“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”– Mike Tyson
My nephew, Laszlo, cited this quote in his official fight bio explaining why he undertook the challenge of participating in this year’s Wharton versus Law Fight Night charity fund-raising extravaganza at the Palestra in Philadelphia. Each year Wharton business school students train to fight University of Pennsylvania law students, or other Penn graduate students foolish enough to want to stand in the ring, face-to-face, mano a mano with a soon-to-be Wharton grad.
Laszlo’s fight bio continued: “Boxing teaches you how to move intuitively so you can keep going when everything falls apart. You can’t win a fight by being a good bullshitter or relying on your credentials. You have to work constantly, and once you’re in the ring, every round, every exchange, every moment is a new test. Most importantly, boxing teaches you to confront yourself, to look yourself in the eye and know that you—and not whoever you may find yourself in the ring with–are the only true opponent.”
The idea that boxers are fighting themselves was something I had never considered. Boxing had always seemed to be an epic fight between two men, a hypermasculine endeavor worthy of Norman Mailer’s attention. But in her book, “On Boxing,” Joyce Carol Oates agrees with the concept of self as opponent. “You and your opponent are so evenly matched it’s impossible not to see that your opponent is you.” She goes on, “The boxer meets an opponent who is a dream-distortion of himself in the sense that his weaknesses, his capacity to fail and to be seriously hurt, his intellectual miscalculations–all can be interpreted as strengths belonging to the Other.”
When we met Laszlo for dinner a few weeks before the bout, we were aware that he was going through some things in his personal life that had knocked him for a loop, but we didn’t know that he’d been training intensively for this boxing match as both a challenge and a way to immerse himself in something very much outside of his normal life. We were happy to accept the invitation, especially because Fight Night fell on the very day of his 30th birthday.
We didn’t fully realize how much work he’d put into training or what an extravaganza of the Philadelphia variety this was going to be. (All of you who have ever lived in and loved Philadelphia will know what I’m talking about. Philly has an earnestness that is a welcome contrast to New York’s cool. Halftime events at city sporting events feel almost Midwestern in their guilelessness.) I didn’t consider myself a boxing fan. I had covered my eyes during most of the fight scenes in Raging Bull. But an invitation to Fight Night from your nephew, who is boxing in it on his 30th birthday, is not something you can turn down.
The next time I called my brother, I asked him if he knew about Fight Night. He did, and was worried about Laszlo being hurt, especially the possibility of a concussion or eye injuries. I commiserated with him. My brother was happy to hear that at least we’d be at Fight Night, because he’d be at home that night in California worrying and waiting to hear if Laszlo was OK when it was over.
Detailed plans for Fight Night were emailed to us and all of Laszlo’s friends who were planning to attend the event, many from New York. The email laid out Laszlo’s plans to host a pre-party get-together at a pub near the Palestra; following the fight there was a big Wharton/Penn after-party, complete with a lot of alcohol and a rapper’s performance. After looking at the official Fight Night website, which had video of some of last year’s fights, we realized that this event was way more of a big deal than we expected. For one thing, the invitation said the event was black tie and David doesn’t have a tuxedo (“don’t worry, just look snazzy,” Laszlo said), and a big crowd attended. After we excused ourselves from the after-party extravaganza, Laszlo insisted that we go to the pre-party at the New Deck Tavern pub with his friends, from which he would be largely absent since he was preparing for the fight.
The pub on Sansom Street where the pre-party was held was a cute converted row house with flowers in window boxes and tables out front. Just as we got there, a taxi arrived and let out a beautiful young couple, he in a tux and she in a beautiful, floor-length slinky gown. David and I glanced at each other. “Must be the right place,” I said. Once inside the pub, a Maitre D asked us if we wanted a table, but we told him we were looking for Laszlo’s private party. He immediately directed us downstairs to the basement room. “Laszlo’s party is downstairs. Everyone looks really nice,” he said, and we hoped he wasn’t implying that we didn’t look so nice, because we were dressed in what was basically pretty boring middle-aged office-appropriate attire: David in a dark suit and blue button-down shirt and me in a sensible knee-length black knit dress with little shape, one-inch heels, and, in an attempt at a more dressy visage, fake diamond earrings.
