he would talk to me and then he just blew me off, then I told Fencik about it and he said, “He’s never talking to ya.”
AB: Well Fencik and Plank are great because they are like anchors for the book.
RC: I felt like especially Plank because Fencik—I went and I interviewed and I talked to him and stuff, but Plank I spent a lot of time with. He’s the first guy I talked to and he’s the guy I still talk to. I really felt like he became the moral voice of the book because he’s the underachiever who becomes the most ferocious Bear who creates this spirit of the defense who makes the team what it is. He wears the number, he gives it a name, he doesn’t get to the big game himself, but he doesn’t hold any–there’s no pity.
AB: That’s genuine, that’s not like an act, right?
RC: No, that’s completely genuine, that’s who he is, he’s like one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met. He’s like truly a great guy, just like you’d want him to be. In an early version of the book, I drew the diagrams of the single wing, the T formations, sort of the kind of alignment the Bears had when I was a kid, and a spread, and then most importantly the 46 for the book. I’m like, shit, man, I’m a fan, I’ve read everything, I’ve really thought a lot about it, but I’m not a football coach and this is the kind of thing I could’ve had these things wrong. I’m just going to get a lot of grief over it even if it’s a tiny bit wrong and I can have all these people check it, but who can I have check it. I’m like, fuck I’ll have Plank check it. What better source to check that shit than Plank, who is not only a great player, but who is a coach? And was a coach on the Jets and all this stuff. I sent it to him and he was really, really great and then he actually drew the 46 for me and that’s what’s in the book. Plank’s rendering of the 46 and a long description which I ran, I don’t know if it’s in what you saw, but the caption is Plank’s description of the 46. It’s just so great that I have that, it’s almost like a historical document.
AB: Were there any of Bears that were either difficult to deal with?
RC: Well a bunch of guys just didn’t want to talk to me, they don’t give a shit, they don’t want to talk about it anymore. One of the guys who was sort of difficult although he was okay, was McMichael who I talked to on the phone, but he wouldn’t sit down for an interview because he was so pissed off about the Jeff Pearlman book. He’s like, “Look all we have is our reputations basically and that’s it because we don’t play football anymore and we know and I don’t trust you fucking guys anymore.” They were like really hurt so everybody I talked to was sort of–and I’m like, “Hey man, I’m a Bears fan.” I was there in ’85.
AB: And that didn’t matter?
RC: It mattered to some of them. I’ll tell you what, what’s cool about the Bears is that they are a bunch of guys from Chicago and they completely get who I am. So like Kurt Becker who was McMahon’s roommate and the right tackle I think, right guard, he’s from the West Side of Chicago, he’s knows who I am, he knows where I’m from. He knows I’m a Bears fan. Same with Fencik, who grew up in Barrington.
AB: You pull off kind of a neat trick in that it’s not a puff piece because you have to be, there’s unsavory things about some of the guys, Ditka, Buddy Ryan, whatever. I always though that Buddy Ryan what an asshole without knowing anything about him, but the way you describe him is kind of sympathetic but not soft.
RC: He is what he is, which he’s a product of an older America that really doesn’t exist much anymore.
AB: When you talk about he would check out guys to see who was wasting water when they were shaving, that tells me what kind of guy this guy is, or calling Singletary names.
RC: “Fat Jap.”
AB: “Fat Jap,” right. So just that.
RC: And by the way Singletary is not in any part Japanese, which I sort of assumed he was because I think he’s part Cherokee, I think that’s what it is.
AB: Was he interesting at all?
RC: I didn’t talk to Singletary, here’s the other problem. A bunch of the guys are coaches, like full-time head coaches, so you could get to them in a press conference about you know, so that’s in a testament to the team, so Singletary was because he was coaching San Francisco, then in Minnesota, and Ron Rivera is head coach, and Jeff Fisher is a head coach, and Leslie Frazier is a head coach, and then those other guys I spoke to, like Dent I spoke to and Otis Wilson was really great actually. He was a great one.
AB: He was from Brooklyn right?
RC: Brownsville. He’s one of my favorite players. Very charismatic guy when he was a player. Some guys are just great talkers, even a guy like Jim Morrissey, who is really from Michigan, but half of his grandparents lived basically where I lived, where I grew up, and he used to spend every summer where I grew up so he kind of was a Chicago guy really in a lot of ways. It’s just like a guy working for some brokerage firm making trades on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange now and he played like 11 years in the NFL as a linebacker, as a starting linebacker, which is a big deal. He was just a rookie on that team and he was just one of those guys who was really observant, watching everything, and could explain it really well. So you had the guys who were the great players, but they might not be a good interview. Like Dent who was a hall of fame player, but he’s not going to remember exactly–you know what I mean? Whereas Otis Wilson did, and Otis Wilson has a big complaint against Ditka, he was kind of angry. Morrissey did, and Brian Baschnagel, who was really one of the great players on the team when they were bad and was still with them in ’86, and he was just really interested in what was going on.
AB: And Ditka was pretty good with you too, wasn’t he?
RC: Yeah Ditka’s great. I mean, Ditka’s Ditka though. He’s like, “Why do you want to talk about ’85, why not about ’63? We had a pretty good team in ’63, why doesn’t anybody want to talk about the ’63 team?” Just stuff like that.
AB: I won’t keep you too much longer Rich, but there are two other things I wanted to touch on. Was Kahn’s The Boys of Summer a template?
RC: Yeah, Boys of Summer. As far as football books, and I’m not a completist, you know what I mean? I thought Paper Lion was a great book and one of the things that’s great about it is that Plimpton was a really excellent writer. He got this firsthand experience of catching a punt kicked by an NFL punter, and especially before ESPN and Hard Knocks and all that stuff, he went inside a place no one could go. I think it’s a great book and I think, though it’s a novel, North Dallas Forty, I think is a really great book, funny book. As far as football goes, I think the Michael Lewis book is really good about describing the offensive line.
AB: The one football book that I really was moved by was by John Ed Bradley who played at LSU and then was a writer for the Washington Post and then for Esquire and GQ for a bunch of years and SI, but he dropped out and became a novelist. It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium is a memoir about John Ed growing up in Louisiana, his daddy was a high school football coach, and playing at LSU. He could have played in the NFL, but decided he wanted to be a writer. The book is about how for 20 some odd years, he couldn’t go back to LSU. He couldn’t talk to the people he played with because it was such a good time, it was such an elevated time, that he would never be able to get there again and it’s really a melancholy book, but I thought of that, his whole book is summed up into one sentence by Plank where he says, “If you’re lucky enough to experience something that intense when you’re young, you pay for it with the rest of your life.” That’s John Ed’s book. That’s fascinating to me that for some guys they can’t–and Plank seems to have gone on with his life and he was able to see that and sort of articulate that was really powerful.
RC: Well that’s why he was so great as a resource because he was both. He wasn’t a guy on the sideline, a guy on the periphery, he wasn’t a mediocre player, he was a great player, he really was. He was a heartbeat of the defense before he got hurt and he thought a lot about it. It’s just his description to me of when he got cut or basically got cut because he’s never going to be the same and he’s leaving the locker room and he sees Jeff Fisher and he tells Jeff Fisher and the whole look on Jeff Fisher face just changes like alright.
AB: You’re a civilian now.
RC: Yeah we’re not teammates and it’s over and how that registers is so sad for Plank, he just registers it.
AB: There’s a lot of sadness in sort of the idea, it’s not depressing really–
RC: It’s melancholy man, it’s melancholy.
AB: It really is, it’s sort of life moves on and you did this 25 years ago and sometimes even the idea of–I could almost imagine myself being a player and being like–
RC: Well, that’s the thing, like the shit about Walter Payton and what a hard time he had retiring, like it’s a surprise, how could you not? You put any human being in that situation where you give him that much adulation and control your life to that extent and it just ends and the fact that so many of these guys do so well is amazing. It just shows how strong they are. The fact that Doug Plank then while the Bears are in the Super Bowl, he’s running a Burger King, and he’s not screaming his head off. You know what I mean? And everyone’s talking about the 46 defense on TV and they don’t know it’s Doug Plank is in the Burger King.
AB: Well that’s one thing I think you do successfully in your book, I didn’t know what to expect. You touch on the big Vikings game in the ’85 season, the Cowboy game, you talk about games, but it’s like “and then in week two”–
RC: That’s what I’m saying, if people are expecting that, they’re going to be disappointed.
AB: To me that’s what’s so horrible even about baseball writing. “And then he hit the 2-2 pitch and laced it for a double,” even the language is horrible. How do you write interesting and lively prose about stuff that has been so clichéd over time?
RC: It’s really been a challenge and that’s what I mean when I say that there’s been books–every book I’ve read about a football season, they’re all like that. It’s like a blow–by-blow-by-blow of something that happened long ago that only means something and is only interesting if you’re a complete fanatic or it resonates in some bigger cultural way. That’s why Boys of Summer still resonates to people. Even if they haven’t read it, they know about it. Have you read it?
AB: I have, but to me it’s–I have mixed feelings about it but I’m still taken by Kahn’s ambition to write a great book. It’s melodramatic in parts but still powerful.
RC: That’s what’s good about it, like for me. It’s an imperfect book with a lot of flaws. You know what it’s like, when you read certain magazine writing and it’s so slick, you’re like I could never write that, but then you read something like Ian Frazier, who’s like a–I love him, you could tell a person made it, it’s like made by hand.
AB: What’s amazing reading it now is that Kahn had access to his subject that doesn’t exist anymore. The relationships that he had with these guys and the fact that he’s writing about the ’50s just as the whole ’50s craze, the whole Brooklyn thing was starting and it’s the last major thing ever written about Jackie Robinson before he dies. It set a standard that kind of book.
RC: You can’t sell what he’s selling anymore because for all the reasons you say, no one has that kind of access and what’s more, cameras are everywhere so people have seen, and also the fact that the guy made no money and you didn’t know what happened to them after they retired, they vanished. A guy working in the World Trade Center and putting in the elevators. The reason why–I agree with everything you’re saying, that’s why it was helpful for me because first of all it was totally imperfect and all kind of fucked up, yet so great. So you could sort of see how he put it together so obviously. Underneath it’s an incredibly simple structure, when you’re reading it you kind of forget that. For him, you’re always aware. It’s divided into thirds, it’s the history of the Dodgers up until when he was kid then it’s his own memoir, then it’s his season, culminating in his season with the team, which is not the season they want. So his season with the team, where the manager was Charlie Dressen, who was the first quarterback of the Bears technically. Then the ’55 season, like you expected, and then the last third—it’s not even integrated, it’s like separate chapters, separate essays about where are they now, about whatever it is, five or six guys culminating with Robinson, and that’s it, and it’s so simple, and it completely works. So that’s why it was–it’s not that it was the great be all and end all; it’s that he did something really really interesting, really really great and it’s very simple to see–to me–the structure of it is very plain. It’s like seeing a building and being able to see how it was put together. If you look at the sports books that had bigger culture resonance, Friday Night Lights does too. I thought that was actually a great book, there’s another book that’s sort of like not perfect, but it’s like Dreiser or something; it’s like the whole magnitude of it and the ambition is really interesting.
AB: So lastly, you write about the mixed emotions about the violence in the game. You love big hits but you love Dave Duerson more. Do you find that you don’t like football as much as you used to? You have three kids right?
RC: Yeah, but you know what though, I go back and forth about it because as a product as watching it, it’s just about as good as it’s even been, I believe. Part of me thinks there’s too much scoring because it becomes inflationary. I love hockey because there’s so much tension, who’s going to score? That’s kind of–some of these games seem like the Nerf football games you play as a kid and you say okay whoever scores next wins, but you don’t keep fucking score, everybody scores every time, so whoever is able to stop the team once is going to win. It seems like, as a Bears fan, you love defense and the defense had been so disadvantaged by the rules, partly to protect these guys and partly because people love to see goals, I mean people love to see points. When you see a guy, I remember when I was a kid, that Darryl Stingley had happened and it just really freaked me out, scared the shit out of me and then he came back and he was a paraplegic, it was just so awful. It is, it’s a tough thing.
AB: Now, when you did this book, you’re describing these guys walking around. You always talk about Plank’s titanium shoulders.
RC: The idea that Jim McMahon can’t play catch with me because he can’t fucking throw his keys—he’s all fucked up. So they made these decisions themselves. They had a choice and they made these decisions. A lot of them even knew because it wasn’t like if you were a player on the Bears and you were a rookie in ’85, all you had to do was look at Ditka, he was a fucking mess. He was a very physical player. He played for a very long time. But the fact is when you’re 22, you can’t make a decision like that. That’s why you need other people to protect you than yourself because you’ll do stupid shit, you’ll drink and drive, you’ll take drugs. You’ll do everything you’ll pay for later because you’re an idiot, you’re a kid. You’re just thinking about the next 10 minutes and you’re not thinking that other things–you haven’t lived long enough to realize that other thing is going to come around before you know it and you’re gonna have, you know. It’s just like what’s going to look good in the next. If you watched how a guy like McMahon played, he played like a guy who believed that it didn’t matter what happened in three years.. He’d dive head first. He would do it all the time and he loved it and he obviously was a guy who loved getting hit. There’s guys like that. We all grew up with them. He’s like sort of–
AB: He’s like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. He’s nuts.
RC: Yeah and that’s his whole thing and and especially now, it’s the coach’s job and the owner’s job and the GM’s. They have to protect that guy from himself. You’re using that quality he has to make your team great and to make this game exciting, but you also at the same time have a kind of responsibility to protect them from his own stupidity, that he can’t see what’s coming but you know because you’re 20 years older than him. Ditka would say, “Well I couldn’t change him—it would have ruined him.” That’s probably true to some degree. Now though it’s like watching a game, it’s like willing suspension of disbelief and you don’t think about it because you get into it, but when a guy gets really–when you see a bad hit, the kind you used to see 10 times in an ’85 Bears game you sort of have this moment of, what the fuck am I doing here. That’s what the league has to protect itself from because that’s what’s going to hurt the league.
