Chump of the World
By Richard E. Baker
The slowness of the punch surprised Ottley. The punch was his, a right following a left jab, after ducking an imaginary left hook. The jab also had no power. If a punch was slow it at least needed power, a wakeup for the opponent, not that Bernard Docusen, preparing to fight for the welterweight title, needed waking up. The fact Ottley was offered the fight was a fluke, and he knew it. Docusen needed a tune-up fight before his welterweight championship fight with Sugar Ray Robinson. Somehow Ottley’s name appeared on the list of durable but easily beatable opponents. Docusen needed someone slow, someone light-fisted, someone who could take a punch, someone who would give him a good workout, yet not be dangerous, a two-legged punching bag. Ottley was not fooled. A guy like Docusen did not expect him to be competitive. He was expected to lose and he knew it: run safely across the road then, at the last minute, dart back onto the highway and throw himself under the wheels of Bernard Docusen. Boxing was no more complicated than that, especially when you were an opponent with a record of 19 wins, 6 losses, with 2 draws.
He worked out in Hunter’s Gym, not a gym at all, just a half-rotted garage in a cow pasture behind an abandoned house where Hunter, before he died, occasionally slept when he could not stagger home. Wind, in an attempt to freeze out the anemic heat from the miniature wood-burning stove, blew through the slats in winter. The only time anyone felt any heat from the stove was if they tripped and fell across the pot metal causing great heaps of steam to rise from the wet workout gear, usually a sweat suit covered with several layers of wool sweaters needed to work up any kind of moisture. The stove was slowly consuming the garage, nibbling away at extra slats, rafters, and benches. During summer the holes in the walls let in a cooling breeze mixed with the aroma of cow shit from the adjoining dairy and rotten silage. Giant horse flies feasted on the wet boxers who often stumbled to the open doors to snuff up a bit of air to mix with the blood in their noses. It was April, a good time to train, not too hot not too cold.
Ottley danced about the ring, a rope enclosing a square about twelve feet on each side, and alternated between shadow boxing and punching the heavy bag that hung from one corner of the ring. The bag was removed when boxers sparred. Every time Ottley punched the bag, the rafter from which it hung rattled. Ottley had hand wrapped his own hands but without tape. The boxing gloves fit loosely because he tied them before slipping them on and he clenched them tightly with his fingers to keep them on. Washington Jeffers, his trainer, should have prepared him for the workout but he was nowhere to be found, a bad sign considering the importance of the upcoming fight.
Jeffers had his own problems, a former construction worker and promising amateur boxer, he had lost his legs just above the knees when piling fell and crushed them leaving him much shorter and nastily bitter. He made feet from two blocks of 2X4s and strapped them to the stumps causing him to waddle from side to side like a penguin.
Ottley heard Manny Hershel drive up in his Hudson Hornet Coupe. The brakes squealed and he always gunned the engine before he shut it off. He was manager mostly in name since there were no requirements to be a boxing manager and incompetence was the norm. He managed Ottley and Barry Lapinski, a featherweight from Beetletown with a 2 and 2 record who had all the skills to become world champion except a chin, footwork, endurance, balance, and a punch. When he could not think of a catchy name for his furniture store he called it simply, Hershel’s. He did not care that the business was a success and preferred being known as a boxing manager. No one, including Hershel, understood anything about being a boxing manager and he always claimed he had a fighter on the rise.
Hershel pushed the door open. It scrapped across the concrete floor. Ottley dropped his arms and leaned against a workbench.
“How did you get me this fight, anyway?” he said.
“Where is Jeffers?” said Hershel.
“Why does Docusen want to fight me? How did he even hear about me?”
“What, you don’t think I’m doing right by you?”
“It’s not that.”
“I am nothing to him?”
“Listen, kid,” said Hershel, leaning on the bench beside Ottley. “He don’t know nothing about you, just the way I like it. You can take this punk, catch him by surprise. He thinks you’re a backwoods tomato can, a ham-and-egger. He don’t know what we got.”
“He is fighting Ray Robinson for the World Welterweight Championship. I think he knows something. They call him Big Duke. No one calls a welterweight Big Duke unless he can kick a lot of ass. How did you get me this fight?”
Ottley started thumbing off a glove. Hershel undid the laces and helped him.
“He can’t get any fights on account of being a nigger. No one will fight him. He run clean through the nigger circuit and now he’s up against a white boy that can fight.”
