In the smoky half-light of the Copa Room in Atlantic City's Sands Hotel, the ring announcer reads the judges' scorecards: "8-3-1, 7-4-1, 6-5-1. The winner, by unanimous decision, Wilford Scypion!"
But it's not quite unanimous. Lucille Fletcher, mother of Frank (The Animal) Fletcher, who lost that Feb. 13 middleweight fight to Scypion, is dissenting with vigor. A lean and active woman, she'd been prowling just outside the ring for all 12 rounds, yelling, "Dirty taxis! Dirty taxis!" which, translated out of her West Philadelphia accent, means "dirty tactics." On her card, The Animal was ahead 8-4.
She's still screaming as she climbs into the ring. "My son's been robbed!" she shouts uselessly. The outburst is not merely a display of maternal emotion, however. When it comes to boxing, Lucille knows more than the average mother. She has been a licensed amateur boxing judge for the last six years in Pennsylvania and Ohio. "She's a mouth, but a knowledgeable mouth," says Marty Feldman, The Animal's manager.
Two of Lucille's brothers were pro fighters, and three of her sons still are. And it was she who taught them all how to box. Some folks say she's still the best fighter in the family.
April 18, 1983
Until he met Scypion, The Animal seemed virtually untamable. He was 16-2-1, and in line to fight Marvelous Marvin Hagler for the title. But Scypion controlled the bout by repeatedly tying Fletcher up, and as a result it's Scypion who'll go into the ring against Hagler on May 13. Lucille claims she would have taken three rounds away from Scypion for holding, butting and grabbing. She had a point: The fight looked more like a Greco-Roman wrestling match than boxing. On the other hand, her judgment may have been clouded by material concerns. A Fletcher-Hagler fight might have brought as much as half a million dollars to her Animal.
A born brawler—perhaps because she had 11 brothers and sisters—Lucille first got interested in boxing by listening to Joe Louis fights on the radio. "When he went into the ring," she says, "he didn't keep us waiting eight rounds to knock somebody out. And when he won, everyone on the block came out banging their pots and pans."
Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson were her favorites. "That man could dance," she says of Robinson. "He'd come into the ring with a well-singed process and leave 15 rounds later with every hair still in place."
Lucille Turner—that was her maiden name—was a pretty good fighter herself, learning to punch while she was still getting a handle on the ABCs. "My mother and grandmother used to keep me nicely dressed with sashes on my clothes and ribbons in my hair," she says. "The other girls in school picked on me. My grandmother told me if I ever came home again with my clothes torn, she was going to beat me, too." When Lucille was eight, a classmate taught her how to put combinations together. By the end of fourth grade, she stalked the corridors of Hoffman Elementary School in West Philadelphia with such confidence the other kids were calling her Little Joe Louis.
With her friends Gloria Thompson and Rosetta Long, she formed a street gang called Glo, Ro and Lo. "I was the littlest, but the leader," Lucille says. "We fought other girl gangs with names like The Top and The Bottom. You never heard about nobody cutting or killing nobody, though. When the fighting stopped, we all shook hands."
Soon she was showing her brothers how to hold their hands and move their heads in a scrap. "She told us to stick with your jab and come over with your right," says brother Dick, who in the early '60s was ranked among the top 10 welterweights. "She taught us how to fight, but she never told us how to duck."
Indeed, Lucille isn't an alumna of the stick-and-move school. "I always felt that if you got the best shot in and hurt 'em, you didn't have to duck. All it takes is one lucky punch," she says. "I watched Big John Tate fool with Mike Weaver on TV," she says, referring to the defense Tate made of his WBA heavyweight title in March 1980. "All of a sudden, I see Big John's head sitting in the middle of the screen." Weaver had knocked Tate out in the 15th round. "I said, 'I don't believe this.' And I laughed and laughed and laughed." To her, boxing is simple: "Step in and hit him, step back and get out of his way."
Lucille always kept the male Turners from getting stepped on. She remembers that one day when she was growing up her brother Honeyboy was getting beat up by a local bully on the sidewalk in front of their home on Peach Street. She ran inside, tore out some bannister posts and grabbed a milk bottle. Thus armed, she returned to the street with her other brothers. The bully promptly took off to find his brothers. "We never saw him again until 30 years later when he bought the bar around the corner," she says.
She used to beat up her brothers, too. "The only way to escape her was to lock yourself in the bathroom until Mom got home," says Dick, who is 46, a year younger than Lucille. "I punched her once, and she whupped me so bad that my nose bled and my suspenders popped off."
Lucille is 5'2" and 140 pounds, a welterweight with a heavyweight personality. She has a wonderful smile and darting, luminous eyes that rarely miss a detail when she's judging a fight. "We consider her one of our top officials," says Pat Duffy, who's a former president of the Middle Atlantic Boxing Federation. "Lucille has a great ability to pick the right winner. She's a lot better than most of the professionals."
Lucille thinks she can score a bout off TV as well as most judges at ringside. Last June she watched the heavyweight title fight between Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney on a televised replay, ticking off the punches in her head. By her count, Cooney was way ahead on points. "He got in some mean double combinations," she says. "That dude was sticking his jab in Holmes's face." The way Lucille, and maybe only Lucille, saw it, the fight shouldn't have been stopped on a TKO in the 13th round. "Cooney tripped," she says flatly. "I would have written up the referee for stopping the fight like that."
Lucille became a judge six years ago when the promoters of an exhibition she was attending came up one official short. They asked her if she knew what to look for. Sure, she said. "When it was over," Lucille says, "they came up to me and said, 'Mrs. Fletcher, you can judge!' "
"She's cool, very cool," says Duffy. "She's just the opposite of the way she is when she watches her sons fight."
