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By Enrique Gonzalez-Pola

He was an ordinary, wiry kid with no self-confidence, who had never tasted life outside of sheltered private schools. The sign outside the gym glued his feet to the pavement. “Meet Tomorrow’s Champions Today.”

In his right hand he carried a bag with “St. Brendan” emblazoned on it. Inside were hand wraps, a mouthpiece and boxing shoes. Would they be able to match him up with another opponent tonight? His first amateur fight . . .

Mick walked through the main entrance of Elizabeth Virrick Gym. He was early and no one was even charging admission yet. In the middle of the vast building stood an elevated ring surrounded by metal chairs. In an hour or so, the lights above would bear down on two combatants. Had he been standing in the same exact spot many years before, the shadows of champions would have reached out from the quadrilateral and traveled far beyond him. Aaron Pryor trained as a pro at Virrick, and he fought there as an amateur. Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns fought as amateurs. Robert Daniels had his first amateur fights there.

He had wanted to be part of a spectacle like this all his life. His was not the typical story of a wild weed grown in a volatile landscape. He was well educated and had been raised by doting parents. They labored honestly, showered him with love, set a magnificent example, and provided him with all the tools to make a good, easy living. Such were not the ingredients that went into the making of a fighter. Somehow, Mick had a lot of fight in him.

To him fighters were beings of mythical proportions. They had a certain disdain for societal norms and were well acquainted with worldly pursuits. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers were respectable, but fighters defied mortality. In risking their lives, they lived forever. Boxing was violent, tragic, maybe pointless, but it could be uplifting. The danger and nobility of it appealed to him. Entering this type of situation defined the essence of a man. Making love was primitive too, but the poets seemed to glamorize that!

Mick went over to the place were the actual training occurred. It was in a claustrophobic room almost hidden from sight on one end of the building and contained a ridiculously tiny ring, two heavy bags, and a couple of speed bags. Immediately upon entering he was greeted with the heavy smell of a cigar which wafted through and permeated every corner of the gym. The cigar aroma came compliments of Maceo, an old Cuban trainer who seemed to take great pride in being rude and gruff.

Maceo wasn’t interested in exerting effort and training anybody, but he would gladly tell you about his glory days in the world of boxing and how he helped train Benny Kid Paret. Paret had been killed in a fight with Emile Griffith. That seemed to have a lasting effect on Maceo. Mick once saw him hold a screwdriver up to a speed bag and compare it to a fighter’s skull. “Look, if you poke this thing enough times, you’ll eventually make a hole in it. It’s the same thing with punches and your head.” Mick wondered why he even bothered to be around the sport if he was so disgusted by it.

Maceo was a hard one to figure out. For months Mick had “trained” under him. Actually, what he did was to jump rope and hit the heavy bag (incorrectly). Whenever anyone practiced on the speed bag, Maceo would scream: “That’s enough damn it! It’s too noisy.” He had enough trouble trying to hear the radio he often pressed to his ear. Mick tried to learn from watching other fighters. On a few occasions he sparred, basically fighting the way you would in a street fight, except that he had a natural jab he could snap in two’s and three’s. Fortunately he at least had that one element of boxing. He was too thin to be a brawler. Maceo had never taken the time to school him. To Mick a hook and an uppercut were Chinese.

Fighters were starting to arrive. They were easy to spot, silent, serious guys who would instantly size up anyone in the same weight class. You always wondered who your opponent would be. Maybe Mick had found his.

He had brown curly hair and rugged features, and he looked much bigger than a junior middleweight. He claimed this was his first fight, yet his face was already battered. There was more. He was a southpaw. Maceo and the other fighter’s trainers bickered back and forth; he wanted no part of this. But Mick insisted. He had already been here a few Wednesday nights and had not gotten matched up yet. He was eager to lace on the gloves. The only thing that should really concern a boxer was that his opponent weigh the same as he. A fighter’s job was to fight! Inexperience made Mick confuse cowardice with stupidity. Eventually he got word that tonight he would be stepping into the ring with the curly haired bruiser in their respective “first” fight.

There was no turning back now. The fight was on. He sat in a chair in the middle of the hustle and bustle. Trainers, fighters, and fans were all over the place. Occasionally a fighter would step on the scale. Mick turned to look at one in particular, when he noticed a strangely familiar man sitting next to him. His was an old, weathered face, but it had an indefinable spark. “Your first fight?” he asked in Spanish. “Si.” The old man began to offer advice. Somewhere along the way Mick made the connection between a boxing legend and this old man who quietly dispensed knowledge. He listened more intently than he had ever listened in his life. After a while he finally got up the courage and said, “You’re Kid Gavilan.” An indomitable, timeless charisma flowed from the smile of a champion. Craving a piece of immortality, the newcomer shook his hand.

