“Lives distilled,” was how my first editor described the obituaries. He had written them when he was a journeyman reporter. It was a job nobody wanted, but one he learned to appreciate. Since meeting him, a daily paper hasn’t passed through my hands without my glancing at the death notices. This particular notice meant something to me:
23 candles you blew out
five years ago today
then you gave us one last smile
and went upon your way
we cried and cried so much for you
it must have looked like rain
but when we saw your face at peace
and free from all the pain
we knew that God was good to you
and held you in His arms
shielding you from suffering
keeping you from harm
and so dear son and brother
enjoy yourself and rest
we know you’re there in heaven
cuz on earth you were the best
In loving memory of Bobby Thompson on his birthday. From Dad, Mom, and Shirley.
The poem was accompanied by a grainy reproduction of the stock boxer promo shot: fists raised, head cocked as though looking for an opening, one shoulder higher than the other, the square-jawed, tough-guy face of a promising junior middleweight. His nose flared a bit more than the one he was born with, but his face was smooth, unscarred. After nineteen professional fights and a couple dozen in the amateur ranks, he was a good-looking kid. Everything was going his way.
I was present at Bobby’s funeral and I’d been present at his in-town fights. One night at ringside I met his parents and we chatted briefly—small talk about what a great future Bobby had.
His kid sister, Shirley, is often in the gym where Bobby worked out and where I sometimes go to assess the current crop of local pugilists. I sit on a folding chair in a corner observing the pounding and the grunting. Accompanying the blur of movement is the smell of perspiration and the hope that these kids have of breaking into the big time.
At the wake, Shirley greeted me as “Mr. Moran” and it made me feel old. I told her to call me Gerard and when she said, “OK, Gerard,” it was like hearing my name for the first time. In a sleeveless black dress and low heels, she looked as comfortable as she did in the sweatpants and sneakers she wore at the gym. She has light brown hair in thick, soft curls and wears no makeup.
“Thank you for all the kind words you wrote about Bobby,” she said and then reached up a muscled arm to wipe a tear from beside her nose. I wanted to hold her then, like I’ve wanted to hold her since then, but I just looked over at the closed casket with the framed picture of her brother in his fighting stance atop the polished wood.
I write for The Muse, a weekly that mostly covers the arts. It’s full of where to go, what to do, movie reviews, and music news. We do a sports feature, which is where I come in, and less frequently we run a story under many different bylines. When Mike Tyson “bit and spit” Evander Holyfield’s ear, the next issue carried seven different takes on the controversy. We represented a cross section of public opinion: a woman columnist called for a ban of the sport; another writer wrote a namby-pamby piece suggesting Iron Mike needed counseling above all and shouldn’t be held responsible for his childhood angst coming to the fore; I likened Tyson to a pit bull owned by Don King, and researched Mysterious Billy Smith, another fighter who had a nasty habit of biting and indulged in dirty tactics. I love boxing in spite of wackos like Tyson and Smith. The gig pays all right and Jack Russka, the editor, takes whatever I give him.
Six years ago I wrote a story about a fighter named Louis Pentello. This was before he met up with Bobby Thompson on that controversial night. The bit was called “Louis Goes Kerf-looey”—I’ve never met a copy editor who didn’t have a skewed sense of humor.
Pentello was a junior middleweight who was winning a lot but whose tactics weren’t always on the up and up. It was not a flattering portrait. I wrote about how he’d low-blow an opponent and head-butt like nobody I’d ever seen in the ring. If his foot came down on top of somebody else’s and he used it to anchor his adversary while he hit him with a crushing right hand, well, it was just too bad that the guy couldn’t keep track of his own feet. The referee would penalize him and it would look as though he was going to lose the bout, but then he’d come in with that short right that traveled from his chest and was as potent as one of Marciano’s. He had some talent but apparently didn’t trust himself to get the job done without all the shenanigans. When Pentello wasn’t preparing for a fight, he hung out in a titty bar with unsavory companions, and he’d had more than a few scrapes with the law. I saw no reason to leave out any of the details.
The summer after “Louis Goes Kerf-looey” was published, his handler called and invited me back to Pentello’s training gym where we’d done the initial interview. I hadn’t heard from them in a few months and I figured they were less than pleased with my piece. I told Jack Russka where I was going and that if I hadn’t called him by a certain time to start making funeral arrangements because I’d most likely been pummeled senseless and kicked into the bottom corner of a locker somewhere with my feet stuffed into my mouth.
