He's driving me up a wall," wailed Roger Sala, the fight manager out of Pittsfield, Mass. "When he climbs in a ring I don't know if he's gonna break out in an aria, recite Shakespeare or throw punches. One time I'm telling him something in the gym and he's not listening. Then he looks up and says, 'You know, Roger, I was just thinking that, whereas the Fechnerian argument makes sensory magnitude a logarithmic function of the stimulus magnitude, the newer methods of direct estimation indicate that it should be a power function—S equals kMn, where k and n are constants, for any particular sense modality.' I know that's what he said because I made him write it down."
This is an article from the March 3, 1969 issue
"And later," said Edward James Spence III, who is paying his way toward a master's degree in psychology by raising lumps on other people's heads and was putting his manager on, "Roger asked me who the hell Fechnerian ever fought?"
For one, Fechnerian never fought Six-to Martinez, a tough graduate of the streets of San Juan. Spence knocked out Sixto inside of two rounds several weeks ago in North Adams, Mass. It was his 33rd victory in 39 pro fights and required only three smashing left hooks: one to the stomach followed by two to the head. After a second knockdown Referee Ed Bradley didn't bother to count. Spence may not be the most artistic of boxers, but then no one ever belittled Marciano for not fighting like, say, Sugar Ray Robinson. A month earlier Spence had scored a relatively easy 10-round decision in Portland over Pete Riccitelli, a strong journeyman Maine light heavyweight. Spence had him down four times. "You gotta understand," says Sala, "nobody knocks Pete off his feet."
"Eddie sure as heck doesn't look like a fighter," says Sam Silverman, the New England promoter. "Other fighters listen to him talk and they figure they've got a real pushover. I've got light heavyweights lined up for two blocks trying to get a shot at him."
As a fighter Spence looks more like a, well, a 26-year-old dean's-list scholar who is about to get his master's in psychology. A baby-faced scholar with a chest melting straight down into his stomach and sitting on a pair of swizzle sticks. Usually he carries black-and-blue marks under both eyes because he can be bruised by a cough, and that can be embarrassing, for at the moment he is rehearsing for the male lead in the play The Knack, which is scheduled to open in Pittsfield early next month. He is playing the role of Tolen, a highly sophisticated lover with a knack for collecting girl friends.
"Which is a paradoxical role for me," he says, "because I tend not to get too involved with women. Most of them aren't too bright. You explain your way of thinking to a lot of girls and they shut the door; you can't communicate with them. Sometimes I'm a terrible person: I find myself throwing them out of my house."
The house is a $45-a-month seven-room farmhouse, just beyond the reach (and understanding) of Pittsfield, which he shares with Paul Barbeau, a ski instructor, and sometimes with Tommy Patti, a New York City artist, who painted the place in solid reds and greens and dark browns and blacks. Patti used Day-Glo paint in one room, then set the whole thing off under a flashing black light. Spence made him change it. "It was blowing everybody's mind," Spence said. "It was very pale and it made everybody look sick. I guess I'm the conservative type."
Except for a few close friends, Spence is a loner. His mother and father were divorced when he was very young, and he remembers himself as a lonely child, but not necessarily an unhappy one, with a great facility for opening soup cans. "And a facility for nothing else," he says. "In high school," says a former classmate, "Eddie was nothing, a big zero."
"I look upon myself as someone who was born when he was 17 years old," Spence says. "Before that my life was, well, nothing happened. Very dull. But I don't believe my early years have any effect upon my thinking or my actions now. I don't believe in Freud. I believe in the autonomous motivation of an adult. I look back upon my childhood and I understand it; therefore, I can dismiss it. Just because I react one way to a situation now doesn't mean I can't react another way to the same situation in the future."
The people of Pittsfield look upon Spence with a somewhat jaundiced eye. It is a small New England community—as exciting as a cemetery, says Spence—and those who choose to think for themselves are viewed with considerable suspicion. "Eddie won't accept theories," says Sala, who long ago gave up trying to stereotype his intellectual. "He demands facts. He likes to do his road-work at night. I told him this was bad, that he should run in the morning. He likes to go to bed late. I told him that every hour before midnight was worth two after. He laughs at me. Oh, hell."
Spence's landlord, an 80-year-old ex-farmer, allows several people in town to use his land for dumping. Twice small boys have set the piles of trash on fire. And both times the local police have used the fires as an excuse to poke about the farmhouse. "I don't know what they are looking for," says Spence, who is amused by the whole thing, "but they won't find anything because there's nothing to find. I'm afraid I'm terribly straight."
What they are looking for, said one policeman, are drugs and evidence of the orgies they suspect—through gossip—go on in the house night after night. "One day we'll catch them," said the policeman, "and then we'll have them. We know what they are doing."
How do you know?
"We know. We know. And that's a fact."
For a guy who is supposed to be running pot parties and a love nest, Spence comes on strongly as an old-fashioned square. Even his hair is cut fairly short, with just a few untamed wisps coming down over his collar in the back. His idea of a binge is two hours of sipping a whiskey sour and then leaving the glass three-quarters full. About once a month he smokes two cigars back to back, coughing only slightly when smoke sneaks into his lungs. When he's feeling really profane he might blast off a few darns.
