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Good with Their Hands Boxers, Bluesmen, and Other Characters from the Rust Belt

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One

The Culture of the Hands

Things change. Now . . . we have women boxers. Look, I know it's not politically correct to say this, but I'm against women boxing. I've got no problem with women as referees or judges. But women are too precious to get banged up. I see women as a minority, just like black folks, and recognize that they're discriminated against. I'm sympathetic to them. Fact is, I don't like to see women driving big tractors or fighting with guns in a war. I like to see women doing things that aren't hazardous to their health. Larry Holmes, former heavyweight champion

They say that men box to get out of the ghetto. I joke that boxing was my way into the ghetto. Kate Sekules, author, travel editor of Food & Wine, boxer

  I first saw Liz McGonigal fight at the Golden Gloves competition held in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in April 1996. Young amateur fighters and their retinues of trainers, parents, broken-nosed uncles, and advice-shouting friends had gathered from all over the state in the big gymnasium at Liberty High School to contest the state novice-class championships. Success in the novice class allows a fighter to move up through what is left of the fight network's strata—into the open amateur class, where more experienced opponents await, and perhaps eventually into the local professional circuit, the regional, the national. In Bethlehem that evening the most polished boxers, narrow-waisted and black, came from Philadelphia. For the most part they managed their rougher-edged opponents like toreadors coaxing performances from tank-town bulls. The biggest hitters came from Pittsburgh, blocky white guys throwing bombs with both hands. Most of the fighters came not from these metropolitan bookends of Pennsylvania but from the small cities and big towns that lie between and around them, places whose names still bear the resonance of heavy industry long past the time when factory work was the principal livelihood available to their residents: Bethlehem, Allentown, Easton, Erie, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Scranton, Hanover, York, Altoona, Mechanicsburg. These Pennsylvania mill cities, and others like them, were a cradle of the American Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century and a heartland of manufacturing well into the twentieth. But on this April evening, Bethlehem's last rolling mill and blast furnace had been cold for six months. For the first time since before the Civil War, no steel was being made in town, and the Bethlehem Steel Company, which had played such an important role in building America's cities and military, had cut its local workforce to a mere twelve hundred employees, down from a high of thirty-one thousand in the 1940s.1 The fighters climbed through the ropes at an uncertain moment when many people in town, and no doubt many people at the fights, were wondering what the city's next organizing principle would be: the Christmas City? Affordable housing for transient service professionals within commuting distance of the office parks of suburban New Jersey? Historical tourism built around oddly paired nostalgias for the Moravians' progressive moral rectitude and the heroic productivity of Big Steel?

The emotional peaks of the event came early. Angel Nales, a local high school hero who trained at the Larry Holmes Training Center in nearby Easton, won his 112-pound bout against Ernie Bizzarro, one of the fighting Bizzarros of Erie. It was the first bout of the card, an undistinguished affair in which both kids threw plenty of punches, most of which did not conform to the textbook definitions of jab, cross, hook, and uppercut. Bizzarro might have been the more accomplished boxer, but he lost the initiative and forgot his craft. The judges' decision in favor of Nales seemed fair, but the Bizzarro corner erupted when it was announced. Even before the crowd was settled in its seats, there were paunchy men in sweat clothes shouting and passionately restraining one another while guards rushed to ringside to calm everybody down. After the Bizzarro Boxing Club faction stormed off, the audience settled in happily, like fighters who have broken a sweat and are ready to get to work.