It was a scorching day in July, and Pentello’s gym was a third-floor walk-up above a hardware store in Chinatown. The narrow staircase smelled like dust. Each tread was worn smooth in the middle but held a triangular layer of dirt in the corners. I was in shirtsleeves and my tie hung limp. My notebook felt like a cinder block by the time I made it up the stairs.
Pentello was sparring when I came in, and he seemed like the only one who didn’t know I was there. The two fighters to my right, hitting the heavy bags, stopped and stared at me, as did the one jumping rope and the one shadowboxing in front of the mirror. I sat down as near as I could to a fan, with my notebook on my lap. I tried to ignore the looks I was getting and focus on the ring. Both men were wearing padded headgear to protect them from accidental injuries in simple training bouts. The sparring partner, one of the team who was hired to mimic the style of Pentello’s upcoming opponent, Bobby Thompson, was obviously a heavyweight. Fighting someone heavier requires great strength and endurance, not only to absorb meatier punches, but to withstand the inside game, the clinching and pushing that accompanies almost every fight. After a few rounds it’s easy to let the arms sag, which opens up a line of attack for the opposition. They must have been at it for a while because I noticed Louis getting tagged with head shots, something he was susceptible to, as was apparent by the scars that formed his eyebrows and the flatness of his nose.
They took a break and Louis went to his corner to talk to his trainer. The trainer said something and Pentello glared over at me briefly, then turned and signaled the heavyweight that he was ready for more. This time Louis’s arms were up, pumping jabs to his opponent’s face and short hooks to the body. The heavyweight was mostly just covering up and trying to avoid the onslaught. He wasn’t hurt, the twenty-ounce training gloves protected him from major injury, but this whirlwind of activity had taken him by surprise. Louis knocked the guy down with a left uppercut. Then he turned and looked at me, his arms down by his sides, his torso billowing with breath, sweat streaming down his chiseled chest. I hoped Jack would deliver an interesting eulogy.
I scribbled a note, briefly describing the ferociousness of what I had just witnessed. I thought of Bobby Thompson and how I’d like to warn him about Pentello’s uppercut. I looked around and noticed the other denizens of the gym smiling like they knew what was coming and thought it was a good idea I got my ass kicked.
Pentello got toweled off and draped with a robe. He took a deep breath after he got out of the ring, blew it out, and then walked straight toward me. There was no way out of this. I had to be responsible for what I’d written. I stood as he approached. I’m as tall as your average junior middleweight, but thirty pounds away from making the weight. He stood close enough so that his chest touched mine, and he looked straight into my eyes. The gym was totally quiet. Then Louis reached out and pulled me to him, surrounding me, patting me on the back with heavy slaps of his gloves. “Hey, everybody,” he said, “meet the dude who’s making me famous!” It was like a leg cramp finally released, and the place came to life again. I felt like I was in a movie, like the whole scene had been scripted, only somebody forgot to inform me of my dialogue. Man, was it ever hot.
Louis was of the mind that any publicity is good publicity, and since my article had appeared, his purse had increased considerably. The bad boy was wanted far and wide, and he was preparing to fight Bobby Thompson for a shot at the title.
Pentello gave me another interview, a few months later, this one an exclusive from jail. I remembered the details of his life from our earlier encounters: six brothers and sisters and three different stepfathers, none of whom bothered to marry his mother. He literally fought his way out of his neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island, gang wars being common occurrences. The way arguments got settled was by mano-a-mano close combat. Louis never lost when put up against the opposing gang’s best fighter. As long as they didn’t use knives or guns. He had a scar on his abdomen from a blade that he hadn’t seen coming out of some greaseball’s back pocket. Those days were over but still fresh in his mind. Some of his old gang were paid members of his entourage.
When we got to talking about Bobby Thompson, Louis showed the remorse of a vulture picking at road kill. Bobby, he told me, knew the ropes as well as he did, knew that the chances of getting hurt or even maimed are there each time you step into the ring.
“Hell,” he said, “you remember Bruno Tulley? He was my first professional fight. I still get headaches when anyone hits me on the left side of my head. He was the dirtiest fighter I faced so far, always throwing the low blows and head-butting in every clinch. I learned a lot from him. Plus he had a right hand like a block of cement. He knew I could fight right off when I nabbed him with a cross early on. That’s when he started going low and I was thinking about protecting my nuts when he comes over the top with a right I never saw. Knocked me on my ass. Prick was laughing when the bell rang and I wobbled back to my corner. I won cuz he got disqualified in the tenth, but that was after he head-butted me what must have been a hundred times in the same spot, right there on the left side of my head.”
