A London nursing home. The shape of a figure beneath the sheets. My grandfather could just about whisper. He wanted a cigarette and a glass of whiskey. “Come up on the bed here, young fella,” he said, gruffly. It was 1975 and I was 10 years old and it would be the first — and probably last — time I’d ever see him. Gangrene was taking him away. He reached for the bottle and managed to light a cigarette. Spittle collected at the edge of his mouth. He began talking, but most of the details of his life had already begun slipping away.
Long wars, short memories.
Later that afternoon my father and I bid goodbye to my grandfather, boarded a train, then took a night boat back home to Dublin. Nothing but ferry-whistle and stars and waves. Three years later, my grandfather died. He had been, for all intents and purposes, an old drunk who had abandoned his family and lived in exile. I did not go to the funeral. I still, to this day, don’t even know what country my grandfather is buried in, England or Ireland.
Sometimes one story can be enough for anyone: it suffices for a family, or a generation, or even a whole culture — but on occasion there are enormous holes in our histories, and we don’t know how to fill them.
In 1964 my time was not very valuable. I was a utility night rewrite writer and speechwriter at the Times when Sonny Liston fought Cassius Clay for the first time. The Times, in its wisdom, did not feel it was worth the time to send the real boxing writer. So they sent me down to Miami Beach and my instructions were, as soon as I got there, to rent a car and drive back and forth a couple of times between the arena, where the fight was going to be held in a week, and the nearest hospital. They did not want me wasting any deadline time following Cassius Clay into intensive care. I did that—if any of you ever get into trouble in South Beach, call me, I can tell you how to get there. I did it and drove to the Fifth Street Gym where Cassius was training. He was not there yet.
As I walked up the stairs to the gym there was a kind of hubbub behind me. There were these four little guys in terrycloth cabana suits who were being pushed up the stairs by two big security guards. As I found out later, it was a British rock group in America. They had been taken to Sonny Liston for a photo op. He had taken one look at them and said “I’m not posing with those sissies.” Desperately, they brought the group over to Cassius Clay—to at least get a shot with him. They’re being pushed up the stairs, I’m a little ahead of them. When we get to the top of the stairs, Clay’s not there. The leader of the group says, “Let’s get the fuck out of here. “ He turned around, but the cops pushed all five of us into a dressing room and locked the door. That’s how I became the fifth Beatle. [laughter]
They were cursing. They were angry. They were absolutely furious. I introduced myself. John said, “Hi, I’m Ringo.” Ringo said, “Hi, I’m George.” I asked how they thought the fight was going to go. “Oh, he’s going to kill the little wanker,” they said. Then they were cursing, stamping their feet, banging on the door. Suddenly the door bursts open and there is the most beautiful creature any of us had ever seen. Muhammad Ali. Cassius Clay. He glowed. And of course he was much larger than he seemed in photographs—because he was perfect. He leaned in, looked at them and said, “C’mon, let’s go make some money.”
Finally there is George Kimball, a character from journalism as big and colorful and wonderful as any in this book. I have known him since he hired me at the Boston Phoenix a thousand years ago. Now all this time later, he is a fighter himself against illness. Big George keeps coming, keeps writing for the Irish Times, and his own boxing books such as “Four Kings.” All he did on Warren Street was steal the show.
George writes in “At The Fights” about Hagler and Leonard, and his piece includes this line: “It was Leonard who dictated the terms under which the battle was waged.”
In the late rounds he brings those words to his own life. People saw for themselves with George the other night how much he loves the sport, loves this book he worked so tirelessly to assemble, loves good writing most of all. Saw a boxing writer as tough as anybody he ever covered.
Nice job by Lupica. It was a wonderful night and I’m just sorry that it didn’t go on longer. A lot of the men in the audience, and on the panel, talked about how boxing was a common bond between them and their old men. Friday night fights, golden gloves. Kimball said that during the Vietnam War boxing was the only thing he could enjoy with his father, period. The only thing that was missing from the event was a cloud of cigar smoke hanging over the room.