After a few more bouts, though, they were beginning to fidget again, since three-round amateur scuffles between novices tend to resemble one another and do not often feature spectacular knockdowns. The crowd's attention was reclaimed before intermission, though, by the evening's one bout between women: Liz McGonigal of Erie's Lower East Side Boxing Club versus Sarah Kump of the Hanover Boxing Club. Kump was a head taller and at least twenty pounds heavier, an advantage so enormous that the tournament's organizers behaved unethically in offering the matchup to the fighters' trainers. The first time Kump whacked McGonigal with a right, the smaller woman was lifted up and thrown back a step as if by a strong wind. Kump, however, was the greenest of beginners, and McGonigal, though still a novice, was not. McGonigal looked at home in the ring: surefooted and quick-handed, nicely balanced in her southpaw fighting crouch; always in motion seeking a line of attack; light on her feet, heavy with her punches. She clearly knew how to box, but after tasting her opponent's advantage in power and reach, she dispensed with fistic nuance and went for a quick knockout. The two women spent most of the first round exchanging murderous blows like granite-jawed movie heroes. Kump loaded up big right hands, which usually missed; when she did land one, it knocked McGonigal back on her heels. McGonigal, for her part, punched more crisply and with either hand, navigating past Kump's long arms to land left-right-left combinations to the head. Between rounds, McGonigal's cornerman reminded her to keep moving from side to side as she bored in, thus neutralizing Kump's ponderous right leads. McGonigal, embarrassed at having let herself be drawn into so unlovely a brawl, weaved contritely on her stool to show she understood and would do better. She returned to work with greater precision, and by the middle of the second round Kump was almost finished—beat-up, arm-weary, and winded. The referee stopped McGonigal's battering of Kump along the ropes to administer a standing eight-count, at the end of which he asked Kump if she wished to continue. Her ambiguous answer—it looked like she said, "I can't breathe"—obliged him to stop the fight.

The paying audience responded to the bout with the curious mix of prurient hysteria and sporting fervor that female boxers excite in fight crowds, which are overwhelmingly male. Most of the men in the Liberty High School gym were sports fans rather than boxing fans, and most of them were Lehigh Valley sports fans who reserve their appreciation of technique for high school wrestling and professional auto racing; so they were not particularly interested in pugilistic niceties. Like most people at the fights, who want to see rolling heads rather than accomplished footwork, they were happy to see lots of punching and drama. But they were especially moved by a fight between women. They may have enjoyed it for the same reasons they enjoy offense-heavy slugfests between stalwart men, but they also responded to the action as if it were a kind of advanced Jell-O wrestling or striptease, with damage replacing flesh as the dirty female thing to be revealed. When Kump began to break down under the smaller woman's assault, her head snapping back with the punches and her face reddening, they whooped and howled like conventioneers at a strip joint. This wild electric climate, part sex and part violence, was only partially tamed by protestations of more conventional sporting admiration—"those young ladies are really scrapping, buddy"—offered most earnestly by men who were there with wives or children and therefore felt obliged to reel in their tongues off the floor. Both reactions, the prurient and the sporting, were about girls and about boxing and about women boxing—three different things—at the same time.

The contrast between the fighters and the ring girls further complicated the crowd's responses. In the last twenty years there has been a significant increase in the number of female noncombatants one might see at the fights—seconds, judges, referees, ring physicians, lawyers. But until the upsurge in women's boxing in the 1990s, the only women one could count on seeing in the ring during a fight were the ring girls, who, uniformed in swimwear and high heels, climb through the ropes between rounds with a signature bend-and-wriggle motion and sashay around the inside perimeter of the ropes with a card indicating the number of the next round. The traditional division of labor in pugilistic spectacle has men fighting while ring girls do a different kind of public body work more closely related to sex work than to manual labor. The ring girls at the Golden Gloves in Bethlehem had the long legs, prominent breasts, and glossy hair expected of them, they had obviously spent time working out in the gym to tone their bodies, and they had more flesh on display than did the female fighters (since the fighters wore shorts and sleeveless T-shirts), but compared with the fighters, they looked unsavory, even sickly. Kump, bigger and darker than McGonigal, was strong and well built, with a tattoo of Superman's S insignia high on one shoulder blade. McGonigal was compact and graceful, in fine fighting trim, with a smart, sharp-featured face and a thick blond braid swinging down her back in rhythmic counterpoint to the movements of her boxing style. On her shoulder blade she wore a tattoo of the Tasmanian Devil, the perpetual-motion cartoon character who rips insatiably through trees and everything else in his path. Stalking and planting to throw punches, the fighters made the ring girls' shapely calves and buttocks, tensed by high heels, seem like side effects of some unhealthy hobbling practice akin to foot binding.

Some of the more demonstrative men in the crowd had hooted and called out perceptive remarks the first few times the ring girls made their rounds, but after a while the novelty began to wear off for all but the most dedicated poltroons. The women's bout, though, touched off a more general surge of wolfish behaviors that felt like an extension of the ring girls' reception. Something about potent, capable women in the ring caused even men who had been silent before to throw off their reserve and howl not just for female flesh but for women's blood (at least the kind that emerges north of the waistline). Evidently, it was stirring to see these women fight, and it was important to see at least one of them hurt. In the second round, when McGonigal was nailing Kump with solid punches and the referee was getting ready to step between them to wave off the fight, it sounded as if a hotly contested high school basketball game and a giant stag party were being held at the same time in the old gym.

