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BGS: Tyson the Terrible

From our man Pete, republished with her permission, this story originally appeared in Playboy back in 1988.

Mike-Tyson-001

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.
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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.
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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.”
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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.
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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

Cavett insisted.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]

Bronx Banter Interview: Pete Dexter

Bronx Banter Interview

“The truest thing in the world was that you showed who you were writing a column. He said that at his lectures, and they always took that to mean politics or how you feel about the death penalty. Which had nothing to do with it. There were as many dick shrivelers that wanted to ban nuclear sites and love their brother as there were that wanted to bomb Russia. It was almost incidental, what you had for issues. But how you saw things, how physical things went into your eyes and what your brain took and what it threw back, that told who you were.”
—From Pete Dexter’s first novel, God’s Pocket (1983)

Our man Dexter was a legendary newspaper columnist in Philadelphia and then in Sacramento from the late 1970s through the mid-’80s, but unless you lived in those towns at the time or unless you hung out in the microfilm room of your local library, it was nearly impossible to track down his work. Dexter has written seven novels—the third one, Paris Trout, won the National Book Award—and they are all in print. But until Dexter’s old friend, Rob Fleder, a longtime magazine (Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated) and book editor, had the notion to compile Dexter’s journalism, some of his greatest work remained unavailable to us.

First published in 2007, Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage gives us what we want—a sampling of Dexter’s work as a columnist. The good people at Ecco Press have now published a paperback edition, thus giving me an excuse to call up Pete and get him talking about his days in the newspaper business.

I got to know Pete when his last book, Spooner, was published, and I interviewed him then as part of a long-running Bronx Banter Interview series. (Last year, I interviewed Fleder for a collection he put together for Ecco, Damn Yankees. And here is an excerpt from an essay Pete wrote in that book about Chuck Knoblauch.)

What follows was put together from several recent phone conversations with Pete.

Enjoy.

Bronx Banter: What kind of reporter were you when you began?

Pete Dexter: I didn’t have a specialty or anything. I was kind of looked on as a guy who could write. I was a careful writer and a careless reporter. Reporting is a talent but it’s also just a matter of rolling up your sleeves. A guy like Bob Woodward didn’t get where he is by being charming or having a way with people I don’t think. He just did it by following all the rules and taking things as far as they could be humanly taken. That wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew that early on. I didn’t get any satisfaction out of breaking a story. It just didn’t appeal to me.

BB: You started in the Watergate Era when Woodward and Bernstein made the whole idea of being a reporter something else, a star.

PD: Yeah, all of a sudden kids were going to journalism school so they could take down a president. It was a passing fad, I guess, but it lasted ten years anyway. You used to call them “serious young journalists.” You sign up for that, and…if you don’t have your heart in it, if that’s not compulsive in you, if you don’t feel like you have to do it, you’re probably not going to be much of a reporter. Early on I recognized that I was going to have to come from some other direction. On the other hand, I loved being part of the newspaper, I loved that feeling when big stories were breaking, though it wasn’t me that broke them.

BB: And you didn’t have a need to be that guy.

PD: No, I never wanted to be Hoag Levins, who worked for the Philadelphia Daily News. Hoag would put on black face and army fatigues and crawl up to Mayor Rizzo’s house and come away with how much the doorknobs cost and then try to figure how a guy who’d made a living as a police chief and mayor could afford an expensive house. He was wildly ambitious and he was a really good guy. But eventually he made a couple of mistakes and then something got him tripped up—I can’t even remember what it was now—some story he got wrong. They had to fire him. And that would not have been done easily cause you couldn’t help but like him and admire his energy.

BB: Was there a part of reporting, even before you had the column, the part where you’d just go out and talk to people, that you liked? Were you interested in people?

PD: Yeah, not so much for the newspaper. I used to drive around a lot in this old Jeep and I’d see somebody doing something interesting and I’d always pull off the road and go talk to them. That’s been something I’ve always done. And sometimes you hear some real strange stuff. Other times people just won’t talk to you, and that’s OK.

BB: So your natural curiosity helped you.

PD: It wasn’t a conscious thing. I’ve always loved stories. If you’re patient enough there are more people than you’d ever guess that have stories. It wasn’t deliberate but that’s what my stuff’s always been about: It’s about stories.

BB: Had you thought about wanting to have a column even before Gil Spencer arrived at the paper?

PD: That had been in my head. It was the only job outside of running the paper that I wanted. And they were not going to let me run the paper, that was pretty obvious.

BB: Did you get along with your editors?

PD: All the problems I’ve had with management, and they have been legion, were with people that feel the necessity to control you or put their two cents in. This started when I was a reporter. There’s that city editor, assistant city editor, sometimes the managing editor, that certain class of people, as part of their job they feel an obligation to change things just so that they have their own imprint on it somehow. And that’s where the rub comes because if you say, “That’s silly, that doesn’t make sense and here’s why…” you are no longer questioning their editing but you’ve confronted their power, their position. And once that starts, once you let them know you’re not just on their side, that’s where the problems always come from. At least with me. I never enjoyed the confrontations, certainly not as much as I’ve been given credit for, but that’s what it always was about. Power. My thought was you can be the nighttime assistant city editor for the rest of your life and I don’t care, you don’t have anything I want, just leave me alone.

BB: They weren’t about making the piece better necessarily.

PD: I never worked for anybody I looked up to as a writer but I worked for a lot of people that I looked up to as a newspaper guy, and if those people said something, I listened. But the ones who knew what they were doing knew enough to leave me alone in what I did, and if I stepped over a line in their world then not only was I glad for the criticism—if they’d caught some mistake that kept me from being embarrassed again—I was always grateful for that. I didn’t have a sense that if I wrote it it has to be right.

BB: Before you started a column, what columnists did you read, either in Philadelphia or around the country? Not so much that you wanted to emulate them necessarily but who got you interested in the form.

PD: This is hard to explain but when I came to Philly I was in my early thirties. I came out of Florida and had been in the newspaper business on-and-off for about two years and I didn’t know what a newspaper column was. I hadn’t read Breslin or Pete Hamill or Mike Royko. I didn’t know what they did. There were two columnists at the News when I got here, Tom Fox who wrote a column on Page Two, and Larry McMullen, who recently died. McMullen would go out in the street, hear these stories, and write them. He was from South Philadelphia and he was of that time and of that place and of that paper and I’ve never seen a better fit for a paper. When I saw that he was writing stories, that’s when I wanted to do it. He was writing five times a week and when I started I was doing that too—went to four and then to three.

BB: Did you get to know McMullen well?

PD: Oh, yeah, McMullen and I were old friends. I never felt any rivalry. The other guy, Tom Fox, was one of these little guys who walks around … someone called him the best columnist in the country—someone is always saying something like that about you—and he believed it. He’d write about some shooting and he was throwing in tough guy talk like, “He blew the faggot away.” I remember someone wrote a letter to the editor and said, “Who’s really the faggot?” And some criticism of Fox came in that letter. He was just outraged. That was pretty funny to see, at least to me. Those are two perfect examples for someone who wanted to be a columnist—I saw exactly the kind of columnist I wanted to be and the kind I didn’t want to be. It’s good to have one of each.

BB: Did Spencer give you the columnist job or did you have a test run, first?

PD: There was a little time there that I wrote one or two a week when I was still a reporter. That was a short period of time, I can’t tell you how long, a couple of months. But once he gave me a taste of it I was even harder to deal with on the city desk. There was this guy Zach Stalberg who later ran the paper and who is really a good guy, the kind of guy you’d want running your newspaper if you couldn’t have Spencer. Gil made Stalberg the city editor and a couple of months later he became the managing editor. But his present to Stalberg was giving me the column so I was no longer his responsibility. When I started the column if anyone had any problems with me they went straight to Spencer and that was good for everybody. Yeah, I think everybody was happy the way that worked out.

BB: Was it a big transition for you?

PD: It was an avalanche of sudden work. You go from the city desk where someone tells you, “Go interview the widow of this guy who just got shot,” and so you go to the movies and come back and say, “She wasn’t there,” to having to do a story every day. It was more than a small change. If you are a reporter and you’re not a good reporter there are places to hide. You can do all kinds of stuff to avoid producing. But if that column space is yours and you’ve got to fill it by definition you’ve got to fill it. That was good for everybody, too. First of all, it made me a better reporter.

BB: How so?

PD: You come to realize when you’re writing a column that the best columns—the very best ones come off your head—but if you are going to do it three times a week, some of those days you go talk to real people and by the time you get back the column writes itself. I’m thinking about that column in the book [Paper Trails] about the guy in Camden who found the head in the bag. You drive 10 minutes over to Camden, talk to this guy for half an hour, and yeah, I got lucky that day, but that was exactly what a newspaper column is supposed to be. And it was just handed to you. By that time I could write well enough the words were just there, the story was there. And that sort of thing, when it worked, was what a column was about. Most of my better columns were about that, going to actually talk to somebody.

BB: The great sport columnist Red Smith didn’t think of himself as a columnist but as a reporter.

PD: Yeah, that’s right.

BB: You said earlier that you’d drive around, stop the car, and talk to a guy. When you were doing the column, did you force yourself even more to do that because you thought, hey, I’ve got to have something to write about today?

PD: When you’re writing a column, your first question when you look at things are: Is this a column? But if I saw something interesting I’d still want to go ask about it. I’m still like that. I can’t tell you how many kids I’ve talked to who are on skateboards. Just ask them how they do what they’re doing and stuff like that. In a way, I kind of believe that thing of, there are no stupid questions, although God knows I get asked a lot of them. But to me, if you don’t know something and you’ve wondered about it, why not find out?

BB: Did you ever come across something that you found interesting but felt was too big to be a column?

PD: Yeah, but you could usually turn it into a three-part column or write about the same thing for three days. Sometimes that couldn’t be done and yeah it’d be a size you couldn’t handle.

BB: Did you talk to Spencer or anyone else about what you were going to write about beforehand?

PD: No. Good Christ. No.

BB: Did you ever junk one? Or just go with something you didn’t think was that good?

PD: You can write a letters column, you can find something else to do when it’s not going your way but that didn’t happen very often. What you really need is your voice being there three times a week.

BB: How long did it take to develop your voice or style?

PD: The voice was there from the get-go. That goes back to basic writing. If you’re thinking about developing your voice you’re thinking about the wrong things. That should just be—

BB: Like your speaking voice—

PD: You don’t want to be conscious of it. It just happens, at least that’s the way I think. Jeez, I’m looking at my dog outside and he’s taking like the third crap of the last two hours. … Probably shouldn’t have given him that pork chop. We have a rule against giving them pork. Shit.

BB: Kosher, huh?

PD: Yeah.

BB: What about subject matter? Did you ever think, Oh, I’ve written three heavy pieces so far this week; I want to change it up with something light?

PD: No. Whatever came. Once, early on in my column writing, I wrote a piece, I can’t remember what it was about exactly, a guy’d lost his cat and I talked to him for a little while. A guy from one of the neighborhoods. When you write a column you get your detractors. And I got a letter from someone who said that I ripped off a Hemingway short story, where that was a line, something “and the fact that cats that can take care of themselves was all he had.” And I had. Christ knows it wasn’t conscious. I went back and looked at the story. It absolutely looked intentional and it wasn’t. It wasn’t enough on the nose where anyone could say it was plagiarism or anything but the idea of it, I sure could see why the guy said what he said. That’s the only time something like that ever happened to me. And I don’t to this day know … I know that it wasn’t intentional. I really can’t say much more about it but it was there and the idea was behind a short story that Hemingway had written and one that I’d read in college.

BB: Did you write back to the guy?

PD: Probably talked to him. I called people, I didn’t write letters much. There wasn’t much to say, really. But he did have a point. So when years later I heard that Doris Kearns Goodwin was accused of plagiarism … I guess all I’m saying is that I’ve got some sympathy. When you’re writing enough, when you’re writing everyday something like that can creep into your stuff without knowing you’re really doing it. I know it was only once and nobody ever mentioned anything else. But it bothered me.

BB: Did you read the letters that were sent to you by readers?

PD: Read them? Sure.

BB: Did you enjoy them?

PD: Eh, when they were funny. Twenty a day was a big day, six letters a day was predictable. Some were funny. Sometimes they had stories and that could be valuable. But most of the time they were either agreeing with you and disagreeing with you and who cares?

BB: You ever wake up and say, “I got nothing?

PD: No. There’s always something. I took it fairly seriously but I was always doing enough stuff. If something funny wasn’t going on or something interesting wasn’t going on I could usually do something bad enough that I could write about it the next day.

BB: In your own life?

PD: Yeah. I ended up with an FBI guy at a bar one night and I bet him that I could throw a case of beer across Pine Street. The cops showed up. So you had the cops and the FBI guy and me and everyone from Dirty Frank’s out there in the street and it looked like a riot … and that makes a nice little column.

BB: You said earlier that other than running the paper writing a column was the only job you wanted. After two or three years of doing the column, did you feel like you’d found your calling, were you happy with it?

PD: Yeah, I was happy but I didn’t feel like that was it. I would have been probably a lot better off, if you call what I did a career—whatever this is—if I’d devoted myself entirely to that space in the Philly Daily News or gone to New York or stayed with newspapers. I would have definitely been a better newspaper columnist. And who knows, you have to do what makes you happy at the time. I don’t regret any of that. I don’t regret not being in newspapers but there are sure days when I miss it.

BB: The immediacy of it?

PD: I don’t know. I just liked being in the city room, I liked the people I worked with—some of them anyway. It was just nice. You’re—

BB: Part of something.

PD: And an important part of it and that makes a difference.

BB: Writing a column sounds a whole less solitary than writing novels.

PD: Oh, yeah. There’s no comparison.

BB: Did you write the column at home or go in to the paper?

PD: No, I went into the paper every day. If I didn’t have a column the next day, I went in anyway just to see what was going on.

BB: So it was a social thing, then.

PD: Oh, yeah. I couldn’t help it.

BB: Was it like a locker room?

PD: Yeah. I was always kind of working. I mean, I didn’t write a column every day but I always went in to see what’s going on and that’s work in a way. Yeah, I just liked being around those people, I liked to see what people were doing. Some of them I still think about to this day and wish I had contact with. There were a bunch of real good reporters.

BB: Do you keep in touch with any of them?

PD: There was a guy named Bob Fowler at the Inky [the Philadelphia Inquirer] that I still talk to once in a while and when I go back there I look up a guy named Gehringer, Dan Gehringer, he’s a real good writer, who I knew from back in Florida. But for the most part, no. No, I really don’t, that’s the truth.

BB: Did you hang out and have drinks with copy editors and reporters?

PD: Eh, not too much. Once in a while, a drink with somebody. For most of that time I wasn’t in the bars at all once that thing happened in South Philadelphia, that’s when I started writing novels and I didn’t have the time or inclination for the bars anymore.

BB: When you were doing the column did you then start to read other guys like Breslin or Hamill?

PD: I’d see Breslin’s stuff and Hamill’s stuff once in awhile. A guy like Breslin, he was a columnist. And that was in spite of the The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. That’s what he was. And he never was much good at anything else that I know of.

BB: You’ve said before that you never had ambition to write novels, but after the first three, you were still writing the column. Did writing fiction inform the nature of how you wrote the column?

PD: No, I don’t think so. I’d just sort of get up and do what was in front of me that day.

BB: Did you ever go to the office to work on a novel?

PD: No, I couldn’t do that there. That’s a separate deal. I was never conscious of anything going on intentionally. It’s a funny thing to say. Every place I ever went I stumbled into accidentally. Maybe one thing led to another but not intentionally.

BB: So you didn’t have a grand plan?

PD: At some point I decided I was done with newspapers but …

BB: Yeah, before that: What was it like leaving Philly and going to the Sacramento Bee?

PD: Oh, fuck, it was the worst thing I ever did professionally. I went there because the guy that ran the paper was an old friend of mine. I’d rather not get into that, but the whole place smacked of an office environment, a business environment. I wasn’t there that long, but when I left they asked me to continue to write up in Washington State where I lived but you can’t be a local columnist and not be local. And the truth is when you’re writing well, the only columnists are local columnists. National columnists are something different. There aren’t as many stories. It’s more reports and views. Where the best columns are just there, they’re just stories. For me, anyway.

BB: In order to be a good columnist to you need to have a basic sense of outrage about things?

