Fisticuffs, Bitterness and Fame
May 31, 2005 11 Comments
I have just got this sudden craving to watch black and white talkies; anything with Lauren Bacall or Elizabeth Taylor, who in case you were not schooled became a celluloid goddess after her performance in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’. I dare you to consider going through with a marriage proposal after watching that train wreck of a film!
The other evening, while weighing whether to endure the guilt of procrastination or completing two overdue dissertation chapters, I decided on the former and turned to the TV in the hope of catching some good old Jerry Springer. If you have ever wanted to feel blessed, brilliant, loved and morally upright, I highly recommend an hour of Jerry ‘take care of yourself and each other’ Springer. Unfortunately, there was nothing to appeal to such base tastes. However, I did came across a late-night screening of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. And was soon riveted by the emotional disintegration of Jake La Motta the boxer character played by Robert De Niro. The film is two hours of cringe and is based on the true story of La Motta who was a middleweight fighter in the late-1940s and early-1950s.
From winning the world championship with the kind of ferocity that only comes from deep issues, La Motta starts throwing fights, brutalises his wife, sexually exploits minors, takes to heavy drink and finally ends up as a washed-up grossly overweight stand-up comic at an obscure nightclub. All the while De Niro is matching his character’s weight gain and you can see him literally falling apart physically and psychologically. The film has all the elements it takes to make the ab&h list of celluloid fame, fisticuffs, bitterness and fame. And of course it is about boxing, a subject that has long fascinated me to the point that I am in danger of being one of those old men whose constant refrain will be, “I couda been a contender son, then your momma done gon an gotten herself pregnant…”
So a few days later, I am doing my little pre-summer jogging routine and I start daydreaming that I am wearing a hoodie, running with a grim determination to win an upcoming title fight. Before you can say “snap out of it”, I am at my laptop doing a Google search for boxing gyms in the neighbourhood. And behold, there happens to be one a mile or so away. So what other option did I have but to inquire about joining in the hope that at 34, the gym owner would run his bleary eye down my library ravaged body and spot the savage beast within.
And that is exactly what the elderly and laid-back – to the point of unconsciousness – owner of the Fitzroy Lodge did. His sceptical eyes took me in, concentrating to my surprise not on my bulging with skin, bone and blood vessels biceps but on my ever so slightly protruding belly. With what I hoped was a tone implying that I had banged heads with the toughest of them but did not wish to call attention to a dark past, I announced that I was there to “work out.” He extended his hand in greeting and I shook his dry palm with what I hoped was a squeeze that would let him gauge a hidden strength that I imagine must be someplace in me even if its stayed well hidden all these years. And no, don’t you dare suggest that my hands gained their hard grip hanging out with five-fingered Betty in boarding school. But this is a digression that is not to my advantage.
The gym was tucked away behind a line of FedEx delivery trucks, under an unused rail-track giving it the slightly seedy, industrial atmosphere anyone who has watched Rocky associates with such ventures. Inside, the ubiquitous and much described in every boxing story was an overpowering smell of sweat, chalk and leather. I was in: the first step to a fight in Las Vegas’ Caesar’s Palace ring!
The room was dominated by two boxing rings occupied by bouncing, jabbing, parrying, shuffling pairs. They looked clumsy to me, I could already tell that they were not going to match the athleticism that saw me into the Lenana School rugby team all of fifteen years ago. Heavy bags hung from the low ceiling like big, red fruits that had somehow managed to make a roomful of men angry enough to whack at them with varying degrees of violence. From all the boxing sagas I had read, and my lifelong fascination with the Kinshasa fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, I knew that ‘working the bag’, as the latter did so famously, is an art form of controlled aggression and playacting since you must visualise an appendage-less opponent who looks like a red, squat four-foot long sausage hanging from the ceiling.
Standing out from the crowd of young, mostly white males was a thin black woman who was bouncing clumsily from foot to foot with a kind of crazed energy as she tried to pummel the bag under the watchful eye of the whole room. You could tell right away that everyone was intensely conscious of her presence and I wondered whether I would come in for the same attention – perhaps even a challenge to spar with a brutal customer who would try and ‘blood’ me. These impressions were brief since our walk across the room to the office was all of thirty feet.
To be continued … my ego can take no more writing for now. I must save the triumph or the agony for later; my chapters are calling for some loving attention.