THE FIGHT GAME
By Mike Sack
He could not bear the thought of training, not only because of the effort he could never summon
from himself now, but also because the idea of fighting was disorienting in its repugnance. He
felt that everyone at the Lido Gym was insane.
-Leonard Gardner, Fat City
I never punched anyone flush in the face, knuckles to nose, and joining a boxing club wasn't really about breaking that streak, I don't think. I'd been touched up a couple of times, never had a fist truly connect with my jaw, but boxing wasn't a masochistic endeavor, either, I don't think. The more I thought about it, the less I knew why I liked watching fighters and why I wanted to fight. I spoke to a friend about it, talked about having been fascinated with Tyson when I was younger, said I wanted to write about why I wanted to write about fighting. He looked at me like I told him I wanted to eat his face. "Very meta," he said. "That's dumb. You like boxing because it's exciting to see two people hit each other in the face." Famed boxing analyst and announcer Max Kellerman said something similar in an interview once. It was in the boxing issue of a great but now defunct Chicago magazine called Stop Smiling.
Stop Smiling: How do you think boxing can reach the next level in terms of sports hierarchy and viewership?
Max Kellerman: Boxing is intrinsically the most compelling sport, period. You can do a thought experiment that
proves this very simply. If you come to an intersection, and there are four corners, and on one corner there's
a basketball game being played, on another corner a stickball game, on another corner there's a football
game, and on the fourth corner there's a fist fight, where's the crowd?
Case dismissed. I conceded to my friend's analysis at the time, thinking my mealy mouthed explanations of being fascinated by Mike Tyson were sentimental turned intellectual hairballs. I stopped thinking about it. I just went to the gym, again and again. I liked it the way I liked playing most sports when I was a kid, abandoning my body to the functions of the game. This was in the summer of 2017. I had told more people than I should have that I wanted to fight in the next Golden Gloves tournament. In the fall, when I began to call exercising "training", my work hours increased, I stopped training, and started slowly accumulating twenty-five pounds. I still watched plenty of fights on the computer at home. New fights, old fights, famous fights, hardly known fights. And the more I watched, the more it set in that my friend wasn't all the way right, and neither was Kellerman.
You can do another thought experiment. If you walk a little farther down the road, you'll come to another four corner intersection. It is a much stranger, more media inspired 21st century USA intersection. On one corner there is a boxing match, with gloves, uniforms, a referee, a ring, and all the trimmings. On the second corner there is a cage surrounding a padded octagon; it's an MMA fight. The gloves look more like mittens and the two competitors really look like they want to hurt each other. While the first two corners involve competition between two males, the third corner hosts a female bare knuckle bout. On the fourth corner, two rival gangs are about to go at each other a la Adventures in Babysitting. Where's the crowd? What if we replace the gang fight with a public orgy? Or a woman giving birth? Or a naked celebrity playing the bongos? Or a young man eating a crushed up light bulb and washing it down with his own urine? Which one would you pay to watch? And how much? And why?
Kellerman's intersection analogy and my friend's common sense both treat the question of boxing's interest as pure spectacle. If it were only about the rush of blood, it seems to follow that I would like the sheer brutality of Ultimate Fighting as much as, if not more than, boxing, which I don't. The more I think about it, the more I think of my grandfather, Lincoln. He had a doting admiration for tough guys, and would tell the stories of his younger self cast as such. One of the more recycled stories was of his front tooth being chipped in a fight and telling his mother the drinking fountain did it. I could see a tacit approval in his face when my uncle would tell us that my cousin called home again from Camp Lejeune because he'd earned phone privileges by winning another fight in a 4x4 ring. I have impressionistic memories of Lincoln's excitement and disbelief the day after Tyson was knocked out in Tokyo by Buster Douglas. What brought me to boxing wasn't the thrill of the punches; it was the perception of the men who threw them by a man I loved.
The first boxing gym I walked in to was in the basement of the Eckhart Park Chicago Parks District building in 2010. It was run by a short, grandfather aged, rock solid Mexican man named Arturo Rios. He ran the boxing program for Eckhart in addition to training professional fighters. The space was just big enough for a ring and surrounding punching bags. I didn't last long at Eckhart. I went to the gym sporadically for about a year, trying to mimic some of the pro fighters I saw in there, learning drills by watching the 18+ age groups in their hour-long programs. I didn't learn much technically, I was too shy, trying to act outwardly casual, pushing the obviousness of my beginner status to the back of my brain. There was the familiar musk of machismo, one I identified with and loathed simultaneously. It was much easier to approach the female fighters, used to being outcast, than the male fighters. I sparred a couple of times with other beginners while the pros and longtime boxers watched. Nobody said anything to me afterward, and I wasn't clear headed enough to understand that it was probably because I never talked to anyone in there. I was convinced they were all laughing at me, and that they were just another band of cliquish machismo assholes. I stopped going.