At a boxing club in Harrowgate, an Irish section of Northeast Philly, she sits at ringside like a queen bee in a hive of buzzing activity. The crowd is howling at a couple of young flyweights. Lucille calmly surveys the action. Her head sways slowly from side to side, dropping lower and lower until she's barely peering above the canvas.
"What did I do wrong, Mrs. Fletcher?" the loser asks her after the decision.
"You weren't hitting nothing but gloves," she tells him. "I can only give points for clear shots. But, honey, you've got a lot of heart."
Heart, she says, is what most pros lack, and that's why Lucille has no desire to join the elite ranks of a handful of women who are professional boxing judges. "These amateurs fight their hearts out for trophies," says Lucille. "They've got more energy than the pros. It's more like a street fight."
Lucille gave up fighting at 15, when she became pregnant with her first child, Evonne. She'd fallen for William Fletcher, a soldier boy she'd met at a dance. Two years later they were married. Her first son was Frank; altogether she has had eight children and, though she's only 47, 19 grandchildren. The soldier boy, however, is gone.
"My husband was one to celebrate," she says. "On the night of our eighth anniversary, he came home a little too juiced. I'd already packed his bags. It was just like packing groceries. We would've been married 30 years this February, only we've been separated the last 22."
So Lucille raised the children herself. She didn't like crying, so to settle arguments she taught her kids to box. She bought them boxing gloves for Christmas and took them down to the basement. The first to get a bloody nose had to go back upstairs. Her system has produced three pros: Frank, 28; Anthony (Two-Gun) Fletcher, 27, an 11-0 lightweight; and Troy (Forty) Fletcher, 21, a 4-0 bantamweight. "We used to call him Twenty-one," Lucille explains, "but he looks older now."
From the beginning, Frank was always in trouble. "I started stealing when I was knee-high to a hoppergrass," he says. "I guess it was more fun stealing than letting somebody buy things for me." He spent much of his adolescence in reform schools, but he did nearly two years at Pennsylvania's Holmesburg State Prison on a simple assault charge. He remembers Holmesburg as "a big stone wall with a lot of sky."
Not that The Animal lacks a wholesome side. Lucille recalls one time when a case of Wheaties turned up in the basement. She suspected that Frank had stolen the cereal, but nobody would tell her where it had come from. "As punishment," she says, "I made them all eat Wheaties until there was none left."
"Frank's just devilish," she says. "I always said he had a rabbit with him somewhere. He's always been lucky—like a frog with nine lives. There wasn't anything the matter with him. At least nothing major." But nothing she did, from lecturing to holding his hand over a lighted burner on the kitchen range, threatening to scorch it, seemed to get through to him. "The only thing that worked was to send him down to the dark cellar. As tough as he is as a boxer, to this day he keeps a light on when he goes to sleep. He's afraid of the dark."
Lucille shows up at all Frank's fights in a cream-colored suit with white ruffles, clutching a white Teddy bear clad in an orange T shirt that bears The Animal's likeness. Sometimes she carries a megaphone with animal crackers glued to its sides. Whenever she thinks Frank has won a round, she waves her right index finger over her head. With her caterwauling she competes for Frank's attention with Feldman, who barks in a voice you could open cans with. Frank swears he can block her out. Lucille doesn't know why he'd want to. "He listens to both of us," she says.
The Animal finds some of his mother's ringside antics embarrassing. "I think she made a spectacular thing of herself at the Scypion fight," he says. He even signed a letter written in his behalf apologizing to the Sands management for Lucille's behavior. In the dressing room an hour after the bout, Lucille was still in overdrive. "You was robbed, Frank," she said as a hint of a smile crept onto Frank's puffy face, and he pinched his mother's cheek. "Why'd you do that?" asked Lucille. "Because I love you," Frank said.
Between bouts, Lucille enjoys a calmer existence. She spends most of her time with her mother, Ethel Turner, a moon-faced woman who wears a button that says E.T. LIVES. This E.T. lives on a West Philadelphia block that alternates between being run-down and burnt-out. There, as Lucille says, "Me and my mother sit and run our mouths." When they get up, it's often to walk around the corner to the 46th Street Baptist Church, where they sing with the Voices of Joy, a Gospel choir.
When the spirit moves her, Lucille visits Feldman's gym, a converted dance school at 63rd and Market. The dancers are gone, but the beat goes on. One day last March Lucille ignored the blaring disco as she watched two fighters. Matthew Saad Muhammad, the former WBC light heavyweight champion, was getting hammered by Jamie Olatunde, a sparring partner from Kenya.
"Stick that jab in his face, Saad," she hollers. Lucille smokes cigarettes more or less continuously as she yells at the fighters.
"Keep that jab up there."
Olatunde lands a solid right.
"Back him up, back him up."
Saad Muhammad answers with a shrug.
"Come on, Saad, come off the ropes and lemme see you box."
Olatunde connects with a right cross and a left hook.
"DEEfense, Saad, DEEfense. Double up the combination and move out of the way. Come in with a hook, a combination, and then move."
Saad Muhammad comes back with a grimace.
"I mean move outta the way!"
But Saad Muhammad doesn't seem to be taking her advice. He's on the ropes as the bell rings.
"I was trying to do what you said, Mrs. Fletcher," says the former Matthew Franklin, a Philadelphia favorite who lost his title more than a year and a half ago. He hangs his head. "I was tired. I stayed up all night watching TV."
"You can't stay up watching TV and expect to win," she says.
"But I couldn't sleep."
"When you tense up and can't sleep, just lay there."
"But Mrs. Fletcher," he says, trying another tack, "you've just got to understand. I couldn't concentrate with all this disco."
"You should have told them to put on a foxtrot," she says, firing up another cigarette. "After all, boxing ain't nothing but a two-step."