In June of 1963, I got to witness an event that changed my life. For the first time, I saw through a man and his motives and saw his soul. It didn’t glow or make a sound. It was just there inside of his frame and sat patiently waiting to be acknowledged.
At the time, I was a young hometown sports reporter for The Davidson Trader
in Welcome, North Carolina. With only one school, which happened to be out already for the summer, I covered the local boxing matches to fill up my otherwise blank page. No one spectacular came through my territory. Just a few local and regional guys all hoping to make it big or at least make a sizeable purse for an evening’s worth of good work.
One such man I got to know personally, and it was his soul I happened to gaze upon that night. The funny thing is I actually didn’t see it until I saw her. More on “her” later, but first, let me give you some background into the life of this man.
Where he was born, I don’t know, but I do know he was lucky enough to have been born in 1933, making him too young to be called for World War II. I know he came to our home of Welcome via Kentucky where the only belt he had ever worn before becoming a boxer was that of a carpenter. The years of being in that bluegrass sun kept him at an average build, but nothing extravagant. He was a handyman in his spare time between fights and lived on the outskirts of town. He didn’t socialize much even though everyone knew his name and enjoyed his matches. His win-loss record wouldn’t reinforce it, but he was the favorite of our surrounding area and often boxed out of the request of promoters trying to push their young talent through the Southeast. His 5’10” frame allowed him some reach, but not much, meaning if he was going to win, it was by simply outlasting his challenger or fighting him short, which in the boxing world means “close to his opponent.”
As I said, he wasn’t a large man or one that would even impose some sort of threat to the average challenger. In fact, the only belt he’d ever had or would ever carry was the one mentioned earlier. He fought for extra money and in the evenings after a long match, he took the orders of Dr. Daniels and nursed his cuts, bumps, and bruises with a cold glass of whiskey. His hair was slightly darker than suede and his farmers tan made him look like a walking “T.”
I got to know him personally since I had covered his matches for three summers now and was lucky enough to get a few words out of him on the record after a win or two. However, he was notorious for always asking for our conversations to be kept out of the paper. For what, I don’t know, but I think it was because I was the only person that had seen every one of his fights. I guess that made me sort of like family.
On this night, he faced an opponent whose name I can’t recall. All I remember was that my friend had the kind of body that slightly jiggled when he moved quickly, whereas this challenger seemed to be made of pure stone. The opponent was from somewhere in Georgia and I guess he was doing much more strenuous carpenter work than that of my friend. For the first three rounds, it was pure strategy, but it was obvious this was going to be a real fight.
Early in the fourth, my friend got a nasty cut above his eye from a mean left hook. The blood began to trickle down the right side of his face moderately, but not at such a pace to halt the battle. Another left hook and then a right jab combined with a slight trip sent my friend right to the floor. He laid down for two counts, but on the third, he got on his hands and knees and was finally up by seven. At this point, the blood was already starting to shimmer due to its mixture with the sweat from the humidity of a North Carolina evening.
The challenger lunged at him, ready to make his trip back home to train for his next fight. My friend ducked and dodged his way to the break, where he sat, got himself some water, and took a slight rest. The fifth started with a bang as both men came out swinging. The crowd noise was starting to liven up as many men hoped their bets would come out big. It was well known that gambling on fights was an enjoyable pastime in Welcome. Just ask the Sheriff. He had money on the challenger.
The fifth ended with no real consequences to both men, and the sixth came and went as well. Technically this was a crappy fight, but the mental battle between the two was mesmerizing. However, I think that I was the only one that saw it.
Wait, I forgot about her.
She saw it too. She was just a young girl, no older than 23, who was a local as well. She didn’t speak much to anyone but was known for being a good student and having a soft demeanor. She was there just because it was the thing to do and I believe she had come with a friend that night, but I’m not sure now.
Above the screams of the crowd all yearning to make their green biscuits, I heard someone mumble. Even though she was directly across from me, I know it was her. What she said I couldn’t tell you but I do know what she was thinking. She had a look on her face that wasn’t out of pity, but out of defeat. That look was probably similar to the way she looked at her father who wasn’t quite the man he was after his return from the second Great War. Even though she had never met my friend before, she knew his soul and knew that even if he won the fight, he still lost in the end. It was then I realized that my friend was a shell of who he should be.
I saw my friend’s soul that night all because of a woman that I had never spoken to. She made me finally ask a question that I don’t think anyone had ever considered before she did. Betters and myself alike all asked ourselves “Will he win?”
She asked, “Why does he fight?”
It hit me with an intensity like I had caught that left hook instead. I had called him my friend all because I was familiar with his quirks such as the way he would lace his gloves or his ritual in between rounds. Truth be known, I knew the fighter and not the man. Some people, such as his challenger, fought for money, fame, or the opportunity to make it big. I had no idea why my friend fought. He had an intense numbness about him in the ring where you knew where his conscious was, but where was his subconscious? What fueled his desire to hit another man? It sure wasn’t money, as he made a living to support his means by his other work. It wasn’t the fame because he wasn’t famous. It wasn’t the women because he never got close to any. It wasn’t even the anger because I truly believe that it never existed within him. He fought to escape and on this night, he was facing a living version of his fears. The monster in front of him would not go down and fought with an intensity fueled by material desire. My friend fought because somewhere deep inside him there was a family man that lived in Kentucky with a wife and a child and had a steady job. It was the blue-collar lifestyle but it was a blue collar laced with lipstick kisses and grease instead of sawdust and alcohol sweat.
The rest of the fight didn’t matter. That’s why I’m not even going to tell you what happened. Who won and in what round doesn’t matter. What matters is that’s the day I saw a man’s soul for what it was, and it was just as fragile as a light bulb dropped on gravel. He may not go down by the end of the bell, but the fight continued in the rundown mental motel every night before he went to sleep.
I never reported stories the same again after that evening’s fight was over. I found myself to be better as an observer than a reporter. I still met my friend for a drink occasionally, I still watched his fights, and I still acted as if I was gathering information for my main article even though my pad and pencil were gone.
I’m not writing this story 40 years later for any sort of reason other than to say thanks to the girl, my friend and that fight. No medals were given out that night and everyone went home just as planned, but I was forever changed and it helped me realize what a fool I’d been for my materialism thus far in my young life.
My writing skills may have slipped over the years and how you feel about my story is pointless, really.
To me, though, this was the greatest story never told.