Every day, I miss boxing. Not the sweaty bandages that protected my hands. Not the hits to the head. I still have my wraps. I can take the pain. But my knee won't pivot. My toe won't turn. It's been exactly 20 years since I stood at the bottom of the sloping stands in The Theater at Madison Square Garden, waiting for the verdict under its cobweb of lights: gold, I win; blue, I lose.
It was gold, and the bald referee raised my right arm.
Nobody at my day job in TV had ever won the New York City Golden Gloves—or would even dare step between the ropes. Nor would my neighbors and friends.
The only ones who understood what it meant to win that title were those who stood there that night and those who had stood there before, dating back to 1927: winners like Sugar Ray Robinson, Floyd Patterson, Emile Griffith, and Riddick Bowe, all of whom went on to claim multiple world titles. But by 1996, people only knew if you'd won or lost by witnessing it firsthand or paying two quarters for a copy of the Daily News, the lone paper that covered the Golden Gloves. Back then, you couldn't even watch tape of your own fights unless you had a camcorder. It was also just the second year that women were allowed to compete. Female boxers had no nationals, no Olympics. Million Dollar Baby was four years away from publication and eight years from film.
Yet I wasn't entirely alone under those lights. I knew a handful of people who could relate: the fighters who I trained with every day at the boxing gym, a raggedy sweatbox in Brooklyn's Little Puerto Rico, a long left and a short right off the L train. They had more grace, power, and ring savvy, yet they treated me as an equal and never questioned my presence.
Neither did Milton, our trainer. Milton also never skipped a chance to brag, and that spring his bluster was inexhaustible because six of his fighters made it to the Golden Gloves finals.
No one expected Joey to lose the 125-pound Open final that night. Javier lost, too, at 119. But slick Maritza and cagey Marilyn won at 106 and 112. Efrain dominated at 156, and my unanimous decision at 147 meant that Milton's Supreme Team owned four of the most prestigious amateur titles in the city.
After the fights that night, Milton piled us into his car, drove east from the Garden and pulled up at a sculpture of a rearing white stallion lit from below on 48th and Lex, the grand entrance of Denim & Diamonds. He glibly whisked us past the bouncers in their Stetsons and spurs. Inside, on the sunken dance floor, a mirrored saddle strung from the ceiling began to spin slowly. We had no idea what to do with ourselves. It wasn't our scene.
Julio, my corner man, dodged line dancers en route to the bar, and the rest of us scattered. Joey probably went to find his girlfriend. They had a two-year-old son, Jacob, who used to toddle near the canvas now and then—oblivious to the tick-tack-whish-whir of leather jump ropes grazing the painted floor and the uneven cadence of gloves pummeling duct-taped heavybags until the sickly buzzer signaled the end of three minutes.
We were all exhausted, but I just wanted to find Efrain, because I knew that he'd be locked up at Rikers just five days later. But I lost him in the crowd and didn't get a chance to say goodbye that night.
Despite our 10-year age gap, Efrain and I had become buddies and, in the ring, he was one of the best. Milton never even made him go southpaw, and Milton turned everyone southpaw. (Milton also told us to keep our hands low and to whip our hooks from afar the way one of his angry ex-girlfriends did one day, slapping him so hard that he, sensing genius, asked her to do it again.) No, Efrain could keep his natural stance because he had power in both hands. I never felt it, because Efrain was only supposed to "move with me" in the ring; I could hit him but he wouldn't hit back. I doubt he gained much from those defensive drills, but he never complained. Nor did Joey or all the other guys who dodged my fists to make me sharper.
Ultimately, we were all working for the same prize: a chunky chain that supported two interlocking gold gloves with a diamond set in the middle and our weight classes engraved on the back. In the projects, it meant something. On the Upper West Side, where I lived, it was a garish bauble. Still, for a few months, I wore it with pride, in solidarity with my team and in the hope that someone—anyone—would recognize its significance.
They didn't, so it was easy to move on and become known for other things, and mention the victory rarely if at all. Eventually, they tore down the gym and I never saw the guys again. Then, one night in October 2014, lord knows how Milton found my inbox. "If this is your email, hollaback," he wrote.
"Hey! It's White Lightning. Where are you?" I said on the phone, using Milton's nickname for me that was more about my breed than my speed. "Fort Lauderdale," he said, "training a Haitian guy for an HBO show." I asked if he was only training pros now. "Pros, amateurs, everything but dead bodies—just like in New York." "Hey, do you ever see Efrain?" "Hang on." Milton was so kinetic and easily distracted that he could keep you waiting while he directed rush hour traffic and ordered a four-course meal. "Hello?" After 18 years, I still knew Efrain's voice. "Oh my god. Where are you? What are you doing?" (Milton had patched him into the call.) "Staten Island. I work for the Department of Transportation, highway repair." "You still box?" "Naw, I'm a fat bastard now."
"Ever see Joey?" "His son just fought in the finals of the Gloves at 123, novice." "What? The little baby? What about old Busdriver?" Another pause, a patch, and another familiar voice chimed in. Soon, seven or eight characters from the old gym were weaving on and off the line. An hour passed. It was hard to let go.
I collected a few phone numbers, tucked them into a journal, and planned to call. But I didn't. There was never a perfect when or why. Maybe now, 20 years later and with yet another Gloves final looming in April, it was time.
Efrain rallied right away. We met late on a cold Saturday night in a graffiti-covered barbershop in Alphabet City. He was just a little rounder, wearing black, and, of all things, braces. But he wasn't wearing the necklace—the Gloves—that he'd won. He said he gave it to his son, Ethan, who was born while he was in jail.
"I just said, 'Here man, hold 'em down. Maybe this will be a little bit inspiring.' I didn't know if he was gonna start boxing."
He did, briefly, but Efrain said, "It wasn't the same. I wanted him to learn the way Milton had taught me." Milton was gone, though. "I just didn't have no time. I got five kids now. It was either provide for them or train. And not only that, I live in Staten Island. Staten Island is a pain in the ass."
"So why'd you get locked up? I worried about you."
"The whole time that I was training and fighting, I was still running the streets. Milton just didn't know. Oh, I was still doin' dirt, sellin' heroin. I was out there hustlin' trying to make money. I had a case pending, an assault case. We ended up stabbin' some kids out in front of my building. Latin King kids. I probably woulda been comin' home from that now if that guy woulda died.
"Then I caught a new charge. They ended up finding like five bundles of dope and half a ounce of coke in my mailbox in the projects. I ended up doin' 16 months.
"They stretched [my start date] so I could fight the Gloves. I was really determined on winning. I thought that was gonna take me out from where I was at."
It didn't. Five days later, he turned himself in.
"In jail, I was doing 100 sit ups a night. I think they had weights, but all that shit was all tied up. When I came home, I gave it another shot. I made it to the semifinals, and I ended up losin'. After that, the streets kinda took over. I'm good now.
"Back in the day, jail was the move, but I'm telling you man, that whole 16 months I laid up, I just didn't want to do it anymore. I didn't want to be like my father. My father was a big-time drug dealer, in jail all the time. I didn't want that—for my kids, for myself."
"Ever fight pro, like Joey?" I asked.
"After I won the Gloves, Milton told me I had a coupla deals on the table, but since I was going away, they kinda went away. Milton is the best, though. When I was eight or nine, he grabbed me and said, 'Listen, I can do somethin' with you.' The guy changed my life, you know? I coulda been in jail now, doin' life. Who knows?"
After 30 rounds of gabbing, well past midnight, Efrain called an SUV to meet me at the barbershop. He paid the fare in cash, and then the ex-middleweight sent me off with a hug.
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