Musings: My Night at the Fights

By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author

MY NIGHT AT THE FIGHTS

The deaths in 2017 of former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta and Joe DeNucci,
the former boxer who reinvented himself as a politician and eventually became
Massachusetts state auditor, brought to mind a memorable dinner I shared with them and
several other famous fighters more than thirty years ago.
The occasion was a charity fund raising dinner that honored then middleweight champion
Marvelous Marvin Hagler (“Marvelous” is not used as an adjective in this instance,
Hagler had gone to court to make it a part of his legal name). The event was held, I
remember, at the Sheraton Boston Hotel and for it, instead of using a headtable, as is the
usual case, the boxing ring from the old Boston Garden was brought in and set up in the
middle of the main ballroom. Those on the speaking program, with the exception of
Hagler, who as guest of honor spent the evening mingling with the charity’s supporters,
were kept in an anteroom off the ballroom, so they could make their entrances the way
that fighters do, coming down the aisle and climbing into the ring.
I was part of the speaking program and so it was that I, who have never had a fist fight in
my life, found myself having dinner in a room with about a dozen famous figures from
the boxing world. They included, in addition to LaMotta and DeNucci: former light
heavyweight champions Archie Moore and Jose Torres; former middleweight king
Carmen Basillio; former lightweight champion Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini; Pat
Petronelli, who, along with his brother Goody, was Hagler’s co-manager and trainer; and
the only other non-fighter in the room in addition to me, comedian Norm Crosby, a
Dorchester native who had made it big in Hollywood and Las Vegas.
As you can imagine, the testosterone level in that room was off the charts. Men being the
only ones present, there was plenty of guy talk. Donald Trump and Billy Bush would
have been right at home. The age differences were wide, ranging from Moore, then about
seventy (no one knew for sure how old he was), to Mancini, who was only in his mid-
twenties. They were from diverse ethnic backgrounds, Latino, African-American, Italian;
but they had all shared the common experience of climbing into the ring with the intent of
beating the bejabbers out of some guy who meant to do the same thing to them. There
was a natural bonding.

At the outset LaMotta was particularly effusive, he had recently been transformed from a
boxing has-been into a born-again celebrity with the release of “Raging Bull,” the gritty
biopic of his life as a boxer; none of it was pretty but all of it was gripping.The movie
was a sensation and Robert DeNiro, who played LaMotta, won the Oscar for Best Actor.
LaMotta had a new personna, that of a stand-up comedian, and he was trying out his
material on the rest of us at dinner. He might have been a world champion as a boxer but
as a comedian he was just another punching bag.
Eventually the talk got around to women (Surprise!), specifically, women in training
camp when a boxer was preparing for a championship fight.
Pat Petronelli became quite animated. “No women in training camp. Ever,” he declared.
Torres insisted that he’d been with women the night before a big fight and it never
bothered him. One guy wanted to know if it made any difference if the woman was your
wife. “No exceptions,” Petronelli snapped, sounding for all the world like Burgess
Meredith, the crusty old manager in the first “Rocky” movie. “It weakens the legs.”
“Plus,” interjected Norm Crosby, “You have to wash up afterwards.”
Throughout this part of the discussion LaMotta, who had been the life of the party, grew
withdrawn and sullen. He refused to participate, even when asked to give his opinion. He
was afraid the discussion might turn to his second wife, Vikki (LaMotta would be
married six times by the time he passed on to that Great Divorce Court in the Sky). He
did not want to talk about her.
Vikki had been only sixteen when she married LaMotta and, like him, she was suddenly
catapulted into celebrity status years later when “Raging Bull” became a hit at the box
office. She capitalized on it by writing her own memoir which depicted LaMotta as even
more controlling and physically abusive than the movie had. She further goaded him by
posing, at the age of fifty-one, in Playboy Magazine. If her book was a tell-all, the photo
shoot was a show-all; and Jake was not happy about either one.
LaMotta’s sour mood aside, the debate about women in traing camp was a spirited one.
Finally it was decided that they would all defer to the opinion of the senior man among
them in both age and experience, Archie Moore. Moore’s career had spanned almost
thirty years, he had more than two hundred professional fights, had been light heayweight
champion for nine years and had even fought the great Rocky Marciano for the
heavyweight title.
Archie thought about it for a while and then said, “Well, I’ve had training camps with
women and I’ve had training camps without them, and I’d say that if you want to be
totally ready to go fifteen rounds* in a championship fight you should stay away from
women for six weeks.”
End of Discussion.

I am intellectually opposed to boxing. The way I see it, it’s not the manly art of self-
defense, it’s the manly art of beating up the other guy; and, needless to say, it’s
dangerous to the extreme. That said, I like fighters a lot. Joe DeNucci was one of the
nicest guys you could ever meet. And that night, listening to those old boxers verbally
spar with one another, was one of the most entertaining evenings I ever spent.
*Note: a year of so before this dinner was held, Boom Boom Mancini defended his
lightweight title with a TKO win in the fourteenth round over Duk Koo Kim of South
Korea. Moments after the fight was stopped Kim collapsed in the ring and fell into a
coma. He died four days later. The story made international headlines but, although
everyone in that room was well aware of what happened and Mancini was there in the
room with us, it was the last thing any of those old fighters wanted to talk about. The
subject was studiously avoided. As a result of the Mancini-Kim fight championship bouts
were shortened from fifteen to twelve rounds.