Every time a professional prizefighter retires undefeated I get a feeling of kinship. When it came to fisticuffs, I, too, had an enviable record for consistency. Of numerous fights I engaged in I lost them all—every single one.
My first fight took place when I was 6 or 7. We lived in a Boston suburb, in what you might call fair-to-middling circumstances. My father made a modest income, and the family, both sides of it, was strictly middle class—no escutcheons, no blue blood, no pretensions to such.
On the way to school I had to walk through a rather tough neighborhood, and one day I got waylaid by one of its denizens. The boy—I remember he had red hair and a lot of freckles—called me a number of names I did not understand and declared that I was a stuck-up snoot who thought I was better than he was just because my father wore a white collar and worked in Boston.
He followed this up by asking me if I wanted to fight, and I was rash enough to say yes. The battle was of short duration. Even though he was a year or so my junior, my opponent outclassed me in all departments, landing a battery of rights and lefts to all parts of my physiognomy. In short order, I retired screaming in terror, with a black eye and a bloody nose. My only satisfaction was that I was able to escape before he floored me, a record I was able to maintain through most of my career.
One familiar with American mores might point out that this fight followed a typical social pattern—the immigrant's son usually licks the kid whose family has things just a little bit easier. The hungry fighter wins—and I suppose I did eat a little bit better, most of the time, than Red.
Our social critic might be right in general—I think he is—but he would have been wrong in my particular case. A year or so later I joined an Outing Class conducted by an ex-college athlete who coached our group of boys in such sports as football, baseball and track. And for one Saturday morning—unfortunately—boxing.
The opponent selected for me was a lad who lived in a mansion the size of the average French chateau. His mother was a Mayflower descendant, his father had 100 times as much money as my father if he had a dime.
On the class theory I have mentioned, it followed that if Red had licked me I should be able to annihilate this spoonfed aristocrat, didn't it? It did not. We squared off, and instantly I felt that I was being battered by a human-sized centipede. I never even got to launch a blow before our coach mercifully stepped in and broke up the "contest."
As the years passed, my home-town record of quick one-sided losses continued, and in time I was sent away to prep school. For reasons which should be obvious by now, I tried to avoid fights, but you never know. One day, engaged in some perfectly good-natured roughhousing with a friend, I accidentally knocked a pipe out of his mouth. Instantly he hauled off and landed a straight left between my eyes, causing me to stagger and reel back about six or eight feet. I started to retaliate, but then I reflected that, since I had broken his pipe, he had a stronger moral position than I had and I let the blow pass. However, the incident led me to the thought that it might be a good idea to take some boxing lessons.
The school's professional instructor was a wiry little Scotsman named Andy Kendall, who stood only a mite over 5 feet and could not have weighed more than 110 after a seven-course dinner. Because of this and because my father was willing to supply the requisite funds, I signed up for six or eight lessons and in so doing probably set up an alltime record for noncontact in the history of fisticuffs. I was by then a gangling youngster, and I had about a 50-pound weight advantage and around a foot in height and reach over Andy. He could, of course, have floored me instantly if he chose, but he was canny, like most of his breed, and knew which side his bread was buttered on. His lessons were on a day-to-day basis, and to discourage a fledgling pupil by busting him one on the proboscis could dry up his source of income at the very start. Andy therefore made it a practice never to hit a beginning pupil—or any pupil—unless he was dead sure the latter was capable of absorbing the punishment.
He started me off with the left jab, which meant that he had me launching a series of jabs at his jaw, all of which he dodged with such ridiculous ease that the punches might just as well have been started from Stockholm or the interior of Tibet. Since Andy made no attempt at counterpunching I faced no danger of getting hurt, but he was constantly urging me to jab faster. The result was that I wound up each session untouched but totally exhausted.
The worst of it was that Andy was always breathing encouragement. "That's a good jab," he kept telling me as he dodged and sidestepped effortlessly. "Very good indeed, lad—getting better all the time." It may very well be that I developed the most unique jab in the history of fisticuffs. But it had yet to find a target when I had completed my final lesson.
The lessons over, I went around the campus a little cockier perhaps than before. At last a boy who had been making a practice of needling me made an unusually insulting remark. Secure in my new skill, I launched my left jab—my $50 left jab—at him. It missed.
And then an extraordinary thing happened. As I saw him start to retaliate, some instinct made me pinion his arms. I then put a foot behind his heel, pushed with all my might and flung him to the ground. There was a brief following struggle, and I had him on his back.
I then got a strong grip on his left arm and started twisting. "You take back what you said?" I demanded, twisting harder.
He cussed a little, then gave an agonized yell of pain. "All right," he said. "I take it back."
My perfect record was smashed to smithereens! Maybe, I thought as I pondered the wreckage, I should have been a wrestler all along.