He pointed out the spot like I was a doctor and he was showing me where it hurt.
“Referee must have been in somebody’s pocket,” he said.
The last thing I heard about Bruno Tulley was that he’d died in a knife fight in a barroom in New York. I told that to Louis, and he looked up at the ceiling in the visitors’ room at the prison, raised his fist and said, “What goes around comes around, Mr. Low-Blow Prick.”
I asked him more about the Bobby Thompson fight.
“Sure I knew they were doctoring the gloves, but here I am with the best trainer in the business, a guy who’s handled more fighters than Foreman threw punches against Ali’s rope-a-dope, and I’m supposed to refuse to go along? I’m supposed to say, ‘Uh, excuse me, Mr. Lewis, but isn’t this illegal?’ He took a little padding out, that’s all. They used to fight with their bare fists for chrissakes, what’s a little missing padding?
“I’ll tell you, I wasn’t driving that car that Bobby used to run himself into a tree. I wasn’t holding his gullet open and pouring down the whiskey. I’m telling you it felt good winning. It felt good hitting Bobby Thompson. The things he said in the papers before the fight got me mad, and Mr. Lewis blew up them clippings and posted them in the gym. I’d do my rope jumping right there in front of them and read them over and over again getting madder and madder. When fight night came I was ready, and when Lewis doctored the gloves it barely even registered.”
Bobby Thompson’s eyes were like black cutouts in his face after the fight against Pentello. All the bones that surrounded his sockets had been shattered into little pieces. The picture of his battered face appeared in the sports sections of nationally syndicated papers and had caused the semiannual outcry for the banishment of boxing from our civilized society.
“The crowd loves that shit,” Louis told me. “Why does anyone go to a fight? They want to see someone get pummeled. They want their man to win and the other guy to lose big. Bobby wasn’t landing punches that night, and the only thing I regret is that I think I could have beaten him anyway, without the glove thing. He used to try and psych you out by telling you nothing hurt, that your punches were fluff, bouncing right off. Well, by the third round that night, he had stopped talking to me and was starting to pay attention. I think he knew something was up with the gloves, but maybe at first he just thought I had more snap than he was expecting. I was pounding his mouth shut, and it was a relief when he stopped jabbering. Those first few times I hit him I could see the surprise on his face. It was only a flash, but you look for these things, and I knew right then—he did too—that he was done for the night. So much for his undefeated record.”
Jack Russka liked my idea. The article would be a “Where Are They Now?” type of retrospective. It had been five years since the bout that had transfigured Bobby Thompson from a promising junior middleweight to a half-blind, drunken shut-in who may or may not have consciously driven his candy-apple-red Thunderbird into a tree at sixty miles per hour.
What really sold Jack was the fact that Shirley Thompson was now a boxer too.
“You’re kidding me,” he said. “This is a real thing, this women’s boxing?”
“You didn’t hear about Muhammed Ali’s daughter?” I asked him. “What about Joe Frazier’s daughter, or George Foreman’s?”
“Is she named George, too? What a sensibility on that guy.”
“Good burgers, though,” I said.
“Yeah, good burgers.” Jack thought for a moment before he said, “So see what you can do with this women in boxing angle. Sounds good and controversial. Women beating on each other, that’ll get the yahoos writing in, wanting to ban everything that distracts them from their Bibles. I like it. Sells soap.”
Jack was cynical. We got along great. I’ve worked for people who believed everything the DEA said, every brochure the NRA released, every pronouncement from the AEC averring there was no danger to the public. It was as though an acronym guaranteed authenticity.
In boxing we call it the “alphabet wars”: the WBA, the WBC, the IBF and on and on. I’d have no trouble listing ten different three-letter “organizations” that are claiming legitimacy. And the weight classes have been watered down as well. The purse is bigger if a boxer can be advertised as a champion of a certain weight class, so sometimes four pounds is all that separates one chump, uh champ, from another. And some of these guys have fought only a handful of bouts. It degrades the “Sweet Science.”
With Shirley Thompson now boxing, and with Louis Pentello reentering the ring for the first time since emerging from jail, the story was going to write itself.
