Friday afternoon, at the weigh-in. “I love the Boston accent,” said a tourist behind me. We were standing on the sun-splashed cobblestones at Faneuil Hall as Mayor Marty Walsh officially welcomed big-time boxing back to the land of “Rocky Mahciano, Tony DeMahco, and Mahvelous Mahvin Haglah.”
A few minutes later, fighters competing on the undercard of Premier Boxing Champions’ “Dirrell vs. DeGale” show at Agganis Arena were herded out, stripped down, and stood like Adonises in their underwear. “This is so cool!” said a co-ed as she whipped out her Galaxy and starting snapping pictures. Beside her was someone I supposed was her beau, looking a little blanched. I wondered if she was secretly zooming-in.
About fifty English fans were on hand to support London’s James DeGale. They mixed with the curious foot-traffic that had stalled by the stage, under old Sam Adams’s statue. They were easy to spot. All of them wore T-shirts that said “Team Chunky” and almost all of them were wavering in the breeze. “My heads on ff****g fffire,” said one of them as he took a long drag from a cigarette. “Where’s our next pub?”
I looked around for a T-shirt that was standing steady and soon found one. I asked why DeGale, a broad-shouldered athlete and rising contender in the Transnational Boxing Rankings, happened to be called “Chunky.”
“Ask his sister,” he said and gestured toward a young woman standing nearby. Eloise DeGale has a gold complexion with features perfectly formed. Her eyes can melt a man’s heart, or drill a hole in it. I hadn’t finished asking her whether James was chunky when he was a boy when Andre Dirrell went wading past, followed by members of his entourage. “The champ is here!” said one of them. The drunk contingent grumbled at that. “DeGale” they said. Dirrell’s man turned around. “De Girl? De Girl?” he said, laughing. “De Chump!”
“—James was fat,” Eloise said, ignoring him.
“Is that the reason he got himself to a gym?” I asked again. It wasn’t. “He had a lot of energy,” she said, “and was headed down the wrong path. Boxing changed his direction, love.”
At my left, Dirrell changed his direction and was wading furiously back through the crowd. His voice rose above the din like a musket shot. “Who’s smoking?! Who’s smoking!?”
“Who do you think will win?” Eloise asked. “DeGale,” I admitted. “But let’s not spread that around. I don’t want to have to bop my way outta here—”
Only a stone’s throw away is State Street. It used to be called King Street before we changed it to emphasize a point. It was the site of an incident that united Boston against the British crown a few years before the American Revolution. When the smoke cleared one day in 1770, five colonists lay dead or dying after a small contingent of Redcoats opened fire. That incident is remembered as “The Boston Massacre” but that wasn’t what it was. It began as a series of bad interactions between soldiers and resentful locals and was provoked into something worse by drunken rowdies itching for a fight. Old Sam Adams recast a riot into an execution of innocents and shoved his country toward a war we were lucky to win.
The latest British invader called “Chunky” weighed in at 167.2 lbs. Angry Andre Dirrell, this afternoon’s Crispus Attucks, clenched his teeth and ripped off his shirt and his abdominals looked like the cobblestones we were standing on, like the cobblestones Attucks landed on when he fell backward in a heap with two holes in his chest. He weighed in at 167.8. The English heckled him and he provoked them further by pointing his finger and slowly scanning the crowd with it. Eloise laughed and did the same in mock-Disco. At the customary stare-down, he got a little too close and jawed a little too much. DeGale, more professional, wore the Union Jack around his bare shoulders.
While on my way to catch the D-Line at Park Street station, I overheard a local tour guide addressing a crowd at the entrance of Boston Common. “British soldiers camped only steps from where we stand. You can imagine the offense….”
Saturday afternoon, at the main event. In the second round, DeGale’s offense sent the angry American falling backwards in a heap. It was a perfectly-timed overhand that did it, and it was set up by a loitering jab that blinded Dirrell just long enough. Dirrell got up immediately and began jawing all over again though at whom and for what was anyone’s guess. He was knocked down a second time and when the bell finally ended the longest round of his life, he was on his knees. I don’t think he fully regained consciousness until about the fifth round.
Dirrell was fighting without a flexible mind; like an over-drilled soldier loading and reloading a musket. The Englishman did to him what we did to the Englishmen in 1776—he circled, bluffed, fired, and retreated, then fired again from treetops and from around corners. Every consonant in his attack was relaxed, his performance smoothed-out. While Dirrell marauded desperately and clunked about, DeGale flowed in and out like the easy tide.
Rodney “The Punisher” Toney, a top-ten middleweight exactly twenty years ago this month, sat beside me. He was watching the fight closely, musing to himself about what he would have done with DeGale. “He’s smooth. I woulda made it ugly,” he said. “That’s what I did.”
As Dirrell’s chances of winning ebbed away, the crowd starting chanting “USA! USA!”
Toney, a provocateur from the beginning, still sought to make it ugly. “USA gonna get whipped today!” he said.
But Dirrell roared back like a true patriot; I thought he won the fourth, seventh, ninth, and tenth rounds and had a few he didn’t win marked close. Credit is due his corner for making sure the USA didn’t get “whipped today.” Among them was cut man Scott Rehm.
Rehm, 46, has a Boston backstory that rivals Sam Adams’s. Already a combat-sport veteran before he inexplicably became an MMA fighter at the age of forty, he got himself billed as “Sweet Dreams” and began knocking out guys half his age in a minute or less on the New England circuit. He’ll tell you he was really a boxer who smoked too much to do ten rounds, so he brought his heavy hands to the cage, where he only had to do five. The losses on his record? He waves them off with a laugh. They only happened when he got “tangled up.” He has since become a formidable cut man in the UFC and boxing who studies the craft and the history of the craft like few others this side of Stitch Duran.
Dirrell ended up losing a unanimous decision, but blood and bumps had nothing to do with it and that means Rehm did his job. He found me in the cheap seats during the walkout bout. I told him it looked like he had eight arms wiping down Dirrell, slipping out his mouthpiece, stuffing the Q-tip up his bloody nose, applying Enswell to his forehead and ice to his chest, greasing him, slipping in the mouthpiece.
“Everything went smoothly,” he said.
I had, however, noticed something amiss in both corners. The arena had supplied them with flimsy aluminum stools that might have been swiped from a chemistry lab. “Everything went smoothly, except for that,” Rehm said again. “At the end of the ninth, I climbed into the ring and when they handed me the stool, I put it down and the damn top fell off.”
He said he shot his hand up to Dirrell’s back “—Don’t sit!”
Springs Toledo is the author of The Gods of War: Boxing Essays (Tora, 2014, $25).He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org