PD: I think different guys do it different ways. It’d just wear me out to go in the office every day outraged. And you shouldn’t do that now that I think about it because that ruins the taste for when something real comes along. You can’t go at it like one of these television guys who every night has some breaking news about how bad Obama’s fucked up or something. When you’re always outraged, it’s like the boy that cried wolf and it’s too much. It can be entertaining for someone who is reading the paper for the first time but if all you get from that space is outrage pretty soon nobody believes it, I don’t think. And if it does it appeals to people who are outraged by nature and want to be outraged more.

BB: So everything changed for you as a columnist once you Philly.

PD: It was never the same. I mean, Philadelphia is probably the best place of them all to write a newspaper column. The place is so rich. I missed that. And the paper was so open to what I had to offer, way more than any other paper in the country would have been. And Spencer was such a good guy about it. I don’t think there was a better place to work than the Philadelphia Daily News. And I left it … for reasons that don’t make any sense to me now. I left it ’cause it was time to do something else, I guess. But if I was going to stay in newspapers I’d made a terrible mistake.

BB: You were a columnist for about a decade. Are there guys that get better after 15 years or do they create a persona and then there’s a cap for how far you can go?

PD: Oh, no, you can get better. If you have initiative, if your interest is in the paper and the stories themselves, if you’re a newspaperman in your heart, you continue to get better and love it. I think at the center of things, as much fun as it was for me, I wanted to do something else.

BB: Why does it sound like you have regret about it?

PD: I’m just sorry because it was so much fun. There’s good things and bad things about anywhere but there was an awful lot of good things about that place, Philadelphia. And in that way I’m sorry we left.

BB: When you go back, is it a different place?

PD: No. The paper’s not the same, I’ll tell you.

BB: It’s funny, you could have stayed at the paper and then you’d be going through all these cutbacks and changes.

PD: Oh, I’d be way more unhappy. I mean I get sad about it, I get melancholy about it, but don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t go back and change it.

BB: There are a few longer magazine piece in Paper Trails. You had a column at Esquire for a few years but also wrote takeout pieces for Inside Sports. Did you enjoy writing for magazines?

PD: Not really. That’s an awful lot of writing for—it was an awful lot of work and in the end all you have is a magazine story. As much as I like stopping along the road and talking to somebody I don’t like invading their lives, which is what you need to do. You have to spend a couple of weeks around Jim Brown to begin to get anything. I’ve been on the other side of it, having a guy hanging around me taking notes, and I don’t like it. And I don’t like doing it to someone else for that reason.

BB: How is newspaper reporting different?

PD: You can’t hang around them at all, really. I mean, Christ, I don’t know how many columns I wrote about Randall Cobb and his quest to be the champion of the world but Cobb and I would have been friends anyway. That was a sure-fire column at least once a month, sometimes more than that.

BB: There’s a funny Cobb story about a rental car in Paper Trails. The four columns you wrote on Cobb during the week he fought Larry Holmes in Houston for the heavyweight championship aren’t in the book but I really like them. They were so emotional.

PD: Yeah, it was a sad time.

BB: Because of the Holmes fight?

PD: Yeah, it’s hard to watch somebody realize the dream of his life is never going to happen and he’s doing everything he can and it’s … you know, you really have to set your mind to do something like that. In the first place, you have to lie to yourself all the time. And then to see it all spilled out in front of you like it was, that it wasn’t going to happen … it was sad. He really tried hard.

BB: Did you feel guilty at all?

PD: No. Why?

BB: Because he’d broken his arm in the bar fight you’d been in together the previous winter in South Philly.

PD: No, that went beyond … that wasn’t guilty. I felt bad about it but he and I’d been through so much other stuff, and it just, um, what was going on between me and Randall was a lot closer to—I don’t want to say brotherhood, exactly—but we’d been … no, I didn’t feel guilty about it. But I wasn’t one of the guys … I mean, there was 5,000 people in Philadelphia thinking they’re Randall Cobb’s best friend. Because he was nice to everybody and he would tell people stuff and they would go around thinking that he’d told them something real. But he and I were friends in a different way than that. I understood and he understood exactly what happened that night.

BB: What exactly was that?

PD: No, it’s too complicated. I can’t go into that anymore than I already have 2,000 times because there’s something at the bottom of it between Cobb and me, something that if I tried to go back and explain it, it all just washes over me again. He’s just so … like I said, those were such sad times in the way that I mentioned. What you’re asking about is going into a place that I don’t talk about with anybody. It’s private in some way between me and Cobb in a way that probably doesn’t lend itself very well to words.

BB: Shit, I’m sorry if I made you uneasy even asking about it.

PD: No, it’s alright. I’d gotten hit that night in the bar and I was unconscious. It’s just … that moment when I wake up and Cobb was the only guy there and I wanted to get him—something happened there between us that I’ve not, something I can’t revisit easily, let’s put it that way. But don’t feel bad about asking me, that’s what you’re supposed to do.

BB: Did you guys stay close after the Holmes fight?

PD: Yeah. I mean, he’d started moving away before he fought Holmes. About a month before he fought Holmes he disappeared for a while. I don’t know where he was training but I couldn’t get through to him. He got rid of his manager and his trainer and showed up with a different guy at the fight. And those people were … I mean, everybody was after Cobb as a meal ticket. Money was what they all wanted. He’d been carrying a hundred people around on his back forever, y’know, being everybody’s best friend. If he had $10 and somebody asked him for it, he gave it to them. Whatever he had they could have and he was always like that. And it finally, I think it got to be too much. Christ, he didn’t care what he signed, contracts and shit like that, he never paid any attention to that. He and I kind of lost touch for a while but you don’t give up what you feel about somebody like that.

BB: So when you and Rob Fleder went through the material for Paper Trails did you read tons of columns that you’d forgotten about?

PD: Oh sure. And I’m sure there were tons more than Fleder passed on I still haven’t seen or remember. You got to remember it’s more than a thousand columns, at least. It’s kind of like finding an old diary or something.

BB: Did you enjoy reading through them?

PD: Uh, sort of. Fleder did the work. Fleder’s the guy that read them all. He’s the reason the book is there. He’s absolutely as much a reason that book exists as I am. It’s a funny thing that makes you smile when you look at it. It was such a nice thing for him to do. It wasn’t like we were going to get rich or anything. God, it’s just the nicest thing you can do for somebody in a way. When I look back on the book, I think about Fleder and what a great thing that was to do for me.

BB: In Yiddish they call that a Mitzvah. A blessing.

PD: OK.

BB: A nice thing to do.

PD: And that’s what this is, I guess. A mitz-vah.

You can buy Paper Trails here or download it for to your phone or tablet here. Source photo by Marion Ettlinger, from the back cover of Dexter’s fourth novel, Brotherly Love. Background photo via Getty.

BGS: An Advanced Game of Tag

And so, here is the fourth of Pete Dexter’s columns on the Cobb-Holmes fight. It appears here with the author’s permission.

(Click here for Part One, Two and Three.)

“An Advanced Game of Tag”

By Pete Dexter

Monday, November 29, 1982

HOUSTON – The tap on the door came at 6 o’clock in the morning. I knew it was 6 o’clock because there was a clock on the dresser, next to a copy of the Bible, and I’d been lying in bed since 2 o’clock looking at it.

The phone had rung all night, friends from Philly and Montana and Tennessee telling me that Howard Cosell had painted Randall Cobb as some kind of a freak of nature on national television.

I didn’t know what to say, except it would catch up with Howard later. I did mention that it was a measure of Howard’s depth that he has no trouble enunciating the bravery of television actors who compete, despite pulled muscles, in a tug of war in ” Battle of the Network Stars,” and couldn’t see any of that in staying in the ring with Larry Holmes for 15 rounds.

Yes, Randall took a pounding.

No, he didn’t quit. The only other man Holmes has failed to knock out since he became champion was Trevor Berbick, but – as Holmes would tell me later in the day – Berbick wasn’t fighting, he was just trying to survive. “Fifteen rounds, after all the shots,” Holmes would say, sounding like he was remembering it from a long time ago, “Cobb was still tryin’ to win the fight. He fought me harder than anybody. ”

I got up off the bed and opened the door. “I knew an ambitious young businessman like yourself would be an early riser,” he said, coming in. “All of us are early risers.” One of his eyes was swollen half shut, there were six small stitches in the lid of the other one. He sat down on the bed and looked out the window at the Astrodome. It was still raining in Houston, as far as I knew it always had been.

“Are you hurt?” I said. I’d walked with him back to the dressing room after the fight, but I left when he and his trainer George Benton started talking about the next one. I think a lot of George Benton, but I didn’t want to hear about any more fighting then.

“It looks a lot worse than it is,” he said. “I don’t know why, usually it’s worse than it looks. No, I’m fine, except my ears. “Randall always gets an ear infection after a fight. He hit himself on the side of his head, like a kid who has been in a swimming pool.

I said, “If something comes dripping out of there I’m going to lock myself in the bathroom.”

He smiled and looked at the television. I’d left it on, trying to sleep. It was a Kung Fu rerun, David Carradine remembering the advice of his old dime- eyed teacher on how to disarm a troop of drunk and insensitive American cavalry troops. “You must listen to the color of the sky,” he said,” and see the sound of the hummingbird’s wing. ”

“You think I need a blind trainer?” he said.

“He did have a right hand,” I said, meaning Holmes.

“I didn’t think it was that fast,” he said. He looked out the window again. “I didn’t think he was that good. It was like an advanced game of tag in there. “And then a few minutes later, “Larry is a bad bitch in a game of tag.”

There was a tiny, unstitched cut about an inch under his left eye, where so many of the right hands had landed, and as he spoke it leaked watery blood down his cheek. The cut must have gone all the way into a tear duct, and his face, on that side, was streaked with two long, bloody tears.

“Did I tell you about Hagerman, New Mexico?” he said. “Me and my brother Marty dug ditches there for the high school gymnasium one summer. The dirt was so hard you couldn’t dig it without a pick, the hottest dirt in the world. You couldn’t walk on it with bare feet. I know, I tried and Marty had to come save me, pick me up.

“And every morning three members of the city council were out there, looking down into the ditch where me and Marty were digging. It would be 102 degrees by 8 o’clock, going to 114. And the first one would always say, ‘Hot enough for you?’ and the second one would say, ‘Whatchu doin’? ‘

“And me and Marty were so competitive, we’d stand out there all day, tryin’ to see who could shovel more dirt, watchin’ each other so you could say, ‘Ha! I shoveled four of these while you only shoveled three. ‘And the water had the worst taste of anyplace I ever been. It was something in the ground, gave everybody in town gas. You can imagine what the town smelled like.

“And when me and Marty complained about the water, they always said, ‘You keep diggin’, and it’ll taste good.’” He dabbed at the blood on his face. ” The city council’s probably still there,” he said. “Gettin’ together right now over at the gym, and one of them says, ‘Hot enough for you?’ and the other one says, ‘Whatchu doin’?’ And they all stand around, passing the worst gas in North America, wondering how come the town doesn’t grow. ”

He looked back out the window again. I got some coffee and Cokes from room service, and we sat like that in the room until noon, talking about Larry Holmes’ right hand and Hagerson, New Mexico, and what could have been underneath it to make the dirt so hot and the water so bad.

At noon I had to leave to get a plane back to Philly. He said he was thinking of taking a look at Australia.

“Are you hurt?” I said.

He shook his head no. “It was just an advanced game of tag,” he said, “and Larry won.” A fresh bloody tear came out of the cut underneath his eye and worked its way down his face.

He said, “Damn, I wish he’d wanted to fight.”

BGS: Randall’s Serious

Here is third of four Dexter columns on the Cobb-Holmes fight (you can find the first two: here and here). This story is reprinted with the author’s permission.

“Randall’s Serious”

By Pete Dexter

Friday, November 26, 1982

HOUSTON – Howard Cosell came through the hotel lobby yesterday morning, complaining about being away from his family at Thanksgiving. Randall Cobb’s fight with Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world was clearly an inconvenience.

The news of Howard’s inconvenience was relayed to Randall through one of the national reporters also here to cover the fight. “Howard’s upset to be away from his family,” one of them said.

Randall looked up from under the hood of his boxing robe and nodded. “I know,” he said,” I got a thank-you note from his wife this morning. ”

That night, one of those reporters came to me in the hotel bar and asked when Randall was going to get serious. “He’s funny,” the reporter said,” everybody loves him, but when does he get ready? That’s Larry Holmes he’s got to fight, and Larry’s serious…”

Randall is serious.

He is as solid as I’ve ever seen him before a fight. There are no questions left in him, about himself or Holmes, and a kind of peace has set in that lets him smile at the distractions.

And the distractions aren’t just the prospects of fighting Larry Holmes. As Randall has become more valuable, more and more people have become interested in guiding his career.

As far as I know, there are two basic factions trying to eliminate each other from his affections, and factions within the factions trying to eliminate each other too. There are rumors of bugged rooms and spies and thieves.

The thieves, of course, are not rumors, they are facts.

There is serious trouble with the contract, which promoter Don King has amended because Randall showed up in Houston a week late – not for the fight, for publicity. King, of course, has been concerned enough about publicity to spend, oh, $20 on promotion, and allow the month of November to start without having set a final date for the fight.

His amendment is going to cost Randall several hundred thousand dollars.

Then there are reporters and television interviews and hundreds of people who want to touch Randall, or tell him something, or take pictures of their 3- year-old sons sitting on his lap. Everybody wants something.

And Randall sits alone and holds babies and signs autographs – and no matter how many times the people around him say, “We’re ready,” or ” We’re going to kill Holmes,” Randall is still going to step into the ring by himself – and he handles it.

Yes, he is serious.

And watching it happen, it occurs to me that I want something, too. I keep going back to the mornings at Mickey Rosati’s gym. Two or three mornings a week, Randall and I and Arthur Bourgeau used to meet there, and Randall would work three or four rounds with Arthur and then three or four rounds with me.

Work may be a little strong. He’d play with both of us, keeping enough pressure on to make it serious. In the end, I’d be too tired to take my own gloves off.

He’d wait until I felt better, and then we’d go over to the little coffee shop at 18th and McKean and read the newspapers or talk with Mickey, and for an hour or two nobody wanted anything from us. For an hour or two, it was peaceful.

And after that, everything else seemed easier. It was like a fresh start.

And sitting here on a rainy Thanksgiving Day in a hotel across the street from the Astrodome, I could use a fresh start. It’s all slow- motion now.

The old men and the sparring partners are always in the lobby, waiting forever. The line of people following Randall into the weigh-in seems longer than it was when he came in for interviews yesterday afternoon, more reporters come in by the hour. And across the street, the Astrodome is as gray as the sky, and it seems to hover there, always on the edge of your vision, like the fight itself.

And I wish that somehow we could go to Mickey Rosati’s gym tomorrow morning, and afterwards to the coffee shop, and sit there for an hour or two reading the papers, and have nobody wanting anything from any of us again.

And maybe then I could tell him what I have on my mind, that it doesn’t matter what happens against Larry Holmes, that the people who care for him don’t depend on him or what he does for who they are.

He already knows that, of course, but I wish I could say it anyway – not blurt it out, but just sit around until it came out – and let him know once, before it all changes, how happy it made me, the way it was.

[Photo Credit: Marco Rubio Jr.]

BGS: Gifts Aren’t Everything

Here’s the second of four columns by Pete Dexter on Randall Cobb’s championship fight against Larry Holmes. (The first one is here.) Reprinted with the author’s permission…

Dig in.

“Gifts Aren’t Everything”

By Pete Dexter

Wednesday, November 24, 1982

HOUSTON – On the last day of work before he meets Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world, Randall Cobb sparred three rounds with a light heavyweight named Charlie Singleton and then spent 10 or 15 minutes jumping rope.

I can’t tell you exactly how long because Randall jumping rope is something I can’t make myself watch. I don’t know why, but rope doesn’t fit under his feet.

As Charlie Singleton says, “Maybe Tex don’t have all the natural gifts. He didn’t get no fast left hand like Larry, he didn’t get no bouncy legs. ”

But as Charlie Singleton also says, “Maybe he got some gifts that was more subtle, and maybe he got some gifts that he give himself.”

For natural gifts, all you have to do is look at the undercard for Friday’s fight. Greg Page versus James “Quick” Tillis. Leg speed, hand speed, reflexes. You can’t help thinking of the destruction Randall could do with that stuff. Tillis, as a matter of fact, not only jumps rope, he does rope tricks. In fact right after the workout, he lassoed Randall’s trainer and then Inquirer sports writer Thom Greer.

