My two most recent columns for The Baltimore Sun are about boxing, and while reporting them — interviewing amateur welterweight Courtney Feldheim and her trainer, Warren Boardley — it occurred to me that I don’t follow the “sweet science” as much as I once did. I am not a sportswriter, but over 44 years of writing newspaper columns — my first appeared in print Jan. 8, 1979 — I found the most interesting people in two sports, boxing and horse racing, and I was drawn to both for stories.

Feldheim & Boardley

These days, a lot of people want nothing to do with boxing because of its brutality, its potentially homicidal punches. There’s a heightened level of societal awareness of concussions and the life-altering problems they cause for men — and sometimes women — who fight professionally and without headgear. (I have heard some people express similar concerns about professional football, but it remains, with its sanctioned violence, the most popular spectator sport in the country. We also live in a violent culture and watch a lot of violent movies and shows, but I’ll leave that for another day.)

Times change, attitudes change, and in some quarters — more quarters than ever, I’d say — professional boxing is seen as inhumane as bullfighting. I don’t go that far, but certainly appreciate the ambivalence (or guilt) felt about the sport among people who once followed it closely.

To complete this then-and-now perspective on boxing, I should note the following: If you lived in the time of Muhammad Ali, you probably find it hard to let go, probably have some lingering interest in the sport. He really was “the greatest,” and his fights were extraordinary and memorable. There was a more popular acceptance of the classic fight game in those days.


A personal note: I was born in Brockton, Mass., hometown of Rocky Marciano, and I came of age as the Petronellis, Goody and Pat, were training boxers there. One of their boxers was Pat’s son, Tony, who grew up in my town, East Bridgewater, and was the coolest guy never to play football (or any other sport) at East Bridgewater High School. That’s because Tony was in the process of becoming a great fighter. He ended up having an impressive career as a light welterweight, with a 42-4-1 record, all of that coming after graduation from EBHS. His father and uncle went on to train and manage another guy from Brockton, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, the future world middleweight champion.

So, while I share the concerns about the brutal nature of boxing, I must acknowledge that I followed the sport closely for more than half of my life. As a journalist, I found that it made for good stories. It introduced me to fascinating people, including Courtney Feldheim, the former 6th grade math teacher who won her first amateur championship in New Jersey in October. She offers a clear and insightful explanation for her devotion to boxing in my Sunday column.

Mack Lewis

Years ago, boxing took me up creaky stairs into Mack Lewis’ gym in East Baltimore, an old dance hall with wainscot walls covered with posters promoting fights at the Steelworkers Hall, the Pikesville Armory and the downtown arena, known in its first several decades as the Baltimore Civic Center. Mack trained young boxers in a ring with sagging, tattered ropes. He was already a legend by the time I met him, the trainer of heavyweight Larry Middleton, junior middleweight Alvin Anderson, welterweight Vernon Mason, one-time world heavyweight champ Hasim Rahman and Vince Pettway, who won the world junior middleweight championship in 1994. Pettway had been a Mack Lewis protege since the age of 8.

“Mr. Mack” was a man of integrity in a sport with a dark side; he walked in the light and cared about his fighters.

Joe Poodles

Along the way, I met men who had been boxers at some point in their lives — Clem Florio, Robert “Rabbit” Pomerlane, Harry Jeffra, Charlie Crump, who faced Joe Louis in an exhibition match at the Baltimore Coliseum in 1944. I got to know Joe Poodles, a retired boxer who owned a pool hall that was a kind of hall of fame for Baltimore prizefighters.
I went with the Sun’s knowledgeable boxing writer, the late Al Goldstein, to fights here and there, and to at least two of Sugar Ray Leonard’s three retirement announcements.
I wrote about scrappy amateurs in their first fights and some old-timers trying to dance on the canvas one more time. I used to watch the “ballroom” fights at Michael’s 8th Avenue, in Glen Burnie, south of Baltimore. I covered the rematch of Hasim Rahmin and Lennox Lewis in Las Vegas and interviewed a fallen heavyweight (and Mack Lewis’s biggest disappointment), Reggie Gross, in a federal prison in South Carolina, where he was serving a life sentence for murder.

In recent years, Baltimore has produced another boxing champion, Gervonta Davis. He has won titles in three weight classes, and he just defended his WBA world lightweight championship, beating Hector Luis Garcia by TKO on Jan. 8 in Washington. But I have not paid as much attention to Davis as I did to fighters of the past. Ambivalence? Maybe. Maybe I just prefer baseball now.

3 thoughts on “Watching people fight: From Brockton to Baltimore

  1. I share your ambivalence about boxing. For much of my adult life, I looked forward to boxing on television. Indeed, it was something of a family joke: my wife and I would attend a symphony concert and then come home and watch boxing. We toyed with the idea of taking a trip to Las Vegas or Atlantic City to see a prize fight.

    The world has long been aware of “punch drunk” veterans of the ring, but the growing awareness of the long-term effects of concussions, largely in the NFL, refocused many on the dangers of boxing. The sight of Muhammed Ali near the end of his life was jarring, insofar as his Parkinson’s was quite possibly the result of repetitive head trauma. For me, the final straw was when a cousin of mine developed Parkinson’s in his late 50s. My cousin was an optometrist, not a boxer, but as I’ve watched his physical and mental decline, I found myself no longer able to watch the “sweet science.”

    Boxing was entertaining — even romantic — when we were largely unaware of the sport’s real costs. Now, with the truth exposed — that the price of head trauma is more than simply a little “slowness” in speech and thought — it’s hard for any thoughtful person to find joy in a sport where the object is to beat one’s opponent senseless.


  2. Dan, I enjoyed this column. I grew up watching TV fights almost every night, and seeing them live (mostly) at the Civic Center and Glen Burnie. I was a fight fan until watching (and momentarily cheering) Boom Boom Mancini kill his Korean opponent. Boom Boom and I hung ‘em up simultaneously.

    I remember from the old Pimlico neighborhood, two wright class World Champion Harry Jeffra and his son Artie. Artie used to wear a New York Yankees cap autographed by the Yankee second baseman Joe Gordon when we played softball at Arlington School. Memorabilia in those days were for wearing, not plastic.

    I also had the pleasure of knowing Harry Barnett, a manager of George Forman. Harry was very bright and a real Runyonesque character. Lots of great stories

    Are you aware of the tragedy that occurred at the old Colosseum on Monroe Street, where a man was killed in the ring? He was much lighter than his opponent and weights were placed in his long pants’ pockets at the weigh in to make him appear heavier. He wasn’t and was killed. DNR if anyone went to jail for the murder of this poor soul trying to earn a few dollars

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dan, My father, Charlie “Buddy” Brown was inducted into Ring 101 Hall of Fame back in the 80’s. He was an amateur welterweight champ and trained with Poodles at one time in his career. I am vague on the details because I never took a great interest in the sport, nor would anyone accuse me of wasting my talent by not following my dad into the gym. There wasn’t any. He took me once to see an over-the-hill Archie Moore fight equally late in his career Pete Rademacher at the Civic Center (according to Wikipedia) in 1961. Although in my memory it was at the Steelworkers Hall?? The lack of personal talent and interest probably had something to do with the fact that Buddy Brown wasn’t my biological father. I didn’t know this until 2009, ten years after he passed. But I too will leave that for another day.


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