Back in the Dark Ages of boxing, before $1 million purses and closed-circuit television, trainer Ray Arcel had a homespun medicament for fighters who were cut during a bout. He'd detach a pinch of chaw from the wad of tobacco in his mouth, smooth it between thumb and forefinger, mash it against the gash and send his man back out. Afterward, of course, he'd make certain the lad was properly darned by a doctor.
During his 65 years in boxing Arcel earned a reputation for selflessness. He admits to having occasionally fed his fighters first, then his own family. Now that Arcel, 85, is retired it's only fitting that a sorely needed facility for old fighters be named in his honor.
The Ray Arcel Medical Center is located on Broadway in Manhattan, a block south of Times Square, sandwiched between a travel agency and a hosiery outlet and up one flight of steps. On a wall in the waiting room is a bronze plaque bearing Arcel's countenance.
The medical center is diagnostic only; no prescriptions are written, no therapy administered. Members of Ring No. 8, the New York-New Jersey chapter of the Veteran Boxers Association, are entitled to a free annual checkup. That's all. If something ails them they are notified by the attending physician. Treatment is another matter and, for most ex-fighters, another problem.
There are so many medical troubles hounding today's physically and financially afflicted old boxers that the center amounts to little more than a gesture, really, a plug of tobacco in a wound. Still, it's better than nothing, which is what so many retired fighters once had.
The Veteran Boxers Association was founded to provide a forum by means of which old "fight guys" could recall the glorious past. It consists of loosely organized "rings" nationwide. A gala dinner of the Queensboro (N.Y.) Elks Lodge in December 1984 marked Ring 8's first serious attempt to raise funds for the diagnostic center.
Inside the lodge that night a gnarled assortment of old boxers, cornermen, trainers—even Arcel himself, spry as you please—exchanged firm handshakes, pounded backs and crowded around the bar. Among the names on the guest register were La Motta, Graziano, Antuofermo, Ambers, Saddler and a host of lesser recognizables. Cauliflower ears narrowly outnumbered splayed noses.
There was no delicate tinkling of silver on crystal when Danny Kapilow, Ring 8's granite-jawed secretary, stood to speak. He merely scowled and began, "I'm not gonna ask for your attention, I'm gonna demand it." Kapilow expressed pleasure at the turnout and thanked the host Elks. Then the lines on his face became more apparent. "As many of us know," he said, "when the years in the ring are over and you're out of the limelight, it can be a lonely, painful time. That's why we're here tonight." There was poignant silence.
What is it about boxers, about boxing, that creates the need for such comment? One glaring reason: It's the only major sport with no centralized, self-help organ. Boxing has nothing analogous to a player's union, no pension system, no medical benefits, no established means of distributing a fighter's purse.
"Hey, I got news for you," says Irving Rudd, chief publicist for Top Rank promoters. "There is the entire world of sport—and then there's boxing."
A boxer is, by nature, self-reliant. His fists and guts got him where he is, gave him money and glory. What need does he have for a union? And a union with whom? Somebody he's about to knock silly? This chump ain't nothin'! He goin' down in three! Such sentiments make later relationships strained. Secondly, blind obedience to a manager is ingrained from a fighter's earliest days in the gym and few managers would want to relinquish control over their fighters. Rudd says, "The most telling tribute to Ray Arcel I've ever heard was from a guy who said, 'Why, he taught me how to eat!' "
Traditionally, boxers rise from society's less-educated strata. "That hurts them when they go out looking for the good jobs," says Kapilow. "Plus a lot of them are banged around facially, so people don't take them seriously." And, as the overwhelming body of medical evidence has determined, many are brain-damaged from repeated blows.
Kapilow is in his 60s now and, though hale, is no longer the menacing figure he was in 1944, when he was the world's eighth-ranked welterweight. But as president of Teamsters Local 966 in New York, he doesn't need to be. Until two years ago the medical center now named for Arcel serviced only Teamsters and their families. It was Kapilow who decided a few old fighters could be squeezed in, and he persuaded the other officers in his local to agree.
As he describes Kapilow the pugilist, Arcel's soft voice quavers ever so slightly, like that of an Indian elder reciting an oral history. "Danny used to spend 12, 14 hours a day in the gym. He learned his trade. He used his head in the ring—he moved away from punches. Fighters today, they don't learn their trade."
In 1947, Kapilow really used his head. He quit after eight years as a pro, before boxing had a chance to cough him up, dazed and battered. Now he spends hours assisting those who failed to retire in time. "The public would be astounded and shocked at the great fighters of the past who lived and died in poverty and misery," he says. Kapilow sadly recounts the deaths last year of Fritzie Zivic, Lou Brouillard and Steve Belloise, "all real good fighters." Each died of Alzheimer's disease, a brain dysfunction. Hoeing perhaps the meanest row are yesterday's second-and third-rate fighters, who were often cannon fodder for the champions, brawlers who soaked up beatings to earn a day's pay.
But Kapilow can also point to boxers who have prospered, like Charley (The Fighting Milkman) Fusari, now a goodwill ambassador for the liquor industry.
"Sure, some of them are doing O.K.," says Charley Gellman, Ring 8's vice-president. "A lot of them are walking on their heels, too."
Gellman knows. He's another of the unlikely ministering angels responsible for founding the Ray Arcel Medical Center. Patrons of smokers at which Gellman fought illegal bouts in the '30s, in Jersey City, Newark and Scranton, might remember him as Chuck Halper—the boxing alias he assumed to avoid disgracing the family name. "Back then it was either fight or steal," he says. "And who gave a damn whether or not they put them in the record books? People bet a lot of money on those fights."
With money from bootleg bouts Gellman carved a few extra options for himself. He graduated from Columbia University in 1939 with a degree in public health and went on to become a prominent New York hospital administrator. He was in charge of Jewish Memorial in upper Manhattan from 1962 to '83.
A rumpled note bearing Gellman's name was found in Mickey Walker's trousers pocket in 1981 the day the former middleweight champion of the world was found destitute and near death on a Brooklyn curbside. Gellman, who had sparred some with Walker five decades earlier and had become friendly with him, set him up in a private room at a New Jersey nursing home. Afflicted with Parkinson's disease, Walker lived only five more months, but he died, as Gellman says, with dignity. Gellman paid the bills.
"A lot of guys used to come up, and I'd have the doctors check 'em out," he says. Often, when a "fight guy" required an extended hospital stay but wasn't covered, Gellman applied discreet pressure. "I'd tell the doctors, 'I give you four, five beds a day—for crissakes take care of one of my fighters!' Otherwise they'd send 'em down to one of the city hospitals and let the interns work on 'em."
Though Jewish Memorial is closed and Gellman is retired, he is on the telephone instantly when a Ring 8 member without wherewithal or coverage needs a doctor. He bullyrags, wheedles, cajoles, whatever it takes. "I am not without influence," he says.
Impassioned voices have risen lately, some for boxing's abolition, some against it. Ironically, many of the sport's living, breathing legacies venture no strong opinions. They're too busy scratching a living from the hard edges of a society with which they don't seem quite compatible. Kapilow and others have called for financial assistance from fight fans and those who profit most from boxing—promoters and television networks—but it's a mismatch.
Radiating meager hope, meanwhile, the Ray Arcel Medical Center sits in mid-town Manhattan, doing what little it can. His tobacco chewin' days are history, but Arcel will still tell you that before a wound can heal, you must first stop the bleeding.