Quick Tillis always carries a pink lasso.

But impressive as that is, Quick Tillis gave away his shot against WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver last year when he got in the ring and refused to get close enough to Weaver to throw punches.

And Page took himself out of consideration for a championship fight about the same time, saying he wasn’t ready, and then proved it by losing to a Canadian named Trevor Berbick on the undercard of the Holmes/Gerry Cooney fight earlier this year.

Berbick doesn’t have even as many natural gifts as Randall.

So in boxing, like anyplace else, gifts aren’t everything, and the kind you give yourself are the ones that matter most, at least at this level.
Which is not to say Randall Cobb doesn’t have physical tools. He does, but – as Charlie Singleton puts it – they’re subtle. He is stronger than any heavyweight in the top 10, and he may have the best chin in the history of boxing. And while he doen’t have a single big punch, he is what is called heavy handed.

“Sometime you box with him a round or two, the punches don’t stun you,” Charlie said,” they just feel heavy. I mean like somebody put a weight on you every time they land. It don’t matter if it’s on the arm or the shoulder, it still has that weight.

“And you don’t think he’s hurt you, and then after ’bout four rounds, suddenly you can’t move no more. He throws that nice relaxed way, it don’t look like nothin’, and then suddenly it’s broke you up inside. ”

The reason Randall is fighting Larry Holmes, though, isn’t his chin and it isn’t his strength. He’s gotten where he is because he tries. “He got that heart,” Charlie said.

Holmes has some of that too. And one of the best jabs in history, and a good right hand. He doesn’t have anything that can take Randall out, though, and Randall won’t be waiting for him to set up and throw his punches. And Holmes has always needed time to set up.

And in the end that’s what it will come down to. Time and heart. And those aren’t things that you’re given, they are things that you make for yourself.

Holmes doesn’t believe Randall can throw 100 punches a round for more than four rounds.

Randall does believe it. And that is something he has given himself too. He believes he will win this fight, and he believes in things harder than other people do. I have known him a long time, and that’s the way he is.

He believes it now, and he will believe it going into the 10th round, or the 12th, or however long the fight goes. By that time Larry Holmes will have hit him with everything he can hit him with, he will have tried every trick he knows, and most of them will have worked.

And someplace in the fight – maybe deep into the fight – Holmes will begin to feel the weight of that belief, and finally, as Mr. Singleton says, he will realize he’s broke up inside.

And someplace in the fight, Larry Holmes will come to believe it too.

BGS: Cobb Refuses to be the Retiring Kind

We’ve got a special week of Dexter for you–four columns he wrote about his friend Randall “Tex” Cobb when Cobb fought against Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship. Each day for the rest of the week we’ll feature a column and next Monday there’ll be a long Q&A with Pete to celebrate the paperback edition of his non-fiction collection, Paper Trails.

Originally published in The Philadelphia Daily News this piece appears here with the author’s permission.

Enjoy.

“Cobb Refuses to be the Retiring Kind”

By Pete Dexter

Tuesday, November 23, 1982

 

The first time I ever brought up the subject of retirement, Randall Cobb had just stopped Earnie Shavers in the eighth round of a fight that ruined appetites all over Detroit. He’d broken Shavers’s jaw with a short left uppercut, but before that happened he and Earnie had stood in the middle of the ring 7 1/2 rounds throwing punches. There could have been six or seven that missed, but I didn’t see them.

We were sitting in the dressing room; Randall was sucking down Coca-Colas. His face looked exactly the way a face is supposed to look after Earnie Shavers has been beating on it half the night, and the sound of the inevitable throwing up afterward still hung in the air.

The dressing rooms in Detroit have the best acoustics in the world.

He looked over at me with that one eye he could still look out of and said, “You feeling better now?” And, while I’m admitting here that it wasn’t Randall who threw up, I would also like to point out that it wasn’t Randall who had to watch the fight.

His body was rope-burned and turning black and blue, and the end of his nose was red like he was four days into a bad cold. I said, “I wish you wouldn’t fight Earnie Shavers anymore.”

“I absolutely promise,” he said.

But I meant more than Earnie Shavers, and later that night, back at the hotel, he tried to relieve me of my obligations. He said, ” I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but if you can’t watch it, then don’t.”

I took that the wrong way, of course. I’d only known Randall a year then, but it could have just as soon been my own brother in there, as far as not watching went. He said he understood that. “I know it isn’t easy watching somebody you love fight Earnie Shavers,” he said.

I said, “It’d be a damn sight easier if somebody would keep his hands up.”

And that’s as much talking we did then about retiring. Randall had made $75,000 or $80,000 for that fight, and he was on the way up. He’d taken Shavers on short notice after Gerry Cooney had backed out of the fight – if Cooney hadn’t backed out, by the way, he never would have ended up in the ring with Larry Holmes earlier this year for $10 million. A lot of people saw Randall that night, and liked what they saw.

And a lot of people didn’t.

In the bars, they told me Randall couldn’t fight at all. Guys still bragging about five amateur fights 20 years ago went out of their way to tell me all the things Randall couldn’t do. They said any decent South Philly street fighter would kill him, they said he better get a job driving a truck while he still could.

I never said much back. When they talked about him getting hurt, I thought about it. The difference was, they didn’t care.

The first fight he lost was against Ken Norton, a split decision in San Antonio, Texas. He walked into the hardest single punch I’ve ever seen that night, a straight right hand that Norton threw from the bottom of his heart.

I can close my eyes and still see Randall’s face in the half-second after it landed. For that little time, he was lost. He was coming forward when it hit him, and for half a second he stopped.

Then he went back to work, and in the dressing room afterward I heard Norton tell him, “You beat the bleep out of me, man.” Norton had fought his best fight since the night he lost his title to Larry Holmes. He’d been braver and stronger than he’d been in four years.

It had been that way with Shavers, too, and later it would be that way against Bernardo Mercardo. I have seen Mercardo quit in his corner when he was winning, but against Randall he stayed there 10 rounds, taking one of the worst body beatings I’ve ever seen.

We talked about that after every one of them. After Mercardo I said, “You know, you’re giving them something out there. You spend the whole round proving they can’t hurt you, you throw 150 punches to their 25, and then at the end of the round, just when they’re sure you’re not human, you pat them on the ass and give them something to come out with in the next round. You’re taking away their fear. ”

“It’s a bad habit, all right,” he said. And in his next fight, at the bell ending the fourth round against Jeff Shelburg earlier this year – a round in which he landed at least 100 punches – I heard him say this: ” Hang in there, Jeff. After this is over we’re going to go out and get drunk. ”

Between Mercardo and Shelburg, of course, there was supposed to be a fight with WBA heavyweight champion Mike Weaver. That fell through in December, when a kid with a tire iron broke his arm. He was standing over my body at the time, fighting off a lot of kids with tire irons and baseball bats.

I was already unconscious – hit five or six times square in the head – and it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what would have happened if he’d left me. And it doesn’t matter how good you are in a fight, if you see 25 or 30 people coming at you with bats and crowbars and reinforced iron, you’ve got to think about leaving.

When I woke up he was shouting, “If he’s dead, every one of you is dead, too.” And it must have scared them off – it scared me – because the next thing I knew he was picking me up.

He said, “Pete?”

I said, “Any time you’re ready to leave . . .” They’d broken one of my hips and the leg attached to it wouldn’t move. I said, “Randall, this leg won’t move.”

He said, “We don’t have time for that leg not to move.” And somehow he got me in the truck and drove me to the hospital. He never said anything about his arm.

On the way, we talked things over. There was blood and swelling everywhere. It was a lot like a dressing room. I said, “You know, we could of planned this better.”

He said that Gen. George Pickett had planned it better at Gettysburg.

There is one other thing he said that night that stays in my mind. It was when the place was filling up with baseball bats and tire irons, and all of a sudden you could see how many of them there were, and what they meant to do, and how bad the night was going to turn out.

He leaned over to me and said, “I hope that’s the softball team.”

He lost his first chance with Weaver over that, and his second chance when Weaver hurt his back, and his third chance when he got cut in training a few days before the fight.

And I was sure he would beat Weaver, but the fight scared me. I was in Knoxville the night Weaver took the title from John Tate, and 10 minutes after Weaver had knocked him out, they brought Tate out of the ring, hidden in the middle of 10 or 15 of his people.

Tate’s eyes were open, he seemed to be talking, but then I looked down and saw the toes of his shoes dragging along the floor. John Tate was never the same after that fight, and I wasn’t interested in seeing Randall prove he could take the same shots and beat Weaver anyway. And that’s what he would have done.

And that’s what he’ll do against Holmes. He’ll take the jabs and the right hands, and then he’ll throw jabs and right hands back, mostly to the body. Two and three punches to one. And in the eighth or ninth round, I think Larry Holmes will lose his title.

And Randall probably will be cut, and I’ll be throwing up in the dressing room, and the guys still bragging about five amateur fights from 20 years ago will turn away from the television set at the bar and tell each other he still can’t fight.

I guess it doesn’t need to be pointed out here that the damage a punch does comes partly when it lands and partly later, when it accumulates with the other punches. The accumulation goes on as long as you keep getting hit, and sometimes it catches up with you and sometimes it doesn’t.

I don’t want to be there if it ever catches up with Randall Cobb. I remember that fractured moment when he was lost after Norton hit him with the right hand, and the only thing that saves me from that moment is remembering that half a second later he was all right.

I don’t want to be there to see him lost again, but I will be if it happens. As long as he wants to fight, I’ll be there. Not because he didn’t leave me one night last December, not because he needs me there – he doesn’t.

I’ll be there because it can’t be as bad watching him fight as it would be, being too afraid to watch.

[Photo Via: The Minimalisto]

BGS: There’s Something About Steve

More from our man Dexter. This one originally ran in the Philly Daily News on October 11, 1984. It appears here with the author’s permission.

“There’s Something About Steve”

By Pete Dexter

I don’t know how to tell you this, but I think my wife has a serious case for Steve Garvey. I know that must be embarrassing to hear, it’s certainly embarrassing to admit. I would personally rather come home and find her with egrets. I can’t say if it’s the boyish good looks that got to her, or the refreshing modesty or the way he wears his pants like his mother dressed him for school, but something is going on.

The first time I noticed it, the Dodgers were in the World Series. Steve played for them before he signed on with San Diego, and they beat the Yankees. My wife was a Yankees fan then – she will be again when George Steinbrenner buys enough people to win – and she listened to Garvey giving a post-game interview, refusing to take credit for a victory that had taken 25 guys pulling together to achieve. Yes, he talks like that.

She said, “That is the most disgusting human being I have ever seen. ” And I knew right there something was up. Word for word, that was what she used to say about me.

That, of course, was before we got married. A little of the magic has to leave after seven years, right?

Anyway, I thought it would pass. After all, her kidney stones did. And in fact after the series, we came to an unspoken understanding that the words Steve and Garvey were never to be heard, one after another, under our roof.

We didn’t use the expression first sacker, we even stayed away from the number six. We certainly never mentioned the Dodgers, even after Steve went to San Diego. But there are some things you can forgive and forget, and some things you can’t. And every time I wanted to say “first sacker” but stopped myself short, it hurt in a way I knew would never completely heal.

And it never did, because the old feelings came back the second I walked into the house last week and heard that Steve Garvey had just driven in five runs to tie the playoff series with the Cubs at two games each. He was being congratulated on television.

Steve smiled, a nice controlled smile, and said, “It was my pleasure. ” Then he said he couldn’t take credit for a victory that had taken 25 guys pulling together to achieve.

“He makes my skin crawl,” my wife said.

I stood in the door, stunned. “I thought I made your skin crawl,” I said, when I’d gotten myself together.

“Oh,” she said, “you do it better . . .”

Sure.

The night after that, the Padres came from three runs down to beat the Cubs and move into the World Series. Steve Garvey did not knock in five runs, but when I came in the door they were congratulating him anyway.

His teammates were pouring champagne over his head, and he had a controlled, good-natured smile on his face, and was waiting patiently for the microphone so he could say it takes all 25 people on a ball club to win.

“Have you ever seen him when he walks?” my wife said.

“He limps?” I said.

“No, when he walks at bat.”

“You mean he doesn’t always hit a home run?” I said. Ha. Stuck her a good one there, right?

She shook her head. She said, “Anybody else, they toss the bat in the dirt and run to first base. Steve Garvey hands it to the bat boy. He looks him in the eye. And when he gets to first base, he always says something to the first baseman that makes them both smile.

“Sometimes,” she said, “he makes the umpire smile too. ”

“So?”

“The smiles,” she said, “they last exactly four seconds.”

“What are you trying to tell me?” I said.

She said it was just that she couldn’t stand him. She said he probably had hair all over his back. She is supposed to hate that, but try pulling her out of the Great Apes exhibit at the zoo some time. She said the hair on his head was never out of place, not even sliding into home with the winning run.

“When he comes out of the dugout and tips his cap to the standing ovation,” she said, “he doesn’t put it back on, he fits it.”

She saw then that I was hurt, and tried to make it up to me. “You left a Coke in the freezer again last night,” she said. “It blew up and there’s little pieces of glass everywhere.” But there was no passion in it.

I smiled in a polite way. Not as polite as Steve Garvey would have smiled – Steve, of course, would have bought a new refrigerator and given the old one to orphans – but as polite as I can be when I see my wife complaining about another man.

I sat down at the table and fed a quarter of a pound of butter to the dog. I burped. The dog burped. I spilled spaghetti in my lap. She fussed, but there was no passion.

It is just something I’ll have to wait out.

On national television, Garvey was giving the credit to his teammates. ”Aulk,” she said. “Aulk.” That is a noise to simulate throwing up.

Our noise.

And in my worst nightmares, it never occurred to me that she could make it for somebody who is nothing like me at all.

BGS: How to Sleep with a Greek (You Do it Very Carefully)

More Dexter, because you can’t get enough of a good thing. This one was originally published on August 10, 1998 back when Pete was a syndicated columnist. It is featured in Paper Trails, now out in paperback, and appears here with the author’s permission.

“How to Sleep with a Greek (You Do it Very Carefully)”

By Pete Dexter

 

By nature, I am not a public person.

Writing a column like this one, however, there are times when it becomes necessary to discuss matters of a personal nature. You walk into the office once in a while and can’t come up with a single reason to pick on the district attorney, you’ve still got to write something.

There are limits, though, to how personal I will get – it’s a matter of good taste, really – and I do not violate them. I never talk about how much money I make, I never discuss my medical history except in the broadest terms, and I never discuss my first wife’s legs. These things are too distasteful to talk about with strangers.

On the other hand, I do feel that as readers, you are entitled to know what Mrs. Dexter is like in bed.

Which is what I am going to tell you about today.

The first thing you ought to know about Mrs. Dexter, I guess, is that she is of Greek extraction. These are the people, you may remember, who climbed into an artificial horse, waited until the Trojans pulled it inside their gates, and then, after the lights went out in town, crawled out and re-opened the gates for the entire Greek army, which conquered Troy.

Obviously, a people capable of this sort of thing – I mean, who would even think of something like that? – are light sleepers themselves, not easily surprised in their tents.

It is also fair to say, I think, that thousands of years after that one night squashed inside the horse, sitting on each other’s head, they are still fanatically defensive of their sleeping space. There is an old Greek saying, in fact, which pretty well spells this out: “Do not touch a sleeping Greek with thy toe, lest you forfeit thy leg and thy luck.”

Which means if you have any thought at all of getting lucky, do it before they go to sleep.

Now, my own heritage is not nearly as steeped in violence. I come from a peace-loving, straightforward, practical people who sleep very well. In fact, we are not unlike the people of Troy, now that I think about it, except, as I alluded to before, we have a certain innate sense of good taste, and would never bring the horse inside the city gates. At least not the one I saw in the movie.

We are also an affectionate people, who, on awakening in the night, like to reach for our loved ones and hold them close to our bosoms.

And so when one of us marries a Greek, and then wakes in the night – perhaps frightened, perhaps remembering the first wife’s legs – and reaches out in the dark for our loved one, what happens is that we are handed our lunch.

Here she is in the morning, staring horrified at a cut lip: “My God, what happened?”

