In 1963, Bob Dylan wrote and performed a ballad about the ring death of Davey Moore, the featherweight champion who collapsed and died shortly after being stopped by Sugar Ramos in March of 1959. Back then, the song, “Who Killed Davey Moore?”, was a regular fixture in Dylan concerts.
It ends with this punch of a refrain:
Who killed Davey Moore / Why an’ what’s the reason for? / “Not me,” says the man whose fists / Laid him low in a cloud of mist, / Who came here from Cuba’s door / Where boxing ain’t allowed no more. / “I hit him, yes, it’s true, / But that’s what I am paid to do. / Don’t say ‘murder,’ don't say ‘kill.’ / It was destiny, it was God’s will.” / Who killed Davey Moore, / Why an’ what’s the reason for?
To listen to the twenty-something Dylan’s piercing ballad, you would think he was belting out an urgent call to banish professional boxing. Not exactly.
Dylan’s relationship to the bruising game is more complicated, if not downright positive. In his 1964 ditty “I shall be Free #10,” a playful Dylan sang:
I was shadow-boxing earlier in the day I figured I was ready for Cassius Clay I said “Fee, fie, fo, fum, Cassius Clay, here I come.”
Forget banishing the sport—the scrawny bard has been described as a boxing addict who, among other things, co-wrote the protest song “Hurricane,” in defense of then imprisoned middleweight Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, befriended former light-heavyweight champ Donny Lalonde, popped into the Wild Card Gym in Los Angeles in 2014 to watch Manny Pacquiao prepare for his rematch with Timothy Bradley.
Though the deed was under another name, Dylan even owned a members-only boxing gym in Santa Monica. And he didn’t just own the gym—he trained there.
Take it from Boxing Hall of Famer Ray “Boom-Boom” Mancini: Dylan was not just an observer of the gloved game, he was a dedicated practitioner, one even known to stop in at boxing gyms for a workout when on tour.
Mancini told me, circa 1994, “I went to the dentist and the dentist tells me he has a famous patient who is a big fan of mine, and that I’d be getting a call from him soon to come over to his gym.”
The fan was none other than the skeletal super-heavyweight, Bob Dylan. Mancini recalled, “I got there and let me tell you, I’ve been in many boxing gyms and this one was the best I had ever seen: carpeted, no smell, clean. There were vintage posters, autographed memorabilia from Ali, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and others. I looked around and there was this older, curly-haired guy on the other side of the gym wrapping his hands.”
Retired from the ring and in his thirties at the time, Mancini continued, “I recognized it was Bob Dylan. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t a big Dylan fan. I mean, I knew some of his songs, like ‘Highway 61’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone,’ but that was it. Still, don’t get me wrong, even then I knew Dylan was an icon, someone who changed the way we see Rushmore, if we had one.”
After some warm-ups, Dylan strapped on the headgear and climbed in the ring. Mancini said, “At first Dylan was short-arming his shots as though he was worried about hitting me.”
Mancini pushed him: “Come on Bob, let your hands go. Extend your punches. If you hit me it’s my fault.” The prodding worked and the right-handed Trickster started slinging shots.
The fitness boxing craze notwithstanding, Mancini knows, you are never going to learn how to box if you don’t get hit. Dylan understood that as well, reassuring Mancini that it was OK to hit him.
At the bell for the second round, Mancini obliged, making sure to tag his sparring mate with a jab every time Dylan tossed a feeble punch or didn’t bring his hands back into a defensive position.
Mancini recalled “At the end of the round, Dylan came over and said, ‘Ray, could you lay off those headshots? I still have a few songs left in there.’” Mancini chuckled, adding that a few years down the line, Dylan would tell him that he was only joking with his plea; however, he sure wasn’t joking about having a few more songs in his head.
“We went four three-minute rounds,” recalled Mancini, “enough to exhaust most fifty-something part-time boxers, but after we sparred, I was impressed by the fact that Bob went over and did another six rounds on the heavy bag. He wasn’t playing around. He was serious about training.”
Mancini put it this way, “Big surprise. Bob had his own unique style. He was a little crab-like in his movements. But unlike a lot of beginners, Bob was very steady. He didn’t change speeds and he could punch a little. He was very steady. The main thing I worked on with him was trying to get him to stay balanced, move his head, and bring his punches up and down, body and head.”
Mancini was something of a regular at the gym for four or five years. There, he worked with a number of celebs, sometimes crowing as he pushed through the doors, “Who’s the next victim?” More than once, the victim was Ben Stiller.
Contrasting the comic with Dylan, Mancini said, “At least when we started, Ben was nervous and unlike Bob, would leap around like a frog.” Steady was the word that kept floating to Mancini’s mind when he thought about Dylan the boxer.
There are many lessons to be garnered from the bittersweet science. One of the adages in the fight game is “boxing reveals character.” It also helps you learn how to read people. The steadiness that caught Mancini’s well-trained eye was the steadiness required of an artist who for 60-plus years has punched out songs that would frame the lives of those of us who have shared the stage of existence with this comet of an octogenarian.