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The Coach Says,
By Katherine Dunn
Jess Sandoval was a dangerous featherweight and a zoot-suit dandy in 1940s Los Angeles.
WWII interrupted his boxing career, landing him on a U.S. Navy destroyer in the
Fifty years later, when I met him, he was still hatchet-faced, a careful dresser, and a
gentleman. He had strict notions of courtesy and the right way to do things. No rap music
in his gym. No cussing.
His voice was a whisper, probably from breathing acid fumes in the chemical factory where
he spent too much of his non-boxing life. But he never strayed far from boxing. After work
everyday for years he trained the Ramblers amateur team for the Jewish Community Center in
Portland, Oregon. His best-known pro fighter, middleweight Mike Colbert, fought twice for
the middleweight crown, and stayed in the Top 10 world rankings for a decade in the '70s.
Jess had a warrior aesthetic. He saw beauty in a clean, bone-crushing punch. He respected
courage. But he was a gentle trainer, fussing over the welfare of his students in a way
that was downright motherly. When a boxer caught a cold, Jess gravely recommended chugging
hot red wine spiked with lemon, followed by swaddling in heavy blankets and a long sleep.
One of his fiercest rules was to stay warm after a workout. He'd hobble after a fighter
headed for the door to make sure the jacket was zipped, a sweater hood up, or a scarf
wrapped snug around the throat.
Jess told stories to fortify his points. His story sessions usually took place after a
workout with Jess perched on a folding chair to ease his ailing legs and the fighter
resting next to him. The gym noise rose and fell and Jess' whisper required sharp
attention, your eyes on his face as he spoke. His "Bundle Up" tale still sticks in my
I can't reproduce his exact words, but the story was about a hot prospect he'd known back
when Jess was a youngster himself. The guy was a bantamweight in Los Angeles in the 1930s.
He was talented and he worked hard. Finally he got his first main event, a tough
10-rounder at the Olympic Auditorium. He won all right, and he was ecstatic. Completely
He took a shower and got dressed and went out with his friends to celebrate. His hair was
wet from the shower, and his body was hot from the fight. But he was a proud guy who
looked good with his tailored shirts draping off his wide shoulders and tucked in at his
slim waist. He didn't wear a coat. It was January in Los Angeles, a chilly night.
His pals took him to a nightclub and things happened. He wasn't a drinker, but a brawl
started and the cops came. The fighter was Mexican, so naturally he was the one who got
arrested. He sat all night and most of a day in a bare jail cell with a window that had
bars but no glass. No blanket, no coat. By the time he got out and went home, he had
He didn't get well. The pneumonia became tuberculosis. He lay on his narrow bed in the
back room of his mother's house. He was a guy who liked fine clothes but he told his
mother, when I die you got to throw all my clothes out the window into the alley, and all
my blankets and sheets. And you got to burn the whole pile so nobody else will use them
and get this disease. But he had a younger brother who envied his clothes, and his mother
was crying so hard that he didn't trust her to do the necessary.
Late one night he felt the time coming. He opened the window to the alley and threw out
all his clothes from the closet. He threw his sheets and blankets out on top of them. Then
he leaned out the window and squirted on lighter fluid, and dropped a match. While that
pile of rags burned, he lay down in his underwear on the cold bare floor and he died.
The next morning young Jess saw the black smoke coming out of that smoldering alley and
knew his friend was dead.
"So when I tell you to bundle up after a work out," Jess would whisper, "there's a reason.
You wear a coat. I don't care if you're just going to your car and then home. I don't care
if it's August. You wear a coat and a hat, because you don't know what can happen between
here and your door, between one moment and the next. And I know you don't want all your
fine clothes on fire in some alley."
Jess died in his sleep, and his fighters cried for days.
Contact Katherine Dunn at
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