The fact that this lip was cut by her own elbow or shoulder or – this is the one to watch out for – her head, is a source of a secret ethnic pride, although she will swear she has no memory of the assault.

But coming as I do from a peace-loving, straightforward, practical people, I do not try to change her. Instead, I adapt. When I awake and feel the need for something to hold close to my bosom, I reach for my second-string pillow. Soft and cool, it does not jump up unexpectedly into my chin at small noises, and no matter how close you get to it, you never hear that faint whistle of air passing through a nostril.

And the truth is, it fits better.

All in all, a hell of a pillow.

But life is more complicated than that. Greek women, it turns out, always know when their men are in bed with their arms around another, and at 3 in the morning, she is suddenly staring at me in the dark.

“What are you doing with that pillow?” she says.

“What pillow?” I ask. As a people, we are not great liars.

“You’re hugging a pillow,” she says softly. “Why don’t you just hug me?”

Very competitive, the Greeks.

“I didn’t want to wake you up,” I said. I toss the pillow back onto the floor, and she slides across the bed, and takes its place. Warm, soft, lithe; smelling like strawberry shampoo.

I whisper, “Good night, I love you ”

She whispers, “I love you too ”

I whisper, “Mrs. Dexter?”

“Yes?”

“I was talking to the pillow.”

There is a long, satisfying pause, but the Greeks are very tricky.

“So was I,” she says.

The Banter Gold Standard: Of Life and Death

Another sure shot column from our man Dexter. It originally appeared in the Philly Daily News on Monday April 14, 1980 and is featured here with the author’s permission.

 

“Of Life and Death”

By Pete Dexter

A fog had settled on the lake the night Hobbles died. Behind it you could just see the outline of the moon. Markey called to tell me it had happened. I went out to the water then, trying not to think anything until I had a chance to get used to it. At the dock I looked back and couldn’t see the lights from the house. The only noises were the frogs, then a dog, barking from across the lake.

Thomas (Hobbles) Haggerty had taken 20 days to die. That’s how long he had been lying in a coma at Methodist Hospital, first in the coronary unit, then in intensive care. He was 30 years old, and right up until the Sunday night in mid-March when he came downstairs and told his mother she better call an ambulance, he’d thought he had the flu.

By then his pancreas was already bleeding. His neck was swollen, his temperature was 106, and he’d lost his vision. In the hour before that, he’d come down from his room enough times to drink half-a-gallon of water and at least a quart of soda. The last time he came down he walked into a wall.

That’s how fast it was happening.

His sister Peggy called a friend and they drove him to the hospital. It was 10 o’clock at night, and Hobbles got himself into the car. Five minutes later he had to be carried out. That’s how fast it was happening too.

By early morning, he had slipped into a coma, and at 4 o’clock his heart stopped. The doctors brought it back with electric shock. About 6 in the morning the hospital called the Haggerty home on Newkirk St. and spoke to one of his two sisters. They said the family should come right away.

For the next 20 days his family stayed at the hospital. In the first week the doctors told his friends to talk to him, they said that sometimes a familiar voice would bring somebody in a coma back.

The friends were there all week. They recorded whole nights at the Downtowner club–where Hobbles bartended–and left him listening to the tapes through ear phones when the nurses threw them out.

After a week, the doctors moved him from the coronary unit to intensive care and told the family all there was left was miracles.

And there were none of those. Two weeks later his heart stopped again. Sometimes it’s hard to say why you like somebody. That kind of thing has never lent itself much to words with me anyway – I just do or I don’t, and assume there’s a reason. But on the night Hobbles died, I stood out by the lake figuring it out. It was either that or wonder why it was he had to die, and I’ve been up that alley enough times to count the bricks at the dead end. What it came down to finally was all tied to the neighborhood. To Tasker. Row houses and broken glass, sometimes the smell of the oil refineries across the expressway. Everybody’s got knife scars on their stomach.

The first time I saw the place, I thought it looked like some kind of accident that was still happening. The people there told me it was beautiful. That was the word they used, and it took a long time for me to see what they were talking about.

And that was themselves. Whatever Tasker was, that was what they were. And they liked that enough to fight for it, and sometimes die for it. And gradually it came to me, that was human dignity.

And Hobbles had as much of that as anybody. And I cared about that kid, he would stand up.

I don’t know what else to tell you. He liked to drink beer and go to the shore and bet football. He had a lot of jobs, but nothing you would confuse with ambition.

His brother Paul said, “He seemed to stay young,” and that was the truth. In 1968, an off-duty cop shot him in the chest during a racial altercation in the street, and he almost died then. Paul said, “Before they took him into the operating room, he thought he was gonna die. He called my mother over and told her he loved her and he was sorry.”

Four years ago he got hepatitis and developed liver disease. His doctor told him to quit drinking, and he didn’t.

One of his friends was a heroin addict then. “When I finally got off the shit after all those years,” he said, “everybody says to me, ‘It’s about time you straightened out.’Hobbles was the only one who told me he was glad I’d beat it. He was the only one that understood I had just done the best thing in my life. He was proud of me. ”

I thought about some of that the night Hobbles died. I thought about it and tried to fit it with words. It was a waste, it was a tragedy, it was human. The words don’t come close. All I can tell you is that a fog settled over the lake that night, so thick that for a while I couldn’t see the lights from my own house.

And somewhere in it Hobbles was missing. And when it lifted I had finally understood he would never be back.

[Images Via: TreelineAmelia Thellen]

BGS: Dead Dogs and Manhood

Another beaut from our man Dexter. This one originally appeared in the Philly Daily News on June 2, 1980. It is collected in Paper Trailsa must-read if there ever was one, and is featured here with the author’s permission.

“Dead Dogs and Manhood”

By Pete Dexter

The year I turned 5 my family moved to a little town in central Georgia called Milledgeville where my father taught physics at the military college. Our house was on a red clay road, next to a pine woods and a saw mill. The plums came off the trees hot from the sun, and I had a cocker spaniel puppy that followed me everywhere I went. And nobody wore shoes all summer long, except to Sunday school.

The puppy was almost grown when he was killed. A city garbage truck hit him and left him where he stopped rolling, beside the road on a hill half a mile from the house. I heard about it from a kid named Kenny Durkin, who was the kind of kid who would spend half the afternoon looking for you to be the one to tell you your dog was dead.

He is probably working for a newspaper now.

Anyway, Kenny found me down at the saw mill, walking around the inside edge of a round cement building where they burned scrap wood. The building had a clay floor, dug out into a pit, and if you fell off the edge that’s where you ended up, in there burning with the wood.

My friends and I went there once or twice a week and waited for the watchman to chase us out. We wanted to see it when he fell off the edge.

Kenny Durkin stuck his head into the open door and yelled at me. “Peter,” he said, “the city truck done run over yer dog and kilt him dead.”

We ran from the saw mill to the hill where the city truck had left my dog, stopping every now and then for Kenny Durkin to get his breath. I was scared and excited at the same time – I’d never seen a dead dog before.

By the time we got to place on the hill, the sun had baked one side of the dog’s coat so hot you could hardly touch him. The flies were all over his ears and eyes, and I brushed them away and picked him up. He had never seemed so heavy before. I told Kenny Durkin to go away.

I carried the puppy up the hill, stumbling under the weight. I fell in some stones, and he rolled into the ditch. I pulled him out by a leg, and there was a trail of blood and bubbles where his mouth had slid along the ground. It was cool in the ditch and I thought about leaving him there, but there was something worse in that than in what had already happened.

I picked him up and started for home again. I moved him from one shoulder to the other, trying to get rid of the ache in the muscles. But the ache got worse and worse and the next time I fell I couldn’t pick him up again, so I
dragged him home by the leg.

And I was crying as much from the ache as for the dog.

A neighbor woman came out from behind her screen door and told me to leave the puppy out in the street. “Come on in and have some ice tea,” she said.

“Your daddy’ll be by directly.”

But I was dizzy from the heat by that time, watching my feet move, one in front of the other against the red Georgia dirt, and I didn’t answer.

I didn’t have anything to say, and I had something to do. And a long time went by before I got the puppy home.

I remembered all that last week. I was driving some back roads near Elmer, N.J., when I came on a kid carrying a dead dog.

He was older than I had been – he might have been 9 or 10 – but you don’t pick the times you grow up, they pick you. The dog was a mongrel, maybe 35 pounds, and the kid was trying to balance it in front of him on the frame of his bicycle.

He’d pedal a few yards, then the handle bars would get away from him. He’d reach up to steady himself and the dog would fall off onto the road. I stopped the car behind him and asked what had happened.

“He got run over,” he said. The dog was lying at his feet and boy couldn’t control his voice any more than the handle bars. Everything was falling apart all at once.

I said, “Maybe I can help you get him home.”

He said, “I can do it.” He picked up the dog and lay him across the bicycle. The eyes swung in the air. The boy got back on the bicycle and tried again, the dog fell off again. “Oh, Goldie,” he said.

“How far do you live?”

The kid kept his face away when he answered, so you couldn’t see him crying.

“Just a little bit up the road. I can do it.”

“Close enough to walk? ” He nodded, still keeping his face away. I said, “Then hold her on the bicycle and walk her home.”

The kid put his dog across the bicycle, held her there with one hand and began to walk toward a red and white farm house a long ways down the road. From the back you could see the crying take over his body. Maybe if I’d asked him again, he would have let me drive him home.

But I didn’t ask.

He was finding out about himself, and tonight, after the dog was buried, that would be all he would have to take her place.

[Photo Credit: Sally Mann]

The Banter Gold Standard: Dexter Recalls Jack McKinney

Here’s another sure shot from our pal Dexter.

This one is from August 16, 2002 when he remembered his mentor and friend, Jack McKinney. (The piece appears here with the author’s permission.)

“Pete Dexter Recalls Jack McKinney”

By Pete Dexter

There are a thousand stories about Jack McKinney, and as it happens I was there for a few of them, enough at least to know that the rest are probably true.

I will tell you one no one has ever heard before in a minute, but first let me just make the observation that when you think of the people Jack McKinney knew over the years, the things he saw and did, the chances he took, you realize that even if you were McKinney’s friend, you probably never glimpsed a tenth of the whole picture.

A trusted friend of Sonny Liston, attacked physically by Norman Mailer for ironing Mailer’s wife’s hair in the kitchen during a party–what boundaries could there be?

He was also for years the best boxing writer in America and the loudest tenor in the history of late-night Center City. He fought for his cause in Northern Ireland, at least helped to invent modern talk radio, read four and five newspapers a day, and often ate a gallon of ice cream at a sitting. I could go on like this for an hour. The legend is endless.

But let me push all that aside for the moment and start with this: Jack McKinney, it seems to me, was led his whole life by three driving, and occasionally competing, forces. His intellect, his compassion and, of course, testosterone. These were not whims, blowing him gently from one place to another, they were gales. Huge impulses that he seemed helpless to resist, even when he knew there would be consequences. Jackpots, he called them.

The last time I spoke to him, I’d been sitting around thinking about one of my own jackpots, the very public thumping I took in Devil’s Pocket 20 years ago, something that I suppose I will always find myself sitting around thinking about. In the aftermath I was lying in the hospital when McKinney walked in and stood for a while at the end of the bed, looking me over.

“Well,” he said, “the first thing is, it was stupid to go over there.”

I guess that I ought to explain that when I came to Philadelphia I didn’t know anything or anybody, and Jack took me under his arm as much as anyone ever has and educated me in the ways of night life and the city. For a long time, I considered myself Jack’s apprentice.

I was lying on my pillow that day, trying not to move anything, 150 stitches in my head, a broken femur, a broken vertebra, nerve damage and half my teeth sheared to the gum line by a crowbar.

I said, “You think so, Jack?”

He closed the door and had a seat and talked to me for most of an hour, lecturing, I guess, but not scolding, just someone who had been in a few spots of his own, who had also been hurt. He told me that what had happened was going to follow me around a long time, which it did, and that I was in the process of finding out some things I needed to know. Which I was. He said these things in a kind way, somehow acknowledging that I was still someone he took seriously. It was always important to me, what Jack thought.

So the last time I spoke to him, it was a spur of the moment thing, I wanted to thank him for that hospital visit 20 years ago, for that kindness, to say that I didn’t think he ever knew how much it meant to me when he did it. And once the awkward silence that declaration provoked was out of the way, we talked about our families and kids. About the old days, the Daily News and the jackpots we got into, about the night he lent a company car to a woman with tattoos who told him she had to go buy baby formula. The woman, as I remember, did not return the car. Another night, the police stopped us at 2 o’clock on Walnut Street because Jack was singing too loud, and Jack spent 20 minutes trying to explain the beauty and passion of opera to these two very patient officers, making them promise finally that they would give it a try. Earlier that same night a drunk had pulled a knife on us and Jack, enjoying it hugely, told me to fan out, and I did everything but crawl into his back pocket.

The night I want to tell you about, though, never came up between us. I never talked about it to anybody. We’d been at the Pen and Pencil Club until 3 o’clock in the morning, Jack ranking all the tenors since Caruso between rounds of head-butting with an infamous Irish burglar who had a head the size of a mailbox. Jack was losing his toupee, and so he took it off – something he would never do in public – and handed it to me each time he went back to butt heads again. He also wanted me to stand in back of him in case the infamous Irish burglar butted him unconscious. “Just don’t let me drop,” he said. “Just stand there and catch me if I drop.”

I woke up the next morning still hearing the deep, hollow sound of heads colliding, wondering how McKinney’s was feeling. My own head wasn’t anything to brag about, and things did not improve when I got in the car to drive into work. How do I put this? There was a dead squirrel in the front seat. At least I thought so for a long moment, and then I leaned over and saw it more clearly, and in that same instant saw the complications lying out there ahead of me like 200 hundred miles of Mexican Highway.

First of all, I could not imagine myself walking into the office holding Jack McKinney’s hair. I could also not imagine sticking it in my pocket. I couldn’t imagine calling him at home, telling him I’d found it in my front seat. I couldn’t imagine approaching him with it in the office. I didn’t even know to a certainty–and still don’t–that it was Jack’s hair. The color seemed a little off, and stranger things than finding a toupee in the company car happened in those days on a fairly regular basis.

So I put it off, sticking the hair in the glove compartment, waiting for the right place and time to give it back, but it never came. I could never pull the trigger. And I could never quite throw it away. Jack was sensitive about his hair. The next time I saw him, up in the office, he was sitting beneath some hair that looked like his regular hair, working on his column. So, who knows?

But even if I can’t say definitively that it was Jack’s hair in my glove compartment, I can tell you the reason I never offered to give it back. I could never figure out how to do it without embarrassing him.

The truth is, this man who climbed in the ring as Bobo McKinney and knocked out a professional middleweight boxer, who would get into screaming political arguments and didn’t care who was there to hear it; this iconoclast, this idealist, this very bad tenor and legendary brawler, this friend of mine, I wouldn’t have hurt his feelings for the world.

It’s hard to imagine Jack’s candle burned out so fast, it feels like a whole species went extinct overnight. I stagger to think of the archives he took with him.

The Banter Gold Standard: The Boxing Gym

Let’s cap off Pete Dexter Boxing week with this beauty. It originally appeared in Esquire and can be found in Dexter’s stellar collection of non-fiction, Paper Trails, as well as the Library of America’s boxing anthology, At the Fights.

It appears here with the author’s permission.

The first day the fighter came into the gym he went two rounds with a weight lifter from New Jersey who was just learning to keep his hands up—and he tried to hurt him.

I didn’t know if it was something between them or if the fighter just had a mean streak. Some of them do. Whatever it was, the fighter went after him, turning his weight into his punches, missing some, but dropping enough right hands in so that at the end of the two rounds the whole left side of the weight lifter—without ever having been hit perfect—was blotted pink. It’s an honest gym, and what happened wasn’t particularly violent, but it was out of place.

I was sitting by the windows with Mickey Rosati at the time, and his son, little Mick.

The two of them are with each other all day. They work together in their garage downstairs, they run together, they box each other two or three times a week. The kid is a world-class amateur. They know each other inside out—moves and moods—and I’ve never heard a hard word between them. You get the feeling sometimes that they’re the same person, spaced about thirty years apart.

Up in the ring, the weight lifter was getting packed into the corner like one shirt too many in a hamper. “What’s that about?” I said.

Mickey shook his head. “They’re both from Jersey,” he said. “Maybe they got on each other’s nerves.”