There are 23 large iron lamps affixed to the ceiling. The tints of neon light they throw down into the indoor batting cage, a concrete room tucked deep into the guts of Yankee Stadium, vary according to when they were last smashed out by errant balls and replaced. Under these lights, largely out of sight, Bam Bam (or “Sir Bam Bam” – but we’ll get to that later) is at the pinnacle of the game that promised much, disappointed more, and then came through for him after all. Across the street, the much brighter lights under which he and all that he was supposed to be receded and then disappeared have been leveled, along with the rest of the old Yankee Stadium.
From up close, the blunt crack of a Major Leaguer striking a ball with a bat – even on a tee – will startle almost anyone every single time. Not Bam Bam. He doesn’t even flinch anymore. He watches, and then places yet another ball onto the batting tee for his latest charge to smack into the netting that encases them both.
It has been 24 years since he first arrived at Yankee Stadium; 20 since the Yankees pawned their phenom off to Japan. This is his first time back, the culmination of one of the most interesting journeys in baseball, a bridge from the place baseball was to where it seems headed. His family is in town from Curacao on one of the last days of a season long since lost, with another loss a full seven hours away. But Bam Bam, who wore World Series championship rings on both his middle fingers before changing into a pair of San Francisco Giants shorts and a T-shirt, is mending the mechanical defect in the swing of a 27-year-old backup catcher five at-bats – one hit – into his first big-league call-up.
That’s the beginning of Leander Schaerlaeckens’ fine portrait of Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens. Head on over the SB Nation Longform and dig the rest of it.
The Dodgers are the first team to advance to the championship series. Over at ESPN, Howard Bryant has a long piece on the rebuilding of a once-proud franchise:
For Johnson, being in the ownership circle is new in baseball, but not new personally. Johnson sold both his equity stakes in Starbucks Coffee and in the Lakers at least in part to finance joining Guggenheim’s bid. Internally, Johnson did not want to be patronized, the athlete, especially the African-American athlete, who lends his name to a venture and then has little say in its operation. In one of his first meetings with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, Johnson convinced the chain to remake its food menu at the Harlem restaurants because while the African-American clientele would purchase coffee like any other consumer, “Black people,” Johnson told Schultz, “don’t eat scones.” It was a small but shrewd example of the different lens Johnson brought to the table.
“I want to show these athletes and entertainers that we can be owners,” Johnson said. “Now, going in with Stan and Mark and Todd has been a great experience, but I want them to respect me, too. And the way you get that respect is to write a check. And not to say they wouldn’t if I didn’t, but the real respect comes from when you’ve got skin in the game. And that’s what it’s been for all my partnerships. Howard Schultz [said] if I didn’t write the check, he wasn’t going to do that deal with Starbucks. Go down the line. [Late Lakers owner] Dr. [Jerry] Buss told me, ‘Hey, I love you like a son, but you have to write a check.’
“When you have to write a $50 million check, you have to say, ‘OK, is the investment going to pay off? Is it the right move? Is it the right decision?’ ” Johnson said. “To me, your name is not enough. And I’ll say it because first of all I think that fans react different. The players act different. The players when they’re alone are saying, ‘What? Magic wrote a check?’ So they understand that, and it’s also different for me because I want to make sure I make it right, make sure it goes the way of our strategy. I want to be part of the strategy. I want to be a part of everything. I’ve never not written a check. I want to be invested in the deal. I want everyone to look at me as a real owner and not just some guy who put his name on it.”
Here’s a powerful story from my pal Paul Solotaroff. It originally appeared in the Village Voice (1990) and it is presented here with the author’s permission.
“The Power and the Gory”
By Paul Solotaroff
Half the world was in mortal terror of him. He had a sixty-inch chest, twenty-three-inch arms, and when the Anadrol and Bolasterone backed up in his bloodstream, his eyes went as red as the laser scope on an Uzi. He threw people through windows, and chased them madly down Hempstead Turnpike when they had the temerity to cut him off. And in the gym he owned in Farmingdale, the notorious Mr. America’s, if he caught you looking at him while he trained, you generally woke up, bleeding, on the pavement outside. Half out of his mind on androgens and horse steroids, he had this idea that being looked at robbed him of energy, energy that he needed to leg-press two thousand pounds. Nonetheless, one day a kid walked up to him between sets and said, “I want to be just like you, Steve Michalik. I want to be Mr. America and Mr. Universe.”
“Yeah?” said Michalik in thick contempt. “How bad do you think you want it?”
“Worse than anything in the world,” said the kid, a scrawny seven-teen-year-old with more balls than biceps. “I can honestly say that I would die for a body like yours.”
“Well, then you probably will,” snorted Michalik. “Meet me down at the beach tomorrow at six A.M. sharp. And if you’re like even half a minute late …”
The kid was there at six A.M. pronto, freezing his ass off in a raggedy hood and sweats. “What do we do first?” he asked.
“Swim,” grunted Michalik, dragging him into the ocean. Twenty yards out, Michalik suddenly seized the kid by his scalp and pushed him under a wave. The kid flailed punily, wriggling like a speared eel. A half minute, maybe forty-five seconds, passed before Michalik let the kid up, sobbing out sea water. He gave the kid a breath, then shoved him down again, holding him under this time until the air bubbles stopped, whereupon he dragged him out by the hood and threw him, gasping, on the beach.
“When you want the title as bad as you wanted that last fucking breath,” sneered Michalik, “then and only then can you come talk to me.”
For himself, Michalik only wanted two things anymore. He wanted to walk on stage at the Beacon Theater on November 15, 1986, professional bodybuilding’s Night of Champions, and just turn the joint out with his 260 pounds of ripped, stripped, and shrink-wrapped muscle. And then, God help him, he wanted to die. Right there, in front of everybody, with all the flashbulbs popping, be wanted to drop dead huge and hard at the age of thirty-nine, and leave a spectacular corpse behind.
The pain, you see, had become just unendurable. Ten years of shot-gunning steroids had turned his joints into fish jelly and spiked his blood pressure so high he had to pack his nose to stop the bleeding. He’d been pissing blood for months, and what was coming out of him now was brown, pure protoplasm that his engorged liver hadn’t the wherewithal to break down. And when he came home from the gym at night, his whole body was in spasm. His eight-year-old boy, Steve Junior, had to pack his skull in ice, trying to take the top 10 percent off his perpetual migraine.
“I knew it was all over for me,” Michalik says. “Every system in my body was shot, my testicles had shrunk to the size of cocktail peanuts. It was only a question of which organ was going to explode on me first.
“See, we’d all of us [professional bodybuilders] been way over the line for years, and it was like, suddenly, all the bills were coming in. Victor Faizowitz took so much shit that his brain exploded. The Aldactazone [a diuretic] sent his body temperature up to one hundred twelve degrees, and he literally melted to death. Another guy, an Egyptian bodybuilder training for the Mr. Universe contest, went the same way, a massive hemorrhage from head to toe—died bleeding out of every orifice. And Tommy Sansone, a former Mr. America who’d been my very first mentor in the gym, blew out his immune system on Anadrol and D-ball [Dianabol], and died of tumors all over his body.
“As for me, I couldn’t wait to join ‘em. I had so much evil in me from all the drugs I was taking that I’d go home at night and ask God why be hadn’t killed me yet. And then, in the next breath, I’d say, ‘Please, I know I’ve done a lot of terrible things—sold steroids to kids, beaten the shit out of strangers—but please don’t let me go out like a sucker, God. Please let me die hitting that last pose at the Beacon, with the crowd on its feet for a second standing O.’”
Michalik’s prayers might better have been addressed to a liver specialist. Two weeks before the show, he woke up the house at four in the morning with an excruciating pain beneath his rib cage. His wife, Thomasina, long since practiced at such emergencies, ran off to fetch some ice.
“Fuck the ice,” he groaned. “Call Dr. Ludwig.”
Dr. Arthur Ludwig, a prominent endocrinologist who had been treating Michalik on and off for a number of years, was saddened but unsurprised by the call. “Frankly,” he told Michalik, “I’ve been expecting it now for ages. Your friends have been telling me lately how bad you’ve been abusing the stuff, especially for the last five years.”
That he certainly had. Instead of cycling on and off of steroids, giving his body here and there a couple months’ recuperation, Michalik had been juicing pretty much constantly since 1976, shooting himself with fourteen different drugs and swallowing copious amounts of six or seven others. Then there was all the speed he was gulping—bennies, black beauties—to get through his seven-hour workouts, and the handful of downs at night to catch four hours of tortuous sleep.
There, at any rate, Michalik was, doubled over in bed at four in the morning, his right side screaming like a bomb had gone off in it.
“You’d better get him to New York Hospital as fast as you can,” Ludwig told Michalik’s wife over the phone. “They’ve got the best liver specialist on the East Coast there. I’ll meet you in his office in an hour.”
At the hospital, they pumped Michalik full of morphine and took a hasty sonogram upstairs. The liver specialist, a brusque Puritan who’d been apprised of Michalik’s steroid usage, called him into his office.
“See this?” he pointed to the sonogram, scarcely concealing a sneer. “This is what’s left of your liver, Mr. Michalik. And these”—indicating the four lumps grouped inside it, one of them the size of a ripe grapefruit—”these are hepatic tumors. You have advanced liver cancer, sir.”
“I do?” grinned Michalik, practically hugging himself for joy. “How long you think I’ve got?”
“Mr. Michalik, do you understand what I’m telling you?” snapped the doctor, apparently miffed that his news hadn’t elicited operatic grief. “You have cancer, and will be dead within weeks or days if I don’t operate immediately. And frankly, your chances of surviving surgery are—”
“Surgery!” blurted Michalik, looking at the man as if he were bonkers. “You’re not coming near me with a knife. That would leave a scar.” The doctor was with perfect justice about to order Michalik out of his office when Ludwig walked in. He took a long look at the sonogram and announced that surgery was out of the question. Michalik’s liver was so compromised, he would undoubtedly die on the table. Besides, Ludwig adjudged, those weren’t tumors at all. They were something rarer by far but no less deadly: steroid-induced cysts, or thick sacs of blood and muscle, that were full to bursting—and growing.
He ordered Michalik strapped down—the least movement now could perforate the cysts—and wheeled upstairs to intensive care. The next twenty-four hours, he declared, would tell the tale. If, deprived of steroids, the cysts stopped growing, there was a small chance that Michalik might come out of this. If, on the other hand, they fed on whatever junk he’d injected the last couple of days—well, he’d get his wish, at any rate, to die huge.
Michalik knew it was the liver, of course. He might have been heedless, but he was hardly uninformed. In fact, he knew so much about steroids that he’d written a manual on their use, and gone on the Today show to debate doctors about their efficacy. Like the steroid gurus of southern California, Michalik was a self-taught sorcerer whose laboratory was his body. From the age of eleven, he’d read voraciously in biochemistry, obsessed about finding out what made people big. He walked the streets of Brooklyn as a teenager, knocking on physicians’ doors, begging to be made enlightened about protein synthesis. And years later he scoured the Physicians’ Desk Reference from cover to cover, searching not for steroids but for other classes of drugs whose secondary function was to grow muscle.
Steroids, Michalik knew, were a kind of God’s play, a way of rewriting his own DNA. He’d grown up skinny and hating himself to his very cell level. According to Michalik, his father, a despotic drunk with enormous forearms, beat him with whatever was close to hand, and smashed his face, for fun, into a plate of mashed potatoes.
“I was small and weak, and my brother Anthony was big and graceful, and my old man made no bones about loving him and hating me,” Michalik recalls. “The minute I walked in from school, it was, ‘You worthless little shit, what are you doing home so early?’ His favorite way to torture me was to tell me he was going to put me in a home. We’d be driving along in Brooklyn somewhere, and we’d pass a building with iron bars on the windows, and he’d stop the car and say to me, ‘Get out. This is the home we’re putting you in.’ I’d be standing there, sobbing on the curb—I was maybe eight or nine at the time—and after a while he’d let me get back into the car and drive off laughing at his little joke.”
Fearful and friendless throughout childhood—even his brother was leery of being seen with him—Michalik hid out in comic books and Steve Reeves movies, burning to become huge and invulnerable. At thirteen, he scrubbed toilets in a Vic Tanny spa just to be in the presence of that first generation of iron giants—Eddie Juliani and Leroy Colbert, among others. At twenty, stationed at an Air Force base in Southeast Asia, he ignored sniper fire and the 120-degree heat to bench-press a cinder-block barbell in an open clearing, telling the corps psychiatrist that he couldn’t be killed because it was his destiny to become Mr. America. And at thirty-four, years after he’d forgotten where be put all his trophies, he was still crawling out of bed at two in the morning to eat his eighth meal of the day because he still wasn’t big enough. As always, there was that fugitive inch or two missing, that final heft without which he wouldn’t even take his shirt off on the beach—for fear that everyone would laugh.
And so, of course, there were steroids. They’d been around since at least the mid-1930s, when Hitler had them administered to his SS thugs to spike their bloodlust. By the fifties, the eastern bloc nations were feeding them to school kids, creating a generation of bioengineered athletes. And in the late sixties, anabolics hit the beaches of California, as U.S. drug companies discovered that there was a vast new market out there of kids who’d swallow anything to double their pecs and their pleasure.
The dynamics of anabolic steroids have been pretty well understood for years. Synthetic variations of the male hormone testosterone, they enter the bloodstream as chemical messengers and attach themselves to muscle cells. Once attached to these cells, they deliver their twofold message: grow, and increase endurance.
Steroids accomplish the first task by increasing the synthesis of protein. In sufficient quantities, they turn the body into a kind of fusion engine, converting everything, including fat, into mass and energy. A chemical bodybuilder can put on fifty pounds of muscle in six months because most of the 6,000 to 10,000 calories he eats a day are incorporated, not excreted.
