Larry Holmes: Against the Odds

Larry Holmes: Against the Odds

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by Larry Holmes, Phil Berger
     
 

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The autobiography of one of the greatest heavyweight boxing champions of all time.See more details below

Overview

The autobiography of one of the greatest heavyweight boxing champions of all time.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
There could not be a more appropriate subtitle for this autobiography chronicling the rise of the man who was the heavyweight champion from 1978 to 1985. One of 12 children, Holmes and his family were moved from rural Georgia to Easton, Pa., by a father who then abandoned them to the most abysmal poverty. Holmes didn't have a chance to finish grammar school--he began work at 13--but while there he was introduced to wrestling and boxing. In 1968, at the age of 19, Holmes began to train as a boxer with Ernie Butler. A couple of years later, he had the good fortune to work as one of Muhammad Ali's sparring partners and the good sense to learn from him. In 1973, however, he had the misfortune to tie himself to Don King; eventually he would have to battle his manager for even 50% of his winnings. Holmes's portrait of the promoter is so devastating that readers may come to dislike King as much as Holmes does. Equally depressing are his observations about many other figures in boxing and the racism that still governs the sport. Despite all this, Holmes managed to draw on the lessons of his impoverished childhood: he saved enough money to buy and develop land in Easton, allowing him to live as a wealthy man. Berger (Smoking Joe) is adept at explaining Holmes's unwillingness to live with injustice (he once turned down a $30 million purse for boxing in South Africa) and his resolve to triumph over it. In a memoir that is by turns saddening and inspiring, Holmes comes across as a heroic American athlete. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Boxer Larry Holmes overcame the nay-sayers to hold the heavyweight championship of the world for seven years, accumulating a net worth of $40 million--a far cry from his early youth in Georgia, where he grew up in poverty with 11 brothers and sisters. This book, written with former New York Times boxing writer Berger (Blood Season, LJ 6/15/89), chronicles Holmes's determination and courage in becoming the "people's champion." The reader shares the fighter's insights on the present state of boxing (he doesn't think much of Mike Tyson) and his relationships with devilish promoter Don King and Muhammad Ali, who was his mentor and first hired Holmes as his sparring partner. Boxing aficionados will enjoy Holmes's autobiography. The only negative is the former champion's bitterness toward certain celebrities of the boxing hierarchy, which diminishes the motivational and inspirational message of the book. Not an essential purchase, but buy where demand warrants.--Larry Little, Penticton P.L., BC
David Davis
. . .Holmes' life, as he relates in his autobiography, has been a series of lessons in persistence. -- The New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781429975544
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
04/01/2007
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
802,255
File size:
2 MB

Read an Excerpt


CHAPTERONE
The sun was just coming up when the last of the Holmes family of Cuthbert, Georgia, climbed into Uncle Willie’s beat-up Chevy and headed north.
All our belongings were loaded into the trunk of the car, or strapped onto the roof. We were leaving the hard times of the sharecropper’s life for a better chance in a place called Easton, Pennsylvania.
At least that’s what my mother, Flossie, told me. And young as I was, I knew that what we had in Cuthbert was no bargain. So I wasn’t shook about leaving. I was six years old that Georgia morning in 1955 as the Chevy rolled past the fields where Mom and her older children had once picked cotton to add a few dollars to what my father, John Henry, made working the land. In that time and in that place, farming was a hard way to go. And eventually my father decided the hell with it—there had to be a better means of supporting a family. Up north in Easton were steel mills and iron foundries and paper mills and sewing factories. John Henry figured chances were likelier he’d find regular work, and better pay, in that smokestack city.
John Henry had gone up north first, before any of us. Then, a few at a time, some of my older brothers and sisters followed. Mom and I and my brothers Lee, Bob, and Jake would be the last of the Holmeses to leave Cuthbert.
My memories of Cuthbert were not exactly warm and fuzzy. We had lived by the railroad tracks in a shack that sat on stilts and had few of the conveniences that most folks took for granted. It was stifling hot in summer, and chilled your bones when the temperature fell in winter. Our house in Cuthbert was too small for a family our size, had no plumbing, and, with the trains going by, made sleep sometimes difficult, more so when rain fell on the corrugated metal roof. Some nights I’d lie there in bed listening to raindrops pinging off that roof . . . until, utterly exhausted, I dropped off to sleep.