It was good to see Shirley again, despite the fact that her voice and demeanor caused that “I better eat something soon” feeling in my stomach. She was trim and agile, comfortable in her body, and working out on the heavy bag when I walked into the training gym, the one that Bobby had put on the map. When she finished, she toweled off and came over.
“Hi, Gerard,” she said. “Business or pleasure?” Her eyes sparkled when she said it, and I wondered if she noticed the way I was admiring her. She was a beautiful woman, and already I was thinking of ways to try and dissuade her from continuing her fighting career. “Think of our children,” I wanted to say, “and how they would deal with their mother coming home with shiners and her brains rearranged.”
We sat in folding chairs, and she was animated and forthcoming. It was as though the adrenaline from her workout spilled over into her words.
Shirley was tired of the stock reaction to women in the ring. She’d researched the issue and found that women’s boxing had been a demonstration event at the 1904 Olympic Games in St. Louis. She felt that she was continuing a long tradition. But the main reason she fought was to get closer to Bobby. Actually, it seemed as though the reason she lived was for Bobby; he was all she wanted to talk about. I stopped thinking like a potential suitor and started scribbling like a professional scribe.
The whole family had been thrilled with Bobby’s rise to local fame. After only five fights he had already been making personal appearances. They were small-time events: standing on stage for a few moments at the state fair with the quarterback who steered the high school team to the state championship, cutting the ribbon at the opening ceremony for the new Gold’s Gym. Bobby’s presence added flavor—everyone was rooting for the handsome young man with the bright future. His father, a janitor, and his mother, a clerk at a women’s clothing store, were wary of Bobby’s new celebrity, but as proud as they’d ever been. Shirley was too.
She kept a picture of him in her wallet, and an enlarged copy taped to the inside of her locker. It was the same one that was in the paper alongside the poem she’d written. I complimented her on the poem.
“Oh come on, Gerard,” she said. It’s like grade-school stuff.”
“Well,” I said, “Sometimes the simpler you say things, the more effective they are.”
She looked at me like she thought I was joking. I wasn’t. “Yeah, well,” she said.
She’d watched Bobby after his beating, watched him sink lower and lower into a depression that left him very few choices. It was obvious he’d never fight again. He could barely see, he said, everything was fuzzy and he occasionally had double vision.
“So now you got four fists instead of two,” she told him one afternoon in the car. She was driving him to an ophthalmology appointment and they were stopped at a red light. He looked down at his hands after she said that, then he opened the door and got out, walked away. She berated herself for a few moments for saying such a stupid thing and then she caught up to him. He was crying.
“I’m never gonna fight again,” he said. “The only thing I ever been good at. All those years of training, all those warm-up bouts. Everything. Down the fuckin’ drain.”
Shirley told me that it was right then she decided that the four fists were going to be Bobby’s and hers together, and that even though his had been silenced, hers were going to speak for them both.
I was looking at her taped-up hands and thinking about the contradictions in the sport: you bandage your hands before you start; “loaded” gloves are actually unloaded gloves—gloves from which some of the horsehair padding has been removed. The red nail polish on Shirley’s long brown fingers, emerging from the winds and folds of adhesive tape, was a visual contradiction.
“Will you take me to the Pentello fight on Saturday?” she asked me.
I smiled graciously, trying not to let on that I would accompany her to a mud wrestling show if that’s where she wanted to go.
I halfheartedly counseled her against going with me even while admitting I had gotten my hands on two free passes to the title fight. I thought it would be a media circus with her there, that she’d be hounded all night by the press corps, that it would be uncomfortable having her every movement or facial expression remarked upon in the papers. But, unless you’re the manager or the trainer, you don’t tell a fighter what to do.
“I’m going to that fight whether you take me or not.” With that she got up, went over to a spot in the gym in front of the mirrors, and started jumping rope.
“See you at nine,” I said on my way out. “Where are you?”
“Seventeen Washington, number three,” she said, crisscrossing her arms in front of her on alternating jumps. If anyone thinks that fighters are mere brutes and less graceful or agile than the performers in other sports, a few minutes of observation in a boxer’s training gym would dissuade them. Stamina, speed, coordination, concentration—all these attributes are present in the simple act of jumping rope. I’ve done it at my own gym and was grateful it was the middle of the day and nobody noticed me over in the corner trying to reach the count of ten without tripping over myself.
