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Irish Spud Murphy's Boxing Gym

What you really worry about

William "Pop" Murphy: "I carried him to the rubdown table. In a matter of seconds the paramedics were here."
  • William "Pop" Murphy: "I carried him to the rubdown table. In a matter of seconds the paramedics were here."
  • Image by Paul Stachelek

Professional boxing is the steelworker, the auto manufacturer, the union man of our age. This year, in California, promoters presented roughly a third of the boxing cards fans patronized 30 years ago. There is one place left in downtown San Diego where you can taste a bit of how it was.

"Owning a gym I get more phone calls than any fight manager in the business."

"Owning a gym I get more phone calls than any fight manager in the business."

From Horton Plaza walk east on Broadway. past Thrifty Drug Store, past bums, drunks, dope fiends, gang graffiti, past the Hong Kong Club, past the enduring clutter of unkempt public waiting for the Number 7 bus. just past 11th Street, and then left and up wide stairs to what was the Hard Times Billiards Club, then another left, and up another, narrower staircase to the truncated third floor and Irish Spud Murphy’s Boxing Gym.

"If you hit the bag at a bad angle, it will just tear up your wrist."

"If you hit the bag at a bad angle, it will just tear up your wrist."

We have arrived at the goods.

In here, it could be 1949. One thinks of the movie The Champion, starring then-33-year-old Kirk Douglas. Or it could be 1976 with Rocky Balboa in South Philly. This place smells of a boxing gym, which means sweat and plaster and splintered wood and canvas and sweat.

"Sixty bucks for managers, $25 for seconds, that’s the trainer or corner man."

"Sixty bucks for managers, $25 for seconds, that’s the trainer or corner man."

The gym has two main rooms. On the west side is a 40x20 chamber, home to six body bags and an overlarge wall mirror. Right now a half-dozen fighters — amateurs and pros, aged 16 to 35, chests, legs, arms rippling like thoroughbred horses stretching at morning's first light — shadow box. hurl lefts and rights into seven-foot tall, 250-pound body bags. The room is sodden with grunts and the sound of human gristle slapping leather at full power. The sound is crisp, dark, menacing.

Friday night fight crowd

Friday night fight crowd

Over in the east room a boxing ring has been set on the floor. The ring’s gray canvas tarp is patched here and there with silver duct tape. In the center of the ring, hand-painted on old, cracked tarp, is a very lovely logo: the words “Murphy’s Gym’’ float over two crossed red boxing gloves.

Kickboxer training at Murphy's

Kickboxer training at Murphy's

On the far end of the room is an ancient weight set. Between the two rooms is a high check-in counter: behind it squats a surplus metal desk, a black-and-white TV, and shelves that hold gloves, thick leather belts, many rolls of tape to tape fighters’ hands.

Kids were 5 years old to 16.

Kids were 5 years old to 16.

Throughout the gym. everywhere, hung on stained, plaster walls, scores of posters announce bygone fights.

Irish Spud Murphy

San Diego’s Shamrock Kid Irish Dynamite

Vs. Sammy Ameza

Chicago Power never a dull fight Ten Rounds.

Coliseum 15th and E .Street. San Diego

$5. S4. and $2.50.

"When you hit a heavy bag, you push through, your back muscles."

"When you hit a heavy bag, you push through, your back muscles."

The proprietor, William Murphy, known here as Pop, stands behind and leans against the counter wrapping tape into tight rolls. Murphy is 65, 5’8 1/2” tall. He has thin, graying hair and a pug's bulldog face, but his appearance is dominated by a substantial pot belly, a pot belly made more pronounced by a tight-fitting. white baker’s T-shirt. The effect is comical until you notice the surety of his stance, the mass of his shoulders and arms, the quickness of his hands. This is a man who was an athlete.

Referee confers with judges.

Referee confers with judges.

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon, three hours before the gym opens. Murph rolls tape, looks up. begins:

“I’ve been in boxing 60 years. I was born in San Francisco. My dad came over from Ireland, he was in vaudeville, and my mom was a telephone operator. I have two sisters: one is 74. one is 78.

“I was a state’s child for a while because of the Depression and everything. You got put into a home. My parents didn’t have any money — my mother worked all the time, she couldn't take care of us. so they stuck me w ith a couple. They were associated with the Mission Bears, which was the first pro team in San Francisco baseball. They were equipment managers, and I used to meet all the ballplayers that way.

