A Fair Fight: A Night At The Golden Gloves

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Illustration by Dmitry Samarov.

Last fall, the writers Irvine Welsh and Bill Hillmann invited me to go to the fights. Both have a history with the sport. Hillmann is a former Golden Gloves champion and Welsh spars for exercise to this day. I'd never been to a match in person, much less gotten into a ring myself, so of course I said yes.

We drove across the Illinois line to the Horseshoe Casino in Indiana. I'd taken a few late-night gamblers there when I drove cab, but had never gone inside myself. Through a large, smoke-filled room filled with slot machines and the people attached to them, we made our way to The Venue. Posters by the box office advertised upcoming shows by the likes of Staind and Huey Lewis and the News. That night's entertainment was organized by a local outfit named Hitz Boxing.

The ring was set up on the floor, with risers for seating on all sides. Boxers preparing for their fights warmed up or chatted with friends all around. I was surprised how casual it all was. There was booming music, an over-amped announcer, and under-dressed ladies announced the rounds in each match. The human level of all this doesn't scan, or even register, on TV. They don't show you the kid, pouring sweat after four rounds, holding his gym bag and looking around for familiar faces. Some of the fights were mismatches—up-and-comers putting in time against warm bodies—and others were so evenly matched that even the experts I was with couldn't say who had won. This is what it's like to be watch a fight without a favorite or an underdog.

***

They asked me to come out to the Golden Gloves in Cicero with them last week. Cicero Stadium is nothing like the Horseshoe Casino. Situated on a nondescript industrial stretch of Laramie Avenue, the stadium is really more of a Park District field house or high school gym. I was early, so I parked on the street, directly across from the $10 official parking lot, and watched the cars stream in. A guy pulled up even with me and asked if he could park in back of me and not get a ticket. I told him that I certainly hoped so. He took an excruciatingly long time parallel parking, then had to endure the guy from the pay lot yelling across the street that it might not be a legal spot. He was about to pull out when I convinced him that they just wanted his $10. He stayed.

Inside, local moms were checking a list for people that had bought tickets. The bathrooms were on this floor, the fights were up the stairs. In the men's room, a very detailed flier offered boxers DVDs of their bouts, provided they paid up beforehand. Upstairs, bleachers lined two sides of a large gym, with rows of folding chairs set up around all four sides of the boxing ring. Basketball backboards were raised up by the ceiling and out of the way. Merch tables were set up to sell boxing club t-shirts, sausage and pepperoni pizza, pop, and beer. Naomi Huffman from Curbside Press was also there selling Bill's brand-new book. Bill had edited the program for the night's fights and seemed to know every other guy that walked in.

Even more so than at the Horseshoe, it struck me how much is missed when watching fights on TV. There's no way to communicate the sound and impact of a punch thrown and landed, no matter how big your screen is or how high its resolution. We sat in folding chairs a few feet from the ring. Most of the fighters were in their late teens or early twenties; all were competing for trophies, as these were the finals.

At the end of the matches that hadn't been stopped before their allotted three or four rounds, the ref would wait for the judges' verdict, then raise the victor's arm. The winner would get the larger of two more or less identical red and gold trophies, and then both fighters would clear out to make way for the next bout. There were 17 scheduled for the night.

The crowd certainly had its favorites. A group near us nearly blew out their vocal chords screaming, “GUANAJUATO!” while a Mexican kid was in the ring. This night was a big deal for innumerable small clusters of people. These were the people who fed, trained, payed, and prayed for these kids, the various people who were there to cheer them to victory, or comfort them in defeat.

Bill pointed out professional fighters and former champions strolling through the room. Some would stop to get their picture taken, others waited around for their turn to be acknowledged by the ring announcer. The male and female fighters came in every size and shape. Some were chiseled muscle, while others just took up a lot of space. There were no knockouts—the fights topped out at four rounds, after all—but there were a fair share of faces bloodied and much hurt handed out. They were boxing, after all. I tried to listen in on Irvine and Bill dissecting the action.

What I came away with more than anything else was how truly hard it is to punch somebody in the face when that person doesn't want you to, and is in fact trying to do the exact same thing to you at the same exact time. It was also striking that, in a sport in which two people wail on one another, most everyone is so incredibly polite. After getting beat on for three rounds, the first thing the winners and losers alike did was go to their opponent's corner to hug and shake hands with trainers.

There was a surprising civility to it all, or maybe it wasn't surprising at all. Everyone knew why they were in this room, and understood and accepted it. Outside the building and the ring it might all be a different story; it would certainly be a less civil one. But there was something striking, even moving, about being someplace in which everything appears to be a fair fight.

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