I picked her up at her place. She told me she’d be waiting out front, but all I saw while I wiped the inside of the windshield with the back of my coat sleeve was a blond in a short parka and a mini-skirt. I lit a smoke and turned up the fan on the defroster. The snow was falling thickly and at an angle that propelled the blond toward the car. Oh great, I thought, Shirley is going to come out and find me talking to a hooker. I remembered cruising this neighborhood many years ago when the “daffy and the eau-de-vie,” what Pierce Egan called gin and brandy, had their hooks in me. Egan wrote Boxiana, the bible of “the sweet science of bruising,” and was said to have influenced a young Charles Dickens. Dickens might have gotten fifty pages out of my predicament as this woman of the street opened the door and got in.
“Hey look,” I said, “I’m waiting for a friend here.”
“You are, huh?” Shirley said. Her perfume cut through the damp smell of my wool overcoat. She didn’t look like a hooker at all, more like a little girl playing dress up, the wig not quite right, the bulbous parka shrouding the small, hard body beneath. She yanked the rearview mirror and adjusted the blond locks while I snuffed the cigarette, gave the windshield one more swipe, and pulled away from the curb.
“I’ve never dated a blond before,” I said.
“You ain’t dating one now, pal.” Shirley had a way with words. “No trouble finding the place, eh?” I wasn’t sure about her tone. Was she suggesting I might know the neighborhood a little too well? This woman was keeping me on my toes. I didn’t know what would happen next. It was like riding with a hitchhiker you weren’t sure about picking up.
“You still want to do this, huh?” I said, knowing it was a stupid question.
She glowered over at me as if to say, “Don’t you get it, fool?”
After a while she said, “I feel like it’s me that’s gonna fight tonight. I wish it was.”
I asked her what it was like to get ready to step into the ring. She thought for a minute and let out a sigh.
“I was at the ocean once with a bunch of kids,” she said. “It was a windy day and the surf was high. It was maybe already September—summer was over anyway. After a while some fool said he was going in the water. We looked over and the waves were eight feet high, crashing white, real violent like. Then it got to be who’s chicken to go in, you know. Nobody said it, but everybody knew it. Walking toward the water that day, each one of us alone, hearing that roar and knowing the odds were good you were gonna get hurt, maybe get taken by the undertow, that’s what it’s like walking up to the ring.”
We drove in silence the rest of the way to the Exhibition Hall.
Our seats were in the second row of the balcony, and we had a good view of the ring. It didn’t seem like anyone recognized Shirley, although a couple of my cronies exercised their eyebrow muscles as we walked past the press seats. You don’t get those seats unless you’re a full-time sports reporter or you do unspeakable favors for your editor.
The last preliminary was almost over—two black kids pummeling each other without displaying much boxing skill. At one point they knocked each other down simultaneously and the arena, which was two-thirds full, erupted with laughter and catcalls. They both got up embarrassed and finished the bout, which was declared a draw. By the time the ring announcer began introducing the celebrities in attendance and inviting them into the ring for a bow and a wave, the place was jammed.
John Ruiz, looking casual in a black sport coat and Tshirt, got a big hand, as did Dana Rosenblatt, local hero, in a tux replete with bow tie. When Marvelous Marvin Hagler stepped through the ropes in a purple suit and a canary yellow shirt, the crowd went nuts. Hagler had always done things on his own terms, and he was appreciated for it. An unrelenting stalker in the ring, he quit when he felt like quitting. He was offered all kinds of money to continue, but hey, he wanted to be an actor so he moved to Italy to act, you got a problem with that? It was like these local fighters were there to support Bobby Thompson who, if he’d lived, might have been bigger than them all.
The boos began long before we could see the challenger. When Louis Pentello finally entered the ring, the angry sound of the jeering reached a crescendo and the debris started flying. His robe was forest green and the hood was up, a normal enough way for a fighter to appear, only this time it seemed out of necessity. Unidentifiable objects started bouncing off the green of the robe. Pentello seemed to sense the seriousness of the situation. Usually when a fighter is getting booed, he will play to the crowd, raising his hands in defiance as though saying, “Look at me, you can’t touch me, I’m the bad-ass here, I’m in control.” Louis was bouncing on his toes, facing in toward the center of the ring so as not to get hit in the face, and there was no display of bravado. I was glad he took that approach.