“Then I went to St. Joseph’s Military Academy in Belmont. I was the youngest person in the academy. I started fighting in school — I started fighting when I was five years old.

“The school had a fella, worked in the kitchen, he was a Filipino. They called him ‘Six-Two.’ He was a fighter, had fought out of the Philippines. We were in the gym all the time. I fought every year I was there.

“I moved up to San Francisco from Belmont with my mom and stepfather when I was 15. My mother remarried, my real dad died. I fought YMCA and I fought for Spider Roach, who was a famous trainer. I was light when I was 15; my weight class was 101 to 108 pounds. By then I’d had 30, 35 fights.

“I turned pro at 16. I fought in National Hall in San Francisco. They didn’t care how old you were in those days — the athletic commission wasn’t as tight as they are today. I can’t remember the first guy I fought — I know I won. I only lost 6 fights out of 275.

“I joined the Navy in early summer 1941. They sent me to Idaho. I was a ditch digger. We dug ditches, dug ovals is what we did; it was off of a town called Athol. And anybody that went over the hill there, they didn’t have to worry about going to get them, because they’d come back.

“After that they took me to Port Hueneme, and I got hooked up with a Line 8 outfit: I was a frogman, went to explosive school. I was in the invasion of Okinawa, and I was in the invasion of Tarawa. I was in the Philippines. I was a piss-and-vinegar kid.

“Since then I’ve been in and out of the service three or four times. I was in the Navy; I got out right after the war, and I went back in the Navy during Korea. 1950, and then I got out and later on went back into the Air Force, stayed with them until I retired in ’67.

“During the times I was out, I was fighting regular. I worked myself up to 150 pounds. I was a middleweight, BoBo Olson’s sparing partner. I stayed with Bobo quite a while, while he had the title.

“I was never rated — see, back in those days it was hard to gel rated for the simple reason there was one title, there wasn’t 40 titles. We didn’t have the WBO, 1BF, the WBA — you got one title. I think I was about 20th on the list at one time. But you couldn't get rated for beans. I was an apprentice for years. Back in the old days they called them apprentices and journeymen. And you worked as an apprentice for a long time before you became a main eventor.

“I’d be a liar to say we didn’t have crooks and everything then. We had people in the game who were unscrupulous just like they do today. We had people who were for the fighter and people that really didn't care, thought you were just a piece of meat. Back in the old days they would walk into a gym if a fight fell out. and they would grab a kid off the gym floor and say, ‘You’re going to fight for us tonight.’

“I had over 40 fights and was undefeated, but there was a hundred kids just like me. So many of the guys in the gym were far more superior fighters than I was.

“My strength was I wouldn't give up. and my weaknesses was I wasn’t a great boxer, more like Gene Fullmer. Marciano, Carmen Basilio. I’d take a beating just to get in there. When I was fighting, that was supposed to be The Thing. That was it — you fought. We didn’t have the classiness. The only people that had class in them days was Robinson.

“We weren't anything like that. I was considered another tank-town fighter. I’d get on all the cards, and I’d fight the preliminary. I wasn’t that good a fighter; the thing with me was, I liked the game. I liked to fight. If they told me. ‘You’ve got a four-rounder tomorrow,’ I’d go fight. I was always there. I was consistent and I was in shape all the time, and that’s something I pride myself on today — I don’t put a fighter in the ring unless he’s in shape.

“The biggest purse I ever made back then was 600 bucks. That wasn’t bad for the late ’40s — it was a new car. In fact, I had a new car. a new Cadillac. That’s not to say I could live off boxing. I worked in the shipyards, I drove a truck, I hauled meat, I used to work in the slaughterhouses — I did anything that I could do that was physical so I could stay in shape.

“That said, fighting wasn’t all that good to me. So in 1952, I decided, ‘Well, I’ll just go back in the service ’

“I wound up overseas, went to England. My adjunct was connected to the Olympic team, and he was a judo artist. He was teaching the Air Force judo team, and he asked me if I wanted to teach the boxing team.

“I trained boxers for seven years. When I retired I moved to Colorado; my wife was bom there. We raised two boys and four girls.

“I had a boxing team and a gym in Colorado. My older boy played football for St. Francis Grammar School, and one time he got smeared. He weighed 95 pounds and he was playing safety. He came over to me on the sidelines and said, ‘Dad. I want to fight.’ I said, ’What do you mean you want to fight?’ He said, ‘I want to get in the ring and fight like you did. At least I know there’s only one other guy there in front of me.’

