The kid's first challenge: A boxing memoir

If age only had the energy, and youth only had the experience

The kid lacked one thing: Respect for his elders.
The kid lacked one thing: Respect for his elders.

He came into the gym the first time with his old man and he never showed up after that without him. After a while, I got the feeling that the father was keeping an eye on what he thought was going to be his meal ticket.

He was a good-looking Hispanic kid, about 19, already a welterweight, although he probably wasn't done growing yet. The father did most of the talking that first time "“ all the time, really "“ and got the paperwork from Al to get the kid signed up.

This was at the Wildwood Boxing Club on Park Boulevard, an old transmission shop that's as funky as any gym in North Philly. Virgil Hill, the former light heavyweight champ, had helped start it with a donation of a thousand dollars. Back then, when Virgil was still fighting, he'd come down from Atlantic City to spar with Chuckie Mussachio, the Wildwood light heavy who'd founded the club with his father and a few other guys who were out of the picture by the time I started hanging there. Virgil said he liked the club because it reminded him of some of the gyms when he was coming up in North Dakota.

Female interlopers

Anyhow, at this time mostly Spanish kids from the neighborhood were using the club. This was before they built the new community center, and most of the kids were just getting off the winter streets. Maybe a few of them were really into training; the others were mostly yakking with each other or into their ubiquitous cell phones. For a while they even had their girl friends in there, pretending they were going to be female fighters, until Al put his foot down and ran them off.

So this kid made sort of a big splash. He had athletic ability, fast hands, was in good shape and learned real fast from Al, Richie and Mickey, who were the trainers then. Al is an ex-Philly cop who had a good amateur boxing career. Richie had fought some pro, and his son, Richie "the Bandit" Bennett, had a good pro career in Philly. I remember seeing him fight at the old Spectrum back when Russell Peltz was putting on some good shows there.

One man's pedigree

My guy was Mickey, though. He came from Brooklyn and had fought 24 times as a lightweight in the old Garden in New York. He never fought a main event there because his manager was connected and his people thought they could do better with Mickey on the undercards. That was all he would say about it.

Mickey was in his early 70s and could still rattle the heavy bag. He had a hard up-jab that was a thing of beauty, and he told me that he did nothing but practice it for six months until he had it down. It never left him.

Mickey had boxing pedigree: He and Joey Giardello had been running buddies for about five years when they were both training at the old Stillman's Gym, two blocks from the Garden.

Beating up kids

The kid was pretty good. He was coming along. And because he was the only amateur in the gym with any potential, Al, Richie, and Mickey made a big fuss over him and began telling him he had a real future. Plus he was beating up regularly on any of the neighborhood kids they could get to spar with him.

The kid's father, who usually came in eating a burrito from a bodega on Pacific Avenue, was getting more mouthy the better the kid got. He was a pretty big dude who wore a fingertip leather coat and a turned-around Jeff cap. He was always vague about his life before he came to Wildwood, and most of us thought he'd left town about an hour ahead of the posse.

He thought he knew more about boxing and boxing history than the rest of us put together, and tried to talk over anybody who didn't agree with him. He was a conversational bully, just as his kid was becoming a bully in the ring, whacking the local kids all around and then sneering at them when they couldn't keep up with him. He bloodied a few noses, and it looked like it was only a matter of time before he did some serious damage.

He was getting real cocky. You could tell.

A round with a prison guard

Then one evening, after he'd been hitting the heavy bag, the kid passed by Kenny, who was lacing up his ring shoes. Kenny was a prison guard in his early 40s who'd had 11 or 12 pro fights, winning only a couple. He was just an opponent at this point, but he loved the fight game and trained regularly and religiously.

Kenny was a light heavyweight who was as efficient and comfortable in the ring as a guy his age could be, and he had heavy hands. When he and Chuckie sparred, Chuckie would wince at some of Kenny's body shots.

This night, the kid was feeling his oats, and leaned down and rubbed the top of Kenny's head and said, "Want to go a couple, old man?"

Kenny looked up and wrinkled his brow, sort of puzzled at the kid's rudeness. Then he looked over at Al, who nodded.

"OK," Kenny said.

"'Is this all you got?'

They got their hands wrapped and taped on the heavy sparring gloves, and then everybody in the place trooped into the adjoining room where the ring was set up. Sparring was always a show that everybody watched.

The kid's father was in his corner and Al was Kenny's second. They put the mouthpieces in, and the buzzer on the clock sounded for the start of the three-minute round. They touched gloves and the kid hit Kenny on the break with a stiff jab. Kenny cocked his head a little, and gave the kid another puzzled look.

For the first two minutes, the kid put on a good display, on his toes and moving well, then darting in to throw two- and three-punch combinations. Kenny stayed mostly in one place, pivoting to meet the kid's attacks, blocking some, slipping others. But the kid was getting to him.

The kid backed up a little and rasped through his mouthpiece, "Is this all you got, pops?"

He came in again and Kenny hit him with a body punch that sounded like a firecracker. The kid went down like he'd been shot, writhing on his back, his legs giving little involuntary kicks.

Kenny looked down at him. "He'll be all right in a few minutes," he said to the kid's father, who had vaulted into the ring and was kneeling helplessly by his son.

The kid still looked woozy when he and his father left the gym after those few minutes.

We never saw them again.♦

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