(Note: It was my good friend Bonn Aure who introduced me to the excellent short fiction of Thom Jones. Several months ago, Bonn shared a short story to me written by Jones — which I posted in this blog — and ever since I read that story, “Sonny Liston Was a Friend of Mine”, I’ve been hooked on Jones’s work. I was lucky enough to have grabbed a copy of Jones’s book, “Cold Snap”, and now I’m sharing to you via this blog one of the boxing stories from that book. Below is the short story “Dynamite Hands”. This is the third of four parts. You can read the first part here and the second part here. Enjoy!)
Johnny picked up his headgear and mouthpiece and headed for the locker room. Like, that was it. That was the story. Meanwhile, in spite of a sore hand which had already been broken twice, I was gloved up to go in with Chester when a brash, mouthy black kid from the Kane Street neighborhood came in with a retinue of friends in gold chains, leather jackets with fifty-five zippers each, and White Sox ball caps worn backward. This guy said, “Where’s Johnny Pushe? I need some work.”
Juan was not running a big-time gym, we were used to walki-in trade like this. Lolo said Johnny was in the shower, and I heard Chester say, “Hey, I’ll give you some work. I’m Chester Werthe.”
Kane Street screwed up his face. “Chester? What kind of a name is Chester?”
“Chester Werthe, you motherfucker. I fought ‘em all. Get your ass up here.” Chester started to drool a little and grunt, rocking back on his heels. For a minute I thought he now might be about to have a fit, but then he leveled out. Before an epileptic attack, Chester makes strange noises, like a man drowning in air. Like an animal in rut. Mmm grrr mmm!
Because of my hand, I handn’t planned on doing much more than move with Chester, so I said okay, and relinquished my ring time. Suddenly this new guy was in the ring throwing serious leather. Lolo was calling, “Tiempo, tiempo! Time!”
He hopped up on the ring apron and went over to the new guy’s corner, where all of his pals were whooping it up and if you didn’t know it before, by now you knew there were some serious cocaine vibes in that corner. Lolo pulled at the gym towel he wore on his neck, dipped his head low and whispered to this guy. ” Hey, what’s the matter with you, blood? Lighten up. That’s Chester. He takes Dilantin, mon.” Chester heard this, and said, “That nigger ain’t hurtin’ me none!”
Kane Street said, “Nigger, I had you stagglin’!”
“You don’t tee off on Chester,” Lolo said. “And no racial remarks. Act like sportsmen!”
“Well, he’s in the ring and he’s standin’ there. I want some work.”
“Call time,” Chester said, chomping on his mouthpiece and giving his headgear a little slap with his glove. His eyes locked on his opponent with grim determination.
You could see that Lolo was ambivalent. He wanted to let Chester have his self-respect, but Chester was brain-damaged. His epilepsy came from a right hand I landed on his temple during a fight over in Paris, France.
Chester still had something of a name then. He was the number five WBA middleweight and I was a fighter on the way up, but just another Mexican with a string of knockouts, which is a hard act to keep going. Anyhow, Chester’s opponent sprained his ankle — actually this French fighter was scared after he got a look at Chester’s fight clips and faked an injury. Juan had me flown over on two days’ notice. Flew me over to fight a stablemate — a friend. Juan was better than most, like I said. He was pretty straight, but really, that was low, and I was low to go for it.
Chester fought with absolutely no regard for his own welfare. His face was so ugly he didn’t care what happened to it and that’s how he fought. Like angel dust, like PCP. The French guy saw Chester’s fight clips and lost his nerve. He didn’t know Chester was shot — you wouldn’t — but I was sparring with him every dayand I knew it, and I also knew that he was weak from making the weight. I knew that when Juan had put me in as an alternate.
I thought by taking him out quick I would be doing him a favor, but what I didn’t calculate was the effect of the crowd on Chester. For a crowd, he could rise to the occasion, and we got into a hellacious fight, Juan working his corner and Lolo working mine. It seemed so strange. I mugged the poor bastard. I got him drunk and then I nailed him with the worst kind of punch — the one you don’t see coming.