“Do you have boxing trunks?” Maceo’s rasping voice resonated through the gym. “No.” He threw Mick some old, satin, light blue trunks. Not even Everlast, they said B & G on the waistline. He took another look at the Kid, got up, and began walking towards the locker room.

It was damp, dark, almost like a dungeon. He was sure that the gladiators of Rome prepared themselves for battle in just such a place. There were rotted wooden stairs that led to a second floor with mysterious, dusty boxes and aged boxing paraphernalia. An ancient bench rested close to the shower with its discolored and torn tile. It was hard to imagine that water rather than dirt came out of the broken shower heads.

Like the events about to unfold, everything was reduced to a brutal simplicity. The one notable exception was a folded placard from days gone by that stood off to a corner. Somehow the sparse lighting seemed to rest on it. It read “Two Champions Tonight – Richie Compton and Sammy Lee Macias.” Who were these ghosts? Had they become great fighters? How long ago did they fight? Mick was afraid to ask. Why limit them? Let them shine forever; maybe some of their stardust would rub off on him.

He began to dress. A man came in and pointed at him. “This is the guy you’re going to fight.” “Yeah, ok, whatever!” Mick sensed a false bravado from the fighter across the room. Maybe he was human too. It was a comforting thought. He walked out into the crowd.

The first two fights would be among kids who were ten or eleven years of age. Then there were another couple of fights in the lower weight divisions. Mick distinctly remembered someone saying that he would probably be the main event. There was no one heavier than 156 pounds or apparently of any real talent. The main event. The pimply faced straight A student from Saint Brendan Catholic High School: He disappeared into the second row, fifth seat of Mrs. De la Cova’s Geometry class. The main event!

“Start getting ready you’re next.” Maceo’s voice was flat. Mick wasn’t going to let this moment get by so easily. He walked over toward the bathroom on the far side of the ring which he had already visited at least a dozen times. He was going to make as much of an entrance as possible.

“Ok.” Maceo didn’t say much more than that. Mick threw as many left right combinations as fast as he could. Just as he was about to begin his ascent into the ring, a doctor appeared and began to take his pulse. “That’s it,” he thought. “Now they won’t even let me go in.” His heart was beating a million times a minute. To his surprise, the next thing that happened was that he was climbing the steps. Someone pulled on the ropes. He stepped on the canvas. He could feel the wooden planks give beneath his feet. The eyes of the crowd were upon him, every inch of the ring bathed in light. This was the moment he had dreamed of all his life. Sheer adrenalin raced through every vein, washing out fear.

The southpaw seemed businesslike. Not once did he look across the ring. The introductions were made, but for some reason the only thing that Mick heard was a bell.

He was swallowed by a hurricane of punches. Punch, after punch, after punch, on his head and in his face. Rage replaced any remnant of fear. He made no attempt to evade the punches but fired left, right, left, right. More punches to his head, more, more. The southpaw connected with wild haymakers. The blows threw Mick’s head back and to the sides. With a fighter standing up so straight it wasn’t difficult to do. But he kept coming forward throwing straight one-twos. Left, right, left, right. Somehow the southpaw mysteriously ended up in a corner. Mick threw a right hand, and to his complete shock, watched the opponent stumble back against the ropes. The bell sounded.

Mick sat on the stool: “I’m tired but he’s tired too!” His corner took out the mouthpiece and gave him water. “He’s a lefthander, throw a lot of right hands.” Mick felt a hot wave wash over his chest. He looked down and saw blood gushing all the way down to his trunks. Shit, it looked worse than it really was, he thought.

The bell sounded for round two. The first thing that became apparent was that the last punch had really pissed off the southpaw. He threw more and harder punches. The sting of the first round’s blows now became dazing sledgehammers.

He felt it now for the first time. Pain. It grew by the second. It convinced him that if he didn’t move he would be knocked out. Mick went to the right and to the left, and he actually paid attention to the punches being thrown at him. Still they connected.

The referee jumped between them. He looked into Mick eyes. Mick didn’t see him count. The fight resumed. He kept getting hit from every angle. A sense of futility began to take hold of him. Enough! He was going to stop this guy now. He threw straight right hands that were so desperate he lost his balance after almost every one. Memory did not record what happened after that.

