The Side of Fighters You’ve Never Seen

22.01.04 - By John Garfield: Most everybody on a board like this thinks fighters are a tough, tough breed; they don't have the same concerns we do. They live in the land of Macho. Maybe this story shows we're more alike than you'd imagine.

I used to train at Stillman's with a really rugged pro middleweight who was undefeated in over 20 fights, and people were starting to talk about him as a possible contender. He had a walk-in, crowd-pleasing style, and he idolized Carmen Basilio, who was also handled by his manager, Al Braverman. Every opportunity he got, he asked Braverman to introduce him to Basilio.

Well, the fighter wound up on the undercard of one of Basilio's fights in Syracuse. And he begged Braverman again to meet Carmen. So, Braverman arranged it, and Carmen said hello, shook his hand, and wished him luck.

When Basilio walked away, the fighter turned to Braverman and said, "I'm not gonna look like him, am I?"

* * *

The picture RAGING BULL doesn't begin to give you a hint of how volcanic and homicidal Jake LaMotta's rages were. Anything would set him off. Any time, any place.

He was capable of murder...and the toughest guys wanted no part of him.

But when LaMotta left the ring and he went into show business, he had to keep a tight rein on that temper. And he was tested daily.

These two incidents should give you some idea:

When LaMotta stopped fighting, he began to get work in films as a character heavy, and he took it seriously and wanted to be as good an actor as he was a fighter. So, he enrolled in John Cassevettes' Theatre Workshop in New York, and did scenes to perfect his craft.

One day, I went to watch him, and he was up on the stage doing some Tennessee Williams' monologue. It was curious listening to those poetic lines coming out of LaMotta's mouth-- half cement truck and all Bronx.

While LaMotta was walking the stage, reciting his lines, a young, slight actor, who had no idea who LaMotta was, jumped on the stage and said to Jake, much too loudly, "Your rehearsal time is over! It's my time now! Get off the stage!"

LaMotta said softly, “I’ll just be a minute"

The kid, wanting to be an intense dramatic actor, stepped closer to LaMotta: "No. Now! Get off!"

LaMotta said, "But... And the kid interrupted him and SLAPPED Jake LaMotta in the face, and said," NOW!"

LaMotta just looked at him, like a Great White Shark poised above chum... and said ever so gently, "Don't do that," and walked off the stage.

That actor had no idea how abruptly his career almost came to an end.

* * *

On another occasion, I was in PJ Clarke's, a bar on the Eastside of New York for the sports world, the media and show biz. LaMotta could be found at the bar daily in the afternoon with his longtime friend Pete, who wrote RAGING BULL.

LaMotta was relaxing with his back against the bar with his trademark cigar in his mouth. In through the front door comes a sweaty little guy in a cheap suit, and he lights up when he sees LaMotta, and heads right for him.

Mr. cheap suit stands in front of LaMotta, regaling him, and all in the bar, with how he saw him the night he knocked some guy out, demonstrating by wind milling punches furiously in the air...much too close to LaMotta's face.

LaMotta doesn't move a muscle or change expression. The guy's swings are an eyelash away from him.

And, sure enough, one lands flush on the cigar and flattens it against LaMotta's face, like a character in a cartoon.

All LaMotta can do...after a long pause, is look heavenward and say, "Why me?"

* * *

Just thinking of Willie Pep brings a smile to my face; he was a floorshow every place he went.

He wanted to laugh and would stop at nothing to break everybody else up. He always had all of us in the gym in stitches. He'd rib us and make us feel like he was just one of the boys. With his Graziano slouch and pork-pie hat, he was better able to carry that off goofing on a street corner but never in the ring.

When Pep was at Stillman's, you could count on practical jokes and a florid Lou Stillman. But, he could do all of that because he was a dream in the ring. It was almost a religious experience watching him.

But he took nothing serious. NOTHING. He came to the gym mostly, I think, to have a good time. It was like an extension of being at the track or playing cards.

Pep never learned anything; it was all God given. His feet didn't touch the ground and he was all but invisible.

And, that 's the Pep I'd always seen at the height of his career.

After he hung up the gloves, briefly, he tried his hand at training.

I was once was in the 5th St. Gym in Miami and Pep was in the corner of a big, beefy heavyweight.

Pep was screaming at the heavyweight from the ring apron, and getting red in the face. This wasn't stand-up comic Willie: this was more like Vince Lombardi or Mike Ditka.

When the round ended, Pep went berserk and attacked his own fighter. He was screaming at him, punching him, whipping him with his pork-pie hat, kicking him in shins; he had to be dragged off him.

Pep just couldn't get it in his head that what he did, as natural as breathing, nobody else could.

* * *

In the mid 50's, Cleveland Williams was considered one of the hardest hitting heavyweights in the world...and a MONSTER.

And, none of that did him justice. The only thing he was missing was the big red "S" on his chest.

He was a walking anatomy chart, and we're talking here when he was at his best, before he got shot.

Willie Pep was in the waning days of his career, but still had more than enough in his tank to run rings around most anybody. But he was only doing it now for the "walking around money."

Willie was "Peck's bad boy", with a twinkle in his eye and no muscle tone at all. Most fighters look bigger in trunks; he looked smaller.