The second task—increasing endurance—is achieved by stimulating the synthesis of a molecule called creatine phosphate, or CP. CP is essentially hydraulic fluid for muscles, allowing them to do more than just a few seconds’ work. The more CP you have in your tank, the more power you generate. Olympic weightlifters and defensive linemen have huge stockpiles of CP, some portion of which is undoubtedly genetic. The better part of it, though, probably comes out of a bottle of Anadrol, a popular oral steroid that makes you big, strong, and savage—and not necessarily in that order.
Over the course of eleven years, Michalik had taken ungodly amounts of Anadrol. If his buddies were taking two 50 mg tablets a day, he took four. Six weeks later, when he started to plateau, he jacked the ante to eight. So, too, with Dianabol, another brutal oral steroid. Where once a single 5 mg pill sufficed, inevitably he was gulping ten or twelve of them a day, in conjunction with the Anadrol.
The obstacle here was his immune system, which was stubbornly going on about its business, neutralizing these poisons with antibodies and shutting down receptor sites on the muscle cells. No matter. Michalik, upping the dosage, simply overwhelmed his immune system, and further addled it by flooding his bloodstream with other drugs.
All the while, of course, he was cognizant of the damage done. He knew, for instance, that Anadrol, like all oral steroids, was utter hell on the liver. An alkylated molecule with a short carbon chain, it had to be hydralized, or broken down, within twenty-four hours. This put enormous stress on his liver, which had thousands of other chemical transactions to carry out every day, not the least of which was processing the waste from his fifty pounds of new muscle. The Physicians’ Desk Reference cautions that the smallest amounts of Anadrol may be toxic to the liver, even in patients taking it for only a couple of months for anemia:
WARNING: MAY CAUSE PELIOSIS HEPATIS, A CONDITION IN WHICH LIVER TISSUE IS REPLACED WITH BLOOD-FILLED CYSTS, OFTEN CAUSING LIVER FAILURE. . . . OFTEN NOT RECOGNIZED UNTIL LIFE-THREATENING LIVER FAILURE OR INTRA-ABDOMINAL HEMORRHAGE OCCURS. . . . FATAL MALIGNANT LIVER TUMORS ARE ALSO REPORTED.
As lethal as it was, however, Anadrol was like a baby food compared to some of the other stuff Michalik was taking. On the bodybuilding black market, where extraordinary things are still available, Michalik and some of his buddies bought the skulls of dead monkeys. Cracking them open with their bare hands, they drank the hormone-rich fluid that poured out of the hypothalamus gland. They filled enormous syringes with a French supplement called Triacana and, aiming for the elusive thyroid gland, shot it right into their necks. They took so much Ritalin before workouts to psych themselves up that one of Michalik’s training partners, a former Mr. Eastern USA, ran out of the gym convinced that he could stop a car with his bare hands. He stood in the passing lane of the Hempstead Turnpike, his feet spread shoulder-width apart, bracing for the moment of impact—and got run over like a dog by a Buick Skylark, both his legs and arms badly broken.
Why, knowing what he knew about these poisons, did Michalik continue taking them? Because he, as well as his buddies and so many thousands of other bodybuilders and football players, were fiercely and progressively addicted to steroids. The American medical community is currently divided about whether or not the stuff is addictive. These are the same people who declared, after years of thorough study, that steroids do not grow muscle. Bodybuilders are still splitting their sides over that howler. Michalik, however, is unamused.
“First, those morons at the AMA say that steroids don’t work, which anyone who’s ever been inside a gym knows is bullshit,” he snorts. “Then, ten years later, they tell us they’re deadly. Oh, now they’re deadly? Shit, that was like the FDA seal of approval for steroids. C’mon, everybody, they must be good for you—the AMA says they’ll kill you!
“Somehow, I don’t know how, I escaped getting addicted to them the first time, when I was training for the Mr. America in 1972. Maybe it was because I was on them for such a short stretch, and went relatively light on the stuff. Mostly, all it amounted to was a shot in the ass once a week from a doctor in Roslyn. I never found out what was in that shot, but Jesus, did it make me crazy. Here I was, a churchgoing, gentle Catholic, and suddenly I was pulling people out of restaurant booths and threatening to kill them just because there were no other tables open. I picked up a three-hundred-pound railroad tie and caved in the side of some guy’s truck with it because I thought he’d insulted my wife. I was a nut, a psycho, constantly out of control—and then, thank God, the contest came, and I won it and got off the juice, and suddenly became human again. I retired, and devoted myself entirely to my wife for all the hell I’d put her through, and swore I’d never go near that shit again!”
A couple of years later, however, something happened that sent him back to the juice, and this time there was no getting off it. “I’d bought Thomasina a big house in Farmingdale, and filled it with beautiful things , and was happier than I’d ever been in my life. And then one day I found out she’d been having an affair. I was worse than wiped out, my soul was ripped open. It had taken me all those years to finally feel like I was a man, to get over all the things my father had done to me … and she cut my fucking heart out.”
Michalik went back to the gym, where he’d always solved all his problems, and started seeing someone we’ll call Dr. X. A physician and insider in the subculture, for two decades Dr. X had been supplying bodybuilders with all manner of steroids in exchange for sexual favors. Michalik hit him up for a stack of prescriptions, but made it clear that he couldn’t accommodate the doctor sexually, to the latter’s keen disappointment. The two, however, worked out a satisfactory compromise. Michalik, the champion bodybuilder who was constantly being consulted by young wannabes, directed some of them posthaste to the tender governance of Dr. X.
“They had to find out sooner or later that the road to the title went through Dr. X’s office,” Michalik shrugs. “Nobody on this coast was gonna get to be competition size unless they put out for him—that, or they had a daddy in the pharmaceutical business. The night Dr. X first tried to seduce me, he showed me pictures of five different champions that he said he’d had sex with. I checked it out later and found out it was all true. Nice business, isn’t it, professional bodybuilding? More pimps and whores than Hollywood.”
Michalik didn’t care about any of that, however. Nor did he care if he went crazy or got addicted to steroids. “I didn’t care if I fucking died from ‘em. All I cared about was getting my body back. I was down to one hundred fifty pounds, which was my natural body weight, and no one in the gym even knew who I was. Big guys were screaming at me, ‘Get off that bench, you little punk, I wanna use it!’ Three months later, I’m two hundred pounds and bench-pressing four hundred, and the same guys are coming over to me, going, ‘Hey, aren’t you Steve Michalik? When did you get here?’ And I’d tell ‘em, ‘I’ve been here for the last three months, motherfucker. I’m the guy you pushed offa that bench over there, remember?’”
By that third month, he recalls, he was hopelessly hooked on steroids, unable to leave the house without “gulping three of something, and taking a shot of something else. I’d get out of bed in the morning feeling weak and sick, and stagger around, going, ‘Where’s my shit?’ I was a junkie and I knew it and I hated myself for it. But what I hated much, much more was not getting to Dr. X’s office. He had the real hot shit—Primobolan, Parabolin—that you couldn’t get anywhere else. They were so powerful you felt them immediately in your muscles, and tasted them for hours on your lips. My heart would start pounding, and the blood would come pouring out of my nose, but he’d just pack it with cotton and send me on my way.
“Suddenly, all I was doing was living and dying for those shots. I was totally obsessed about seeing him, I’d have terrible panic attacks on the subway, my brain would be racing—was I going to make it up to his office before I fell down? I was throwing people out of my way, shoving ‘em into poles, practically knocking the door down before we pulled into the station.
“Understand, there was no justification for the things I did; not my wife’s affair, not what had happened to me as a kid—nothing. I was an adult, I knew what I was doing, at least at the beginning, and when you add it all up, I deserve to have died from it.
“But I want you to understand what it’s like to just completely lose yourself. To get buried in something so deep that you think the only way out is to die. Those ten years, it was like I was trapped inside a robot body, watching myself do horrible things, and yelling, ‘Stop! Stop!’ but I couldn’t even slow down. It was always more drugs, and more side effects, and more drugs for the side effects. For ten years, I was just an animal on stimulus-response.”
He flew to London in the fall of 1975 for the Mr. Universe show, already so sick from the steroids and the eight meals a day that he could scarcely make it up the stairs to the stage. “I had a cholesterol level of over 400, my blood pressure was 240 over 110—but, Jesus Christ, I was a great-looking corpse. No one had ever seen anything like me on stage before, I had absolutely perfect symmetry: nineteen-inch arms, nineteen-inch calves, and a fifty-four-inch chest that was exactly twice the size of my thighs. The crowd went bazongo, the judges all loved me—and none of it, not even the title, meant shit to me. Joy, pride, any sense of satisfaction—the drugs wiped all of that out of me. The only feeling I was capable of anymore was deep, deep hatred.”
Michalik went home, threw his trophy into a closet, and began training maniacally for the Mr. Olympia show, bodybuilding’s most prestigious event. He’d invented a training regimen called “Intensity/Insanity,” which called for seventy sets per body part instead of the customary ten. This entailed a seven-hour workout and excruciating pain, but the steroids, he found, turned that pain into pleasure, “a huge release of all the pressure built up inside me, the rage and the energy.”
And with whatever rage and energy he had left, he ran his wife’s panicked lover out of town, and completed his revenge by impregnating her “so that there’d be two Steve Michalik’s in the world to oppress her.” Spotlessly faithful to her for the first ten years of their marriage, he began nailing everyone he could get his hands on now, thanks in no small part to his daily dosage of Halotestin, a steroid whose chief side effect was a constant—and conspicuous—erection. He was also throwing down great heaps of Clomid and HCG, two fertility drugs for women that, in men, stimulate the production of testosterone.
“Bottom line, I was insatiable, and acting it out all over the place. I had girlfriends in five different towns in Long Island, and one day I was so hormone-crazed I fucked ‘em all, one right after the other. Suddenly, I saw why there was so much rampant sex in this business, why the elite bodybuilders always had two or three girls in their hotel room, or were making thousands of dollars a weekend at private gay parties. In fact, one of my friends in the business, a former Mr. America, used to get so horny on tour that he’d fuck the Coke machine in his hotel. Swear to God, he’d stick his dick right in the change slot and bang it for all he was worth. I’m telling you, my wife saw him do this, she can vouch for it. He fucked those machines from coast to coast, and even had ratings for them. I seem to remember the Chicago Hyatt’s being pretty high up there on the list.”
Hot, in any event, off his win in the Mr. Universe, and absolutely galactic now at 250 pounds, he was the consensus pick among his peers to put an end to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reign as Mr. Olympia and begin a five- or six-year run of his own. He had even prepped himself to follow Ahnuld into show business, taking two years of acting lessons and a year of speech at Weiss-Baron Studios in Manhattan. One of the networks approached him about hosting a science show. George Butler and Charles Gaines filmed him extensively for Pumping Iron, the definitive bodybuilding flick that put Schwarzenegger on the map in Hollywood.
And then, driving himself to the airport for the Mr. Olympia show that November, Michalik suddenly ran into something bigger than steroids. A tractor-trailer driver, neglecting to check his mirror, veered into Michalik’s lane on Route 109 and ran right over the hood of his Mustang. Michalik was dragged twenty yards into an embankment; the Mustang crumpled up around him. When they finally sawed him out of it two hours later, he had four cracked discs and a torn sciatic nerve, and was completely paralyzed from the waist down.
The bad news, said the surgeon after a battery of X-rays, was that Michalik would never walk again. The good news was that with a couple of operations, the pain could be substantially mitigated. Michalik told him to get the fuck out of his room. For months he lay in traction, refusing medication, and with his free arm went on injecting himself with testosterone, which had with him in a black bag at the time of the accident, and which the hospital had so thoughtfully put on his bedside table.
“It was hilarious. The idiot doctors kept coming in and going. ‘Gee, your blood pressure seems awfully high, Mr. Michalik,’ and I’d just lay there with a straight face and go, ‘Well, I have been very tense, you know, since the accident’
“Meanwhile, for the one and only time in my life, the steroids were actually helping me. They speeded up the healing, which is actually their medical purpose, and kept enough size on me so that the nurses used to fight over who was supposed to wash me every day. I started getting a little sensation back in my right leg, enough so that when the doctor told me he’d send me home if I could stand up, I managed to fake it by standing on one leg.”
There, however, the progress halted, and Michalik, unspeakably depressed, lay in bed for a year, bloating on steroids and chocolate chip cookies. He got a call from the TV people, telling him that they’d hired Leonard Nimoy to replace him on the science show. He got another one from the producers of Pumping Iron, informing him that he’d been all but cut out of the film. Worst of all, his friends and training partners jumped ship on him, neither calling nor coming by to see him.
“So typical of bodybuilders,” he sneers. “‘Hey, Michalik’s crippled, I gotta go see him—nah, it’s Tuesday, chest-and-back day. Fuck him.’ But the real reason, I think, was they couldn’t stand to see one of their own hurt. In order to keep on doing what they’re doing—the drugs, the binge eating, the sex-for-money—they’ve gotta keep lying to themselves, saying, ‘I can’t be hurt, I can’t get sick. I’m Superman. Cancer is afraid to live in my body.’”
About the only person who didn’t abandon him was his kid brother, Paulie, an adopted eight-year-old who utterly worshipped Michalik. “He used to come into my room every day and massage my legs, going, ‘You feel anything yet? You feel it?’ He’s stubborn like me. He just refused to give up, he kept saying, ‘You’re a champion, Steve, you’re my hero, you’re gonna be back.’
“And then one day we’re watching TV, and a pro bodybuilding show comes on. This was 1978, and the networks had started up a Grand Prix tour to cash in on the fad after Pumping Iron. I’m watching all the guys and just going crazy, wishing I could just get up on stage against ‘em one more time, and Paulie goes, ‘You can do it, Steve. You can come back and whip those guys. I’ll help you in the gym.’”
Aroused, Michalik called an old friend, Julie Levine, and begged him for the keys to his new gym in Amityville. The next night, he got out of bed at 2 A.M. and scuttled to the window, where Paulie assisted him over the sash. Crawling across the lawn to his wife’s car, Michalik got in the driver’s seat and pushed his dead legs back, making room for his little brother beneath the steering wheel. As he steered, Paulie worked the gas and brake pedals with his hands, and in this manner they accomplished the ten miles to Amityville.
