Down for the Count

The Wildwood Boxing Club is no more.

It really wasn’t much to begin with: an old auto body shop that was once a speakeasy back on Park Boulevard. It was two big rooms, one for training and one taken up almost entirely with a rickety old jury-rigged ring cannibalized from God knows where.

But it had the hardscrabble character of the hundreds of boxing gyms that once dotted the continent and now have gone the way of drive-in movies and sandlot sports. It was like the old blood-pit gyms in Philly. It was the steady whump of the heavy bags, the rat-a-tat of the speed bags, the boom box music, the sharp foot-dance of the jump rope, the snorts of hard breathing, trainers’ voices loud and soft, all overlaid with the faint familiar smell of sweat that seemed to permeate the very walls and the old boxing posters that hung there, faded advertisements for gone and forgotten fistic corridas.

It was fucking heaven.

I got there when the club was still ruefully intact, like Wildwood itself. Wildwood is a blue collar Jersey Shore town right above the tony Victorian resort of Cape May. It’s the difference between Mayfair and welfare. Wildwood is a Bruce Springsteen song of beer bars and lost love on a starry boardwalk night. It is still hauntingly authentic, like the Ferris wheel at dawn.

I saw in the local paper that there was to be a boxing show at the new convention center and there was a number to call for tickets. I hadn’t written about boxing in too long, and something stirred. I called the number and talked to Al Mussachio, who was co-promoting the show, which headlined his son, Chuck, a light heavyweight who, it turned out, was also a school teacher with a master’s degree in guidance counseling. I told Al if he’d get me a press pass I’d write about the show in the Wildwood Sun, a unique journal dedicated solely to Wildwood past and present where I had been writing mainly fiction.

I think what really re-hooked me on boxing was Chuckie’s ring entrance: first there was Frank Sinatra’s voice crooning “Come Fly With Me” and then came Chuckie, handsome and sharp-featured, dap as shit in a Sinatra stingy-brim fedora, prancing down the aisle, loose as ashes, waving to his hometown fans. All he needed was a trench coat over his shoulder. The place went nuts. This was their homeboy hero. And he’d added the nickname “The Professor” to the persona. Good thing he could fight.

He won going away over ten rounds, although the other guy wasn’t much more than a sturdy tomato can. But there was something so romantic and yet so totally apropos about that ring entrance that I hearkened back to it more than the actual ringwork. It had thrilled and touched me somehow.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that when the hat came off and the nickname had been announced, it was just Chuck and the other guy in individual combat. No songs, no strutting, no waving. Hit and don’t get hit – the impossible dream. When you’re hit, hit back. Always. The pure primacy of intention inside the ring made that high-flying, hat-wearing entrance all the more poignant. And at some level Chuckie knew that. He knew the game.

I started hanging out at the Wildwood Boxing Club. It had been started in 1997 by Chuck, Al, the late Ron Gagliardo, and the ex-light heavyweight champ Virgil Hill, who was living up by Atlantic City – he still runs a gym there – and used to spar with Chuckie when The Professor was still a teenager and would come up to the Pleasantville Rec  Center to work with Virgil.

Virgil loved the Wildwood Boxing Club. He said it reminded him of the bustout gyms in North Dakota when he was coming up there. Once in a while he would come down to spar with Chuck. (Parenthetically, I’ve noticed that people call him Chuck and Chuckie interchangeably, which I find I’m doing here, but it comes naturally in context and seems to work.)

Virgil Hill is a very handsome and charismatic man. He has always reminded me of the movie actor Omar Shariff. After his workouts with Chuckie, Virgil would sort of hold  court, telling stories and answering questions. Like many fighters, he is both affable and humble outside of the ring, and his visits were always memorable and pleasant.

Virgil always called Al before he left for Wildwood and Al would put the word out that Virgil was coming down and there would a be a full house in the crowded ring room to watch him and Chuck go.

One of the two best boxing novels ever written is The Professional by Bill Heinz. The other is Leonard Gardner’s Fat City. In The Professional middleweight Eddie Brown is training for his title shot. There is a deep, abiding self-knowledge in the way he goes about it, the way the good ones, the true professionals, prepare. There is a reflexive earned innate satisfaction of doing the one job he knows intimately and is extraordinarily gifted in accomplishing. It is a subtle force field in its way. It partakes of art.

I sensed that in how comfortable Virgil Hill was at being a boxer, how relaxed he was in the ring whether it was in the Wildwood Boxing Club or Caesar’s Palace. It is the way of champions and professionals. It is their place of business.