That the lives my folks led were exhausting—and unsatisfying—was plain enough even to a little boy like me. You only had to look at their faces as they returned home at the end of the working day to know all there was to know about life in the cotton fields . . . or out there in John Henry’s hard damn acres.
I remember Mom and my brothers and sisters pulling prickles from cotton plants out of their clothes. If we had stayed in Cuthbert, I would have been expected to go into the cotton fields in a year or two.
I remember, too, the red clay roads of Georgia. That red clay got into everything—on the floor, in our clothes and towels, and even smudged the sheets we slept on. Now, as Uncle Willie drove north, I watched the red clay roads go by.
Because of the excitement of being on the longest trip of my life, I slept in little catnaps, waking up whenever we got to a big city. I’d never seen tall buildings before or so many people in one place. At night, I tipped my head back in the rear window of that Chevy and watched the moon and the stars. I thought the moon was following me.Easton, population thirty thousand, is located at the fork of the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers, fifty miles north of Philadelphia. It had been founded in colonial times by sons of William Penn, who had named it after the English estate of some kin of theirs. With the building of canals, Easton came to be a water transportation hub in the 1800s for shipments to Philadelphia and eventually to New York.
Later came railroads and highways, and by the 1950s Easton was an established industrial city, doing business in textiles, finished products, paper, leather, paint, iron and steel foundries, and machinery.
That’s what had drawn us and other poor blacks from the South to Easton. Jobs. There was said to be plenty of work there. But by the time Mom and I turned up, the Delaware Valley was recovering from a hurricane that had done millions of dollars of damage . . . and from a recession that put a crimp in the job market. Bad timing, folks said.
For Mom, what John Henry had to tell her must have seemed bad timing too. My father watched us settle in and then told Flossie that while up north he had fallen in love with another woman. So after a few weeks, he up and left for Connecticut, where this other woman lived. It near broke my mother’s heart.
Every so often John Henry would come back and visit us in Easton, usually bringing the younger kids presents. I don’t know if he gave my mom any money or not, but we sure as heck needed it. Yet as hurt as Mom felt, and as much as she missed him, she never bad-mouthed him to us.
From time to time I’d spend a week or two with him in Connecticut. John Henry was a no-nonsense, hardworking man. In the morning, he’d go to his construction job, then come home for dinner and be off to do yard work for the rich folks. I’d help him out. I’d cut grass, rake it up, and do whatever else needed doing. I loved my father even though I didn’t really know him. I loved him because he was my father.
Our family ended up on the South Side of Easton, where mostly poor black folks lived. The address was 208 East Lincoln Street—one of the identical government-subsidized Delaware Terrace row houses. Ours came with four bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom for a family that eventually would include twelve children—nine boys and three girls.
In Easton, our part of town was known as “the projects”—just another way of saying the poor part of town. That meant we lived with no air-conditioning in the summer and inadequate heating in the winter. The only comfort we got was from a store-bought fan.
It also meant going hungry some nights. Mom would do what she could to stretch a bag of rice, and beans . . . and she made her own bread because it was cheaper. But every day was a struggle, and to keep our bellies full it took the welfare checks we got and the government-surplus Spam, powdered milk, blocks of cheese, lard, beans, and rice that we stood in line for once a month. At the welfare office you signed for a card you showed when it came your turn to stock up.
That’s how it went. Folks from the South Side did what they had to in order to make it to the next day. For a family as large as ours, it meant watching what few pennies we had. Mom shopped for our clothes at the Salvation Army and at rummage sales, and was not too proud to accept help from Jack Paul, a local truant officer, a white man who made a habit of helping those who were poor. He was truly a decent man, who would take neighborhood kids into stores and get them clothes.
Jack Paul wasn’t the only one who looked out for those less fortunate than they were. Around Christmas, on Northampton Street, where all the fancy stores were, they’d be selling poppies to benefit the YMCA, which would then turn around and use the proceeds to take the kids from the projects shopping for Christmas gifts, five dollars a kid. It wasn’t much, but it was a gesture from the heart and we appreciated it.
Some of my brothers and sisters worked in the factories in and around Easton and would give a portion of their wages to Mom. But let’s face it: it was never enough. In fact, some of my siblings, when they were financially pinched, would scoop up my loose change—just out-and-out steal what was mine. That led me as a grade-schooler to start hiding what money I had under the bed, in pillowcases, and in flowerpots. But there were times when I’d see that my mother was in real need of money and I would raid the flowerpot to help her out.
