"You're to be in bed by 10, young man," my mother warned as she and my father left the house. "Not on your life," I thought. It was a Friday night in the winter of 1956, and I was 10 years old. My parents had made the fatal error of leaving me in charge of my little sister—but no one in charge of me. Shortly before 10, my sister safely tucked in bed, I went to the living room, where my parents had a huge overstuffed couch that sighed a weary whoosh every time I sat on its cushions. I arranged throw pillows around its perimeter and sprawled in luxury. The idea of staying up past bedtime made me tingle with sinful delight.
Across from the couch stood an enormous Dumont console television, a giant mahogany square that looked like a hunk of dark chocolate with a screen sunk in its middle. At 10 o'clock sharp, I turned on the TV and began to flip through the channels. As the dial came to rest on 4, my attention was seized by the emphatic rhythms of marching music. "To look sharp every time you shave," a voice sang, "to feel sharp and be on the ball." Then the announcer proclaimed, "The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports is on the air."
I sank into the couch—whoosh. I had never seen a professional fight before and awaited the start with the thrill and fear of someone attending a forbidden rite. The boxers were lightweight contenders Baby Vasquez and Paolo Rosi.
Rosi, I learned as I watched, was a bleeder. Next to having a glass jaw, being a bleeder is the most tragic affliction in boxing. Rosi outfought Vasquez, but all the blood flowing from Rosi's brow forced the referee to halt the fight in the seventh round. It did not seem fair that Rosi lost. Long after the bout was over, I lingered on the couch trying to find an answer to what I'd seen. I dimly understood that boxing offers no guarantee of justice. A fight is a sad, stark, compact little drama—and that made it endlessly fascinating to me. By the time I slipped into bed that night, I was hooked.
For the next six years, I was consumed by boxing. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights—my mother's 10 p.m. time limit quickly disappeared in the face of my ardor—I would go to the living room to sit in front of a television set peopled with the fighters of the '50s. But fighters for me were two-dimensional silhouettes who waged war in a miniature black and white world.
I did not attend my first fight until 1962. Dick Tiger, soon to be the middleweight champion, was taking on Henry Hank, a ferocious puncher who had never bothered to learn the finer points of the jab and defense. I rode up to the old Madison Square Garden on the subway, visions of smoky arenas bobbing and weaving in my mind. I was 15 and fervently romantic. Tonight would be the real thing. I arrived two hours early and bought a ringside seat. The Garden was nearly deserted.
That first fight was decidedly anti-climactic. Tiger walked all over Hank, who waited in vain to deliver the big blow. At the end Hank seemed grateful to be still standing. The audience applauded politely, as if at a cricket match.
I left the Garden bored; I hadn't missed very much in all those years of watching the Friday Night Fights on that ancient 20-inch TV. As my eyes adjusted to' the dark of Eighth Avenue, I saw a large black man in a worn gray overcoat standing alone. He looked old. But after a few moments, his forlorn shape resolved itself into that of Sonny Liston, the first-ranked heavyweight in the world. I went up to him and said a tentative hello. He smiled at me, so I took out my program and asked for his autograph. Writing, as I was about to find out, was not one of Sonny's stronger points.
Liston took his right hand out of his pocket. The very sight of it was dazzling. It was enormous. A large gold ring and a watch with a gold expansion band glittered against his skin. Sonny produced an expensive-looking ballpoint that looked like a gold toothpick in his fingers and started writing. In what must have required greater effort than wading through the likes of Zora Folley, Eddie Machen and Wayne Bethea, he struggled through a capital C. When completed, his Charles looked like the innocent scrawl of a child. Then he punctiliously put down a set of quotation marks, which must have looked to him as exotic as hieroglyphics, and tried a capital S. Suddenly he stopped and mentally paced around it the way Picasso might have pondered a troublesome brushstroke. A low rumble of disapproval issued from his throat; he scratched out the S and started all over again. After a painfully long time he mastered Charles "Sonny" Liston, looked up as pleased as if he had completed a work of art and handed me the program. By this time a crowd had gathered; all had programs and all demanded autographs. Sonny patiently submitted to the signing ceremony until one brash youngster abruptly broke the silence. "What's gonna happen when you fight Patterson?"
Liston looked up and the faint smile vanished from his face. He answered matter-of-factly, as though telling the time. "I'll knock him out in the first round," he decreed, and went back to the signing. I began to drift off toward the subway while I considered what he had said. After a few moments, I reached the conclusion that Sonny Liston might know how to sign his name, but he sure didn't know anything about boxing.