In the gym, Paulie dragged him from machine to machine, helping him push the weight stacks up. Michalik’s upper body responded quickly—muscle had remarkable memory—but his legs, particularly the left one, lay there limp as old celery. After several months, however, the pain started up in them. Sharp and searing, it was as if someone had stuck a fork in his sciatic nerve. Michalik, a self-made master of pain couldn’t have been happier if he’d hit the lottery.
“The doctors all told me it would be ten years, if ever, for the nerve to come back, and here it was howling like a monster. I kicked up the dosages of all the stuff I was taking, and started attacking the weights instead of just lifting ‘em. Six months later, the pain was so bad I still could barely straighten up—but I was leg-pressing seven hundred and eight hundred pounds, and my thighs were as big as a bear’s.”
And a year after that, he walked on stage in Florida, an unadvertised guest poser at the end of a Grand Prix show. The crowd, recognizing a miracle when it saw one, went berserk as Michalik modeled those thirty-four-inch thighs, each of which was considerably wider than his twenty-seven-inch waist. Schwarzenegger, in the broadcast booth doing color for ABC, was overwhelmed. “I don’t believe what I am seeing,” he gasped. “It’s Steve Michalik, the phantom bodybuilder!”
There Michalik should have left it. He was alive, and ambulatory, and his cult status was set. Thanks to Arnie, he would be forever known as the Phantom Bodybuilder, a tag he could have turned into a merchandising gold mine, and retired.
But like a lot of other steroid casualties, Michalik couldn’t stop pushing his luck. He had to keep going, had to keep growing, testing the limits of his skeleton and the lining of his liver. If he’d gotten galactic, he figured, on last year’s drugs, there was no telling how big he could get on this year’s crop. A new line of killer juice was coming out of southern California—Hexalone, Bolasterone, Dehydralone—preposterously toxic compounds that sent the liver into warp drive but which grew hard, mature muscle right before your very eyes. Sexier still, there was that new darling of the pro circuit, human growth hormone, and who knew where the ceiling even began on that stuff?
Instead of pulling over, then, Michalik put the hammer down. He joined the Grand Prix tour immediately after the show in Florida and began the brutal grind of doing twelve shows annually. Before the tour, top bodybuilders did five shows a year, tops—the Mr. Olympia, the Night of Champions, and two or three others in Europe—which gave them several months to recuperate from the drugs and heavy training. Now, thanks to TV, they had to do a show a month. The pace was quite literally murderous.
“Not only did guys have to peak every month, they had to keep getting better as the year went on. No downtime, no rest from the binging and fasting—you could see guys turning green from all the shit in their systems. As you might expect, some of them were falling by the wayside, one guy from arrhythmia, another guy from heart attacks.
“As for me, all I knew was that I was spending every dime I had on drugs. It cost me $25,000 that first year just to keep up, and that was without human growth hormone, which I couldn’t even afford. The sport had become like an arms race now. If you heard that some guy was using Finajet, then you had to have it, no matter what it cost or where you had to go to get it. It actually paid to fly back and forth to France every couple of months, where you could buy the crap off the shelves of some country pharmacy and save yourself thousands of bucks.
“Needless to say, those five years on the tour were the most whacked-out of my life. My cognitive mind went on like a permanent stroll, and I became an enormous, lethal caveman. The only reason I didn’t spend most of that time in jail was because two thirds of the cops in town were customers of mine. They belonged to my gym, and bought their steroids from me, and when I got into a little beef, which was practically every other day, they took care of it on the QT for me.
“Once I was on Hempstead Turnpike, on my way to the gym, when some guy in a pickup gave me the finger. That’s it, lights out. I chased him doing ninety in my new Corvette, and did a three-sixty in heavy traffic right in front of him. I jumped out, ripped the door off his truck, and caved in his face with one punch. The other guy in the cab, who had done nothing to me, jumps out and starts running down the divider to get away from me. I chased him on foot and was pounding the shit out of him on the side of the road when the cops pulled up in two cruisers. ‘Michalik, get outta here, ya crazy fuck,’ they go, ‘this is the last goddamn time we’re lettin’ you slide.’”
Word quickly got around town that Michalik was to be avoided at all costs. That went double for the wild-style gym he opened, which did everything but hang a sign out saying, STEROIDS FOR SALE HERE. There were plaques on the walls that proclaimed, UP THE DOSAGE! and pictures not of stars but of twenty-gauge syringes.
As for the clientele, it ran heavily toward the highly crazed. There was the seven-foot juice freak who stomped around muttering, “I’ll kill you all. I’ll rip your guts out and eat them right here.” There was the mob hit man who drove up in a limo every day and checked his automatic weapons at the door. There was the herpetologist who came in with a python wrapped around him, trailing a huge sea turtle, for good measure, on a leash. There was the former Mr. America who was so distraught when his dog died that he had it stuffed, and dragged it around the gym from station to station.
“I had every freak and psycho within a 300-mile radius,” Michalik recalls. “At night, there’d be all these animals hanging around outside my gym, slurping protein shakes and twirling biker chains—and every single one of ‘em was afraid of me. That was the only way I kept ‘em in line. As crazy as they all were, they knew I was crazier, and that I’d just as soon kill ‘em as re-enroll ‘em.”
If that sounds like dubious business practice, consider that a year after opening, Michalik was so successful that he had to move to a location twice the size. But for all the money he was making, and for all the scams he was running—selling “Banana Packs,” a worthless mixture of rotten bananas and egg powder, as his “secret muscle formula” for $25 a pop; passing himself off as a veterinarian to get cases of human growth hormone at wholesale for his “clinical experiments”—he was still being bankrupted by his skyrocketing drug bills.
The federal heat had begun to come down on the steroid racket, closing out the pill-mill pharmacies where Michalik was filling his ’scrips. The national demand, moreover, for the high-octane stuff—Hexalone, Bolasterone, etc.—was going through the roof, which meant that Michalik, like everybody else, had to get on line, and pay astronomical prices for his monthly package from Los Angeles.
Constantly broke, and going nowhere fast on the Grand Prix tour—”where in the beginning I’d been finishing third or fourth in the shows, by 1983 I was coming in like eleventh or twelfth”—Michalik began caving in emotionally and physically. He’d come home from the gym at night, dead-limbed and nauseous, and suddenly burst into tears without warning. Cut off from everyone, even the stouthearted Thomasina, who had finally thrown up her hands and stopped caring what he did to himself, he sat alone in a dark room, hearing his joints howl, and dreamed about killing himself.
“I was just lost, gone, in a constant state of male PMS—the hormones flying around inside, my mood going yoyo. I just wanted an end to it; an end to all the pain I was in, and to the pain I was causing others.
“I mean, of course I had tried to get off the drugs, and always it just got worse. The depression got deeper, the craving was incredible, and those last couple of years, I was worse than any crackhead. As crazed as I was, l’d have killed to keep on going, to get my hands on that next shipment of Deca or Maxibolin.”
As for his body, it was finally capitulating to all the accumulated toxins. By 1983, he was bleeding from everywhere: his gums, kidneys, colon, and sinuses. The headaches started up, so piercing and obdurate that he developed separate addictions to Percodan and Demerol. And worst of all (by Michalik’s lights), his muscles suddenly went soft on him. No matter how he worked them or what he shot into them, they lost their gleaming, osmotic hardness, and began to pooch out like $20 whitewalls.
His last two years on the tour were a run-on nightmare. He almost dropped dead at a show in Toronto, collapsing on stage in head-to-toe convulsions; the promoters, disgraced, hauled him off by the ankles. There was a desperate attempt in 1985, after his cholesterol hit 500, to wean himself from steroids once and for all. His testosterone level plummeted, however, his sperm count went to zero, and all the estrogen in his body, which had been accruing for years, turned his pecs into soft, doughy breasts. Such friends as he still had pointed out that his ass was plumping like a woman’s, and tweaked him for his sexy new hip-swishing walk.
He ran to one endocrinologist after another, begging them for something to reverse the condition. To a man, each pointed to Michalik’s liver reading and showed him out of his office. Leaving, he had the distinct feeling that they were laughing at him.
And so, after weighing his options—a bleak, emasculated life off steroids or a slam-bang, macho death on them—Michalik emphatically chose the latter. He packed a bag, grabbed his weight belt, and caught a plane for L.A., winding up for nine months in the valley, where all the chemical studs were training.
Just up the freeway, a cartel of former med students were minting drugs so new they scarcely had names for them yet. The stuff ran $250, $300 a bottle, but pumped you up like an air hose and kept you that way. It also made you violently sick to your stomach, but Michalik didn’t have time to worry about that. He simply ran to the bathroom to heave up his guts, then came back and ripped off another thirty sets.
His hair fell out in heavy clumps; a dry cough emanated from his liver, wracking him. Every joint was inflamed; it was excruciating even to walk now. But at night, in bed and in too much pain to sleep, it cheered him to think that he would finally be dead soon, and that it would take eight men to carry his casket.
He came back to New York in the fall of 1986, on his last legs but enormous and golden brown. All along, he’d targeted the Night of Champions, to be held that November at the Beacon Theater, as his swan song. It was the Academy Awards show of bodybuilding. Everyone would be there, all the stars and cognoscenti, and it would consolidate his legend to show up one last time, coming out of a coffin to the tune of Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend.” Of course, it would really help matters if he could drop dead on stage, but that seemed too much to hope for. All that mattered, finally, was that he go out with twenty-five hundred people thundering their approval, drowning out, once and for all, his old man’s malediction that he’d never amount to shit.
And then, two weeks before the show, he woke up at four in the morning with his liver on fire, and that was the end of all that.
Happily afloat on morphine and Nembutol, Michalik drifted for seventy-two hours, dreaming that he was dead. In the course of those three days, however, his extraordinary luck held up. The huge cysts in his liver stabilized and began to shrink, though they’d so eviscerated the organ already that there was practically nothing left of it. Short of a transplant, it would be months before he could so much as sit up and take nourishment. His bodybuilding career, in any case, was finished.
When Michalik awoke in intensive care, he was inconsolable. Not only was he still unaccountably alive, his beautiful body was dissolving and going away from him. His muscles, bereft of steroids and the five pounds of chicken he ate a day, decomposed and flowed into his bloodstream as waste. In three weeks, he lost more than 100 pounds, literally pissing himself down to 147 from a steady weight of 255.
Predictably, his kidneys began to fail, functioning at 60 percent, then 40, then 20. His black hair turned gray, and the skin hung off him in folds. His father came in and told him, with all his customary tact, that he looked like an eighty-five-year-old man.
In the few hours a day that he was lucid, Michalik wept uncontrollably. Out of the unlikeliest materials—bad genes, a small bone structure, and a thoroughly degraded ego—he had assembled this utterly remarkable thing, a body that no less than Arnold Schwarzenegger once venerated as the very best in the world. Now he was too weak to lift his head off the pillow. He lay there inert for months and months, the very image, it seemed to him, of his old man’s foretelling.
“I was just like Lyle Alzado, who I went to high school in Brooklyn with: weak and broken-down, leaning on my wife to keep me alive. She came and fed me every day through a straw, and swiped the huge bunch of pills I was saving to kill myself. To thank her for still being there after everything, I sold the gym and gave her all the money from it. I didn’t want any of it, I didn’t want anything. I just wanted to lie in bed and be miserable by myself. I was so depressed I could hardly move my jaws to speak.”
Finally, by the spring of 1988, he’d recovered sufficiently to get out of bed for short stretches. Possessed by the sudden urge to atone for his sins, Michalik called every promoter he knew, begging them to let him go on stage in his condition and dramatize the wages of steroids. Surprisingly, several of them agreed to the idea. They brought Michalik out, a bag of bones in a black shirt, and let him turn the place into a graveyard for ten minutes.
“All these twenty-year-olds would be staring up at me with their jaws hanging open, and I’d get on the mike and say, ‘You think this can’t happen to you, tough guy? You think you know more about steroids than I do? Well, I wrote the book on ‘em, buddy, and they still ate me up. I’m forty years old and I’m finished. Dead.”
The former proselytizer for steroids got some grim satisfaction out of spreading the gospel against them. He dragged himself out to high schools and hard-core juice gyms, using himself as a walking cautionary tale. But whatever his good works were doing for his soul, they weren’t doing a damn thing for his body. He still woke up sick in every cell, poisoned by the residue of all the drugs. The liver cysts, shrunk to the size of golf balls but no further, sapped his strength and forced him to eat like a sparrow, subsisting on farina and chicken soup. His hormones were wildly scrambled—a blood test revealed he had the testosterone level of a twelve-year-old girl—and it had been two years since he’d had even a twinge of an erection. Indeed, his moods were so erratic that he had his wife commit him to a stretch in a Long Island nut bin.
“I wasn’t crazy, but I didn’t know what else to do. All day long I just sat there, consumed with self-hatred: ‘Why did you do this? Why did you do that?’ I mean, even when I was huge, I never had what you would call the greatest relationship with myself, but now it was, ‘You’re weak! You’re tiny! You’re stupid! You’re worthless!’—and what the hell was I going to say to shut it up? The only thing I’d ever valued about myself was my body, and I’d totally, systematically fucked it up. My life, as you can probably guess, was intolerable.”
It was here, however, that fate stepped in and cut Michalik a whopping break. Halfway across the world, an Australian rugby player named Joe Reesh somehow heard about Michalik’s plight and called to tell him about a powerful new detox program. It was a brutally arduous deal—an hour of running, then five hours straight in a 180-degree sauna, for a minimum of twenty-one days—but infallibly, it leeched the poisons out of your fat cells, where they’d otherwise sit, crystallized, for the rest of your life.