As a grade-schooler I made money shining shoes. The routine went like this. When the school day ended, I’d grab my shoeshine kit and walk the Lehigh Valley railroad tracks from Easton, then cross the bridge over the Delaware River that took you into the next town, Phillipsburg, New Jersey. With my brother Lee, or sometimes with other kids from the neighborhood, I’d go bar to bar. You’d open the door of the joint, look in, and say: “Shine? Anyone need a shine?” If somebody looked up from his drink and said yes, you’d walk in and go to work. Slap the rag across the man’s brogans, fifteen cents a shine . . . and hope for a tip. We might work as late as ten o’clock, and on a good day I’d come home with ten, fifteen bucks.
Although we were poor folk, I didn’t get hung up on it. I knew we were doing the best we could . . . and nobody around us had a whole lot more. But I must admit that sometimes when I’d watch that TV show The Millionaire, I would think: When the heck is Michael Anthony gonna come knock on our door, give my mom a million dollars? Remember that show? Wednesday nights on CBS. This eccentric billionaire John Beresford Tipton (whose face you never saw) would instruct his personal secretary, Michael Anthony, to hand some average joe a cashier’s check for a million bucks, tax free. The idea was to see how this new money would change that individual’s life.
Our lives back then didn’t change much. It was a struggle. But let me say it right here: Flossie Holmes is a truly great woman. She raised the twelve of us with very little help. She could have easily lost hope and maybe given some of us away—we knew some families that did that. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she did. But I’m glad she didn’t. She was very proud and very strong. I believe I got those same qualities from her.
She would never admit it, but I believe she treated me as her special child. Whenever I tease her about it now, she says, “All of my children were special to me.” Maybe, but I was a little more special to her because I was born with six fingers on each hand. The tiny “extra” fingers were right alongside my pinkies, and they were taken off by a doctor in Georgia when I was a baby. If you look close now, you can still see the scars and tiny stubs. My mother always told me those fingers were a sign from God that I must have been singled out for some special purpose.
I guess my youngest brother, Perry, wasn’t put on earth for a special purpose. He died suddenly of a heart murmur when he was only five. Perry’s death still haunts me. I never could figure out why, if there was a God, Perry had to die for no reason whatsoever. He never did anything cruel or evil to anyone. I was mad at God about that for a long time. I still am. But my mother is a very religious woman and she accepts everything as God’s will. That’s the source of her great strength. I never could be that accepting. Maybe someday I will be.
Although where we lived people were poor, there were neighbors of ours who would put on airs and ridicule us for being on welfare because they happened not to be. They were the same folks who, when later on I overcame those humble beginnings and rose up in the world as a fighter, would say: “Well, shoot, he’ll end up broke ‘cause he lacks the education to know what to do with his money.”
It was true I didn’t have much education. In Cuthbert I hadn’t had any schooling whatsoever. So when I went into the first grade at Taylor Elementary School in Easton, I was behind the other kids. If only my teachers cared, school might have been a better experience. But the way it worked was that the slower students—and most of us were black—got branded as lacking the intelligence worth a teacher’s time. So where you’d see the teacher urge the white kid to sound out a spelling word, that teacher wouldn’t bother to try that with the so-called backward black boys and girls. The teachers viewed their job with us as simply to baby-sit us.
Without their help, I could never acquire reading skills, and without being able to read, I began to fall even further behind in every subject. The teachers treated me like I was stupid. I knew I wasn’t, but it was hard to show it in school. Since I wasn’t getting any attention from my teachers, I began to slide into the role of class wise guy to get respect from the other kids.
It was only in sports where I seemed to get a fair shake, and could shine. I was good at all the sports, but as a grade-schooler I excelled in wrestling. I wrestled for the St. Anthony’s Youth Center, which was located in a predominantly Italian neighborhood, and won lots of trophies in competitions against other youth centers, first as an eighty-pounder and then, as I grew older, as a ninety-pound rassler. Through my grade-school years, I rarely lost.
Poor though we were, the kids in the neighborhood and I managed to find fun in lots of simple ways. With homemade fishing poles, we’d pass hours fishing the Delaware River. Or in cutoff trousers or even butt-naked, we’d swim in the canals. And like kids everywhere we’d flip baseball cards, pitch pennies, and play blackjack for pennies and nickels.
