Not so long ago,Ezzard Charles, whose attitude toward his profession even when he had theskills was dispassionate, and now, on the slide of years, is that of a man insober pursuit of the buck, sat in a dressing room at New York's St. NicholasArena. A few minutes before, he had been the first ex-heavyweight champion toappear at St. Nick's, the oldest operating fight club in America, which,although it seats only 3,500, is known to millions from the Monday nighttelecasts. Charles had also just been defeated by an opponent 12 years hisjunior.
"When I was aboy," he said gently, "I used to listen to the fights from St. Nick'sand wonder if I'd ever make it there on the way up. Well, I didn't, not untilnow when I'm going down."
What Charlesfinally came to is a three-story building fronting nearly a quarter of thesomber block between Central Park and Columbus Avenue on West 66th Street. Itis bordered by a bowling alley and bar and one of those tall garages which,unlike St. Nick's, has cool innards even in summer.
St. Nick's isbuilt in the grim lines of the Italian Renaissance, but it has its crust oflatter-century furbelows, which architects used to squeeze on their urbanstructures like pastry cooks. Hanging out over the sidewalk is a crazy orangefire escape, dependent from chains and a system of pulleys, which looks morelike a run for mountain goats than a way out.
The arena waserected in 1896 for the hockey club of the same name. According to the mostreliable account, the first boxing matches were staged there in the summer of1911. It has also been used for roller skating, bowling, basketball, ballroomdancing, social gatherings and wrestling. Today, only fitful performances ofthe last three go on inside.
It did, however,like Ozymandias' works, have a glorious past not apparent from the remains. Thepast resides truly, if not accurately in all its details, in the memories ofthose who moved in it. Such a longtime mover is Doc Moore, a spare, alert oldgentleman who saw the fighters at St. Nick's when they were, as he lovinglytells it, "masters who learned their trade and knew all the moves":masters like Jack Britton, Ted (Kid) Lewis, Harry Greb, Kid Chocolate, SamLangford, Jack Blackburn, Joe Walcott (the original), Abe Attell, TerryMcGovern, Stanley Ketchel, Tony Canzoneri, Al Singer and Benny Leonard.
Doc Moore was oneof the finest of managers, matchmakers and trainers, or, as he would prefer it,teachers. "Sure, there are millions of trainers today," he says,"but very few teachers."
"St. Nick'shockey rink," Moore recalled recently, "had one of the first machinesthat made ice, and people used to come and buy it in big cakes. They didn'tlike to put that artificial stuff in their drinks, though. Scared it hadchemicals in it.
"CorneliusFellowes first owned the place, a fine-looking man and a real sport. I read theother day that he's alive in Florida somewhere. Harry Pollock was the fightpromoter then and the manager of Freddie Welsh, Young Corbett—lots of them. Agreat dude he was; drank champagne, carried a cane and dressed to kill. Onlytime they'd run a fight at St. Nick's would be in the summer, on account of thehockey. The other night I went back there. It was pretty warm inside and noair-conditioning. You don't see any rich people going to fights on a night likethat. They're home with their air-conditioning and television. That's the wayit was then. No high-hats and gowns. Just the workingman. You know, in thesummer the fights at St. Nick's are back with the people they always belongedto—the workingman.
"AfterPollock it was either the McMahon boys or Jimmy Johnston who ran the boxing. Iwas preliminary matchmaker for Johnston when a boy would get $5 for four roundsand $15 for six [the current St. Nick's scale is $75 and $150].
"Oh, St.Nick's was a beautiful place then," Moore continued. "It was a dancehall too, you know. They had a big dome up there of cut glass and a beautifulmarble staircase leading up to the hall. And postal cards, like they have inrestaurants, depicting that glass dome, which you could send to friends. Abeautiful neighborhood too; steak house on the corner with a high-class trade;people in show business. We'd get one of those show-broads sneaking into St.Nick's every so often dressed in men's pants.
