Sunday, November 13, 2011





I was leaning back against the ring ropes, elbows tucked in, arms up, gloves protecting my face and head. Lester Killer Carter was banging away at me, thinking he could finish the fight fast, and I was letting him. Not because I didn’t have a choice, but because I had a plan.

It was still early and the Los Angeles Olympic Auditorium was less than a quarter full. My fight with Carter wasn’t even listed on the night’s card, just a middleweight amateur three round bout to get the evening rolling.

Still, Mickey Cohen, a squat toad of a man, was there ringside. His bodyguards sat behind him, while on either side there were a couple of expensive looking ring Jezebels – the kind of women who liked to get a man’s blood splattered across their dresses. Sitting stoically next to the frail on Cohen’s left was the huge black bulk of Solomon King – Cohen’s current light-heavyweight contender.

Word was, King was the real deal. His tall frame was packed with massive muscles. Long arms were capped by fourteen inch fists, which King used to club his opponents relentlessly. Boxing reporters speculated Cohen had King on track to fight Archie Moore, the current light-heavyweight champion, later in the year. But King would have to decisively win at least one more fight, against a viable contender before Moore’s people would allow the championship belt to be put on the line. King was the kind of fighter champions dodged for as long as they could.

I shot out a left jab, rocking Carter’s head back. It was just hard enough to make him mad. Carter started swinging wildly, and I went back into my defensive shell.

Cohen had a lot of much more lucrative, if illicit, businesses, but he loved the fights. Carter was reputed to be headed into Cohen’s stable, but I was going to make sure the big man was disappointed in this particular prospect.

I rolled off the ropes and scooted away to Carter’s left. He followed throwing a right cross, which I batted easily away. He should have thrown a left to drive me back to the ropes, but Carter didn’t have a left worth writing home about. I let him chase me for a bit and then stopped and threw a triple combination designed to sting, but not hurt. All three punches scored, drawing more embarrassment for Carter than pain.

The bell ran to end the first round and I swayed back to avoid Carter’s late left hook. It went past me like a weak breeze. The ref, a short fat man in black pants, white shirt, and red bow tie, jumped between us.

In my corner, Pop Hawks was waiting with my stool. Before I sat, I looked directly at Cohen. Catching his eye, I pumped my left arm up and down in a mocking motion, rubbing in his fighter’s weakness. I didn’t like Cohen. Most cops didn’t unless they were on his payroll.

That Cohen shared a first name with my older brother was a disgrace.

Cohen had filled the organized crime void in L.A. in ’47 when mobster Bugsy Siegel ate a bullet sandwich in his home – all because he wouldn’t play ball with the east coast crime families. While Cohen did pay token respect to the east, he was tougher and more violent than Bugsy ever dreamed of being. Most everyone, made-men included, gave him a wide berth.

“What are you doing out there?” Pops growled, taking out my mouthpiece and tipping water in my mouth before I could answer. I was slick with sweat, but felt instantly cooled when Tina Hawks, Pops’ thirteen year old daughter, squeezed a sponge across my shoulders. She then held a bucket for me to spit in. Growing up around a family full of older brothers, Tina was a tomboy and a half. Tall and skinny now, she’d be a beauty someday, but she wouldn’t want to hear about it now.

“Easy, Pops,” I said. “He’s punching himself out and I’m not even breathing heavy.”

“Don’t mess around in a fight. He could lucky punch you and you’re on your back being counted out.”

Ex-navy swab, Pops Hawks had left the Los Angeles Police Department after eight years and a bullet in his leg to run Ten Hawks Gym – named for him and his nine kids. All the Hawks were fighters either in the ring or out.

Pops had the cauliflowered ears and eye scarring of a palooka, but he still had his brains if not his looks. Ten Hawks Gym was just down the street from Central Division Station, where I was assigned to the night watch felony car. Pops coddled part time fighters like me, and dreamed of training a contender.

I looked over at Cohen and his following again. The gangster was chatting away, but Solomon King wasn’t paying any attention. He was staring straight at me. His eyes were dead pools of hate. I’d seen that look before from other Negros I’d been with in the Navy – it was a look of them against the world. King’s burned harder.

I noticed another large Negro sitting behind King. He was perhaps an inch shorter, but had the same ebony carved expression. A comma of straight, short, white hair stuck out on the left side of his forehead, stark against the wiry curls of his otherwise tar black hair.

“Who’s sitting behind King?” I asked Pops.

He didn’t even turn to look. “Focus, Flynn. Get out there and put this guy down.”

The bell sounded. I popped up off the stool and into a barrage of punches. Carter had obviously been fired up in his corner. He knew Cohen was watching and he wanted to look good. As long as he was progressing, Cohen would fund his rise. One setback and Cohen would lose interest.

I backed into the ropes, rolling easily with one of Carter’s right hooks. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught one of the frails with Cohen, the redhead, watching me intently. For a second I thought I recognized her, but then I had to get busy fending off Carter.

I wrapped Carter in a clinch. Over his shoulder I could see Cohen was watching, waving his arms around and getting animated.

King just watched.

I let Carter push me away and went back to work counterpunching.

I knew a lot about Cohen. When he was a teenager, he began boxing in illegal prizefights in Los Angeles. In 1930 he turned pro against Patsy Farr in Cleveland, Ohio. He’d been a pretty good featherweight – even got a shot in ‘31 against World Featherweight Champion Tommy Paul. In that real fight, he hadn’t lasted long. Paul knocked out Gangster Mickey Cohen, as he was known even then, at 2:20 into the first round.

