CHRISTMAS IN THE GYM

CHRISTMAS IN MANY DIFFERENT PLACES

My daughter gave me a pair of new tennis shoes, aka sneakers, for Christmas. I wear out two pairs a year, just as I always have over the past six decades, ever since I was a teenager. They are a size 10 but I wear a size larger, as I have always had ‘big feet.’ The doctor told my parents I would be a “monster” of a man, judging by the size of my feet. I guess they measured us by the foot size back in the 1940’s. Well, I might have been but, then, God apparently didn’t want me to grow to be a monster and so I ended up: 5’9” tall, 165 pounds but by the time I was 16, with size 11 shoes on my feet.

So, somehow, someway, I ended up in boxing, after being what many called a “juvenile delinquent” in, it seems now, any of the many schools I attended. We, my brother and sister and I, lived in five different locales before we were old enough to ‘leave home.’ Or, at least I was as they stayed long enough to graduate from high school and college; while I joined the Marine Corps when the other branches ‘turned me down’ because of a ‘police record;’ mostly fighting with other kids along with grown men also but always in self-defense. The Marines had a plan for kids like me, you could join up, with your parents’ permission, and signature, at age 16, and go on active duty on your 17th birthday and so I found myself in Parris Island, S.C., on Christmas Day in 1962, with 2-weeks yet to go to graduate from boot camp, which I did eight days into 1963. My first regulated boxing match was in boot camp, where I lost a decision to another marine, who I later found out was a professional boxer in ‘civilian life.’

I was stationed at Cherry Point, N.C., at the Marine Corps Air Station and quickly joined the boxing team there. I still remember other fighters on the team stepping on my feet purposely to throw me off balance, propelling me to quickly learn the rudiments of boxing and become good enough to turn pro when I was discharged three years later.

It was in the 5th Street Gymnasium where I met many friends that would enter my life in my early years in the prize-ring. I had already turned pro in Las Vegas, after winning six straight amateur fights and then going three and three in six professional fights when a boxer in Vegas, also a friend of mine and an ex-welterweight champion, Ralph Dupas, who was being handled by Angelo Dundee, told me to look Dundee up, if I needed a good manager, as I was flying back to D.C, with a friend named Andy Kendall, also a boxer who was travelling to Virginia to be with his ex-wife and visit his two children, of which she had custody. He bought me a plane ticket, with a check I cashed after he put my name on it. It was a ‘bad check’ and he and another guy were in cahoots managing an apartment house in Las Vegas and collecting rent monies they never returned, fleeing to Virginia. He cashed many checks by giving them to other ‘friends’ who kept all the money, I found myself in a very perverse situation as could not happen without some form of destiny involved. 

Here’s what happened: we got separated at the Las Vegas Airport, as, little known to me, he had bought a ticket to board a different plane from me. And, then, even more perversely than one would think possible he ended up knocking on his ex-wife’s door only to be answered by his father-in-law, who had a shotgun and blasted him in the stomach. He, perverseness still calling, ended up recovering and returning to boxing where he, then, ended up earning a fight with the then world lt.-heavyweight champion, Bobby Foster, who I knew from Finley’s Gym, in D.C.

So, now, I’m in D.C for about three months with only one fight, an exhibition in Lorton Prison, in, Virginia and I saw, once again, that boxing, in the Nation’s Capital, in 1966 was almost nil and fighters had to travel to New York or Philly to get fights and so, I ended up in Miami Beach, in the fall of 1966.

The first guy I met was Chris Dundee, a man who always mimicked a ‘Dick Nixon’ smile whenever he ‘wanted something’ and you could be sure, I quickly learned, that he was from the streets of Philly and would pay you, or any other boxer, the absolute minimum he could ‘get you for.’

Now, there was a fighter there, a lt heavyweight named Jimmy Ralston, who had been knocked out in a previous fight by a middleweight named Herman ‘Scatterhawk’ Dixon who was scheduled to fight him in a rematch but Dixon pulled out of the rematch due to a pulled muscle.

Chris Dundee asked me to spar with Ralston, and after a couple of rounds, he asked if I would agree to a match with him. I did and ended up losing when the bell rang for the eighth round and the referee stopped the fight for “lack of action” on my part.

Two fights later, after I had kayoed a lt. Heavyweight named Lou Howard and beat Charlie Jordan in an 8-rounder, Angelo Dundee asked me to sign a contract with him, making him my manager for 3-years plus a 3-year renewal. I signed it and a week later, as I was punching on the speed-bag in the 5th Street gym he gave me a gym-bag saying what I would hear innumerable times: “Keith, here use this, yours looks kind of worn out: hey, it was Ali’s.” When he looked at my boxing shoes he smiled obliquely: they were spray-painted white, originally having been black. White shoes were the thing to wear at that time, thanks to Ali. He vaguely asked me what size I wore and when I said eleven, the usual question mark appeared on his face.

Several days later he handed me a pair of boxing shoes. Size eleven. He smiled: “Used to be Ali’s, get dressed you’re goin’ a few wid Louie, he’s got a fight comin’ up.” Louie was Luis Rodriguez, a former welterweight champion, who was fighting as a middleweight and used me as his chief punching bag, aka sparring partner.

I stood there as Angelo walked towards the prize-ring, where Luis Rodriguez awaited my presence in the ring, wanting to know if I was sparring that day. I walked into the dressing room, where I nodded at another fighter, a welterweight named Larry Adkins: “Used to be Ali’s,” I said holding the shoes up. Adkins smiled laconically: they were black.

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