FanPost

They Die In The Dressing Room, by W.C. Heinz

I read this somewhere about 20 years ago and have been trying to find it online ever since. It's one the best pieces I've ever read about boxing. I finally found it here.

https://archive.org/stream/bestsportsstorie027161mbp/bestsportsstorie027161mbp_djvu.txt

THEY "DIE" IN THE DRESSING ROOM 

By W. C. Heinz 

From Real, February, 1956 

Copyright, 1956, W. C. Heinz 

THE BRAVEST MEN I know in sports are the prizefighters. I do not 
know any bullfighters, but I have known many prizefighters and I 
have watched them suffer. No man is a coward who crawls through 
the ropes for his second fight, and although I envy the ones who 
are calm and unafraid, I have come to the conclusion that the 
bravest of them all are those who know fear, but who nevertheless 
fight, for without fear there can be no courage. 

This is a truth I first recognized during the war in Europe, where 
I watched men go into battle the first time ignorant and unafraid. 
Then I saw them go in the second or fifth or tenth time, and now 
they knew what it was and they were afraid and truly brave. 

There is no one, of course, who will ever question the courage of 
Jack Dempsey, yet he was a dressing room pacer. Sam Golden, who 
seconded him against John Lester Johnson in his first fight in New 
York, recalls how Dempsey walked the floor and how, as they 
started for the ring, they met Johnson. When Johnson said some- 
thing to Dempsey, they had to pull Jack off him, so great was the 
tension under which he suffered. 

Rocky Graziano and Tony Zale fought three of the most vicious 
fights of our time, but recently Graziano was telling me that a num- 
ber of times in his corner before the first bell he was unable to con- 
trol his water. Bummy Davis once almost failed to make it to the 
ring, but a year later he died with a bullet in his neck fighting three 
armed holdup men with his bare fists. Hurricane Jackson, among 
the current heavyweights, is apparently fearless as he wades in 
winging punches, but prepares himself for a fight as other men do 
when they believe they are about to meet their Maker. 

"As soon as Jackson gets into his dressing room before a fight," 
Lippy Breidbart was telling me not long ago, "he takes out the 
Bible." 

"Can he read?" I said. 

"Not much," Lippy said, "but he concentrates and meditates. He 
imagines what he's reading." 

We were talking, standing in the lobby of the International Box- 
ing Club in Madison Square Garden. Lippy manages Jackson, the primitive, bony, long-armed Negro who, when he fought Nino 
Valdes and was knocked out in two rounds in Madison Square 
Garden in July, 1954, was only one fight away from a chance at the 
heavyweight title. 

"I never saw anything like it/' Lippy said. "We don't bother 
him for maybe a half hour, and then we get him into his gear. After 
that he sits in silent meditation for maybe another half hour, and 
then he asks either Whitey Bimstein or me to read. One of us takes 
the Bible and sits down with him, and the other gets out. 

"He tells us what chapter to read, too. I don't know how he 
knows the chapters, but when you finish a verse that he likes he 
says : 'Amen/ Sometimes, like before he fought Dan Bucceroni and 
stopped him in six, tears even come to his eyes." 

"For him," I said, "it's a real tough way to make a living." 

"He worries the same as anybody else," Lippy said, shrugging, 
"but I never had a fighter behave like he does. He's like a child. 
When he's finished shadow-boxing and it gets almost time to go 
into the ring, he wants me to stand near him. He rubs my arm with 
his hand, and sometimes, while he's sitting there waiting, with me 
standing next to him, he puts his face against my arm." 

"It's pathetic," I said. 

"He wants friendship before a fight," Lippy said. "Friendship 
and faith." 

There isn't a one of them who doesn't want these things. They 
are the most lonesome of all athletes, for they know that once the 
bell rings and their corner men disappear down the steps, there is 
no one who can help them, 

"Take Walcott going into the second Marciano fight/' Dan 
Florio was telling me once. "He was a changed man." 