Sometimes we’d wander the streets, looking for yards that had apple or cherry trees in bloom. We’d snatch as much fruit as our hands could hold and, laughing with the pleasure of our mischief, run like hell, eating our stolen treasure back in the projects. Yeah, that was considered high adventure for us. That and chasing neighborhood girls.
When we’d scrap with one another, it was always a fair fight. No guns, no knives. It was a more innocent time then.
In those days, I wasn’t really into boxing. Sure, I knew a few names of the professionals—like Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson and the new guy, Cassius Clay. Maybe I’d catch a glimpse of them on newsreels or a thirty-second clip on TV. But I didn’t follow the sport. Nor did the local paper, The Express-Times have much coverage of boxing. For the fellas from my street, the Philadelphia teams—the Eagles, Phillies, and 76ers—were Topic A.
Yet though I barely took notice of boxing’s headliners, I ended up as part of the Wednesday-night bar fights, starting at age ten. The PAL would gather us kids to put on backroom matches for the various civic clubs around the Delaware Valley—like the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs, and the VFW. All these organizations, not to mention the firefighters, had social clubs, and on Wednesday nights you would see us peewees whacking away at each other with oversize boxing gloves. It was regular entertainment for the older folks.
John Vogt from the PAL would drive to Fourth Street—a mostly black neighborhood—and pick a bunch of us up. He’d continue on through Easton, stopping in other neighborhoods until we had a carload. Off we’d go—my buddies Pooch Pratt and Butch Andrews, my brother Lee, and I—sometimes to clubs in Easton, other times as far as Bethlehem or Allentown. Most of us were black kids; a few were white. My mother never knew I was doing it. She wouldn’t have approved, but there were too many of us kids for her to keep track of.
The bars were usually full of steelworkers or men from the paper mill and other factories. To me they were really like the bars I saw in the western movies at the State Theater downtown. Rough and tough and exciting. It was nothing like being in school or in the house or on the block. The atmosphere in those places felt seedy, and illegal, which probably it was since little kids were on premises where drinking and betting were going on. There was usually a lot of smoke swirling about and the rank smell of stale beer and whiskey. Sometimes there were a few bright lights over a clearing near the back of the barroom.
There was no ring set up in most of the bars. The people would gather in a kind of circle that might expand as the fighters scrambled to get at one another. Before I fought I watched the smaller kids box. While the bouts were on, it would get noisy and I’d stand there and look at the faces of the spectators. They were men mostly, but there were always a few women there too. More than a hundred people on big nights. Almost everyone was white. I saw their eyes brighten when a kid got hit with a solid punch. Sometimes they laughed at a fighter when he threw a punch, missed, and fell on his face. I didn’t like it when they laughed. I never wanted anyone to laugh at me.
I fought in my white Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars, the shoe back before there was Nike and Reebok and Fila. Your canvas-and-rubber “Chucks” were what you wore everywhere—school, sports, to go downtown. For my boxing trunks I had red shorts that really were a bathing suit.
Because I was big for my age, I usually fought the same kid, Barry Derohn, a white boy who was a little older and just about my size. Most of the time, we were both still standing by the end of the fight. If both fighters were on their feet after three rounds, the referee would declare the bout a draw, no matter how lopsided the action might have been. But one night I caught Barry Derohn with a clean shot and knocked him cold. I can still see that right hand landing flush on the chin. When we got older, I’d see him around town and tease him about the night I gave him hell.
But let’s face it: I was a boxing doofus, a kid with a jab and no idea of how to put punches together. I was unaware of the effort and serious training that went into making a polished fighter. Then again, when I was fighting those Wednesday-night three-rounders, the notion of doing it for a living was the farthest thing from my mind. I was doing it for the respect it got you out on the street . . . and for the free food that was our reward afterward. Sweaty and tired, we’d retreat to the kitchen for all the hot dogs, hamburgers, Cokes, and potato chips we could eat. For us free food was as good as gold.
I never thought much about the future then. I didn’t have to because the life I was going to live was out there whether I thought about it or not. It was going to be a typical Easton blue-collar life, if I was lucky—a factory job, a family, weekends for drinking beer and playing poker or pool, maybe outfitting and driving my own stock car.By the time I reached seventh grade at Shull Junior High, I was a hotshot football player. Seventh graders weren’t supposed to play varsity football, but they made an exception for me. I was a starter as a defensive tackle and was second string at fullback. Football on the junior-high level was serious stuff. The games were well attended, and were officiated by uniformed, paid referees. The junior-high program was meant to be a feeder to the high schools, which were damn serious about the game. Like you read about football in Texas. That kind of serious.
