For Al Jones the choice of employment wasn't all that inspiring. To be sure, there were cabbages and beans and peas to be picked. But he had done that and he hated it. Then there was the man who offered him a job in a used-car lot, not as a salesman but as a sponge-and-suds jockey, and who wants to spend a lifetime scrubbing grime from one-owner cars? "You gotta sweep out the office, too," said the man. "O.K.," said Jones, sighing, "give me a dollar an hour and I'm yours." The man came up a nickel to 80¢ an hour. "Stick your broom in your ear," said Jones, not unkindly.
"I was just out of the Army and I had nothing going for me but this big body [6'5" and 230 pounds] and 20 years of fighting. Just a high school dropout with muscles and meanness, and, when somebody offered me a job bouncing drunks out of a bar, I said sure, what have I got to lose. That's when, man, I really got to fighting. I mean those were drunk people. Full-grown men and every night you had to fight them because they need violence the way other people need food."
"Tell him about the guy you worked with, that other bouncer who got killed," said Pappy Alexander, busily sweeping the kitchen of the duplex he shares with Angelo Dundee's once-beaten heavyweight. (Jones lost his very first fight, on June 11, 1964, before Dundee began handling him, and is now 25-1-1.)
"I'm getting to that," said Jones. He settled back on a gold couch, eyes closed, remembering. With one finger he followed a range of tough scar ridges around his eyes. "These are my battle scars. I'm lucky I still got a head to wear them on. Every night in that bar was a war; always some drunken bean-picker running out the door to get his gun. Howard, the other bouncer, wasn't so lucky. One of those drunks got a gun and blew his face off."
October 28, 1968
"A bad thing," Pappy said solemnly.
The small concrete-block duplex is in Goulds, a sprawling, unscrubbed farming community, mostly Negro, squatting in the hot dust alongside of Highway U.S. 1, half an hour's drive south of Miami. Like the paint on the houses, hope fades quickly here. "Don't tell me about any ghettos," said Jones. "This has got to be doubly bad, or at least it was when I was growing up. These people aren't like people, you know what I mean? They are farm laborers and that's nothing. You can tell these people anything, that their eyes are black, that they are colored, that their hair is kinky, and if they're not in the mood to hear that, you got to fight them. It was that way, man. These people have lost themselves; there is no way to reclaim them."
Outside, a brief breeze began scuffing up the dust. A puff of coolness came in through the open front door. A dozen flies followed. "You have got just two choices here," said Jones. "Sweat or bugs. It's a great way to live. You know, for most people it's just an existence, a mere existence. You live from day to day, until, you know, sometimes with people things change. For the worse sometimes, sometimes for the better. Me, I found a way out. I reclaimed myself. I went into the ring and found what life really is. Regardless if I make it as a fighter or not, I learned how to live like a human being."
"I told you he was a nut," Pappy said, softly. "He thinks climbing into a ring gives him better than what he's got. Now who would believe that?"
"Teddy, this is Angelo Dundee. How about getting me a fight with Buster Mathis?"
"Are you serious?" said Teddy Brenner, almost dropping his phone in the Garden boxing office. "You really will fight Mathis?"
"Certainly," said Dundee. "My kid will take any date, just give us a couple of weeks notice. We'll even take short money."
"Angelo, are you drunk? Jimmy Ellis will fight Buster Mathis for short money?" What the hell are you talking about, an exhibition?"
Angelo Dundee had to laugh. "Get serious. I'm not talking about Ellis; I'm talking about Al Jones. You know the rules: anybody wants to fight Ellis has got to fight my policeman first. Whaddaya say?"
"No problem," Brenner purred. "No problem at all. Just send two contracts. One for Jones and Mathis and one for Ellis and Mathis in case Buster beats your policeman. Is that what you had in mind?"
"Goodby," said Angelo Dundee.
Three weeks after quitting as a bouncer, Jones went into the Auditorium at Miami Beach and decisioned Lee Andrews in four rounds, his first fight for Dundee. Since then he has won 23 more, 15 of them by knockouts, and has fought a 10-round draw with Zora Folley. All of his fights have been in south Florida, the majority of them for Chris Dundee, Angelo's older brother, who is the promoter in Miami Beach. Most of the people he has fought have names like Joe Lewis White and Jefferson Davis and Roosevelt Eddie, but he becomes annoyed if you suggest that they passed their prefight physicals only because the doctors neglected to check to see if they were alive.