Ottley tossed the gloves onto the workbench and danced around the ring. The rope broke when he leaned against it.
“I thought he is a Filipino,” said Ottley.
“Sure he’s a Filipino, but don’t know one know that. He been to the courts to get it legally changed so they can officially claim he’s a Filipino and not a coon.”
“Robinson’s a negro.”
“No one cares if one nigger fights another nigger, that’s just the way it is, but there ain’t nothing left but white boys to fight down here. He figures it’s safe. When you knock his dick in the dirt no one’s going to see it on TV. No one will even know except a couple thousand folks over in the Armory. Listen, he ain’t nothing but a shrimp man from Florida, a damn fisherman. You ought to be happy getting this chance, this payday. This will be the most money you ever earned. Speaking of shrimps, where is Jeffers? He knew to be here.”
“Maybe he’s jogging over?” said Ottley.
“Very funny,” said Hershel, not smiling. “Things will be different the next few weeks. I got some advance training expense money for the fight. We’re going over to Smithfield to that new gym.”
“They have a shower?”
“Sure, a shower and a shitter and clean towels and new equipment and I’ve hired a guy to rub you down after workouts to keep your muscles loose. If you want I’ll hire a hooker to rub you down at night. It’s the big time kid. We’re on the way now, the sky’s the limit, we’re crossing over to the Promised Land.”
“I have only been fighting to make a few extra bucks,” said Ottley. “After the first few fights I knew I wasn’t going anyplace. I like to fight but I don’t have it in me to do more than smokers. Didn’t Docusen beat Charlie Salas? Salas KO’d me in the second.”
“He beat Torpedo Reed, too. What does that prove? You had a bad night with Salas. You weren’t warmed up proper.”
“I couldn’t have been warmer,” said Ottley, leaning his nose through a crack in the garage. “The sweat was running off of me.”
“Sure, you were overtrained. What difference does that make? This is my chance, kid. Don’t blow it. I got a special reporter coming down. He wants to do a piece on what’s it like to be a underdog, what it’s like for a hometown kid like you to fight a world-class fighter, and win. He’ll be doing a daily report in the New York newspapers. You know him, Walter Bulgarie, the big sports writer.”
Ottley was not a reader and had not heard of the writer.
“Sure, THE Walter Bulgarie. That’s how big this fight is. I got Schuller, coach of the track team, coming to pick you up at 6 in the morning for your run.”
“You really think I have a chance?” said Ottley.
“A sure thing, kid,” said Hershel, throwing his arm around Ottley; “a sure thing.”
After completing his morning run Ottley went to the diner for breakfast. During the run, Schuller had stopped several times to catch his breath, often bent over with aches in his side, and to occasionally smoke a cigarette. Ottley ran around the block each time while he waited and probably ran an extra mile or so because of the added distance. He ate five eggs, dry toast, a piece of rare steak, and tea. He hated tea but it was supposed to be good for fighters, better than coffee. That afternoon he went to the gym, a big brick building salvaged from the scrap yard and painted white with the red figures of two boxers painted over the doorway.
Inside the room smelled of mold and of sweat. Several heavy bags hung from the ceiling and speed bag platforms were attached to the walls and two boxing rings, one new and one old, divided the room. Each boxer supplied his own speed bag and Barry Lapinski was attaching his to the platform with his taped hands. He was already sweating. Jeffers stood waist high next to him, a towel over his shoulders.
“Hershel wants me to spar with you,” he said. “What do you think of the gym? They got a swell steam room in back.”
“Where were you yesterday?” Ottley said to Jeffers.
“You know how it is,” said Jeffers, looking at the floor.
“You are supposed to be training me. I had to wrap my own hands. You know how hard it is to wrap your own hands, especially the right one? I have a big fight coming up.”
“I couldn’t get a ride. What can I say? They don’t make cars to fit me.”
“Why didn’t you call?” said Ottley.
“You know he don’t got a phone,” said Lapinski, bopping Jeffers on the head with his fist. “He can’t reach the one in the hall.”
“Keep your crap to yourself,” said Jeffers. “Why don’t you get dressed while I work with this schmuck?”