When it was over, with the crowd abuzz and Kump sitting blearily on her stool in the corner, McGonigal stood in the center of the ring amid the usual postfight chaos of seconds and officials. Her trainer had taken off her headgear and gloves and jammed a billed Everlast cap on her head. As she made her way to her corner to descend from the raised ring, a photographer rushed up an aisle to the ring apron and called out to her. She turned to give him a traditional dukes-up pose: hands still taped, chin tucked in, eyes meeting the camera, a cool smile that both disdained this regrettably necessary game of publicity and promised another butt-whipping to whoever messed with her next. I followed the line of her gaze through the cameraman and into the crowd, where it transfixed a guy one row ahead of me and a few seats over. He had come to my attention earlier because he knew two tricks he thought worth repeating over and over: one was holding up a dollar bill and yelling, "Come get your money, baby" when the loveliest ring girl did her turn with the round card; the other was loudly heckling another ring girl whom he found insufficiently appealing. Now he was standing, openmouthed but silent, looking up at McGonigal. It was hard to tell from my vantage point—or perhaps from any—whether the look on his face was one of awe or rage.

This little triangular encounter, occurring at the junction of many tangled lines of social force and historical circumstance that linked the young fighters and their audience to the mill cities of Pennsylvania, made me wonder how it came to pass that women in the ring had moved the crowd so powerfully on that April evening in Bethlehem. I wanted to find out how a woman becomes a fighter and pursues her craft in places where skilled labor and rough sport—two ways of being good with one's hands—have been traditionally yoked as manly body work. A New York Times reporter, writing an elegiac piece about "life after steel" in Bethlehem, captured the conventional wisdom about factory work and manhood in a nutshell when he observed that the steel industry and other heavy manufacturing work have traditionally provided jobs that not only pay well but also have special added value in the calculus of American masculinity: "It is also gloriously proud and male work." This calculus is especially ingrained in regional culture: "Bethlehem and steel have long been intertwined, much as Kentucky and bourbon, Wisconsin and cheese, Winston-Salem and cigarettes," and one can extend the local relationship between Bethlehem and steel to embrace Pennsylvania and heavy industry in general.2 The contraction of heavy industrial work and the expansion of service work in the latter part of this century—the complex, layered process condensed into the word "postindustrial"—have been intertwined with changes in what it means for men and women to work and play. Boxing is the sport farthest from play and closest to work, especially body work. Women in the ring, good with their hands, inspire in fight crowds powerful reactions that seem to be both about the isolated sphere of boxing and about a set of related matters—among them the character of work, the value of skilled aggression, definitions of manhood and womanhood—that frame boxing within a larger social world. I wanted to understand the encounter of female fighters and their audience within the specialized confines of the fight world, which has grown increasingly alien to Americans as boxing has taken on the air of an esoteric throwback practice. But I also wanted to understand female fighters, their audiences, and the fight world in relation to a social landscape that was changing around them.

 

Erie

I went to Erie to see where Liz McGonigal came from. It takes six hours to drive from Easton (where I lived) to Erie on the interstates, straight west almost all the way across Pennsylvania and then up to the lakeshore. If you cut a corner by departing the westbound interstate early and taking smaller roads to go north, you pass through brick-and-wood towns like Clarion and Oil City, up through Titusville to Centerville and Union City. In this part of the world, the winding two-lane road runs between heavily wooded hillsides, briefly becomes a main street as it passes through a town, then curves out the other side of town, where the trees crowd down to the shoulder once more. Between towns there are hunting lodges, motels, antique shops. In the fall, bearded men in bulky camouflage jackets with cased rifles stand around smoking next to pickups parked on the shoulder. Erie boosters make a habit of deploying tables of comparative weather data to prove that Erie is not as cold and snowy as one might imagine (Fewer cloudy days than Pittsburgh! Less average annual snowfall than Buffalo!), but my sense of approaching the place—having made the trip the first time in November—is of gradually sharpening cold air, windblown eddies of snow skeining on the road surface, and wet, black branches and trunks making strong lines against white hillsides.