Getting into his ring stuff at the boxing club, Virgil would keep up a steady stream of boxing and ball-busting chatter with his handlers and anyone else who wanted to take a shot. But all the while he was supremely conscious of the way his hands were being wrapped or how his shoes were carefully laced and tied. You knew he had done it thousands of times and yet that there was a part of him in which it was always new, that there was always a new day, a new lesson to be learned, a move tried or honed, a new equation in the sweet science. There was a skilled quiet about Virgil Hill when he was practicing his profession. He had been twice a world champion.

When I first started hanging at the Wildwood Boxing Club, which ran from about 4 to 6:30 every weekday, I’d sit on one the two sprung-ass sofas along the wall by the tiny office with Al, Mickey Spataro, and Richie Bennett.

Al told Mickey and Richie that I was a writer and that was great by them because all they mostly did was tell stories and maybe tell a kid to snap the jab unless they saw something that really needed fixing and then they’d jump up and give some hands-on tutelage. They were both in their late seventies and could still move and teach.

Mickey Spataro was my favorite. He went 25-5-3 in the fifties as a lightweight. He fought in the old, real Madison Square Garden 12 times he told me but never in a main event there. He said the people who had him liked him better on the undercards. He was from Brooklyn and trained at the legendary Stillman’s and “the people” who had him he explained with a short wave of his hand and a “what can you do” shrug.

Mickey fought as Mike Spataro. He wasn’t a big puncher. He only had four knockouts. But he was clever and had heart and guile. He also worked his ass off at his trade. He told me he spent six months perfecting a hard jab. When I asked to see it, he bounced up and went to the heavy bag and as soon as he put his hands up you knew he was a fighter. He rattled the big bag with two hard quick jabs like he was 24 years old.

Mickey’s running buddy when he was fighting was the great Joey Giardello, who was from Brooklyn, too, although he fought mostly out of Philly. Mickey was still all Brooklyn. He actually called oil “erl.”

There was a genuine sweetness about Mickey. Women loved him. He was still handsome and wore good clothes well. He always had a woman friend — older, well-kept women whom he treated with a courtliness that you don’t see much any more. Mickey was a gentleman, Brooklyn style.

Last I heard, he had gone back to Brooklyn and is still trying to get his son out of Federal prison where he’s doing serious time on a RICO beef. The kid wouldn’t roll and I assume he’s still inside.

Richie Bennet was decidedly not a gentleman; he was in fact about one click from being a thug. Richie was a knockaround guy from Southwest Philly who had fought amateur. His son, with the wonderful nickname of Richie “The Bandit” Bennett, had made it pretty good in the pros as a middleweight when Philadelphia was chockablock with good, tough middleweights. The Bandit went 25-6-2 with 18 knockouts and split two decisions with the legendary Bennie Briscoe. He died young, though, from drugs.

Richie senior and I became tight when I told him I’d seen the Bandit fight several times when J. Russell Peltz was promoting some great fights at the old Spectrum in South Philadelphia.

Richie was drinking a fifth of gin every night when I met him and seemed to think this was a normal and desirable pastime. He also would treat himself to some Philly meth went he went up to his old haunts in the city.

Richie was tall and gangly and had a sagging face out of Hogarth. He knew the backstory of Philadelphia boxing chapter and verse and was close enough to its shady history to call Frank “Blinky” Palermo, the mob guy who ran Philly boxing, simply “the Blink” and hang out at the luncheonette Blinky ran in West Philly.

Richie had worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad – the Pennsy – in some kind of no-show job that let him gallivant around town making as many fast funky shady bucks as he could. Richie was an urban rogue, quietly delighting in the moves that kept him out of the house and on the street as much as possible. He was both shrewd and naïve. We shared stories with each other we didn’t share with the other guys. Drugs and such.

I loved to hear Richie and Al Mussachio trade stories. Al was an ex-Philly detective from South Philadelphia back in the heyday of Frank Rizzo and he and Richie knew many of the same people and crime hotspots, although from opposite ends of the legal spectrum. I often marveled that Al had never locked Richie up back in the day.

Al was a double-dip of both boxing and cop stories and he loved to tell them. He’d actually jump up and act them out. He had fought amateur back in the day but had joined the cops rather than go pro.

His father had been a quietly bigtime South Philadelphia political force and Al had the gift to walk into a dressing room of strangers before a fight and be the center of things in about thirty seconds. He loved people and was bald and smiling and still powerful. He was totally in the moment and brought everyone along. He was smart and profane and very much fun. I talked to him recently and he still is all that and always a friend.

