An Opening and Closing of My Eyes
In July of 1985 boxing seemed to have dried up. There were no fights on the professional horizon for me. The gym was pretty dead because all the amateur fighters had been through their tournaments until the fall. A lull had settled in.
The people that my manager and I associated with in order to obtain our fights were famous for “the midnight call.” They weren’t exactly the top agency in the business. They played a more peripheral role in the boxing world. Card falling apart? Call these guys. They can save your show. They had me and another fighter with whom they hoped to break into the upper echelon of respect in the boxing world.
ESPN’s Top Rank series was at Resorts International Hotel and Casino that week and the scheduled headline bout was John Wesley Meekins of New York City vs. Greg Haugen of Auburn, Washington. Meekins was an ESPN favorite and Haugen had a solid amateur background, winning over 300 amateur fights and several Rocky Mountain Golden Glove titles.
Turns out that Meekins wasn’t going to make this date for Haugen so we were contacted. If memory serves, the bouts were on a Monday or Tuesday night. The preceding Friday night I got a phone call from my manager that went something like this: “Findem and Cheatem Enterprises called me. They want you to stay ready this weekend. I don’t know what the weight is, so don’t eat too much. They might have an ESPN fight for you. Stay ready! Some guy named Hogan.” (I wondered if I would get a leg drop and he would scream “Brother!”)
That was a common theme and it’s my own fault truthfully. If you aren’t a proven commodity with an extensive amateur background before anyone ever puts a dime into your career, you end up with seat-of-the-pants promotions. I started boxing as a pro at age 22 after only 20 amateur fights. Most fighters who are smooth and well-schooled have been boxing since they are ten years old. I was on a learning curve that resembled running up a mountainside.
The weekend passed with no more word from management. It appeared to be another one of those “get ready! get ready! never mind” moments. Then on Monday morning I got a call from my manager. “The flight leaves South Bend at 9:00 am. You fly to Detroit and catch another at 11:30 am. Then you fly to Philadelphia and Top Rank will pick you up there.”
Fly? You mean in an airplane? I’d never even been in an airplane before and you want me to get into two different planes on the same day, with people driving who hide behind a cabin door so you can’t see them, like they are ashamed of how this is going to turn out and just close the door!?
I wasn’t afraid of flying; I was afraid of crashing. Those are two separate things. One is a jolting stop, the other is pretty smooth. Regardless, I packed my things for overnight in Atlantic City and drove to the airport in South Bend. The world’s noisiest twin engine monstrosity flew me to Detroit with the Peter, Paul and Mary recording of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” constantly playing through my mind. Maybe getting punched in the head will be a good thing, I thought; it might change the song.
Detroit airport was just a hair larger than South Bend’s. Just a hair. Navigate to the right gate and find the right plane so I don’t end up in Tucumcari. Hey, this is pretty cool. I can handle this.
When we landed in Philly I was now a veteran of two flights and very experienced, you see? At the bottom of the escalator was a man in a uniform holding a sign, just as I’d been told he would be. We got in the limo and I thought, this is so awesome. I’m in “Rocky’s” hometown! Right across the road from the airport, basically, was the spectrum and the colossal Veteran’s Stadium. How many football games from that spot had I watched on Sunday afternoons? The limo driver kept asking me if I was comfortable and did I want the TV on, etc. You have to understand that I was about as young a 22-year old as anybody has ever been, so this was all met with wide eyes and a “Who . . . me?” kind of attitude.
We commenced the hour-long drive to Atlantic City.
Atlantic City should be divided into two parts. The boardwalk/casino areas and Atlantic City. The money is in the boardwalk. The struggle is in Atlantic City. I couldn’t get over that.
Resorts International is an immense hotel that could probably contain the entire downtown of Elkhart, Indiana in its interior. Later on, right next door, the Taj Mahal would dwarf Resorts, but at this particular time Resorts was huge. We went upstairs on the elevator to where the fighters were weighing in and being interviewed by ESPN’s Al Bernstein. The elevators opened up and there in front of me stood New Jersey state boxing commissioner Larry Hazzard.
“Hi!” I said.