Utterly desperate, Michalik gave it a shot. He could scarcely jog around the block that first day, but in the sauna, it all started coming out of him: a viscous, green paste that oozed out of his eyes and nostrils. By the end of the first week, he reports, he was running two miles; by the end of the second, his ex-wife verifies, his gray hair had turned black again. And when he stepped out of the sauna after the twenty-third and final day, his skin was as pink and snug as a teenager’s. Liver and kidney tests confirmed the wildly improbable: he was perfectly healthy again.
“Everything came back to me: my sense of humor, my lust for life—hell, my lust, period. Don’t forget, it’d been almost three years since l’d gotten it up—I had some serious business to take care of. But the greatest thing by far was what wasn’t there anymore. All the biochemical hatred I’d been walking around with for twelve years, it was like that all bled out of me with the green stuff, and I had this overpowering need to be with people again, especially my son, Stevie. I had tons of making up to do with him, and I’ve loved every minute of it. It kills me that I could’ve let myself get so sick that I was ready to die and leave him.”
Michalik went to his wife and told her he was going back to bodybuilding. It was his life, his art, he couldn’t leave it alone—only this time, he swore on heaven, he was going to do it clean. She understood, or at least tried to, but said she couldn’t go through with it again: the 2 A.M. feedings, the $500-a-week grocery bills. They parted amicably, and Michalik returned to the gym, as zealous and single-minded as a monk. In the last two years he’s put on 60 pounds, and looks dense and
powerful at 225, though he’s sober about the realities.
“There are nineteen-year-olds clocking in now at two sixty-five,” he says, shaking his head. “The synthetic HGH [human growth hormone] has evolved a new species in five years. By the end of the decade, the standard will be three-hundred-pounders, with twenty-three-inch necks that are almost as big as their waists.
“But all around the country, kids’ll be dropping dead from the stuff, and getting diabetes because it burns out their pancreas. I don’t care what those assholes in California say, there’s no such thing in the world as a ‘good’ drug. There’s only bad drugs and sick bastards who want to sell them to you.”
Someone ought to post those words in every high school in the country. The latest estimate from a USA Today report is that there are half a million teenagers on juice these days, almost half of whom, according to a University of Kentucky study, are so naive they think that steroids without exercise will build muscle. In this second stone age, the America of Schwarzkopf and Schwarzenegger, someone needs to tell them that bigger isn’t necessarily better. Sometimes, bigger is deader.
Excerpted from From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago’s Best Sports Writing (University of Chicago Press), edited by Ron Rapoport and featuring stories from the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Daily News, and the Chicago Defender, among other papers.
Today gives John Schulian’s column from the Sept. 24, 1983, Sun-Times.
“Summer’s End Recalls Memory of a Faded Dream”
By John Schulian
Up ahead, you could see a full moon sandwiched by thick, wet clouds. Beneath them glowed the lights of Chicago, turning the soggy heavens red-orange and proving that this ribbon of highway actually led somewhere.
Another country radio station faded into oblivion inside the car, so you pressed a button and came across the White Sox, summer’s golden children at play on a night made for antifreeze.
Their presence should have been a comfort at 70 miles an hour, just as it had been since they used June as their launching pad to glory. But now the Sox were bidding adieu to their regular season at home. They weren’t going to return to Comiskey Park until October’s playoffs, and the thought left you feeling as empty as a farewell at a train station. Summer was over.
All you could do about it was punch another button on the car’s radio, punch another button and hope you would hear the Police singing “Every Breath You Take.” For that was the song that provided the background music for the last three months, lingering in your mind whether you were mowing the lawn or trying to describe the cosmic significance of the infield fly rule. The melody haunted you, the lyrics left you wondering about the residue of your own tilling and threshing. And, like a lot of other things this summer, that hadn’t happened for a while.
Maybe you have to go back as far as the days before baseball finally defeated you, days of keg parties and a curveball pitcher who lay down next to a stereo speaker filled with the Rolling Stones’ voices and begged his kid brother to turn the music louder. The season was over by then and the unraked diamonds had started turning hard under the fading sun. Every morning, the chill sunk a little deeper and lasted a little longer, and you began to realize how impossible it is to hang on to summer and all the things it represents.
No team you played on would ever be the same, no chance for a professional contract ever as good, no friendships ever so unencumbered. And that was what mattered to a catcher with a strong arm and a weak bat, a kid who hid inside a game and thought it would always sustain him.
Even on the night he graduated from high school, he tried to flee what scared him most for the safety that the Salt Lake Bees provided. But before he got to his $1.50 seat, before he even got out of the auditorium where he had received his diploma, there was lipstick on his cheek and a pretty girl saying, “Now you can go.”
Funny how long a kiss can last. Ask the man who got it now and he will tell you that summers should have such staying power. For he would think about it from time to time, smile and wonder about the girl who didn’t dance off into that happy night before she had made sure he was remembered. And when it came time for the 20th reunion this summer, when he flew back to the place that used to be home, he wondered if she would remember her own kindness. He looked for her and found only a mutual friend with bad news: “She’s very sick. I understand it’s terminal.”
What do you do then? Do you write a letter, or do you pray? Do you retreat into the silence that has become your comfortable enemy, or do you hope that the next knock on your door brings a smiling face and laughter that tinkles like chimes in an ocean breeze? Do you see your own life reduced to what the poet Yeats called “day’s vanity and night’s remorse,” or do you borrow from Tom T. Hall, the hillbilly songwriter, and tell someone dear, “You love everybody but you”?
The questions pile up, but there are never enough answers to clear them all away. Ten years ago, you couldn’t have imagined such a predicament. You knew everything then—knew it and said you knew it and expected the world to know you knew it. Perhaps it is only age that brings stupidity.
Summer certainly suggested as much. Whether you were gazing out at Lake Michigan or laboring over your prose, your mind kept drifting away from the business at hand. For too many hours, neither the splendor of Floyd Bannister’s left arm nor the foot in Dallas Green’s mouth held the appeal of life’s complexities. It was time to consider what you had let get away from you, and how, and why. The process was as unsettling as the gray taking over your beard and the lines growing deeper around your eyes.
“I don’t know,” you kept saying. “I just don’t know.” It was an all-purpose reply for a summer that raised new questions almost daily. It could also, however, be tiresome. “This is the place for you,” a friend said, passing a senior citizens’ center. And you couldn’t keep from laughing. You feigned anger, too. But down deep, you thanked God there was someone who cared enough to remind you that the sun always comes up in the morning.
It shows its face later and later now, though. You can’t ignore that. The leaves on the trees have already started to turn, and even if the White Sox go on to win the World Series, there won’t be many more trips to Comiskey Park. The days are growing short, and more and more you cling to the brightness that Ron Kittle, the rookie free spirit, brings to them. “Here’s my bat,” he said to a team trainer after two hitless nights. “Take its temperature.” What a pleasure to find someone who knows where to get answers.
But when they aren’t to your questions, the answers are only for enjoyment, not enlightenment. They serve the same function summer did this year as you spun your wheels for week after week, searching for something you hesitate to define and eventually heading back to the garage empty-handed. The answers made you forget the storm front, but by the time you got home it was starting to rain again.
John Schulian was a sports columnist for the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Philadelphia Daily News before moving to Hollywood, where he wrote for a number of television shows and was the co-creator of Xena: Warrior Princess. His work has been collected in several books, including Sometimes They Even Shook Your Hand: Portraits of Champions Who Walked Among Us. With George Kimball, he edited At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing for the Library of America.
It’s time to toast one of our own. Eric Branco, known round here simply as “Branco,” has his directorial debut showing on Saturday at the Coney Island Film Festival. If you are around, show some love and check it out.
Stay Cold, Stay Hungry is Branco’s first feature film. A native of New York City, he went to the Bronx High School of Science and the School of Visual Arts before beginning his career as a cinematographer. He’s lensed a host of feature films, shorts, and documentaries, and his work has screened at festivals around the world, including Cannes, Sundance, TriBeCa, and SXSW.
I had a chance to catch up with him recently and rap about his movie.
Bronx Banter: How did this project start for you?
Eric Branco: The idea for this film actually came to me ten years ago. I was enrolled in the School of Visual Arts at the time, but I wasn’t quite happy there. I came up with the master plan to drop out and make this movie. I wrote it on and off for the next few years, and once I had a script I was happy with, I started looking for financing. This was right around the time of the housing collapse, though, and no one was interested in funding this tiny indie film. I had the choice to shelve the project until I could find money, or just pull myself up by the bootstraps and make the movie on my own. I chose the latter.
BB: How did you cast it and what challenges did you face having to shoot over such a long period of time.
EB: I’ve known both of the leads for a long time. Johnny Marra is an old friend that I met in high school, and we became closer after graduation. We were both in art school, and so we’d constantly be bouncing ideas off each other and talking about our various projects. When I told him about this movie, he reacted so strongly to the concept. He had such an intense knowledge of the character that I’d show him scenes as I was writing and ask his opinion. It became clear over time that I wasn’t going to find anyone who knew the character as well as John, and I asked him to play the part of Harley. Stephen Hill was a bit of a different story. I was familiar with his work through an acting studio I used to work for, and just submitted the script to him and asked if he’d be interested doing it. The summer after I left college, I shot audition tapes for a well known acting coach. Very often actors will be on a project in New York and need to read for parts in LA. When that happens, they put themselves on camera and overnight it to the casting director. Steve was a star pupil of this acting coach, and she often had him read the other parts in these videos. He stuck with me, and years later I thought of him for Manny.
BB: It reminds me of the movies Orson Welles shot in Europe over months and years.
EB: Shooting over a long period of time actually a blessing. Since we were self funded, we didn’t have anyone to answer to but ourselves. There was no one barking at us about not being on schedule, and so we really took our time with this film, and made sure we had it right. A few times, if we felt a scene wasn’t working, we’d just come back to it another day. We had complete creative freedom, which is probably the only time we’ll have that luxury for the rest of our careers! We shot for about four months over the course of two years, and we really got to know these characters. As a result, the characters changed over time just like real people would. What made sense at the beginning of the shoot, very often didn’t ring true after shooting for over a year, and we did a fair amount of rewriting throughout the process. Steve’s character, Manny, took on a much larger role in the film, and we wrote new scenes so we could really get to know him. There’s one scene in particular, where Manny has a conversation with a pillow, which I think is one of the strongest moments in the film. That was Steve’s idea. I wrote it up, and we shot it later that week.
BB: The time you were afforded sounds like an advantage. Did you ever have to balance that with a feeling of impatience to get it complete?
EB: I was never impatient waiting for these pieces to fall into place, though. I lived a good amount of life since I set out to shoot this movie. Between wrapping this movie and premiering it, I’ve gotten married, had a baby, and watched my career as a cinematographer grow exponentially. There hasn’t been much down time, and so thankfully I was never sitting around twiddling my thumbs waiting to finish this movie.
BB: How did you maintain continuity working here and there over so much time?
EB: I really have Steve and John to thank for helping me maintain continuity. They both fell back into their parts so easily that I didn’t need to worry about losing the big picture. In terms of shooting, I had an internal style guide for what the movie should look like and I stuck to that pretty rigidly. Whenever I shoot a film I tend to box myself in by creating rules for myself, and that sensibility carried through to shooting my own film. It was very helpful in maintaining a visual continuity through the entire process.
BB: The look is so sharp but that’s not a surprise because you are a cameraman and photographer. But what was it like for you to direct actors?
EB: Actually, directing is and has always been my first love. Working with actors is my comfort zone. I didn’t originally intend to become a cinematographer. When I was younger and would make movies with my friends, there wasn’t anyone to hold the camera. I kind of picked up the baton and ran with it. When I got to film school, I already had a ton of experience shooting and so I was often asked to photograph other students’ films, and really fell in love with the camera. It snowballed from there, and now it’s how I make my living.
BB: Did you rehearse?
EB: We rehearsed extensively. We had very structured rehearsals before we started shooting, where we really tore through the script and got very specific. I filmed those rehearsals and often referred to them while we were shooting to try and maintain a constant emotional tone through the film. Once we began shooting, we stopped rehearsing, but would have long conversations about the scenes that were coming up in the schedule. After we’d wrap, we’d often talk for another two hours about the next day’s scenes and really get to the emotional core of what the scene was about.
BB: Did you cut the movie yourself? With all that footage and with you being so close emotionally to the project from day one how did you have the distance required to make tough decisions?
EB: I had a great editor, Adam Bertocci, who cut the movie as we shot. After wrapping each day, I’d drop the footage off to him and he’d usually have something to watch the next day. On our breaks between shooting, we’d take the time to do as polished a cut as possible, and really try and objectively examine what wasn’t moving the story forward. From there we’d either cut the scene, or I’d rewrite it and shoot it again. Adam was ruthless in his cuts, which also prevented me from getting too sentimental about the material.
BB: How much of the film was formed in the editing room?
EB: There’s probably another movie’s worth of footage that’s sitting on the cutting room floor! We shot and shot, cut scenes, rewrote scenes, and shot some more. The biggest difference between the first draft of the script and the final product is the film’s point of view. The script was very much written from Harley’s perspective, and it wasn’t until we started shooting that we realized we needed to see just as much of Manny for the movie to have the emotional resonance it needed. We ended up cutting some scenes of Harley that were too expositional, and rewriting them to be a little more ambiguous. At the same time, we wrote new scenes for Manny so we could show a little more of his private life and make the audience aware of things that the other characters were not.
BB: When Adam showed you a cut version of a scene did that help you know what you might have needed to go back and reshoot?
EB: Our reshoots were all about structure. We didn’t reshoot because things just didn’t come out well, but rather because things needed to connect to other scenes which may not have been in the original script. We ended up cutting a recurring character, and then had to reshoot a bunch of scenes that she was in. Her arc and influence on Harley ended up being revealed in other ways, and so she became redundant as far as the entire story went. We reworked several scenes that she had been in and shot new versions.
BB: What movies did you look at in preparation for making this?
