On an overcast morning in the backyard of a South City bungalow, amateur-boxing enthusiast Pete Neukirch is giving a lesson in official knockdown procedure. One of his pupils, Pablo Weiss, is on the ground, half faking a knockout, half relaxing on this spring day. "If your opponent falls, you have to go into a neutral corner, farthest from the fighter," Neukirch directs his other student, Jenna Bauer, who obediently retreats toward the chainlink fence that borders the yard.
The coach gives Weiss a standing eight-count: "One. Two. Three. Now get to one knee. Four. Relax, start to stand. Five. Look the ref in the eye and regain your footing. Six. Put your gloves up in defense mode. Seven. Take one step forward: You have to take a step forward. Eight. The ref will check your steadiness and then decide whether to go ahead."
The boxers are training for a March 22 event at the City Museum, downtown, a six-bout card staged by an unlikely band of pugilists who call themselves the International Brotherhood of the Sweet Science. The 36-year-old Weiss, who's scheduled to go three rounds against fellow light heavyweight and City Museum founder Bob Cassilly, has three fights under his belt, and he's unbeaten. He has learned a lot since his first bout, a three-round decision in 2001. "He got the first punch in," Weiss says of his opponent that day, "and I was bleeding out of my nose ten seconds into the fight. That was not in the game plan."
Bauer, an artist who runs South City Open Studio, a summer camp and gallery for children, located in Tower Grove Park, is a newcomer to the sport; this is to be her first fight. She has been training for a month. A week from now, in a gym on South Broadway, a sparring partner will break one of her front teeth.
Steven Fitzpatrick Smith is a dandy with a shyster's smile -- though he's too sincere to pull it off. He dresses in swank suits, not because he has to but because it looks good. He's one of those guys who can wear a fedora and drive around in a white 1972 Cadillac convertible without looking as if he's trying too hard -- no mean feat for a white guy in his early thirties. Five years ago, Smith's six-foot-three-inch frame held 250 pounds; since discovering boxing, he has lost all but 195 of them. A local boy and a graduate of St. Louis University, Smith used to sell underwriting at KDHX-FM. These days, he works at the City Museum as a consultant and volunteer-bartends once a month during bingo night at the South Broadway Athletic Club. He's always on a mission of some sort and constantly seems to be writing his autobiography in his head, making decisions on the basis of how he believes history will treat them.
Three years ago Smith, Neukirch and another friend, former Riverfront Times staff writer (and still occasional freelancer) Thomas Crone, founded the International Brotherhood of the Sweet Science and began staging sporadic backyard boxing matches, for which they didn't charge admission. The Brotherhood is no ordinary boxing crowd, and neither is its audience. Rather, they all tend decidedly toward art and rock & roll. Among the dozen fighters training for the City Museum event are three professional writers, three visual artists, a restaurateur and a chef.
The Brotherhood's first affair, a single three-rounder in a South City backyard, was attended by a few dozen curiosity-seekers who were treated to a slow, plodding bout between two flabby fighters -- Smith and Neukirch. From there, though, word spread. Bob Cassilly attended a few of the early matches and thought the events would play well as a free event at the City Museum, the quirky downtown attraction he and ex-wife Gail opened in 1997 in the former International Shoe factory. The City Museum card, billed as the St. Louis Hoosierweight Boxing Championships, promises to be the Brotherhood's biggest by far.
That is, unless they get knocked out early.
Steve Smith's organization hasn't made much of an impression on the local boxing scene. But now an agency called USA Boxing -- the only organization in the nation that's authorized to sanction amateur boxing matches -- has gotten wind of the upcoming bouts, and the agency is none too pleased. And if Myrl Taylor, president of Ozark Boxing, USA Boxing's St. Louis affiliate, doesn't want a fight sanctioned in this area, it doesn't get sanctioned.
"Who are these people?" Taylor asks. "Who's refereeing the fights? Who's judging, and what training do they have? All my officials have to go to school, and we have classrooms, and they have to break in with little guys and are under strict supervision.