Jersey Joe Walcott is the man who stood up to Joe Louis in two 
fights, knocked him down twice in the first fight, when he might 
well have been awarded the heavyweight crown, and was knocked 
out in the second fight after flooring Louis again. When, ulti- 
mately, he won the title and defended it against Rocky Marciano 
in Philadelphia, Walcott was a party to what, except for the Demp- 
sey-Firpo fight, would probably be recorded now as the greatest 
heavyweight battle of all time. 

In that fight Walcott dropped Marciano with a hook in the first 
round, the first time the current champion had ever been on the 
floor in a fight. After that Walcott fought his challenger punch for 
punch and was leading on the cards of the officials when, in the 
13th round, a single desperate right hand took him out. 
"I don't think he ever got that punch in Philadelphia out of his 
mind," Florio said. "I think that punch made all the difference in 
the second fight. He just didn't believe in himself any more." 

Florio trained Walcott, and Dan's brother, Nick, worked the 
corner with him. The three of us were talking about this one day 
in Stillman's Gym. 

"He didn't sleep much the night before the second Marciano 
fight/' Dan said. "He didn't eat all that day." 

"I flew into Chicago the day of the fight," Nick said. "As I 
got to my room in the hotel, Walcott was coming out of his room. 
He said : 'Hello, Nick.' That's the only thing I heard him say all 
day." 

"In the dressing room," Dan said, "I couldn't get him to get 
dressed to go into the ring. He kept shaking me off." 

"It was a nine o'clock fight out there, for television," Nick said. 
"There was a guy from the commission kept coming into the dress- 
ing room and saying, 'It's 8 :30. It's 8 :40.' I looked at the guy and 
I said, 'Boy, you never missed a train in your life, did you, Mac?' " 

"Finally," Dan said, "at twelve minutes to nine Walcott is in his 
stuff, and I never bandaged a guy's hands so quick in my life. He 
just wasn't right." 

That was the fight in which Walcott ducked under a hook in the 
first round and moved into a short, right-hand uppercut. He 
landed on the seat of his pants, and that is where he still was when, 
at two minutes and 25 seconds, the referee finished the count. 

There was, however, probably no man in the entire history of 
the prize ring who inspired more fear in his opponents than Joe 
Louis. The leading authority on this subject is trainer Ray Arcel, 
who seconded ten men against Joe and dragged so many of them 
back to their corners that Jimmy Cannon of the New York Post 
labeled him "The Pallbearer of Pugilism." 

"Some of them who fought Louis," Ray was saying as we sat 
in his office, "weren't afraid of anything. Jim Braddock went out 
there like he was boss. After all, he was heavyweight champion 
when the fight started, and he lasted eight. Al McCoy was ice wa- 
ter, and he went six. Sharkey was nervous, but he was always 
nervous. He knew he had laid off too long, and in three rounds he 
found out." 

"Who were the ones," I said, "you had to feel sorry for?" 

"Lou Nova, for one," Ray said. "He had the best chance to lick 
Louis of anyone I worked with." 

Nova was out of California and he had been the National A.A.U. and international amateur heavyweight champion. He was over 
six feet tall, weighed a little over 200 pounds, was perfectly propor- 
tioned and, by the time he fought Louis, had proved his gameness 
many times. 

"He fought Max Baer twice/ 5 Ray said. "He took Baer's best 
punches blows that would have felled a horse and he stopped 
Baer twice. His fight with Tony Galento in Philadelphia was the 
most vicious, bloodiest fight I ever saw, and, when Nova couldn't 
see any more, the referee had to stop it in the fourteenth round. 

"For the Louis fight we pitched camp in Pompton Lakes. Nova 
had some peculiar ideas, and there was a man in carnp who used 
to talk to him about something called the 'Cosmic Theory' and the 
'Dynamic Stance/ When the fight was drawing close I could see 
something was happening to Nova. He was always nervous in 
his dressing room, but this time it was like the day of execution 
was drawing near, and he was like a guy doomed to die in the 
electric chair. 

