Punch

A Knockout Passion: In The Ring With The 80-Year-Old Boxer

Anthony Haden-Guest was approaching 80, and wanted to prove there was still a lot of life left in him—so he stepped into the ring to box.

02.18.17 5:01 AM ET

I was sounding like a cranky radiator and my chest heaves would have figured on the Richter Scale so, no, boxing training was not going well at all. But too many people knew about it, a venue had been picked, a date announced. I was stuck.

It was the approach of my birthday that had given me the idea. Eighty is one of the big ones, along with eighteen at the other end of the track, and it couldn’t be ignored in our socially-mediated times. So I would flaunt it. A boxing match would be just the thing.

Few agreed. “Insane” was a word of choice. But the idea hadn’t come out of nowhere. I had been there before. In the late summer of 2000 I was at a party given by Josh Harris in his townhouse on New York’s Lower Broadway.

Harris, a Dot-com entrepreneur who had made upwards from $80 million, was attempting to launch a TV network on that still-in-its-infancy phenomenon, the world-wide web, and goings-on in his townhouse had included machine gun practice with live ammo and We Live In Public, a month-long venture during which a hundred volunteers lived in cubicles under video surveillance 24/7.

So it was no surprise to find that a boxing ring had been installed there, along with Dominick Monaco, a two-times Golden Globes winner, to run it and take on all comers. A group of us were watching. There was wine.

The last time I had boxed I was maybe ten, had been biffed on the nose, and hadn’t liked it. But now friends were egging me on. I was 63 but impulse has always played a big part in my life so I put on gloves and clambered into the ring. Treading it, I felt an unexpectedly familiar sensation, the way I sometimes felt as a reporter, of having to handle myself in an unfamiliar world, of a language to learn.

I took a few punches, landed a few and won by a technical knock-out in the third round. Beginner’s luck. End of story.

Except it wasn’t. Shortly after this David Leslie, a boxer and performance artist, known for the extreme risk of his projects, urged me to fight again. It happened that I had recently met Doug DeWitt, the former World Middleweight Champion, and one of the most admired fighters of his generation, while he was training the Madison Avenue restaurateur, Nello Balan.

DeWitt ran a gym in Scarsdale. I trained there for several weeks, imbibing his boxing lore, his reverence for fighters like Thomas “Hitman” Hearns and his lack of it for Muhammad Ali, who, he said, was “the most over-rated fighter” without much of a punch. “But he had a heart like a lion. Larry Holmes gave him a brutal beating and he wouldn’t go down.”

Finally, DeWitt pronounced that I was ready and put me into my first White Collar fight. My opponent was Phil Maier, a New York administrative judge. He was in his mid 40s and a few pounds lighter than I. My weight, then and now, hovered around 150 pounds. A quick mover, Maier caught me with some good shots but there are no decisions in White Collar, this being the third boxing category, ranking beneath Professional and Amateur, and Doug DeWitt said I had acquitted myself okay. Certainly I was relishing the mixture of raw physicality, focus and control. I fought in a few more White Collar fights. But then that was it. Or so I thought. Now this.

Phil Maier and I had sparred fairly recently. I reached out to him again. Was he still boxing White Collar? No, he said, adding that he had been training every week since his divorce twenty years before.

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We were on. As soon as word of the match got around I started getting hassled by people I knew. About my age, of course. But health is mostly luck, plus luck management, and mine so far was fine. So too my reflexes. Certainly increasing amounts of information have been surfacing about the damages that contact sports wreak; boxing as much as any.

“It’s a bargain you make. Nobody gets out a hundred percent.” Doug DeWitt told me. “Even guys who are legends, the last fight is never a good one. Nobody ever goes out on top. They can’t leave a good thing alone.” Not relevant to this fight, I felt. Phil Maier had agreed: No shots to the head. Which people half my age shouldn’t be taking either. So training began.

***

“Bang another nail in the coffin!” barked Leslie. I threw a right hook. He shrugged it off and said I should work on my overhand punch. This was my first sparring session. It was in Overthrow, a gym on Bleecker, which was to be the venue. It’s the former clubhouse of the Yippies, the radical 60s movement, memorialized there by framed copies of magazines of the time, like Screw and The East Village Eye.

