Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A FATHER, A FIGHTER

My Dearest Niglets,

I’m a fighter. I’m guessing that by the time I show you this letter, you will have pretty much gathered that about me. But I’m not a fighter fighter. I mean, I’m not a “pro” as they say in the gym. So, although I am by nature a fighter, in the gym I’m not a fighter. I’m just a guy who loves boxing. And though I was a relatively advanced (that means old) 29 years old the first time that I stepped into a gym to train, on some level I guess I’ve always loved the sweet science.

Why do they call it the “sweet science?” Well, I’m thinking that the “You’re Bleeding On The Inside And A Little Bit From The Eye Science” didn’t test well. I’m playing…mostly. Someday, we’ll spend a little time watching some vintage Ali fights, and maybe some vintage Sugar Ray Leonard fights, or even some vintage “Pretty Boy” Floyd Mayweather Jr. fights and I’ll try to explain, to show you. I’ll try to help you recognize the perfection that was Roy Jones. I’ll try to explain why the “grill guy” winning the heavyweight championship at the age of 45 was an inspiration to middle-aged (to you, that means old too) people across the country. I’ll try to help you appreciate the beauty of Arturo Gatti’s heart.

I have no way of knowing whether you will like boxing. You may turn to me and say that it is a barbaric sport (which it is) which generally has poor people – or people who started out poor – beating the hell out of each other (which it does). But as I think about it, I’ve learned a lot about life through boxing.

Grandpa – my father -- loved the fights. He’d watch on TV. (That was before every fight that involved a guy you’d barely heard of cost fifty bucks. Ahhhh…pay-per-view.) I first fell in love with boxing sitting next to him. I don’t know whether it was watching with him or later on, but at some point I noticed that just about the last thing the ref tells both fighters is “Protect yourself at all times.”

“Protect yourself at all times” seems sound advice. For me, it seems more sound advice with each passing year. Life can be tough. People can be rough, friend and foe alike – assuming for a moment that they can always be distinguished one from the other. Protect yourself at all times.

It’s funny, though. I also hope that you’ll fall in love someday, find someone who you trust enough to let your guard down. Believe me, that’s hard to do after keeping your guard up all the time. But hopefully, you’ll find someone like your mother, someone who not only won’t hit you when your hands are down, but who will look to protect you in a million ways you never thought of before, who will greet you with open arms and watch your back when you need to rest your weary arms.

Still, I cringe. Because if you think boxing is rough, believe me, love can be a bruising game. It’s one worth playing though, even when you have to play through the pain.

So, please…Protect yourself at all times…except when you should let your guard down…which only you can decide. Good luck with that.

“Who you got, Duran or Leonard?” It seems like it should have been a simple question. But I’m Panamanian-American. That seems like it should be a simple thing, too. But any immigrant or second-generation child of an immigrant who has been accused of becoming “too American” can tell you that striking a balance isn’t always simple at all. I first became aware of that when Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran fought in Montreal in 1980. I loved Sugar Ray Leonard. I was only four when he won the gold, but I remember liking to wear my robe and pretend that I was him.

So, by the time I was eight, I had read the Ebony articles, I had watched his fights and I had rooted for him as he became World Champion. My family was rooting for Duran, though. “Hands of Stone” was the pride of Panama and they wanted to see him whup up on that pretty boy, Ray Leonard. The first fight happened and I lost…I mean Sugar Ray lost. I was crushed. But my uncle – the man who taught me how to score fights using the ten point must system -- who’d flown from Panama to Montreal was ecstatic. Grandpa was ecstatic. Everybody, it seemed, was ecstatic except me.

Then came the rematch. Grandpa promised to take me to see the closed circuit. (Back in the day, before pay-per-view was around, but after the “superfight” was born, you’d head out to a movie theater and they’d project the fight live.) This time, I’d root with Pa – that’s what I called Grandpa. I’d root for Duran. We’d be on the same side, the same glorious, victorious side. Except…not.

