All week the kid's name had been in the papers, but not even Centerfielder was prepared. Centerfielder has spent much of his life looking out a big, dusty window of a bar next to Madison Square Garden and sitting across the street in the lobby of a hotel where he does not live. He has his name because he is never seen without an old, fraying Yankee cap pulled down to his ears, and because he fields anything left on the bar between noon and midnight; he has a great pair of hands. "I know the kid is unusual," he says, "because everybody says he is, and also because anything from Philadelphia has got to be unusual."
What Centerfielder saw that morning in the hotel lobby was "Gypsy Joe" Harris of Philadelphia (see cover), a welterweight who, right with Muhammad Ali, is the most creative and exciting fighter since Sugar Ray Robinson. Now here comes Gypsy out of the elevator and into the lobby. Gypsy's girl is waiting, Centerfielder is in his usual position, next to a gentleman who will soon be discarding his morning paper, and there are a few Negroes. All turn and look at Gypsy, who is standing in the middle of the lobby and looking like one of those people you see in the sallow light of a Greyhound bus station just before day breaks.
Moving from his feet to his head, he is wearing big, fancy boots, blue Wrangler pants, a wide belt with cows on it, a red cowboy shirt and a white cowboy hat that rests on his head like a hill of whipped cream. He stands there for a long moment, shoves the hat to the back of his head and then fingers the strand of straw dangling from his mouth. On this day, you see, Gypsy really thinks he is a cowboy. Nobody can understand this, because the only place west Gypsy had been was West Philadelphia, and if he had ever yearned for wide-open space it was at night in a bedroom with three other kids in it.
"Well," said a Negro trainer, staring at Gypsy, "I always know he different, but he the first black boy I ever see who think he's Buck Jones."
June 18, 1967
"Oh, he's just a poor, lonesome southern boy," thought another man, waiting to get his autograph. "Some red-necked cracker hit him alongside his head one day and he'll wake up and know he ain't no Gary Cooper."
"Gypsy, you sweet," said his girl, "but you sure are the funniest lookin' cowboy I ever did see."
Gypsy Joe—so named because he used to wear bells on his shoes and because of his nomadic nature—may be an aberration as a cowboy, but he is also, to be certain, a quite preposterous figure as a fighter. He is 5'5" tall, has bowed legs, a protruding stomach and his head is a croquet ball that has been whacked too many times over a cobblestone street. "I keep it shaved," he says, "because when it's greased up the punches just slide off, and it's part of my cool anyway. If somebody else had a shaved head, I'd do something else, like letting my hair grow down the middle and keeping it shaved on both sides." He strives, obviously, to be unique, but he does not have to.
Even Gypsy's entrance before a fight is hardly conventional. He is, because he is so small, difficult to locate during his parade to the ring. All one ever sees are the two whalelike manager-trainers Willie Reddish and Yancey Durham, both of whom wear red-and-black smoking jackets and, smiling and waving, look like they are strolling leisurely out of a Harlem men's club. When Gypsy is fighting away from Philadelphia, the crowd roars in disbelief as he enters the ring. "I always love that first roar," he says. "Shows they 'preciate my threads."
The threads consist of a black hood over his head, a three-quarter length, double-breasted, red-satin robe with a black bow on the back and red shoes. Gypsy waits for the first roar to fade and, then, with the timing of a stripper, he sheds his robe and displays the rest of his ensemble: red-satin trunks with two black buttons on each side. "Sweeter than wine," they scream in Philadelphia. "You sweeter than wine, Joe."
"José Stable once knocked three of the buttons off my trunks," says Gypsy, indicating his concern for his appearance, "and I get so mad, I rip off the fourth button myself."
So there he is in the ring, and right away you think of a toy clown with a key in its back, but before long he seems to become more like, say, boxing's contribution to the period. He takes his place alongside Twiggy, the letter opener who is Europe's retaliation for Coca-Cola and George Raft, alongside Timothy Leary, Michelangelo hair, banana peelings that turn you on and the Mafia gravediggers who did not do a very good job of covering up recently in New Jersey.
Artistically, Gypsy is almost beyond description. He is a master at improvisation, a skillful clown whose strange moves are an admixture of a stockade shuffle and a dance created by some demented choreographer. The moves are his best weapons. He is not a dangerous puncher, but, because of the volume and accuracy of his punches, his hands are can openers. There are no blueprints for his fights. "He don't make plans," says Reddish, "because he don't know what he gonna do till he do it." Often, for instance, he will be in the middle of a volcanic flurry and he will suddenly stop, turn away as if he forgot something in his corner and then bing! bing! bing!—he is erupting again.
It is evident, too, that he has the temerity of Centerfielder, who, like Gypsy, seems to delight in taking risks. Centerfielder believes he is not fully tested across a day unless he tries to trap a drink while its owner is in the men's room. Gypsy, by his actions, believes he should give his opponent every chance to hit him. He rolls in with his arms folded by his chest and his chin exposed. He drops his hands by his side. He holds the rope with one hand, and hammers you with the other. Soon you begin to feel embarrassed for his opponent.