'The day of the fight we drove into New York for the weigh-in, 
and now you could see that something had happened to Nova. He 
didn't say anything and I didn't say anything to him, but I could 
see he didn't have the spirit he had when he fought Baer and Ga- 
lento. After the weigh-in and the examination, Dr. William 
Walker, who was the boxing commission physician then, said to 
me : 'Did you give this fellow a cup of coffee before you came here? 5 
I said : 'No, why? 5 He never answered. 

"We went up to Ray Carlin's apartment," Arcel said, referring 
to Nova's manager. "Nova ate his dinner, and we tried to take a 
walk. He just didn't have the snap to walk, so we came back and he 
lay down. I remember him lying there on the bed, and he said to 
Carlin : This mental torture is terrible/ 

"We got to the dressing room and I got him undressed, and he 
lay down on the rubbing table and I put the blanket over him. I 
tried to say something to him. I said : 'Look, Lou, you've got the 
greatest opportunity of your life coming up. You don't feel just 
right, but what about the other fellow? He's been having trouble, 
too. You don't know anything about his mental state/ 

"Louis had read about that 'Cosmic Theory' in the newspapers, 
and he didn't know what to expect. He came out in a crouch, and 
Nova was up too straight and too stiff. It was one of the worst 
fights you ever saw in your life. Nova was so tense that once he got 
his feet crossed and Louis had to smile. Near the end of the sixth, 
Louis hit him with a tremendous right and he went down. When 
Nova got up, Arthur Donovan had counted him out, but Lou 
wanted to go on. 

"Like Johnny Paychek," Ray went on. "He won a lot of fights 
out around Des Moines. He was a pretty good boxer, and the show 
was for Finnish relief, so they put him in with Louis in the Garden. 
Before we started for the ring I said to him: 'Johnny, you're a 
pretty good boxer. A boxer can always do things a slugger can't. 
Go out and box your fight. Remember, you're boxing a human 
being. He's only got two arms/ 

"It was like talking to that wall," Arcel said, pointing. "When 
we were in the center of the ring, getting instructions, he shook like 
a leaf, but with all that it was amazing how game he was. He backed 
up, sure, but when Louis got him against the ropes and hit him and 
he went down, he got up. That takes gameness. 

"Buddy Baer had it, too. When he fought Louis, he knew what 
he was going in with. His brother, Max, had been knocked out by 
Louis, but Buddy showed them in that first fight with Louis that 
he had it inside. He put Joe through the ropes. 

"Louis did funny things to people he fought, though. They never 
forgot it the second time around. He left something with you. In 
the dressing room before the second Louis fight, Buddy was dif- 
ferent. He was full of little complaints, like : 'Rub my neck . . . My 
shoulders are stiff . . . I'm tired/ 

"He never got by the first round, but that would have been a bad 
night for any fighter fighting Louis. Some fighters 'die' in their 
dressing rooms. Some of them lose their fights going down the 
aisle, and I've seen a lot of fights lost during the playing of 'The 
Star Spangled Banner/ 

"This night it was a war relief show, and there were a lot of in- 
troductions and speeches, and Buddy had to sit in the corner wait- 
ing through all of this. Wendell Willkie made one of the speeches, 
and he turned to Buddy and he said : 'Max' he had Buddy mixed 
with his brother 'I fought a champion once myself/ 

"That was a fine thing," Ray said, thinking about it and shaking 
his head, "for Buddy to have to hear." 

It was Max Baer who, probably in an effort to convince himself, 
talked more in training camp about what he would do to Louis 
than any other fighter who fought Joe. By the time Baer reached 
the dressing room, however, he gave up the sham, and while Jack 
Dempsey talked to him in an effort to bolster him, Max just kept 
nodding, put on one sock and one shoe, and then attempted to put 
the second sock on over the first shoe. 

"Anybody who wants 'to see the execution of Max Baer," he 
said after he had taken a cruel licking, "is going to have to pay 
more than $30 for a ringside seat." 

When they brought Paolino Uzcudun back from Spain to fight 
Louis, the Basque had been fighting for over 13 years. At 36, 
Uzcudun was going against a man IS years his junior, and who 
had won his first 25 fights, 21 by knockouts. As the Spaniard sat in 
his dressing room, waiting, one of those who stopped in to see him 
was Harry Markson, then a New York sportswriter and now the 
managing director of boxing at Madison Square Garden. 

"Paolino' s manager, Lou Brix, was with him," Harry recalls. 
"He ^ said, Taolino, this is Harry Markson, a newspaper man/ 
Paolino was sitting with his head down, playing with a toothpick. 
Without looking up, he said, 'All newspaper men, they're crazy/ 

^ "So, trying to think of something to say because I felt sorry for 
him, I said, 'But I'm the newspaper man who picked you to win to- 
night/ Actually, I hadn't, but I said it, and then Paolino looked 
right at me. 'Now I know you're crazy,' he said to me." 

Those who saw that fight won't forget it. For most of four 
rounds, Paolino moved around behind a shield of his gloves, fore- 
arms and elbows. In the fourth, however, he opened his arms to 
take a good look, and Louis shot his right hand through the open- 
ing. The punch knocked Uzcudun's mouthpiece out, drove his teeth 
through his upper lip and stretched him flat. It was, students of 
Louis claim, the hardest single punch Joe ever threw. 

The following year they brought Max Schmeling back from Ger- 
many for Louis. By now Joe had won 23 of 27 fights by knockouts 
and was 10 to 1 to beat Schmeling who, after seeing Louis fight, 
had convinced no one but himself when he had said : "I will beat 
him. I see something/' 

What he had seen was Louis' weakness against a right cross. 
This knowledge, plus complete confidence in his right hand punch, 
made Schmeling the calmest man in his dressing room, which is 
where he differed from the others. As he sat there under the stands 
at the Yankee Stadium, Tom O'Rourke, an aging former promoter 
and manager of fighters and a friend of Schmeling, stopped in to 
wish him well. 

"Good luck, Max," O'Rourke said. 

"Thanks," Schmeling replied, taking O'Rourke's hand. 

"Schmeling," someone called from outside, "you're on now." 
O'Rourke stepped back. As he did, he fell across the doorway, 
dead, as it turned out, from a heart attack, 

"Don't worry about it," one of Schmeling's handlers said, as the 
fighter paused to look down at the body of his friend. "He just 
fainted/' 

"No," Schmeling said, still looking down. "He's dead." 

He stepped over O'Rourke, and walked out the door and down 
to the ring. Fighting his waiting fight and driving the right hand 
in after Louis' jabs, he knocked Louis out in the 12th round. 

The night that they almost failed to get Bummy Davis into the 
ring was the night he fought Bob Montgomery in Madison Square 
Garden. Bummy was a highly emotional, erratic, undisciplined kid 
out of the Brownsville section of Brooklyn with a great left hook. 
He was managed by Lew Burston and Johnny Attell. 

"Going into the Montgomery fight," Burston told me, "we gave 
Bummy a plan. We told him : 'Now, what you have to do in this 
one is walk right out, throw your right and miss with it. Mont- 
gomery will grab your right arm, and that will turn you around 
southpaw and then you hit him with the hook. 7 " 

They knew that this was the only chance Bummy had. If Mont- 
gomery, the boxer against the puncher, got by the first round, he 
figured to move around Bummy and cut him up. So they drilled 
Bummy on it over and over, and they kept rehearsing him in the 
dressing room the night of the fight. 

"Now what are you gonna do ?" Attell would say to Bummy. 

"I'm gonna walk right out and miss with my right," Bummy 
would answer. "He'll grab my arm, and that'll turn me around 
and I'll hook." 

"Okay," Attell said, finally. "I guess you know it." 

Bummy sat down on one of the benches against thb wall. He 
had his gloves on and his robe over him, and he was ready to go 
when there came a knock on the door. 

"Don't come out yet, Davis," one of the commission inspectors 
said, calling it through the door. 

When Bummy heard that he looked up. Attell says there was a 
peculiar expression on Bummy's face, and then he keeled over in a 
faint on the floor. 

Attell and Freddie Brown, the trainer and corner man, rushed 
over and picked Bummy up. They "carried him to the dressing table. 

