In the Ring

My jewel center of interest when I think of sports as is, or as we say in the academic circles, per se, which means “as is” in Latin, is that sight I had one time of a young teen-age boxer hurrying down the street with a small blue bag in which all his fundamental things were packed: jockstrap I guess (I know), trunks, liniment, toothbrush, money, vitamin pills mayhap, T-shirts, sweat shirt, mouthpiece for all I know, under the grimly drab lamps of New England on a winter night on his way to, say, Lewiston Maine for a semifinal lightweight bout for 10 bucks a throw for all I know, or for (O worse!) Worcester Massachusetts or Portland Maine, or Laconia N. H., to the Greyhound or Trailways bus a-hurrying and where his father is I’ll never have known, or his mother in what gray tenement, or his sister or brothers in what war and lounge — With a nose not yet broken, and luminous eyes, and meaningful glance at the sidewalk ‘pon which he pounds to his destination the likes of which, whatever it ever became, shall never be visited on any angel that was fallen from heaven — I mean it, what’s the sense of knocking your brains out for a few bucks? — I saw this guy outside the little training gym my father ran in Centerville, Lowell Mass., about 1930, when he first introduced me to sports by taking me in there to watch the boys hammer away at punching bags and big sandbags, and if you ever see an amateur heavyweight whacking away fullfisted at a sandbag and making the whole gym creak, you’ll learn never to start a fight with any big boy you ever do meet in any bar from Portland Maine to Portland Oregon - And the young pug’s name on the street was probably Bobby Sweet.

I was 8 at the time and soon after that my big fat cigarsmoking Pa (a printer by trade) had turned the place into a wrestling club, organization, gymnasium, and promotion, call it what you will, but the same guys who were boxers the year before were now wrestlers; especially old Roland Bouthelier, who was my father’s unofficial chauffeur ‘cause my father couldn’t drive his 1929 Ford himself his legs being too short, or him having to try to talk too much while driving, and Roland being also a young friend of the family’s (about 22) and a worker in his printing plant to boot — Now Roland was a wrestler and my sister Nin (10) and I always beseeched him to show us his muscles when he came in the house for occasional supper and certainly for holiday suppers and he always obliged and Nin hung from one biceps and I hung from the other, whee . . . What a build! Like Mister America. One time he swallowed his tongue and almost choked at Salisbury Beach. He had a touch of epilepsy. During his youth there, my father was his friend and employer and protector. No capitalism involved, as tho a two-bit wrestling promoter and a one-bit printer could be a capitalist in a city of 100,000 people and him as honest as the day pretended to be long.

So I remember the time in about 1931 when I heard Roland being given sincere instructions in a dressing room smelling of big men sweat and liniment and all the damp smells that come from the showers and the open windows, “Go out there etc.,” and out comes me and my Pa and we sit right at ringside, he lights up his usual 7-20-4 or Dexter cigar, the first match is on, his own promoted match, it’s Roland Bouthelier against wild Mad Turk McGoo of the Lower Highlands and they come out and face each other; they lean over and clap big arms and hands over each other’s necks and start mauling around and pretty soon one of them makes a big move and knocks the other guy down on the soft hollowly bouncing canvas, “Ugh, OO,” he’s got a headlock around Roland’s head with his bigdisgusting legs full of hair, I can see Roland’s face (my hero) turn red, he struggles there, but the guy squeezes harder and harder. This was before wrestling matches had begun to be fixed? you say? Well Roland had just got his instructions to lose the match in the first minute and then in the next minute if possible, to make time for the semifinal and the main match. But I saw his face turn red with French-Canadian rage and he suddenly threw his legs out and shot himself out of the leg hold and landed on his behind and leaped up in one acrobatic move on his feet, turned, and took the Turk by the shoulders and shoved him against the ropes, and when the Turk bounced back he had him direct in the stomach with a Gus Sonnenberg head charge and knocked the guy so hard back against the ropes the ropes gave and the guy tilted over and landed at some used cigars under the apron of the ring, where he lay gazing up with bleary nonunderstanding eyes. So naturally the referee gives the count, slow as he can, but that guy is slow coming back in; as soon as he crawls thru the ropes Roland’s got him by the neck and throws him over his shoulder, the poor guy lands slam on his back, Roland’s on top of him and pins his two shoulders down, but the guy wriggles out and Roland falls on his behind, clips him with his two sneakered feet, knocks him over on his stomach, jumps on his back, gives him the Full Nelson (which means both arms under the other guy’s armpits and twined around to join at the neck), makes him hurt and weep and cry and curse and wince awhile, then, with one imperious angry shove, knocks him over again to his back (one big biceped arm) and pins his two shoulders down and he’s gone and thrown the match, so to speak, which he was supposed to lose, out of angry real wrestling fury.

