Fighters as Writers

“It’s easy to like Las Vegas the same way it’s easy to like an honest hooker. Neither one pretends to be anything but what they are. They just flash you a little thigh, give you an honest price, and then screw you. You might blow your paycheck in an afternoon, but you just keep smiling because you’re having a good time spending it and you knew you were going to get ripped off when you got there.”

That’s good writing. It comes from a novel about boxing entitled Cornered, written by a former fighter named Rick Folstad.

A small group of fighters have put their experiences into words as writers. This column isn’t about boxers whose names were attached to autobiographies that someone else wrote for them. It’s about fighters who’ve done serious writing on their own.

James J. Corbett, who defeated John L. Sullivan in 1892 to claim the heavyweight throne, wrote articles about boxing and an autobiography, The Roar Of The Crowd.  Former light-heavyweight champion Jose Torres was the primary author of books about Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson and wrote dozens of articles for the Spanish-language press.

One writer reversed the order. Jack McKinney was a respected sports columnist for the Philadelphia News. Athletically gifted, McKinney worked out regularly, had more than his share of bar fights, and decided he wanted to have one fight as a pro.

On June 29, 1963, McKinney scored a first-round knockout at St. Mary’s Gym in Painesville, Ohio. As befitting an event of that nature, Don Elbaum promoted the card.

“There were five fights that night,” Elbaum recalls. “I was the promoter and I also refereed Jack’s fight. In those days, they let me do things like that in Ohio. Jack came out like a wild man, throwing punches like crazy, and knocked the other guy down. I counted to ten real fast, like in about four seconds, and that was it.”

The identity of McKinney’s opponent that night is uncertain. Some accounts say it was a club fighter with an 0-and-4 ring record. Elbaum recalls a different set of circumstances, saying, “The original opponent fell out at the last minute. I think someone might have seen him working out in the gym and decided that he looked a little better than we wanted him to look. So I called Billy Gutz, who managed fighters in Ohio. And Billy sent a last-minute substitute.”

According to BoxRec, the opponent was Alvin Green, a 26-year-old journeyman with a 22-10-3 record. If so, one can be forgiven for suspecting that Green was “doing business” that night. Several years earlier, he’d gone the distance with an aging Ezzard Charles in the final fight of Charles’s distinguished ring career.

Tris Dixon was born in 1979 and boxed on and off as an amateur between the ages of 16 and 26. His literary resume includes a stint as the editor of Boxing News, numerous articles, and two books about the sweet science: The Road to Nowhere (Pitch Publishing) and Money: The Life and Fast Times of Floyd Mayweather (Arena Sport).

“I was a rugby player,” Dixon recalls. “Some of the guys I played with said they boxed for fitness and asked if I wanted to try it. I went to the gym with them and, after a few months, the coach asked, ‘Do you want to spar?’ It’s a macho environment, so you don’t say ‘no.’ Then, after a year of sparring, it was, ‘How about a fight?’ And it’s still a macho environment, so you say ‘sure.’”

Dixon had 20 amateur fights en route to a 13-and-7 ring record.

“I remember my first fight very clearly,” Tris says. “I was quite nervous. I was losing. At the end of the second round, I caught the guy with a right hand. Before the third round, my trainer told me, ‘Use the right hand. He’s a southpaw.’ And I said to myself, ‘Oh, yeah. He’s a southpaw.’ I’d been fighting for two rounds and hadn’t noticed he was a southpaw. That’s how nervous I was. So in the third round, I used the right hand and got stopped.”

“I liked the training,” Dixon continues. “I was proud to be a fighter. For me, every waking moment in the month before a fight was about the fight and trying to cope with the pre-fight pressure and pre-fight fear. I read a lot about what Cus D’Amato said about fear. If you’ve never fought, it’s hard to appreciate the fear and pressure involved.”

Why did Dixon stop fighting?

“Over time, I stopped caring as much as I had before,” Tris answers. “I no longer had the same motivation to go to the gym. I was never massively hurt, but I wasn’t very good at it. Sometimes I still go back to it in my mind. But I’m twelve years removed from being an active boxer now, so it’s less raw and there’s less of an overlap in my mind between being a writer and a fighter than there used to be.”

Rick Folstad played football and baseball when he was growing up in Little Falls, Minnesota.

“But I was a terrible basketball player,” Folstad recalls, “so there was nothing to do in the winter. One day, I was in a high school play. We were rehearsing in a gym. Duane and Rodney Bobick [American heavyweights who plied their trade the 1970s] were there. And I got interested.”

Folstad had 60 amateur fights. In 1974, he journeyed to Denver to compete in the National Golden Gloves.

“My first two fights were pretty easy,” Rick recounts. “Then, in the quarter-finals, I fought a guy named Aaron Pryor. I did pretty well in the first round. After the second round, I went back to my corner and asked, ‘Who is this guy?’ I lost a decision but I went the distance. I think that’s pretty cool. I went the distance with Aaron Pryor.”

Folstad turned pro in 1975 and remembers, “When I put on the small gloves [eight ounces instead of ten] for my first pro fight, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be able to really nail this guy with these.’ Then I realized, ‘Hey, wait a minute! He’ll be wearing the same gloves. He’ll be able to really nail me.’”

Fighting professionally for four years, Folstad amassed a 20-2 (8 KOs) record. “I loved the one-on-on, being under the lights, seeing my name on posters,” he says.

Then he suffered a detached retina and retired as an active fighter.