The referee jumped in between them again. He led Mick over to his corner. The doctor looked at him more closely. He let him go back out. If he could just whack him one more time! Just one good shot could turn this around. If only he had more strength!

He felt sleepy. Was he fighting with the referee now? He was pushing Mick back. Then he waved his right arm. “That’s it! You’ve had enough son”. Mick knew he wouldn’t be able to convince the referee to let him go on. Thank God for that, because he would never have quit on his own, even though he had nothing left.

He put both arms on the ring ropes and gradually became aware of the crowd which had mysteriously vanished for the duration of the fight. There were two young women almost fearfully huddled together. They were staring straight at him with expressions of utter horror on their faces. He purposely stood there a while, soaking up their looks, as the blood fell over his body. Even if he was a beaten fighter, he was a fighter.

Going down the steps was an arduous task. Mick had to think his way down; lift one foot, put it down, lift the other . . . . . Normally he would be able to scurry up and down those steps with effortless ease. Were some people congratulating him as he walked back? Hey, he was in the locker room!

The dungeon was a welcome sight. No longer was it a staging ground from which insecure warriors emerged to face an unknown fate. Now the same dark, unpretentious simplicity sheltered them from the world. Boxing. It was life and death.

There was the southpaw. He seemed to be in a hurry to get dressed. Maybe it was just too awkward to start up a conversation with someone you’ve been trying to kill. Mick was the first to break the silence. “You’re a great fighter.” He was sure that his opponent had no respect for him. He was wrong; “I was going to say, you have a hell of a punch.” Mick was too stunned to hear his other accolades.

Was it just his mind building him into a formidable opponent, or had someone actually said that the southpaw was from Colorado and went by the name of Colorado Red? One day Mick would have to think of a name for himself!

He decided to take a shower when he noticed the trophy on the bench right next to his bag. Who did that belong to? Mick looked around the locker room. He began to recall someone handing it to him. Damn, it was his! He quickly wrapped his hand around it and hid it in the bag. (At Virrick Gym, every fighter got a trophy, win or lose.) Forget the shower! Mick had to rush home and show his father. He tossed the stained trunks in the bag and threw his clothes on.

By the time he reached Bird Road and 67th Ave, Mick’s mind had cleared. Looking up in the car’s mirror he could see his right eye swelling by the moment. No one at the gym had any ice. Who would ever think of bringing ice to a fight?

Before he knew it he was rounding the corner and pulling up to that old familiar house. Its inhabitants had painstakingly arranged every brick just so, creating a rock of stability through their years of incessant effort and toil. Mick knew they would be waiting up for him, pretending to watch TV, while his mom harangued his father about “little Micky”.

He took out the trophy, put the key in the door and opened it. There they were, sitting on the sofa “watching” television. They both looked up on cue. He caught the gleam in his father’s eye as he looked at the trophy his son held in his hand. The magic of the moment was shattered with a horrific wail and the pouncing of a woman who appeared to be catapulted from the sofa. “What happened to you?” She was holding his face and looking at his swollen eye with demonic aggression. Mick saw his father drop his chin and put his hand to his head. Oh yeah, this was really going to be a battle!

Mick described the night as his father listened intently to every detail over the rantings of a hysterical mother. He had to let it all out, he had lived a lifetime in the last few hours and was afraid that maternal influence would doom his story to just this one chapter. No matter, he knew he would be back some day, some way.

Laying in bed he could hear the agitated machine gun fire of his mother’s voice interspersed by another deeper voice that seemed to repeat the same sequence of words. “Si, Haydee. He’s not going to die, relax. O.K.. Si, alright.” After a long while they fell asleep. Mick lay down in bed staring at

the ceiling. His eye was really starting to bother him. He got up and went to the bathroom. It was much worse than when he had first gotten home. If he didn’t put some ice on it quickly, it would be monstrous by the morning.

Trying not to wake his parents, he walked to the kitchen, took out some ice from the refrigerator and wrapped it in a towel. He was about to apply the ice when his mind began to wonder; he could hear Kid Gavilan’s voice; he saw the glare of the lights, the punch that almost sent the southpaw flying. People were patting him on the back as if he had done something extraordinary.

Mick threw the ice in the garbage. He walked back into the bedroom and lay down. With any luck, the bruise might show for a good week. He pulled the cover over himself and slept like a king.

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