EB: I have a laundry list of movies we watched! Probably the biggest influence on the film was Panic in Needle Park. There’s something so powerful to me about the relationship between Al Pacino and Kitty Winn in that film that I felt really mirrored the relationship between Harley and Manny in SCSH. Adam Holender’s photography was also a huge influence. There’s nothing wasted in that movie. The photography is incredibly lean and almost utilitarian, but beautiful and nuanced at the same time. I watched it religiously while shooting. Other films that were in the rotation were 25th Hour, Serpico, The Warriors, Mean Streets, Permanent Vacation, Naked, Kids, and Lost in Translation.
BB: Did you ever find yourself getting stuck, waiting and working other jobs, to get back to this?
EB: I can say without a doubt that making this movie was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It took everything I had in me to finish it. We would shoot and run my bank account down, I was often stuck just waiting until I had enough money to tackle the movie again. There was a good amount if post audio work needed, and a lot of dialogue had to be rerecorded. Several times, I worked deals with people where I’d shoot for them in exchange for a sound booth they had access to. Situations like that really took the big chunk of time to complete, and I hit dead ends at every step of the way that really sucked away all the enthusiasm I had for the project. By the end, it was a matter of finishing the movie to prove that I could. What began as optimism turned into a freight-train determination to see this thing through.
BB: Did the story you set out to tell differ from the story that exists in the finished movie?
EB: I set out wanting to make a film about the safety net afforded to people with money. That’s a story I felt strongly about telling, and so that was never in danger of being lost or diluted. What ended up changing, though, was the amount of layers within that story. What began as a relatively straightforward narrative blossomed into something more thanks to the amazing performances by the actors. This is the kind of movie that really gets people talking and debating the issues presented in the film, and as a storyteller nothing could be more rewarding.
BB: So, labor of love. Now that it is finished how do you feel?
EB: I feel good, man. I’m glad that I have something that I’m proud of and that the people involved are proud of too. I’ve already moved on to the next project, which is a down-and-out story about an ex-boxer trying to right his past sins. SCSH is hopefully just the first entry in what will be a lengthy catalogue of films. I just want this film to reach as many eyes as possible. For me it’s about exposure more than it is about making a profit. Not only for myself, but for the actors. Nothing would be more rewarding than to look back in a few years and be able to say “X happened because they saw you in SCSH“. That’s what I’m gunning for.
Excerpted from From Black Sox to Three-Peats: A Century of Chicago’s Best Sports Writing (University of Chicago Press), edited by Ron Rapoport and featuring stories from the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago Daily News, and the Chicago Defender, among other papers. It’s an excellent collection, and this week we’ll be selecting a story every day to give you a taste. First up: Westbrook Pegler’s “The Called Shot Heard Round the World,” from the Chicago Tribune, Oct. 2, 1932.
There, in the third ball game of the World Series, at the Cubs’ ball yard on the north side yesterday, the people who had the luck to be present saw the supreme performance of the greatest artist the profession of sport has ever produced. Babe Ruth hit two home runs.
Now, Lou Gehrig also hit two home runs, and Jimmy Foxx of the Athletics or any other master mechanic of the business might have hit three or four home runs and you would have gone away with the same impression that a factory tourist receives from an hour of watching a big machine lick labels and stick them on bottles of mouthwash or pop. The machine might awe you, but would you love it?
The people who saw Babe Ruth play that ball game and hit those two home runs against the Cubs came away from the baseball plant with a spiritual memento of the most gorgeous display of humor, athletic art and championship class any performer in any of the games has ever presented.
The Babe is 38 years old, and if you don’t know that he is unable to hike as far for fly balls or stoop as nimbly as he used to for rollers coming to him through the grass, that must be just your own fault, because he would not deceive you. As an outfielder he is pretty close to his past tense, which may mean that one more year from now he will be only a pinch-hitter. He has been breaking this news all year to himself and the customers.
Why, when Bill Jurges, the human clay pigeon, hit a short fly to him there in left field and he mauled it about, trying for a shoestring catch, he came up off the turf admitting all as Jurges pulled up at second.
The old Babe stood up, straightened his cap and gesticulated vigorously toward Earl Combs in center. “Hey!” the old Babe waved, “my dogs ain’t what they used to be. Don’t hit them out to me. Hit to the young guy out there.”
The customers behind him in the bleachers were booing him when the ball game began, but they would have voted him president when it was over, and he might not be a half-bad compromise, at that. Somebody in the crowd tossed out a lemon which hit him on the leg. Now there are sensitive ball players who might have been petulant at that and some stiff-necked ones who could only ignore it, boiling inwardly. But the Babe topped the jest. With graphic gestures, old Mr. Ruth called on them for fair play. If they must hit him with missiles, would they please not hit him on the legs? The legs weren’t too good anyway. Would they just as lief hit him on the head? The head was solid and could stand it.
I am telling you that before the ball game began the Babe knew he was going to hit one or more home runs. He had smacked half a dozen balls into the right-field bleachers during his hitting practice and he knew he had the feel of the trick for the day. When his hitting practice was over he waddled over toward the Cubs’ dugout, his large abdomen jiggling in spite of his rubber corsets, and yelled at the Cubs sulking down there in the den, “Hey, muggs! You muggs are not going to see the Yankee Stadium any more this year. This World Series is going to be over Sunday afternoon. Four straight.”
He turned, rippling with the fun of it and, addressing the Chicago customers behind third base, yelled, “Did you hear what I told them over there? I told them they ain’t going back to New York. We lick ‘em here, today and tomorrow.”
The Babe had been humiliating the Cubs publicly throughout the series. They were a lot of Lord Jims to him. They had had a chance to be big fellows when they did the voting on the division of the World Series pool. But for a few dollars’ gain they had completely ignored Rogers Hornsby, their manager for most of the year, who is through with baseball now apparently without much to show for his long career, and had held Mark Koenig, their part-time shortstop, to a half share. The Yankees, on the contrary, had been generous, even to ex-Yankees who were traded away months ago, to their deformed bat boy who was run over and hurt by a car early in the season, and to his substitute.
There never was such contempt shown by one antagonist for another as the Babe displayed for the Cubs, and ridicule was his medium.
In the first inning, with Earle Combs and Joe Sewell on base, he sailed his first home run into the bleachers. He hit Charlie Root’s earnest pitching with the same easy, playful swing that he had been using a few minutes before against the soft, casual service of a guinea-pig pitcher. The ball would have fallen into the street beyond the bleachers under ordinary conditions, but dropped among the patrons in the temporary seats.
The old Babe came around third base and past the Cubs’ dugout yelling comments which were unintelligible to the patrons but plainly discourteous and, pursing his lips, blew them a salute known as the Bronx cheer.
He missed a second home run in the third inning when the ball came down a few feet short of the wire screen, but the masterpiece was only deferred. He hit it in the fifth, a ball that sailed incredibly to the extreme depth of center field and dropped like a perfect mashie shot behind the barrier, long enough to clear it, but with no waste of distance.
Guy Bush, the Cubs’ pitcher, was up on the top step of the dugout, jawing back at him as he took his turn at bat this time. Bush pushed back his big ears, funneled his hands to his mouth, and yelled raspingly at the great man to upset him. The Babe laughed derisively and gestured at him. “Wait, mugg, I’m going to hit one out of the yard.” Root threw a strike past him and he held up a finger to Bush, whose ears flapped excitedly as he renewed his insults. Another strike passed him and Bush crawled almost out of the hole to extend his remarks.
The Babe held up two fingers this time. Root wasted two balls and the Babe put up two fingers on his other hand. Then, with a warning gesture of his hand to Bush, he sent him the signal for the customers to see.
“Now,” it said, “this is the one. Look!” And that one went riding in the longest home run ever hit in the park.
He licked the Chicago ball club, but he left the people laughing when he said good-bye, and it was a privilege to be present because it is not likely that the scene will ever be repeated in all its elements. Many a hitter may make two home runs, or possibly three in World Series play in years to come, but not the way Babe Ruth made these two. Nor will you ever see an artist call his shot before hitting one of the longest drives ever made on the grounds, in a World Series game, laughing and mocking the enemy with two strikes gone.
Westbrook Pegler (1884-1969) was one of America’s most widely read sportswriters during the Golden Age of Sports in the 1920s. He then turned to political reporting, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize for articles on union racketeering, and wrote columns that were reviled in many quarters for their mixture of personal invective and right-wing politics.
“The Better Man”
By Juan Williams
Originally published in the May 17, 1987, edition of The Washington Post Magazine. Republished here with the author’s permission. His postscript follows. For more on Hagler-Leonard, check out Grantland’s oral history.
I’d never been to Las Vegas. Politicans, civil rights leaders, and thinkers, the people I usually write about, don’t often stop there. But it is the perfect place for a big fight, a town that reeks of dominance—rich over poor, white over black, male over female. White men with money come to Las Vegas to show that they have the power and the wealth that make losing a few grand over the weekend “no big deal.” They can buy the prettiest woman, the thickest steak and the biggest diamond ring. They can also buy two men to fight on a stage for their evening’s entertainment. Tonight it will be Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard.
When I was a little boy, the one event I dreamed of seeing in person was a big prizefight. Other sports were on television or available to a kid who wanted to sell Cokes. The big fights were in exotic places like Zaire, the Philippines and Las Vegas. They were held in different time zones and came over the late-night radio as wire service reports at the end of each round. The late hour, the distant locale, the million-dollar prizes and my desire to be seen as sexually powerful—a man able to dominate another man as a cocky, proud prizefighter does in the ring—combined to transport me to a mythic place in my mind. Only prize-fighting could do that for me.
And only prize-fighting salved my most basic fear—the fear of being beaten bloody. A prizefighter confronts this fear like no one else. It’s him alone, trapped in an elevated place, above the crowd and under hot lights. It’s him against another man who seeks to demolish him, and the judgment is absolute. Who is the better man? Fight fans. and fighters use that phrase repeatedly: “The better man.” As in: “Leonard will try to outsmart Hagler but he won’t try to show he’s the better man.” The better man is the fighter who is the aggressor, who menaces his opponent and finally and conclusively batters him. Dominates him. Knocks him out. He can leave him unconscious, legs quivering, eyes rolling back. He can kill him. That is the better man.
If I saw boxing for what it really is—just a business—I wouldn’t be interested. The passion is what captures me; the passion coupled with the risk of defeat and failure as two men fight for all they are worth. Marvin Hagler of Newark and Sugar Ray Leonard of Palmer Park know the importance of looking tough, of appearing dominant and keeping that reputation. To Hagler and Leonard it matters that they be known as “the better man.”
For me, a skinny boy growing up in a violent. poor neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. to be “the better man” had real meaning. You had to fight. More than that, you had to be ready to fight. Walking down the street, in the schoolyard, on the basketball court, going to the store with your mother’s money—you had to be ready. I have a spot in my eye from a punch thrown by a big ninth-grader when I was in the seventh grade. On the handball court he told me to go get his ball and I wouldn’t. I never saw the punch. He didn’t knock me out or down, but I couldn’t see. I did manage to pick up the ball and windmill my arm as if I were throwing it back at him. When he ducked, I kicked him in the face and ran. I remember being a second-grader walking past a bunch of shrieking kids surrounding two third-graders who were fighting. The terror on the fighters’ faces heightened the fear in me. I didn’t want to be caught in that circle of howling, stupid people who wanted to see blood, to see one person reduced to tears or unconsciousness.
At night when my mother made me take the garbage down the hallway to the trash room, I worried about someone attacking me. The trash room was next to the stairwell, where high school guys hung out, smoked and did drugs. Often the light bulb would be out—broken by someone who had been waiting to mug somebody. I was always scared and ready to fight. I didn’t want to fight. I made friends with Chuck, a fat but strong boy who was a feared street-fighter. Since Chuck and I were friends. I had an insurance policy, a personal bodyguard. My best friend, James, didn’t like to fight either. When he did fight, he usually lost. But because he would fight—and never backed down from a fight—he had a reputation as a tough guy and had fewer fights. I learned from his example.
The prospect of fighting for me is still an emotional risk, though I’m middle-class now and have a family and a job, and getting beat up does not hold the threat of defining me as an absolute loser. But fighting still has a hold on my primitive self and my emotions. If I have to fight, will I be the “better man,” and if I lose, what does that mean? Am I the lesser man? Do other people see me as shamed by submission, by the loss of face? Will women know? Would they want a lesser man? These doubts attack my pride and unsettle my confidence, my sense of who l am—”the better man.” A professional fight stirs these feelings in me.
Do you remember Tommy Hearns after his fight with Marvin Hagler? A beaten man, he could get back to his feet only by hanging onto his trainers and his friends. He was dazed, his long arms hanging like spaghetti, his neck so limp that his head dangled. His eyes did not dilate. Finally, one of his friends picked him up and carried him like a father carries a baby. That was defeat—total physical wreckage. Worse, it was emotional wreckage. Hagler ran around the ring celebrating, thrusting his hands up, grabbing his crotch, smiling. His emotions were pumped. After fights, I’ve seen some winning fighters stand on the ropes, making themselves taller, and scream—a throaty, visceral roar. They are alive. They are dominant. They are emotionally whole. The loser has no voice. This is a refinement over the street fight. Then when a man is down, while he’s out, the winner could kill him, sexually abuse him, take his woman, his possessions. That is emotional rape. Who will rape and who will be raped—emotionally—is the risk of fighting.
My father trained fighters, men named Kid Chocolate and Finnegan who were the lightweight champions of South America. My father never fought professionally, but he was a fighter, too. He is a very handsome man with dazzling black eyes and a thick, long scar that cuts across his chest. The scar came from a knife. He was fighting a guy on the street and stepped back, away from a looping right hand. The punch missed. But my father felt a stinging sensation across his chest. The other guy had a knife in his fist with the blade sticking out. My father had other fights. He fought for money and food on board Navy ships that would pass through the Panama Canal. When he was in his forties he married my mother and began working as an accountant during the day for steady income. What defined him, however, was that he trained fighters. His picture would be on the sports pages of the papers as a fight trainer. His words were quoted. He rarely came home, but when he did, it was often with his fighters so they could eat my mother’s cooking.
