The Big Fight
Tomorrow night before a sold-out crowd of almost 400 people, I will enter the ring against David "The Impact Addict" Leslie. For one night at least, I will stop being the writer Jonathan Ames and will become the fighter Jonathan "The Herring Wonder" Ames. Or just Herring, as my friends have come to call me. And for those of you who are coming late to this story of my boxing match, I should explain that I am called "The Herring Wonder" because I see myself as a reincarnated Lower East Side Jewish boxer, and part of my training is to eat a lot of herring?a fish of unusual strength, which many people don't know. I'm also hoping to have herring breath?also very strong?the night of the fight to act as repellent during clinches.
So I am going to write this column in two parts: The Day Before and The Day After. But will there be a day after? It's not impossible that some grotesque phantom punch will be my undoing, and so in case of a dark outcome, I will send in this first part of the column to NYPress tonight?a lugubrious act, I know?in the eventuality that I am unable to write part two. But to all of that: GOD FORBID! as my mother would say, and mostly I am having positive thoughts. What you think, command all the gurus, is what happens. Thus?I will win! I will persevere! I will not submit!
I do, though, have some reason to be concerned: It's not terrible, but in preparing for this fight, I've already been mildly disfigured. Last week, during a sparring session, my nose was broken. The upper left nasal cavity, according to my friend, a 5th Ave. plastic surgeon, was collapsed. This is the fourth time in my life that my nose has been broken, and they were all rather noble occasions, I must say. Noble in that at least I didn't break the nose by walking into a door, that kind of thing.
The first nose-break was the result of a beating I received at age five from a mentally unbalanced 10-year-old whose head was misshapen. (For the careful reader of this column: I know I often repeat this tale of my beating at the hands of a subnormal, but I can't get it out of my system.) This poor creature attacked me from behind as I was playing Spider-Man by myself in my own yard, having achieved my costume by pulling my sweater over my head. When he had me on the ground he sat on my chest?he had the most foul peanut butter breath and small, ugly gray teeth?and then he smashed me in the nose. Later, he was incarcerated in some kind of state home.
The second nose injury was during a fencing match in high school?a qualifying tournament for the national Junior Olympics. I was lunging at my opponent and he panicked and put the guard of his sabre right into my fencing mask. The mask was crushed and my nose behind the mask was broken. I was sent to the ground, bleeding. A cold compress was put under my lip to stop the flow of blood from the nostrils and for some reason this worked. I then finished the bout and won, and so qualified for the Junior Olympics as a representative from New Jersey.
The third nose accident took place in a bar fight over a tall, good-looking Danish girl. This was in Paris in 1984, during my Hemingway phase. And this latest nose trauma occurred eight days ago, during my Muhammad Ali phase. I weigh 156 and I was sparring with a 181-pound Irishman. A good fellow and a good fighter. We had gone two rounds and I was doing well?had tagged him on the chin causing him to bite his tongue. In the third round, I charged in with my hands down?breaking the cardinal rule of boxing: Hands Up!?and he put a straight right hand into the bridge of my nose. The pain was electric. I could hear the bone fracture, and I was broken-nosed and broken-hearted?I thought my seven weeks of training had been wasted, destroyed, that the fight would have to be called off. I looked in the mirror of the locker room; the knob of the bridge of my nose (the knob that had formed from all the other breaks over the years) was pushed over to the right; it was rather horrifying to look at.
But I have healed quickly, and the two black eyes that formed after the break have been more than worth it: I've never had women on the street look at me with such languorous interest. I think the women have responded in a primal, unconscious way to my battered face; I must trigger some ancient buried memory of Early Man?one who is brave and willing to fight and therefore must be a good hunter, a good provider. And if I wasn't trying to be celibate before this battle, I think my broken nose might have found itself in some interesting, sweet places.
So the nose is all right. I saw the doctor yesterday and he has declared my chaste, celibate middle-of-the-face appendage fit enough to withstand the fight. "If it breaks again, it will hurt, but I can fix it," he said. But I don't think it will be rebroken. I will be wearing special headgear that has a protective bar right in front of my nose, which, despite my honesty in this column about so many of my perverted faults and misdeeds, is growing and growing.