The weight lifter had a brother named Dennis. He was fourteen year older—closing in on forty—and two or three times a week the two of them came over the bridge from New Jersey to work out.

The gym sits on a narrow street in South Philadelphia where people park on the sidewalks and sneakers hang from the telephone wires. Inside, it’s honest and clean; at least, for a gym it’s clean. We are not speaking here of Nautilus-center clean, but people have been known to hit the bucket when they spit, and when Mickey’s hawk—which is another story—used the ring for a bathroom one afternoon, the spot was scoured with Lysol before anybody fought again. That might not sound like much, but in most gyms, hawk shit will petrify before anybody cleans it up.

The weight lifter liked to box when he could; Dennis wasn’t as serious. He slapped at the heavy bags or shadow-boxed, and once in a while he mentioned that he ought to be getting paid for his entertainment value, which was probably true. If it came into his head, Dennis said it.

During the month or two Dennis and his brother had been coming up, Mickey had spent some time in the ring with the brother, getting him used to the feel of soft punches, showing him how to relax.

At the start, the brother had gone home depressed. Dennis reported it while Mickey was doing sit-ups on an elevated board, his teeth biting a cold cigar. “My brother’s got guys terrified of him in Jersey,” Dennis said. “He can’t believe somebody as old as you could do that to him. All weekend long he’s messed up.”

Mickey lay back on the board and closed his eyes. “Suddenly,” he said, the cigar moving in his teeth, “I don’t feel like doing sit-ups no more.”

As a step in the mending, Dennis and his brother decided Mickey probably wasn’t human; at least they had no idea he could be beaten or hurt. They called him the Punching Machine.

You could see how they might think that. Mickey Rosati is fifty-one years old and left-handed, and he can still fight. But he is fifty-one years old. His shoulders hurt him after he works out, he gets poison ivy just looking at the woods, and the speed he had when he won twenty-two straight fights back in the fifties isn’t there like it was. On brains and shape, he would still beat most of the four- and six-round fighters at his weight in the world, but he pays more to stay that way than anybody who isn’t around him could know.

The fighter from Jersey was back two weeks later. He came in with Dennis. Mickey was sitting in a chair, holding a cold cigar in his teeth, trying not to scratch his arms. He was just back from the Pocono Mountains, poison-ivyed half to death. He’d gone there for squirrels. Mickey has been hunting since he was seven years old—ever since he went after stray cats in the alleys of South Philadelphia with a baseball bat. As he gets older, though, he gets gentler, and cares less about the shooting and more about just being outside. This weekend, as a matter of fact, he’d left his gun in the cabin.

“This same path, I must’ve walked it a hundred times,” he said. “But this time, I was just walking along, and you know, there’s apples in all those trees. Millions of them. I been through there a hundred times, and I never saw the apples before . . .”

Dennis bent over him then. “Hey, Mick, 1 told this guy you’d give him two or three rounds,” he said.

Mickey looked at Dennis, then at the fighter, putting together what was doing. “All right,” he said. Mickey will always give you the benefit of the doubt; he will always give you his time.

The fighter dressed and wrapped his hands and then got laced into a pair of black gloves. He loosened up five or ten minutes, then fit his mouthpiece over his teeth and climbed into the ring.

Mickey slipped his unwrapped hands into an old pair of pull-on gloves and got in with him. He doesn’t use a mouthpiece or headgear. He was giving away twenty-five pounds, and twenty-five years. “Three rounds?” he said.

The fighter said, “I don’t know if I’m even in shape to finish one.” Mickey has been around gyms all his life and knew better than that.

The bell rang and the fighter came straight at him, throwing right hands and hooks, trying to hurt him. Little Mickey sat down a yard from the ropes and watched.

Mickey took the punches on his arms and gloves and shoulders, moving in and out, relaxed. A minute into the round, he threw a long, slow right hook at the fighter’s head, which the fighter blocked, and a short left under his ribs. Which he never saw.

The punch stopped the fighter cold. For two or three seconds he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t move his hands. In those seconds, Mickey could have ended it and gone back to his chair and let him go. And when the fighter could breathe again, he began to find Mickey with some of the right hands.

The gym was quiet, except for the sounds of the ring itself. Mickey and the fighter seemed even for a round and a half, but somewhere in it the fighter got stronger. He used his elbows and shoulders; Mickey gave ground and landed some hooks to the side, but his punches didn’t have much on them.

Between rounds Mickey walked in circles, breathing through his teeth, looking at the Boor. I thought about being fifty-one years old, working all day pulling transmissions and engines, and then coming upstairs with bad shoulders and poison ivy and having to fight life and death with some kid who didn’t even know who you were.

The third round started, and the fighter, if anything, was throwing harder now. Mickey let the punches hit his arms and sides and glance off his head, moving in the direction they pushed him. One of them scraped some skin off his eyebrow.

The fighter followed him, forgetting what had happened to him in the first round, forgetting that Mickey hadn’t hurt him when he was helpless. And then I heard little Mickey say, “He’s got him now.” I looked down at him to see how he knew that, and by the time I looked back up, Mickey was hitting the fighter with twelve clean punches in a row.

For the last minute and a half of the fight, Mickey hit him with everything he threw. When the fighter tried to come back at him, it opened him up for something else.

At the end, he had stopped fighting and was leaning against the ropes covering up. Mickey patted the fighter on the head, climbed out of the ring, and worked two hard rounds on the heavy bag, jumped rope, and then put a cigar between his teeth and did sit-ups, looking happier all the time.

I said to his son, “He shouldn’t have to do that.”

Little Mickey said, “Yeah, but you know my father. He liked the challenge, having to do it…”

I looked around the gym—a clean, honest room with enough windows so you could feel the street—and as nice as it was, that’s what it was for. Having to do it. Not every day or every week, but if you’re going to box, then once in a while it’s going to happen.

And Mickey doesn’t own the place by accident. Now and then you’ve got to let the dog out of the house to run.

Driving home from the gym that night, I told him I wouldn’t have patted the fighter on the head, no matter how grateful I was that he tried to kill me.

Mickey said, “Yeah, I should have bit him.” His mood was getting better and better. He looked down at his arms, though, touched his neck where the poison ivy was. “Five days,” he said, “before it goes away. I lie in bed at night, thinking about scratching it or not.”

“That long?”

“The doctor said they got some kind of shot, it gives you the worse case you ever got, and then you don’t get it anymore. You can’t take the shot when you already got poison ivy, though. You got to be cured, and then they can give it to you, and then they can cure you. Probably.”

He shook his head. “There’s nothing you can do about poison ivy,” he said, “but stay out of the way.”

He dabbed at the scrape over his eye. “And what good is that?”

 

[Photo Credit: Time; Tumblr ]

The Banter Gold Standard: The Impression

On Monday, we ran Pete Dexter’s Inside Sports piece on Larry Holmes. Here is Dexter’s short article on the Holmes-Ali fight, reprinted here with the author’s permission.

“The Impression”

By Pete Dexter

When I heard Ali had agreed to fight Holmes, the first thought I had was that Ali would be killed. The punch was five years gone, his hand speed had been mediocre over his last half dozen fights, and he’d been getting hit by people like Leon Spinks.

I didn’t see that two years in the pasture could have helped any of that. What figured to be left to him, at almost 39 years old, was the chin. Enough to keep him up a long time after he should go down.

The second thought I had was that I didn’t want to see it happen, and even if there was enough grace in that night to make me wrong once, there was nothing in it to make me wrong twice. And if the talk afterwards’ about thyroid pills and a fight with Mike Weaver is more than talk, I won’t be there. Ali might take the chance again. I won’t.

I couldn’t watch it again. Ali without his talent, growing old in one long night, people everywhere without words, growing old with him. In the casino you see Ray Robinson posing in pictures with people who remember him—you can’t imagine Ali like that.

YOU WOULD not imagine Ali like this either: standing in front of Larry Holmes all night, eyes swollen, throwing no punches and once, after catching a terrible right hand, turning away in the ring.

Holmes had come into the fight in the best shape of his life—maybe he had believed the talk of a miracle a little bit, too. He began with energy and something close to hate, but after the second round he walked back to his comer wearing a different expression. “I knew what that look was,” Richie Giachetti would say later. Giachetti is Holmes’ trainer/manager. “We’d found out he didn’t have nothin’ left, and he was too old, and Larry was askin’ himself, ‘Do I really want this?’ All this time he was talkin’ himself into fightin’ Ali and now it’s here, he knows he’s got it won and the look on his face, it was just no expression at all. Usually he’d be happy or excited or somethin’, but the second round on. it was no nothin’ there.

AFTER THE fifth round, Angelo Dundee threatened to stop the fight. It is the eighth round, though, that keeps coming back. It was like a dream that wouldn’t move. Ali lost in ringside smoke, leaning deep into the ropes, moving his hands in slow motion. The rinse washing out of his hair, going gray in front of my eyes … it seemed to last half an hour. Ali without his speed or a punch or his legs, without his mirrors, clearly without his miracle. Nobody to tell him he was pretty; nobody left to believe it could happen.

Standing because he would not let himself go down.

When Dundee finally stopped it after the tenth, Holmes came across the ring crying and hugged Ali. “I love you,” he ‘said.

An hour later he went to Ali’s suite and found him lying face down on his exercise table. “Please promise me,” Holmes said. “Promise me you won’t fight no more.”

It ‘was quiet, then Ali spoke, “Holmmm-z,” he said, “I want Holmes.”

The next morning Dundee was sitting in his room, answering the phone, drinking coffee. “I didn’t do good business last night. It was a horrible night. I seen an Ali, couldn’t do nothing. He just wasn’t there.”

He shook his head. “I hope he don’t fight again, but you know I don’t tell him what to do. Nobody does.”

In the end you have to admire that. He had an extraordinary talent. He had a talent as rare, in a way, as Robert Frost’s or Picasso’s. And a talent like that, I think, is always ahead of the man who has it. It leads him, it takes him places other people can’t go. And even when he understands what it does, he doesn’t necessarily know what it is.

But he had the courage to use it, to follow it, and when it left him standing in the ring, alone with the best heavyweight fighter in the world, he had courage for that, too. And one way or another—unless you’re Robert Frost or Picasso—that happens, because growing old is losing talent.

For a long time, Larry Holmes didn’t want the fight. Giachetti never wanted it. Don King, who would pick Joe Louis out of his wheelchair and feed him to Roberto Duran if the money were right, talked Holmes into it.

King told Holmes that he had been living in Ali’s shadow too long. Giachetti told him the shadow was there, and as shadows go it wasn’t bad.

“Nobody who really knows Ali can say anything bad about him,” Giachetti said. “Nobody wants to see him hurt. We knock him out, they say he’s an old man. We don’t, Larry’s a bum. It’s a no-win situation.”

Holmes listened to King. And in the way you sometimes do when you’re unsure, Holmes denied the part of himself that said he cared about Ali. And as the fight got closer, he came to believe Ali had taken something from him. “I don’t care. if he gets hurt,” he said. “He been denyin’ me my just dues all this time. The man hypnotizes everybody, he don’t hypnotize me. I know him better than he knows himself. There’ll be no mercy in there for him. He either gets knocked out or he gets hurt.” And there was hate in that.

GIACHETTI FORGOT his reservations and got Holmes ready. “It’s comin’ down to a head job now,” he said. That was two weeks before the fight, and from then until the fight itself he kept Holmes away from Ali. “Nobody beats Ali at talkin’,” Giachetti said. “It’s his game. He says the same old things, but everybody still loves to hear it. It’s like ‘Moon River.’” So he brought Holmes to the weigh-in early. He refused to let his fighter pose with Ali for pictures. But Ali was always there.

After. his afternoon workouts, Holmes would take the microphone and ask the audience to believe he would beat him. “The old man has made a mistake. Porky gone crazy, fightin’ me. I could kick his ass back in 1974 when I was his sparring partner, and he never gave me my just dues….” It would go on too long, get awkward. Holmes being Ali, at the same time saying things from his heart.

“If I lose, I’ll retire. People will say I wasn’t ever nothin’ if this sucker beats me I’d have to go hide.”

On September 15, a kid named Gary Wells tried to jump over the water fountain at Caesars on his motorcycle, the same jump that almost killed Eve! Knievel.

AN HOUR before the jump, Ali was sitting in bed, watching the Holmes-Weaver fight on the Betamax. As it moved into the later rounds Ali walked into a closet. There was a tray there with 30 different kinds of pills—that and a scale. He sorted out eight or 10 to eat with breakfast. He said, “I will tell you something. I believe I am on a mission from God. I pray five times a day, it’s 60 per cent of my power. Holmes out drinkin’ wine, gamblin’, how can he beat me?”

I asked if he had liked Holmes when he was a sparring partner. Ali looked at me to see if I was serious.

“I like him now,” he said.

By the time Ali got out of the closet, Holmes had knocked Weaver out, and Truman Capote was bragging to Phil Donahue that he’d ruined Jack Kerouac’s career. Ali watched a few minutes. “This is a messed up world,” he said.

He stood up and looked out the window. The crowd was already waiting for the kid on the motorcycle. Ali had met him earlier. He had shook the kid’s hand and said, “You crazy.” The kid had liked that. A reporter asked if Ali would watch the jump.

“I don’t want to see nobody get his head ripped off,” he said. “They encourage him, but I know what people want to see when they watch somethin’ like that.”

He looked at himself in the mirror again and then laid down. On some unspoken signal, the old Cuban who rubs him down closed the curtains and the room was as dark as the night, and the reflection—the proof of the miracle—was gone with the sun. “As sure as you hear my voice,” Ali said, “you and l will both die.”

An hour later I was lying in my room when I heard the crowd and knew the kid hadn’t made it. The crowd, then the sirens. I thought of Ali, alone in his room.

The Banter Gold Standard: Seven Scenes From The Life of a Quiet Champ

This week gives Dexter because, well, do we really need an excuse for more Dexter?

Let’s start with this 1980 Inside Sports profile of Larry Holmes written before the Holmes/Ali fight.  It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

“Seven Scenes From The Life of A Quiet Champ”

By Pete Dexter

“I don’t ever want to fight Ali. Ali’s a legend, I’m hoping he retires. It would be a lot of money [for an Ali fight], but money isn’t everything. When Ali dies, people going to remember him being more than a fighter…”

“To me, Ali’s a great man. I can’t say anything bad about him. When I was his sparring partner, he paid me and took me al over the world. I was a kid sparring with Ali in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he gave me a black eye. People tried to put ice on it, but I was going to knock them out. I was proud of it…”

“Ever since people known who I am, they been comparing me to Ali. They say I stole his style. It used to bother me, but now it doesn’t. I just smile and thank them and take it as the compliment it is.”
–Larry Holmes in various 1978 interviews

Easton, Pennsylvania. The sandwich is hurt bad but will not go down. It is a turkey sandwich—turkey and bacon and lettuce with rusty edges, leaking mayonnaise everywhere.

Larry Holmes is having trouble with the style. He checks one side, then the other, cuts off the escape routes with his fingers. He bites down, the meat slides out the back. The champion pulls away, his mouth full of mayonnaise, A terrible welt shows on the sandwich. “God-damn,” he says, “this is the kind of sandwich you think the heavyweight champion of the world be eatin’?”

I have to admit it, no. I’ve seen better looking lettuce coming out of a rabbit. Larry peels back the bread and scrapes the mayonnaise with his straw. “A world champion,” he says, “scrapin’ mayonnaise off his own sandwich.”

A month before the sandwich, there was 254-pound Leroy Jones, who presented the same problem. Too much mayonnaise to find the meat. Jones was Holmes’ 34th win without a loss, his 25th knockout, his sixth straight in defense of his WBC title.

The phone rings. Holmes manages to get it to his ear without using his thumb and first three fingers. It is Charlie Spaziani, his lawyer, with news of a woman in Cleveland who is saying that her four-year-old child has a heavyweight champion of the world for a daddy. The wet fingers wrap around the phone.

“What? In Cleveland? And she just comin’ around now? … Well, I’d like to keep it to maybe two dollars a week, ’cause I don’t know nothin’ about it.”

Holmes hangs up and looks at the sandwich. “I never heard they had sexual intercourse in Cleveland. I’ll tell you the truth, a man can’t win when it comes to the system.” He looks at his watch. “Right now it’s  quarter to one on Wednesday afternoon. If the woman go to the judge and say, ‘Pete got me pregnant at quarter to one, Wednesday afternoon,’ they goin’ to believe her. So you get me and nine witnesses to go down to the court with you, say you was talking to me at quarter to one, and nine times out of ten they ain’t goin’ to believe you anyway.” He thinks it over. “You wasn’t in Cleveland four years ago, were you?”

