I wasn’t a great boxer. But, somehow, I did manage to reach the finals in the New York City Golden Gloves. After that, I was invited to fight on a New York City squad boxing up in Montreal. Then in 1976, I was asked to represent America in The Maccabian Games held in Israel. As a middleweight, I did a few decent things, like throw a good left hook, and I trained hard. But I had one big weakness – my brain. It was slow, primitive and paleo-mammalian. Let me tell you a few of my half-baked boxing theories and deep, dark boxing secrets. I should, at 53, be honest and brave enough to finally tell the truth.
1. Chewing gum. My gum theory was that chewing before a fight was bad. It sapped energy. I never chewed gum before training, either. Chewing gum was okay only after a training session. After getting punched in the jaw, I thought chewing Juicy Fruit gum stretched out my sore, swollen jaw muscles. Gum: my enemy and my friend. (When I was nervous, I sometimes caught myself chewing the skin on the inside of my cheek – that was okay. But no gum.)
2. Celibacy. Sex was dangerous. Masturbation was doubly dangerous. Two weeks before a fight I was – like Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier – celibate. Once, two days before a fight, I was asleep in bed, about to release a sweet wet dream when, somehow, my rigid member gulped it back. Sick.
3. Eating junk food. Each day, I’d work out at Bufano’s Gym in Jersey City, chiseling my body into shape. Later, lacquered with sweat, I’d rush across the street to the deli on the corner and reward myself with poison: Hostess Cupcakes, Suzi-Qs, and a can of Pepsi. My trainer quipped: Junk food is food porn. Maybe – but it was so, so sweet.
4. Reading books. I hid my schoolbooks. I hid them under my car seat because I was ashamed of being a student. I didn’t want to alienate my buddies in the gym, the tough guys and dropouts. I was a schoolboy; they weren’t. (Later, I was relieved to learn I was not alone – Will Smith, the comedian, hid his schoolbooks in a pizza box.)
5. My obsessive-compulsive grooming. My theory was by clipping my fingernails as short as possible, it made my hands much quicker. Less weight. More aerodynamic. (I clipped my filthy toenails, too.)
6. My talking. I mimicked the slang and ungrammatical dialogue of the gym because I wanted to fit in. I’d say, “I ain’t jumpin’ rope today” or “I be sparring three rounds.” My rationale was: When in Rome, do as the Romans. But I’m still ashamed by this. It showed weakness. Today, whenever I see a fighter in the ring swiveling his neck, mimicking Mike Tyson, I see his weakness. And I’m reminded of my own. (Who was Tyson mimicking?)
7. Black fighters. Scowling black fighters who tried to scare you were a joke. But the emotionally sick ones, those who sat quietly in the corner, seething with anger and hate, they might grab your attention. But I always comforted myself with the bizarre thought that, even though they may live in the ghetto, I was a ghetto. I prided myself on my emotional sickness. It was my strength. My mental sickness, somehow, counterbalanced their physical talent.
8. My idiotic scheduling. On fight days, I’d write down an hourly schedule to remind myself of what to do. Why? Because thinking sucks. I hated thinking. Thinking was my weak link. It was best to put my paleo-mammalian brain on automatic and coast through the day.
10:00—10:30 Eat breakfast (one egg, toast, jam, tea, orange juice)
10:30—11:30 Watch television
11:30—12:00 Pack boxing gear; remember socks, tape, cup, mouthguard…
12:00—1:00 Eat lunch (rare steak, spinach, toast, grape juice)
1:00—2:00 Go to church & synagogue (I’m Christian and Jewish.)
2:00—2:30 Take walk; eat apple and Hershey Bar (no nuts)
2:30—3:00 Rest; watch television
3:00—Drive to gym
9. Spanish fighters. Spanish fighters are talented. They’re tough. But they tend to be black-fighters-lite. The quiet seether sitting in the corner, again, needs watching, but too many Spanish fighters flock together in protective packs, laughing a lot. Liars. Spanish fighters, I noticed, also tended to wear colorful, skimpy, bikini underwear. Bizarre.