Cohen’s last fight in the ring was in ‘33, twenty one years ago, against Baby Arizmendi in Tijuana, Mexico. It was another beat down. Now, he fought in the streets where there were no rules, using guns and blades and other men as deadly punches to climb another type of championship ladder. Cohen was a heavyweight, out of my league as a beat cop, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t take down one of his puppets.

I fended off a couple more strong rights from Carter and then walked into a weak left hook – only it wasn’t. It was fast and hit with the force of a boulder. I staggered and reeled away, suckered like some tin can just waiting to be knocked over. Carter followed relentlessly, throwing combinations I couldn’t answer. I hated being a sucker. My brother Mickey would have razzed me. He always said I didn’t take fighting serious enough.

I clinched, wrapping my arms around Carter, burying my head in his shoulder. He tried to push me away, but I held him tight like I’d paid a dime for the dance.

The ref tapped me on the shoulder and yelled, “Break!”

My head had cleared a little and I covered up as I pulled away. Carter threw another of those sucker lefts, but I was ready for it – slipping it and stepping in to throw a couple of weak jabs. They didn’t do much damage and Carter came back at me again.

I clinched again and was still waltzing with him when the bell rang.

“Stupid!” Pops said, as I sat on the stool. “I taught ya better . . .”

I was waiting for Tina to sponge my back, but instead she popped up next to Pops and handed him a folded piece of paper. Pops knew Tina didn’t fool around, so he took her serious and opened it.

“Where’d this come from?”

“The negro with the white in his hair handed it to me.”

Pops turned the paper toward me.

The message was to the point – On The Canvas This Round.

There was only one source that cared enough to get me to throw a fight. There wasn’t any threat attached. There didn’t have to be. I looked over and the Negro man with the white comma of hair was back sitting behind Cohen and King. Messenger boy.

“What you going to do, Pat?” Tina asked.

“I don’t go in the tank for nobody,” I said, standing up.

I couldn’t believe Cohen cared much about a small time amateur fight, but I cared. With the Navy, I’d been assigned to the battleship Missouri in the Eastern Med when Truman was rattling his Cold War saber. I’d boxed on the deck for the Navy and on shore leave for the honor of the ship, and I wasn’t going down for some two-bit gangster no matter who he was.

The bell rang and I came out of the corner on fire. In the Navy, I fought whoever they put in front of me. The sanctioned fights had kept to official weight standards when they could, but on shore in the bars and behind fuel dumps, I’d never walked away from bigger, heavier men. I’d taken my lumps, but I’d developed a reputation for being a giant killer – a David taking on Goliaths with just my fists, no sling needed.

There had been some split decisions along the way, even a couple of bad beatings, but I’d never gone down for the count. Not once.

I boxed these days simply because I’d always boxed. Between the nuns and Father Tim at St. Vincent’s Asylum for Boys in Chicago, where me and Mickey grew up, I’d been made tougher than an old elephant’s hide.

We’d called the asylum Our Lady of the Glass Jaw, simply because the nuns hated the nickname. They made us pay for it regularly. Their pious anger and Father Tim’s fast hands in the ring challenging us were what made us tough and proud.

I kept in shape now and fought regularly, but without a goal. I wasn’t hungry, but I still hadn’t gone down for the count, and I wasn’t going to start now.

Carter saw me coming. He knew instantly something was different. I was Patrick Felony Flynn. I was a giant killer and I saw the fear in his eyes. I hated that fear because it was the fear of weak bullies.

I feinted with my left and sent a right straight from my shoulder, blowing between Carter’s raised fists. His head snapped back, but this time there was more behind the punch than the last time I’d tagged him.

Then I went for Carter’s exposed body. I was seeing red. On some level, I was aware of the small crowd starting to pay attention. I didn’t just want to stop Carter, I wanted to destroy him – as if by destroying him, I could destroy Cohen. Stupid thinking.

Carter had a good core, but not a great one. There were a lot of miles not run, a lot of sit-ups not done, and I made him pay for his laxity. My gloves pounded at his gut as I ignored the off balance punches he threw.

When Carter’s hands dropped, I drove through them with an uppercut hitting him on the button. He was going down, but I propped him against the ropes and let loose. I was gone – the unreasoning anger I’d always known since I was a child was hot and raging. I hit him again and again until the ref and Pops pulled me back.

Carter dropped. Done. Finished. If he ever got in the ring again, he’d end up the same way. I saw the fear in him and knew I’d broken him for boxing.

I pulled away from Pops, spitting out my mouthpiece. I walked over to the ropes and looked down at Cohen. I spat a gob of blood on the canvas in contempt.

If anything, Cohen looked amused. He clapped his hands slowly, puffing on the cigar stuck in the middle of his mouth. The redhead next to him looked uncomfortable. Somehow, she didn’t seem a match with the blonde on Cohen’s right. She was dressed with the same floozy glamour, a too tight dress and gaudy jewelry, but there was intelligence in her eyes saying she didn’t belong there.

The Negro guy with the white comma of hair was gone, but King was there – sitting still as a statue, giving me his hard, flat stare.

I wasn’t worried about him. He was a pro and I was an amateur. He was a light-heavyweight; I’d always fought as a middleweight. The only way I’d ever come face to face with him was in a back alley, and then I’d have the good sense to run.

Pops and Tina threw my robe over me and guided me to the center of the ring where the ref raised my hand for half a second and let it drop. This was nothing to him. A small fight in a big venue. Not even on the card.

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