There was one individual at Shull—a male teacher—who resented the fact that I was allowed to play as a seventh grader. Whenever he’d see me in the halls, he’d go out of his way to hassle me. I wasn’t shy and would talk back to him, giving him a reason—at least as he saw it—to get physical with me. “You’re not my teacher,” I’d say, belligerently. And he’d slap me, throw me down on the floor, goading me to hit him back. I never did, even though at age thirteen I thought I could kick his ass. More than once he laid his hands on me, and more than once I complained about it to the principal. But the teacher was never reprimanded or even told to lay off. This teacher, it turned out, would be in the thick of a big jam I got into later that seventh-grade year.
See, a lot of girls at school liked me. But at the time there were two in particular—a white girl and a black girl—that I was interested in. I liked the white girl more, which seemed to bother the other one. She got angry at me one day while we were going to study hall . . . and, after we started name-calling, she jabbed her pencil at my hand. Hurt me. I got a little crazy and went after her.
CHAPTERONE
The sun was just coming up when the last of the Holmes family of Cuthbert, Georgia, climbed into Uncle Willie’s beat-up Chevy and headed north.
All our belongings were loaded into the trunk of the car, or strapped onto the roof. We were leaving the hard times of the sharecropper’s life for a better chance in a place called Easton, Pennsylvania.
At least that’s what my mother, Flossie, told me. And young as I was, I knew that what we had in Cuthbert was no bargain. So I wasn’t shook about leaving. I was six years old that Georgia morning in 1955 as the Chevy rolled past the fields where Mom and her older children had once picked cotton to add a few dollars to what my father, John Henry, made working the land. In that time and in that place, farming was a hard way to go. And eventually my father decided the hell with it—there had to be a better means of supporting a family. Up north in Easton were steel mills and iron foundries and paper mills and sewing factories. John Henry figured chances were likelier he’d find regular work, and better pay, in that smokestack city.
John Henry had gone up north first, before any of us. Then, a few at a time, some of my older brothers and sisters followed. Mom and I and my brothers Lee, Bob, and Jake would be the last of the Holmeses to leave Cuthbert.
My memories of Cuthbert were not exactly warm and fuzzy. We had lived by the railroad tracks in a shack that sat on stilts and had few of the conveniences that most folks took for granted. It was stifling hot in summer, and chilled your bones when the temperature fell in winter. Our house in Cuthbert was too small for a family our size, had no plumbing, and, with the trains going by, made sleep sometimes difficult, more so when rain fell on the corrugated metal roof. Some nights I’d lie there in bed listening to raindrops pinging off that roof . . . until, utterly exhausted, I dropped off to sleep.
That the lives my folks led were exhausting—and unsatisfying—was plain enough even to a little boy like me. You only had to look at their faces as they returned home at the end of the working day to know all there was to know about life in the cotton fields . . . or out there in John Henry’s hard damn acres.
I remember Mom and my brothers and sisters pulling prickles from cotton plants out of their clothes. If we had stayed in Cuthbert, I would have been expected to go into the cotton fields in a year or two.
I remember, too, the red clay roads of Georgia. That red clay got into everything—on the floor, in our clothes and towels, and even smudged the sheets we slept on. Now, as Uncle Willie drove north, I watched the red clay roads go by.
Because of the excitement of being on the longest trip of my life, I slept in little catnaps, waking up whenever we got to a big city. I’d never seen tall buildings before or so many people in one place. At night, I tipped my head back in the rear window of that Chevy and watched the moon and the stars. I thought the moon was following me.Easton, population thirty thousand, is located at the fork of the Delaware and Lehigh Rivers, fifty miles north of Philadelphia. It had been founded in colonial times by sons of William Penn, who had named it after the English estate of some kin of theirs. With the building of canals, Easton came to be a water transportation hub in the 1800s for shipments to Philadelphia and eventually to New York.
Later came railroads and highways, and by the 1950s Easton was an established industrial city, doing business in textiles, finished products, paper, leather, paint, iron and steel foundries, and machinery.
