Reflecting on boxing, my father, a friend, random acts of kindness

in Contributors/Scott Graber/Voices by

It is Tuesday, and I’m at the Freight Yard Pub in North Adams, Mass. The Freight Yard Pub is actually located in a freight yard, although the number of freight trains passing through has diminished since the days when North Adams made gas masks, capacitors and bomb sights for the U.S. Army. 

The Pub comes with a working fireplace fed with actual, organic, locally harvested logs; the ubiquitous football-focused monitors; and a pleasant woman who knows my name and knows that I always order the chili. 

This afternoon is quiet except for the big screen monitors showing highlights from the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. At the moment two female athletes are doing something called Tae Kwan Do. The problem — from my bar stool vantage point — is the fact that the protective padding seems to inhibit much movement. They resemble two Michelin men trying to knock each other over. 

When I was 13, I was an altar boy at the Catholic Chapel at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. I was in the first stage of adolescent rebellion and spent hours in a pew contemplating the depth and dimensions of my unhappiness. But one afternoon the Chapel’s Black, 60-year-old custodian asked, “Do you like boxing?” 

“I watch the Friday Night Fights,” I replied. 

Lemore — I cannot remember his last name — said he had two tickets to a fight that would be “televised” at a nearby baseball stadium. In those days there was a primitive closed circuit, Jumbotron-like technology that could bring black and white images from faraway places like Yankee Stadium. The following Saturday night we watched Floyd Patterson take on and beat Ingmar Johansson. 

Before I describe that fight, let me say that the boxing world was still basking in the afterglow of Sugar Ray Robinson — still remembering, in particular, the second fight between Sugar Ray and Carmen Basilio. 

In 1958, Robinson, the taller of the two men at 5 feet, 11 inches, started fast trying to put away the 5-foot-6 Basilio early. Basilio danced away from Robinson’s jab and pummeled the older man’s body. Basilio’s weapon was a left hook which was countered by Robinson’s right uppercut. Then, suddenly, Basilio’s left eye began to swell. 

A hematoma the size of an avocado made it clear that Basilio had lost vision in his left eye. Robinson went after that eye, winning rounds 7 and 8. Basilio came back in Round 9; and rounds 10 and 11 are now legendary as each man stood their ground and simply traded blow for blow. 

Sugar Ray won in a split decision, but now (1960) it was clear that Sugar Ray’s jabs, hooks and counterpunching were getting slower, less crisp and he was losing his early-round knockout ability. 

Then heavyweights Floyd Patterson and Ingmar Johansson arrived. They had each beaten the other in two earlier matches. This was the rubber match between Patterson and the huge, unsmiling Swede. 

Sitting in the stadium with Lemore that night, I saw Johansson put Patterson on the floor — twice. Then watched Patterson get up and knock-out Johansson in the sixth round. 

After the fight, we went to Lemore’s house for dinner. There we talked into the night about Archie Moore, Bobo Olson and Rocky Marciano. Lemore told me about his own amateur boxing history and how he once thought he might become a professional. 

Soon, I was spending more time with Lemore than I was spending with my own family. At the same time my relationship with my father deteriorated to the point where he seemed to welcome my absence. 

Then my father said we were leaving San Antonio — he would give up his skin graft research at the Army’s Surgical Research Unit and take over a small hospital lab in Landstuhl, Germany. When I think about that decision, some 60 years later, I think he wanted to salvage his relationship with me and thought travel through Europe would help. 

We did travel. But it didn’t help that much. 

When we left for Europe, I told Lemore and his wife that I would write. Yes, we would continue to talk about a young, up and coming fighter named Cassius Clay, who liked to imitate Sugar Ray’s dancing, jabbing, counter punching style. 

But I never did write. 

And so this afternoon I sit — Berkshire Pale Ale in hand — thinking back on Sugar Ray, Carmen Basilio, Floyd Patterson and Ingmar Johansson; and a father’s efforts to rebuild his relationship with his son. 

And I remember Lemore and random acts of kindness. 

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.