"I rememberone night Sam Langford was to fight Battling Johnson, a big heavyweight who hadfought them all. Before the fight Johnson says he's sick and won't go on. Dr.Thompson was the ring doctor then, a very natty little fellow and a greattalker, but he couldn't do a thing to convince Johnson otherwise. But there wasa fellow around named Paulie Bracken who trained jockeys. Jimmy Johnston toldPaulie to pretend he was a doctor, examine Johnson and tell him he was allright so they could get on with the fight. Paulie took off with a black bagwhich he thought was the doctor's, put the big man on a table and opened thebag so he'd have some instruments to fiddle around with. Inside, though, it'sfull of screwdrivers and tape because it was left around by some electricianand wasn't Dr. Thompson's at all. Didn't bother Paulie, though. He flippedJohnson on his stomach, pounded on his back, turned him over, tapped his lungs,took his pulse and said: 'Mr. Johnson, you're the strongest man I've ever seen.Get your tights on and go out there and fight.' Johnson did."
In the 1940s,after a succession of promoters, St. Nick's was taken over by Mike Jacobs todevelop star-bout performers for his Madison Square Garden shows and tomaintain the continuity for his radio broadcasts when the Garden was dark, asthe parochialists in the fight game say. This means that the circus or rodeo isplaying there. In 1947 Jacobs' matchmaker at the arena was a forthright youngman named Teddy Brenner. Brenner today is promoter and matchmaker of his ownNew York Boxing Club which puts on the fights from—this, an insidious TVterm—St. Nick's.
Brenner was bornin Brooklyn 39 years ago. He got his first boxing job through a palship withIrving Cohen, the manager of Rocky Graziano, who in 1946 was making matches fora club in New Brunswick, N.J. The way Brenner relates it, he kept nudging Cohenfor the rationale of matching so-and-so with so-and-so and not so-and-so, untilone day, driving back from Jersey, Cohen turned to him and said: "You'realways talking of why I should have done what I didn't. I'm busy. You do itfrom now on in." Brenner's most celebrated work from then on in until St.Nick's was as matchmaker at Brooklyn's Eastern Parkway.
Running a fightclub in the television era requires, first of all, television. Otherwise youdon't run a fight club. You do something else. Brenner concedes that he wouldbe able to operate without it only if there were no televised bouts at all."If people can watch fights for nothing on a Wednesday and a Friday,"he says, "why should they come to my place and pay something on aMonday?" Next in importance is making the matches. Some managers leavingBrenner's office moan up and down Eighth Avenue about favoritism, deals,high-handed methods. As: "Who does he offer me for an opponent? An animal,that's who. They have to bring him up from Baltimore in a cage." Or:"The only way he gives you a fight is to lose two in a row. Only how can Iget my fighter in so I can drop the pair?" That, though, is the way thingsare in the game and not a condemnation of Brenner. It is said that there arebarely 10 managers in the country making more than $100 a week from boxing.
Bouts have to bemuch more evenly matched for TV fights than before too, for, as Brennerexplains it, "If there are too many quick knockouts the sponsor gets jobbedout of his commercials." He also finds that good boxers don't come acrosson TV as well as punchers. A puncher and a clever fellow who is alsoevasive—i.e., able to keep out of the way—make the ideal match. And if it's amixed bout, one between a Negro and white performer, it pulls even better.
It was one of DocMoore's warm, workingman nights at St. Nick's last Monday. Smoke blued the highhall, and the guys in the narrow wooden gallery stamped on the boards and toldthe fighters what to throw, needled the ref. It was all there but the masterswith their lovely, learned moves. It is said that their clever likes won't beseen again. TV is the villain of the piece, foreclosing the small clubs andgyms where the fighter learns by watching and imitating. "I used to make myboys watch the masters for hours," Moore says, "but who is there towatch now?" The club and the gym are the necessary corpus of the game, andmust be protected. Otherwise, it's like the guy hollered in St. Nick's:"Hit him in the stomach, kid. Hit him in the stomach. If you kill the body,then the head must die."
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ST. NICK'S AVERAGE WEEKLY STATEMENT
*Average since March at $5 top, maximum seating of3,500. Expected to rise in winter.