Larry Hazzard looked at me as if a common human had dared to look him in the eye and speak to him directly. He turned his head to one of his lapdogs and gestured for him to take this . . . human . . . out of his eyesight. Perhaps I pained his head. The jerk didn’t say one word to me. Maybe his lapdog had forgotten to put the royal robe on his shoulders. Ah, my introduction to the big time.
I weighed in and was kind of embarrassed because I didn’t really think any of this stuff was going to come together, and here it was happening. I didn’t starve myself like my manager wanted me to, so I weighed in at 139, the highest I had ever been, but so did this kid named Greg Haugen (not Hogan.) Al Bernstein sat down with his legal pad and told me more about Greg than I had learned all the previous weekend. 300 plus amateur fights. Rocky Mountain Golden Gloves Champion. Owned amateur wins over Brett Summers, ESPN’s fair-haired golden boy. Alaskan State Lightweight Champ. I would be his first television fight as a pro, of course.
Amazing how none of this information, even the correct pronunciation of his name, could be turned by my management. Maybe they thought I was going to freak. It was of no consequence; I still didn’t know who he was. I had long ago decided to go on with a pro career with the sure knowledge of my own lack of amateur experience. Truthfully, for a chance to be on Top Rank Boxing, I would have fought King Kong on top of the Empire State Building, if you spotted me a parachute.
Al interviewed Greg Haugen and from across the room I saw Greg’s head snap up in shock and search my eyes out. I gave him a look like “what?”, but he returned to talking to Al. It turned out later that my management team had told Greg that I was a conventional fighter when I am truthfully southpaw, which Al had noted from seeing me fight in Merrillville, Indiana, on the undercard of Donny LaLonde-Carlos Tite the previous summer. I later told Greg that I had nothing to do with that garbage. That was just management trying to act like they make a difference once two fighters are in the ring. That’s a really tricky idea, you know? So we would start the first round and he would look at me and see a southpaw stance. Cat’s outta the bag now! Wow guys, that was really tricky of you; now I’m sure to win the fight! Strictly Mickey Mouse stuff.
Television crews wanted a nose-to-nose shot of me and Greg. So of course we obliged. This wasn’t my first stare down but the whole thing is just ridiculous in my view. I started cracking up, which shocked and cracked Greg up, and I had to try hard to straighten myself up for the cameras and business. If I get scared by a mean look, how in the world could I ever get into the ring and exchange punches? It’s silly.
The hours went by, and I called home and told them that this is on, get the family in front of the tube. I had every intention of winning this thing. I had no intention of caving in just because he had about 300 amateur bouts. If I could catch him and hit him hard enough, all that experience wouldn’t matter.
The stare down was much more intense in ring center than at the weigh-in session. At least now we were in the stages of marking our territory. Still, it just ends up being window dressing. The bell rang and it was easy to see that he was far and away the best boxer I had yet fought, amateur or pro. But I could stay with him. His combinations were more educated in the boxing sense and mine were a little too wide, but I was able to put him on the ropes and hit the body pretty well. His jab is what really impressed me. Short, precise, stiff. I remember how hard he was breathing through his nose and thought there is no way, if I can keep the pressure on, that he is going to last. He’s really puffing already. It was a false evaluation.
At one point I pressured him into the ropes and he was bent at the waist and slipping something and I was looking straight down at him thinking that I had him. If he moves this way, he can’t see me and I throw this; if he moves that way, I throw that and he still can’t see me. Greg stood straight up instead. The back of Greg’s head, the occipital bone (I can still feel that one), slammed into my left eye socket. No cut. The impact was apparently too straight and centered. But the left eye world went black, and then a few minutes later it looked like the world does when you’re crying your eyes out. There’s light there but you can’t make out anything at all. Not the sort of condition you want when you’re in the ring with a fighter like Haugen. At that instant I felt reasonably sure my fight career was over just as it was really getting started. I wish that there was a word to describe how badly the eyeball, just the eyeball itself, can hurt when it is smashed. I don’t ever want to feel that much pain again.