Erie is a foursquare little city surrounded by suburbs and malls and bolted onto the southern shore of Lake Erie. State Street runs south from the lakefront through the downtown and up a gently rising slope to the South Side, where Mercyhurst College, the Veterans Administration hospital, and some of the city's most prosperous neighborhoods are located. Bisecting the city's rectangular layout, State Street divides the East Side from the West. Some people in town consider the East Side, where the giant General Electric plant is located, to be the "grittier" (by which it is meant both the more blue-collar and the poorer) part of town; some consider the West Side, with higher land and housing values and a higher proportion of tidy residential blocks, to be more respectable (or less suffused with character) than the East Side. A pleasing collection of midsize prewar buildings dominates the downtown, and more recent architecture has been mixed into that older urban texture with less ground-clearing urgency than is evident in other Rust Belt cities. Erie's principal historical attractions, a bicentennial tower and the Flagship Niagara museum that exploits the American victory over the British at the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, are sited on the central axis just north of downtown where State Street meets the lakefront. The Presque Isle peninsula, joined to the mainland just west of the city and curving out offshore to enclose a bay, forms the backbone of a lively Rust Belt riviera during the summer—which seems like a long time ago when winter ice storms buffet the motels and beachfront facilities. On one return visit to Erie in March, I had one of only four or five occupied rooms at a downtown motel: the sound of wind-driven ice particles hitting the north-facing metal door of my room was so insistent that I turned off the television and the lights, opened the curtains, wrapped myself in musty quilts off the bed, and spent most of the night in an armchair by the window watching lonely cars in the parking lot rocking in the gusts.

I was in town that time to see the Golden Gloves competition of 1997, which was hosted at Headliners, a West Side nightclub, by the Lower East Side Boxing Club. The crowd at Headliners was full of thick-shouldered, helmet-haired men and women in black T-shirts or shiny windbreakers. The sound of countless plastic beer cups being drained and crushed underfoot approximated that of a spirited exchange of musketry, and nonstop smokers created hanging blue clouds that limited our already obscured view of the feebly lit ring. I sat in front of a large bloc of GE employees, who cheered lustily for the East Siders in their struggles against devious outlanders from abodes of effeteness like Pittsburgh, Altoona, and the West Side. The GE crew vigilantly studied the fighters for signs of flashiness, retrograde movement, or other indicators of questionable virtue. On those rare occasions when a young amateur blocked or slipped a punch or otherwise showed signs of passing familiarity with the manly art of self-defense, voices from behind me would yell, "Showboat! Get to work!" The East Siders were therefore displeased when Lou Bizzarro Jr., the talented standard-bearer for the next generation of fighting Bizzarros (who are West Siders), took the decision in the evening's big local grudge match by outboxing Jose Otero. The latter, an intense-looking guy with dark hair parted in the middle and frightening basket-weave stomach muscles (also parted in the middle), represented the Lower East Side Boxing Club. Bizzarro, expertly neutralizing the endlessly game Otero's rushes and sticking him with hard counterpunches and combinations, had very evidently won every round, so the crowd could not complain that Otero was robbed, but there were rumblings nonetheless. A greasy-bearded biker type seated near me turned to his pals and said, "If they're giving points for moving around and punching, that's one thing. But what about taking it to the other guy?" Everyone nodded and drank beer glumly, considering the dark implications of the thought.

The East Siders were reassured, though, by local darling Liz McGonigal's fight. Once again matched out of her weight class, this time against a Pittsburgh beanpole who was six inches taller and (no matter what the program claimed) about twenty pounds heavier than she, McGonigal upheld the Lower East Side Boxing Club's honor. She bored in against long jabs, taking her punishment and giving some back, and won a questionable decision on the strength of her indomitable advance rather than her considerable boxing skills, which were largely negated by her opponent's advantage in reach. Prurience did not audibly animate the crowd's reaction to the women's fight as it had in Bethlehem, where McGonigal was a blond stranger. In Erie she was local and widely respected as a scrapper, and she had many friends in the crowd—plus, this time her opponent was not a babe. The hometown fans (and, apparently, the judges) wanted to see a local boy or girl wade into an opponent, absorbing punishment in order to dish it out, and gradually wear down that opponent by relentless application of the local virtues: gumption, elbow grease, strength, resilience. They wanted to see the local heroes impose their will on their own and the other fighters' bodies—which one might see as recalcitrant pieces of machinery or raw material, depending on how one wishes to cast the industrial metaphor. The blows absorbed and sweat expended by the local fighter in persevering were of primary importance; the hero had to labor spectacularly as an earnest of his or her representativeness. Without such suffering, the victory was too cheap and smacked of white-collar work, a puling matter of loophole exploiting and rule bending.

