Friday, September 17, 2010

A Man of Character, Who Knocked Me on my Ass

I stood in a boxing ring for the very first time. I was wearing a plastic mouthpiece, headgear that made me feel like a pilot in a jet plane and big, pillowy gloves, inside of which were a pair of shaking hands wrapped in gauze and tape. The guy on the other side of the ring, wearing no headgear but the same big sparring gloves, asked me if I was ready. I nodded my head and he said, in a much louder voice, “Time!” And we started our dance.
Although the next short bit of time seemed like an eternity, I’m pretty certain that only about 60 seconds elapsed. The man kept telling me to jab, jab, jab. I jab, jab, jabbed, connecting with his bobbing head a few times, eliciting a “nice shot” response once or twice. He jabbed back, connecting more frequently, eliciting only grunts from me, and a few wild jabs back in self-defense. When one of my wild jabs connected pretty good, he turned up the heat and in a few seconds a shot to my solar plexus had me on the canvas, sucking wind and wondering, humorously, if death was around the corner. Time!, the voice said again. A minute later, once I had regained my wind, a gloved hand reached down and helped me to my feet, where I was wobbly but no worse for the wear.
“Nice job, “ said Floyd Patterson, who only a year and a half earlier had retired from his own boxing career after losing for the second time to Muhammad Ali, and who had just knocked me down. “I laid it on you a little to see if you’d turn away but you hung in there. There’s hope…” he said, laughing a little.
And so my boxing career began, and I faithfully visited Floyd’s house and gym almost every day for about a year, until a cyst in my wrist became too large and painful, and I stopped.
Floyd Patterson was one of those rare human beings who dragged himself up from a bad childhood and made himself, through sheer willpower, into a two time heavyweight champion, although he was the size of a light heavyweight. After his retirement, he opened up his training center (a three story barn on his property in New Paltz, NY, 12 miles from my house) to local kids, where he let them come every weekday and train, work out and spar, often with him. The charge for all of this expertise and experience: 20 bucks a month to help heat the barn. Countless young people came through Floyd’s barn, and many of them went on to have respectable careers in the pugilistic world, while others continued their own paths. I can say that, good or bad, their experience at Floyd’s was only beneficial. Life is all about choices, and Floyd Patterson equipped many young people with the skills and character that they needed to be able to make good choices.
As brutal and as savage as the idea of beating people up is, there is a certain dignity, decorum and class to boxing that mixed martial arts will never have. Floyd Patterson personified all three of those qualities, and it was an honor to be knocked down and later trained by him. Many, many years later, I stopped by his house, after not having seen him in 20 plus years (and I didn’t delude myself that he even knew my name---just called me “kid” back then) to get an autograph for a friend. It was 11AM and Floyd answered the door himself. It had been rumored that he was slipping mentally, but he invited me in, asked me right away how my wrist was, and signed a photo for my friend, a standard boxing pose. When I thanked him, he said, “You want one too?” He rummaged through his briefcase, found a great shot of himself landing a flying hook on the great Ali back in 1975, and said, “This is my last one.” And signed it, without ever asking my name, “To Jim Abbott, from your friend, Floyd Patterson.”

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