The 5th St. Gym in Miami was not a large place, so Williams and Pep had to train and do their floor exercises almost side by side.

The gym rats kept trying to stoke Willie's ego:

" Willie, You could kill that big bum! He'd never touch you."

"You'd make him look like a jerk, Willie” And, it went on and on like that for weeks.

There was no way that Williams didn't hear it.... And he was 9 feet tall, so it started to get under his skin.

One day when all those guys were really egging Pep on:

"You could kick his ass, Willie"

"You'd make him look like fool, Willie!"

Pep just turned to them and said, "All I can tell you is: I'd hate to have him hang his hammer on me!"

And Williams rocked back with laughter.

* * *

When I was a youngster, my dad took me to Jack Dempsey's Restaurant on Broadway in New York.

It was a landmark...a fixture... but no longer there. (I hate progress)

There was Dempsey sitting in a booth at a window table signing autographs.

My dad took me in to meet him.

Dempsey looked at me for a moment, bent down and challenged me: "Put up your dukes!" I jumped into a stance, and Dempsey did likewise, rolling those HUGE fists.

Then he broke into a broad grin, grabbed me up with one arm and ruffled my hair.

Till this day, I can still see that legend face, big as a monument, right up next to me.

* * *

When Roberto Duran was training to fight Carlos Palomino at Madison Square Garden, he worked out at Howard Albert's gym, an old factory loft in the Garment Center, just a few blocks from the new Garden.

It was summertime, and sweltering, and every Latino worker in the garment area-- and their families-- would go to watch their hero train at lunchtime.

The gym was like a steam room, and jammed cheek-to-jowl with the adoring. . They pressed so close; they barely left Duran enough room to do his floor exercises. And then he went into the ring to shadow box.

Spanning what looked like a crowded subway, you could see chests swell and faces full of pride. Plump mothers holding babies in their arms stood right at the
ring apron, while their little children looked up saucer-eyed at this god.

In the midst of all of this, somebody in the back--unbelievably! -- kept yelling at Duran in Spanish: "PIPINO CUEVAS WILL KILL YOU!

Duran paid him no mind and continued to shadow box. But the heckler was relentless: "PIPINO CUEVAS WILL KILL YOU! "PIPINO CUEVAS WILL KILL YOU!

Finally, Duran fixed a glare at him, stretched as far over the ropes as he could--just above the glowing faces of mothers and infants--and yanked down his trunks, grabbed his nuts, and roared in Spanish: "PIPINO CUEVAS CAN SUCK MY COCK!

* * *

In the early 70's, Duran was the terror of the lightweight division. Nobody in their right mind would get in there with him without a whip, a chair and a gun.

There was a really a talented Puerto Rican boxer who trained at the Gramercy Gym named Edwin Viruet, but he wasn't big hitter, and he got a chance to fight Duran.

Viruet couldn't punch, but he also had no nerves. The reality of facing Duran didn't bother him one bit. If they took his pulse, I'm sure it wouldn't have registered a blip.

Fight night, everybody was prepared to see Duran butcher Viruet. Or at least: a panicked fighter running for his life.

But, Viruet did the unthinkable, he made fun of Duran, he made faces at him, he taunted him, he stuck his tongue out at him, he punched behind his back in clinches. Vintage Jorge Paez.

The fans loved it and howled with laughter; Viruet was making Duran look like a fool. And Duran got more crazed. He didn't just want to kill Viruet; he wanted to dismember him.

Duran was winning handily, but by the 10th round, everybody was chanting for Viruet's courage. One guy yelled out with admiration: "HE DOESN'T KNOW THE MEANING OF THE WORD FEAR!" Somebody else shot back: "...OR CAT OR DOG!"

* * *

When I was in London years ago, Henry Cooper, the former British and European heavyweight king, told me a very funny story:

Cooper was training for Ali, and he and two of his huge sparring partners, Joe Bygraves and Joe Erskine, where in a lorry driving some place, and they were laughing and having such a good time, Cooper wasn't paying as close attention to traffic as he should have and he cut a driver off.

At the light, this scrawny little civil-servant type jumped out his car, livid, and raced over to Cooper's window and screamed at him.

Cooper tried to apologize, but the guy was having none of it... and, suddenly slapped Cooper in the face.

With that, the doors of the lorry flew open and Cooper and the two menacing sparring partners surrounded the little guy. The little guy looked around a few times, then said to Cooper: "YOU'RE LUCKY YOU'RE WITH YOUR MATES!"

Cooper said they all exploded with laughter and just got back in the Lorry and drove off.

* * *

This was back in New York at the old Gramercy Gym on 14th St.

I was sitting ringside watching sparring and talking fights with some of the other regulars, and another guy joined the conversation and introduced himself as Harold Green.

Harold Green was a helluva middleweight from the 40’s, who beat Rocky Graziano twice.

As soon as one of the guys heard him say: Harold Green, he was all over him with questions. He wanted to know every detail of what it was like facing Graziano. Was Graziano as hard a puncher as everyone said? Did Graziano every hurt him? And on and on and on...

The guy couldn't have been nicer; he spent about two hours answering every question before he had to leave. The guy that was asking the questions was Harold Green.

Article posted on 22.01.2004

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