Four days unconscious didn’t help, neither him nor me. Chester got a $7,000 payday — it wasn’t nothing but shoeshine money, popcorn change. I saw a Judas payment around $2,500. Chester was just an accident waiting to happen, but it gave me a rotten feeling.
Max Baer, Ray Robinson, and Emile Griffith killed men in the ring — Ray Mancini — it happens. When you are a boxer, putting people in trouble is your business, but I knew Chester and I had to live with him. I should have said I wouldn’t fight a stablemate. But I was greedy for fame and fortune. Most likely the same thing would have happened to Chester in a bar or back alley for no payday at all. It’s just that it wouldn’t have been on my conscience.
I was thinking of this and of how far Chester had fallen when Lolo clicked his stopwatch, called time again and this guy who just walked in off the streets started nailing Chester, formerly a world-class fighter. Kane Street was a counterpuncher and he was letting Chester walk head-on into his punches. Mugging him. Getting him drunk.
Chester couldn’t adjust, couldn’t slip or duck, bob and weave, side-to-side — nothing. He just pressed after the new guy in a balls-out windmill assault. This had worked a few years back when he was in shape and rang up a string of knockouts, but he had since been annihilated mentally and once that happens you’re a shot fighter, pure and simple.
I was gloved up and ready to get in there to take care of business, clean some house, but Chester called for another round. Lolo was running back and forth frantically. Like, where’s Juan? I was thinking it, too. Kane Street danced out to the middle of the ring and greeted Chester with a flurry of uppercuts, dumping him on his butt. There Chester sat like a little baby that wanted to cry but couldn’t get the breath up for it. From the look of his face, you could tell he finally knew that he had gone from world-class to a fighter who couldn’t even make it as a gym rat anymore. It was a terrible thing to see.
Lolo was helping him out of the ring when Johnny Pushe, freshly showered and back in street clothes, took one look and picked up on the situation. Johnny pulled off his jacket and jumped into the ring in his Levi’s, T-shirt, and Nikes, pulled on a pair of sixteen-ouncer gloves — no mouthpiece, no Vaseline — and said quietly, “Let’s go, man. I’m Johnny Pushe and I’d be honored to work with you.”
They touched gloves and then Kane Street got uppity and hit Johnny with a right hand lead the very second Lolo called time. This was a bad mistake. I jumped down from the ring apron and stood along the wall and watched as Johnny commenced to commit homicide on the new guy. I mean, I’d been going to give it to him, but I wasn’t going to hill the man.
Johnny said, “Is that all you got, bad boy? If that’s all you got, your black ass is in trouble.” Johnny egged the man on. He said, “Give me a shot, man. Show me some stuff, bad boy.”
As soon as Kane Street attempted anything more complicated than a left jab, Johnny uncorked successions of punches. Even when the black kid held his hands up and danced away, Johnny scored with punches, snorting like a bull as he fired. When he got on the bicycle and just tried to survive, Johnny made things even worse for him.
The black boxer’s entourage was silent. Just when it seemed like Johnny would put him away mercifully, he backed off so that the kid couldn’t quit without losing face totally. “Are you tired? Are you a girl?” Johnny taunted. “Come on, man!”
Kane Street moved in firing. One last try. Johnny carried his hands down at his sides, and was slipping punches slicker than shit. He tagged Kane Street with hard shots, allowing him to recover sufficiently before throwing more. He beat him on the arms and shoulders. It was like overnight mail: The new guy wouldn’t feel it until the morning. When Johnny got bored with this, he landed serious thunder, dropping the black fighter on the seat of his pants where he hung in the corner with one arm on the lowest rope, his left eye completely shut and his upper lip looking like he had just chewed on a nestful of hornets. Like Lolo says, it ain’t nice to make denigrating racial remarks, but this guy looked like a Ubangi that just did a one-on-one with an African honey badger. “That was fun,” Johnny said, tapping the downed man on the top of the head. “Come back tomorrow and I’ll show you some more neat stuff.”
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