I was thinking of you the other day. I was thinking of the morning a little more than a year ago when we walked the boardwalk in Atlantic City, winter blowing in off the ocean and cutting into us like teeth. Remember? You had your hands plunged into the pockets of a knee-length tweed coat, and a cap tugged low over your head, and you stopped and stared through a store window at some Italian clothes you knew you didn't need. But the clothes, they must not have been what you were looking for, because your eyes moved to my reflection on the glass and your voice turned soft. "What's it like to be married?" you asked. "To have kids?"
"I like it," I said. "But I'm not you."
You thought about that for a few seconds, then your face hardened and the breath you blew out fogged over some thousand-dollar suit. "I'll never get married," you said. "I only need myself. There's no one else I need."
Ever since that day, it seems, you've gone out to prove that. You didn't need the woman you married seven weeks after our conversation, or the mother-in-law who came with her. You didn't need your old manager or trainer. I'd started wondering if you might make it through a whole life with no one to need.
And then I ran into someone the other day, an old man with gray hair and bifocals and a book of Persian poetry in his gnarled, knobby, boxer's hands. It was him, Mike. Unmistakably. The one man you need.
It's funny. He's right in front of you, and you don't see him. You're in Las Vegas getting ready for another fistfight, against Frank Bruno on Saturday night. God knows how many times you've ridden right by his house. Sure, I understand, it's difficult. You're hurtling toward the edge of a cliff, and there are a hundred hands waving at you; how are you supposed to notice some little old man who doesn't even lift a finger?
It's not just you, Mike. Seems like the whole world has been looking at this old man for ages but not quite seeing him. Saw him and didn't see him in the other corner the first two fights Muhammad Ali lost. Saw him and didn't see him bent over Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes, Alexis Arguello, Michael Spinks. Heard him and didn't hear him utter quiet instructions to 15 champions of the world. Just before a big fight, he would be the last one in his boxer's entourage to step through the ropes; after the fight, even his own family couldn't spot him when the camera swept the ring. Maybe truth is like that, Mike; it doesn't wave or jump or shout.
You don't need more noise, Mike. You need someone to make the world stop whirling, the hands stop waving, the cliff's edge lose its allure. You need someone who doesn't want your money, your rocket ride, your fame. Someone who climbs down from the ring, walks past the back-thumpers and handshakers and returns to his room to read poetry. Him, Mike. Mr. Futch.
I want to be a legendary figure," you told me. Remember? You were pacing in that dank dressing room in your training quarters above the police station in Catskill, talking and gesturing as if in a fever. "I want to be mentioned in the same breath with Marciano and Louis and Ali, that's what I want."
You want Mr. Futch, Mike. History keeps washing up like driftwood at this man's feet. He played ball against the first edition of the Harlem Globetrotters; sparred and shared a dressing room with Joe Louis; trained Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown records; yes, trained the first man killed in Detroit's '43 riots, too; stopped one of the greatest fights in history to save Joe Frazier's brain tissue; outfoxed the fox, Muhammad Ali.
"The greatest trainer in boxing today," says 89-year-old Ray Arcel, the man many experts consider the greatest trainer of the 1930s, about Mr. Futch.
"I am in boxing, but not of boxing," that's what Mr. Futch says.
No, Mike, he's not an Eddie, never really was. He's Mr. Futch. The kind of man that boxers don't curse in front of. Father of four. Grandfather of eight. Great-grandfather of nine. Seventy-seven years old. Manager of four fighters and trainer of 10. Retire? you ask. For god's sake, his oldest daughter, Yvonne, the one who's 58. moved into a retirement community a few years ago, and she doesn't even bother to ask him about it anymore.
I found him sitting in his house in a chair beneath a bust of a Greek warrior. Mr. Futch's head was tilted back so that the light shone on the two furrows in his forehead that ride up into his hair. Around his half-closed eyes were the shallowest of wrinkles—feet of a crow that landed lightly and left. High cheekbones from the Indian blood on his mother's side, face full-moon and mocha and astonishingly smooth. We started to talk. No matter what we spoke about, he would cross his arms in front of his chest and say, "This prompts a story. . . ." A smile came to his mouth and eyes, whether the story was happy or sad—I guess the two kind of run together when a man, for nearly eight decades, has lived. He kept pulling off his glasses, the ones that are usually half-cocked because the temple pieces don't seem to quite make it all the way down over his ears, and kept smacking his lips together as if every little detail of the story, relevant or not, was plain delicious.
You know all the old boxers, Mike; you've studied them. You would have loved sitting where I sat, morning till dark, for those three days.