“So he started fighting. He was nine years old. I started him in the amateurs and his brother too when he turned five.

“And then I got involved with the AAU, and my wife got involved. We had a 200-boy boxing team. We kept it going; we put on fights every Friday night. Kids were 5 years old to 16. It was sanctioned and everything.

“The boys weren’t just kids. I had parole officers and probation officers bringing kids down to me. I found an old candy shop, we cleared it out, set up a gym, and I built the ring, speed bag, racks. I charged everybody monthly dues to pay the rent. We started the Junior Olympics in Colorado. My son Spud won the 112 pounder in 1976 when Hearns and Hagler and all them guys were in it. He fought the district, he fought the regionals, and then he fought the nationals. The nationals were in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

“I remember that fight, but I’ll tell you the one that is more in my mind than any of them, it was the regionals. They were in Phoenix. Arizona, and it was 103 in the shade. Spud was in beautiful shape. We went to the fight and on the way there — I had a Volkswagen van with a sliding door — my wife slammed my son’s hand in the door. It was his right hand to top it all. and I mean, that thing was mangled. I got him in the dressing room and wrapped his hand before the doctor could see it. His hand was just about crushed when I wrapped it. I was going to pull him out. but my son says, ‘No. don’t do it. Dad, I got to fight.’ And he fought the fight and beat the crap out of the kid. They had to cut the gloves off when he got through because his hands swelled up on him.

“I’ll tell you the reason he wanted to do that. I fought for a state title, broke both my hands in the fight, 12-round fight. I fought Art Soto. In the second round I broke my hand. I didn’t get knocked out. I stayed there for the full 12 rounds with busted hands. When I came back to the dressing room, sitting on the stool, I couldn’t move my hands, had to cut the gloves off.

“My last year in Denver was ’76. My son had an invitation to come out here and fight for the Pacific Coast amateur title. We came out to San Diego and won the Pacific Coast 112-pound title.

“We fought out in National City at the fair out there. We got to town on a Greyhound bus, and we stayed at the Navy base. After the fight we went back to Denver and I told the wife, 'We’re going to sell the house ’ I had a nice ranch-style house out in Aurora, Colorado. I says. ‘We’re selling the house. We’re going to California.’ She says, ‘I’ll go to California with you if I don’t have to live in Riverside or any place up around there.’ I says, ‘No. we’re going to San Diego.’

“My family have done things on the spur of the moment. My wife didn’t like Denver; she fell on the ice and mangled her arm. she’s got a big W cut in her arm where they had to operate on her. so she had the fear of ice. Along with that I lost a truck there, drove off a cliff up in the mountains. And we lived in a hick town. Denver, to me, will be a hick town for 3000 years.

“We left Denver with $242. We took a truck, a big U-Haul truck, and loaded it with all our boxing stuff. I had the ring. I had bags, I had everything out of the gym, closed the gym down, got in the truck. I took one of my heavyweights that I had there.This kid was a big Cajun, he drove the truck, and Spud rode with him. and I had my Volkswagen van loaded down, and we got here and we loved it. We slept on the beach, at the information point.

“I didn’t have any work, didn’t have any money, and I got a hold of my sister and begged a couple of hundred bucks. She sent us some money — now mind you, me and my wife, my kids, we're all living on the beach and staying in our truck and van. I found Doyle Milsap, who was running the Coliseum at the time, and I talked to him. and he says, ‘Well, Spud turns pro. I’ll headline him here.’

“After two weeks on the beach, we found a house that we could move into for as little money as we had. Poplar Avenue in East San Diego, two-bedroom.

“When I moved here, both my sons were fighting but not professionally. My oldest one turned professional at the end of the first year, and my younger son turned professional later on.

“Spud, he was a junior featherweight. His first pro fight he fought a kid named Smoky Burns who was trained by the guy who trained Sugar Ray Robinson, and Spud knocked him out in the first round. It was here in the Coliseum.

“Spud was third on the card. He was paid $400 plus he got $180 thrown in the ring. The fans in San Diego used to throw money in the ring if they liked the fight. One fight, the one with Sammy Mason, he made over $1000 with money thrown in the ring. I was the one who went and picked it up.