The GE line workers who supported Liz McGonigal so devoutly are the standard-bearers of industrial Erie's social order and cultural traditions. Erie is still recognizably the city it became during the high-industrial period between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Its physical form still tells the story of a place shaped by the processes of gathering raw materials (ore, grain, coal, rubber, wood), turning them into products (locomotives, machine tools, building hardware, hospital supplies, castings), and circulating them (Erie was an important railroad city, lake port, and canal nexus). Postindustrial expressways and poured-concrete buildings are contained within the older frame made by the port, railroad tracks, brick factory buildings lining the Twelfth Street corridor, the GE locomotive works that dominates the East Side, and rows of workers' housing flanking what were once immigrants' parish churches. Erie's demography also bears the imprint of migrations that supplied the growing city with factory workers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: people of German descent form the largest ethnic group, followed by Poles, blacks, Italians, the Irish, Yankees who drifted west, and Hispanics who found their way north. That mix is typical of the inland Rust Belt, so typical that test marketers often use Erie as a guinea pig for commercial and political campaign strategies. The industrial-era infrastructure and demography are not just of historical interest: Erie is still a manufacturing city. In the last fifty years, the percentage of American workers employed in manufacturing has been contracting (to about 12 percent of total employment in the nation, a bit more in the state) and the service sector has been expanding, but about 25 percent of Erie's working residents still make things in the city's diverse and often homegrown factory enterprises. Of course, as is the case elsewhere in the Rust Belt, technological advances have allowed the manufacturing sector to get more productivity out of fewer and fewer workers. GE may still be the city's largest employer, and there are other industrial firms on the list of the city's most important employers, but the list is dominated by hospitals, schools, an insurance company, government, supermarkets, and fast-food outlets. The GE plant may be the city's most imposing structure, but the giant mall in suburban Millcreek functions as the region's central business place, attracting shoppers from northwest Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Canada.3 The city's industrial sector and the cultural and social traditions that grew up with it may no longer be dominant, but they enjoy the special cachet of tradition because they trail long roots in local senses of past and place.

The history of boxing in Erie intertwines with the city's industrial history. Erie was never a particularly important fight town and certainly is not one today, but like almost all Rust Belt cities, it was a thriving outpost of the fight world between the late nineteenth century and World War II. A sampling of local heroes from this period makes a map of the city's immigrant ethnic-dominated industrial working class: Nonnie Kane, Bing Welsch, Leo Finneran, Billy Purdy, Kid Gleason, Derby Giles, Jerry Cole, Young Frank (an Italian), Kid Xeny (Xenophon Kakouras), Jimmy Dean (a popular black fighter), Tommy Freeman, Heavy Andrews, Maxie Strub, Frankie Bojarski.4 In that period, the golden age of boxing as an American institution, there flourished in Erie a network of gyms and clubs, amateur organizations, and professionals across the range from local club fighters to creditable national figures. This network, and the national network of which it was a part, sustained itself because it attracted paying audiences and because it provided niches for men of various skills and at every stage of a fighter's life. From amateur novice to retired professional, fight people within the network met one another's demands for opponents, sparring partners, trainers, managers, students, referees, and so on. As a boxing city, Erie served as the central place of a minor region comprising the mill towns of northwest Pennsylvania, each with its own local network, and was in turn a satellite of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Detroit, and other capitals of the fight world. Scores, perhaps hundreds, of practicing boxers lived in the city and surrounding towns, and a large audience followed boxing. If most of those fans went to the fights to see blood and guts, a minority of connoisseurs cultivated some appreciation of boxing skill and supported fighters who demonstrated it, and in any case both kinds of fans went to the fights regularly.

