"Put everything into it, Les! Throw them hands! Throw them hands! Uppercut!
Come on, punch! Punch! Punch! Come on, Les, work! To the body! Punch! Punch!
Come on, Les, work!"
-- his handlers to Les Johnson,
At the moment he climbed the steps, leaned through the ropes and entered the corona of white light in the old, dark armory in Pikesville, Les Johnson, a square-jawed, flat-faced, razor-cut kid with a white towel on his shoulders, looked like the lead in a Fifties fight film. He didn't have the beauty of John Garfield -- in fact, he had a broken nose -- but he offered a trace of the image. He was the young boxer we've all seen before.
At that very moment -- when Johnson bounced on his feet, when handlers in white matching jackets yelled last-minute commands, when the bow-tied, puddin'-faced ref leaned over a blue rope to bark at the time-keeper, when the announcer in the tuxedo reached again for a microphone, when Johnson's opponent, Tim Knight, entered the ring, tapped his gloves, shifted his weight from shoe to shoe and locked into his fight face, when all of that happened -- I realized that everything has changed and nothing has changed in this tough, old sport.
The images are constant.
The refs might wear surgical gloves nowawdays. The main-event fighters might not be as good as they once were expected to be. The noise in the room might be based in rock music. The ring card girls might leave their clothes at home. Public attitudes might have turned against the sport's violent nature. Professional boxing might be dismissed as politically incorrect, practically anachronistic, a subculture that exploits young men like Mike Tyson.
And yet, it still taps into an emotional river that runs deep in the male world. The game looks and feels and smells the same as when we last sat ringside, and there's a certain satisfaction that derives from that. It's like discovering a magic black-and-white TV set that still gets the Friday Night Fights.
It's still a hard, brutal, blunt, naked game -- man against man, and you'd better have the package ready when it's time to deliver. There's no escaping the splash of the overhead lights, no hiding behind teammates, no running for cover. There are dozens of older, proud men in Baltimore who grew up with boxing and they still regard it as the sweet science, the sport of high discipline and craft. Many of them were in the crowd at the armory Wednesday night, and many of them shook their heads at what they considered poor boxing. "Ugly fight," I heard one of them say during a match in the undercard. "Both fighters deserve to lose!"
I set my eyes on these two kids, Les Johnson and Tim Knight, and couldn't take them off. Johnson and Knight both stared each other down, their eyes like little beads of hot steel.
Johnson, a bus boy in a Washington place called the Acme Bar & Grille, came to center ring and met Knight, from Norfolk. They tapped gloves. Someone yelled, "Seconds out!" and the handlers for both fighters scampered through the ropes. I heard the ref yell, "May the best man win!" Dennis Gring slammed a wrench against a bell, and the fighting began.
I sat by the steps that led to the southwest corner of the ring. Behind me was a noisy crowd of men -- big guys with guts, skinny guys in T-shirts, men in suits, men in plaid shirts and men in stylish sweaters, an older man with a cane, middle-aged men with pinky rings. There was a woman with teased red hair, dressed in black, and a few young women in denim and tights. At the next corner of the ring, the ring card girls, dressed in nearly nothing, touched up their lipstick and schmoozed with admirers.
Hard by my seat, two of Les Johnson's handlers crouched at the bottom of the steps and yelled up at their boy. It was a constant chant that will echo in Johnson's ears years from now, when all of this is memory:
"Come on, jab, baby! Come on, work! Come on, work! Come on, work! Work him, Les! Come on. . . ! Work him inside! You gotta work, Les! Les! Les! Les! Work! Come on, Les, work! Work, baby! Come on, Les! Work, baby, work! Come on, Les! Left hook! That's it!
Work that hook! Come on, baby! Come on! Uppercuts! Les, uppercut! Come on, now! Jab! Jab! Jab! Come on! Pick it up, Les! Hook, hook! Over the top! Come on, baby!"
When Johnson and Knight boxed, there were wild moments of arms and shoulders and red gloves flying everywhere, with rapid pops, ripples of punches, sweat spraying into the open air above the ring, each drop shimmering in the white lights. Then they would lock arms, rolling head against head, head against shoulder,head against neck, chin against neck, firing uppercuts as they embraced.