"I couldn't jab him," said Welterweight Champion Curtis Cokes, following his loss to Gypsy in an over-the-weight fight in the Garden this March. "He don't have a style. He just stands there and acts the monkey. I hit him a few times, but he'd just wobble and come back. He's a tough kid. They got to give me a roomful of money to fight him for the title, and there ain't enough to get me to fight him in New York."
Nevertheless, next week in Dallas, Cokes will fight Gypsy again, this time for the title. Gypsy is unbeaten in 20 fights, but Cokes, a passive workman with a good uppercut and a monotonous attack of jab, hook and right-hand counter, knows he has a big edge. He is aware that there are few fighters around today who can handle Gypsy, but he is also confident that Harris will not take the title unless he wins by an impressive margin, which is unlikely. Nobody wins big against Cokes, especially anywhere near Texas. If the title does not change hands merely because of geography, the welterweight division and boxing will have been robbed of a special brilliance and flash it can ill afford, and Gypsy's future, even though he is only 21, will be open to serious doubt. He is, unfortunately, a Philadelphia fighter, a breed that does not stay motivated long. "The Jungle," which shoves them into the gym, often lures them away much too soon.
The Jungle—250,000 Negroes in four square miles of North Philadelphia—is where many of the Philadelphia fighters are harvested. It is a bleak, fetid pocket, and each street seems to have the same smells, sights and sounds; the smell of chitlings, cabbage, stale beer and cheap wine; the click of balls floating out from inside dark pool rooms with no names, the clicking playing counterpoint to Gospel music and the sad chanting of love lost on a Saturday night. The pictures: men playing tonk and pinochle on steps, kids with door keys around their necks sparring in the streets and, as daylight hides, the black-shrouded preachers standing on corners and wailing to the sky for mercy for their brothers.
Then there are the scenes:
"Lady," asks the white news vendor, hesitantly, "you gonna buy that paper?"
"I don't know, maybe," she answers.
"Well, you've been lookin' at it 10 minutes," he says.
"You're crazy, meester, that's what you are," she says.
"Well, you started on the front page," he says, "and already you're up to Dear Abby."
"O.K., here, take the paper," she counters, feigning hurt. "I just wanted to see what the white folks are up to today."
The preacher stands on the corner, just about ready to dispatch his audience to hellfire, when a boy interrupts and says:
"Preacher man, tell us how we kin be saved?"
"Go 'way, boy," the preacher replies sharply, "you're makin' mock of the Lord."
"Hey, preacher man," says the boy, "what you got in that bag in back of you?"
"Nothin' but the Holy Bible, sinner," the man answers.
The boy pretends to leave and sneaks around the crowd and in back of the preacher. He reaches into the bag and pulls out a bottle of gin.
"Hey, preacher man, here's your Bible" the boy says, jumping in front of the man. The preacher reaches for the bottle, but the boy races down the street and the preacher is in pursuit, calling after him sorrowfully.
The Jungle, then, is what Gypsy Joe calls his turf. This is where he was born and raised and may leave only if he becomes champion; a fighter is an important man in the Jungle. "If you fight, you're somebody here," says Al Massey, a 19-year-old lightweight and stable-mate of Gypsy's with a beautiful talent. "Once I saw Emile Griffith sitting all by himself in New York. I couldn't figure it out, you know. A fighter is never alone here. Somebody is always with you. Everybody wants to give you something. Gypsy doesn't own a car, but he drives one every night anyway. Gypsy is the king here. He builds a crowd wherever he goes or whatever he does."
All of them know the private places in each other's hearts. The clothes are the same, the cars are long and sleek, and the talk is always of some distant time when they will trade in all of their pain—the rope burns, cuts and headaches—for a good and happy life in which nothing is inaccessible. But the fighters all know each other, and know that in the private places there are no hidden dreams. To be big in Philadelphia is the only dream. "You don't know what it is," says Al Massey, "to walk down the street and everybody out there waves to you." Yet it does not last long. The slide begins, the end is invariable. Obscurity claims the fighter after the fragrant foxes, hearts empty and hands out, have fled, after the savagery of the gym wars has left him empty. Broadway shows open and close in Philadelphia, but so do fighters.
Gypsy is a familiar figure in the blue light of the Jungle nightclubs, but he travels alone, and his moves through the day and night are those of a phantom.
"What about Gypsy?" a guy named Mr. Strange is asked in Champ's Gym. "You know about him? Where can he be reached?"
"Man," says Mr. Strange, "have you ever heard of Peter Gunn? Well, do you know what Peter does when he goes to see Mother for information? Well, if you don't know, he reaches in his pocket and lays some paper on Mother. You got any paper? No? Well, all I can say is he's been seen."
"They say he goes through money pretty good."
"Go through money? Man, he put gasoline and a match to that paper," says Mr. Strange.
"Where does it go?" Mr. Strange is asked. "A big wardrobe?"
"Yeah, some wardrobe," he replies. "He buys his suits in places where you get three pairs of pants with each suit for $10. Go ask Willie what he does with his money. He don't know either."