"Look," he says. "Call me a bum. Call me anything you want. But don't say anything about the guys I fought. Just for climbing in a ring they deserve better than that. Even a bum doesn't like to be called a bum."
"Ernie, this is Angelo Dundee. How would you like to have a shot at Jimmy Ellis?"
"How about tonight?" said Ernie Terrell.
"Well, not quite that soon," said Dundee. "First you got to fight my policeman: Al Jones. That's the rule. Whaddaya say?"
"Sounds O.K. to me," said Terrell. "Just give me two pieces of paper with your name on them. One for Jones and one for Ellis and we can do business."
"Ernie, Ernie, what is it with you guys? Two contracts. Nobody signs two at a time. Fight Jones, beat him, and then we'll talk about Ellis."
"Goodby," said Ernie Terrell.
"Nobody wants to fight a giant southpaw," Dundee moans. "How you going to move a kid when you can't get anybody in the ring with him? So I figure we'll make him into a righthander. Then maybe we can do something."
For his last fight, against Jim Howard—in Miami Beach, of course—Jones was a righthander. For 30 seconds. For just long enough to have Howard throw one punch and knock him down. It was the first time Jones had ever been off his feet.
"It felt so good," Jones said later, "I almost asked Howard to do it again."
At the time, however, Jones looked up at Dundee and screamed, "Take all the righthanders and stick them in your ear." He got up a southpaw, assaulted Howard for five rounds, stopped him in the sixth.
"Floyd, this is Angelo Dundee."
"Goodby," said Floyd Patterson, who had heard.
"If this kid would just get serious," says Chris Dundee, who gives Jones $100 a week plus 25% of each gate in order to secure his services, "he could be a real good one. But all he wants to do is fool around, chase girls, talk. That's all he does in the gym, talk. And all he does outside is spend my money. We pay the rent on his car, and in the last two years he's come in with bills for 44 sets of new tires. What does he do with tires, eat them?"
"He's just 24," said Angelo, sighing. "Press the right button and Jones will be ready for anybody. I'm still looking for the right button."
"Look at Al," says Pappy Alexander. "He's a monster. Every time he walks into the ring he's supposed to kill somebody. If he doesn't, people say he's dogging it. What do they want from him?"
Al Jones knows, and in his own way he feels he is giving it to the Dundees and to the fans.
"They say I do nothing but run around with girls," he says. "I don't argue. Like just the other day. A neighbor woman asked me to drive her to Miami. I said sure, but she'd have to come with me to the gym while I trained. She said she would. When we got there you could see the guys looking and grinning. 'Al's got another girl.' I didn't say nothing. If they want to believe that, let them. I know what Al Jones is doing, and I know—if I goof up—what I've got to go back to. I quit school, and it was the dumbest, stupidest thing I could have done, but that don't make me stupid. I'm not going back to that jungle, not for just a few laughs."
Except when he is training or fighting, Al Jones shuns the magic of Miami Beach. Big cities—and people—scare him. He is a familiar figure in Goulds but mostly he travels alone. When you are alone, no one can hurt you. When night falls, he goes home, turns on all the lights in the house. And they stay on until the sun returns.
"I've been afraid of things ever since I can remember," he says. "The dark, strangers, crowds. Counting my doctors and things, I've got maybe just 15 people I associate with. I mean I don't associate with anybody else, period. When people say something, it gotta be something to hurt your feelings, you know. I don't dig people, see. I stay away from them. I guess I'm just sensitive. They may make jokes about me, but I don't care—as long as I don't hear them. You know, when I go out I don't tell people who I am, that I'm a fighter. Lots of people look at me and think I'm a football player. I say, 'That's right.' If people don't know you, they can't hurt you."
It is evident, now, that if Jones is to grow as a fighter—had you heard of him before?—he must leave Miami Beach, leave the familiar wails of "house decisions," leave the concrete hideaway in Goulds where the lights burn all night.
"I'm ready," he says grimly. "I've been telling the Dundees that for a year. I'll go anyplace and fight anybody. I'm ready for top money just like I'm ready for top fighters. I've had enough fighting in my lifetime, more than most champions. Now I want some money. I let Chris know where I'm at. He's a bright man. I told him to make the right appointments for the right money. Even if I have to fight Sonny Liston."
"Hello, this is Angelo Dundee. Is Sonny around?"