Descending the narrow staircase into the packed, warm room with low ceilings, we saw a large group of young men and women, all very well dressed. They were at once bold and unsure, and strikingly beautiful. It is old fashioned to say “beautiful.” Everyone I overheard complimenting women that night said they looked “hot.” There are websites where you can find out if you’re “hot or not.” Hot outfits are different from ones that you look beautiful in, but I am forcing myself to put aside my outdated ideas about what one wears to events, to work, to weddings, or funerals, and am getting used to the fact that leaving anything to the imagination is an ideal from the past. Sparkles on breasts, super-deep cleavage, side boobs, major “back,” and dresses so short you can’t sit down are the rule. It’s the guys who are now the ones dressed with an eye toward elegance, smooth lines, eye-catching, colorful hand-tied silk bowties, and pastel-colored shirts.
The close quarters in the basement room instantly set off a hot flash, which ensured that I was no longer snazzy, now rather sweaty and flushed. David remained cool and collected. In short order the questions began: “Are you Laszlo’s mom?” “Are you related to Laszlo?” Must have been (question 1) that we were the only people in the room over the age of 30, and (question 2) the shared Jewish genetics that tipped them off. One young man asked if I was “The Aunt,” at which point I suspected that they had been warned and one of them might be assigned to look after us. Upon hearing I was the sister of Laszlo’s dad, one young man said, very slowly, “Oh, wow, I am a big fan of Mitchell Syrop,” my brother.
Outside the Palestra, the lines were long to get into Fight Night. Many young women tottered on sky-high heels and shivered as the suddenly cold wind blew on bare backs, shoulders, and legs. I threw fashion to the wind and wore the wool coat I’d brought along. (Being middle aged, cold is far more of an enemy than fashion blunders.) A guard scanned my ticket and searched my bag before waving me in. The hallway was filled with people moving in all directions. Just a few moments after stepping onto the bleachers, my suspicion that Laszlo had covertly assigned a particular couple to watch out for us seemed to be confirmed, as we found ourselves guided downstairs by the same elegant couple we’d seen get out of the taxi and with whom we’d chatted at the pub. Chris and Sarah had a pass to seats at ground level that had a great view of the ring. They kindly sat with us for nearly the entire event, even insisting on buying the old folks drinks. From our vantage point, we were in a perfect position to see the entire spectacle with the ring at its center on the floor of the Palestra. Crowds were gathered at linen-covered tables set up on the floor surrounding the ring. The din was already at a low roar.
The Penn campus, where David and I met in February 1977, is a very different place today. While we miss seeing places we frequented–like Troy’s dollar-for-breakfast combination greasy spoon diner and package goods store on 39th Street (home of the “Eggel”) or the Laundromat on 40th and Spruce, which featured pinball machines (Sinbad was my favorite) at which one could while away the time spent waiting for clothes to dry (or, alternatively, find a gun quickly abandoned in a washing machine)–all of which Penn has sanitized away through one land grab after another, it is gratifying to see other changes. The young people filling the Palestra for Fight Night, representing Wharton and all the various Penn graduate schools, would have seemed unimaginably diverse in the late 1970s and early 1980s when we lived there. Penn no longer has that fortress feeling it did back in 1976 when I arrived there.
While I was anxious about Laszlo’s match and whether he’d be hurt (specifically, I was focused on the nose and brain), I found myself oddly drawn to the matches leading up to his fight, which was the fifth one. It turns out that I don’t hate boxing, actually, at least not this relatively controlled boxing match. Fight Night bouts have only three rounds (professional fights can have up to 12), each 2 minutes long. Still, that can feel achingly slow. As in pro-boxing, for Fight Night there is no hitting below the belt, no hitting kidneys, and no hitting the back of the head or back of the neck. At Fight Night, no one wants an actual knockout. Winners are determined by judges’ decision. Throughout each fight an experienced referee was in the ring with the boxers, following every move, ensuring all goes well. The only matchup that made me uneasy was the sole women’s match, and it was only because the two fighters were so poorly matched in terms of body type and preparation that it was a rout, with the skinny physics PhD student looking very much worse for wear by the end.