Willie Reddish, a big, heavy man with mournful eyes, is sprawling in a chair in a small room next to the gym. He is sleeping. He has been waiting for Gypsy for three hours. Finally he awakes, seemingly jolted out of his slumber.
"Is that boy here yet?" Willie hollers.
"No, not yet, Willie," he is told.
"And he ain't gonna be here, either," mumbles Willie. "I don't know what I kin do to git him in here."
"Willie," says a girl, walking up to him, "Gypsy says for you to give me some money."
"I gave you some yesterday," says Willie, annoyed.
"But that was yesterday," says the girl.
"Go on, git out of here, woman," says Willie. The woman leaves, and Willie says: "Every day it's the same thing. Only the faces of the girls change."
"Do you know where he can be found, Willie?" he is asked.
"Who knows?" answers Willie. "But if you find him you tell me. He got a title fight comin' up, and he ain't hit a lick yet in this gym."
The search for Gypsy, by day, begins in the pool rooms in the Jungle. He is always in some pool room, but the proprietors have never heard of him.
"Have you seen Gypsy Joe around?" one is asked.
"Gypsy Joe Harris."
"I don't know anybody by that name," he says cautiously. "Now that's a mighty unusual name, and I'd remember it. Now, let me see. No, never heard of the man." All white men requesting information in the Jungle are presumed to be cops.
Gypsy Joe was finally located by accident hours later. He was walking down the street, eating a candy bar. His pockets are always jammed with candy, and the candy, along with his favorite drink of Scotch and milk, makes it extremely aggravating for him to make the weight. Eventually he will be forced to move up to the middleweight division.
"Man, I hear you been lookin' for me?" he says. "All you had to do is come by the 'partment."
"That was tried. You're never home."
"Well, let's go," he says.
The apartment, just off Columbia Avenue, is on the second floor, and it is dark and cool. "Not bad, huh?" he says. "I figure I'm movin' up in the world, so I got myself a better place." Gypsy then goes to the refrigerator, takes out some applesauce, eats it and chases it with a beer. He then sits down and stares vacantly out of the window, his eyes hidden by sunglasses.
"Gypsy, have you ever heard of Sam Langford?" he is asked.
"No, can't say that I have.' "
"Well, he was once a great fighter who said: 'You can sweat oat the wine, but you can't sweat oat the women.' "
"Maybe he's right," says Gypsy.
"Do you have a tough time staying out of trouble in the Jungle?"
"No, not too much," he smiles. "Mainly because I'm a coward, man. I'm scared. I been scared all my life. I was scared of my science teacher who used to hit me in the head with a book. I even became a fighter 'cause I was scared. I was about 9, and one day I knocked an ice cream cone out of a big kid's hand by accident, you know. A whole mob of them chased me. I tried every door in the block, but they were all locked. Finally, I run into the P.A.L. gym. So I see the guys boxin', and I figured I'd betta get on to some of that. I've been in the gym ever since. I'm not kiddin'. I've always been scared. That's why I carry this."
He pulls from his pocket a push-button knife with a 4½-inch blade.
"What do you call that?"
"I call that 60 years in jail," he says.
"You got to be crazy carrying that."
"Oh, I just keep it around for an equalizer. Nobody fights fair out in those streets. I only had to use it once. Once I was with my girl on my way home, and she stopped and went in this bar to get a beer. I waited in the car. It was right after a fight, and I fell asleep. My girl has my money in her purse, $168. All of a sudden she comes runnin' out and says somebody stole the money. Well, I rush in there and start to wave my sword. I line 'em all up and start searchin' 'em. I started with my girl first. You got to keep your eye on them foxes."
"Did you get mixed up in the riots in 1964?"
"No, not really," he says. "But I finally couldn't help it when I see these three men tryin' to load a refrigerator into a car. I split my sides laughin', 'cause they don't even know how to steal right. The cops came and hauled them away, and while they were bein' taken this chick jumps up on top of the refrigerator and starts screamin', 'Black men unite!' I said to myself, baby, I'm gonna unite all right, and then Gypsy started diggin' in himself. It wasn't anything worth much. Just small things. I'm just too scared to be a crook."
"Gypsy, what do you do with all the money?"
"I don't know," he says. "That paper just goes. I support three children, too, but I got to see about that. I know the first two are mine, but all I know about the third is his name is Tyrone. I don't know who he is. The happiest day in my life is gonna be when I can jam my pockets full of money and get lost where nobody kin find me."
"Is that what you're going to do if you win the title?"
"No, I'll defend it six times," he says, "and then I'll retire and open a pool room."
Soon he left the apartment. Night was falling. He was walking by a church with a store front, and inside a man was holding his hands up and bellowing. There were only four people in the church. "Man," said Gypsy, "don't they know people ain't gonna listen to what they don't wanna hear?" That night, his head moist and glistening, his white teeth flashing, he slid over a nightclub floor doing the Temptation Walk, and with each step the crowd sang: Gypsyyy. He was a long way from Sam Langford, long ago found blind and busted and alone in a Harlem room. Gypsy Joe Harris was a Philadelphia fighter, and that is a very special thing.