It's a great thing to be in on the making of a champ. I know, because my buddy, Tom Farley, and I had the experience a long time ago when we were both about 15. It was during the Depression, and our hero was a promising young welterweight named Jimmy McGonnigal. He was a kid from a family of Scottish shipbuilders who had left the banks of the Clyde to stake their hopes on the bright new world and ended up in my home town of Weymouth, Mass.
Jimmy had decided to forgo shipbuilding for the quicker rewards of the prize ring, and, after a couple of years of club fighting, he got his big chance—a match with Lou Brouillard. Lou was a battleship of a boy who had come out of the north woods and chopped his way close to the top of his division. Everybody said he was a cinch for the championship.
The match was to be a 10-rounder, the main event on a card at Keene, N.H. Keene is not now and never exactly was the boxing capital of the world. Nonetheless, it took on the character of a holy city for me and Tom. We determined to make a pilgrimage there.
To the mobile, affluent youth of today, a trip of 60-odd miles from Weymouth to Keene is merely a Coke hop. In that pre-Honda era, it loomed as a cross-country leap. Nevertheless, we got parental permission for the trip and thumbed a ride to Keene the night before the fight despite the fact that we had not a single cent in our jeans. For lodging, we did what many kids did in those days. We went to police headquarters and stated our case. Once the desk sergeant had satisfied himself that we were not a pair of out-of-town hoods in to make a killing on the big fight, he let us sleep in a cell. Not, however, before warning us that our boy McGonnigal was outclassed.
Tom and I hung around town next day until the hour for the fight drew near. Then we made our way to the hotel where McGonnigal was staying. Dressed in khaki pants and a sweat shirt, Jimmy grinned out at us through his unshaven face and asked, "How did you guys get here?"
We told him how we had spent the night in the jailhouse, figuring that this would qualify us as loyal rooters if nothing else would.
He looked at us, shook his head, then asked, "You kids had anything to eat lately?"
We mumbled something about a big breakfast. "Here," said Jimmy, and handed me a dollar. "Go downstairs and grab a bite. Be back here in 20 minutes. After that, we'll see what we can do."
Half an hour later we all drove to a barnlike arena on the edge of the city. At the door, the ticket-taker nodded to McGonnigal and asked, "Who are these guys?"
"They're in my corner," said Jimmy, winking. The man grinned, and we swept by. Except for watching Jimmy train at our local gymnasium, I had never seen a prizefight. The noise, the smell of sweat and smoke and steaming breath, the sight of glistening bodies grappling in an island of light filled the place with a bright magic. I knew at that moment what it was like to be a prizefighter—it was all bright, endless excitement and glory and swaggering triumph.
Jimmy led the way to a back room, where he conferred with two of his brothers, his official handlers. He got into his trunks, and on his shoulders he draped his bathrobe, a shabby, silken thing that, in our eyes, took on the majesty of a toga. Moments later Tom and I were huddled by ringside. Above us danced the pride of our home town, our friend and benefactor, wearing white trunks and weighing 145 pounds, the one, the only, the original Jimmy McGonnigal. He tried the ropes, flexed his muscles, banged one glove against the other and smiled down at us. It was like knowing a prince of the blood.
Then Brouillard clambered into the ring, and the brightness that suffused the hall when we first came in suddenly lost its warmth.
The gong struck, and Brouillard came storming from his corner. Our boy was fast on his feet. He was brave, and he was clever. And he was hopelessly overmatched. Before the first round was over Jimmy was bleeding from a gash above one eye, and his nose looked like a dish of cherry ice cream. But the hurts he suffered were nothing compared to the agony Tom and I felt. Every time Lou hit Jimmy we felt it in the pit of our stomachs. By the fifth round all we wanted was for the punishment to stop. Nobody needed money that much, and surely no fame, no glory, was worth such torture.
When the gong sounded to end the fight five interminable rounds later, either Brouillard didn't hear it, or he was so engrossed in his work that he forgot to heed it. In any case, as Jimmy turned to stumble back to his corner he caught a bonus Brouillard left hook in the gut. The referee pulled Brouillard back, motioned him to his corner, then grabbed McGonnigal's right arm and held it aloft. Victory was ours, albeit on a foul, but all we cared about was that the ordeal finally was ended.
Back in the dressing room, Tom and I stood by with lumped throats and tied tongues as Jimmy's brothers patched him up. We shuffled out through the deserted arena to a car that one of the brothers owned. Tom and I were invited to come along with Jimmy & Co., and we did. The ride back in that frosty September midnight was a somber one. Nobody could think of much to say. Once Jimmy turned to the brother who was driving and spoke quietly. "He's tough, that guy—tough. He'll make it."
When Tom and I got out in the town square and mumbled our thanks, Jimmy leaned over and said, through swollen lips, "Thanks for coming, kids. Hope you enjoyed the fight."
We said we had enjoyed it very much. We lied.
As we started off, Jimmy said something else. "You kids were lucky—the first prizefight you ever saw—and, whether you realized it or not, you saw a champion in action."
We realized that, all right.