"I respect him as an individual and as a person very interested in education and in becoming a teacher," said Frank Deane, the director of the summer and evening programs at Berkshire Community College, who recently hired Spence to teach a course in personality. "Several years ago he taught another psychology course for us and I thought he was very successful. The students certainly liked him. The spectrum of his interests makes him an exciting person to talk with."
Spence became a fighter when he was 17. He was a year out of high school and working as a soda jerk. Then one night he was out with a girl and something happened. Sala says two guys picked on Spence and that he took up boxing so he could return and bash his antagonists. Spence says the girl gave him the brush, and he took up boxing to punish himself.
"I always was self-punitive," he says. "I was always ready to place too much responsibility for whatever happened on myself. I know what Roger says, but that's not true. That wasn't my original impetus. But it's easier for him to accept—the ail-American boy, winning back his girl's respect. My way takes more depth of understanding."
Either way, Spence walked into the YMCA and told Sala he wanted to fight for him on Friday night. That gave him two days to train. Under his arm he carried a copy of Nat Fleischer's book, How to Box. "Much too soon," said Sala. "But come back tomorrow and we'll start training you." Spence left.
"I never figured I'd see him again," Sala says. "He was a tall kid, about 6'1", but skinny. Only 142 pounds. [Now he's 6'2" and 168 pounds.] But he came back. And he fought. He sure didn't have much when he started, just plenty of guts."
As an amateur Spence won 28 of 34. His first fight was against another novice, a kid named Darryl Kupec, who came out winging, if wild. Spence stood there for a moment, then threw a right hand. He broke Kupec's nose. They stopped the fight. "I was happy," Spence says, "but very confused."
Six months later Sala talked him into enrolling in Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield. "Boxing gave him confidence in himself, something he never had," said Sala. "When I met him his greatest ambition was to open his own soda joint. Boxing was the first thing he had ever done well, the first time he ever got any recognition."
"Actually, it wasn't the first," said Spence. "I played basketball with some ability, but never in high school. In high school I had never wanted to get involved. That's why I took to boxing. It's an individual effort. I didn't have to worry about passing a glove off to a teammate so he could hit someone else."
"Generally Eddie has what I would regard as a very solid outlook on his future and his life," said Dr. James Mancuso, Spence's adviser in graduate school. "He's got a pretty good assessment of the nature of his talents and ability, a certain calm and contentment with himself. He's a superior student with a good mind. I just wish to hell that he didn't have to box, although I understand his motives. I don't find boxing very appealing. I'd rather have him be a gymnast."
While an undergraduate student, Spence discovered the stage and has appeared in 14 plays, most of them musical comedies. He has a fine baritone. "But I've about given up on musical comedies. They are too superficial. I saw all the big ones on Broadway last year and I was disappointed. You see one, you've seen them all. It's all fun and games, no real depth. That's why I've decided to do just serious acting."
He also studies the piano, is taking lessons in Italian, phonetics, singing and modern dance and spends at least three hours a day cramming for the comprehensive exams he'll take for his master's degree at the State University of New York at Albany in May. "Plus, when I'm short of money," he says, "I work on a dump truck. It's a great way to furnish a house."
"He tries to do too much," complains Sala. "If he'd just concentrate on boxing he could be a great fighter. Besides, with a master's degree I keep asking him why he wants to fight."
At the end of 1966 Spence did decide to quit. He didn't fight from June 1967 until December 1968. Then one night, while working as a bouncer in a nightclub, he got into a wrestling match with a drunken patron. It lasted 10 minutes to a draw. In Pittsfield the people snickered. "Some fighter," they said. "He can't even beat so-and-so. Whoever said he could fight?"
"People seem disappointed that I didn't kill the guy," said Spence. "To tell you the truth, I was annoyed I didn't punch his head off. But to heck with them, I didn't care what they said."
He didn't care. But the next day he was back in the gym. His contract with Sala had run out. He wanted a new one. "You kidding?" said Sala. "What do you want to fight for? A guy with your brains. Forget it."
"I'm going to fight," said Spence, "and I'd just as soon do it with you as my manager. But if not you, then it will be someone else."
Sala signed the contract. A few weeks later Spence won an eight-round decision over Sugar Ryan, then knocked out Hank Stroud in four. Then came Riccitelli and the quickie with Martinez.
"He's better than ever," says Sala. "Stronger, and for the first time he is throwing a good hook. And he's always had a ton of guts. One time he fought a guy named Cadillac James and he went in with a broken hand and a broken nose. Never told me. And he won the fight. Damn, if he'd only concentrate on fighting."
Spence finds that amusing. "Why concentrate on any one thing?" he asks. "I wouldn't even know what to choose if I had to make a choice. I saw George Plimpton on TV the other day. He said there just isn't enough variety for him in any one thing. I'm the same way. I guess I just want to be known as an all-round guy."