Frontline diary: 'I used to have a reputation'

Garry White
07/06/2019 1:41pm

Photos: Al Bello/Getty Images/ Allsport UK/ALLSPORT /Peter Keegan/Keystone/Getty Images)

Garry White reports from New York City in fight week, reflecting on AJ vs Ruiz, the ghosts of Paul Gallico and Joe Louis and the days gone by in Yankee stadium...

The heavyweight championship changed hands in the seventh and the Yankees beat the Red Sox 5 to 3. It is tempting to think that this is how last weekend’s tumultuous action from Madison Square Garden may have been reported back in the 30s when the great Paul Gallico was king of the New York Daily News sports desk.

His ringside report would have been accompanied by the kind of outlandish metaphor that make these old fight reports so evocative when viewed from the 21st century. He would have delighted in finding a hundred ways to describe Ruiz’s far from finessed physique and in adding Anthony Joshua to the growing list of failed British heavyweight sojourns into American territory.

But at least he would have been there and I manifestly was not.

Earlier in the day I had stood across the street from ’The Garden’ and watched the Champions League final in an anonymous Irish bar surrounded by Liverpool fans. Baking in the afternoon were billboards proclaiming the big fight. Overpriced merchandise already being ferried in for those wanting a lasting reminder of what promised to be little more than a public execution.

They or anyone else saw no portent of what was to come. Annihilation was mostly predicted, although there were some that felt Ruiz could go the distance and make life tough for the champion. But I saw nobody cast their vote unequivocally in favour of the portly challenger. To do so, would have invited ridicule.

The manner of Joshua’s defeat was as horrible as Ruiz’s triumph was glorious. Despite never being 100% sold on the ‘myth’ of AJ there was something tragic in his unscripted demise. Looking absently around his corner in bewilderment at the unfamiliar notion of defeat and embarrassment. His perfect specimen scuttled to the bottom of the ocean like the Titanic or Mary Rose, on its first journey out of port.

Despite only a solitary defeat on his record, Ruiz could have schooled him on both of these elements. And that perhaps, when it came down to it, was the difference. His supposed weaknesses becoming at the right day and at the right time an unshakeable strength. His negative experience imbuing him with an ability to take it, get up and keep going.

The man whose handful of ‘rags’ had inexplicably trumped Joshua’s inbuilt ‘Royal flush’ jumped up and down like an over-excited toddler at the moment of his unexpected triumph. It was the antidote to every piece of schoolyard mockery that had ever been encountered. For the cheap insults that slithered their way across social media in their millions. He was meant to fall flat on his face like the stupid fat idiot that every casual onlooker seemed to think he was. A living embodiment of an endless collection of everyday slights and internet insults directed by the imperfect at the equally imperfect.

It was a win for the everyman against the body beautiful. But more than that it was a victory for heart and perspiration over unthinking mechanics. Like a well-schooled batsman used to bossing bowling on docile pitches, Joshua suddenly found himself on a pockmarked pitch against a jagging ball, and couldn’t find the necessary page in his manual to adapt. Or, worst of all, it looked like he had tossed away the manual and the wise counsel from his corner; safe in the knowledge that victory could just be ‘phoned’ in. The soft body in his eye line unworthy as a threat despite the quickness of its hands and the hardness of its chin.

This night was meant to be all about Joshua. The challenger there merely to provide the knockout highlight reel to further establish his reputation stateside. Ruiz was there for a good time only, not a long time. A brief stint in the spotlight before dragging his truck driver physique back to the cheap seats. He won, boxing won, and the sport is back on the front pages as it was in the age of Gallico. It was wonderful!

And I could have been there, but I wasn’t…

In New York on holiday, I had earlier weighed the fight in the balance and like Belshazzar found it wanting. I chose a night at Yankee stadium instead.* The limited lure of baseball purely secondary to a date with boxing’s past in The Bronx amidst Yankee stadium’s high wooden turrets. The scene of some of the greatest fairy-tales of boxing lore.

GettyImages 1566581 1To sit in the nose-bleed seats and not see men in striped and grey uniforms but instead reflect my own black and white pictures onto the distant field. A cavalcade of big nights and fights from the 20s through to the end of the 50s. The scene of both battles between Louis and Schmeling.

The first a shattering defeat and the second legendary for its continuation of Jesse Owens good work of two years earlier, at the Berlin Olympics, in publicly undermining Fascism's false narrative, via a single-round demolition.

Louis is remembered via a street name across the way from Madison Square Garden. A venue now in its fourth incarnation. The one that hosted Louis giving way to the current version in 1968.

The same old ‘Garden’ where the fictional Terry Molloy took a dive and later en-route rejected his brother's plea to keep quiet, and in doing so, sentenced him to death at the hands of Johnny Friendly and his strong-arm sidekick played by “Two ton” Tony Galento.

The new one isn’t a thing of beauty. An architectural symbol of its time it owes more to Soviet town planning than ascetics. But its construct is merely symbolic as it is the name that endures beyond its functional visage.

But Yankee stadium still has class and permanence despite boxing pretty much leaving there in 1959; a couple of years after the Dodgers left Brooklyn. An era when a capella voices still rung in harmony from street corners and the local boys from Fordham Avenue in The Bronx – Dion & The Belmonts - were top of the American charts.

“I wonder why I love you like I do
Is it because I think you love me too?”

GettyImages 3374266Is New York still ‘Fight City’? I don’t know. Jack Dempsey’s old restaurant went decades ago, but not before making a brief cameo in the first Godfather movie. The street corner where his first premises stood now carries his name but nothing else. A gravestone commemorating another time that faded out with the “American Dream.”

But if you venture into Jimmy’s Corner off Times Square, amongst the memorabilia and sepia photos you can see what once was. A corridor boozer with real-life punters drinking under the gaze of boxing’s past legends. Lost tourists, those wanting an affordable drink, and the sports purists mixing in perfect harmony. The fight games force feels strong there.

On the street the chatter is back on. The heavyweight division can always capture the casual observer in a way that the other divisions should, but don’t.

Andy Ruiz’s glorious and unexpected victory turning a mere footnote story into global blockbusting news.

I overhear two guys talking on the subway but the talk is all about how much Ruiz should get paid for the rematch, it’s the same in a restaurant later in the evening. Anyone in the know is sufficiently deft to understand that boxing is a business. But it’s a sad day when the man in the street can’t see beyond this either.

It’s time to leave and the subway rattles towards the airport. My fantasies of old-time boxing and street corner harmonies are replaced in my thoughts by the older vintage of Dion Dimucci. One wearied by time and wizened by overcoming drug addiction.

“I used to be a Brooklyn Dodger,” he sings. “But I ain’t a hitter anymore. I used to have a reputation. I used to make the home crowd roar.”

So did Anthony Joshua. Will he come again?

*Only later did I learn that the original Yankee stadium was demolished in 2010 and the new stadium was built adjacent to the old site. But it is a truth that I prefer to ignore. Joe Louis never fought there, except in my imagination.