Ottley went into the dressing room. A row of showers stood at one end of the room down a long line of lockers and wooden benches. He dropped his bag on a bench and walked the row of lockers, running his fingers along the doors. A small room held a rubdown table and a steam room sat next to it. ‘First class,’ he thought. ‘All first class. Maybe I have arrived; maybe I do have a chance; maybe this is the way a real contender lives? All I have to do is to win and I can live like this for years.’ His attitude started to climb and the world looked brighter and pinker. He started to change into his sweats.
Another boxer entered, probably a middleweight, not an ounce of fat on him, all sinewy muscle and moving gracefully as if his feet never actually touched the ground. He looked familiar. His hair was short and black and his face was sharp-edged and handsome. He nodded to Ottley.
An older man, probably in his 70s, dressed as if going to dinner in a black silk suit with gold cufflinks but no tie, just a pair of gold boxing gloves around his neck hanging from a gold chain, his hair soft and silver, and the skin on his face rough like dried chamois. He carried a briefcase. A large Mason’s ring bulged around his finger.
“The name is Ottley,” said Ottley nodding his head toward the two men.
“Sure,” said the boxer, not unkind. “Depuggio. That’s Mumford.”
“Suit up,” said Mumford. “We’re not here for socializing.”
“Depuggio—the middleweight?” said Ottley.
“He ain’t Jimmy Wilde,” said Mumford, referring to the great Welsh flyweight. “Another three fights and we’ll be going for the title. My boy’s got it, a natural.”
“He talks a lot,” said Depuggio.
“George Mumford,” said Ottley. “You are one of the best trainers and managers in the country, like Tex Rickard.
“Rickard didn’t know crap. His day has long gone. I’ve trained two world champions and I got another one on the way.”
He removed his suit jacket and hung it in the locker. From the suitcase he removed a sweater and slid it over his head without removing his glasses.
“I’m fighting 'Big Duke' Docusen on the 15th,” said Ottley.
“I thought he was fighting Robinson next,” said Depuggio.
“How long you been in the game, anyway?” said Mumford. “I bet you got a pretty good chin?” he said to Ottley. “Never been out, right? Docusen’s here for a workout, not a fight. Nothin’ personal, kid. I wish you luck. Take it for what it is. Stay away from him, keep circling, and don’t stand still. Learn from the fight. Imagine you’re in a classroom and not the teacher. Whatever you do don’t go right at him or it’ll be a short night. Don’t think you can fight with him. Circle and learn, that’s the secret.”
“What are you guys doing here,” said Ottley. “I mean out here in this town?”
“Building a fighter, what do you think?” said Mumford. “You didn’t think you were the main event, did you?”
“I never thought about it. I just assumed…”
“Too much attention,” said Mumford. “We’re the main; you’re the co-main, just in case something should go wrong. Docusen don’t need the publicity. No TV, see. If you win no one’s the wiser, it never happened, Docusen goes on for the big fight.”
They left before Ottley got off the bench. What did Mumford know anyway? Maybe training and managing a couple of champions was luck. Boxing contained of a lot of luck, knowing the right people, being the right race, and having the right looks. If he wanted to go right at Docusen and attack he would go right at Docusen. Sometimes another manager or trainer would give you the wrong information just to be funny.
In the gym Depuggio was already skipping rope, swinging the ropes like an appendage, first using both hands on each side of his body, then both hands on one side, then both hands cross one another, then spinning the rope with just one hand then the other.
Jeffers waddled on his 2X4 feet over to Ottley, the wood clanking across the floor. His head came up to his waist.
“Do some shadow boxing,” Jeffers said. “Get loose. Start to work up a nice sweat then over to the speed bag. You can use Lapinski’s. He ain’t hurt it none. The heavy bag’s next then some sparring. You know, the usual routine. Do a couple rounds with Lapinski then finish up with Shifty Battaglia or Jesus Martinez. If the Spick can tell time he should be here any minute.”
Battaglia’s nose had been broken several times and knocked back into place just as many times so it looked perfectly normal, even pretty. Anyone would have paid a good price to have such a beautiful nose. The last one to shape it was Jesus Martinez, who could have used a plastic surgeon. His nose, void of any cartilage, was spread like a canvas pup tent from ear to ear. They had fought twice before with both wins going to Battaglia by close split decision.
Mumford continued to work with Depuggio in a corner away from everyone else. Another fighter came in, someone Ottley did not know, and went into the dressing room and emerged a short while later and started jumping rope after reporting to Mumford, apparently a sparring partner for Depuggio.