A few years passed. Life got good, and then it got terrible, mostly of my own doing. I found myself living in the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago with six busy people I didn't know, distanced from most of the people whom I had been close to. Not too far away was the Chicago Boxing Gym on South Halsted Street. What the hell. The gym was run by professional boxing trainer Sam Colonna. I had no idea who he was at the time, but, like Arturo Rios, the moment you met the environment he inhabited, you knew he was respected nearly to the level of legend. Unlike Eckhart, the gym was huge, housing two side by side Olympic sized rings, full length mirrors covering two walls, and punching bags and weights galore. On one side of the gym's store front was the Bridgeport News newsroom, and on the other side was the old Ramova theater, already long vacated and boarded up, its ten-foot vertical powder blue sign hanging over Halsted. If you had seen a picture of the three storefronts taken from the east side of Halsted, you might have thought the setting to be 1960s Stockton, CA (disregarding the CHICAGO and BRIDGEPORT signs), the seedy locale of Fat City, a 1969 novel by Leonard Gardner about two boxers, later made into a film directed by John Huston and starring Jeff Bridges and Stacy Keach. The epigraph that heads this writing is from the point of view of Billy Tully (Stacy Keach in the movie), a late twenties has been boxer. Tully has tried to make a return to the ring while flirting with alcoholism and sporadically working the farm fields of California countryside. He's still not a bad boxer, but he's also still just another boxer. And whether you're talented or not, big time or a nobody, to be a boxer, you have to work your ass off, always for at least a small beating, at most an absolute physical punishment. For Tully, to question the sanity of the fighter is to straddle the line between a moment of clarity and the cardinal sin of quitting.
I didn't last long at the Chicago Boxing Gym either. Again, I was too quiet and proud to talk to anyone or ask for help. I learned what I could from watching, and there was some serious talent to watch. Eventual WBC light heavyweight champion Andrzej Fonfara was training there at the time, as were super lightweight contenders Ivan Popoca and Kristen Gearhart. It was the first time I saw and heard the sweet pop of a heavy bag hit hard by a left hook (Fonfara's). It looks simple, but I assure you its execution is not. I came and went. I moved out of Bridgeport, away from the gym, away from boxing. I had never put in the pain for any gain in boxing, so I didn't recognize any kind of loss.
A few more years passed, Chicago Boxing Gym closed its doors, and Sam Colonna opened another gym in the Brighton Park neighborhood of Chicago. It just so happened that I lived a mile and a half from the gym, which was subtly tucked into the second floor of a large complex that housed dozens of businesses. Fonfara was still training there and now a champion under Colonna's training. They had a title defense coming up against a guy named Joe Smith, Jr, from Long Island NY. Smith was an underdog, built by the media to be a working class hero. Construction worker by day, professional boxer by night. It's not an unusual story. The great majority of professional boxers have to work day jobs or side jobs. The fight was on a Saturday night in June of 2016, televised nationally on NBC, live from the UIC Pavilion. Fonfara dominated most of the first round. It was a close quarters fight and he was very comfortable in what they call the pocket. The pocket is where both fighters are within range of each other. He controlled the pace of the fight, threw more punches, and was constantly moving forward. At exactly two minutes into that first round, Fonfara dropped his left hand to throw the hook and had his jaw stamped by Smith's right hand, dropping him to the canvas. He stumbled back up, his legs not wanting to hold him. Less than thirty seconds later he was knocked down again and the upset was complete, just like that. Smith was the new champ. Fonfara left for California a short while later, hiring Virgil Hunter as his head trainer (trainer of former champions Amir Khan and Andre Ward, among many other big name fighters), and alerting Colonna to the news by text message after having worked together for over ten years. This is when I started talking to Sam, asking him questions.