Which brings the champion’s attention back to the sandwich. He picks it up and decides it isn’t something he wants to eat after all. It isn’t something he wants to look at either. He moves it to a far spot on the desk, covers it with a napkin. In the end, all you can really say about it is that it lasted longer than Leroy Jones.

Larry picks up the rest of the napkin to wipe off his fingers and a cashier’s check for $100,000 comes up off the desk with them. It is the check that he and Richie Giachetti went to New York for the day before. The check that says his schedule fight with Ali will happen.

Ali, the man Holmes had said he never wanted to fight. He had been Ali’s sparring partner, and he had watched him and learned from him. He had called him his idol for the newspapers. He had been on the undercard in Manila, had seen the act of will Ali—who was already beyond his prime—past Joe Frazier. And as Holmes developed and Ali’s skills faded, a point had to come when Holmes knew he was the better fighter. But it was still Ali, and there was still something there that Holmes didn’t have, and never would.

Richie Giachetti is Larry Holmes’ manager and trainer. He is his friend. He has been with the 30-year-old Holmes eight years, and he doesn’t like the Ali fight at all. “I’ll do my job,” he will say later. “It’s $4 million, but anyway you look at it, Ali gets knocked out or hurt. [Don] King keeps talkin’ to Larry about gettin’ out of Ali’s shadow. Did Marciano get out of Joe Louis’ shadow, knockin’ out an old man? The shadow is there, and as shadows go, it’s not too bad….”

The way it comes out all at once, you know it’s something Giachetti has said before, probably to Holmes on the way to New York. Holmes shuts it off.

“Ali was yesterday, I am today. I been in his shadow too long, it’s time to come out. No, the fight don’t bother me. A fight is a fight. I don’t care if he got hurt, I can’t care. You care, that’s when you get hurt your own self.” It is as deep a disagreement as he and Giachetti have had, and something between them now feels wrong and unsettled.

Larry walks the check down to the bank, waving at every other car on the street. A school bus stops and the children pinch the windows down to yell they saw him on Channel 6 last night. Later, in the car, he drives past the project where he grew up, into the part of town he calls high society. He lives there, one of three or four black families in a white neighborhood. He says; “I understand where I’m from, and I wouldn’t live nowhere else.”

The car is a long, white Cadillac with silver buckles over the trunk and a gold-plated nameplate built into the dashboard. Forty-eight thousand dollars list price, but Larry says he got a deal. The tape in the stereo is a song about the champ and it sounds like there must be 40 speakers. “They sendin’ a guy up from Philly to paint my name on the door,” he says.

At the parking lot outside St. Anthony’s Youth Center, where Holmes learned to box and still works out, a middle-aged woman carrying a bag of groceries stands at the window two minutes, taking it all in. “My,” she says. “My, my.” Larry is talking economy to a television cameraman, saying he looked at the car for a year before he bought it, and doesn’t hear what the woman says before she leaves. She says, “That’s real cute.”

In the car again. Larry is talking about the old days, 11 brothers and sisters, no father to support them. He and his friends took gloves into the bars and fought each other so the men there would buy them hamburgers.

He talks about his mother, Flossie, and it makes you remember how deep worries went before you were old enough to understand what they were about, worries you couldn’t talk about then because you didn’t understand, and can’t talk about now because you understand them too well.

“Larry Holmes is a survivor,” he says. “No matter what happen to me, I’ll get by. I go back to work in the steel mills or to Jet Car Wash if I had to, I’d make out. My wife love me, my babies love me—what can happen to that?

“When I was a kid, I wasn’t tight with nobody. I’m still that way. I liked to stay home, just be in the house.

“George Foreman, they say he was scared to be alone in the dark. People say, how could somebody big and strong like that be ‘fraid to stay in his own house with the lights out? I could understand that. I know how it is, you got to have feelings with people.” He looks over and smiles. “I
ain’t scared of the dark….”

And a few minutes later, “I heard George got religion now, bought him his own church.”

Late afternoon. Earnie Shavers has flown into Easton to be part of tomorrow’s second annual “Run With the Champ” five-mile race. Eight years ago, Holmes was Shavers’ sparring partner, and they have been friends through two fights with each other.

Everybody in the Holmes’ camp is wearing Sasson jeans. They are dark jeans with white stitches, officially endorsed by the champion, who can’t wear them because they don’t come with room for his thighs.

They don’t come with room for Earnie’s thighs either.

Giachetti and Holmes and Shavers and two carloads of people—lawyers, trainers, brothers—head over to a shop called New York Tailors to find Earnie a pair of jeans.

“Whatever he wants, put it on my bill,” Larry says.

The shopkeeper shakes hands with Shavers. “You don’t look as big as you do on television,” he says.

Earnie tries on one pair after another, starting with all the 34s, and is working into the 36s now, trying to find something with thigh room. “Try them 38′s,” Larry says. Earnie disappears into a dressing room with a pair of 38s. When he comes out, they are still skin-tight around his legs and he has gathered a handful belt loops at the waist.

“These are close,” he says.

The man from New York Tailors hands him another stack and Earnie goes back into the dressing room. Giachetti says anybody who works out all the time and doesn’t drink can’t expect to fit into clothes. Years before Holmes, he managed Earnie Shavers.

“When me and Earnie was fightin’ last year,” Larry says, Earnie was taken a terrible punishment and I tol’ him, I said, ‘Earnie, Earnie, don’t be takin’ all these shots.’ All says is, “C’mon man, fight.” He had blood comin’ all down his mouth, and I was still thinkin’ about that when he hit me the right hand….”

The right-hand knocked Holmes down it—would have knocked anybody down—and almost ended the fight.

Earnie comes through the curtain carrying a pair that he says fit him. He isn’t the kind to want people waiting.

“Right here, y’all, Earnie Shavers. Come shake the hand that knocked down the champ. Hey, get us a drink. Get everybody a drink….”

Richie Giachetti is standing on a chair at the door of an all-black bar in downtown Easton, pointing at Earnie Shavers’ shining head. Earnie is still dressed in the three-piece suit he was wearing when he got off the plane. Women first, the bar comes over to shake his, touch his arm, ask for autographs. Earnie will spend all night signing autographs.

“The thing is,” Giachetti says, “every fighter comes to the point where he wants to do it all himself. They watch you five or six years and figure they can do the same thing. They all do it, it’s part of boxing.”

It is three or four drinks later, and Earnie and Larry are in the back of the bar, listening to the stories of Easton. Richie blows his nose and says as soon as this fight is over he’s getting his sinus cavities burned out. “They been killin’ me for years,” he says.

“Anyway, a fighter’s got to have somebody to tell him the truth. Larry’ll look bad, he’II line up 15 guys and ask them, ‘How did I look?’ And every one of them will say, ‘Fine, Champ,’ and he’ll look at me and I’ll say, ‘Who do you want to believe? You looked like hell.’ It’s like a marriage. He don’t want to hear that but he knows I’ll tell him the truth. Damn, I got to get my sinuses fixed….”

I say I have heard they do that operation without an anesthetic.

“That’s right, they can’t put you to sleep ’cause they don’t know when to stop burnin’.”

The fighters have worked their way to the front of the bar again, and Holmes hears the last of that. “You need help goin’ to sleep?” he says. “I’ll put you to sleep, Richie, be glad to.”

Giachetti gets back up on the chair and rubs his knuckles into Holmes’ scalp. Holmes says, “He jus’ love to do that to black folks.” Giachetti reaches around Larry’s head and finds his far ear, pulls it until the champ is square in his face. Then be puts a thumb as thick as a farmer’s in Larry’s nose! They look at each other a long minute, Giachetti kisses him on the cheek.

Holmes says, “Earnie, I know why you got rid of him now.”

The thing about Richie, no matter where we go he always takin’ me out to see somethin’.” The party has moved twice and is in a Chinese restaurant now. Richie is standing on a chair near the door, talking to a waitress, Larry is remembering the last time they were in San Francisco.

He says, “All I want to do is stay in the hotel room, but Richie, he says we got to go get somethin’ for his wife. The next thing I know, he got me out on a boat, going’ to Alcatraz prison. It’s cold and rainin’, and he takes me out there, walking all over to show me work Al Capone shit. You believe that? ”

There is a noise from door. Giachetti has grabbed the waitress by the head. “Richie,” she says, “you know how long it took to fix my hair?”

Giachetti speaks to the ceiling, still keeping his hand flat on her hairdo. “Forgive this sinner, O Lord,” he says. “Heal her, cleanse her. A woman weak of the flesh, gone astray, but nonetheless one of Your flock….”

The waitress says, “I’m Jewish, Richie.”

He says, “You? You don’t look circumcised.”

The whole town is out for the race the next morning. Giachetti and his wife and Larry’s wife and brother and Steve Sass, a sometimes cornerman, have all shown up wearing sneakers and Pony jogging suits to watch the race. Larry endorses Pony.

Nancy Giachetti and Diane Holmes are together at the finish line, Nancy holding the baby. Kandy Larie Holmes, seven weeks old, yawns pink. Nancy is hard and soft, a woman whose own kids are almost grown. She misses holding babies, she calls her husband Giachetti.

Giachetti himself is wearing sunglasses and drinking unnatural amounts of coffee. He says he feels fine, and the only consolation in that is it’s exactly what’ he said a few years ago after he’d been stabbed 20~odd times in a street fight in Cleveland, a fight, by the way, that he won. He said he felt fine and then went to sleep on the sidewalk.

The race is five miles, mostly downhill, and about 40 minutes old. The serious runners are already sitting in the grass sipping fruit juice and having their legs rubbed when Larry and Earnie come around the corner and start up the long hill to the finish.

Giachetti watches them finish, and while they sign autographs and pose for pictures he goes back to the Sheraton. Five men, early 20s, come into the lobby behind him. Holmes’ limousine is parked outside and one of them has read the name on the door. Coming in, he says, “Fuck Larry Holmes.”

Giachetti steps in front of them all. “Who said that?”

The biggest one says, “I did.”

Giachetti walks into his chest., The desk clerks have stopped breathing, everyone in the lobby is frozen. “What, you got somethin’ to do with Holmes?”

Giachetti looks up into the man’s face. He says, “I’m his friend:” The man looks at Giachetti, half a foot shorter, twice as wide. A cannon barrel.

“Well, excuse me,”he says. Giachetti keeps staring. “I said excuse me. What else do you want me to do?”

Steve Sass pats him on the ribs then. “C’mon Richie.” And Giachetti lets him go. The clerks are breathe again, people begin to move.

In the elevator, one of the me laughs. “I think he really meant it,” he says. The one who had looked into Richie Giachetti’s face doesn’t laugh. He knows he meant it.

The party after the race is at Jake’s house. Jake is Larry’s brother. Italian food, beer, fried chicken. Richie is holding Kandy Larie, and he and Larry are insulting each other. (Holmes has two other daughters who live in Easton with his first wife.) Nancy and Diane are sitting at the kitchen table. Larry looks at Nancy. “I can’t believe you don’t dye your hair,” he says. “Any woman been married to Richie 18 years got to have a head of gray hair.”

“I never understood it myself,” she says.

He thinks it over. “Richie,” he says, “I ought to kick your ass once for every time you done that woman wrong.”

Giachetti nods to Diane. “I ought to kick your ass for every time you done that woman wrong.”

Nancy and Diane look at each other. “Sounds like a whole lot of kickin’ to me,” Nancy says. Diane guesses about a month’s worth. The house is full of kids and noise. Larry’s brother-in-law is drunk in the corner, showing Earnie Shavers his fist. “When this lands, nobody gets up,” he says.

Earnie smiles, nods. “I can see, man,” he says. That is when Flossie Holmes comes in. She lives in a new house Larry built for her, 200 feet from Jake’s back door.

Giachetti hands Nancy the baby and leads Larry Holmes’ mother into the living room. “Here he is, Flossie,” he says, pointing at Shavers. “Here’s the one that knocked your boy down.”

Earnie puts up his hands. “Wait a minute, lemme explain….”

“He’s the one?” She takes a step toward Shavers.

“That’s right, Flossie, that one right there without any hair.”

Shavers says, “Please, it was just business, lemme explain….”

“You don’t look as big as you do on television,” she says.

The champ is in the kitchen, talking about Ali. “Back when I was sparring with him I thought I could’ve beat him then, but I never tried to hurt him or make him look foolish. Him or Joe [Frazier] either. They was the champions, and I respected them for that. But Ali’s mind made a date now that his body can’t keep.

“It don’t bother me that he’s gettin’ more money, $4 million is enough for me….”

Somebody asks if he thinks Ali will get hurt. Holmes turns loud, the way you sometimes do when you don’t want to hear yourself. “I don’t care,” he, says. “I don’t motherfucking care. I been in the man’s shadow too long, it’s time to come out. I will destroy him, I goin’ out there to take his head off.”

A tiny nephew—four or five years old—stands dead still in the doorway watching.

And out in the living room Earnie Shavers is explaining it again to Flossie Holmes. “It’s nothin’ personal in fightin’,” he says. “It’s just business.”

Business.

Two days later, on a Monday morning in April, Don King and a man named Murad Muhammad, who says he is destined to become the promoting star of the ’80s, sit down in front of 40 photographers to announce the fight. They have rented the Belvedere Suite, 64 floors above Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, and are serving their guests wet eggs and cocktails.

The band arrives in a helicopter.

On either side of the promoters are the fighters. Holmes smiling, uncomfortable Ali looking at the table in front of him, maybe realizing what a bad and dangerous fight this is.

Murad introduces himself as a man about to promote one of the greatest fights of all time. A fight that will “set all kinds of records.” The most money, the most people, the most stadium. It will be the first heavyweight championship fight he and Don King promote together, the first heavyweight championship fight in Brazil. Murad says he has suffered to get where he is, he has toiled in the vineyard. He says the fight will settle one of the great mysteries of our time.

Ali wipes at his forehead.

The kid lasts 10 minutes and hands it to King, who is wearing a mink tie. “These are two great gladiators, as in Rome in their sparkling glory,” he says. “The champion is today, Ali is yesterday. This is the last hurrah, the song is over but the melody lingers on.”

And he says the fight will put the issue of heavyweight fighters to the “quiet solitude of oblivion of which it was to be.”

That’s what he says. Then he gives the microphone to Holmes, who is still thanking people five minutes later when Ali begins to snore. He tries to ignore it, Ali snores louder, pounds the table. “I can’t stand it. I tried to be quiet.” He stands up. “I tried, but you killin’ these people. You borin’ all these smart white folks to death….”

Holmes tries to stay in it. “You sayin’ our people is stupid because you got to be white to be smart.”

And that is all Ali needs. He calls Holmes a peanut. He calls him a silly nigger, he calls him stupid. “I’m your daddy, I created you, I goin’ come out the rockin’ chair and whup your ass. Go whap, whap, whap….” He throws jabs, short right hands into the air.

Holmes says, “What I goin’ to be doin’?”

Ali does an impression of a man being hit on the chin six times.

It goes on too long, and in the end neither of them wants to be there.

A day later it will develop that King and the man destined to become the promoting star of the ’80s have forgotten to tell the talks down in Brazil they are coming. It will develop that a previous contract has been signed for Ali to fight Mike Weaver, who is the WBA champ.

But that’s tomorrow. For now, King and Murad Muhammad stand together, smiling for pictures. “This is what sports is all about,”‘ King says, “one hand helping the other.”

A man as gentle as Earnie Shavers might say it’s just business. But this time it’s more than that.

The promoters won’t understand it, but serious people have made commitments it hurt them to make. Commitments they will live with a long time past July, whether there’s a fight or not.

The promoters won’t understand it—they have no way to—but they are playing around with something that matters.

More Dexter:

Dying for Art’s Sake (LeRoy Neiman)

No Trespassing (Jim Brown)

The Apprenticeship of Randall Cobb (Tex Cobb)

Two for Toozday (John Matuszak)

LeeRoy, He Ain’t Here No More (LeeRoy Yarbrough)

The Old Man and the River (Norman Maclean)

Million Dollar Movie

Paperboy, the movie opened last Friday. Our man Dexter does not approve.

