Jewish World Review June 20, 2005/ 13 Sivan,
The palooka was a lady
I saw his palookas up close and personal. One had a cauliflower
ear that looked exactly like the vegetable. Another was punch drunk, and we
needed a translator to understand him. Nearly all had rearranged eyes and
noses spread across their scarred faces. Billy Conn, on the other hand, the
great white hope of the '40s, was the handsomest man I ever saw.
The best of these men trained at Stillman's Gym in New York. Lou
Stillman was Daddy's friend, and everyone referred to the fighters as
"bums," but occasionally one would become "a real Palooka," as in Joe
Palooka, the dumb but good-hearted fighter of the popular comic strip.
Mom sat at ringside. She was gorgeous in a designer dress with
an elegant chapeau shading her sharp blue eyes. Daddy was dashing in a
tailored suit, a hand-painted Countess Mara tie, his wingtips set off by a
soft gray fedora. He worked the crowd slowly, always checking with Mom to
get her take on what to expect. She always got the winning rounds right. The
world outside the ring was fashionably elegant, and there was usually
etiquette inside the ring, too.
Palookas or not, "gentleman fighter" was not an oxymoron. But
like so much of our culture, the ring has been dirtied down, and Mike Tyson,
as he never misses an opportunity to show us, is one of the dirtiest. He
carried his continuing disrespect for the sport into the ring of
his latest (and possibly his last) fight the other night in Washington. This
time he used his head, but only to butt into Kevin McBride's eye, opening a
bloody wound. Then he tried to break the man's arm.
But fight fans are accustomed to watching male brutality inside
a ring. One of the Tyson-McBride prelims was between two women, and Laila
Ali, Muhammad Ali's daughter, "put a whuppin'" on Erin Toughill. She was
both bloodied and beaten. "I tore her up," the winner said afterward. Laila
Ali's rough-and-tumble talk and jerky body movements stood in odd contrast
to the sweet moves of her famous father, a gentleman fighter who stepped
into the ring after the fight to look after her with a paternal tenderness
suggesting Father of the Year.
Daddy shielded me as best he could from the sordid side of the
fight racket; I never got near an actual prizefight. It was not a place for
Daddy's little girl. Neither he nor Mom could have imagined that women would
one day enter the ring with gloves on. The rough characters he sometimes
brought home were always on their best behavior, difficult as that might
have been, and I don't remember ever having heard locker room talk in our
home. Now more than 2,000 women boxers are registered prizefighters, and
locker-room obscenities are the least of the vulgarity.
The controversy surrounding "Million Dollar Baby," the Academy
Award-winning movie, was about the lady boxer's wish to die, and the movie
has had the misleading effect of portraying the fight game as something
glamorous and lucrative. Women have been encouraged to become boxers. This
is a triumph for neither the spirit nor feminism.
But sorry is as sorry does. Women are unprepared physically and
emotionally for the brutality of the ring. Those who try are attracted by
the flashy aggressiveness of the fight, but few learn the hard defensive
work of protecting their heads. Sometimes they have to spar with men because
there aren't enough female sparring partners. Men, few of whom like punching
women, invariably pull their punches, making women vulnerable to mismatches.
Boxers, both men and women, are less likely to die from a single blow than to sustain brain damage from cumulative punches, and this is no way for a lady to live or die. When A.J. Liebling wrote his classics on "the sweet science of bruising" for the New Yorker, women didn't aspire to sluggerhood. There's nothing sweet about bruises. The culture has rendered us all a little punch drunk.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in Washington and in the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
Comment on JWR contributor Suzanne Fields' column by clicking here.