"Now we weren*t worried about him remembering what he was 
supposed to do in the ring/' Burston was telling me. "We were 
worried about getting him into the ring in the first place. "Freddie Brown brought him to, though. We got him into the 
ring, and I asked him what he was supposed to do, and he answered 
right and I climbed out. When the bell rang he walked right out 
and threw his right and missed around the head. Montgomery 
grabbed the right arm, and when he did Bummy threw the hook 
and Montgomery went down. When he got up Bunimy hit him 
again, and that was all. Montgomery was 10 to 1 over him that 

night." 

Every fighter, I have concluded, has an intimate acquaintance 
with fear, but only some of them show it. This is not necessarily 
the fear of physical harm. Ten minutes before Rocky Marciano 
went in to knock out Joe Louis and at that stage in his career this 
was his most important fight they had to wake him as he lay 
stretched on the rubbing table. Yet he told me, shortly before he 
defeated Don Cockell in San Francisco last May, that before every 
fight he has to forcibly put out of his mind the thought of being 
beaten and of what losing would mean to the plans he has for him- 
self and his family. 

"By the time Rocky goes into the ring, though/' Charley Gold- 
man, Marciano's trainer who molded the raw kid into the heavy- 
weight champion, said recently, "he's secure in his mind. He knows 
he's in condition because there never was a fighter who trains like 
him and he knows he's got the moves and punches/' 

The good fighters rationalize their fear, and in that way put it 
away. This was best explained to me once by Billy Graham, the 
welterweight who should have been champion of the world, except 
for a questionable decision he lost to Kid Gavilan one night in the 
Garden. 

"Look at it this way," Billy said. "I'm not afraid of getting hurt. 
I was never knocked down in my life, and I know I can smother the 
other guy's leads or handle anything he can do. I'm nervous, sure, 
but I'm just nervous about not fighting my best fight." 

"A good fighter goes into a ring," said Charley Goldman, who 
was standing nearby, "like an actor goes out to do a turn." 

I recall sitting in Stillman's once with another young man who 
spoke much as did Billy Graham. His name was Lavern Roach, and 
he was out of Plainview, Texas, where he had been reared to be a 
fighter since he was ten years old. His mother cooked special foods 
for him, and each morning at six he got up to run on the road 
before going to school. 

When I spoke with him he had just been matched with Marcel Cerdan, the French Moroccan who later became middleweight 
champion of the world. We were talking of that coming fight. 

'Til have to be in shape/' Roach said. "I'll have to be in very 
good shape." 

'I've never known a fighter," I said to him, "who seems to get 
as much fun out of a fight as you do." 

"Yes," he said. "I enjoy it. I really like it." 

"Why, I actually see you smile during a fight," I said. "I've seen 
a smile on your face." 

"I know," he said. "They tell me I smile. That's when a fight is 
going right, when I've got the other fella doing the things I want 
him to do." 

"Aren't you ever afraid ?" I said. 

"What's there to be afraid of?" Roach said. "I won't get hurt. 
Sure, you get hit some, but you're so keyed up you don't feel it." 

Many fighters have told me this since then. Roach was the first 
to say it to me, however, so I asked him more about it. 

"Actually you don't feel any pain when a punch lands on you," 
he said. "Maybe the next day you'll be a little sore in a couple of 
spots, like you're bruised, but during a fight the only way you know 
you've been hit, if you don't see the punch, is when you feel it jar 
you. I'm never afraid of getting hurt." 

He had lost only one decision in 25 fights when he fought Cerdan 
in the Garden. Cerdan knocked him down a half dozen times and 
gave him a frightful beating before putting him away in the eighth 
round. Seven fights later, Georgie Small knocked him out in the 
tenth round in the St. Nicholas Arena, and the next morning, in a 
New York hospital, Lavern Roach, who sat there so young and 
clean and intelligent and told me so convincingly that there was 
nothing for him to fear in fighting, was dead of his ring injuries. 

That this can happen all fighters know. That is why I make them 
the bravest men I know in sports. 

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