Read the book. It’s a good one.

In Living Color

LeRoy Neiman died yesterday. He was 91.

“Dying for Art’s Sake,” is an essay Pete Dexter wrote about Neiman for Esquire in July, 1984. It is reprinted here with permission from the author.

LeRoy Neiman has just been murdered in Milwaukee.

The clipping came in the morning mail—he thinks it was from Milwaukee—a review of his new book of paintings and sketches. “I don’t know why people aren’t nice,” he says. I am talking to him on the phone now. “Are you nice? Listen, there have been thousands of pictures taken of me. I’m a reasonably good-looking human being, aren’t I? Why would an editor want to use a picture where I have an hors d’oeuvre sticking out of my cheek? I wouldn’t do that to him. I always make things look their best…”

“That’s Milwaukee for you,” I admit.

“No, that was a newspaper. The guy in Milwaukee was very clever. He quoted every bad thing anybody ever said about me, but didn’t really say anything himself…Hotel room paintings. What’s wrong with paintings in hotel rooms? A lot of my paintings are in hotel rooms, so what? Art is where you find it. Oh, and they criticized my chin. Did I tell you that? They said I had a weak chin.”

“In Milwaukee?”

“No, in the newspaper. If you’re feeling nice, perhaps it would be amusing to visit, but I don’t need criticism. So if you’re not nice…”

I tell LeRoy I will try to write nice, but I can’t promise. He invites me up to his place in New York anyway. The place in New York is most of the third floor of a large apartment building across the street from Central Park. There is an efficient-looking woman with the purest features I ever saw—one of those noses that looks like somebody took two weeks to get the flare in the nostrils right—who seems to run things for him, jars of paint and brushes all over the place, walls covered with painting and prints and sketches, most of them of athletes. There is a giant oil representation of a Las Vegas crap table learning against the far wall, done almost entirely in red. Floors, background, faces, clothes.

I haven’t done a lot of painting myself, unless you count water towers, but I recognize a work in progress. I figure he does all the blues next, then the yellows or whites. I figure, what he’s got there is a primer coat.

“That’s not finished, is it?” I say.

LeRoy seems pleased I have intuited that.

“No,” he says. “I haven’t decided what to do with it yet.”

“Well,” I say, “I think you’ve about done what you can with the red.”

The phone rings then, and the woman answers it. “LeRoy,” she says, “I’m sorry to interrupt…”

The call is about appearing in a movie. He takes it in the vestibule, but the acoustics in the place are terrific, and I can hear what he says at least as well as whoever is on the other end. Better, probably, because he keeps having to repeat himself for the other end.

“Yes,” he says, “a thousand a day and expenses…”

He wants a thousand dollars a day instead of a straight fee for the job because it might rain wherever the job is, and he doesn’t want to be sitting around somewhere getting wet for nothing.

He comes back into the studio and I compliment his acoustics. “This place is better than Lincoln Center,” I say.

LeRoy looks around the room, probably misunderstanding what I have said. “I’ve got an apartment on the ninth floor too,” he says. “But I never go up there. There’s furniture and a beautiful view, but it depresses me. And I’ve got a house in Great Gorge, New Jersey, but I haven’t been there in four years. I love the place, I just don’t like to be inside it. I have to keep it, though, you’ve got to have a house in the country.”

It is the pictures of the athletes that have made all this possible. They showed up first in Playboy magazine, which started running LeRoy’s stuff back in the Fifties. Then Roone Arledge of ABC Sports put them on television and turned LeRoy’s work into the most recognizable art in this country. Nobody is exactly sure why.

Eventually, of course, LeRoy became as famous as his pictures. He wore his white hats and trained his moustache to grow almost to his ears, and he had fascinating cigars.
I don’t know how he does it, but LeRoy’s cigars are always two minutes old. He carries them in the left side of his mouth, and they are always long and dark with half an inch of cold ash at the end. Then some wiseass editor in Milwaukee runs a picture of him eating hors d’oeuvres.

And you wonder why artists are moody?

II

“I like being outrageous,” he says. “It is the worst possible thing for my income and standing in the art community, but I don’t care. Why should I behave myself now, after all these years?”

I ask LeRoy what kind of misbehaving he means. Does he give sheep for wedding presents? Has he gotten drunk at parties and tired to deliver babies? He shakes his head no.

“I don’t actually do anything,” he says, “except be conspicuous. It keeps me revved up.”

The phone rings again. The woman answers it. “LeRoy,” she says, “I’m sorry to interrupt…” This time it’s some Brazilians, wanting him to come to a party at Regine’s.

“Everybody always wants things from me,” he says after he has hung up.

The Brazilians, it turns out—at least these Brazilians—are economically advantaged people. LeRoy says they wear the best clothes and drink at the best clubs and introduce all the new trends.

“They amuse me,” he says, “but I am not one of them. I am part of their scene—the same three hundred people show up everywhere around the world—but I’m not a member. I never judge them, I am never shocked by their conduct.” He sees I don’t understand. “A lot of them steal,” he says.

That’s the same way it is with LeRoy and athletes. “I don’t get too close to them personally,” he says. And this reminds him of the safari with Hef.

Hef is Hugh Hefner, who owns Playboy. He is one of the three people LeRoy names when I ask who his friends are. The other two are artists he sees once every two or three years.

“It was while we were in Africa,” he says, “that I noticed the natives were always jumping. Any little noise, they’d jump. They watched each other every minute. Hef and I and four other guys and six chicks went around the world to break in the new plane. You know, a pleasure trip. But in Africa, I saw these jumpy natives and realized that danger makes you aware. That’s how I am, too. Aware, observant. Nothing can sneak up from behind. That allows you to be outrageous.”

“You see, you come to a moment sometimes when you know you shouldn’t do something but you take the chance and do it anyway. The moment occurs in sports, it occurs in art. That’s the moment of creation, taking the chance. And sometimes it comes out fine, and sometimes you get murdered.”

I notice, however, that his paintings aren’t about the moment, they depict the population of a best-possible world.

“I like things to their best,” he says. “I like beautiful things, like chandeliers. But I think, for instance, you can say as much about war by painting the enthusiastic young soldiers marching off as you can by showing the dismembered bodies.”

I ask, “Where is the chance in that?”

LeRoy leans closer. “Have you ever heard of Mad Dog Vachon?” he says. “Andre the Giant? They’re wrestlers. Very big people, and very crude. A person I know called and asked if I would come to Ottawa, Canada, and sketch wrestling. They were doing a telecast, and wanted me at ringside to give it credibility.”

“So I flew to Montreal and we took a limousine—you’ve got to insist on a limo and the best room or else they’ll take advantage of you—and we drove about one hundred miles to the arena. I had a chick with me—a magnificent animal—and they put us right at ringside.

“The man who arranged for me to be there had told me that Mad Dog would point at me and call me names as part of the show. After the wrestlers were introduced, Mad Dog pretended to suddenly notice me sitting there, and he yelled, ‘I want that man removed. I want to see what he’s drawing.’

“I turned to the chick and said, ‘He’s really good.’ Then Mad Dog reached through the ropes and grabbed my leather drawing pad. I take it everywhere, and nobody is allowed to do that. I tried to pull it back. I said, ‘All right, that’s enough. These are my sketches,’ but Mad Dog pulled the pad and me with it right out of my seat, and then he crumpled up all my drawings.”

And you wonder why artists are so moody.

LeRoy says, “I yelled at him then that he had gone too far. He picked me up over his head and began whirling me around and around, the crowd went crazy, and then he finally threw me on the floor. That’s how wrestlers take criticism. I picked up my things and told the woman I was with that they had gone too far. We went back to the dressing room to complain, and after a while Mad Dog came in and said, ‘I didn’t do nothin’.’ Unbelievably crude.

“Then we went back to the limousine and two of the wrestlers followed us out and asked for a ride back to Montreal. One of them sat on the set with us, the other one sat on the jump seat. Huge, bruised men. We got about halfway to Montreal and one of them said, ‘We got to stop and eat.’

“I said I wanted to get back to Montreal. They said no, we had to stop. I refused. They seemed very civilized until we went by the truck stop and one them looked outside and said, ‘You remember the night we cleaned that place out?’…”

LeRoy sits quietly, in the middle of the memory. “I don’t associate with crude people,” he says after a while. “I came from a broken home and poverty, and I don’t want to be around that now. I am a working man’s artist, but I don’t know any working me. I champion their cause, but I don’t have any of them I talk to.”

“Why not?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “I don’t have to,” he says. “I’m an artist, and I can do what I want.”

[Mad Dog Vachon picture by Hieram Weintraub]

Bronx Banter Interview: Rob Fleder

“Damn Yankees” is a winning new collection of essays about the Bronx Bombers. Edited by Rob Fleder, it features an All-Star lineup and is a must not just for Yankee fans or baseball fans but anyone who appreciates good writing. I recently talked to Fleder about the project. Here’s our chat. Enjoy.

Rob Fleder at Yankee Stadium

RF: We’ve been catching up the TV series “Friday Night Lights.” I don’t really watch much TV but it’s great, just so well done. If you summarized the plot line, it would sound like cliché after cliché, but that never occurs to you because it’s great story telling, it’s so well executed. It makes me think of Colum McCann’s piece in the book. We’ve all read some version of that story. If you’re a Sports Illustrated editor you’ve seen it a hundred times—and almost none of them have worked. It’s very rare that someone can pull it off, and he did spectacularly. I think it’s a fantastic piece.

BB: It’s the father-and-son piece, the outsider-coming-to-baseball story.

RF: Right, but you don’t even think about reducing it to those terms because it’s so beautifully done.

BB: I think it’s one of the best pieces in the book. Now, when you approached Colum, did you know that was the piece he was going to write?

RF: Yeah. Even before I got in touch with him, I knew from Dan Barry that Colum had a son and that he’d come to baseball through his son. He has lived here for many years but he’s still an Irishman too. His kids have grown up here. I’d read “Let The Great World Spin” and some other things by him and loved his work. I thought if anybody could do this kind of story, it’s him. What’s cool is that because he didn’t grow up in a baseball culture, I think he was more or less oblivious to the fact that he was doing something that many other people have tried, usually without much success.

BB: There is no guile or irony in his story.

RF: That’s right, and it’s an enduring theme in baseball, fathers and sons—except that he does turn the whole thing on its head, in a way. He’s coming to the game through his son, and that process takes him back to his father and grandfather. It’s great when someone is artistic enough to take material is familiar and seems predictable in some ways and does something truly original with it. That’s the magic—to take something that’s right in front of the readers eyes and to dazzle him by revealing something he never saw. That’s what good writing is about to me.

BB: The other piece in the book that I think took a familiar theme and did a nice job making it work is Will Leitch’s essay, which is really a Babe-in-the-Woods story. It’s funny, and I think he really got the tone right.

RF: Very much so. I hadn’t met Will, but he’s a friend of my friend Dave Hirshey, who’d edited him at Harper Collins. So Dave said, let’s go get a drink with Will Leitch. And when I started this whole project, my son, Nick, a deeply knowledgeable sports kid, said, “Oh, you’ve got to get Will Leitch, he’s really funny and a really good writer.” We sat down at a bar and we connected immediately. He had an idea for the book, and I was like, “Yeah, Huckleberry Finn comes to New York, that’s it.” And he ran with it. Again, a hard one to pull off, but he did a great job with it. His piece is laugh-out-loud funny but it’s also sincere. The irony in it doesn’t create distance, it does just the opposite.

BB: Going back for a minute, how did this book begin?

RF: Roy Blount was in some ways the genesis of the whole book. Dave Hirshey reminded me of this, because I’d forgotten. There is a charity dinner I go to every year where Roy is a featured guest, and he’s always hugely entertaining. So I mentioned to Hirshey that I’d been to this dinner and Roy was telling all these great old Yankee war stories from his days writing sports. I don’t know how the subject came up but Roy had all these great stories. I mentioned this to Hirshey in passing and he called me the next day and said, “Do think there’s a book in this? The best writers you can think of, writing about the Yankees?” At the very least, I thought, it’d be a lot of fun to think about, and that’s how the whole thing started.

BB: Did you know what you wanted each writer to do before you approached them or did they have an idea in mind when you first talked to them? Or did you say, I want Leigh Montville, I want Richard Hoffer, and they’ll figure it out?

RF: Some had specific idea, and some didn’t. I tried to have several possible ideas for each writer I called, things I thought might appeal to them and they might be especially good at, but I always wanted to hear the writers’ ideas first—if they had anything specific—before I suggested possible topics for them. But I did want them to be aware of the range of possibilities, so I would tell them the sorts of things other writers were doing.

BB: You do have such a wide range in the book, not only of writers but of takes on the Yankees. I mean, you’ve got Dan Okrent and Frank Deford who are classic Yankee haters.

RF: Plus, there is a little cluster from Boston, Charlie Pierce and Leigh Montville. Montville, of course, had written a big biography of the Babe as well as one of Ted Williams, and Jane Leavy had written about Mickey Mantle. And these are big books—-not just “big” as in best-sellers, but deeply researched, substantial volumes that cover a lot of ground. So I asked, “What’s the best thing that didn’t make the book?” It took Leigh a while and of course he drew on material that he’d used in the book, but his take was new, and I think what bubbled up for him with passage of time was a new perspective, a fresh insight about Ruth. And Jane just went out and did a whole lot of new reporting. She had a situation with Frank Sullivan, the old Red Sox pitcher, where she mistakenly pronounced him dead in her Mantle book. Sullivan contacted her and wondered when she planned to announce his rebirth—or something like that. It was very funny. She was mortified by her mistake, but he had a great sense of humor about it. So she dug into it and—typical of her—she did more reporting and came up with a terrific piece. So sometimes I went to people who’d already written about subjects involving the Yankees and other times I went to people who were just writers I admired who I knew had some feeling for baseball, though I didn’t know what their feelings were about this team.

BB: Who were some of those guys?

RF: I knew our friend Dexter watched every Yankee game. And as much as I’ve talked to him about the Yankees over the years—even gone to Yankee games with him—it’s never clear what Pete’s going to come up with, how he’s going to land on a subject. That’s true with anything that he’s going to write.

BB: Yeah, like that book review he did last year for the Times on the Jim Harrison novel.

RF: The book report, he called it. Exactly. You’ve read his columns and magazine pieces. That’s part of Dexter’s genius—-you never know where he’s going to be coming from on a particular subject, or where he’s going to land.

BB: Were you amused then when in typical Dexter fashion he chose Chuck Knoblauch, of all people, to write about?

RF: Well, Pete had been very sick a few years ago, very nearly died, as he writes about in the piece. Then it took him a long time to come back and there was a stretch where he felt seriously damaged by his illness, where he couldn’t write. And it was awful. And it was during that period when he landed on the idea of Chuck Knoblauch, a guy who had done something as well as anyone in the world, had done it every day of his life, and then woke up one day and suddenly couldn’t do it at all. Pete had a personal connection to that story, something you couldn’t have predicted. I mean, I knew about Pete’s illness and its aftermath, but I never could have predicted that he would connect it to that Yankees by way of Chuck Knoblauch. And you look at it and it’s a brilliant, funny piece about the awful things that went wrong for him and for Knoblauch. Nobody else could have written that piece.

BB: You’ve known and worked with Pete for a long time. You edited “Paper Trails,” his collection of newspaper columns and magazine pieces. How much editing did you do with him on his piece, and with the other writers too, for that matter? Did Pete give you a final draft and that was it or did you actually work on the piece with him? 

RF: It varied with each writer how much editing it took to get from the first draft to the final. In Pete’s case, it’s hard for him to let go of what he’s writing. He’s a perfectionist. He will rewrite everything until you badger him to give you a peek at it. He sent a draft and it was late in the process of the book’s production—meaning I was feeling the crushing weight of a deadline. The piece was brilliant, it was fall-out-of-your-chair funny but he kept working on it. He was just getting back up to speed for himself. A week or so later he sent a draft that was completely different. He tried to come at the same subject from a totally different direction. It was written like a mock children’s book, and it might have been one direction too many. He sent me about half or two-thirds of it. He’d written the whole thing and then lost the original version on his computer— he was having technical difficulties as he sometimes does. It was like “Paris Trout”

BB: Jesus. That’s when he lost more than 100 manuscript pages somewhere in his computer back in the mid-‘80s and then took a baseball bat to the machine and had to start over from the beginning.