“After the fight we went out and ate dinner. Mexican restaurant. We eat Mexican all the time, my family. After the restaurant, we went home, and the next day he got up and went back into the gym and started training again.

“We talked about the things he done wrong, the things he done right. What he could have done to improve. See, it took most of the round to knock the kid out. What had happened was the kid called him into the corner, and I yelled for Spud to stay out of the corner because I didn’t know what the kid had. Well, Spud went into the corner and went after him. That was wrong even though he knocked him out by hitting him in the body. In fact, he paralyzed the kid’s legs momentarily, his left leg. Spud could throw hooks that you couldn’t believe; like I said, he knocked out two heavyweights that worked in the gym with him.

“I thought that he could go on and continue, and he could have been champ of the world. We’d fight at the Coliseum, the Olympic auditorium in L.A., in the Silver Slipper in Vegas, Sacramento. We usually flew, but we drove to Vegas when we went there because we had a lot of time.

“My son had 23 professional fights. Ho was doing good — he had some problems with the fighters but none that he couldn’t overcome. He began fighting guys that were a little sharper, a little harder punchers — his opponents were men. He was 123 pounds, and he was having to fight 130 pounders. We couldn't get anybody in his weight class to fight him. We challenged O’Grady, and he wouldn’t fight. We challenged Manny Lujan, that was in the offing, but it never came off because Lujan got knocked out by a kid named Gerald Hayes out of New York.

“When I make a pitch to a promoter, they’re all friends of mine, I don’t have to make a big pitch. I've been in the game long enough so that everybody knows me. And if I said I had a fighter — and it was my son at the time — they’d back me and they’d go for me. The only time they would sort of shun away was if I had a guy that was too good for their guy, particularly if their guy wasn’t an up-and-comer, then they’d stay away from me. There ain’t a promoter around that I don’t know, that I haven’t been friends with.

“My son was working. he fought 16 fights in one year. He was 14 and 2. One loss was to Carlos Orte, and one was to Renee Silva, who was tenth in the world.

“We didn’t have some big plan for his career; we took it one at a time. I mean, in my estimation, we weren’t fighting good enough caliber fighters to put a plan together.

"There is a break point where you can say you’re on the highroad. He had to whip a lot of good guys, had to beat a lot of good people. He hadn’t beaten anybody really good. They were pretty good fighters, don’t get me wrong. I say, if he would have fought O’Grady and beat him, he’d been up there in the contendership. When we beat the guy up in L.A., we did real good, then I felt we were moving right along. That’s when we starting doing after Manny Lujan. Manny Lujan was the California state champ at the time.

"But no big plans. Spud just wanted to fight, he wanted to be world champ, that’s all there was to it. He did not visualize anything ahead. He took one thing at a time. He fought, he did his thing, he ran around, he had a good time, but training when he was supposed to. He was just a good kid.

“At the time I was training, managing both my sons, and I had a kid named Steve Delgato, he was a middleweight, and a kid named Roger Wells. We picked him up in Vegas when we went up there. I had him for one fight, and he got knocked out colder than a cucumber, and we never did see him anymore after that.

“The way we got this gym. my son came down here to lake the trolley to Tijuana, and he saw this building here, saw the For Rent sign. Downstairs was what was for rent. And we came in and talked to the guy who owned the building, and he told me, ‘I tell you what; I have a place upstairs I want you to look at. I'll give it to you for little or nothing if you clean it all up.' So we went upstairs, found junk all the way up to the ceiling, the apartment” — Murph and his wife have a seven-room apartment, down attic cat-walks. the full length of the building from the gym — “was a complete shambles, all filled with crap and everything. And of course we said, 'We’ll take it.’

“We cleaned it all up. opened the gym in ’83. I didn't have no money in my pocket at all; I had about 45 cents when I was talking to the guy. I moved in here without a nickel down. He gave me the first few months free because I cleaned the building up. And of course, I took advantage of it.

“Spud got married. I think he would have been married eight years now. He married a gal that had two little girls. He found her on a visit to Colorado. They came back and were very secretive about how all this stuff happened, but I didn’t ask any questions or anything like that. And then a little while after that. Rocky got married. Of course, now he’s got two little kids, and he’s got another one on the way, and Spud had three girls and one boy.

“My youngest son. Rocky, was 18 when he turned pro. He fought just about two years, didn’t fight a lot of fights because we couldn’t get him fights. He laid off because he fell from a monkey bar, and it dislocated his back, and he couldn’t fight no more. So, he stayed out five years, and last year he got back in the ring and tried to make a comeback. He fought a good fight, lost the fight because his back flipped out on him. So I says, when we got to the dressing room. ‘Well, son. retire.’

“My oldest son. Spud, is who the gym is named after. He died three years ago. He fought at the Coliseum all the time, featherweight. Irish Spud Murphy is who he was down here. Look in the archives in any newspaper. He was a very, very well known fighter, considered one of the toughest fighters they’d ever seen around here. He could fight.

“He fought all the way up until he passed away. Yes. I thought he’d be champion. He laid off for a while, and he came back and fought as a welterweight, and then he laid off again. He was getting ready to come back. One of the nights he was working out. he finished hitting the bags over there, and he went over to the toilet to crap. I’m waiting for him. because I wasn’t living here at the time, so after a while I go to the door and says.'Spud. come on. son. We got to get on home We got to get going.’ He says, ’Dad, I got a headache. I got an awful headache.’ When he said that he slunk over. Right away I sensed there was something wrong. I picked him up off the stool, held him over my shoulder, of course. I had to wipe his rear end. and I took him and laid him on the bench in the dressing room. I looked at him. figured, ‘Get him some place comfortable.’ so I picked him up again, and I carried him to the rubdown table, called the paramedics, called Mom. and she called his wife. In a matter of seconds the paramedics were here. They came upstairs, they checked him over, he was breathing very heavy. We took him to the hospital, the doctor looked at him right away, found the clot.

The doc says, ‘He's brain dead. It’s just a matter of his body finding out that his brain won’t function. We can keep him on the machine, but the minute we turn that thing off he’s through.’ Turned out this thing he had came from birth, and we didn’t even know it. I says, ‘What are you going to do?’ He says, ‘I’m asking you to donate organs.’ So I went and talked to my son’s wife and talked to Mom, and we decided to donate his organs. They took his cornea, and they took his liver, kidneys, heart. They operated on him just like you were being operated on. There was no mutilation.

"The kidneys went to two people on dialysis. His heart went to a guy who had four or five kids. I’ll tell you something, when my son died, for one solid year I was in a daze. We weren’t just father and son, we were buddies. ’Course I haven't gotten over it. I never will.

I’ve trained about 50 to 60 fighters, pro and amateur. in San Diego. Right now. in the pros, Ray Taylor, he’s still with me. in fact, he’s back in the gym now. I’ve got Kinchen. who came to me and hired me to be his trainer. I have a kid coming in from — I don’t know what state he's in right now, but his mother just had a heart attack, and that’s why he isn’t here now. Bruce Becker, he’s a pretty good fighter. I got a kid named Sean Velhour. and he’s a white kid. I have Bill Howard, I got a kid. Rich Phillips, he's a heavyweight.

“My training is a routine: they come in the gym, they start their stretching and everything, ’course, a lot of these fighters today, they do more bullcrapping than stretching. But they do their stretching, and then they do their shadow boxing. You do that in three-minute rounds, one minute rest, and then another round. You do three to four rounds. You have to throw so many jabs and this many hooks. You got to make sure you’re on the money when you’re throwing them, that you’re doing it right. Shadow boxing is a necessary evil. You stand in front of that mirror and you’re looking at yourself all the time, and you can see what you’re doing and whether you’re doing it right or not. What you’re looking for is the mistakes you’re making, like if you’re not hooking right, you’re not tripping your feet right, you’re not pivoting right, you’re not body moving, you’re not head moving.

“My son would do four rounds of shadow boxing, do the heavy bag for eight to ten rounds. The heavy bag is for power. You see. when you hit a heavy bag, you push through, your back muscles — boom, boom — everything comes through your back, you push off your back. You build your wrists and your back muscles. If you hit the bag at a bad angle, it will just tear up your wrist. The thing is you got to learn to punch. If a kid throws a punch right, that’s when the bag should snap still. It shouldn't swing back and forth. Like Kinchen, he swings the bag away from him and punches it, the bag stops right now. That’s the way you’re supposed to do. That’s a good punch.

“When you get through with the heavy bag, you do the double-end — the crazy bag is what it’s called, it’s got a rubber band on the top. and you tie it to the floor, and it swings back and forth, goes pretty fast. You’re trying to get the jab going, the rhythm, hitting a moving target, that’s why they call it a crazy bag. After he does the double-end. he does the speed bag four to eight rounds, and after that if we have ring work for him, he’ll spar four or six rounds.

“Right now my best guy is James Kinchen. I’m working for him. As far as I’m concerned, he still has a little left in him — I’m not saying a lot, he has a little left. He’ll never be the fighter he was when he fought Hagler or Hearns, but he’s a good boxer. I think what happened with him more than anything else is the trainer that he had was so disliked, he couldn’t get fights. He just didn't have the fights he should have had. He should have fought more. I’m gonna try and fight him as much as I can now . At least once a month if I can.

"To get a fight I call the promoter — I don’t call the fighter’s manager because they don't control the money. Promoters control the money. It’s better to do it that way than to talk to some of these matchmakers, because all the matchmakers are small cons, the promoters are the big cons.

"Owning a gym I get more phone calls than any fight manager in the business. See. I have other managers working with their fighters in my gym. Someone will call here for a fight, not necessarily for me, they’ll say, ‘We need a 145 pounder.’ I’ll go over and ask one of the managers. Hey, your 145 pounder, you want to fight him?’

“I got a license, it runs for a year. Every year I have to renew my license. Sixty bucks for managers, $25 for seconds, that’s the trainer or corner man. As a manager I get 33 1/3 of the net. You sign a contract with the fighter for five, four, three, two, one years, depends what you settle for.

“I have a general idea how far a fighter can go. His ability, his knowledge of what he’s doing, his desire. I would say you can teach them 20 percent. Every once in a while I get somebody who is really bad. I discourage them. I have a way of discouraging a person, tell him, ‘You don’t belong in here,’ and stuff like that, and eventually they’ll take a hint and quit. I’ve retired two fighters, just by telling them. ‘You can’t Jo it anymore.’ I’m honest with them. I ;ell ;hem if they can do it and I tell them if they can’t, but I do not discourage them until after I really try them and test them.

“I do not change their styles. If ’hey have a style. I leave it alone, and all I do is enhance it. ‘If you can add this punch to it...it would be a lot better if you can punch from angles.’ I’m not trying to train them my way. I’m trying to train them so they can do things their way. Everybody tells me once you’ve seen one of my fighters, you know it’s my fighter, because I have a style and the style eventually creeps into the fighter, but you’re not doing it on purpose.

“The money in the fight game is heavyweights and a white heavyweight. Unranked. a white heavyweight can make several grand a fight. Look at Tommy Morrison. He’s making big money now, but his first fights were big money because he was white and a heavyweight and that’s it. I could make good money with these other fighters but not as good as I can with a heavyweight who can make six to seven grand a fight just starting out.

“The money is pretty standard. Say, if I had a 145 pounder in Fresno or Sacramento, the money is pretty much going to be the same. Four hundred dollars for four rounds. A hundred dollars a round is considered good money, normal. Then they give you 50 bucks or 75 bucks for transportation. Some managers pay for food, some don’t — the average manager pays for food. The night before the fight you go to the hotel, they give you a few bucks, or you go eat in the hotel restaurant. You stay in good hotels. The next jump up is to six rounds, then eight. I had an eight-rounder that got a thousand bucks. A ten-rounder, depends on who you’re fighting.”

It’s Friday night. Fight night at Murph’s, actually amateur boxing sponsored by U.S. Amateur Boxing, Inc. The first of 13 three-round bouts is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.

Murph has rented 200 folding chairs, which by 6:30 have not yet arrived. Mrs. Mary Murphy, known here as Mom, patrols the length of a cafeteria table placed next to the check-in counter, arranging bags of popcorn and stacking pop cans. I gaze out the window, see a truck laden with hairs parked in the street. Murph calls out, “If we can get some help downstairs I’d appreciate it.” Nine black, Hispanic, white males hop to it, start packing chairs.

The gym fills. I’m struck by the crowd, say 40 percent female, mostly girlfriends, but moms, grandmoms, and little sisters too. It’s minority, mostly black and Hispanic, working or welfare clothes, lots of polyester in purples and oranges. Everyone is spanking clean. Sunday church makeup on the women and job interview sobriety for the men. I have never, ever seen a more well-mannered crowd. Not one curse word, one cigarette, one brown bag; no one stoned, no one rude. You couldn’t get that kind of tally at the opera.