That’s what had drawn us and other poor blacks from the South to Easton. Jobs. There was said to be plenty of work there. But by the time Mom and I turned up, the Delaware Valley was recovering from a hurricane that had done millions of dollars of damage . . . and from a recession that put a crimp in the job market. Bad timing, folks said.
For Mom, what John Henry had to tell her must have seemed bad timing too. My father watched us settle in and then told Flossie that while up north he had fallen in love with another woman. So after a few weeks, he up and left for Connecticut, where this other woman lived. It near broke my mother’s heart.
Every so often John Henry would come back and visit us in Easton, usually bringing the younger kids presents. I don’t know if he gave my mom any money or not, but we sure as heck needed it. Yet as hurt as Mom felt, and as much as she missed him, she never bad-mouthed him to us.
From time to time I’d spend a week or two with him in Connecticut. John Henry was a no-nonsense, hardworking man. In the morning, he’d go to his construction job, then come home for dinner and be off to do yard work for the rich folks. I’d help him out. I’d cut grass, rake it up, and do whatever else needed doing. I loved my father even though I didn’t really know him. I loved him because he was my father.
Our family ended up on the South Side of Easton, where mostly poor black folks lived. The address was 208 East Lincoln Street—one of the identical government-subsidized Delaware Terrace row houses. Ours came with four bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom for a family that eventually would include twelve children—nine boys and three girls.
In Easton, our part of town was known as “the projects”—just another way of saying the poor part of town. That meant we lived with no air-conditioning in the summer and inadequate heating in the winter. The only comfort we got was from a store-bought fan.
It also meant going hungry some nights. Mom would do what she could to stretch a bag of rice, and beans . . . and she made her own bread because it was cheaper. But every day was a struggle, and to keep our bellies full it took the welfare checks we got and the government-surplus Spam, powdered milk, blocks of cheese, lard, beans, and rice that we stood in line for once a month. At the welfare office you signed for a card you showed when it came your turn to stock up.
That’s how it went. Folks from the South Side did what they had to in order to make it to the next day. For a family as large as ours, it meant watching what few pennies we had. Mom shopped for our clothes at the Salvation Army and at rummage sales, and was not too proud to accept help from Jack Paul, a local truant officer, a white man who made a habit of helping those who were poor. He was truly a decent man, who would take neighborhood kids into stores and get them clothes.
Jack Paul wasn’t the only one who looked out for those less fortunate than they were. Around Christmas, on Northampton Street, where all the fancy stores were, they’d be selling poppies to benefit the YMCA, which would then turn around and use the proceeds to take the kids from the projects shopping for Christmas gifts, five dollars a kid. It wasn’t much, but it was a gesture from the heart and we appreciated it.
Some of my brothers and sisters worked in the factories in and around Easton and would give a portion of their wages to Mom. But let’s face it: it was never enough. In fact, some of my siblings, when they were financially pinched, would scoop up my loose change—just out-and-out steal what was mine. That led me as a grade-schooler to start hiding what money I had under the bed, in pillowcases, and in flowerpots. But there were times when I’d see that my mother was in real need of money and I would raid the flowerpot to help her out.
As a grade-schooler I made money shining shoes. The routine went like this. When the school day ended, I’d grab my shoeshine kit and walk the Lehigh Valley railroad tracks from Easton, then cross the bridge over the Delaware River that took you into the next town, Phillipsburg, New Jersey. With my brother Lee, or sometimes with other kids from the neighborhood, I’d go bar to bar. You’d open the door of the joint, look in, and say: “Shine? Anyone need a shine?” If somebody looked up from his drink and said yes, you’d walk in and go to work. Slap the rag across the man’s brogans, fifteen cents a shine . . . and hope for a tip. We might work as late as ten o’clock, and on a good day I’d come home with ten, fifteen bucks.
Although we were poor folk, I didn’t get hung up on it. I knew we were doing the best we could . . . and nobody around us had a whole lot more. But I must admit that sometimes when I’d watch that TV show The Millionaire, I would think: When the heck is Michael Anthony gonna come knock on our door, give my mom a million dollars? Remember that show? Wednesday nights on CBS. This eccentric billionaire John Beresford Tipton (whose face you never saw) would instruct his personal secretary, Michael Anthony, to hand some average joe a cashier’s check for a million bucks, tax free. The idea was to see how this new money would change that individual’s life.
