The man who hit LaMotta and lived to tell about it

MICHAEL OLESKER

December 22, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Whom the gods wish to be foolhardy, they make 14 years old. That was Clem Florio's age on the morning in 1944 when he walked into the smelly New Jersey gymnasium and told the guy with the dented nose that he wished to be a professional boxer.

"You think you can fight?" the dented nose said.

"Yeah," Florio said, full of bluff. He was big for his age, which helped, and he knew how to finesse the arithmetic on the calendar. Also, he could embellish his fistic history in creative ways.

"You had any previous fights?"

"Sure," he lied.

Now, nearly half a century later, Florio is nursing a late afternoon cup of coffee at Manny's Deli, on Smith Avenue, and remembering his precise record prior to that moment in the gym: "I had beat up a couple of sissies on the street, and I punched out a gym teacher and had to run away from home until things blew over."

So now, on this February day 48 years ago, the dented nose lined up a pro fight for him -- the very next night.

"I had no equipment," Florio remembers now. "The trunks they gave me, I had to pin 'em to keep 'em from falling down. The shoes they gave me were so big they looked like clown shoes."

Then things got worse. He's boxing some big guy named Jimmy Hicks that night, who proceeds to rearrange Florio's features through a couple of rounds when Florio staggers back to his seat at the bell and hears the man in his corner ask, "You ever had any fights before?"

"No," Florio admits.

"Any street fights?"

"Yeah."

"Well," says the man in the corner, "get in there and street fight, 'cause you're getting killed."

After all this time, he still remembers the details: the thick smoke wafting through the place, the attempt to summon all his street instincts and fight back, the shiners he got under each eye, and the referee holding his hand up in triumph when it was over. And then, finally, getting his money that night: $25, of which $13 went to his handlers.

It was a long time ago, but Florio holds onto the details. He's sitting here now with piles of them, sheets of paper with handwritten notes all over them, the details of memory, of insights that come from years in boxing halls, and at racetracks where he worked with horses and then handicapped them for various newspapers, and at all the places where people gather to watch athletes at work.

Now he's begun daily broadcasts on WITH radio (1230 AM), handicapping racehorses several times a day, then delivering a five-minute sports commentary around 6:55 p.m., just before the close of Nestor Aparicio's talk show.

Florio is beautiful. Years ago, running his hands over racing FTC charts in the News American sports office, he'd suddenly cry out in a pug's voice, "Somebody answer da phones." No phones would be ringing. It was just the ex-boxer doing a riff as a veteran who's taken a few punches too many.

But the comic profile masks a thinker, a guy who studies the rules of everything from politics to psychology to unfriendly games of chance. He's a gentle guy, but he's got a mind on constant alert.

It's perfect for the stuff he's doing now. The radio commentaries come out of half a century of putting himself where the action is, of connecting yesterday to today, of describing the human beings behind the sporting events.

Florio's been around. Walked horses at Aqueduct as a kid ("Fifty cents a horse," he says. "I had more candy and ice cream than any kid in the neighborhood.") Fought 85 pro fights under 10 different names ("I couldn't fight under my own name," he says. "I was under age.") Sparred, at 15, with Jake "Raging Bull" LaMotta. ("I hit him with my best shot. He smiled, and then he beat me like a drum.")

Later he found himself working around Miami for the young comic Lenny Bruce and trying to get a local disc jockey by the name of Larry King to play Lenny's stuff on the air.

"King played it," Florio says, "but the station had about 250 watts. You'd have done better yelling out the window."

No more yelling: Florio's stuff is measured and polished. You listen to it and feel like you've got a front row seat at a fight, or a spot at the finish line at Pimlico. It's about sports, yeah, but mostly it's about human beings. It's a delight.

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