After watching a number of matches, I suddenly understood how remarkable it was that boxers are hit repeatedly yet continue to come back for more, rather than running out of the ring in an act of desperate self-preservation. Oates writes, “The boxer must somehow learn…to inhibit his own instinct for survival; he must learn to exert his ‘will’ over his merely human and animal impulses, not only to flee pain but to flee the unknown.”
I didn’t know any fighters in any of the matches besides Laszlo, so I didn’t know the fighters’ stories or about any personal drama that might be motivating anyone involved to box and remain in the ring while being pounded. Oates says that each boxing match is a story–a unique and highly condensed drama without words. “Boxers are there to establish an absolute experience, a public accounting of the outermost limits of their beings,” Oates explains. “They will know, as few of us can know of ourselves, what physical and psychic power they possess–of how much, or how little, they are capable. To enter the ring near-naked and to risk one’s life is to make of one’s audience voyeurs of a kind: boxing is so intimate.”
Watching boxing isn’t like watching another one-on-one sport such as tennis. I’ve watched many tennis matches in which famous, phenomenal players lose in heartbreakingly close Grand-Slam level matches. Their public loss and ability to hold back their emotions long enough to make a speech and congratulate the winner can be painful and touching to watch, but witnessing the process of a loss in the boxing ring is much worse, with the opponent landing actual punches, and seeing blood pour out of places, feels very intimate indeed.
Finally it came time for Laszlo’s match against a Penn Dental School student who looked well matched in size and build with Laszlo. We positioned ourselves so that David could video the whole thing while I cheered with the fighter’s friends, “LAZ-LOW, LAZ-LOW, LAZ-LOW” and we stomped our feet in the stands. Each contender brings a “posse” of his friends from the back of the Palestra and they strut onto the stage as a self-made “promotional” video of their training plays above. The posse circles around the ring as the boxer takes off his jacket, straps on the head gear, and gets advice from the ring coaches. Laszlo’s posse of friends, dressed in black with ties, sunglasses, and leather (one of them in a faux-leather-policeman-in-shorts outfit), circle around the ring, drumming up the crowd spirit, before they exit.
It’s time for the fight. The Emcee announces the fighters in a very loud but smooth growl. The Ring babes in skimpy black outfits and high heels sashay around the ring, holding up the ROUND 1 signs. The bell goes off. The match begins. About 20 seconds in, David, suddenly a boxing expert, says, “Laszlo will win. He’s much better than the dentist.” During the first round, the fighters are nimble and quick, really showing their stuff. Laszlo has better footwork and lands more punches. I’m screaming and stomping in the bleachers. “LAZ-LOW! LAZ-LOW!” and thinking, “Watch the nose! Watch the nose! Watch your head! Watch your brains!” Then Round 1 is over, the boxers retire to their corners and have their noses wiped and water squirted into their mouths. The babes with the Round 2 signs do their circuit, and the action begins again, slower than Round 1 but still energetic. After Round 2, the boxers are back to the corners, now looking wild-eyed with exhaustion, breathing so hard it is scary. Laszlo sits with his arms stretched out sideways, crucifixion style, while being attended to. The babes with the Round 3 signs did their shimmy and strut, and it is the home stretch at last. Both boxers are visibly tired; it feels like a very long round for them, and their movements are more dance-like, clinching each other at times. Finally the buzzer sounds, and it’s over. As the two boxers stand with the referee between them, the announcer says Laszlo won the match. The referee raises Laszlo’s arm in victory, the boxers shake hands, and leave the ring.
We wait for Laszlo outside the dressing room door. There he is, soaked in sweat, with a bloody nose, but triumphant and glowing. He hugs me, says he is fine and will be out after he cleans up. I text my brother, sitting at home in Los Angeles, waiting for word:
–“He won. He’s fine. He’ll call you.”
–“Thank you,” comes the reply. “Your relieved brother.”
Author’s Note: Many thanks to Bob Moncrief for his advice and for sending me to the library to read Joyce Carol Oates.