Boxing came into my life when I was seven. In some ways, it never left.
I grew up in a small Massachusetts town with a few hundred Jewish families after World War II. An otherwise tolerant Christian community had a tiny minority, mostly teenagers, who insulted and bullied Jewish kids. After a few beatings, Jewish boys in Milford, including my 15-year-old brother Stanley, nicknamed Sookie, asked the synagogue leadership for help, a gym to learn to defend themselves.
The gym went into the basement of the synagogue. The businessmen who funded it knew what happened to millions of defenseless European Jews. The Rabbi of the congregation himself was a survivor, whose wife and children had been murdered. Recently, the state of Israel also fought for its life.
Upstairs in the synagogue were shelves of books and an ark with scrolls promoting loving your neighbor as yourself and praying for peace. These were among eternal truths of unmatched spiritual power. Downstairs, in the world of Everlast, was preparation for battle: stacks of York weights and barbells, benches, gloves, head gear, medicine balls, jump ropes, chin-up bars, mirrors, speed and heavy bags, a canvas-covered ring, and throughout, the smell of sweat on leather.
The boys needed a trainer and got two. A WWII veteran offered to help with physical conditioning. Jake, the vet, had been stationed on a Pacific island, on the supply chain to feed, fuel, clothe and arm MacArthur’s drive toward Japan. When the Navy guys could, they trained. They lifted two canteens dipped in cement at the ends of a broomstick.
With brand new equipment, Jake turned my brother and his friends into athletes. He found a boxing trainer, who taught my brother and his friends what A.J. Liebling has called, the sweet science. Sookie became his most able student.
“They lifted two canteens dipped in cement at the ends of a broomstick.”
In school, my brother wasn’t much of a student, but he trained to box for hours a day, sometimes four, sometimes six to prepare for a fight. He read books by Joe Louis and later Rocky Marciano, but Louis, the Brown Bomber, was his real hero, along with Moses and David Ben-Gurion.
I remember how Sookie came home from his road work, sprinting through the neighborhood. The lines around his mouth were white from exhaustion and nausea. How he held a barbell in his outstretched arm until his shoulder shook, this to strengthen his jab; how he dimpled the heavy bag with his gloved fists; how he turned the speed bag into a blur. He jump-roped and shadow-boxed into something that looked like a dance. The trainer used to slam a medicine ball into his tightened belly. My brother allowed one of my friends to punch him in the stomach with all his might. The slap of his fist was loud. My brother moved with the punch, which had little effect.
“He jump-roped and shadow-boxed into something that looked like a dance.”
As for sparring, my brother was nearly blind without glasses. He had to give them up in the ring. With no contacts available at the time, he watched his opponents’ feet. From their footwork, Sookie knew what they would throw. He’d block and counterpunch. Sookie was a very good counter puncher, for another reason.
My mother disapproved of violence and boxing, although there were plenty of Jewish boxers, some champions. My parents’ ideals were closer to those of the synagogue above the gym than the gym below. Perhaps this was one reason behind my brother’s complaint that he needed to get hit once to get into the fight. Counterpunching fit the defense-turned-offense requirement.
The purpose of the gym in the synagogue basement was defensive too. The bullying, intimidation and insults toward Jewish kids in the small town disappeared or decreased. The Jewish kids could defend themselves. That was enough to end their victimhood and teach many of us a lifelong lesson on how the world too often works.
My brother’s reputation as a fighter grew. We had a cousin in Revere, picked on because of his small size. One day when he was bullied, he invited the aggressor to wait for his cousin, who was sure to fight him when he next visited. Sookie arrived and the bully challenged him to a fight. In boxing, my brother learned that brawn is not enough. Boxing is a thinking sport, backed up by muscle. The bully tried to brawl. My brother hit him until he quit.
Sookie fought so well that he was encouraged to fight professionally. My father’s friends watched him spar, and offered to support him with cash while he trained and found fights. My parents were completely against that idea. I cannot tell if my brother was disappointed. Perhaps that would have made his beloved sport into a business.
Sookie went into the Army, where he finished his high school education. He went onto college under the GI Bill and studied until he had a master’s. He got married and had kids. He became a guidance counselor at a large regional high school and rode a motorcycle to school, even in winter. He didn’t box anymore, but he always trained. For a while, he led a fencing club at the high school. Students kept visiting him after he retired.
A decade before he died, he invited me to his basement, where he had set of vinyl-covered weights and barbells. We chatted about life while he lifted, sweating through hundreds of reps, as he called them, the stamina builders.
“These require – no other word for it — courage.”
Joan Benoit Samuelson, outstanding marathoner, says that “marathons are a metaphor for life.” Boxing is perhaps an even better metaphor. Like any athlete, the boxer sacrifices to reach the highest level of conditioning and skill. However, it’s the personal risk to the body and the brain, as well as the risk of humiliation in search of success, all within rules of good sportsmanship. These require – no other word for it — courage.
Years later, I wrote a song called “The Boxer’s Creed” with this chorus:
You’re not going down
Say it between rounds
Until your soul hears the sound
You’re not going down.
Fists in the air
Bring it on, Despair,
I am not going down, not going down.