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Another Rocky Sequel

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Another Rocky Sequel

I'm thinking of fighting again. Nothing big, y'know, locally.  Of course, I've got arthritis in my hip joint, so hard running is out.  So it goes.

To say that I'm thinking of fighting again stretches that I "fought" the first time.  As a skinny freshman in 1988, I joined Central Connecticut State University's Boxing Club, to dubious success.  It wasn't officially a sport for whatever reason, probably funding.  Johnny Callas, a Hartford fighting veteran, who later went on to officiate the Miguel Cotto vs. Muhammad Abdullayev WBO Light Welterweight Title fight at Madison Square Garden in 2005, coached me for my short two-month boxing career.

I'd grown up around the sport, my old man an amateur fighter.  I don't know much about his boxing career only that our basement was a mini Gold(man's) Gym, with heavy bag and speed bag, jump ropes, sparring gloves, and all those tools specific to the boxing world, the springs and grips, handwraps, etc.  

My father's favorite fighter was Roberto Duran, nicknamed Manos de Piedre, or Hands of Stone.  With his beard and dark complexion (my father worked in constructed and was tanned year round.  I'd once told my kindergarten class that my mother was white and my father was black, much to the horror of my WASP hometown, my mother dragging my father to parent/teacher conferences so that my teacher could see it wasn't true), the old man even resembled Duran.  

I'd sit on the basement steps and watch my father work.  I was nine.  We already weren't talking much by then.  Childhood memory assigns disproportionate weight, distorts, vilifies or makes heroic what was merely ordinary.  But when, in the playground, we'd throw around the "my dad can beat up your dad" insults, I am pretty sure it wasn't hyperbole.  

His arms, thick ropes of sinew and muscled knots swelled and hewn from years of training and lifting heavy machinery, thundered that fucking bag.  I can still see his sending the 100 lbs. of sand rocking, swaying violently in the air with each left hook.  He was still young then, maybe thirty-one, -two.  His stomach was a rock. Not a rippled six-pack, just this hard slightly extended slab.  He'd hit that bag for hours. He was the angriest man I ever met.

He didn't show me any fighting tips or offer advice when I asked.  But he'd let me watch, and I'd try to garner what I could, various combinations, how to bob and weave, stick and move, the ratio of jabs, etc. Of course I got it wrong.

I wasn't much of an athlete, not like my brothers, who both starred in sports throughout high school.  I was the...artist.  A mantle I hated.  While my brothers towered over me and were getting all the girls, I was skinny, small, weak.  But unlike my brothers, both of whom were kind and gentler, I was a mean little scrap of a kid, never afraid to throw a punch.  Not that those punches had much impact. There weren't many fights when I was a kid, though there were some, but it was never a winning or losing sort of thing, more like Joe spazzing out and swinging wildly and the other kids looking at me like I was crazy.

By the time college came around, I hand't filled out, still a string bean, weird, moody, mopey, and, yes, mean.  My father and mother were divorced, or getting divorced for the second time.  I hated him, and he me, but even then I knew I'd joined the CCSU boxing club in an attempt to win some sort of approval.

It was a rough schedule for those couple months, with classes, work, and training, and two months doesn't sound like much, but I remember those days as grueling, waking up at 5 a.m. to run and going straight through to 10 p.m. each night, with sparring and roadwork and practice five days a week.

Johnny Callas taught me how to throw a proper jab, and I had some success in sparring, knocking around the team's 143 lbs. champ.  Of course, I was 181 lbs., so it wasn't exactly a fair fight.  (This 181 lbs. will be importantly shortly).


I had one fight at the New York Athletic Club, which came at the end of my two-moth career.  It was our first team match, and Callas tried to pair up everyone on the team, all, like, six of us, with favorable first matches.  He was able to do so with everyone.  Except me.

"Sorry, kid," Callas said before my big fight.  "I am a little worried about you tonight.  You should've lost that pound."

Now, I don't remember ever hearing I had to lose a pound, but I was a spacey kid, so he'd probably said it.  The heavyweight division in collegiate boxing cut off at 180.  At 181, I was a Super Heavyweight.  Basically, 181 and up.  The guy I fought weighed 240.