I grab a ringside seat. Since the ring squats on the floor, I am no more than 18 inches from the red corner. The price for such splendid access is the regular dodging of saliva, occasionally blood.

The first bout is Oscar Montelino vs. Edward Noodruff at 93 pounds. The kids are somewhere in that five, six, seven-year-old range, babies really, just somewhat taller than their boxing gloves.

“Box!”

The boys move towards mid-ring, begin flailing away. Blue corner scores first with a lazy, soft right that lands on top of his opponent’s head, must be the patented hammer blow. Ref instantly steps in, gives the victim a standing eight count. Ref looks carefully at each of three judges, sharply jerks his right hand between the fighters, says, “Box!” Blue throws another right; it lands but would not have disturbed an unwrapped Hostess Twinkie. “Stop.” The fight is stopped. Ref approaches each judge one at a time, leans over ring ropes, announces, “RSC” — Referee Stops Contest.

Okay, second bout. Again, two very small kids, I mean small, five years old? There’s a good right, good left, good right from the black kid, good left! The black kid’s got a jab. “Stop!” Referee stops contest. Jesus, that was quick.

Well, this is fine, protect the children, good for the refs, good for the judges, but fellas. I mean, it’s charming, but some of us are here for some ACTION. Is this going to be the evening, tykes appear in angle-length purple trunks, throw pillow punches, first score ends the contest?

Okay, third fight. These are adults, 135 pounds, both men in their early 20s. Red corner advances, throws good, good body shots, really powerful. All right! There’s a solid hit to the chin. Jesus, Red corner is going to break Blue's head off, the guy is strong and he’s fast. Boom, Boom, Boom, three rights to the ribs. Good flurries, now Blue connects with a precise upper cut.

Bell rings, fighters withdraw, sit on wooden stools. The corner man tells Blue, “Remember everything off the jab. He comes on like a bull. You’d better watch him. Don’t you let me down.” Blue comes out fast in the second round, pushes a lucky right, lands it on Red’s nose, staggers him. Red’s eyes water. Blue goes to work on the body. Good power. Both fighters are breathing through their mouths.

Now the third round, the fight’s close, up for whoever wants it. Just a hell of a fight, both fighters are whaling away. Whoops, Blue is knocked down by a vicious right cross, blood squirts from flaring nose. Red used an overhand right, his most effective punch. Blue takes the eight count, ref watches him closely and holds his gloves. Blue steps back. “Box.” There’s a good left by Blue. Red gets off a nice right, nice right again. Blue is staggered.

“Jab, jab, move it around.’’

“Get him, Richie!”

Bell rings, fighters embrace, I cheer, stomp feet along with everyone else.

There’s an intermission after the seventh fight. I wander over to an older judge — mid-60s, white guy. Bob Campbell. I ask, “How long have you been doing this?”

“About three and a half years.”

“Have you ever seen a terrific fight in the amateurs, like something you'd see on television?”

“First of all, we call them bouts. Safety is number one. Guy takes a blow, couple blows to the head in a pro bout, you wouldn’t think twice.

Here we give the guy a standing eight count. If I knock a boxer down, that’s only one punch for me, doesn’t count any more than that. It takes three punches for me to get a point up on my opponent. For every three effective punches that I score over and above what he scores, I get one point. If I score six effective punches more than he does. I’m two up. He might knock me down, I still might end up ahead.”

U.S. Amateur Boxing requires five officials at every match plus a medical doctor. I’ve been watching the ring doctor all night. A young white kid, not 30, is obviously attending his first fight. During the opening bout he was sitting at ringside, nonchalant, like in the back pew of a suburban church waiting for the sermon to end and picnic to begin. Midway through the second fight he’d moved up on his seat. By the third bout, when the big boys came on, he’s sitting ramrod straight.

At evening’s end I follow him to the dressing room and watch as he examines fighters. I ask, “How did you like it?”

Tight, graduate-school, white voice: “I love amateur boxing. From a medical standpoint, I think it’s well protected, well governed.”

“Did you get any scares tonight?”

“It was the first time involved for me. That guy in the eighth or ninth fight, I looked at the cut on the lip. The big thing with that was he had a big hematoma and couldn’t keep his mouthpiece in. I was worried. I told him to get another mouthpiece. See, the lip gets sandwiched between it and the glove. The big thing you think about, what you really worry about with boxers are head jerks, spinal shocking, and loss of consciousness — that doesn’t happen as much with the head gear and with the way they govern the fights here, you just don’t see that. Blood from the nose, as long as it’s anterior, is all right. If it goes posterior, that’s a real big problem."