The promoter must have had a hunch that this situation could easily get out of hand because all of a sudden there was a line of cops sur-rounding the ring, and the announcer yelled into the microphone that anyone caught throwing anything would immediately be shown the exit. There was some minor scuffling after that, with the offending parties getting dragged out, but most of the patrons were appeased by screaming at the top of their lungs. A heavy-set man in the row in front of us leaned precariously over the edge of the balcony. The back of his shirt was dark with perspiration. The tips of his ears were red and he was screaming, “Murderer! Murderer!” I looked at Shirley, and she was staring straight ahead. I could see the muscles astride her jaw, clenching and releasing.
“You OK?” I yelled.
The place was heating up fast, and people used their overcoats as padding for the seats.
Georgie Barros and his entourage took their time getting to the ring. His bodyguards were dressed in white karate outfits and moved as a unit through the milling crowd. Following behind them, a tall, bald, white man in a suit carried the junior middleweight championship belt high above his head.
Even though Barros is from Philadelphia, he must have felt the embrace of this Boston crowd. He was the vicarious recipient of the love that these people felt for Bobby Thompson, one of their own, cut down unfairly by his brutal opponent. At that point I wondered if Louis Pentello was going to leave the building alive. If Barros didn’t get him, it seemed as though the mob would. I was also wondering if it was wise for the boxing authorities to have allowed Pentello back into the ring after being found guilty of punching with loaded gloves. But he’d gone to jail for it and served his time, and those same authorities hadn’t exactly established a consistent and sensible track record. When Barros threw off his robe, raised his arms and circled the ring, I stuck fingers in my ears to protect my hearing.
He was the younger of the two by five years, and was wearing white satin trunks with a black stripe. His copper-colored skin gleamed with a light skim of sweat. His hair was curly on top and shaved close on the sides.
Shirley was standing, like everyone else, and she was flexing her hands. She looked as if she’d have given anything to be the one to face Pentello in that twenty-foot-by-twenty-foot gladiator’s cage.
The formal introductions of the fighters in the main bout engendered another brief flurry of litter thrown into the ring and another few skirmishes with the police, but then it looked as though there really was going to be a fight. The two met at center ring to get reminded by the referee of what he’d told them in their respective locker rooms. Pentello was wearing dark red trunks with a black satin border around the waist. His head was shaved, and he was shorter and stockier than Barros. Louis was the harder puncher but Barros had the longer reach.
“All shaved up for the electric chair?” the man in front of us screamed.
Everyone in the house remained standing right through to the end of the second round, something I’d never seen before. It was good versus evil, and I knew then what it was like to be caught up in a lynch mob. They cheered each time Barros threw a punch that was even close to catching Pentello. And Barros missed a lot. Pentello was ready for him and withstood not only the deluge of hatred poured down upon him, but also the initial onslaught of an unusually manic Georgie Barros. It was a classy display of courage and self-possession on the part of a boxer better known for unsavory conduct.
Georgie must have felt like he was there to inflict the will of the masses on this pretender to the throne. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the house who worried about his enthusiasm and early lack of control. Forgetting to box, forgetting about the skill and the training that got you where you are, can sometimes make you an easy target in the ring. And Louis Pentello had that one-punch power to knock anybody out, loaded gloves or not.
Pentello was total defense in the beginning, scoring with his jab and an occasional body shot in the clinches. Mostly, though, he was avoiding Barros’s undisciplined slugging. I had them even after two.
Georgie scored big in the fourth with a right hand that jolted the challenger, but he couldn’t put him away, and the bell gave Pentello an extra minute to recoup.
The crowd was getting restless, some of them beginning to taunt Barros for not taking care of business and turning out the lights on this devil of a fighter.
“Go back to Philly, Mr. Cream Cheese,” someone yelled. Other fans were certain that they could do a better job of kicking Pentello’s butt. No one was happy about anything.
The bout was scheduled for ten rounds, and it looked like it might go the distance. I had Barros ahead by a slim margin going into the eighth, and that was when he started to assert himself.
Pentello was tiring, and his jab was getting lazy, not as sharp and stinging as it had been earlier. Georgie Barros had finally settled down and was fighting like himself and not Michael the Archangel. When Pentello flicked his jab, he let his arm sag, and Georgie countered with a right over the top. They weren’t haymakers, but these connecting rights had a cumulative effect that you could see in the older man’s legs. There was no more spring in his step. He was plodding now, trying to punch and retreat, but he wasn’t fast enough.
