I grew up with fighters. Daddy was a fight promoter. He put on the world championship bout between Buddy Baer and Joe Louis in 1941 at the old Griffith Stadium in Washington.
I saw his palookas up close and personal. One had a cauliflower ear that looked exactly like the vegetable. Another was punch drunk, and we needed a translator to understand him. Nearly all had rearranged eyes and noses spread across their scarred faces. Billy Conn, on the other hand, the great white hope of the '40s, was the handsomest man I ever saw.
The best of these men trained at Stillman's Gym in New York. Lou Stillman was Daddy's friend, and everyone referred to the fighters as "bums," but occasionally one would become "a real Palooka," as in Joe Palooka, the dumb but good-hearted fighter of the popular comic strip.
Mom sat at ringside. She was gorgeous in a designer dress with an elegant chapeau shading her sharp blue eyes. Daddy was dashing in a tailored suit, a hand-painted Countess Mara tie, his wingtips set off by a soft gray fedora. He worked the crowd slowly, always checking with Mom to get her take on what to expect. She always got the winning rounds right. The world outside the ring was fashionably elegant, and there was usually etiquette inside the ring, too.
Palookas or not, "gentleman fighter" was not an oxymoron. But like so much of our culture, the ring has been dirtied down, and Mike Tyson, as he never misses an opportunity to show us, is one of the dirtiers. He carried his continuing butthead disrespect for the sport into the ring of his latest (and possibly his last) fight the other night in Washington. This time he used his head, but only to butt into Kevin McBride's eye, opening a bloody wound. Then he tried to break the man's arm.
But fight fans are accustomed to watching male brutality inside a ring. One of the Tyson-McBride prelims was between two women, and Laila Ali, Muhammad Ali's daughter, "put a whuppin'" on Erin Toughill. She was both bloodied and beaten. "I tore her up," the winner said afterward. Laila Ali's rough-and-tumble talk and jerky body movements stood in odd contrast to the sweet moves of her famous father, a gentleman fighter who stepped into the ring after the fight to look after her with a paternal tenderness suggesting Father of the Year.
Daddy shielded me as best he could from the sordid side of the fight racket; I never got near an actual prizefight. It was not a place for Daddy's little girl. Neither he nor Mom could have imagined that women would one day enter the ring with gloves on. The rough characters he sometimes brought home were always on their best behavior, difficult as that might have been, and I don't remember ever having heard locker room talk in our home. Now more than 2,000 women boxers are registered prizefighters, and locker-room obscenities are the least of the vulgarity.
The controversy surrounding "Million Dollar Baby," the Academy Award-winning movie, was about the lady boxer's wish to die, and the movie has had the misleading effect of portraying the fight game as something glamorous and lucrative. Women have been encouraged to become boxers. This is a triumph for neither the spirit nor feminism.
Five weeks after Hilary Swank won an Oscar for her portrayal of the fighter paralyzed in a fight, in real life Becky Zerlentes, 34, was punched in the left temple in the third round of a fight in Colorado's Golden Globe championships. By all accounts it was a legal punch, but legal was lethal. She was dead 24 hours after she hit the canvas. Becky was no palooka. She had a Ph.D in geography. Her trainer said she typically hit somebody and quickly told her: "I'm sorry."
But sorry is as sorry does. Women are unprepared physically and emotionally for the brutality of the ring. Those who try are attracted by the flashy aggressiveness of the fight, but few learn the hard defensive work of protecting their heads. Sometimes they have to spar with men because there aren't enough female sparring partners. Men, few of whom like punching women, invariably pull their punches, making women vulnerable to mismatches.
Boxers, both men and women, are less likely to die from a single blow than to sustain brain damage from cumulative punches, and this is no way for a lady to live -- or die. When A.J. Liebling wrote his classics on "the sweet science of bruising" for the New Yorker, women didn't aspire to sluggerhood. There's nothing sweet about bruises. The culture has rendered us all a little punch drunk.