Our lives back then didn’t change much. It was a struggle. But let me say it right here: Flossie Holmes is a truly great woman. She raised the twelve of us with very little help. She could have easily lost hope and maybe given some of us away—we knew some families that did that. I wouldn’t have blamed her if she did. But I’m glad she didn’t. She was very proud and very strong. I believe I got those same qualities from her.
She would never admit it, but I believe she treated me as her special child. Whenever I tease her about it now, she says, “All of my children were special to me.” Maybe, but I was a little more special to her because I was born with six fingers on each hand. The tiny “extra” fingers were right alongside my pinkies, and they were taken off by a doctor in Georgia when I was a baby. If you look close now, you can still see the scars and tiny stubs. My mother always told me those fingers were a sign from God that I must have been singled out for some special purpose.
I guess my youngest brother, Perry, wasn’t put on earth for a special purpose. He died suddenly of a heart murmur when he was only five. Perry’s death still haunts me. I never could figure out why, if there was a God, Perry had to die for no reason whatsoever. He never did anything cruel or evil to anyone. I was mad at God about that for a long time. I still am. But my mother is a very religious woman and she accepts everything as God’s will. That’s the source of her great strength. I never could be that accepting. Maybe someday I will be.
Although where we lived people were poor, there were neighbors of ours who would put on airs and ridicule us for being on welfare because they happened not to be. They were the same folks who, when later on I overcame those humble beginnings and rose up in the world as a fighter, would say: “Well, shoot, he’ll end up broke ‘cause he lacks the education to know what to do with his money.”
It was true I didn’t have much education. In Cuthbert I hadn’t had any schooling whatsoever. So when I went into the first grade at Taylor Elementary School in Easton, I was behind the other kids. If only my teachers cared, school might have been a better experience. But the way it worked was that the slower students—and most of us were black—got branded as lacking the intelligence worth a teacher’s time. So where you’d see the teacher urge the white kid to sound out a spelling word, that teacher wouldn’t bother to try that with the so-called backward black boys and girls. The teachers viewed their job with us as simply to baby-sit us.
Without their help, I could never acquire reading skills, and without being able to read, I began to fall even further behind in every subject. The teachers treated me like I was stupid. I knew I wasn’t, but it was hard to show it in school. Since I wasn’t getting any attention from my teachers, I began to slide into the role of class wise guy to get respect from the other kids.
It was only in sports where I seemed to get a fair shake, and could shine. I was good at all the sports, but as a grade-schooler I excelled in wrestling. I wrestled for the St. Anthony’s Youth Center, which was located in a predominantly Italian neighborhood, and won lots of trophies in competitions against other youth centers, first as an eighty-pounder and then, as I grew older, as a ninety-pound rassler. Through my grade-school years, I rarely lost.
Poor though we were, the kids in the neighborhood and I managed to find fun in lots of simple ways. With homemade fishing poles, we’d pass hours fishing the Delaware River. Or in cutoff trousers or even butt-naked, we’d swim in the canals. And like kids everywhere we’d flip baseball cards, pitch pennies, and play blackjack for pennies and nickels.
Sometimes we’d wander the streets, looking for yards that had apple or cherry trees in bloom. We’d snatch as much fruit as our hands could hold and, laughing with the pleasure of our mischief, run like hell, eating our stolen treasure back in the projects. Yeah, that was considered high adventure for us. That and chasing neighborhood girls.
When we’d scrap with one another, it was always a fair fight. No guns, no knives. It was a more innocent time then.
In those days, I wasn’t really into boxing. Sure, I knew a few names of the professionals—like Rocky Marciano and Sugar Ray Robinson and the new guy, Cassius Clay. Maybe I’d catch a glimpse of them on newsreels or a thirty-second clip on TV. But I didn’t follow the sport. Nor did the local paper, The Express-Times have much coverage of boxing. For the fellas from my street, the Philadelphia teams—the Eagles, Phillies, and 76ers—were Topic A.
Yet though I barely took notice of boxing’s headliners, I ended up as part of the Wednesday-night bar fights, starting at age ten. The PAL would gather us kids to put on backroom matches for the various civic clubs around the Delaware Valley—like the Kiwanis and Rotary Clubs, and the VFW. All these organizations, not to mention the firefighters, had social clubs, and on Wednesday nights you would see us peewees whacking away at each other with oversize boxing gloves. It was regular entertainment for the older folks.
John Vogt from the PAL would drive to Fourth Street—a mostly black neighborhood—and pick a bunch of us up. He’d continue on through Easton, stopping in other neighborhoods until we had a carload. Off we’d go—my buddies Pooch Pratt and Butch Andrews, my brother Lee, and I—sometimes to clubs in Easton, other times as far as Bethlehem or Allentown. Most of us were black kids; a few were white. My mother never knew I was doing it. She wouldn’t have approved, but there were too many of us kids for her to keep track of.
The bars were usually full of steelworkers or men from the paper mill and other factories. To me they were really like the bars I saw in the western movies at the State Theater downtown. Rough and tough and exciting. It was nothing like being in school or in the house or on the block. The atmosphere in those places felt seedy, and illegal, which probably it was since little kids were on premises where drinking and betting were going on. There was usually a lot of smoke swirling about and the rank smell of stale beer and whiskey. Sometimes there were a few bright lights over a clearing near the back of the barroom.
There was no ring set up in most of the bars. The people would gather in a kind of circle that might expand as the fighters scrambled to get at one another. Before I fought I watched the smaller kids box. While the bouts were on, it would get noisy and I’d stand there and look at the faces of the spectators. They were men mostly, but there were always a few women there too. More than a hundred people on big nights. Almost everyone was white. I saw their eyes brighten when a kid got hit with a solid punch. Sometimes they laughed at a fighter when he threw a punch, missed, and fell on his face. I didn’t like it when they laughed. I never wanted anyone to laugh at me.
I fought in my white Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars, the shoe back before there was Nike and Reebok and Fila. Your canvas-and-rubber “Chucks” were what you wore everywhere—school, sports, to go downtown. For my boxing trunks I had red shorts that really were a bathing suit.
Because I was big for my age, I usually fought the same kid, Barry Derohn, a white boy who was a little older and just about my size. Most of the time, we were both still standing by the end of the fight. If both fighters were on their feet after three rounds, the referee would declare the bout a draw, no matter how lopsided the action might have been. But one night I caught Barry Derohn with a clean shot and knocked him cold. I can still see that right hand landing flush on the chin. When we got older, I’d see him around town and tease him about the night I gave him hell.
But let’s face it: I was a boxing doofus, a kid with a jab and no idea of how to put punches together. I was unaware of the effort and serious training that went into making a polished fighter. Then again, when I was fighting those Wednesday-night three-rounders, the notion of doing it for a living was the farthest thing from my mind. I was doing it for the respect it got you out on the street . . . and for the free food that was our reward afterward. Sweaty and tired, we’d retreat to the kitchen for all the hot dogs, hamburgers, Cokes, and potato chips we could eat. For us free food was as good as gold.
I never thought much about the future then. I didn’t have to because the life I was going to live was out there whether I thought about it or not. It was going to be a typical Easton blue-collar life, if I was lucky—a factory job, a family, weekends for drinking beer and playing poker or pool, maybe outfitting and driving my own stock car.By the time I reached seventh grade at Shull Junior High, I was a hotshot football player. Seventh graders weren’t supposed to play varsity football, but they made an exception for me. I was a starter as a defensive tackle and was second string at fullback. Football on the junior-high level was serious stuff. The games were well attended, and were officiated by uniformed, paid referees. The junior-high program was meant to be a feeder to the high schools, which were damn serious about the game. Like you read about football in Texas. That kind of serious.
There was one individual at Shull—a male teacher—who resented the fact that I was allowed to play as a seventh grader. Whenever he’d see me in the halls, he’d go out of his way to hassle me. I wasn’t shy and would talk back to him, giving him a reason—at least as he saw it—to get physical with me. “You’re not my teacher,” I’d say, belligerently. And he’d slap me, throw me down on the floor, goading me to hit him back. I never did, even though at age thirteen I thought I could kick his ass. More than once he laid his hands on me, and more than once I complained about it to the principal. But the teacher was never reprimanded or even told to lay off. This teacher, it turned out, would be in the thick of a big jam I got into later that seventh-grade year.
See, a lot of girls at school liked me. But at the time there were two in particular—a white girl and a black girl—that I was interested in. I liked the white girl more, which seemed to bother the other one. She got angry at me one day while we were going to study hall . . . and, after we started name-calling, she jabbed her pencil at my hand. Hurt me. I got a little crazy and went after her.

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