Colonna's family moved to Chicago from Italy when he was seven or eight years old. He took up boxing on Chicago's south side as a teen. His fighting days were ended in his early twenties when he was unloading a tree he had cut down at a dump on 59th and Hoyne. A young man approached him and ordered Sam to hand over twenty bucks. Sam said no. The young man left and came back with a gun. He wanted all Sam's money, and shot him to take it. The slug still sits in Sam's back today. His love of boxing persisted after rehabilitation, though he couldn't run, and he began to train fighters. He had a job at a newspaper distribution company, and eventually became part owner. Several of his employees were also fighters he trained. He and a partner opened a boxing gym on Ogden and Kostner in the 80s. They would eventually move to Halsted Street, where they would split up. That's when Sam opened his own spot in Brighton Park.
Not only was I making conversation with Sam, I was talking to Rita Figueroa, Fred Bowen, and Johnny Lewus, former fighters who had trained under Colonna and now helped train fighters at the new gym. Rita especially taught me the fundamentals of boxing. Stance, weight transfer, hip movement, head movement, punch combinations, and foot work; she showed it all to me and told me again and again all the things I was doing wrong, chief among them being too stiff in the shoulders. I was starting to feel a part of something new I could not define. I wouldn't have called myself a fighter, but it was more than just a hobby to get in shape. To put some definitive shape around the thought, I said I wanted to fight Chicago Golden Gloves. Rita's casual affirmation was catalyst for my own affirmation and conviction to enter the tournament. I started what they call roadwork, which just means running, and I did not enjoy it. When I started to be able to run over two miles is when work picked up, I had no time for the gym, and crammed my face with junk food.
The new year began and work slowed down. I still maintained I would fight. I had about eight weeks to get in shape and lose twenty-five pounds. I went to the gym six or seven days a week, cut out the junk food, the cigarettes. I asked Rita if she'd be my second (the person in my corner) and she said of course. January came and went, I was down ten pounds, but still awkward in the ring. I hadn't sparred with anyone and one day during sparring sessions, Johnny Lewus came up to me while I was watching and said, "Hey what are you doing, why aren't you in there?" I shrugged and his eyebrows lifted to restate the question. He said, "You can do all the training and bag work you want and that's great. Everything changes in the ring. It's totally different. You better get in there before the Gloves." It was another version of what I had done when first stepping in to the basement of Eckhart Park. I was waiting for someone or some people to take me in, to tell me what to do, to say I belonged and guide me to some ambiguous victory. It doesn't work like that. Sam was busy trying to run a business, setting up boxing shows, and training pro fighters. Rita was busy, working with many others in addition to working an unrelated full time day job. Johnny worked with other people. Fred was in barber school. If I wanted help, I had to ask for it, consistently, and when there wasn't a guide, I would just have to jump in and learn from mistakes. So after Johnny asked what I was waiting for, I put on a low blow protector, headgear and gloves, and got in line to spar. At this point I weighed a fairly squishy 212. The guy I was sparring weighed 185, straight muscle. We went three rounds and everything went so fast that I was acting out of sheer reflex most of the time. All the technique I was learning escaped me. I was gassed by the end of the first, completely. I panted through rounds two and three. Rita had seen some of it, and yelled, "Cardio!" when I was stepping out. I would spar only three more times before the tournament, with fairly similar results. After one of them, I couldn't bite down all the way for a couple of days. It wasn't so bad, but I was well aware of how good I was not.
The day before I was scheduled to weigh in, I was two pounds overweight. All the coaches at the gym said it was nothing, but I fretted. I ate and drank nothing the night before and the day leading up to the weigh in. The matches would not be posted until after weigh in, so I didn't know if I'd be fighting that night. There were about fifty guys scheduled to weigh in and we all stood in a nervous line that shifted side to side in anticipation. There was that machismo musk again, lots of swagger, lots of tattoos. One guy had a thick gold hoop in his left hear with a little gold lock hanging from it and the right hemisphere of his bald head tattooed with the rolling script: LOYALTY. After thirty minutes of nervous waiting, I weighed more than two pounds under the target, at 198, and I wasn't scheduled to fight that night. I'd have to come back in two days, on a Friday night, for the same routine.
More than one person advised me to try and be intimidating. To act tough, either by stare down or insane behavior, anything to gain a psychological edge. The unequivocal advice coming from everyone at the gym was to relax, to do everything in my power to not be tense. Friday morning I went to the gym to run for some sweat insurance. Sam was there, and he asked what the hell I was doing if I had to fight that night. He also let me know that Rita would not be in my corner, or in the arena at all. Her mother had split her knee cap and she had to go to Wisconsin to take care of her. I left Sam's gym confident that I would make weight, with no idea how to be confident about the fight itself. I could harness no anger toward my unknown opponent, nor was I a tiger waiting to be let out of its cage. The best I thought I could do was to be blank.