The industrial working class produced most of the fighters and most of their audience. Many Erie fighters and fight fans worked in local factories, and one can see a further intertwining of industrial work and boxing in GE's sponsorship of amateur boxing in the 1930s.5 The GE plant was a kind of town within the city, with its own busy civic life, a newspaper, cultural and social organizations, and athletic leagues. Jim Donnelly, an employee at the East Line Assembly that made flat-top refrigerators, had been a professional boxer and had trained, managed, and promoted local professionals before becoming GE's in-house fight promoter and trainer in 1932. In 1936 he had thirty-two men, all of them GE employees or affiliates, in training at the company gym six days a week for amateur bouts against opponents in Erie, surrounding towns like Meadville and Titusville, and cities as far away as Syracuse and Rochester. Many of those opponents also represented industrial employers. Retired Erie fighters served as referees and judges on Friday evenings at GE Field, where for fifteen cents one could watch a card of bouts as well as a baseball game, all featuring GE athletes. "Interest in the Friday night bouts this year is more enthusiastic than ever before," reported the always boosterish company paper in 1936, "and as the crowds increase, better boxers will appear—the worth of the talent depending on the size of the patronage."6 Both management and shopfloor workers were invested in the fight world, and their patronage, measured not just by financial backing or size of crowds but also by the extent and integration of the region's boxing network, produced skilled boxers. The institutional arrangements of industrial labor and boxing—two forms of skilled body work—fit together like hand and glove, and the precipitous contraction of the fight network in the industrial heartland has paralleled the contraction of factory work in the last fifty years.

Erie's fight network and industrial sector may be much reduced in comparison to those of the century's early decades, but they persist, and there continues to be a vital connection between them. In 1997, when Liz McGonigal had a chance to go down to Georgia to compete for the women's national amateur title in the 112-pound class, GE workers donated the $2,500 she needed to make the trip. "They had a party at a bar with a five-dollar cover and a raffle," she told me, "and people came up with five or ten dollars or whatever they could. The GE people, the East Siders, who don't always have a lot of money, they always support me." It was a reminder that boxing, as a form of rough, work-related play, still retains its cachet in what the sociologist Kathryn Dudley calls "the culture of the hands," the system of values and meaning that evolved around the sweat and shopfloor cooperation of industrial body work. Dudley contrasts the culture of the hands with a competing worldview associated with service-professional work, the "culture of the mind" built around intellectual credentials and individual self-improvement.7 The GE hands cared that a hardworking local girl who was good with her hands—even one who, as we shall see, was also deeply invested in the culture of the mind—had a chance to make good. They pooled their limited resources to put their money behind their convictions.

McGonigal fought out of the Lower East Side Boxing Club, a fragmentary revival of the old fight world network during its postindustrial contraction. GE workers, this time with no significant help from management, have been instrumental in rebuilding what is now regarded as an esoteric institution—the local boxing gym—that their grandfathers and even their fathers would have taken for granted as part of the fabric of the old neighborhood. After the city's remaining gyms closed in the 1960s and 1970s, a group of men started the Lower East Side Boxing Club in the late 1970s, not to save boxing in Erie but to give East Side kids a place to go. "It started out as a place for kids to go who didn't have anything," said Matt DeForce, the dedicated, patient, reddish-blond-bearded man who runs the club and trains its fighters. "A bunch of friends started it who were basically the tough guys in town. We had poorer backgrounds, working-class backgrounds. We had ironworkers, bricklayers, painters, and five or six GE guys." DeForce was one of the GE guys, a rigger-millwright who set up and maintained machinery at the plant. (He retired in 2000.) The kids who have come into the club over the years make up a motley bunch: white and black and Hispanic, male and (lately) female, curious athletes and dead-end kids, young people headed variously for the shopfloor or college or nothing much at all. Most of them dabble, do it for the exercise and fighter's confidence, and drift away; some do well as amateurs, a few turn pro and win some fights.