He was Chuck’s trainer, manager, confidante, and most of all father. They were so easy with each other. I remember Chuckie busting into the club one afternoon when Al, Mickey, Richie, and I were sitting on the couches and Chuckie took one look and yelled, “What is this – old fucks day?” We loved it.

I remember coming into the club one hot summer afternoon before anybody was there and Chuck was sitting on the ring apron quietly weeping as he read The Ring magazine’s account of the boxing death of his good friend Leavander Johnson.

Leavander was the International Boxing Federation (IBF) lightweight champion from Atlantic City who was killed in his first title defense. He and Chuckie would actually spar so that Chuckie could work with someone that fast. They were very close. Leavander’s father, Billy Johnson, another true gentleman of boxing, was one of Chuckie’s corner men for most of his fights.

Leavander was 35 and left a wife and four kids. He was 34-5-2 with 26 knockouts and he was in a lot of wars. They put up a statue of him in Atlantic City.

I asked Chuck once what effect Leavander’s death had on him and he said Leavander was a pure warrior who fought flat out at all times. Chuckie said that he was more of a defensive fighter who tried to hit and not get hit as much as possible and that he would give up the game at the first sign of any permanent physical or mental damage. He did. Chuck Mussachio retired after being knocked out twice and losing to a journeyman in his last fight.

While Virgil Hill’s appearances at the Wildwood Boxing Club were all moonlight and roses, when “Mighty Mike” Aranaoutis showed up, it was a different story. He was a mean little Greek from Athens who had briefly held the World Boxing Organization (WBO) lightweight championship, sort of a cheese title, and he’d come into the club and purely wail on Josh Mercado and Darren Rosario, two of the most talented kids in the club but no match for a seasoned, nasty pro.

Al loved Mighty Mike. I think it was the nickname and the nastiness. Al always grinned and nodded his head in admiration when he said “Mighty Mike.” It just tickled him to say it.

Mighty Mike was said to have a beautiful wife back in Athens and he kicked ass in the club like he couldn’t wait to get back to her. It reminded me of a story I heard once from an old Philly fighter named Sam Kovnat. Sam said he was boxing in the Army during World War Two and the immortal Henry Armstrong showed up at the camp to put on an exhibition with Sam. He said they had a very cordial conversation before stepping into the ring, but after that Armstrong tried to kill him.

One day this guy brought his son into the club. The guy always wore a leather car coat and a backwards leather Jeff cap. He ran his mouth constantly, an expert on every aspect of boxing. His son was about twenty and you could tell he’d boxed before. He was pretty good, actually.

The kid was a legitimate middleweight and was soon regularly beating up on most of the younger kids. Richie made a big fuss over the kid because he was always looking for somebody he could turn pro and make some money with.

The kid was soon pretty full of himself and one afternoon he tapped Kenny Carey on the head while Kenny was lacing up his ring shoes and said, “Hey, grandpa, you want to go a couple?”

Kenny looked over at Al, who raised his eyebrows and gave a thumbs up. Kenny was in his mid-forties and made his living as a prison guard at Bayside Prison over near Vineland. Kenny purely loved the game even though he couldn’t get a license in New Jersey because of his age, and went down to his home state of Virginia where he was licensed to take occasional fights.

Kenny was at best a journeyman but he had very heavy hands. Chuckie tried to keep out of range as much as he could when they sparred. Kenny was also a sweetheart, soft spoken and self-deprecating, another of boxing’s noblemen. But he was not to be fucked with.

Kenny and the kid put on the big sparring gloves and headgear and everybody trooped into the ring room to see the action.

The clock buzzed and they were off, the kid circling Kenny, peppering him with jabs and some pretty good hooks. Kenny was catching some of the punches on his shoulders and arms and rolling with them. He’d thrown a few range-finding jabs, but that was about all.

“Is that all you got, old man?” the kid rasped through his mouthpiece.

Kenny hit him with a perfect body shot and you could hear the air go out of the kid as he crumbled to the mat with the panic-stricken look that goes with getting the wind totally knocked out of you.

His old man rushed into the ring and knelt over his son, silent for once.

“He’ll be all right in a couple minutes,” Kenny said.

When the kid was able to walk, they left the gym and we never saw them again.

The boxing club just sits there now, closed and empty. It got caught in some kind of Wildwood political gypsy switch and was summarily closed down. They still run a program at the new rec center, but they just use the back of the gym and there’s not even a ring. Chuckie’s tending bar now and waiting to start teaching again next year. Al was driving a bus for medical patients but he’s retired now. Mickey and Richie are out of touch. Kenny’s around, but not fighting any more.

We all miss the club. What I miss most of all are the stories. Life is all stories.