He was nicknamed "The Woofer" and while he was warming up before the match he listened to Debbie Gibson on his walkman, a detail that would soon add to my humiliation.  And I was humiliated.

Like most skinny white boys born in the '70s, I'd seen Rocky a few too many times. It was impossible to run without hearing that theme song and envisioning myself as Sly Stallone stepping in to face Apollo Creed.  In a way, I did what Rocky did, going the distance with The Woofer.  Except our fight was three rounds, not fifteen, and I got my ass beat so badly, the time judge shortened the rounds from three minutes to two.  I didn't go down, but my ribs and face were bruised, and I learned something about boxing I didn't know.  Every punch, however light it may seem on TV, those little flicking jabs, fucking hurt.  And they hurt a lot.

After the fight, the team was served dinner in the Athletic Club's banquet hall, where the matches were rebroadcast on the big screen.  Everyone else on the team had faired well.  We'd gone 5-1, with my match as the sole loss.  I watched my fight, cutting up my chicken and potatoes, and it was brutal, six minutes of my ducking and covering and receiving a beat down.


The drive back to Connecticut was long.  I think we'd all gone to NYC bar afterward.  I didn't drink in those days.  I was hurting.  Callas probably said something encouraging.  I only remember the long drive back on the turnpike, no one talking, the toll booth's soft purple lights contrasting with an early dawn sky.

They'd given us all silver-tin plates to commemorate our matches, dates etched.  When I walked in the house, my father was leaving for work.  He saw the plate in my hand, asked what it was.  I told him I'd had a fight in New York City.

"You win," he asked
I shook my head no.

He grabbed his lunch from the fridge and left without another word.

The next day, I quit the team.


I am forty-one, with a restructured pelvis and chronic bad back from my motorcycle accident.  I have three metal screws that hold my hip together, and traumatic arthritis in my right hip.  Where my back broke, the lower traverse lumbar, the muscle reattached awkwardly and perpetually spasms.  My acetabulum also snapped off in that accident, and with no lubricant in the hip joint, running is bone on bone.  My fractured ribs also healed oddly, sticking out on the right side a few inches, so bench pressing and push-ups can hurt.  Still I train.

I hit the gym five days a week, cardio every day, trying to run at least once a week, if not more, but because of the hip doing so more than once is tough.  I have bulked up to 210 lbs., cut my body fat to 17.9%.  I am building some hurting bombs, as Duke would say.  I even asked the general contractor to install mountings for a heavy bag in the new house.  

It is probably too late for me to fight.  I am too old, too broken down.  But like my dad, I'll train.  In this MMA world, kids don't care much about boxing anymore. But if my boy ever sits on the basement steps and wants to know what his father is doing, I'll be happy to show him everything I've learned.


At February 17, 2011 at 9:51 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know how we missed each other on the CCSU boxing club! I never had a real boxing match though. A one sided exhibition with a pro named Troy Wortham, whom, by the way, was only allowed to jab, ended that journey really quickly! I really didn't like getting hit!

At February 18, 2011 at 5:09 AM , Blogger Sean said...

Great post, Joe. I loved it. Brings back so many memories. Doctor's orders though: Don't climb in the ring. Kids are faster today than they were in our day--or at least they seem it.

I agree. Sad MMA has taken over.

Do your bag work--and do it well. That's all Holden needs to see. Invent the rest--kids love stories. Holden will especially enjoy the story where his father slipped under a monstrous right cross from The WOOFER (who was 260 pounds and not 240, BTW) and hammered the manbeast with a reverse right--that was so hard--it sent The Woofer sprawling into the ropes and to the canvas--all goofy legged and wobbly eyed.

Good news. There are no computer records of your fights. Holden will never be able to verify your tales--it's perhaps the greatest blessing from our antiquity.
So let the legend rise, "Jalopy-Joe Clifford" (yeah, you used to show up for fights in a jalopy as I recall)...let it rise.

At February 18, 2011 at 8:23 PM , Blogger Justine said...

This has to be one of my favorite posts of all time (and it's not about me at all).


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