I used to box in my socks. I couldn’t afford boxing shoes and I learned the hard way that pivoting around the ring in sneakers gets your ankle twisted, so I boxed in my socks. There was another reason, more philosophical, that made it feel right. My approach to the sport began with the notion that it isn’t a sport at all, that it’s a rawboned collision of the oldest kind and there’s no need for superfluities. To my way of thinking, such things belonged in more communal, mainstream sports where they chase balls in regulation regalia or run around on a field loaded up like storm troopers. In the bloody ring, superfluities only distract from the point. In the bloody ring, less is more.
The boxing room at the Huntington Avenue YMCA in Boston, Massachusetts, was located, appropriately, in the basement. The directions you got at the front desk called to mind Wes Craven’s first horror film, “last room on the left.” It was a grimy, uninviting place and civilians steered clear of it. There was no climate control, no windows. In the winter it was an icebox, in the summer an oven. At the back of the room, beyond the benches and the bags, was the bloody ring.
Three days a week I’d come in for sparring sessions, a Mike Tyson minimalist stripped down more than anyone else, as if I didn’t give a damn, as if I wasn’t afraid. Tyson did away with robe and socks. I wouldn’t wear shoes or even a cup until a friend offered an old Ringside groin protector that was held together by stink. I spurned headgear; I’d complain to the trainers that I couldn’t see hooks coming in.
They had protocols of safety, however, and they’d slap it over my head anyway and yank the straps so tight I couldn’t hear much else besides my own breathing, which got heavier by the minute – which presented another problem. After about the fourth round, wheezing filled my ears, scrambling my internal dialogue and transforming the headgear into a padded panic room.
But the trainers left by eight and their safety protocols left with them. Rogue trainers came in later and set up smokers, usually five- or ten-rounders with no regard for weight classes, much less headgear. Some of the roughest characters in Boston would swagger in and often stagger out. The smart ones stayed out of the ring. Smarter still were the ones who came in wearing their excuse: “Man, I would, but I’m dressed to the nines!”
There was a ragtag band of regulars. Among them was an Italian from East Boston who hit me so hard the lint flew off my socks. There was Barry, who was a great inside fighter because he couldn’t see past his arms and had to be. There was Marathon Man, whose prominent nose was bent against the cushioned bar in the middle of his Face-Saver headgear when I slammed an overhand right into said cushioned bar, which snapped said prominent nose.
Stonewall Strickland was standing nearby when that happened. Six-foot-two with a build that gave him his name, he was something else altogether. Marathon Man was bleeding all over the canvas and trainers were scrambling for towels when I climbed out of the ring and saw Strickland staring blankly ahead, his gloves inert at his side.
I’d heard whispers that he’d stabbed his father to death during an argument. It made the Boston Globe and Strickland did time for it. Then I heard it was his younger brother who killed his father, and that he took the rap. He was a haunted man.
He could bench-press well over four hundred pounds. I didn’t buy it then any more than you do now until I saw it with my own eyes. Strickland was hoisting it up and bringing it down without even a grunt, like it was nothing.
I stuck around after my fight to watch his against a six-foot-five cruiserweight named Tyrone Smith. He fought him as if it was Smith who’d killed his father. “I’ll beat Strickland,” I, a middleweight, said at the end of it, while a sweat-drenched Smith hugged Strickland and Strickland stared blankly over his shoulder. “I’ll beat him,” I said again. Someone heard me and extended the courtesy of a warning. “You know he never holds back, right?” I didn’t care. I figured if you beat Godzilla, you become Godzilla. And “Godzilla Toledo” sounded good to me.
I got my chance soon enough and found out early that Strickland was too strong to fight inside. He was shifting me off balance and lighting me up whenever he felt like it, so I moved further away and fought him just outside his reach, inviting his punches and then sliding under and around them, throwing counters as hard as I could. I was watching for superfluities, knowing that if I fell for a feint or a stutter step he’d knock me stupid.
I was still watching for superfluities when he stepped in with the least superfluous attack in boxing: a jab followed by a straight right hand, the old one-two. I parried the jab and rode the right by turning my left shoulder and shifting my weight onto my back foot. He threw another one-two and I did the same thing – parried the jab, rode out the right hand. He saw the pattern and set me up. He threw the jab again, which I predictably parried, but he waited a second before throwing the right hand. So I was riding out what hadn’t come yet and when I came back looking for it, I found it. It exploded on my chin. I didn’t feel a thing. Everything went black and quite blissful, actually. Witnesses laughed when they told me that the force of Strickland’s punch bent me over backwards, that my left leg shot up and I became a human seesaw with my head nearly touching the canvas behind me and my sock hovering somewhere around Strickland’s nose. When I seesawed back, my sock smacked the wet canvas and I began fighting like a desperado. That’s what they told me, at least.
In the locker room afterward, Strickland admitted to someone something I somehow missed: that I’d had him out on his feet in the third round. I wish that someone hadn’t told me that something; somehow it makes me feel like a coulda-been. I coulda been holding my head up instead of in my hands all the way home on the Orange Line. I coulda been Godzilla Toledo.
Strickland turned professional in the cruiserweight division and had his first – and as it turned out, his last – bout. It was a decision win over a 0–5 fighter called Spider Gilchrist at an armory in Stoughton.
And then tragedy struck again. It happened because Strickland was safeguarding the Roxbury Boys Club where he volunteered, because he escorted a gangbanger out of the building one day and the gangbanger returned with friends and baseball bats. Strickland knocked a few of them stupid but they swarmed him. He lost teeth, suffered a broken nose, and his skull was noticeably dented at the upper left corner of his forehead.
After that he had a tough time holding a job – paranoia set in and trouble followed.
One winter morning I got a collect call from the Nashua Street Jail, just around the bend from the site of the Charles Street Jail where he’d been held years earlier as a suspect in his father’s murder. The voice on the other end was gravelly and to the point. “Can you bail me out?”
He was on crutches and wearing hospital pants stained with his own blood when I got him. He told me he’d been homeless for some time, that all of his worldly possessions were in the tote bag he carried everywhere he went. “Less is more,” he shrugged. On cold nights, he’d been breaking into Boston University buildings to sleep in basements as grimy and uninviting as that basement gym at the YMCA.
“You’re no burglar,” I said. “How do you get in?”
“I pull on the door and break the dead bolt.”
That’s what he was doing the night before when the police appeared; he was pulling on a door. He was trying to walk away when they came at him for the second time. One of the officers took a swing at him with a nightstick, and Strickland took it away from him, tossed it aside, and began running away for their sake more than his. A cruiser sped up and struck him, sending him airborne on Commonwealth Avenue.
I drove him to Fontaine’s and ordered us a couple of chicken baskets. “I owe you,” he said and we sat in silence until he excused himself and hobbled to the men’s room. He’d been gone fifteen minutes and I was watching the men’s room door when a sudden fear gripped me and I ran over and barged in. Stonewall Strickland was standing in the stall on his crutches, sobbing.
That was over ten years ago. He stopped calling, but not before he paid me back in full, dismissing my protests in the name of self-respect. Eventually, I gave up driving around Boston looking for him, though I still slow down if I happen to glimpse a towering black figure walking alone down a byway or carrying a tote. He may prefer not to be found.
I still see his name now and then on police blotters, stealing fruit from supermarkets, breaking and entering, trespassing. Not too long ago, the owner of an apartment building in Brookline told police he’d been sleeping in the basement for a week. I can’t imagine what he sees when he closes his eyes or what he feels when roused by the brightening sky and the sound of early morning traffic. He was twenty when his father was killed that early May morning in 1988. I read the coverage in the Globe and came away with haunting, shutter-shock images of Strickland, hunched over his father in a futile effort to administer first aid; standing off in Boston City Hospital as he is pronounced dead; driving around in a daze until blue lights surround him; staring blankly in a raucous courtroom, a statue in a storm, while his lawyer tells the judge something that bothers me to this day: “We don’t know what really happened.”
“He was a good kid,” his uncle told the Globe back then. “He wasn’t into drugs or thuggery or anything bad. He was a young man trying to make something out of himself.”
He did make something out of himself. Proof of it is in that tote bag he carries everywhere he goes. Inside, underneath his few scant articles of clothing, is an old VHS tape of the Spider Gilchrist fight – proof that he was once a professional fighter, a winning professional fighter with a zero at the end of his record no smaller than the zero at the end of Rocky Marciano’s or Floyd Mayweather’s.
The details are superfluous, and only distract from the point.