Three days later I'm back in the gym. I wanted to meet Murph’s best fighter. James “The Heat” Kinchcn. I’ve seen him working out in the gym before, a beautiful man. 168 pounds, five foot ten, not a cut of fat on his supple ebony body. He works out with head-tuming grace, bestowed by the luck of genes and two decades of monotonous training.

Kinchen is a 12-year pro, 49-8-2 with 34 KOs. He has fought the best, also lost to the best. He has been beaten by Thomas Hearns in a 12-round decision, by Virgil Hill, and by Iran Barkley. He was the number-one contender for two and a half years, had a few more years where he was one winning fight away from a shot at the belt. This guy came awful close.

Murph and I stand alongside the counter and watch as Kinchen shadowboxes in the west room. I ask Murph what he likes about him.

“He’s very tough, very tough. He knows what he’s out for when he gets in that ring and spares no mercy on the guy. He’s business. I like the way he fights, I like the style he fights.”

Exquisite seven-year-old. bleach-blonde girl holding a rag doll. Murph's granddaughter Kelly, waddles in from the back door.

Murph smiles, says. ‘Tell Grandma we got to get those water bottles up here. I got to get them filled and on the shelf. Okay?”

Shy, sweet kid’s voice: “Okay.” Adorable creature turns, ambles out the door towards the apartment.

I ask Murph. “What are you looking for while Kinchen’s working out?"

“Making sure he flows, keeps his hands up, different things that he ordinarily does, but a lot of times he makes little mistakes. You can do it once, that's fine, but if it’s repetitious you know damn well he shouldn’t be doing it and you correct it.

“The old saying is, a man in shape can beat any good fighter that’s out of shape. If you’re in good shape, your timing, your body, your conditioning, movement, rhythm — you have to have it all — you just can’t go in there and be a muscle man and try and muscle your way through it. It can’t be done.

“About the sixth round in any fight, you start to get to the point where you’re numb. When I say numb it’s not being out of it, you’re doing the same things, you know he’s there, and you know you got to fight, but you begin to think, ‘Why work any harder?’ That’s why you train.

“Kinchen trains seven days a week. Every now and then we take a day off. There’s no reason in the world why he couldn’t have a chance to move back up there, because Bobby Czyz did it. Bobby Czyz and him are about the same age."

The timing bell, hung on the wall, rings, signals one minute of rest. Kinchen stops, puts his hand.N down, walks a small circle. I move towards him. ask. “It’s been seven or eight months since your last fight. What do you do for money?’

He has a clear, measured, thoughtful voice. “I’m an abatement worker. You go in and move asbestos.”

“Like from high schools and public buildings, that sort of thing?’

“Yes. anywhere, there’s so many types of asbestos.”

“Is that a union job?”

“Yes."

“Is this the first time you’ve worked out of the Laborer’s hall?”

“Yes.”

“I assume your boss knows you're a fighter?’

“Yes.”

“Do they cut you a little slack if you’ve got a fight?’

“Oh yes. definitely. He told me that even before I started working. Whenever I have a fight, I can take off — of course, that’s not paid, but there’s no problem. That’s what’s so good about it, I can take off when I have to do this other job that I have, which is boxing. I really appreciate it.”

“Are you 30?’

“No, I’m 33. I really don't know how 30 is supposed to feel. People say boxing is a young man’s game, but age is but a number. I haven’t been abused in the game. I haven’t been abused in the ring or out of the ring, so my body is still functioning right, my speech is not slurred, and I'm not talking crazy, so I still have this here” — points to head — “as well as the body and the legs. So. how old is too old? I believe Jersey Joe Walcott was 42 when he won the title.”


It's a big. bad world, and if you don’t think that’s true, you better never get out in it. And if you’ve never been a world champ and you’re 33 years old and have only fought twice in the last year — winning one and losing one against opponents nobody’s heard of — you better find something else to do. A happy ending is the original sucker's bet. That’s why they call it fiction, and that’s why people pay money to go see a movie.

But, that said, I frankly admit I'm an intrinsic sucker. I’d love to see Kinchen and Murph, two over-the-hill palookas from a ragtag downtown attic gym, come back and hit the big money.

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