Hershel came in later with a short dumpy man in a rumpled and dirty white suit, his hair uncombed and also dirty, a note pad sticking from the side jacket pocket and a row of pens and pencils protruding from the top pocket. Ottley was pounding the heavy bag when they walked over.
“This is Walter Bulgarie,” said Hershel.
Ottley stopped working and nodded to the man. Not exactly what he expected from a big-time boxing writer, but then he did not know how a boxing writer was supposed to look. The man’s teeth were yellow and tried to overlap one another as if embarrassed in a smile and a close black stubble covered his face.
“So you’re going to be champ?” said Bulgarie. “Hershel says I’m your favorite writer. Don’t worry, I will do you right. Just conduct your regular routine every day and do not pay any attention to me. I am just a scrivener doing his job and I write what I see, nothing else. Pretend I am not even here.”
He pulled out a cigar from his inside pocket, placed it between his lips but did not light it.
“Didn’t I tell you I’d come trough?” said Hershel, quietly leading Ottley to the ring. “Give him some sparring he’ll remember. Lapinski! Jeffers! Let’s get some work done.”
Jeffers crawled up the steps and into the ring. The gloves were hanging over the top rope and he laced them up on Ottley as Hershel laced a pair onto Lapinski. They sparred for five rounds, enough to work up a good sweat, as Bulgarie at in a metal folding chair ringside and took no notes. His eyes kept drifting toward Depuggio, sparring in the other ring. During the rest periods, Ottley also watched Depuggio who floated effortlessly around the ring throwing fast and hard punches onto his opponent. Ottley had to bend over so Jeffers could give him water and grease his face and gloves.
“What do you think?” said Hershel, sitting on the ring apron and talking to Bulgarie while Ottley and Lapinski removed their gloves and groin protectors.
“Not bad, not bad. The kid’s got potential.”
“You hear that?” said Hershel, talking up onto the ring. “The big-time writer says you got what it takes. You’re my man.”
Jeffers worked the mitts with Ottley holding them high over his head so he would not have to punch down. He clopped around the floor and Ottley followed. Lapinski went back to jumping rope as Mumford worked with Depuggio.
“Quit dropping your left when you bring it back,” said Jeffers. “You’ll get clocked.”
Mumford leaned over and said:
“That ain’t going to do it.”
“Do what?” said Jeffers.
“He’s a fighter. You can’t tell him a damn thing. Look, this punk won’t lift his shoulder when I throw a right. I got to get him to raise it slightly to deflect the blow. I can tell all I want to raise the goddamed shoulder but will he do it. No. He’s dumbass ass fighter. You can’t tell him anything. Watch this…”
Mumford threw a right. When Depuggio did not lift his shoulder he smack him hard upside the head.
“Now watch,” he said.
He threw another right and Depuggio lifted his shoulder.
“If you don’t smack it into ‘em they don’t learn nothin’. You got to hit ‘em right in the head.”
Lapinski started to laugh.
“What’s a four foot trainer going to do,” he said. “Smack him in the dick?”
While in the shower, Ottley heard Hershel and Bulgarie talking.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Hershel. “I’ll deliver the furniture next week.”
Each day Hershel read the newspaper reports from Bulgarie. He talked about how Ottley was an underdog but that he had some surprised up his sleeve, that Ottley was a better fighter than anyone expected, that Ottley was in the fight to win. Ottley’s confidence grew with each report. He got it into his head that he could actually win, that he could be someone. On the night of the fight he walked proud into the ring. Bulgarie yelled out, “Go get ’em champ!”
Hershel worked the corner with Jeffers. Ottley did not even notice Docusen other than as a dark figure lurking across the ring.
“I want you to go straight at him,” said Jeffers. “Don’t let him get set. Get off the first punch and set the pace.”
At the bell, half grinning behind the mouthpiece, Ottley moved straight ahead, threw a left and dropped it slightly as he drew it back and started to throw a right. He never saw or even felt the right hand that dropped him face first onto the canvas. Within seconds the fight, and his career, were over.
He lay, still dazed, on the bench in the dressing room. Bulgarie and Hershel walked over.
“Tough luck,” said Bulgarie.
“You said I had a chance, that I might someday be world welterweight champ.”
“Everyone’s got a chance. I can’t fight for you. My job is to sell newspapers. Those stories rely on hope, the underdog getting his shot at the big time. Let’s face it; you can’t make a racehorse out of a pork chop.”
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