I’m even in the showers afterward listening to my Pa and the men give Roland hell for making them lose all that money, Roland says simply, “OK but he spit in my face in the leg lock when he had me down there, I wont take that from nobody.”

A week later Roland is driving me and Pa, my ma and my sister to Montreal Canada for a big Fourth of July weekend where Roland is going to be introduced to the most beautiful little French dolls in town, my elder cousin girls. He turns and looks at me in the back seat as we’re passing Lake Champlain, yells in French, “Are you still there, Ti Pousse?” (Lil Thumb?)

About this time too my Pa takes me and my ma to see every big wrestling match which happened at the time (dont ask my why, except Lowell must have been a big wrestling town) between the two world champs, Gus Sonnenberg of Topsfield (or thereabouts Massachusetts, originally from Germany) and the great Henri DeGlane, world’s champion from France — In those days wrestling was still for keeps, dont you see—In the first fall Gus Sonnenberg rushes off the ropes with a bounce and does his famous headinto-belly rush that knocks DeGlane right over the ropes upside down bouncing and into my mother’s lap . . . He is abashed, says, “I’m sorry, Madame,” she says, “I dont mind as long as it’s a good French man.” Then on the next play he pins Sonnenberg down with his famous leg stranglehold and wins the first fall. Later on, in the incredible cigarsmoke which always made me wonder how those guys could even breathe let alone wrestle (in the Crescent Rink in Lowell) somebody applies a wrenching awful hellish leg-spreading hold that makes some people rush home in fear and somebody wins, I forget who.

It was only shortly after that that wrestling matches began to be fixed.

Meanwhile in this Crescent there were boxing matches and what I liked, besides the action, and since I didnt gamble, being 10 and not caring about money bets then as even now, I saw some marvelous aesthetical nuances connected with indoor fight sports: heard: smelled the cigarsmoke, the hollow cries, the poem of it all . . . (which I wont go into just now).

Because now there’s no time for poetry anyway. The only way to organize what you’re going to say about anything is to organize it on a grand and emotional scale based on the way you’ve felt about life all along. Only recently, now at age 45, I saw I swear the selfsame young pug with the sad blue bag a-hurrying to the bus station in Massachusetts to make his way to Maine for another dreary prelim bout, with no hope now but maybe 50 bucks, and maybe a broken nose, but why should a young man do things like that and wind up in the bottom pages of smalltown newspapers where they always have the UPI or AP reports of fights: “Manila, Philippines, Jose Ortega, 123, of San Juan Puerto Rico, outpointed Sam Vreska, 121, Kearney, Nebraska, in ten rounds. . . . Hungry Kelly, 168, Omaha, Nebraska, kayoed Ross Raymond, 169, Ottawa, Canada, in round 2.” You read those things and you wonder what makes them so eagerly helpless in the corner when their seconds are sponging their reddened nose. Well never expect me to go into the ring! I’m too yellow! Could it say in the lexicon of publishing stories that Grass Williams outpointed or kayoed Gray Glass in the fifth? in Beelzabur Town? I say, God bless young fighters, and now I’ll take a rest and wait for my trainer’s bottle, and my trainer’s name is Johnny Walker.