“You see, the condition of the City of New York at this time reminds me of the middleweight champion fight between the late Marcel Cerdan and Tony Zale. Zale was old and doing it from memory and Cerdan was a bustling, sort of classy alley fighter and Cerdan went to the body in the first round and never brought his punches up. At the start of each round, when you looked at Zale’s face, you saw only this proud, fierce man. There were no marks to show what was happening. But Tony Zale was coming apart from the punches that did not leave any marks and at the end of the eleventh round Tony was along the ropes and Cerdan stepped back and Tony crumbled and he was on the floor, looking out into the night air, his face unmarked, his body dead, his career gone. In New York today, the face of the city, Manhattan, is proud and glittering. But Manhattan is not the city. New York really is a sprawl of neighborhoods, which pile into one another. And it is down in the neighborhoods, down in the schools that are in the neighborhoods, where this city is cut and slashed and bleeding from someplace deep inside. The South Bronx is gone. East New York and Brownsville are gone. Jamaica is up for grabs. The largest public education system in the world may be gone already. The air we breathe is so bad that on a warm day the city is a big Donora. In Manhattan, the lights seem brighter and the theatre crowds swirl through the streets and the girls swing in and out of office buildings in packs and it is all splendor and nobody sees the body punches that are going to make the city sag to its knees one day so very soon. The last thing, then, that New York can afford at this time is a politician thinking in normal politicians’ terms. The city is beyond that. The City of New York either gets an imagination, or the city dies.”
- Jimmy Breslin, 1969, “I Run To Win.”
‘Brain damage is beautiful,’ my boxing coach told me. ‘You don’t have those … interregnums between your thoughts. They just come. It’s great if you’re a poet.’ He is also a poet. His brain damage is of the (relatively) genial sort, affecting mostly his memory rather than his motor skills, rendering him a kind of absent-minded professor who can still spar.
His opinion is in the minority, though. Most people who box for any length of time, whether recreationally or competitively, have a certain amount of dread concerning what might be happening to their precious brains. ‘Yes, I worry about it,’ one young woman at Gleason’s Gym told me in between rounds. She works in education. She cast her eyes about the building. “Most of these girls fighting here are like, dog walkers …” she trailed off. Left unstated: The more you want to fight, the less you had better want to use your brain outside of a ring-based environment.
Blood is not the scary part of boxing. Blood is an annoyance, a split lip, a split eyebrow, lending a vivid bit of color to a fight, but taking little physical toll. Far more scary is the thought of the unseen damage being inflicted inside one’s skull. Blood is cleaned up with a rag and some Vaseline and adrenaline and stitches and a scar. Brain damage is not cleaned up, ever.