It was so exciting. Pa came to pick me up. It was a school night, but Ma – that’s what I called your Grandma – gave me special permission to go because it was so important to me. The fight was going along. Duran was getting frustrated as Sugar Ray Leonard danced around him and refused to stand and slug it out. It was getting ugly. Sugar Ray was hitting Duran at will and was generally embarrassing him. Then it happened. Duran turned to his corner and infamously said, “No mas.” He quit.

That was the dagger to my heart. He quit. He didn’t get knocked out. He didn’t just lose. I mean, there’s no shame in losing if you give your all. But don’t ever quit. Remember that. Anyway, Duran did quit. And, even as I write this, I’m disappointed all over again.

I had lost…I mean, Duran had lost…No dammit! I had lost…again!

When it came to Duran and Leonard I somehow managed to lose, to root for the wrong guy, each time. Looking back, that makes sense. I’ve learned that in a fight against yourself, you never win.

“Alli viene Duran.” A buzz ran through the Panama airport. He walks through smiling at everyone. They all smile back, including me. All I could think was, “Wait ‘til Pa gets better. I have to tell him I saw Duran.” I was headed back to Los Angeles. I had left Pa behind in a hospital that didn’t have screens in all the windows. He had a brain tumor. They’d done surgery and removed as much as they could. “He’ll get better,” I assured myself. “He’s a fighter.” Yeah, your Grandpa was a fighter too. You come from a long line of fighters.

He didn’t get better. He died. Sometimes when I look at you guys I feel particularly sorry about that. He would’ve gotten a kick out of you. He loved kids.

Maybe we all could’ve watched a fight together. Who knows who we would have been rooting for? and why? Pa might have told you about the red Everlast 7oz. junior gloves he got me one Christmas. I might have told the story of seeing Duran in the airport. Pa might’ve even told you about the time he came to pick me up after school and found me fighting. He would’ve enjoyed calling me out in front of you. He liked to laugh.

I don’t remember the fight as well as I remember the aftermath. Pa did his best to admonish me for fighting. He really did try, bless his heart. He finally settled on “As long as you were defending yourself. You should only fight to defend yourself.” That was about as much admonishment as he could muster. Then he looked in the rearview mirror and said, “You’re tough. You did alright.” His boy was a fighter and he couldn’t hide that he was proud.

After Grandpa died I didn’t have much fight in me. I had never been so sad…or so fat! Good Lord. Street teams started putting posters on my back. I was fat, for real. Finally, I decided that I was going to get back in shape. And that’s when I wandered into La Brea Boxing Gym. And that’s where I met a trainer named Amilcar Brusa.

Brusa was in his late seventies, just a few years older than Pa. He had trained world champions, twelve of them. He had been the WBA Trainer of the Year and is a member of their Hall of Fame. You may be asking yourself why he would want anything to do with a 29 year old writer who’d never step foot in a boxing gym. I don’t know.

Maybe he saw me as some kind of mascot. Or he may have just been tickled by my earnestness. But Brusa, worked with me every day I came in there. He was a friend to me at one of the lowest points in my life. I don’t think he knew that the good boxing was doing my body was a drop in the bucket compared to the good it was doing my spirit.

The heavy bag I used was right below a Panamanian flag. I took that as a sign that I was in the right place. I beat that heavy bag, day after day, until I started feeling better. Some days I would talk to Grandpa. Some days I would beat on the doctor who couldn’t save him. Some days I would have a good long talk with God. I didn’t get my answers to all my questions, but beating on that heavy bag sure did get me in some good shape.

Eventually, I sparred. And Brusa was in my corner. He’d call things out, things he’d taught me. When I watch fights, I’m always interested in the relationship between a fighter and his trainer. Often they seem so close. I once saw Buddy McGirt stop an Arturo Gatti fight because Gatti’s eye was swollen completely shut. He leaned down to Gatti and said, “I’m stopping it, Arturo. I love you too much.” I don’t know how many fans paid any attention to that. I did. It was stunningly beautiful. I thought, “It’s nice to have someone in your corner who cares.” I surely didn’t face any gruesome moments like that sparring with 16oz. gloves and headgear. But it was nice to know that Brusa was in my corner, even if it was just for a little early-morning sparring in a cold, empty gym.