"These guys have no idea when a guy's hurt and when it's time to step in and stop the fight," he goes on. "They've got no trained corner men, no trained nothing. I don't know whether they've got doctors there."
For your edification, some basic facts about amateur boxing in the United States:
The nonprofit USA Boxing, the national governing body for Olympic-style boxing and the United States' member organization of the International Amateur Boxing Association, was formed in response to the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which set uniform standards of safety and behavior for sports included in the Olympics. (The U.S. Amateur Boxing Federation, USA Boxing's predecessor, was founded in 1888.) As a national governing body, USA Boxing is responsible for the administration, development and promotion of Olympic-style boxing in the United States. The agency sponsors national and international competitions, as well as clinics and training camps, and comprises 56 local boxing committees -- one of which is Myrl Taylor's Ozark Boxing -- grouped into fourteen regions.
To participate, athletes must pay a yearly fee of $45 to USA Boxing. In addition, all sanctioned fights must be officiated by judges and referees (who also pay yearly membership fees to USA Boxing). Promoters are required to pay USA Boxing a flat $250 fee per show. An approved boxing ring must also be used. If you don't have a ring, USA Boxing will rent you one and set it up for you, for $300.
Pablo Weiss strolls into the Dan Scott Athletic Club, also known as the first-floor storefront of Scott's two-family on Newstead Avenue, a few blocks south of Barnes-Jewish Hospital. One room is big enough to hold a few heavy bags and a couple of freestanding mirrors; it's illuminated by floodlights that cast harsh beams from a corner. A second room is the perfect size for sparring, with walls where the ropes should be. On the floor, a heavy-duty kerosene heater hums loudly. Ceiling fans whirl at high speed, and a training timer buzzes at regular intervals.
Scott has been boxing since fifth grade. He took to fighting because, he says, "it seems like that's all we did in the fifth grade and fourth grade was punch each other anyway. So when it was organized, you learned to get better at it. I signed right up, because I was a little guy."
At five-ten and a lean 160 pounds, Scott's the Brotherhood boxer you'd most likely mistake for a pro. Right now he's sparring in his makeshift ring with Weiss' opponent, the 53-year-old Cassilly.
"I just want to see him, see what he looks like," says Weiss, shedding his coat. The Brotherhood's resident restaurateur -- he opened (and later sold) the Hot Locust Cantina restaurant and Side Door music club, now owns the Rocket Bar and is preparing to debut a restaurant in the newly renovated Merchandise Mart building on Washington Avenue -- stretches a bit, laces up his gloves and starts working the heavy bag, punching high and low, doing combinations, bouncing around. He lands a low blow and laughs. "That's what I call the secret groin punch," he quips, then demonstrates his other secret weapon, a Three-Stoogian right-hook/right-backhand combination he has dubbed the Cross Bitch-Slap.
"Pablo's experienced, and he knows how to work a fighter," Steve Smith says of Weiss. "He's got his own strategy. He's not a very pretty boxer, but he knows that. And he does what it takes to win -- which is fine. But the thing is, Pablo got a lot of flak for some of the shit he pulled, and when you give somebody a lot of shit for being dirty, they tend to clean up, because they don't want to be known as a dirty fighter."
When Cassilly stops to take a break, the two fighters exchange greetings. "You got a heavy punch there," Weiss observes. Cassilly just nods.
Later, after Cassilly walks away, Weiss says under his breath, "I'm gonna beat him like a stray dog."
The St. Louis Hoosierweight Boxing Championship card, March 22, 2003:
Elizabeth "La Loba" Vega
Traci "Bad L'ass" Angel
Bradley "Pancakes" Bowers
Byron "the Kid" Smith
Pablo "the Jabbin' Jew" Weiss
Bob "the Velvet Hammer" Cassilly
(for Weiss' defense of the Hoosierweight light-heavyweight championship)
Jenna "Bludgeoning" Bauer
Jenny "Killer Princess" Gordon
Thomas "Akita" Crone
Dominic "U-Town Beatdown" Robinson
(Hoosierweight heavyweight championship)
The late Sonny Liston, who spent his pre-boxing thug life in St. Louis in the mid-1950s, was one of the strongest punching machines the sport has ever known, as menacing as Mike Tyson, only bigger. Liston beat heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson on September 25, 1962, ripping the belt from his foe's trembling mitts two minutes and six seconds into the first round.
As quoted in David Remnick's Muhammad Ali biography King of the World, Patterson characterized that beating this way: "It's not a bad feeling when you're knocked out. It's a good feeling, actually. It's not painful, just a sharp grogginess. You don't see angels or stars: you're on a pleasant cloud.... But then this good feeling leaves you. You realize where you are, and what you're doing there, and what has just happened to you. And what follows is a hurt. A confused hurt -- not a physical hurt -- it's a hurt combined with anger."
Remnick's book and Nick Tosches' The Devil and Sonny Liston offer fascinating accounts of Liston's time in St. Louis, including his exploits at various gyms around town. One in particular was on the North Side, off Newstead.
Myrl Taylor knew the place.
In the late 1940s and early '50s, Taylor spent time in reform school. He graduated to burglary, then a two-year stretch at the penitentiary at Algoa, just outside Jefferson City. Taylor was released the same year Liston got out of the Missouri State Penitentiary after serving two years of a five-year jolt for first-degree robbery.
"We used to go up to black gyms to find sparring partners to train. I was still an amateur then -- I didn't turn pro until later on," Taylor recounts. "Me and Jack McCracken went up there, and they wanted us to work with Sonny. We were light heavyweights, and they wanted him to work for speed. I was supposed to go two rounds with Sonny, then Jack was to go two rounds with Sonny, then two more for me, two more for Jack, which would go eight rounds."
Unlike many pros, Taylor explains, Liston wasn't interested in hurting his sparring partners. "So I work two rounds with Sonny, and I get out and I'm waiting and Jack's going two," he continues. "Jack wasn't the smartest guy in the world. He could fight like a son of a bitch, but he just wasn't too swift. And he went the first round with Sonny. I guess he thought, 'Well, this guy ain't so much.' He come out and leveled down on Sonny in his second round. Sonny beat the living shit out of him. Jack jumped out of the ring and started running, and Tony Anderson -- he was Sonny's trainer -- said, 'Get in there, Myrl, before he cools off.' I said, 'Fuck you, Jack made him mad. Make Jack get back in there!' I grabbed my clothes and started hopping down the steps, putting the shoes on as I'm going -- I don't even get dressed."
It was through boxing that Taylor met the union guys and through the union guys that he met others and ended up as a bodyguard. Though he landed back in prison for a time (on a probation violation, carrying a concealed weapon), after his release in 1969 he worked his way up the union ladder, ultimately overseeing fourteen locals. "We didn't have elections back in them days," he recalls nostalgically. "You start your car on election day and if you're still here, you had another term."
During that time, Taylor also became involved in amateur boxing, and by the mid-'70s he was in charge of one of the most powerful and successful amateur associations in the nation. He helped nudge Michael and Leon Spinks up through the St. Louis ranks to become world champions. And although he retired from the post in the mid-1980s, he returned in 2001. (In a neat bit of symmetry, Leon Spinks' son Cory worked his way through the same system and became the IBF welterweight world champion two weeks ago.)
Compared with the characters he has run up against over the years, Steven Fitzpatrick Smith is nothing more than a pebble in Taylor's shoe. Taylor says he's simply worried about the safety of Smith's ragtag band of boxers. "These guys have no idea what they're doing," the Ozark Boxing chief will tell you. "They have no idea what the danger of somebody getting hurt is, no kind of medical crew or emergency vehicles or nothing else. When somebody gets killed down there, they're not going to say, 'Some damn idiot got killed.' They're going to say, 'Some boxer got killed,' and we'll get a black eye out of this thing. So I'm trying to stop it."
It seems everyone who's keeping tabs on the City Museum card has an opinion about the "lilyweight" bout between Traci Angel and Elizabeth Vega because the two are seemingly so well matched. Most of the pundits, such as they are, think Angel, a staff writer at St. Louis Magazine, is going to whip Vega, a freelance writer who worked for a time at the RFT. The 28-year-old Angel is a natural athlete, agile and quick. She's also not quite five feet tall. Vega, though eight years older, carries a few more pounds and has some strength behind her punches.
What bothers the more experienced fighters is the fact that Angel and Vega are working out together, like friends. Right now, two weeks before fight time, Tom Crone is blaming everything that's wrong in his life on his opponent, Dominic Robinson. Whenever Vega and Angel train together, on the other hand, they follow each other around, smiling.
On this day, as Pete Neukirch puts Vega through her paces at the Dan Scott Athletic Club, the trainer starts homing in on her weaknesses, the most significant of which is her complete inability to defend against an opponent's punch. Neukirch has donned black "punch mitts," large padded target gloves that Vega is punching. At the head, in the body, to the left, right, center. Neukirch moves them around; Vega hits them. Every now and then, though, the trainer pops his boxer in the head, picking away at her attack. He's not hitting very hard, but he's not fooling around, either.
One night in the summer of 2001, during a meeting to recruit boxing judges at the South Broadway Athletic Club, Steve Smith prevailed upon 25th Ward Alderman Dan Kirner, a boxing aficionado who's in the St. Louis Boxing Hall of Fame as an announcer, to introduce him to the legendary Myrl Taylor.
Smith says he was interested in hooking up with Taylor. He was thinking about moving his fights indoors, and he also wanted to get himself sanctioned as a judge. He did have his misgivings: USA Boxing is the center of what was to Smith a closed, unwelcoming subculture. Still, he sought an entrée.
"I was sweating it a little bit, because, Jesus Christ, the guy's a fucking ex-con," Smith remembers. "I go up to him, like, 'Hey, I just want to talk to you about putting the fights together at South Broadway AC.' And he basically called me a motherfucker and said, 'You ignorant assholes gotta do this right.' And I'm just, like, 'You know, I want to work together, and I'm not going to work together with you like this. I don't have time for this.' He treated me like a fourteen-year-old."
Smith applied to be a judge anyway, but he says no one ever called back.
"Myrl explained all the things that were necessary to become legal," Kirner says of the abortive meeting between the two men. "'Hell,' he says, 'you could throw shows all over the city and make some money for charity if you wanted.' He told him exactly what had to be done, and Steve says, 'Well, what if I form my own organization?'"
Taylor's version of events: "I told him he was an ignorant motherfucker. But that was afterward. I sat down with him and told him, 'Look, if you want to do this, I'll help you do it right.'"
But Smith wanted no part of it, Taylor continues: "This guy, he's fucking idiot. It would be different if I said, 'Hey, fuck you, you can't do this.' I was trying to show him how to do it right, and I was going to help him do it. And I did call him a fucking fool, because I don't think he's got enough sense to know that somebody can really get hurt at this thing. Now he's going around -- he told Kirner I said I was going to kill him."
"Do I think he's going to kill me?" Smith retorts. "No, because I don't think he's quite that stupid. But he's trying to intimidate me, clearly, and I don't give a fuck. If a pot shot's made at me for whatever reason, it's gonna go right to him, and I'm making that clear right now."
The South Broadway Athletic Club annex, located in the shadow of the Anheuser-Busch brewery, is an archetype of its kind. Picture a boxing gym in your mind, and it'll likely look like the annex: a sprawling, rundown space straight out of the 1950s, with gunmetal-gray lockers along one wall, two boxing rings and a dozen punching bags. The smell of stale sweat sticks to the walls like crude oil on a seabird.
Because amateur boxing is such an insular community and USA Boxing sanctions fights at the main club, a few blocks north, the club is in a tricky position. (SBAC annex coach Ray "Pops" Kube did not return calls requesting comment for this story). On one hand, they need to bring in boxers, and they rely on sanctioned fights for part of their income. On the other, if word spills that Brotherhood fighters are training here, they'll face Myrl Taylor's wrath.
This makes it especially rough on Pete Neukirch, who volunteers here twice weekly and would like a full-time job at the club. If he's tainted by his Brotherhood association, his chances are worse -- even though he's great with the kids. Today, however, Neukirch is more concerned with Jenna Bauer, who has come for her first-ever sparring session.
It's a turning point of sorts, and an inevitable one. A boxer's training regimen is grueling, to be sure, but somewhere along the line all fighters must come to understand precisely what they're in for: the potential for injury and for humiliation. Boxing is one of the only sports in which the appearance of blood isn't followed by a penalty, an apology or a time-out. On the contrary: In boxing, the arrival of blood dictates that a participant actively attempt to draw more of it. You concentrate on the cut.
It is, literally, an opening.
At first, Neukirch worked slowly with Bauer, endeavoring to train her brain through repetition, to create muscle memory. His goal is to forge an entire new circuit, a tunnel that runs beneath the intellect, an unconscious set of guidelines that serve to protect Bauer's neck. Kids who start boxing when they're five or six get it hard-wired into them; by the time they're teenagers, they can move with almost as much grace as a young pro. The trouble with learning to box as an adult is that those reflexes haven't ever been worked; others are rusted shut. (This is why, at age 53, Bob Cassilly has a strong punch and a dedicated heart but looks like a tin man in the ring.)
After a gentle warm-up spar with a fourteen-year-old girl who's a South Broadway regular, Bauer steps into the ring for today's main event with lilyweight Traci Angel. Though Angel has a few sparring sessions under her belt, it's clear from the start that Bauer has very little grasp of what to do against an actual opponent. Whenever Angel moves in, Bauer's a goner -- she seems to be trying to mentally digest the reality of the moment rather than flow with it. But after a time something clicks, and the two tentatively trade punches. Then a little burst, a chaotic tornado of gloves that come so fast they look cartoonish.
Angel's a good six inches shorter than Bauer, which makes every one of her punches a tippy-toed stretch. She looks like a gnat on a kamikaze mission. But she lands a stunner to the mouth, then another to Bauer's ear, then one to the body, all in quick succession. "Yo, Jenna! You've got to throw!" Neukirch screams. "You've got to throw punches!"
When it's over, the fighters retreat for a rest and a critique. No assessment, though, is necessary to see that Bauer has taken a beating. A smile reveals a broken tooth.
Countless boxers have died in the ring. The Brotherhood fighters all sign releases before their matches, of course, but, as Myrl Taylor is keen to point out, "May as well wipe your ass with it like a piece of toilet paper, because it don't mean shit. If somebody gets hurt, they can sue."
At sanctioned fights, insurance is taken care of through USA Boxing. But Steve Smith has never taken out insurance on any of his matches. He has also been pretty casual about having doctors at the fights. He has invited a few, but they've attended "unofficially," just in case. This worries Alderman Dan Kirner, who has been in communication with Taylor regarding the bouts. "Let's say, for the sake of argument, that one of the guys gets hurt seriously or has a heart attack," says Kirner, "because these guys aren't spring chickens -- I've seen a bunch of them, and I know a bunch of them. If they would get hurt, there's a liability there not only to whoever participated in it but whoever put it on, and that would include the City Museum."
Asked whether he's worried about someone getting hurt on his property, Cassilly, whose entire museum seems at times to be a lawsuit waiting to happen, responds, "Only Pablo."
From a letter dated March 17, 2003, addressed to Steve Smith from Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon and Assistant Attorney General Clayton Fields:
"The office has been notified that you have planned an amateur boxing event to take place on March 22, 2003, at the City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri. Chapter 317, RSMo 2000, requires the organizer of any professional boxing event to apply for a permit from the Office before such event takes place. Section 317.011.5, RSMo 2000, provides an exception for amateur boxing events and states: ... all amateur boxing ... must be sanctioned by a nationally recognized amateur sanctioning body approved by the office. At this time, USA Boxing, Inc. is the only nationally recognized amateur sanctioning body approved by the Office of Athletics."
In other words, according to the attorney general, Smith's card cannot take place without the imprimatur of Ozark Boxing and its president, Myrl Taylor.
"Chapter 317, RSMo 2000 does not authorize you to hold an unsanctioned amateur boxing event. You must cease and desist all amateur boxing events until such events are sanctioned by a body approved by the Missouri Office of Athletics. If you continue to organize unsanctioned amateur boxing events, further legal action may be brought against you."
It's the head that's being hit, the central chamber, the decision-maker, and in the ring, these punches are punishing it, affecting every sense simultaneously. It's the head, the capsule that holds not only the brain but also the eyes, ears and nose, so being punched is a literal sensory overload the moment the bell rings and the boxers go at it. And when it starts, a whirlwind rushes through the chamber and a sort of levitation occurs, like a glider hitting a gust and lifting.
But, then, it's the body, too. The body's where all the organs are, the engine of the machine, and if you cut off the power supply to the computer upstairs, it won't function well. So even though you're worried about the head, you're also being nailed hard in the stomach and in the sternum, in the gullet or in the boob.
Bob Cassilly offers a comparison. The first time he went skydiving, he says, he was required to take a three-hour instructional class: "They tell you what happens if your chute doesn't open, and after three hours you know you're going to die. You go out on the wing, and there are scratch marks on the strut. Your brain says 'Jump,' and your arms hold on. And so you just think, 'Well, I'm going to die,' and then you jump off. And all the sudden you start spinning around in circles and it's just like mush and jam in your brain."
Then instinct takes over. "So the only thing I can do is make myself strong and work on my jabs."
In light of the letter from the attorney general's office, Alderman Dan Kirner says that if Smith and Company persist with their show, he'll push for police officers to put a stop to it. And if the cops fail to show up, Kirner vows, he'll see to it that Smith is "brought into court."
"So the only way it's going to happen [legally]," Smith says four days before the fight date, "is if we work with people who are threatening people and are shaking them down. They shake us down for nickels and dimes, making it basically impossible, and then they want to run your game on top of it. So you get all our money, and then you run it, and you do a shitty job running it on top of it? Thanks a lot. That's not what I want to do. We just want to have a boxing match and have some fun."
Smith and his cohorts argue that the sanctioning law contains gaping holes. It allows, for example, "sparring exhibitions" minus the officiating. Furthermore, organizations with not-for-profit status are exempt from these guidelines. (Although neither the museum nor the Brotherhood is a nonprofit, a willing one is only a phone call away.) And then there's the offense itself, a Class A misdemeanor, which, despite the upper limits -- a year in prison -- typically results in only a fine.
Plus, Bob Cassilly argues, this match isn't about sanctioning; it's about free expression, about art: "We'll go up there and dance and we won't hit each other if that's what we have to do. That's where the art comes in -- getting around all the rules. They can come and haul us all away to jail if they want. We're going to go out there and do it. It's America."
One other factor: Cassilly has a certain amount of pull downtown.
Within 24 hours of receiving the state's letter, Smith and Cassilly have mollified the attorney general's office, which drew up a notarized agreement for Smith to sign, swearing that he'll secure ringside doctors to perform pre- and postfight exams and that he'll insure all the fighters.
He'll still save money by circumventing USA Boxing. The entire budget for these bouts is less than $1,000, Smith says, and the insurance, which Cassilly is covering, will cost approximately $500. The four judges are volunteering, as is the referee -- Smith's father. Smith hopes to break even by selling Hoosierweight Boxing T-shirts and custom trading cards.
That's fine with the state. "If he lives up to this agreement," says Nixon spokesman Scott Holste, "he will have pretty much taken the steps necessary to protect the health and welfare of citizens."
But Myrl Taylor is furious. "I don't care whether it's [Jay] Nixon or Humpty Dumpty, you can't agree to break the law," he protests. "This is like rich people never getting the death penalty. This is a good-old-boy deal. This guy's got connections with Cassilly down there, and he's on the show, and they've got some money. They got a bunch of politicians and businessmen down there, and they're just rationalizing to do this thing. If this was somebody in the backwoods, they'd go in and spank their ass and it'd be over with."
Of course, history has shown that Bob Cassilly isn't terribly worried about getting spanked. He also believes he's fighting for a just cause: bringing attention and respect to boxing. As things stand, he argues, the sport is marginalized: "It's not at all publicized. Nobody's even aware of it. It's a subculture that, you know, seems dark and distasteful. So we're threatening his world.
"I thought the whole thing about boxing was putting yourself on the line," Cassilly goes on. "What's [Taylor] want to do, stand behind the attorney general or some bullshit rules? What kind of shape is he in? Tell him to get up there in the ring."
The centerpiece of Monstrocity, the City Museum's outdoor courtyard, is a sprawling old tree, long dead. Cassilly and his workers have completely covered the tree with metal scales: shiny form-fitting armor. A makeshift boxing ring has been erected just in front of it. Above, tracing the ring's perimeter, is a U-shaped walkway that connects to the museum proper. These are the best seats in the house. On March 22, as the crowd begins gathering in the late-afternoon sun, a man can be seen front and center on the walkway, snapping photos of the empty ring below.
It's Myrl Taylor.
After the fights, Taylor will have this to say: "I have been in boxing since 1948 and have never seen any competition held in such a deplorable boxing ring." He will then proceed to list its deficiencies, all of which, he alleges, are in direct violation of the agreement Smith signed with the state.
After a glorious rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" by local singer/roustabout Devin Baker, Traci Angel and Elizabeth Vega enter the ring in shiny new robes and shorts. The timekeeper conks the bell with the butt end of a screwdriver, and the punching starts.
It's fast and furious, so much so that the three rounds seem mercilessly long. Neither fighter is the least bit adept at defending herself -- a theme that will persist throughout much of the card -- and the result is a veritable thunderstorm of leather. An eye for an eye, a body blow for a body blow. Every jab Angel tries to throw opens a corridor to her face, and the same goes for Vega. In Round 2, Angel draws blood from her opponent's nose, but Vega has the longer reach. By the end of the round, Angel's pale, pretty face has turned a sad, sorry pink.
During training, Angel heard concerns from more experienced fighters that she and Vega were too buddy-buddy. If she wanted to win, she'd have to learn to hate Vega. Hearing this, she'd calmly explain that her motive for fighting had nothing to do with her opponent. Still, she acknowledged that this could be a problem: "Where's my primal instinct?" But now, between rounds 2 and 3, Angel is staring across the ring at a bloody Vega, muttering, "Bitch. Bitch. Bitch." In her corner, Vega is doing the same. Ultimately Vega prevails, in a close decision.
The next bout features heavyweights Keith Savage and Bradley "Pancakes" Bowers, who maul one another without regard for self-defense. Bowers, who is in his mid-thirties, trained hard for this fight, but he's a smoker, and it is an uphill battle. In the end, Savage, 41, wins by a TKO. Then two flyweights, Roberto Martinez and Byron "the Kid" Smith, enter the ring. Unlike the two fights that preceded it, this evenly matched bout features two boxers who know what they're doing. Martinez wins a split decision.
After an intermission, Pablo Weiss fights Bob Cassilly. They're two palookas, albeit with diametrically different boxing styles. Cassilly's a Buster Keaton-style boxer, sturdy and upright, a human Rock'em Sock'em Robot who keeps pecking away at his opponent. Weiss, meanwhile, is all over the place, throwing roundhouse punches that seem to start on one side of the ring and end up who-knows-where. It's a style that leaves plenty of openings for the patient Cassilly, who occasionally manages to sneak through and poke his foe in the snoot.
In the second round, some blood dribbles from Weiss' nose. Then more comes, and still more, until it crimsons the fighter's white-shirted chest. But Weiss isn't giving up. At one point he lands a low blow (much to the chagrin of the crowd); at another juncture, he bulldozes Cassilly out of the ring (much to the crowd's glee). In the end, a unanimous decision goes to Cassilly.