I weighed in at 199 pounds and was scheduled for the eleventh fight of the night. That 185 muscle man I'd sparred with was scheduled for the seventh bout. Sam wrapped my hands in gauze and tape during the third fight and said, "The main thing is to relax. You gotta relax. Work off that jab. And relax." My hands were normally clammy and now they were dripping. He wicked away the sweat before wrapping. Hands padded, I sat back up in the bleachers to watch the fights. My old 185 lbs. pal's turn came. He had about four inches height and several layers of muscle over the other guy. He was knocked out in the first round. Next thing I knew I was called to the glove table, assigned a pair of red twelve ounce gloves which were inspected and signed off on. I blinked and was approaching the corner of the ring for a fight, Sam and Fred in my corner. Sam was yawning, probably more concerned with when his next shit was coming, while Fred was somewhere in his native Tennessee. I tried to be blank, but it was no use. I felt my pulse in every limb, and a hunger pulverizing adrenaline coursed through me, devoid of viciousness. It was the kind of nerve familiar from a fear of public speaking. My opponent looked a good ten years younger and ten times fiercer. He looked ready, and I said to myself, I should have sparred more. The bell rang and our jabs collided.
The fight was stopped with one second remaining in the first round. I had lost. I was sucking air after a minute in, and when my opponent saw that I was hesitant to throw punches, he teed off. When he saw that I wasn't returning many of the punches, he was positively drooling. I don't know where my mind went. I wonder what it is that gives some people a natural fighter's mentality. I am not one of them. My instinct is to flinch or move, instead of punch back. The ref gave me a standing eight count for not returning punches, and then another just before the round ended. I was gasping, and he called the fight, told me he didn't want me to get hurt. My lungs burned, but I didn't feel hurt, just embarrassed. I had lost that fight long before it began. I returned to Sam and Fred in the corner, and they yanked off my gloves. Sam said, "It's a little bit different in there, eh? It's alright, you got more courage than most." Fred said, "When a guy come in throwing wild punches like that, you just squat down in your stance with your guard up, face forward. Go to the body." In the days that followed, I found myself telling other people that I had lost and that the referee had stopped the fight with one second left in the round. The padding I put around my ego did not specify which round. When some people inevitably asked which round, and I told them, they'd say, always, "Oh." Back at Sam's gym, I told Johnny Lewus I lost, and he asked, "What'd you learn?" I told him I didn't throw enough punches. He said, "Alright, that's what matters. You learned something. Fuck the loss. Whenever I lost, I always wanted to fight the guy again, right away." I said I felt that way. "Good! That's what I'm talkin' about!" And I did, I did feel that way. I wanted to fight again, still want to fight again. I don't know if that's dumb or courageous.
I had told my boss at work and a bunch of customers that I was going to fight, so I had to tell them the result. The running joke from one regular and my boss is don't let Mike walk in the neighborhood alone, he might get his ass kicked again. This regular was a big street fighter in his younger days, I guess. When I had told him I was entering the Golden Gloves, he said, "Man, come on, you're not a fighter. You're a lover. What do you want to fight for?" I had no good answer for him. Now when he comes in, he asks if I'm done with the fighting bullshit. I've told him I don't think so. Before last week's primary elections, he said to me, "You wanna be a tough guy, I got something for you, if you want a fight. We need people at the precinct outside the polls, we heard there might be trouble." The campaign team he worked for had been beefing with another candidate's team. I declined. It didn't interest me in the least.
When I first started actually talking to Sam, I asked him what it was that drew him to boxing. He thought about it for a second, and he said, "Boxing is like a drug." It was an interesting response. It implies both a physical addiction and the damage the addiction can dole out, although I don't think he was talking about the damaging aspect at that moment. And I am starting to feel what he was talking about. Despite my age, my time constraints, and my desire to have a fully functioning brain, I keep returning to the gym. The drug analogy is even more interesting when you start talking to Johnny Lewus, who at one time was contending for the IBF super bantamweight championship of the world.
This is part one of a multi-part series. Part two will continue with the story of Johnny Lewus.
Originally published March 28, 2018