“I’m’a take a leak.” I stood up after my pronouncement. (By the way, I DO NOT want to hear you talking like that.) I was fourteen and hanging out with my friends. The big Tyson/Spinks fight was about to start. “It’s just the first round,” I figured. “Hold on,” my buddy Carl said, “Go between rounds.” That worked out real well. See, Tyson knocked Spinks out in ninety-one seconds. It was the first round. It was the last round. It was the only round. It was literally awesome.

Being in Brooklyn when Tyson was king was amazing. I always felt like he represented a bunch of brothers the world had forgotten. But they couldn’t ignore him once he laced ‘em up and got in the ring. He was just a ball of fury, a fighting machine. He was the physical manifestation of the rage that gripped the Brownsvilles and the Bed-Stuys and the East New Yorks. Brooklyn had nothin’ but love for Iron Mike.

But then things went south for him. He went to prison. And I know you won’t believe this, but he bit a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear off. It was kind’a like the Duran situation but with cannibalism.

Remember I said that you should never quit? If your other option seems to be biting off a piece of some nigga’s ear…quit. We’ll all get over it.

People made a lot of jokes about Tyson biting Holyfield. And rightly so. It was funny…in a way. But in another way it was tragic. Tyson had become the savage he believed the world saw in him, saw in all of us.

A generation before us had Ali. We had Tyson. I’ve always felt like the difference between them represented something deeper about the Black community after the Civil Rights Era. We somehow fell from beautiful to base, from majesty to minstrelry. Part of me still roots for Mike Tyson, even as he publicly considers a publicity stunt like fighting a woman. Just recently, a friend from New York admitted that she holds out hope that he’ll make one more comeback. It’s hard to accept that someone who represented hope for so many is now hopeless, a shell of his former self, a monument to potential never realized.

I’m back in the gym these days. After Grandma died, guess what? I got fat again! But I’ve been pounding on that heavy bag. I’ve been dropping weight. I’ve been punching out some of the pain of the past as I work on the body I hope will give me a whole lot of future, a whole lot of future with you. I guess you could say I’m fighting for our future. I guess you could say that in and out of the ring. But I hope you already know that.

I’m trying to teach you what I’ve learned fighting, living.


When you see an opening, don’t think about it. Just let your hands go.

Train hard, because a lot of fights are won before you step foot in the ring.

Sooner or later, you’re going to have to stand your ground and fight.



I hope this all makes sense to you. I’m saying it the best way I know how. After all, I’m a fighter. Just remember…


Protect yourself at all times.

Never quit.

Never bite a nigga’s ear off.

And no matter what goes down, I’m in your corner.



Now get out there and fight!

Love,
Daddy

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6 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You KNOW I had to hit this up as soon as you posted...

Tyson was definitely the man, wasn't he? And if he could just shake that daggone sheisty Don King - he WOULD be back in there - even if for only one more time!

And last - but certainly not least - those Niglets sure are LUCKY! (and me too because I can say that you and the Mrs. are my friends... - corny, I know, but true!)

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Wes said...

Yup. The niglets and Mrs. NWM are lucky people indeed....

2:09 PM  
Blogger Cole Wiley said...

Great post. It reminds me of an open letter that my father wrote to me 17 years ago. It was in a boxing memoir called 'Serenity.' At any rate, up put in some good work...like any respectable fighter does. >CW<

3:57 PM  
Anonymous Court said...

Did you:
a) Call your children niglets again?

b)Tell them to never nite a nigga's ear off?

c) And continue to be an amazing father?

You're great bro!

9:30 AM  
Blogger Tom said...


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..........(..)....(..)
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He likes this site !

9:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What you feel about boxing.. thats me and tae kwon do. I was a 47 year old incest survivor who had no exposure whatsoever to the martial arts. I went because I drove my granddaughter there. I loved the way the students moved. I will never be a star.. but my sabunim sees something in my spirit that makes me worth teaching.. I am forever grateful.

12:51 PM  

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