I look at the film now and you can’t even tell that I’m screaming inside. I took it just like a fighter is supposed to take it—pokerfaced. At ringside, Al Bernstein told the television audience that my eye was already looking black. He assumed it was from a counterpunch. I assumed that my head was going to explode.
My crew in the corner went through their usual speech. You’ve got to throw more punches than him. This will be easy if you throw more punches. Oh and hey, one more thing: throw more punches.
Let’s be clear about something. I’m not saying I would have won on points against Greg Haugen if I hadn’t gotten my eye smashed. Greg was probably the finest “pure boxer” that I faced. In his next fight he would KO Freddie Roach, who is now familiar to boxing fans as Manny’s trainer. He would knock out Chris Calvin, the Southern Rebel, who my team also represented. (They were going to show me how it was done, since I had wasted their time by looking promising and then failing to beat someone with only 11 pro fights and 300 amateur ones.) His combination punching was more educated and his defense was superior to my own. He would have won a decision from me unless I was able to land that fight changing bomb. (I was so frustrated that when he landed a big right during the eighth round that stirred up the crowd, I stuck my chin out and patted it, as if to say “go ahead, hit it again, didn’t hurt.” Totally classless on my part.)
The fight became a pattern, although I tried to put more pressure on him at the urging of my cornermen. I would pressure him but he would land the most visually compelling punches of the round, show better boxing skills and defense, and win the round. I would amp the pressure up and pound his body, but you couldn’t possibly say that Greg didn’t win that fight. Every round was the same. I would eat punches to get inside, hit the body, land an occasional shot but I would get to take a counter-punch back with me. He held my hand up too when they announced the decision in his favor, a fighter’s way of saying this guy’s a tough dude, but I was just heartbroken. I had let everyone down. Most of all myself. And I still couldn’t see out of my left eye. My career was probably over.
My vision did come back the next day, edging light through a swelled and blackened eyelid. I cried again, but not because I lost the fight. I cried because I could see, and if I could see I could fight again. I couldn’t imagine my life without boxing.
I paced the halls of the massive hotel all night. For a while I was accompanied by my promoter and manager, and my promoter’s wife. My promoter admonished me for a perceived lack of effort and kept reminding me that I had just lost in front of ten million people and just made my row to hoe that much longer. But hey, don’t worry about it, he said. He would get me a career of being a last-minute replacement in other fighters’ hometowns, since no one was going to take me seriously as a contender anymore. His wife elbowed him and told him that he wasn’t helping the situation at all, but people like that aren’t prone to taking advice from their wives.
In the elevator the next morning, I found myself standing with legendary Las Vegas trainer Johnny Tocco, who had worked Greg’s corner the previous night. He nodded at me in the silence. Finally, before the elevator reached the bottom floor and let us both out, he reached across and patted my shoulder. “Listen kid, somebody had to win, somebody had to lose that one. That was a tough fight. You’ll be back and you’ll be fine. He’s got an awful lot of experience, my kid has. You just have to straighten your punches up, not be so wild. You’re a damn tough kid.”
It was like someone had died though. The sense of loss was heavy, all the way home, at home, training, everywhere. Visiting my parents’ house, I decided to take a training run out on the course that I had run as a fifteen year old, dreaming of being a big time pro boxer. An old high school friend’s father, who was the farmer that owned cornfields that I could look out my parents’ front window and view, pulled up alongside me. He rolled down his window. “You better get your ass running faster, loser! If you don’t you might get your ass kicked again!” Then he drove away.
And that, my friends, is how you go from being a contender to a tomato can in less than an hour of your life. Fortunately, I’ve learned since then that the people who make those decisions and levy their own stern judgment on others don’t really matter anyway.
Looking back on that night in Atlantic City, I don’t feel cheated by fate or anything resembling that, and I’m proud of that kid. That was one damn fine fighter he was facing and that kid was in one hell of a lot of pain, and he didn’t show it, didn’t fold, and fought his heart out. That kid was me, and I don’t mind saying that I’m proud of him.
Jeff Bumpus is a writer and former professional boxer from Elkhart, Indiana. His first book, Becoming Taz: Writing from the Southpaw Stance (Canopic Publishing 2014) will be available in April 2014