In one of the earliest pictures of me, I am standing in diapers, no shirt on, fists cocked. Across the way is my father in a fighting stance, crouched, on his toes, showing me the right way to get off a punch. He’s wearing baggy pants and two-tone brown-and-white shoes. My mother tells me he would take me, at age 2, on training runs with his fighters. His favorite game with me when I was a baby was shadow-boxing. I was just 3 when my mother took me, my sister and my brother to Brooklyn. She worked in a sweatshop in the garment district in Manhattan, sewing dresses, while my father would send money to help out. My boxing lessons didn’t resume until he came to Brooklyn when I was about 10. He was never home much, but sometimes he’d show me combinations: how to slide and jab, how to get out of a corner. As I remember, we would do this in the mornings, and he wouldn’t have shaved yet. His beard would rake my face in the clinches. I would swoon when he butted me. And even with my guard up, the force of his punches would make them slide off my hands and land against my face. I hated getting hit in the face. I stopped asking him to show me moves. The lessons ended.
Still, my love of boxing grew stronger. Muhammad Ali’s aura, his style, his poetry, his political activism drew me to him and the sport. The taunting of Frazier, the mugging with Howard Cosell (grabbing his toupee)—Ali was the greatest. When I was in college, I’d go into Philadelphia once in a while to watch Monday night fights at the Spectrum. I’d go alone. Those bouts were savage experiences, club fights pitting black against white, Cuban against Mexican, Boston against Philadelphia—inexpert boxers, many who had taken too many punches going at it for $100. They exchanged roundhouse rights until one man fell. I had to get what I could from the papers about more skillful fighters. I tried to catch the good Saturday afternoon bouts on television, but there weren’t many good ones. Then Sugar Ray Leonard became popular. I’d go out to the Capital Centre to watch his fights on the big screen. Once a guy took a swing at me when he heard me say Duran was winning the fight in Montreal. My friend Vernon decked him. I was getting closer but close wasn’t enough. I wanted to see the real thing up close—a true prizefight.
Inside the Bally Grand Hotel in Las Vegas is a huge mirrored wall. Plastered on the mirror are 20-foot-high profiles of Leonard and Hagler, their heads and chests almost touching. These profiles have no eyes, no expression, and the men are face to face as if ready to explode into combat. Hanging above the clatter and bells of the vast casino floor are big purple gloves with the fighters’ names written in fancy script. On the wide-screen television sets in the bar, they’re showing reruns of previous fights. The big-time fight hoopla doesn’t go past the bar. It does not intrude on the green felt of the gambling tables. There’s no talk of boxing here. The fight is kept out of the restaurant, too. People are absent-mindedly eating while circling 15 numbers on a sheet of paper to play a game called keno. They hand the paper with the 15 numbers to women who walk around in miniskirts and high heels. Then they gaze at the wall to see which 15 numbers appear; they’re looking for a winner.
The scene at Bally’s is muted compared with the neighboring bazaar—Caesars Palace. Here the dominance is as unrestrained as a fight between a pit bull and a toy poodle.
Several hundred people wait by the main entrance to Caesars. They stand in tribute, day and night, to America’s winners—any arriving celebrity. Climbing out of the Mercedes-Benzes, limousines, Jaguars and Porsches (which are all parked in ostentatious glory near the entrance), the celebrities take only a moment to acknowledge the riffraff. The crowd parts quickly at the ominous sight of Wilt Chamberlain. People push forward for a glance at the bejeweled Joan Collins. Inside the hotel, body builders, oiled and pumped, carry a beautiful Egyptian queen in costume on their shoulders while other women wave palms to cool her. Really.
At Caesars Palace, the gamblers are white men over 40. In Caesars Palace they are Caesar’s court. Some dress in country-club pastels, others in tuxedos, and ever so casually flash $700 fight tickets stamped “compliments of the casino.” One man told me he was sent the tickets because he has a standing $50,000 line of credit with Caesars. He had just come away from the baccarat table where $10,000 to $20,000 passes in a flash. He had to walk past two steely-eyed guards who nodded at him and the other white men but remained grim to every other passerby, openly antagonistic to blacks and women. This is the place for the fight—a place of power and dominance.
The fight will be held in an open-air stadium set up in the Caesars Palace parking lot. Past the casino, and past the pool that no one swims in, are three or four chain-link gates—entrances to an arena that holds 15,000 people. There’s a boxing ring in the middle surrounded by a few rows of press tables. Then a dozen rows of plastic bucket seats. Behind those seats, on all sides, rise grandstands with flat blue plastic planks set on metal girders. The scene is surprisingly Spartan, dominated by the wire fences, the criss-crossed bare metal poles that support the grandstands and the plain plastic seats.
Past the small stadium is a one-story, plain metal building housing a section of bleachers and a bare, wooden stage. This is where the fighters’ weigh-in will be held, a theater where the champion traditionally enters last to signify his superiority. He is weighed last and remains on the stage after the challenger leaves. The champion is dominant. But it is a place for both fighters to strut and preen. The fighters know this is play-acting, but they also know it is really the fight’s opening round. They don’t want to lose in any arena to a man they will soon have to fight; they want to keep the psychological advantage.
Leonard appears first. He wears a white T -shirt, slacks and black leather boots. He appears as royalty amid many courtiers. His aides, his trainers, his bodyguards, his son and home-town television types like Glenn Brenner and Frank Herzog chatter, point and wave as they form a moving colony around him. In their midst is this little brown man, not very muscular, but regal. His bearing is formal. He keeps his eyes forward, never turning to talk or to acknowledge anyone. He doesn’t react when the cheering for his appearance is overwhelmed by booing from the packed bleachers. Only Leonard and his trainers are allowed past the security guards and onto the stage. A bald, husky-voiced old guy, waving a cigar, has warned a moment before that he “don’t mean to offend anyone, but no hangers-on” will be allowed on the stage, “no aunts, no uncles, no best friends, no nobody…”
Now on the stage, Leonard begins to untie his leather boots. He does it slowly, then slides each foot out, deliberately and neatly taking off each sock. An aide rushes to take away the shoes the instant he is done. Then he stands and pulls down his pants, finally sitting to slip the legs over his feet. He has on black bikini underwear. With his T-shirt still on he walks over to the scales and mounts them, erect and expressionless. Several functionaries in three-piece suits rush over, bending to look at the numbers on the scale. Then they go away. Leonard remains, glorying in the reverence of his audience.
Suddenly there is a roar. Hagler’s troops have emerged from behind the grandstand. In place of Leonard’s black bodyguards in sunglasses, Hagler has old white men in white sweaters next to him—his trainers. He walks quickly. And he looks like a bad dude: shaved head, scars on his face, dark sunglasses. He bounds up the steps to the stage. His shoes are white high-topped sneakers with Velcro wraps around the ankles. He pulls off his sneakers roughly, stands and strips off his pants, then pulls the zipper on his sweat jacket and throws it off.
Now the psychological game is in bloom. I’ve seen it on the streets, in bars, in office politics. Dominance can be established by the man who struts and commands all attention for himself. He takes his power from the obeisance of sycophants. He takes power from staring at his opponent until the opponent looks away. He takes power at a bar by simply pushing his whiskey glass toward the other man, claiming turf at the other man’s expense. This, then, is really the opening round of the Leonard-Hagler fight.
Leonard, who had taken his seat while Hagler marched onstage, now remounts the scale and his weight is formally announced. Standing on the scale, he radiates calm and confidence. He raises his bands in victory. The cheers float over him. Hagler silences them. He steps in front of Leonard and flexes. His stomach and chest muscles move in a majestic symphony, his stomach muscles, especially, protruding in waves of defiant strength. Hagler—muscular, nude but for his bikini underwear—contrasts sharply with Leonard: flat, firm with few obvious muscles, his shirt on.
The brazen intimidation intended by Hagler’s posturing brings raucous remarks from the crowd. Leonard gets off the scale. Hagler rushes to get on. In his hurt he forgets that he has left his socks on. An official asks him to take them off. It slows the bull’s charge. Hagler rips the socks off, flinging them away. On the scale Hagler looks over at Leonard and gives a thumbs-down signal. Leonard is dressing as Hagler lingers, on the scale. Hagler turns to him and stares. Leonard is by then bent down to pull his shoes on. Hagler continues staring, even pointing at Leonard as he walks away from the scale. Leonard stares back, but there still is no expression to his face.
Round one to Hagler. He is the crowd’s favorite and has dominated the weigh-in ceremony. If this were the street, he would be “fronting,” sticking out his chest, swaggering and talking trash, insulting Leonard’s mother. But enough of the street. This is Las Vegas. This is Sugar Ray and Marvelous Marvin. We’re talking about tens of millions of dollars here, a boxing ring, a referee, judges and viewers worldwide. These men are professionals doing a job.
No—these are two men out to dominate. One will dominate and one will be dominated.
When Hagler was deciding whether to retire or fight Leonard, he said his wife told him, “Why don’t you go ahead and get that little skinny bastard out of the way.” Leonard has had his passionate words, too. While Hagler walked around Las Vegas in a black hat with the word “War” on it, Leonard told reporters he was not going to war to beat Hagler. “I see it as a battle of will and wit,” said Leonard with a smile that made it clear that Hagler is a dummy. “He gets mad …,” Leonard explained to reporters. “Little things make him fed up …. He gets frustrated.” A dumb animal to be contained.
After Hagler disappears from the weigh-in, a black man from Los Angeles wearing a gold-and-white sweat suit with red-and-white Fila athletic shoes and thick gold chains walks over to me. “Yeah, bro, it’s over,” he says. “You’ve seen my man’s body—he’s going to kill that little Leonard. Sure enough going to detach that eye, maybe pop the whole thing out.” He says he knows people in Hagler’s camp, and they are joking about letting Leonard have a bigger ring (20 feet instead of 18) and letting Leonard set the bout at a 12-round limit. “There won’t be no 12th round,” he says. “Ray will be lucky if there’s a second round.”
The conversation stirs me. There is heat in his words. I have the desire to have intense moments like these fighters will have tonight, moments that inspire heat in other men’s words. Tonight the fighters’ world will be totally focused. Their minds and energies will be limited to that ring, to dominating the other man, to controlling their emotions. their fears. angers and desires, until the job is done. Today will be spent in pure anticipation of that moment. Today the fighters do nothing but wait; they have gone without sex for weeks. They go without sex today. They lie in bed, watch TV, talk to no one. Hagler will eat two meals—first meatballs and spaghetti and then, in the afternoon, fish and salad. Leonard will eat one meal—chicken, corn bread and greens. Food doesn’t matter. Sex doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. They are waiting for their moment. One moment. The fight.
This fight means more to the fighters than mere money. If Hagler wins he can claim to be the greatest middleweight. He has not been beaten in 37 fights over 11 years. If Leonard wins, he will go down in history as a fighter like no other, a welterweight and junior middleweight champion who came back after a three-year hiatus and beat the most ferocious middleweight of his day. The loser will still be able to say he was good, but the winner of this fight becomes a legend. In the language of the streets, he will become, for all time, a bad mother.
In the restaurants. shapely women model tight sweater-skirt outfits, walking from table to table. Like automatons they repeat the name of the clothing, designer, the fabric and the colors available at a nearby shop. In the bars near-naked women serve drinks to tables crowded with men. Even outside, the streets are littered with ads for call-girls, pictures of practically nude women who for $150 will come to your hotel room.
The casinos seem a blur. The dizzy spinning roulette wheel; the rich men signaling for a light on thick cigars; the gilded baubles on display at Gucci (which is conveniently located a few feet from the casino); the paintings in the coffee shop of black slaves serving overripe fruit. There are no politics in Las Vegas, just people luxuriating in acceptance of a world where the rich are the righteous, celebrity is a must, women are sex objects, and blacks are the gladiators. Those who are not beautiful or strong enough serve drinks, deal cards, tote luggage and eventually get out of town.
All Monday, Las Vegas is frenzied. On the automatic walkway leading to Caesars Palace, a blonde Texan wearing red toenail polish under plastic high heels drops her highball and vomits. Baseball fans begin pushing and shoving as they stand in line for Willie Mays’ autograph. Bo Derek, Tony Danza, John Thompson, Telly Savalas, Timothy Hutton, Mark Gastineau, Gene Hackman—the sight of them sets off a rash of flashing bulbs outside the arena in the hour before the fight. Inside, a seating section to the right of the ring is reserved for celebrities only. The crowd is thick. The aisles of this small stadium cannot hold them. People are crushed together, moving a step at a time. The women are dressed for a White House dinner. They wear evening gowns and designer leather and big, shiny jewels. There are even some furs on this 50-degree night. But you’ve got to be dressed tonight. This is it. A big-time fight. I can’t believe I’m really here. I feel the terror, the butterflies, the urge to hit, the sexual, primitive response to threat.
Leonard comes out first. He is wearing a white satin jacket, with vents, an elastic band holding it snug to his waist. He dances around. He waits. Three minutes. Then the song “War” comes over the loudspeakers. Marvelous Mavin Hagler in black robe, hood up, marches through the arena and into the ring. High atop Caesars Palace an American flag begins to explode in a fireworks display. The flag starts coming apart. The exploding, crumbling flag, with its threat of starting a fire, is an excess on top of the excesses of Las Vegas, and it fascinates the crowd. Necks crane toward the flag. Meanwhile. Leonard dances over toward Hagler’s comer. It looks like a taunt. He is purposely riling Hagler. It is part of his fight plan. He comes back to Hagler’s comer once again and this time does a lightning-fast spin. Hagler watches. A jaguar watching a deer, waiting for him to come too close. The anthem is sung. The Pointer Sisters get out of the ring. The fight begins. Finally.