RF: Right. The second version of his Yankee piece was still funny but I liked the earlier way he did it better. So he did a third version, which was recreating the first version, different and better. That was classic Dexter.

BB: You talked about Pete not wanting to let things go and being a perfectionist, does there ever come a point where a writer can cross a line and keep hold of something too long?

RF: I think it happens to writers all the time, and usually they know it and can see that they’ve pushed it too far or changed directions once too often, and will go back to the sweet spot that was working before. For instance, Pete bounced the second version of his piece off me, and by the time I got it and read it—we don’t work electronically with Pete, it still comes the old fashioned way, on paper, by Fed Ex—he’d already gone back to his first version, or what he could remember of it, and finished it that way.

BB: Is he the only writer in the collection who works like that?

RF: In technological terms, Frank [Deford] was like that for a long time—he was the last guy I worked with who used a typewriter—but he moved decisively into the electronic mode a long time ago. But there were other writers who were as meticulous as Pete, who worked on things until the last minute and wanted to see every draft, every galley, every version. It’s a matter of style, I think—some writers work one way, some work another. It doesn’t mean that someone like Frank or Jim Surowiecki or Roy Blount, who file pieces that are virtually finished the first time you lay eyes on them, are any less meticulous or aren’t perfectionists. Their process is different—at least, that’s the way it looks from the vantage point of an editor—but I think they’re all trying to make their words as good as they can possibly be, one way or another.

BB: I’m sure for some writers it’s never going to be good enough, even when the book is published they’ll still look at their piece and want to tinker with it.

RF: Yeah, Bruce McCall is a very meticulous writer who found things he wanted to fix in his piece until the very end. And when the book was about to close we shot this little video, and Dan Okrent left the shoot with a copy of the galleys, which were outdated by that point, and by the time I got home from the video shoot I had a message from Dan saying that there were two mistakes in Bruce’s piece. And Bruce is a careful writer. We were able to correct the things Dan found at the last minute, even though the book was already at the printer. I know there will be other things that we missed—it’s inevitable—but you do the best you can in the time that’s allotted.

BB: That’s agonizing but at some point—

RF: You have to let go. And the writers do the same thing. Some writers sent me drafts that were virtually perfect.

BB: Was Richard Hoffer one of those guys?

RF: Actually Rick and I worked on it because he was worried in his first draft of the piece about making it baseball-y enough. I always think of Hoffer as a great essayist. He’s always been one of my favorite SI writers.

BB: So understated and yet he’s not humorless. There’s a strong sense of wit in his writing. It’s just dry.

RF: Very much so. He’s extremely skillful and has a distinctive voice. And he has truly original thoughts in a world that I think is filthy with group-think. A Hoffer piece is never just the same old thing.

BB: And you don’t think of him as a baseball guy especially.

RF: No, but Hoffer’s one of those guys that I want to read on anything. I had an idea that I thought would make a perfect Hoffer essay, but at first he did much more of a narrative history piece without much of the essay component. He said to me as we were working, “I have two gears: this one and the other one.” I told him that I was envisioning a piece that included more of the other one, so he wrote a draft that was almost pure essay and left out much of the great historical narrative, all these great details. So we took both versions and put them together and I think it worked out beautifully. I love the piece. And I think it’s quintessential Hoffer.

BB: You were at Playboy and Esquire and SI as an editor and have worked with many of the writers featured in this collection. How many of the writers had you not worked with before?

RF: I can count them. I didn’t know J.R. Moehringer or Nathanial Rich or Jim Surowiecki. Pretty much everybody else I was at least acquainted with or had worked with directly. I met Will Leitch in the very early stages of the book. I’d been introduced to Colum McCann at Dan Barry’s book party, but that was the extent of it at that point. I’d admired Mike Paterniti’s work for a long time and tried to get him to write for me at one magazine or another, but can’t say I really knew him.

BB: What about Bill James?

RF: Bill James I’ve known since he was sending out his Abstract on mimeograph. I met him when I was a fact checker or a baby editor at Esquire. Okrent introduced Bill to us at Esquire, and in some sense, Esquire introduced him to a wider audience. It was great. Okrent wrote the first big piece about Bill that I remember and I worked on a little piece Bill wrote for an Esquire baseball package one year, and he was obviously an original thinker and, I thought, a terrific writer. I touched base with him every so often over the years and followed his ascension. I’d write to him from SI and say, “I don’t know if you remember who I am but would you be on a panel to pick the greatest all-time team…” or whatever. And he always remembered our connection from way back and was always generous with his time. So I called him for this book. He works with the Red Sox but is still as clear-headed about baseball as anyone I’ve ever read, and he’s a funny, quirky writer. I had no idea what he’d write about and neither did he, as it turns out. One day, late in the process, I got an e-mail from him in which he said, “I’ve been thinking about Yankee catchers….” And he was off and running.

BB: And it’s really a perfect kind of Bill James piece. It’s smart and irreverent.

RF: Analytical and full of all his digressions and humorous asides and deep baseball knowledge.

BB: That’s one of the things I noticed about the book, you’ve gotten kind of a quintessential piece from so many of the contributors.

RF: That’s the ideal—what you dream about as an editor. You pick writers of this quality and then you hope they get into it and just do what they do.

BB: I also like the variety. There are humorous pieces, memoir pieces—Sally Jenkins’s piece that is so evocative of New York City, historical stories, analytical pieces.

RF: I’m glad it hit you that way. My big picture idea was to have a bunch of voices that I really like to hear on the subject of the Yankees, more or less directly. In some cases I had specific topics in mind, like Jane Leavy on Mantle or Tom Verducci on Jeter. I told every writer who some of the other contributors were, so they knew who else was playing, and I just hoped all the writers would bring their game. As it turned out, they did.

BB: I’m forever grateful for Charlie Pierce’s piece if only because he punctured that horseshit Seinfeld routine, which has somehow become celebrated, that rooting for a sports team is like rooting for laundry.

RF: Charlie is another one you can count on to come up with something unpredictable.

BB: Right, because he starts there and shifts gears in the middle of the piece about growing up and what the Yankees meant growing up in Boston.

RF: He does lay waste that whole Seinfeld bit about laundry. But in a much larger context he also writes about what baseball’s tribal experience means to people who come to this country from somewhere else, and he does it in a way that is immediate and on a human scale. Charlie’s piece has a lot of common ground with Column McCann’s, but they are totally different essays.

BB: Taken as a whole were there any surprises in the collection, a theme, or a player who jumped out as somebody that appeared in more than a few of the pieces?

RF: There are some threads that run through the book, yeah. And I was aware of them when I was figuring out the order of the pieces and was conscious of spacing them out so that they didn’t come together too quickly. Catfish Hunter comes up more often than I would’ve anticipated. And he’s the focus for Mike Paterniti, who wrote just a beautiful piece.

BB: The book ends with Steve Rushin talking about Catfish, too.

RF: And I was aware that. I’d really admired Mike’s classic Thurman Munson piece in Esquire. When I spoke to him, he mentioned that he’d seen Catfish Hunter near the end of his life and had written a quick remembrance of him in the early days of Esquire.com. He sent me the little post he’d done and he went back to that and really dug in. So I knew that Mike and Steve were going to touch on some of the same ground, and Rushin wrote a gem of a piece in which he gets the last word in the book, which is fitting. And Catfish also comes up again in Bill Nack’s amazing story about the Bronx Zoo Era Yankees. There’s a different focus and context in each of the three pieces in which Catfish appears.

BB: Also, what a beautiful guy to come up. A guy with a sense of himself and a sense of humor about the Yankees and how crazy George was even though he was the first big free agent. Yankee fans love him but also probably saw himself as being apart from that too.

RF: And there was another surprise in the book. Steinbrenner comes up, obviously, over and over again. But Jim Surowiecki, the financial writer for the New Yorker, who is another really original thinker, did a revisionist analysis of what Steinbrenner did with the team economically—a totally fresh take on Steinbrenner’s ownership .

BB: I also like that there are a few essays on the modern Yankees. Verducci on Jeter but also Steve Wulf on Robinson Cano, which is important I think—to talk about a Latin star.

RF: As the book was taking shape I knew Tom was going to do Jeter but I thought it’d be good to have a piece on a player who represented the future. I think of Steve as the guy who first wrote about Dominican baseball, about Dominican shortstops. I remembered his piece from the ‘80s, and I thought Cano was the guy for this book. He is a monstrously good player and will be the center of gravity when Mariano and Jeter are gone. Steve took it and ran. He’s been an editor at ESPN for a while now, but he was a great baseball writer at SI for a really long time and knows the game as well as anyone. It was a perfect match of writer and subject.

BB: And it’s an important piece because for so many years the Yankees didn’t have Dominican players, certainly not stars, despite playing a stones throw from Washington Heights.

RF: That’s right. Another surprising piece came from Dan Barry.

BB: Which is great because the Mike Burke, CBS years were covered.

RF: The last thing you think of is the Yankees as underdogs.

BB: Celerino Sanchez.

RF: “Poor Celerino Sanchez,” is a little refrain from Dan’s piece, which is both poignant and very funny. And he had a deeper connection to that team than I expected before I talked to him. Then there’s Roy Blount, who I knew had Yankee stories to tell, but the nature of a Blount piece—the beauty of a Blount piece—is that you have no idea how he’s going to get at his subject and can’t possibly predict where he’s going to go with it.

BB: Then you see writers like Moehringer, McCann and Dexter and you think, I wonder what those guys have to say about them?

RF: J.R. Moehringer had an intimate connection with the team through his grandfather, who was a key figure in his life. “The Tender Bar” is J.R.’s great memoir about growing up with an absent father, and his grandfather is in that book. But what J.R. has done here is an element of the story that wasn’t in his book.

BB: And Moehringer is a Mets fan.

RF: I contacted him and he said that he wanted to write about the Yankees from a Mets fan’s point of view. And I already had Nathaniel Rich doing that. In fact, I had Nathaniel’s story already, and it was terrific, extremely amusing. So I told J.R. that I had that piece but that I really wanted him to write for this book. At that point I suggested a couple of topics, but he had something else he wanted to try. And after a while he sent me what he said was a really rough draft of something that was well on its way to being this piece. He’s another one who goes back to his copy over it over and over again, making it better and then going back to it again. It’s a wonderful piece about how he connected with baseball. It’s amazing.

BB: Plus, watching the games on TV and listening to the Scooter. You needed to get the Scooter in there.

RF: Had to. And he’s another thread. He’s also gets a prominent mention in Rushin’s piece.

BB: Yankee fans will obviously be interested in the book but there are enough of the writers in the book who are Yankee-haters that I suspect you want to draw readers that aren’t Yankee fans, too.

RF: Yeah, I think anybody who is interested in reading good writers is the potential audience for the book. The natural audience is Yankee fans, baseball fans. They are a team that people have strong feelings about: people love them and people really love to hate them.

BB: This is the book you want to read.

RF: That was the hope. The plan, insofar as I had one, was to get the writers I want to read on a subject I want to read about. Beyond that I didn’t really know where it would go. I wanted to be surprised and delighted, and by that measure I think the book is a real success.

“Damn Yankees” is available for pre-order at Amazon. It will be published on April 3rd.

 

[Photographs via N.Y. Daily News, N.Y. Times, ESPN, Corbis, Marisa Kestel, Peter Adams, SI, Illustration by Bruce McCall, photo of Pete Dexter by Stuart Isett]

Cool Breeze

Here’s a bit about golf from Pete Dexter’s 2003 novel, “Train”:

“Disappointment was the only thing about the game that lasted. You could try not to get your hopes up, but you might as well tell the cat not to kill the birds.”

The time is 1953; the place, Los Angeles. A burned-out detective, Packard, watches Train, an 18-year-old protegee on the golf course:

“One thought,” Mr. Packard said. “Focus on one thought.”

Train heard that advice before, of course–all the twenty-six handicappers in the world was somewhere on a golf course right now, giving each other swing thoughts–but himself, he didn’t think one thing at a time, and didn’t know how. To start with, everything he saw had names–the ball, the grass, the club, his shoes–and he looked at those things and knew the names, and the names were thoughts. Just like being cold was a thought, and being hungry, and being worried. And besides the thing he was worried about, the worrying itself was a though. Things came and went away; you couldn’t stop it if you tried. He wondered if it was the same way for people that did the big thinking–Eisenhower and General MacArthur–or if somehow they could turn off the names while they was envisioned in a better world.

“What’s your swing thought?” Mr. Packard said behind him. “What are you telling yourself over the ball?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just get out of the way and let it go.”

That seem to amuse Mr. Packard, and he leaned back on his elbows and shut up to watch. The thing that made it work right wasn’t a thought anyway. It was whatever moved the ideas and thoughts along, the breeze that kept things circulating in and out of your head at a speed where nothing was hurried but nothing stayed so long you had to notice. That was all you wanted in your head to swing a golf club, a light breeze to empty things out.

Didn’t mean you had to be stupid to play the game, but it didn’t hurt.

It’s about golf but it could just was easily be about anything, including baseball.

[Photo Credit: Daniel Seung Lee]

There Was No Question God Had Given Him Uncommon Gifts, And He Went Where They Took Him

There is a wonderful profile of our man Pete Dexter by Ellis E. Conklin in today’s Villiage Voice:

Of his writing regimen, Dexter says: “It’s work. You’re pulling stuff out, like I did with Spooner, that doesn’t want to come out. The only time I really enjoyed the process was writing Spooner. I didn’t want it to end.”

For Dexter, the most essential quality a novelist must possess is the ability to entertain his or her readers. “There’s nothing more important than that.”

It’s a good mystery that most entertains Dexter. In Philly, Dexter became a regular at the Whodunit bookstore, where he first met Tex Cobb. He likes Mike Connelly’s stuff (“He knows what’s he’s doing”), and Scott Turow (“He always aims high. You can see him really trying”), and just about anything by Elmore Leonard.

Among more traditional novelists, Dexter admires Padgett Powell, Thomas McGuane, Tom Wolfe, and Jim Harrison. But it is friend and author Richard Russo (Nobody’s Fool, Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Straight Man, Empire Falls) who is Dexter’s absolute favorite.

“I got a call from The New York Times some time back, asking me what the best novel of the last, I forget, 25 or 50 years was,” Dexter recalls. “And I told him it was Straight Man,” Russo’s poignant 1997 novel about a wisecracking professor trying to navigate his way through a highly dysfunctional English department at a central Pennsylvania university.

Dexter’s respect for Russo is mutual. In an e-mail, Russo writes: “Pete Dexter has always been a writer after my own heart: sly, yet deeply honest, full of twisted wit and spirit. He wears both his prodigious talent and knowledge of the human heart ever so lightly, as if they’re hardly worth mentioning, a mere parlor trick, and not the stuff of which great art is made.”

Dexter has this wonderful ability to get to the heart of something without hitting directly on the head. He creeps up on the outside, or up from beneath, in a way that is surprising. He’s a huge talent but he doesn’t let his talent that get the better of him. His prose is restrained without being forced. And he doesn’t coast. Writing is not easy for him, every sentence, every word, is worked over until it’s right. Steve Lopez, the accomplished columnist, said that Dexter is “the guy who makes you want to give it up, sell shoes, take up heavy drinking, or just shoot yourself.” And that’s true. But he also makes me want to try harder.

“He’s some kind of genius,” Richard Ben Cramer told me recently. “He’s just ferocious.”

Unchained Melody

Pete Dexter’s first book report in 55 years appeared in the New York Times Book Review yesterday. It is about Jim Harrison’s latest novel, “The Great Leader”:

To enlighten and to entertain: what else is there? And while good books — even so-so books — serve both functions, if you ever have to choose one over the other, keep in mind that a book that entertains without enlightening can still be a guilty pleasure, but a book that enlightens without entertaining is algebra.

… I would mention that for me, Harrison set the hook deep and early, in a novella called “Revenge.”

There is a scene in that story of almost incomprehensible savagery — Harrison by the way is as good at writing violence as anybody, and particularly gets the weirdness of the incubation period — and he accomplished this particular violence by interrupting himself and manually moving readers to the fireplace mantel, where they could watch without getting hurt.

It was one of Harrison’s moments of instinctive genius, I think, perhaps the only way to bring off the scene without changing the mesmeric sound coming off the pages to something more ordinary, and I mean it as no disrespect to speculate that these moments are in some way out of Harrison’s hands, and very close to magic.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver