by Carlo Rotella

I got to know Boxing James, who used to manage fighters and promote fights, because he called me at home one day out of the blue to discuss a book I’d written about boxing. Our conversation led to a several-times-daily email correspondence, which eventually expanded to include a number of other fight people and boxing aficionados. When he’s in town, we have dinner. Ascetic, musical, bookish, committed to the avant-garde credo that a true artist in any form revolutionizes the very language he employs to say whatever he has to say, Boxing James makes for an unlikely recovering gangster. But anybody who does business in the fight world has to be a gangster at least some of the time. He has also worked in music, loan sharking, and “the skin business,” as he calls pornography and prostitution. He says he’s done with all that now. As far as I can tell, he has become a post-lowlife bodhisattva. Remarried to his first wife and profoundly in debt, he eats one meal a day, spends rigorous hours at the piano (he played jazz before he became a manager of heavy metal bands), and has given up exploiting other people’s weaknesses for profit.

James tells a story about a heavyweight prospect, a young Dominican who seemed to have it all: he was physically gifted, well schooled as a boxer, good-looking, personable, and fluent in English. James, who managed him, thought he might just have the next big thing on his hands—the first Hispanic heavyweight champion of the world. After the prospect won his professional debut, James took a tape of the fight to Al Braverman, who was Don King’s director of boxing, a kingpin who could make things happen for a rising star. The prospect had won easily, but they had watched no more than a minute or so of the tape before Braverman remarked, “Got a little muttski in him, doesn’t he?”

It came as news to James that his golden prospect was a quitter, a coward—by the unforgiving standards of boxing, that is, since by any normal standard he was uncommonly brave. We’ve all got at least a little muttski in us, but fighters can’t afford to be like everybody else. Braverman told James, “Don’t worry, we’ll build a wall around the kid,” meaning that they would handpick his opponents and try to put off the day when they had to put him in against a fighter shrewd enough to find his soft spot.

Six years and seventeen fights after Braverman pronounced on him, that day came. James’s fighter was matched against another contender in a bout that would determine which of them continued on to a shot at a heavyweight title. The other contender’s sharp-eyed trainer saw what Braverman had seen. Before the opening bell, the trainer looked James’s fighter in the eye, pointed to his own chest while shaking his head, and said, “No heart. You got no heart.” Everybody in the ring knew he was right. James’s fighter, the more talented of the two, was finished before the bell rang to open the first round.

Spend enough time around fight people and you acquire their habit of sensing weakness in others. It radiates from some people like a skunk’s musk, from others like the faintest indefinable odor. James has cultivated his faculty for sensing it for so many years that now he can’t turn the faculty off. James, who left home early and never did get much of any other sort of education, at least in the formal sense, regrets that he can’t stop perceiving desperation in others, especially the desperation brought on by money trouble.

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Carlo Rotella’s most recent book is Cut Time: An Education at the Fights.

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