With a minute left in the round, Barros faked the right counterpunch, unleashed a left uppercut that rocked Pentello back into his corner, and when he bounced off the ropes, Barros hit him again with an uncontested right hand that wobbled the challenger but didn’t knock him down. Somehow Pentello avoided another fierce right hand that Barros telegraphed from the next county—all this in about five seconds.
Then Georgie Barros had his way, unleashing a flurry of punches that Pentello was incapable of blocking. Again and again the older man got tagged and each time he did, each time the spray of sweat shot off his face, signifying another landed blow, the crowd erupted. The referee stood by and watched, letting the bout go longer than it should have, probably afraid to stop it for fear he’d be punished by the intense, unruly mob. Barros threw a flurry of body punches and Pentello’s arms drooped dangerously. A left jab, followed by a crushing right hook, finally put Louis Pentello face down on the mat, his mouthpiece halfway across the ring. Louis struggled to rise but couldn’t. It was over.
The patrons, on their feet again for the last round, roared for a few more minutes while Pentello’s people got him to his corner. The overwhelming sentiment seemed to be disappointment that the bum was still alive. The police got a workout blocking access to the ring and dodging projectiles. A couple of fanatical fight fans got their hands on the ropes, but were dispatched unceremoniously by a large and efficient troop of men in blue uniforms. Seeing no other recourse for their anger about Pentello getting away with his life, some began to take out their frustrations on the chairs and the people nearest them. After a few minutes, and even before the official announcement of the winner, Pentello was successfully shuffled off to the dressing room, leaving a stream of minor scuffles in his wake.
Shirley was slumped down in her seat, a blank look on her face. I sat down too, mostly to get away from the shouts of the man in front of us, who was turning and gesticulating likea madman. At one point he nearly fell out of the balcony until I grabbed his belt and hauled him back. He nodded his head in thanks and continued to rant, arms flailing.
Shirley sat still except to move her legs aside as the patrons in our aisle filed past to the exits. I thought of things to say to her but every one of them sounded trite. I couldn’t imagine what she was thinking. She’d just seen the fighter who had ostensibly killed her brother get hammered and abused. Was she relieved? Was there some kind of justice meted out that evened the scales? These were the kinds of questions that crass TV reporters asked outside the scene of the crime. I wasn’t going to act like one of them.
The guy in front finally settled down and was daubing at his forehead with a handkerchief. I looked over at Shirley and her lips were moving.
I leaned in close.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“I wanted them to stop it,” she said. “I wanted them to stop it. Why didn’t they stop it?”
Then she put her head against my chest and was crying. I put my arm around her and held her like we were two teenagers in a movie theater after a horror flick. We sat like that for fifteen minutes.
Down in the ring, the promoters tried to calm things down in order to start another bout. Two local lightweights were already staring each other down, bouncing on their toes and shadowboxing in their respective corners. I hoped that the guy in the orange trunks with the black fringe, his name emblazoned across his butt, would get his clock cleaned. He looked like a showoff,an arrogant pretty boy—there’s one on every schoolyard.
Orange trunks was a good fighter, though, and two rounds in, he had outmaneuvered his opponent and landed so many body shots, it looked doubtful that they’d go the scheduled four rounds.
“Take me home now,” Shirley said. I was glad to move my arm.
We were mostly silent driving to her place. She took the wig off and stuck it in her bag. I was surprised when she took out a pack of cigarettes and lit one.
“I thought you were in training,” I said.
“Yeah, well, not now.”
“What do you mean?”
She took a drag and blew out the smoke before answering.
“I don’t know what I mean, all right? I don’t know. I just want a cigarette, that’s all. Does it have to mean something?”
I didn’t think it was a question that wanted an answer. After a while she said she was sorry.
“You want to go for a drink or something?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I just want to be alone. No offense.”
“None taken,” I said.
When we got to her apartment, she leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.
“See you around?” she said in the form of a question.
“I hope so,” I said.
“Well, you know where I train, where I live, and you know who I am, right, the tough chick boxer who cries on your shoulder. So if you still want to see me again that would be nice.”
“OK,” I said, and smiled. She looked like a kid in the glow of the streetlights, and I saw a little bit of Bobby in her face.
She got out and I waited until she entered the foyer of her apartment building. Driving away, I felt somehow relieved. The snow had stopped and it was a crisp, cold night. There was a sports bar where I knew some people would be interested in my take on the fight, where the bartender would serve me a large alcoholic beverage while I jabbered.