Fighters aren't the only people in boxing with a lot of heart.
There is one week of my life I can guarantee you I'll never forget. It involved the period of time just after my father passed away from cancer in 1991. We had traveled from South Florida to my native New Jersey, where he was to be buried, and on the last day of viewing some of the members of my family got together and more or less drafted me to write the eulogy, then deliver it at the funeral the next morning.
I didn't really want to do it – for one thing, I was in no emotional condition to collect thoughts and put them down on paper in a coherent manner. To compound matters, I was going through a lot of physical pain. I had just come down with a toothache, and with no time to make an appointment with a dentist, I had to rely on a prescription of Percocet to deal with a level of physical discomfort that was rapidly becoming worse.
But there was no one else who could handle it, so here I was at about 2 AM, just eight hours before a funeral, with no sleep, completely drained, and incredibly drowsy from taking the pain-killers, but at the same time obligated to stay awake long enough to write, from scratch, a speech that was worthy of my father's memory.
Somehow I made it through all that, and considering the circumstances, it was probably the best thing I've ever written.
It was also, without question, the most difficult thing I've ever had to do.
Having said that, and as hard as the whole process was, it might pale in comparison to what other people have had to endure.
These days, my heart goes out to a friend who is one of those people.
Chris Middendorf is one of the best matchmakers in boxing, and justifiably one of the busiest. His clients include Gary Shaw, Scott Wagner at Ballroom Boxing, PJ Augustine of Philadelphia, and a handful of other promoters across the country. For the past several years he's been operating under a level of strain most of us are probably unfamiliar with, and which few of his colleagues even knew about.
Middendorf is an anomaly in boxing, to be sure – certainly I have not met any other matchmakers in my twenty-odd years around the game who are former art dealers, much less Harvard graduates.
His wife was unusual as well. A woman of many talents, she had been an actress, activist, stuntwoman, and most recently, a documentary film maker of considerable prowess. She did a lot of great work, including a documentary featuring one of our good friends, Senator John McCain. And her series on the Learning Channel, “Junkyard Wars”, received widespread critical acclaim.
On June 29, Alexandra Middendorf succumbed to that most indomitable of opponents – Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis, otherwise known as ALS, or “Lou Gehrig's Disease”.
ALS is debilitating, and mysterious. Affecting about as many people as multiple sclerosis, it's a disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Early symptoms include weakening of the muscles and slurred speech. Eventually the ability to dictate and control motor functions is lost. Inevitably paralysis sets in. Speaking is gradually more and more difficult. Breathing becomes impossible without the help of a ventilator.
Some of the symptoms can be relieved with treatment, but there is no cure.
In the latter stages, the patient requires constant personal care. And the expenses can be astronomical.
Most people can live three years or more after the diagnosis, but only 10% live more than a decade. Stephen Hawking, the renowned physicist and author, has survived for over 40 years with ALS, but he is the extreme exception, not the rule.
The most famous person who has contracted ALS is, of course, Gehrig.
Losing power in his swing during the 1938 season, many people around the New York Yankees' Hall of Famer could sense something a little out of sorts. And when he got off to an especially slow start the next year, Gehrig knew enough to take himself out of the lineup and end his streak of 2130 consecutive games played.
Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with ALS.
Gehrig's heroic battle with the disease that eventually bore his name is well-documented, and in fact celebrated. The “luckiest man on the face of the earth” speech at his tribute ceremony on July 4, 1939 will live forever in baseball legend.
Alex Middendorf's own heroic battle with ALS is not well-known, at least among her husband's colleagues in boxing. It just wasn't Chris' style to say very much about it.
And as a result, perhaps we'll never grasp the depth of what he's been through.
But in the way of offering some perspective, I want to take a moment and explain how hard it is to be a successful matchmaker in the boxing business. Most people think that fights just “come together”. Obviously, such is not the case. Making matches involves the execution of a multitude of tasks. Besides needing to have an ability to deal on a one-on-one basis with many people and an encyclopedic knowledge of fighters and their styles, the matchmaker has to secure travel arrangements, coordinate purses and contracts, make sure everybody has taken the required medical tests, continually stay up to date with those fights he has produced, preside over weigh-ins, and follow through all the way until the end of the promotion, when the fighters get paid.
Along the way, he has to be ready at any given moment for the time when he gets that dreaded phone call – the one where he finds out a fighter has pulled off the card and he needs to get a substitute within 24 hours or else the show is in jeopardy. He has to be willing, if necessary, to stay up all hours of the night finding a four-round opponent for a hometown favorite who sells a load of tickets. And he has to hope and pray that on the day of the fight, everybody shows up.
Families can suffer. Relationships can suffer.
But for one relationship in particular, the aforementioned commitment is especially critical, for no promoter can survive without a dependable matchmaker.
It's probably the hardest job in the boxing industry. And maybe the most thankless.
A few years ago, I wrote extensively on the “Art of Matchmaking”. The material is part of “Operation Cleanup: A Blueprint for Boxing Reform”, if you care to go and find it. Usually when I write a story that offers an insight to boxing that is not customarily available anywhere else, I get quite a bit of e-mail, mostly from people in the industry, thanking me for pointing out the subtleties and complexities of what they do. After writing the matchmaking pieces, the most passionate, thought-provoking response I received came from Chris Middendorf, who I really didn't know at the time, but who wrote so eloquently that I kick myself to this day for having somehow lost it.
He seemed to understand it so well. And his passion, commitment, and work ethic were clearly evident.
The point is, when I was making matches it was all I could handle to keep up with one or two shows a month. Middendorf routinely does anywhere from four to six shows a month. All the while he's had to simultaneously take care of the needs of his ailing wife, not to mention his children, one of whom is a promising athlete who is just entering college on scholarship, a process that mandated Chris accompany her on several college visits. This, in addition to everything else human beings have to worry about on a daily basis.
That's a huge burden.
And Chris' conscious decision has been not to bring that burden upon anyone else, even though many of us would have been all too willing to listen and/or help. Never once did his personal difficulties enter into a phone conversation.
It's not that Chris wants to be as mysterious as the disease that has taken his loved one. It's just that, I guess, some people feel it's absolutely necessary that you hear their life story, some do not.
I've known people with whom I could not speak for more than three minutes without hearing their entire list of accomplishments.
Incredibly, I had to go through extensive research for this story to find out stuff that Middendorf never told me, but knew I'd probably be interested in – for one thing, that in 1974, he was a member of the Harvard sailing team which won the national championship; that he was named an All-American; that he was later inducted into the Harvard Varsity Club Hall of Fame, right alongside the likes of Bobby Jones (of golfing fame) and Dwight Davis (as in “Davis Cup”).
There's a level of humility in all that, which, in its own way, lays a foundation for a certain kind of heroism.
While knowingly fighting a losing battle with a fatal disease must represent the ultimate in bravery, the person who keeps the family together, and does what has to be done to support it, no matter what happens, can also be a hero.
I don't know; maybe I'm telling you this story because heroes seem to be in short supply. Or maybe everyone has some hero in them, just waiting for the right moment to present itself.
At any rate, these words mean something to me:
“…..a man who carried himself with a certain dignity which brought respect among his peers and more importantly, the kind of self-respect a man needs to live with himself and among those around him….”
That's part of what I wrote for my father on the day of his funeral service.
I could probably apply it to my friend as well.