At DeWitt’s I had worked the wall-bags, the airbag, the light bag, the speed bag, the heavy bag. No time for that now. Just the crucial heavy bag. And sparring.

“Hit me as hard as you can,” David Leslie said. “Don’t hold back.”

Leslie’s Performances have included jumping off a two-story building wearing bubblewrap. In 2002 he fought the world heavyweight champion, Gerry Cooney, expecting to be knocked out, and was miffed at merely being concussed.

I threw a couple of overhand punches, then a pattern of left jabs, DeWitt’s punch of choice for ringwork. At which, my wind went. Damn! A freak accident when I was walking fast in early November had turned me into a human wrecking ball, busting four ribs and collapsing my left lung. Ribs and lung were healed but clearly not my stamina.

“Fear is tiring,” Leslie told me.

“I’m mostly afraid of looking ridiculous,” I said.

 How I should train between sessions? “Do it the Rocky Balboa way,” Leslie said. “Climb the stairs.”

I live on the ground floor of a seven-floor building, and set to doing just that. As to how I felt after climbing the six flights of stairs twice may I refer you to the opening paragraph? But within a few days I could double that.

Other sessions were in Gleason’s in Dumbo, Brooklyn, where White Collar boxing was born, and where memorabilia include a poster; Zora Folley vs. Cassius Clay March 22 1967.

Lesley had brought Brooks, his son, who put on gloves, and hit his dad quite a whack. For a 5-year-old. I said I was worried for his schoolfellows. “He knows he’s can only hit me,” Leslie said. Dominic Monaco came up with a gleaming grin. A friendly crowd, boxing people. Leslie’s trainer, David Lawrence, author of a crackling memoir, The King of White-Collar Boxing, stood ringside as we got down to work. 

“You’re too tight,” he told me. “Put your weight behind your punches, You’ve got to shift your weight. And move your head. And you have to work on your overhand.”

Three rounds, and my breathing was okay. We were done.

Fight night was four days later. It began at 6PM with a birthday party thrown by the art space, Howl! Happening, at 6 East First. Phil Maier was there too, I was relieved to see. It was a dry night for both of us.

The party was lively, and a good mix, including the great rock photographers Bob Gruen, Godlis and Marcia Resnick and that relentless documentarian of Downtown, Clayton Patterson, as also such social figures as Cristina Zilkha and Victoria Vicuna, who was with Álvaro de Marichalar, whose brother was married to a daughter of the King of Spain.

Also artists in whose work real-life event, usually arduous and/or confrontational, played a significant part, such as Christo and Joe Coleman.

Overthrow is at 9, Bleecker, a short walk from Howl!, and our bout had undergone a midway change of course.

DAVE FASANO

Boxing is a highly regulated sport and Joey Goodwin, the director of Overthrow, was concerned because they had the necessary permits for training but not, as yet, for official matches.

No worries. I had learned that this wouldn’t be that.

The first round began. We touched gloves. Maier has had seventy White Collar fights under the former rules, he is resolute, with a rapid defense. I began cautiously, husbanding my wind, but I was beginning to feel that odd sense of vibrant watchfulness again when the round ended.

A lissome woman was circling the ring, Vegas fashion, with a placard reading ROUND TWO, when there was a commotion among the watching crowd and, a full round before I expected it, another fighter replaced Maier and climbed into the ring. This figure—I should add that he was wearing a suit, a necktie and a Donald Trump mask—moved towards me, radiating menace.

I caught David Leslie—for it was he—with a right hook, staggering him. More punches, and he went down, jerking like a live fish on a fishmonger’s slab. Again he contrived to lurch to his feet. Indeed, this was repeated several times but, thank God I had been working on that overhand, because I got in a couple of right-handers which floored him for good.

DAVE FASANO

So it had turned from a fight into performance art, which is another confrontational form. My punches were thoroughly real, but if you believe that I really knocked out David Leslie, the Impact Addict, you are probably wowed by all the other Fake News stories floating around these days.

And so my boxing adventure, a return to the simple pleasures of raw physicality, was over. But it brought home the truth of a piece of tough popular wisdom: Use It or Lose It. So perhaps the adventure wasn’t over after all.