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City Desk

Iron Men

by Richard Brookhiser

I see my trainer, Shawn, three days a week, and one day he told me something that had happened the last time he had been at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn. He had been getting a soda during a game when he saw the Champ at the back of the concession, talking to a friend — not front and center, but not incognito or buffered by entourage.

Shawn’s sports were football, powerlifting, and bodybuilding, but he follows all the popular ones — and everyone knows, or knew, the Champ. One of Shawn’s terms of praise is “old school,” and the Champ is surely that. He was the heavyweight champion of the world in the late Eighties, when he had an aura of invincibility and sheer force that lifted him above the average champion and made him a totem. He was as well known as Muhammad Ali. My wife and I were in a game preserve in southern India where the guide praised the size and strength of an Indian bison — height, six to seven feet; weight, about a ton — by calling it by the Champ’s name. His fall was almost as spectacular as his fame, and in a way augmented it — losses; divorce; jail time for rape; dirty fighting; beggared by parasites and his own fecklessness.

Professional boxing itself is old school these days. The Champ was succeeded by some high-profile fighters, then by some obscure fighters, then by some obscure foreign fighters. Recently one of the regulars in the gym asked who the heavyweight champion of the world was, and no one knew offhand. Some Russian? What people watch instead is mixed martial arts.

But now here was an opportunity to speak to the former champion, and Shawn was not going to let it pass.

“I don’t want to interrupt,” he told the two men, “but I wonder if I could talk to the Champ?” No problem, they assured him. Another one of Shawn’s terms of praise is “humble,” which is a general rule for living, but applies especially to people who have any sort of fame or standing. Don’t be arrogant, be mindful of your admirers. One of the bodybuilders at the gym got his pro card — an arduous process, requiring years of training, thousands of dollars of drugs, and prevailing in amateur contests which are capriciously judged. After he had completed that obstacle course, Shawn told him that he would have fans, and he would have to be humble. Whatever he had once been, the Champ was now humble himself.

Shawn pressed on: “I met you before, but you probably don’t remember, it was years ago.”

“I have a good memory,” the Champ said, interested now as well as agreeable. “Try me.”

Shawn is from the Bahamas and in his early twenties he worked security at a big resort outside Nassau. The Champ was there, in his glory days, enjoying himself in the casino. Also there was a local boxer named Buster — a big deal at home, but with no skills beyond brawling. He had the personality of a brawler too, and he decided to get in the Champ’s face, blustering, provocative. He thought he could be the man who slugged Liberty Valance. The Champ took it for a while, then knocked out four of his teeth. Uproar. Casino security moved in and hustled the Champ out by a side door, away from prying eyes and yakking mouths.

Twenty-five years later, the Champ remembered the episode, and even seemed to remember the guards who had helped him out. “Yeah, thank you, man,” he said to Shawn. Then he thought of his punch and laughed. “I knocked his teeth out!”

No wonder the Champ enjoyed the memory. He had been minding his business when Buster picked the fight. It had been a fair fight — one on one. Although he had hurt his assailant, he had not killed or permanently crippled him (you can always get false teeth). Morality was satisfied. So was manly prowess. Life had sprung a nasty little surprise, and he had handled it himself. Best of all, there had been an audience, both astonished and admiring. Shawn at the Barclays Center was an extension of that audience a quarter-century later. News had become history.

Officially we put less value on the physical aplomb the Champ showed than we once did. Worsting the tough guy used to be a mythic story in the biographies of leaders. George Washington did it in the Revolution, after taking command of the troops besieging Boston. Men from two regiments got into a scrap, which escalated from jeers to snowballs to biting and gouging. The commander-in-chief strode into the thick of it, grabbed the two biggest contestants by their throats, and shook them like dogs. He ended the melee, and impressed the men he led. Abraham Lincoln underwent an impromptu test of strength after he moved to Illinois as a young man, wrestling the leader of a posse of neighborhood roughs. “It was an ordeal through which all comers had to pass,” one local recalled. Lincoln’s opponent found he could not throw him without using a trick takedown; it ended with the two shaking hands and the tough guys becoming Lincoln’s earliest supporters. The Making of the President 1860.

We no longer encourage such behavior. People can get hurt; there might be doctor bills, lawsuits. Who was the last president who valued his aggressiveness and actual physical strength? Probably TR, Rough Rider and big-game hunter, who spent a lifetime compensating for childhood asthma. Seventy years later Gerald Ford was both a college-football star and a combat veteran, and yet that never penetrated the public mind. Is the atavistic tug of admiration for the man who can mix it up when he has to quite gone, though? Is the world so safe that it should be?

“Whatever happened to Buster?” I asked Shawn.

“Arrested,” he said. “Later, his girlfriend shot him.”

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