Anyway, enough about the old proboscis. I want to touch briefly on the regimen that I have endured for the last two months: I'd wake at 7:30 and jog to Gleason's Gym; it's about a mile and a half run. I'd then shadowbox in the ring for usually about four rounds (three minutes each) under the watchful eye of my trainer, Harry Keitt, who has given me a tremendous crash-course education in boxing. Then there's the heavy bag for anywhere from four to six rounds, or Harry would come at me with his pads (these flat mitts that trainers wear) and I'd throw combinations of punches at him, usually for three or four rounds, with one-minute rests in between.
Sometimes I hit a rubber dummy upon whose forehead Harry scribbled David. Once or twice a week, I'd spar with other fighters, usually after the shadowboxing, and we go anywhere from three to six rounds. And I've played a lot of sports?college fencing team and high school letters in fencing, track, tennis and soccer, and years of street basketball?but nothing is more tiring than boxing. There's something about the constant movement, the effort to throw punches, and the frightening immediacy of your opponent, such that it is all incredibly and quickly fatiguing.
Then after all this boxing training, which really works the arms and legs and would last about an hour, I'd do calisthenics, as Harry calls them: 40 pullups, 20 dips, 50 pushups, 200 situps, 30 upside-down pushups and rolling neck exercises while standing on my head in the ring, and, most importantly, Harry's secret training weapon: I'd take a 10-pound sledgehammer and beat a tire?like the way old-time boxers chopped wood?for 30, 35 minutes. I also often skipped rope, spent time on the StairMaster, and would roll on this wheel to build my stomach muscles. Then when all this was done, which took about an hour and a half, I'd run a long way home, about three miles. All in all, each day, it was about three hours of exercise.
Once I was home, I'd have a large breakfast, which included my usual dosage of psyllium fiber, but also a glass of juice fortified with a protein powder. Then I'd take my yoga neti pot and with it pour salt water through my nostrils, so that I'd have super-unobstructed breathing. A nice side effect of the neti pot was that for weeks I've had the smell of salt water in my nose and I keep feeling like I'm on a vacation near the ocean and this deceives me into a state of well-being. Then after the nostrils were cleared, I'd take an epsom-salt bath, after which I'd climb into bed (around 1 p.m. now) and read a boxing book: either Plimpton's Shadow Box or Oates' On Boxing, both of which are excellent, but if I couldn't take any more boxing, I'd read and delight in my Wodehouse omnibus, which is very far removed from the world of pugilism. Then after 15 minutes of reading, I'd nap for an hour. The rest of the day, I'd sort of go about my life, but I would be pretty drained.
So after eight weeks of this hard work, I've gotten stronger and stronger: I've put on 10 pounds of muscle: my biceps have more than doubled in size and I keep showing them off to anybody who will look. It has helped, I think, to sell tickets.
On the weekends, I didn't train too much. Like a good Jew, I would rest on Saturday, and then on Sunday, I'd go for a long five-mile run, often across the Brooklyn Bridge. And when I'd run across the Bridge, I'd see all the water and I would think how water is more powerful than anything in the world and I would think how I'm going to take all the rivers that surround New York and feel them in me, and then on the night of the fight?tomorrow night!?I'd deliver it all like a flood on David Leslie's chin. And I hope this is what happens. I hope I will enjoy writing part two. I hope I can write part two.
It's the day after. It's 4:10 a.m. I'm alive. I can't sleep. Maybe I'm writing this to show myself my brain still works. Foreman after his fight with Ali in Zaire counted back from 100 and did other tests to make sure his mind was still working. This is my test because I took a lot of shots to the head tonight. Too many shots.
So I'm going to keep this brief. Strausbaugh, when I told him I was going to write the column in two parts, suggested that I write more about the fight. But I don't want write about it too much. I hope somebody else will.
First of all, I lost, and I lost pretty bad. My nose got re-broken in the second round, and at the moment it's all swollen and grotesque and the right nostril is clogged with dried blood. (But this is my own fault; I went into the fight with a broken nose; it just seemed impossible to delay this thing, postpone it. The good news is that the doctor says the septum is in place?after the fight he stuck two rubber-gloved fingers up my nostrils to check; this means that, unless the nose looks really horrific, I have a good chance of avoiding surgery.) My jaw is out of line and I can't close my mouth or chew properly. But a few weeks ago in sparring that happened, so I know after a few days the jaw falls back into place. My neck is a mess. I'm kind of craned over right now typing this. I've been going to the chiropractor for a few weeks. From a punch during sparring, I received a whiplash injury, and it feels like the whiplash is back. And just to complete the medical report, I have scratches on my arms and back from Leslie holding onto me during clinches.