“Sugar Ray Leonard fought after he’d had a detached retina, but he was making millions of dollars a fight. I couldn’t risk losing an eye for twelve hundred dollars.”

Then Folstad turned to writing. “As far back as I can remember,” he notes, “I always liked writing and I always wanted to be a writer.” Now 65, he lives in Florida with his wife (a one-time sportswriter and former features editor for the Tampa Tribune). Over the years, he has written for numerous publications and covered two Super Bowls for the Rocky Mountain News. He’s at his best when recreating the gritty details of the sport and business of boxing.

“The fact that I was a fighter still defines me,” Rick says. “I’m proud that I did it.”

Frank Lotierzo writes regularly for TheSweetScience.com. BoxRec.com lists him as having had one pro fight, a draw in 1982. But he had an impressive amateur career.

Lotierzo fell in love with boxing on the day that Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston to annex the heavyweight crown.

“From that time on,” Frank says, “all I wanted to do was box. My parents hated the idea, but eventually they let me do it. I started going to the Cherry Hill PAL as soon as I got my drivers license. My first trainer was Joey Giardello. After a while, Joey asked me, ‘Frank, do you want to be a champ in Cherry Hill or do you want to get better?’ I said I wanted to get better. So he told me to go to Joe Frazier’s gym in Philadelphia, ask for George Benton, and tell him that Joey sent me.”

Lotierzo trained at Joe Frazier’s Gym from 1978 to 1982. Frazier was there on a regular basis, working with his son, Marvis. Great fighters like Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, and Michael Spinks were always passing through.

Lotierzo remembers, “I hated it when I pulled up to the gym and saw Michael Spinks’s silver Corvette parked outside because I knew George Benton would make me spar with him. I sparred over a hundred rounds with Michael starting in 1979. And I sparred with Ray Leonard once. Ray came to the gym to train for a week before he fought Tony Chiaverini. George Benton had trained Benny Briscoe when Benny fought Chiaverini the year before, and Angelo Dundee thought Ray could learn something from Benton. I was in awe of Ray. He was so fast. I was an aggressive fighter so he had to hit me to keep me off, but he took it easy on me.”

“I was in the gym every day,” Lotierzo continues. “I loved going to the gym to train, and I was always willing to spar with those guys. In my mind I was telling myself, ‘I’m going to be fighting them for real some day.’ But the actual fights were something else. Every time I was scheduled to fight, I’d think about a way to get out of it. That was how I handled the pressure leading up to a fight. I’d tell myself, ‘If I say I injured this, if I say I can’t fight because there’s something else important I have to do that day.’ It wasn’t until my hands were wrapped and the gloves were on that I said to myself, ‘Okay. I have to fight.’”

Fighting at weights from 154 to 175 pounds, Lotierzo compiled a 52-and-2 amateur record and won the 1977 New Jersey Golden Gloves at 165 pounds.

“I was a swarmer,” Frank recalls. “Like a 165-pound Ray Mancini. Then I broke my jaw, sparring. I let it heal. It happened again in sparring. I let it heal again. And then I broken it sparring a third time. I didn’t have a glass jaw. A glass jaw is when you get knocked out. In all my fights, I was knocked down once and never knocked out. It had to do with the calcium in my bones. That’s just the way it was. So I stopped fighting.”

Lotierzo had worked as a bartender and bouncer while training at Joe Frazier’s Gym. He also attended Camden Community College and Rutgers. Later, he made good money as a stockbroker for Prudential-Bache. He now works for Dun & Bradstreet.

“After I stopped fighting,” Lotierzo reminisces, “there were so many thoughts pent up inside me. Then one night, I was having dinner with my fiancee and her sister and brother-in-law. Her brother-in-law said, ‘You should write. You have so much to say about boxing. I’d thought about writing before. That night was when I decided to do it. The first article I wrote was about Joe Frazier. That was around 2001, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I don’t talk much about what I did as a fighter. I never saved my own boxing memorabilia. But I have my memories.”

Chris Arreola once declared, “I don’t care what the writers say. They don’t throw punches. They probably never got punched in the face in their entire life. They don’t live my life.”

Tris Dixon, Frank Lotierzo, and Rick Folstad have all been punched by men trained in the art of hurting. So what they have to say about boxing is instructive, as are their thoughts on boxing writing.

Dixon: “There are some very good writers out there today. But with the Internet the way it is, things are a bit of a free-for-all. Everybody can have their voice heard. Some of them are incredibly poor writers. Some of them are incredibly good and just need a break. But I don’t know how many of them fully appreciate the difficulty of the journey, where the fighters come from and what it takes to get to the top.”

Lotierzo: “I don’t like it that anyone with a laptop can say they’re a boxing writer, and then they go out and write just to say something controversial. So many times, I see someone write, ‘He stopped fighting. He stopped throwing punches. He stopped trying to win.’ Well, things change when you get hit. When a fighter gets hit, he gets a lot more judicious with his punches.”

Folstad: “Most of the boxing media doesn’t understand what it means to be a fighter; the demands that boxing puts on you, how much it takes out of you, how intense it is. They criticize fighters without knowing any better. They don’t understand what’s involved. If the average person gets a bad cut, it’s ‘Help! Stop everything. Get me to a doctor.’ When a fighter gets cut, it’s the opposite. You’re not worried that you’re bleeding. You’re not worried about getting to a doctor. You’re worried that they might stop the fight. How many people really understand that?”

In other words, boxing looks easier from outside the ring than it does from inside the ropes.

 

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com. His most recent book – A Hard World: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.

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