Wonder of wonders, Myrl Taylor's craggy mug cracks a smile.
Jenna Bauer is up next. This is an unjudged exhibition. Bauer's scheduled opponent backed out at the last minute and, in her stead, on only 24 hours' notice, City Museum bartender Jenny Gordon has stepped up. It's a mismatch. From the start, Bauer realizes she can jab with impunity, which she does, again and again and again. Gordon fights bravely back, to no avail. After a dozen uncontested jabs, Bauer lands a punch on Gordon's nose and winces in sympathy. As the bell signals the close of the match, the two fighters hug.
Then, finally, the main event: five rounds between heavyweights Thomas "Akita" Crone and Dominic "U-Town Beatdown" Robinson for the Hoosierweight heavyweight championship. The winner will receive the belt -- a trophy made of Busch cans and bottle caps. Though most of the other bouts have been sloppy and a tad unnerving in their utter lack of defense, this is by far the match of the night, a seesaw contest in which Robinson takes the early rounds but Crone works his way valiantly back. Crone can take a punch and come back harder; at one point he rides the ropes the way Ali did against George Foreman in Manila and lets Robinson go at it. Robinson does, and it tires him. Crone unleashes and in the fifth round gives his opponent a beating that will eventually knock him down. Robinson takes the eight, stands, still wobbling. Referee Pat Smith motions the two fighters onward. Within a dozen seconds, Crone connects with a right hook to the center of Robinson's face, knocking him out. The crowd goes nuts.
And then it's over.
When Myrl Taylor gets home from the City Museum, he begins comparing the notarized agreement signed by Smith and the attorney general's office with the reality he has just observed. Then he composes two e-mails.
The first, addressed to Tim Lueckenhoff, administrator for the Missouri Office of Athletics (and president of the United States Association of Boxing Commissions) and members of the media, is an urgent indictment of the event in which Taylor lists the violations he witnessed, ranging from serious concerns about the makeshift ring to the lack of a ringside physician. (On this last point, Taylor is mistaken; a physician was present at ringside during the fights.)
The second e-mail, however, is a bit of a shocker. Sent to the same parties, it is headlined, "IN ALL FAIRNESS IT WAS A GREAT SHOW." In the missive, Taylor relates an exchange he had at the event with veteran pro boxer and coach David "Ebony" Gamble, whom Taylor has known since he was a boy. Gamble, who has helped train Brotherhood boxers in the past, approached Taylor with Smith's business card in hand, on the promoter's behalf.
"He would like to get together with me and try to do this properly," Taylor writes. "I'm certainly interested, because he brings a whole new market to the amateur-boxing community. And we don't have to mix apples with oranges to do it."
The City Museum fighters, the note continues, were well matched: "Every boxer, male and female, fought their hearts out. And they were in far better condition than I expected. It was obvious that they had worked hard getting ready for this show."
A few days later, Taylor and Smith speak by phone. Smith characterizes the exchange as a "generally friendly conversation, still not exactly the friendliest, but leaps better than it had been." But, he reports, Taylor remains adamant on one point: "He did assure me that we'd never be able to do it like this again -- he'll make sure of that." (Scott Holste, of the Missouri attorney general's office, reports that his office isn't pursuing any action against Smith's group.)
Smith says he's hesitant about any forthcoming compromise. After all, he managed to pull off the event with no help from Myrl Taylor.
"He bullshitted the state," Taylor responds, "and I don't think they're going to let this happen again. They can't possibly let it happen."
Still, Taylor makes it clear that he genuinely wants to help the Brotherhood succeed. "Nobody got hurt, and I think we all learned a lot," he concludes at the end of his second e-mail. "We'll get the [legal] stuff clarified. But we don't really need laws to learn to work together.... They have shown me that they can make competitive matches, BUT we can't have no more 56 year old guys boxing a guy in his 30's, even though he won in one of the best bouts of the night.... Now it is 6:30 am Sunday morning and it has been a long night. I'm going to bed."
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