In the 1970s the mayor gave the club an abandoned turn-of-the-century firehouse on the depressed eastern fringe of downtown, but, DeForce said, the city later threw them out when the block went upscale during a resurgence of historical renovation. It turned out that the owners of a new restaurant coveted the picturesque site. The restaurant, named the Pufferbelly after a nickname given to steam pumpers and engines of the late nineteenth century, is a classic postindustrial reuse of an atmospheric industrial-era brick building. I went there for dinner once. Everything on the menu was spuriously presented as the product of exacting workmanship mixed with healthy good sense, as if old-time craftspeople with a New Age horror of saturated fats were in the back doing the cooking. Flipping past the menu's pages of char-grilled, hand-tossed, and apricot-glazed selections, I encountered a history of the Erie Fire Department's early days, an account of the building's construction, and an invitation to prove the vaunted synergy of historical tourism dollars by visiting the nearby Firefighters Historical Museum, Inc. A capsule account of twentieth-century urbanism lurks in the displacement of the boxing club by the restaurant, which sells as atmosphere the history of high-industrial-era masculinity embodied once upon a time by mustachioed firefighters and now by the restaurant's period decor.

Since being evicted, the Lower East Side Boxing Club has moved several times—"always on the East Side," insisted DeForce. When I began visiting it in 1996, the club occupied a sort of garage down an alley. It was hard for me to believe that the Lower East Side Fighting Eagles (as they are called) had only been training in this garage for a few years. The fantastically cramped, weathered interior of the gym made it easy to imagine that guys named Mushy and Skids were heaving medicine balls at each other in there in 1926. Branching lines of tarry black glop filled chinks in the cinderblock walls; poolroom-style fluorescents hung down from a wooden ceiling reinforced with metal brackets; ropes, chains, and wires trailed down to punching bags, lights, and fuse boxes. DeForce and his associates had managed to wedge three heavy bags, two speed bags, three bob bags, some free weights, a couple of exercise bikes, moldy rug remnants, and an undersized sparring ring into a space the size of a two-bay car repair joint, and at times it appeared that the fighters in training came dangerously close to blindsiding one another while they worked. Training in these close quarters, the Fighting Eagles filled the room with a thunder of gloves on bags, huffing and puffing, and stamping feet, all counterpointed by a loud warning buzzer and a quieter bell that divided the training session into round-sized segments. DeForce had given generously of himself to a shoestring operation—hustling to put together fight cards at a local parish or bar, finding suitable opponents, driving fighters long distances to out-of-town bouts, training his charges and working their corners during fights—and he dreamed of somehow getting his hands on the resources to buy a building for the Lower East Side Boxing Club, turning it into a permanent institution he could pass on to successors.8

The Bizzarros, his crosstown rivals, had money and owned property. The elder Bizzarros sold cars, ran bars, had their own gym, and employed their offspring in the family businesses. They exuded an air of comfort that made a strong contrast with the scrappy Dead End Kids atmosphere of the Lower East Side Boxing Club. Lou Bizzarro Sr., father of Lou Jr. (an up-and-coming amateur in the late 1990s, now a professional) and the veteran professional welterweight Johnny Bizzarro, had a good lightweight career. Lou Sr. fought for the title in 1976 against the great Roberto Duran, who knocked him out in the fourteenth. Lou Sr. has since acquired the ring in which they fought and had it installed in the Ringside, one of his bars. John, his brother and business partner (until his death in 1998), was also a very good lightweight, earning two title shots: Flash Elorde beat him by decision in 1963, and Carlos Ortiz stopped him in 1966. Other brothers—Angelo, Paul, Ralph—all fought, and Ernie, one brother who did not, now has a son who does: young Ernie Jr., who lost the close fight to Angel Nales in Bethlehem in 1996. As Lou Sr. tells it, the original Bizzarro in the Erie region was his grandfather, an Italian who settled in Meadville; that man's son, father of Lou Sr. and his many fighting brothers, worked at Bucyrus Erie making cranes. When Lou Sr. was coming up, the choice of livelihoods he faced was still the traditional industrial one: "It was fighting or factory work," he said. But the fight world of the 1960s in which he was formed was already much reduced from its prewar extent. "There was the one real gym in town, but it wasn't like it used to be. To get really good you have to spar with pros, and there weren't that many decent fighters around anymore." In 1997 his son Lou Jr., the family's best amateur prospect, had a distinctly postindustrial and middle-class choice to make: turn pro or go to college, or try to do both at once. Lou Sr. thought his son was ready for the pros; he was certainly smart and confident enough in the ring. On the other hand, a young man with his background needs a college degree and not just property to establish credentials that enable an upward-curving class trajectory, so perhaps the best thing might have been for him to hit the books, not the bags, with everything he had.