Hagler smacks his red gloves against his bald head and stomps into the middle of the ring. For the first minute he stays there, Leonard circling him, throwing a few quick combinations. Hagler doesn’t throw a punch. Finally he punches at Leonard, who is immediately off at a run, pursued by Hagler. This exchange sets the style of the fight: Leonard running, Hagler pursuing, and occasionally catching Leonard on the ropes for a few quick seconds (to the delight of the crowd) before Leonard again slides off the ropes and resumes his run. As the round ends, Leonard, on the ropes, throws a flurry of punches at Hagler. This too becomes a pattern Leonard will follow throughout the fight. At every round’s end, he throws punches, flashy quick punches to Hagler’s head. My father once told me that in boxing it’s important to always get in the last punch. Your opponent will remember it, and the judges will have it in their minds as they score the round.
Leonard looks incredibly sharp for a man who was knocked down in his last fight three years ago by a mediocre fighter named Kevin Howard. Leonard is spinning off the ropes, his legs look good and his combinations are crisp. And because Hagler is chasing him. Leonard is dictating the pace of the fight.
The most important thing going on in these early rounds follows the rule from every bar-room fight—control your fear. Leonard is controlling his fear by controlling his opponent. He sets up Hagler. Hagler never sets up Leonard. Leonard can predict where Hagler will be—right in front of him. Hagler never knows where Leonard will be. Leonard’s fear, his uncertainty—all the talk he has heard about being out of the ring too long—is burning itself out. If he can control the other guy, there is no need to be scared; there is no reason to have fear.
Even while Leonard is fighting his fear, Hagler is fighting his anxiety. He wants to fight, slug it out, man-to-man with Leonard. But he knows Leonard’s reputation as a cunning opponent who sets traps for bigger, stronger, meaner fighters. Hagler does not want to fall into one of Leonard’s traps. So he waits in the center of the ring in the early minutes of the fight. He fights his impulse to bombard the slimmer Leonard. He doesn’t want to get tired before Leonard does. Leonard is gaining confidence by the moment. He sticks his chin out at Hagler. At the end of the fourth round he hits Hagler on the top of his bald head, leaving the judges with the memory of a flurry of punches.
Leonard’s control of the early rounds infuriates Hagler. Talking trash is part of street-fighting. So it is in the ring. Anger your opponent, and he begins to flail, stops thinking. Leonard calls Hagler a sissy. He pushes Leonard into the ropes. He’s shouting, come on and fight me. This is Hagler’s game—anger, rage, fury.
But even when Hagler backs him into the ropes, Leonard is in control, setting up Hagler. He continues to land his punches before Hagler can get going. Coming off the ropes. he’ll clamp Hagler’s right fist under his left arm and then walk into Hagler. Referee Richard Steele is slow to break them. Hagler isn’t complaining and he isn’t pushing Leonard off; he’s stupidly pleased to have Leonard in one place, finally standing still, and now he’s trying to hit him. But the short shots have no leverage, and since Leonard is pushing him backward, there’s all the less power in the punches.
In the streets, there is no benefit to dancing around your opponent unless you can hit him often enough to make him give up, quit. In the ring, the judges award points for dancing, for blows to the head, chest, stomach and kidneys. It really doesn’t matter how hard the punches are, just that they connect. No one can really tell how hard a punch is unless the fighter who gets hit reacts—that is, gets knocked down or gets knocked out. In the first four rounds Leonard simply out-points Hagler. He isn’t trying to knock him out, just to hit him, keep a glove in his face, frustrate him, while showing the judges that he can hit Hagler.
My father once told me that fighting a bigger boy is like playing with fire. Fire, he said, can cook your dinner, light your home, warm you at night. It can also burn your house down and kill you. The key to controlling the fire is understanding its nature and working within that nature to achieve what you want to achieve. Leonard is handling Hagler like fire—being very careful not to get burned while using Hagler’s heat, his aggressive nature and bull-ahead charging tactics to defeat him. Can he do it for 12 rounds?
Hagler’s anxiety is growing. He wants to knock Leonard around, but he doesn’t want to fall into a trap. His indecision has cost him the first four rounds of the fight. In the fifth Hagler drops all pretense of strategy and begins an aggressive assault. Now Leonard is on the defensive. Hagler is crowding him, firing good body shots. Some miss, some hit, but more hit than ever before. At the round’s end Sugar Ray’s flurry isn’t there. Instead he is against the ropes trading punches with Hagler. A jab, then an uppercut catch Leonard. The crowd roars. Leonard counters, softly, and doesn’t move off the ropes. The bell rings. Leonard stumbles across the ring to get back to his comer. Hagler’s fire has been turned up and Leonard looks singed. The roar of the crowd says it smells knockout. “That’s it, next round he’s gone.” the man in front of me is screaming.
Pain is a distraction. It clouds the mind. It invites confusion and, worse—it invites fear. Leonard has had his fear under control. Now, for the first time, Leonard’s handlers look concerned. Leonard’s eyes are far away as he sits on his stool. If he forgets his plan—if he’s hurt and unable to move, if he decides he has to prove himself by slugging it out with Hagler—this will be a short night. Angelo Dundee, Leonard’s trainer, is in his face, spittle flying, shouting through the haze. Stick and run, keep him punching at the angles, this is your night Ray, you’re winning Ray, you’re winning. Leonard is up before the bell and across the ring waiting for Hagler.
In Round 6, Hagler’s aggression returns. And so does Leonard’s fear. It never overwhelms him, though. At the round’s end Hagler has Leonard on the ropes, but he and Leonard are trading body shots. Leonard isn’t connecting with any power, though, and is busy fighting to stay on top of Hagler’s aggression. Some of Leonard’s movements look herky-jerky. But he still has his growing fear under control. The punch to the top of Hagler’s head at the end of the round is evidence that Leonard is in charge.
Leonard’s behavior reminds me of the words of comedian Billy Crystal on “Saturday Night Live.” It’s not how you feel—it’s how you look. And Ray looks marvelous. Inside his head, he is fighting increasing fear and pain. But neither Hagler nor the judges see it. Leonard’s theatrical ability and will to win are keeping him alive. What a boxer!
By the ninth round, Hagler senses this fight has gone on too long. His corner looks panicky. They want him to take Leonard out—go to him and get him now. Hagler catches him against the ropes early on and looks to connect with the jab—the set-up for the bomb. He’s hitting Leonard but Leonard is keeping himself moving, twisting his body, moving his head and counter-punching. Hagler keeps coming. Against the ropes again, Leonard is hit with a good Hagler combination to the body. But he responds with a flurry of punches and, surprisingly, dances away. The crowd is roaring. This is the fight they came to see.
Leonard’s face reveals a new thought as he sits in his comer at the end of the ninth. This fight has only three rounds to go. Leonard’s will is amazing. He’s tired. Hagler’s fire is coming on stronger. But from his heart, Leonard is working, continuing to fire combinations that have no power but nonetheless land, scoring punches. Leonard continues to keep his body at angles, thwarting the power of Hagler’s punches.
Then, in a show of bravado that brings us back to “it’s not how how you feel, it’s how you look,” Leonard turns and postures with a bolo punch, taunting Hagler. Leonard is winning the fight of images. Even as the strength is draining from his body he is concealing his fear and exhaustion. Most important, Hagler, who clearly looks stronger and less fatigued, doesn’t sense Leonard’s fear and that increases his feeling of frustration at not having nailed him. Now Hagler begins to throw wild punches. Leonard catches him with a combination to the body.
In the final round, Leonard continues to showboat. He comes off his stool with his hands raised in victory. He beckons for Hagler to come to the middle of the ring. He waves to the crowd, asking them to cheer him on. They do. He is controlling Hagler and the crowd. At the end he hits Hagler on the head. This round is Leonard’s, for mental and emotional strength.
My score card shows Leonard a winner, seven rounds to five, He found a strategy to beat Hagler, he found the skill to execute it and the mental strength to keep to it. If a man makes his world, then Leonard made this fight follow his script, and he put on a classic boxing show. That brilliance was also in a sense the fight’s flaw. By the law of the streets a fight should scream violence—two men throwing their bodies at each other and the stronger, meaner man winning. In the street Leonard would not have been able to rely on a 12-round limit or the judge’s scoring. He would do better to talk his way out of a disagreement with Mr. Hagler. By that standard this fight was polite, bloodless, a delight for the cognoscenti. It was evidence that brains and strategy can defeat brawn.
As the final bell rings, Leonard raises his arms and walks around the ring. He understands that the fight is not over until he exults, shows he feels he has won. Then he falls to his knees in collapse. He is that tired. Hagler remains in his comer, his face cold and expressionless.
I am standing with two other reporters. One has the fight dead even—a draw. The other has it as a win for Leonard. I do, too. A fan, a guy from San Antonio, walks over to me, asks me how I scored the fight. He says Leonard has not beaten Hagler badly enough to take away the title. All Leonard did was survive, hold and run and survive, he says. I agree. But I say my score card shows Leonard the winner of seven rounds of a 12-round fight.
The ring announcer comes to the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “we have a split decision. Judge Dave Moretti scores it 115-113 Hagler. Judge Lou Filippo scores it 115-113 Leonard. And Judge Jo-Jo Guerra scores it 118-110. The new …”
At the sound of the word “new,” the arena explodes. Leonard jumps around the ring, waving his arms, shaking his fists.
But the fight isn’t over yet. In my neighborhood the fight itself was not as important as what people Had to say afterward. If the crowd believed the cops showed up too early, or somebody got a knife from one of his boys, then the decision could go either way. If the loser was robbed, he might as well be the winner.
There is no doubt tonight. The talk is of Leonard’s “great performance” and “his strategy.” In the press room. Prentice Bird, who handles fighters, including Tommy Hearns, for the Kronk gym in Detroit, says Hagler is too old, his legs are “gone.” Jesse Jackson comes over to me and compares Leonard to Ali.
Suddenly Leonard appears. He stands by the microphone, a sly grin on his face, and holds up a piece of paper. He reads off the names of sportswriters, all of whom had picked Hagler to win, then drops the paper; Hagler called him names, Leonard says, shaking his head as a father does when disappointed with a child, but he knew Hagler was in trouble because Hagler gave away the first five rounds and would have had to get a knockout to win it. With the wave of an aristocrat, a man who has proven himself in some real, unquestionable way, he says, “No more questions … I have no more to say, gentlemen,” turns and leaves. His wife, Juanita, comes forward. She is wearing the green leather championship belt like a sash, slung over her shoulder, across her chest, the gold buckle lying between her breasts. She seems in a daze. She stands there as if she is the trophy. There she is—the winner’s woman.
Half an hour later, Hagler unexpectedly walks out and sits in a chair on the stage. Usually, the losers disappear in emotional disrepair. Hagler hardly looks upset—he looks angry. “They took it away from me and gave it to Sugar Ray of all people,” he says. Boxing is politics and the people who run boxing don’t want him to retire as he had planned to do. The boxing money-men wanted Sugar Ray to win and it left him with a “bitter taste” in his mouth. He was the aggressor the whole fight—”You saw it”—and the bell saved Leonard three or four times. “He fought like a girl in there,” he says, waving his hand and insisting Leonard never hurt him. Pointing to the reporters, he says Leonard “told me himself—he said, ‘You beat me.’”
Still Hagler keeps talking. He says he can’t believe he lost. He says when he wakes up in the morning, he’ll have to check to make sure this really happened. Hagler wants to talk more, but Bob Arum, the promoter, ends the press conference.
I find one of Leonard’s entourage and ask if what Hagler said was true. He laughs. Leonard told Hagler, he says, that Hagler was still the middleweight champion. Ray doesn’t want to be the middleweight champion. He doesn’t want the belt, he says. “Hagler can be the champion—Ray is the superstar.”
I feel sorry for Marvelous Marvin. He didn’t understand. Leonard made a passing comment and in his embarrassment Hagler has seized on it, even repeated it to the press, without understanding it. Leonard humiliated him. In the terms of a Brooklyn schoolyard fight, Leonard had “busted that mother.” Now the fight was really over. And it wasn’t even close.
I’m a fight fan and I suggested doing the story for the Washington Post‘s Sunday magazine. It was a pleasure to write because I didn’t have to report the news, there was no hard deadline. I could take my time and explore my personal history with fighting. My father trained boxers. There’s a strange picture of me when I was young on the balcony in Panama. I’m in white shoes, my fists cocked. That’s an odd thing for a father to do to a toddler but I think he was imparting what he knew to me. It’s not that he expected me to be a boxer.
When I was four, my mother took my two siblings and me from Colon, Panama, to New York and my father didn’t join us until I was 10. A few years later I went away to prep school so there were large gaps in my childhood when he wasn’t present. My brother and sister were 8 and 10 years older. We lived in the Ebbets Field Houses in Brooklyn—section 8 housing. I was the little guy, left behind, sitting alone on the stoop. I didn’t have neighborhood protection until later when I proved that I was good at basketball.
Where I grew up fighting was a survival thing. I wasn’t a fighter by nature. Fear was the driving instinct, and fighting was about learning how to manage the fear. I just didn’t want to be crushed but I didn’t have the desire to dominate someone else. Getting hit when you practice had no appeal for me. Getting hit in the face even when head gear protects your skin from being torn is still getting hit in the face. It’s an unpleasant experience. As I wrote in this piece my father told me that fighting a bigger boy is like playing with fire. The crucial part is to control the fire and learn how to use it to your advantage.
Which is partly why I identified with Leonard. Also, he was from the D.C. area, that’s where I was working, so he was a hometown guy. The central point of that fight, the heart and soul of the fight, was that Leonard had an effective strategy for fighting Hagler and Hagler had no strategy other than to knock Leonard out. He was the raging bull. It was the lion vs. an antelope.
The perception of the fight may have changed over time but not in my mind. I don’t recall anyone saying at the time that Hagler got robbed. I can only see that being the case because Hagler was the aggressor and some people may feel that the one who was hitting harder should have won. But if you appreciate the beauty of the sport—who controls the fight—there is no question, at the end particularly, that Leonard was in control of the ring and of the fight.
Juan Williams was a longtime reporter and columnist at The Washington Post. He is now a political analyst for Fox News.
[Featured Image by Joe Maloney]