What went wrong? A lot. First of all, my defense was lousy. Eight and a half weeks of training is just not enough time to learn how to block punches, slip punches. So the result is, it seems like I got hit with almost everything he threw. I did land a few myself. I saw that his ribs on the right side turned red, and in the third round, I bloodied his nose. But overall, his style was unorthodox and clever and it had me confused and he clearly won. In the beginning, he did grab me a lot, which my trainer felt should have resulted in points being taken off, but by the end I was grabbing him, too.
One thing he did, though, which I didn't appreciate, was that he taunted me a fair amount. He'd offer his chin or try to wave me toward him. I know he was trying to be a showman, but I think the crowd would have enjoyed the fight without these antics. Still, he was the superior boxer. He's boxed sporadically since his 20s and there was no way I could match his experience. He also had 20 or more pounds on me, and they say a good big man will always beat a good little man, but in this case that doesn't really apply, since this little man wasn't that good.
But he didn't knock me out and I didn't quit, and Leslie had predicted that either he'd knock me out in the third or I'd throw in the towel after the third. So the fight went the distance. Four rounds. And that might not sound like much, but getting beaten for eight minutes felt pretty long and horrible, and the last four minutes, the last two rounds, I knew and felt that my nose had been crumpled for the second time in 10 days.
Lying in bed just now, unable to sleep, sort of suffering physically and mentally, I was applying my theory (taken from the Greeks) that almost all of my pain is brought on by my own excesses of character, and so the source of my agony tonight is clearly myself. I accepted this fight. Thought I could handle it. Hubris. Hubris. Hubris.
The hopeful note is that out of the humbling I received, there's a chance for something good to arise. More than one wise person has remarked upon the closeness of the words humiliation and humility, and so after my humiliation, my beating, maybe I'll be in store for the grace that comes with a sense of humility.
I should comment on the ambience of the evening. The fight was held at the Angel Orensanz Foundation (a 19th-century synagogue now used as a venue for the arts), and other than my own personal eight minutes of pugilistic torture, the evening was spectacular. Leslie did a fantastic job producing this whole mad event and the place looked stunning and the audience was in turn stunned. Right in the middle of this ancient synagogue there was this great big red boxing ring and hoisted to the ceiling there were enormous television screens, showing excited audience members being interviewed, and all the while music blared beautifully in the acoustics of the old synagogue. And everywhere you turned there were cameras?which gave the feeling that something exciting was going on. The people behind the cameras were Larry Fessenden, who is Leslie's collaborator on all his performance-art events, and filmmaker Richard Sandler. These two, Sandler and Fessenden, are going to make a short documentary on this fight, this night, which was called a Box Opera.
Besides the main fight, there were great preliminary bouts and entertainment: Zero Boy vs. Zero Boy, Michael Portnoy vs. five five-year-olds, a whole gang of battling female gladiators, including the very sweet and cute Shelly Mars, and in between these preliminary matches a scantily clad dance troupe performed.
I saw all these people?dancers, gladiators, comedians, mothers and children?getting ready down in the basement where I was hiding out, and it was like being in a circus. It was all quite magnificent, especially Portnoy's five-year-olds. One of them was wearing a ballerina outfit.
So the evening, on the whole, was splendid. I was even given a beautiful robe with a NYPress logo on the back and "The Herring Wonder" spelled out; but the most splendid thing for me was how kind people were to me after the fight. Friends and strangers alike congratulated me and told me I did all right, and this was very helpful to me, since I wasn't feeling so good about myself. And I had the sense that many of the strangers, who spoke to me or made motions of support across the room, were readers of this column; if so, and they're reading this now, I thank them.
Well, it's 5:20 a.m. I guess my brain is all right; I've written for more than an hour. So I think I'll stop and return the ice to my nose and maybe go for a walk on the quiet, lonely streets and be grateful that I'm alive, and then when I get back, I'll be sure to sleep. It will be nice to sleep.
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