So it has always been. The fighter's corner is a repository of quackery, a ready subject for purveyed nonsense. It is a noisome place, populated by small, secret men whose habitats are the shadows off of the ring's boulevard. Usually, they are cranky and suspicious, loyal simply to their survival; only the corner men and the fighters really understand the meanness of the ring. The species also can be recognized by its masquerade, the look of academe that subtly conveys the impression that it has just stepped out of some ancient and sacred temple of esoterica.
Lovable as they are as frauds, it is hard to assign to the corner men any identity of import. They are the remnants of a different time, a time when the manager was aloof, when at the mention of "cut" he had his hand out; he was in the fighter's corner only to be seen. All of that changed when the ring's economy went sluggish. New managers became involved and found that the term "great cut man" was a pure inflation. It was merely a matter of time before the corner men became functionally bankrupt, left only with their unglamorous water bottles and buckets and towels. Gone were the exotic potions for a fighter's "strent," the secrets of the heal, the proclaimed genius of their hands attending to a cut.
Nothing is done in a fighter's corner of any clinical brilliance. For all of the witchery claimed by corner men, work on a fighter is mechanical repetition and penetrable to any dummy who has spent a lifetime in gyms. The value of a corner is speed, cool support and, if the fighter is disposed to listening, some direction, mainly from the manager. It is true that a fight can be won in a corner, but such moments have been very rare.
One such moment came last week in Madison Square Garden when Ken Buchanan of Scotland decisioned Ismael Laguna of Panama to retain his lightweight championship of the world. How prosaic, how simple, only a microsecond of work, that was the difference.
September 26, 1971
The pale, reedy Scot benefited from a couple of boxing's oldest treatments, neither of which will provoke clamor for a medical discourse. It will also not be news to the ever-unwatchful police of boxing. Off to a slow start against Laguna, Buchanan carried an angry, potentially ruinous bump under his left eye back to his corner at the end of the third round. It grew worse in the fourth, but before he came out for the next round his manager, Eddie Thomas, averted what surely would have been an abrupt end to the fight and Buchanan's title. Like someone slicing off a loose jacket button, Thomas icily slit the blue swell with a razor blade, causing the big lump to weep blood and free the pressure within.
Cruel and repelling as the razor method is to some, it was the only alternative open to Thomas and Buchanan, and, as Thomas says, "Whoever said boxing is pretty?" The manager made his next big move after the 12th round when Buchanan was cut badly over the left eye; the wound later required two stitches inside and eight outside. To stop the geyser of blood, Thomas went to a homemade preparation. Presumably, it was more innocent, but it achieved the same results as Monsel's solution. It is traditional in this country for every manager to have a mittful of the stuff. Chemically, it is ferric (iron) subsulfate, containing sulfuric acid, nitric acid and ferrous sulfate. Its purpose is to shore up a cut. But if any of the concoction sweats down over the cornea, the fighter can be lastingly blinded.
Away from the razor's edge and the solution, Thomas and Buchanan were impeccable in crisis. Long a proponent of the left jab, often inflexibly so, Thomas quickly scrapped his fundamentalism when he saw that Buchanan's jab was ineffectual against Laguna's bobbing head, and besides it was making his fighter look bad. He told Buchanan to accelerate the pace, to force the fight, hoping that the sight of him profusely bleeding but on the attack would swerve the pencils of the judges and capture the sentiment of the crowd. Buchanan listened, and his calm aggression blending with late-second flurries proved to be the margin in several close rounds.
For all of Buchanan's blood and the fast pace set, the fight itself was what one might call an "entertainment," meaning that it had crusts of artistic surface and not much substance. It seemed a ragged affair, soiled often by Buchanan, who missed more punches than at any other time in his career, partially because of his limited vision but more because of Laguna's clever defense. The trouble was that Laguna leaned on his defense far too long, and it was a decision that ultimately did him in. Early, while winning three of the first four rounds, he countered crisply with odd-angled punches, the kind that have inflicted lacerations on over 40 of his opponents. Then, from the fifth round on, Laguna appeared adrift. A quality of vagueness, hesitancy, disconnection seemed to define his work.
Laguna opened each round impressively enough, but toward the middle he repeatedly allowed Buchanan sizable chunks of offensive ground. Buchanan used them effectively until the waning moments when he would then blatantly steal the round. Except for the 14th, when Laguna was hurt badly and sitting nearly unconscious on a middle strand of rope, the pattern seldom varied. Despite his awful eye and evidence of severe punishment about his kidneys, for which Laguna was warned continuously, Buchanan commanded a decision of, say, 10-4-1. The officials viewed it a bit closer, but that hardly tranquilized Laguna or his paranoid camp.
Laguna, twice the lightweight champion, approached the fight in a blue disposition, often sulking and obstinate in his cooperation with promoters. "I think," said Buchanan, "he's shown bad manners and ignorance. He's stupid and a fool. I haven't seen him for a while, but not too long ago he did not look happy. I saw tension in his face." Dr. Edwin Campbell, the ring doctor, later agreed. "Laguna seemed very strained and tense. I never saw him this way before," Campbell said.
This was not a description of the Laguna who won the title back in Panama in 1965. He was 21 then, not far removed from the bush country. At 14 he materialized in the steaming, wild gyms of Colon, and he was soon known throughout Panama as El Tigre. He had a zest then, a flair out of the ring that seems to have burned out along with all of his once immense abilities. The memory is that he had more speed and more natural rhythm than ever had been seen in the lightweight division.
"He's a beauty," Honest Bill Daly used to say. Daly managed Carlos Ortiz, from whom Laguna won the title.
It is hardly a secret that Honest Bill, whose conspiratorial manner and deft gift for turning a dollar are widely celebrated, thinks of Buchanan as a beauty, too. Like a sea lion a bit long in the tooth, Honest Bill surfaced last week to the amusement of many, one of whom was not Eddie Thomas. It was not known whether the old lion was hungry or just trying to keep in practice.
Thomas' concern with Daly, emphasized by the presence of two bodyguards, emanates from their encounter in San Juan when Buchanan, an unknown then, won the title from Laguna. The Scot won it by one point (a thing comparable to snow in Miami), and it is generally thought that Daly contributed that point. He is a figure of large persuasion in Puerto Rico, the first person Thomas contacted when he saw how hopeless the situation was.
"You can't take the title from Laguna here, Eddie," said Honest Bill. "You got to go to war."
Thomas inquired as to how. and Daly, behind a cupped hand, whispered, "Leave it to me."
The next time Thomas heard that whisper was when he had to reject Honest Bill's price for his war—nothing less than a piece of Buchanan.
The old pirate always did have a sense of value.