10. My army boots. If Jack Dempsey in the 1920s and Jack Sharkey in the 1930s and Joe Louis in the 1940s did roadwork wearing heavy army boots, so should I. But that’s old school. Today’s ergonomically-structured running shoes are much healthier for a fighter’s feet, knees and legs, and they maximize speed and endurance. Dempsey, Sharkey and Louis were never too fast on their feet, anyway. They were plodders, all; I was a middleweight – and needed to be fast.
11. My lying. Entering the arena, I always held my dufflebag in my right hand, always signed in righty, and always gesticulated with my right hand for the benefit of anyone watching. In my mind, everyone was watching me. I was the center of the universe. My deep, dark secret was: Sshh! Don’t let them know I’m a converted southpaw. Wow, as if I fooled anyone.
12. Refusing rubdowns. I always refused to let my trainer, Dom Bufano, give me a rubdown before a fight. My thinking was this: a rubdown might, somehow, break down my muscles and confuse my muscle memory. Uh-huh.
13. My violent clothing. I wore violent clothing. I sported the young felon look. I wore a black porkpie hat and black leather jacket. I thought it made me look tough. This was pre-Rocky. But I never chewed a toothpick – only the skin on the inside of my cheek. (See #1.)
14. White fighters. I enjoyed fighting a white fighter. I always enjoyed punching someone who reminded me of myself.
15. My disgusting hygiene. After a gym workout, while showering in the slippery, stinking, fetid shower stall, I refused to wear rubber slippers. There was dark, smelly sludge on the concrete floor, and I was scared of the germs, scabies, and ringworms that lurked in there, but I felt wearing rubber slippers hinted at weakness and fear.
16. Sex. My hypothesis on sex was this: Sex kills. One Saturday afternoon when I was 16, Brenda and I were lying on my bed. We weren’t naked, but we would be soon. That afternoon, I was certain to lose my virginity. But when I turned on the television, George Chuvalo was fighting Dante Cane on The Wide World of Sports. I had a choice: boxing or Brenda. I chose boxing. Chuvalo won; I lost. Stupid, stupid, stupid.
17. My secret plan. I caught the flu 10 days before my finals fight in Madison Square Garden. I was lying in bed, coughing up thick, yellow phlegm the color of a school bus. I couldn’t train. My little heart was sweating. Pressure and fear grabbed my stomach and squeezed. Lying in bed, sneezing and sweating, my fevered brain hatched a secret plan…
…My first day back in the gym, I’m sparring Ricky Villanueva, a quick welterweight. When he hits me, I slump to the canvas and pretend to get knocked out. My secret plan was this: If I lose in the finals, it’s now okay – everyone in the gym now knows I’m not 100%. Stupid and sick.
18. Two comeback attempts.My theory on comebacks is this: Boxing crawls inside your skin and stays there. At 42 I was still sparring. I stepped inside the ring with a 25-year-old amateur. I wasn’t wearing headgear because, well, I was too good for that. I ended up in the hospital with five stitches over my left eye.
Three years later, I’m standing in the ring in Bobby Gleason’s Gym. I’m 45. Twenty-year-old Sugar is standing in the other corner. You go offense. Sugar go defense, okay? promises his trainer, Hector Rocha.
Three rounds later, my swollen jaw is throbbing from Sugar’s defense.
Outside, in the deli, I buy Juicy Fruit gum, but my aching jaw is too sore to chew it.
It gets worse. The next day, after getting hit, I notice my 45-year-old brain has trouble remembering simple words: literary, contour, and pancakes. My theory is this: I’m officially retired. Again.
Thank you for reading this. I feel better now. At 53, I’ve finally come clean and been honest. These 18 thin thoughts (and I have a lot more) either helped or hurt me. Or both. But, at least, I had a philosophy. As a young confused boxer, I was a hair in my own eye. I needed something. Ironically, my crazy philosophy gave me the success that it, ironically, prevented me from getting.
Who will win #HOPKINSKOVALEV