Not all gyms have a house style, but many do. Bizzarro fighters stress technique and defense, while Lower East Side Boxing Club fighters always press their opponents, advancing with bad intentions. "Matt trains all his guys to be straight ahead, put your hands up, and go at the other guy," said Lower East Side stalwart Jose Otero. "Because I studied karate first, I'm probably the slickest amateur fighter in there," he added, laughing at the thought of himself as a paragon of finesse by default. "They've got heart, but they just walk in and swing," young Lou Bizzarro Jr. said of the Lower East Siders, shaking his head. DeForce saw it differently: "Mostly, the kids from the Bizzarro gym don't fight worth shit. They run, then complain. My kids fight." DeForce told me he never boxed, but he does seem to know something about fighting. He starts slowly with his protégés, first teaching them to place their feet right and manage their balance, then slowly builds their punching skills and conditioning. Defense does not enjoy a place of honor in the curriculum. When a dejected Jose Otero, having abandoned any pretense of slickness and rabidly pursued Lou Bizzarro Jr. from bell to bell every round but lost the fight anyway, turned to his trainer for a word of wisdom, DeForce said, "You got to throw more punches." Even DeForce's most skilled boxers—like Liz McGonigal, and Otero, who is better than he looked against Lou Bizzarro Jr.—treat defense as a matter of neutralizing an opponent's punches as they advance to land their own blows. The Bizzarros are more polished boxers, in part because they are connected to the remaining fight world through an older generation who fought professionally and learned from good teachers. Their house style includes side-to-side movement to create advantageous angles, clever escapes when cornered, and counterpunches against an advancing opponent. But, especially in a time when boxing is an esoteric rather than a common interest, fight crowds are less impressed than ever by such fetches of style, and too many people in Erie with an opinion on the subject are inclined to believe that the Fighting Eagles (male and female) fight like men and the Bizzarros (senior and junior) run like women.

Most of the Lower East Side Boxing Club fighters have at best rudimentary skills, but they win many fights on the strength of unremitting aggression, which impresses crowds and judges and opponents, especially at the amateur level. DeForce is not an old boxing hand, and he cannot call upon the deep store of boxing knowledge that more traditional trainers accrue as they pass through the fight world network, so he has wisely taught his charges what he knows best—how to win a fight. Every boxing match is also a fight, but the two things are not identical. Although Lou Bizzarro Jr. outmaneuvered Jose Otero and kept their boxing match from turning into a street fight, Lower East Siders have won many bouts by inducing opponents to abandon boxing technique and maul with them. DeForce told me that his fighters have won most of their bouts with Bizzarro fighters, a plausible claim because good boxers take much longer to develop than hearty brawlers. Even though a seasoned technician who can fight will almost always pick apart a brawler of similar experience, at the lower amateur levels a well-developed aggressive impulse can often overwhelm a nascent boxing style. DeForce and his friends built a boxing institution, but they could not rebuild the whole boxing network and high-industrial milieu in which such institutions thrived. In the absence of most of the old network, and in the absence of the professional teachers and good sparring partners it provided, his rough-and-ready fighters charge ahead and prosper because they have heart, not because they are expert boxers.

 

An Enigma to the Sport

When I began poking around Erie in 1996 and 1997, I was mildly surprised to discover that many people considered Liz McGonigal—a woman, a relatively inexperienced fighter already in her early twenties, an aspiring psychologist whose education was more important to her than her boxing career—to be the most promising ring prospect in town. Mike Acri, a promoter based in Erie, thought the Bizzarros should "take it slow" in developing Lou Jr., but in 1997 he already wanted to rush McGonigal into turning pro so she could appear on the undercard of a pay-per-view fight between Macho Camacho and Sugar Ray Leonard. Women's boxing appeared to be the next big thing, and Acri wanted to get in on it. He knew McGonigal's Irish name and banty blond good looks would add to her appeal, but, he said, "The main thing is she can fight." If McGonigal had all the fighter's heart and verve that characterize the Lower East Side Boxing Club house style, she was also a more complete boxer than most of the maulers she trained with. Asked to evaluate her strengths, Matt DeForce said, "She's got good technique. She's real smart, she can take punches real well, she's got good defen