But, you see, the conversation wasn't just about boxing. Mr. Futch has been a poor man and a millionaire. Mr. Futch has baked gingerbread cookies and tied socks around his little girls' eyes so they would learn to inhale Christmas morning. Mr. Futch has traveled the world. Mr. Futch has been a room-service waiter, a road construction worker, a playground director, a bricklayer, a jackhammerer, a spot welder, a sheet-metal worker, a post office clerk, a man. As he was talking, my eyes fell on a framed letter from one of his daughters. It read:
Just a note to let you know I've been thinking about you. Two weeks ago while crawling home in heavy traffic on the 605 freeway, I marveled at a most spectacular view of the mountains, which set off a kaleidoscope of memories. . . . Sitting in the car at lunchtime at the playground, gingerbread men and boats made of walnut shells.
I think that these are the things, the foundations of life, that make people become who they are. I learned to appreciate many things in life due to those things you exposed me to, but above all I appreciate and love you and thought it would be nice to let you know instead of just thinking about it.
Your second daughter, Sally
As I was reading the letter, Mike, I thought of how one father left when you were still inside your mother, and how another one, the one who taught you to box, died. At the same time, I was trying to listen to a story the old man was telling, when, in the middle of it all, Mr. Futch paused because a paragraph written by an essayist named Elbert Hubbard had just come into his head.
" 'Habit writes itself on the face,' " the old man recited, " 'and the body is an automatic recording machine. To have a beautiful old age, you must live a beautiful youth. For we, ourselves, are posterity and every man is his own ancestor. I am today what I am because I was yesterday what I was. . . .' "
You're getting fidgety, Mike; I can feel it. What could someone else's great-grandfather know about you? What could gray hair and sweetness know about hurt and frustration and rage? Listen, Mike, he knows. Keep this between you and me, for there are only a few people who even suspect it: The rage is in him, too! That's why you need the old man, Mike. He has been stalking it. stroking it, staring at its face since half a century before you were born.
Do you remember that day you took me to your old neighborhood and told me about the moment your life changed, your moment of revelation? Showed me with your hands how that kid tore the head off one of your pigeons, how you fought back for the first time in your life and lost control of yourself? Goddam, you said, you loved doing that, and you destroyed him. It was great! No one would ever make you a victim again, no one would ever stand in front of you when you let go of your rage, no one.
Listen. In 1921, when Mr. Futch was 10, there was a 14-year-old in his school who terrified him, a large, retarded boy who kicked aside anything in his way. Eddie was sitting in the school yard one day during lunch hour, skipping rocks across the road to a sewage drain, lost in his thoughts, when suddenly into his ear someone shouted, "Didn't the teachers tell you not to throw rocks!?" and bashed Eddie across the side of his head. What happened after that? Mr. Futch still doesn't know. There was only blackness and silence, the whole world fell away, and then he looked up and saw a whirl of open mouths around him, teachers and children screaming at him, Stop! Stop! Stop! And he looked down and saw a pair of bulging eyes and a hanging tongue just above his hands, and he realized, gradually, that he was sitting on a rib cage, choking the life out of . . . out of the kid who'd terrified him!
It took three people to pry Eddie off. Everyone looked at him in a new way, and the bully ran home gasping. But instead of exulting, Eddie felt hollow, as if a house fire had just run through him, burned everything down to the basement and left only ashes, cold ashes. Minutes were missing from his life. My god, he had literally blacked out with rage. Where had it come from? Was there anything a man might not do when he lost all control?
Maybe, Mike, it had something to do with his parents. His father, Valley, was a sharecropper who moved from Mississippi to Detroit when Eddie Futch was five, settled his family in a section of town called Black Bottom and took a job in an automobile plant. Valley Futch always seemed to have a handle on things, but there was something about his grip that made people know not to test it. Maybe it was the lead pipe he would clutch behind his back as he settled, in the very politest of tones, a disagreement, or maybe it was the bulge in the breast pocket of the suit he wore each time he went out visiting. One day, when Eddie was eight, Valley went visiting for good. It was slow pain, confusing pain; for the longest time, the little boy kept expecting his dad to come back.
That left, besides the boy, his six-year-old sister, a four-year-old brother and Mama Laura, young and scared, only 15 years older than her oldest child. Sure, Mama Laura had a great big heart—she would be first to feed the hoboes passing through during the Depression—but the rage was in her too. She would leave the house to cook or clean or visit and put Eddie in charge all day, and Lucifer himself couldn't guess what might come whistling at the eight-year-old's ear if Mama Laura didn't find everything in order when she came home. Once, she whipped him so hard and he screamed so loud the police came pounding at the door. It set the little boy to breathing hard, just thinking what could happen if he didn't keep control—just thinking about that one time she left and his little brother set fire to the curtain and the fire engines came screaming up the road.
You see what I'm getting at, Mike? You couldn't tell Mr. Futch a lot of things. He grew up on the same kind of streets you did, the same kind of scared. One morning, he went outside at sunrise and found a teenage boy shot to death in the alley. Another time, a woman slit across the throat. Two blocks away was the county hospital; the sirens would shriek, his heart would hammer, he would race to the emergency entrance in time to see one more grisly possibility. And at the end of the month, if it looked like Mama Laura wouldn't have enough to pay the landlord, she would throw open the doors and a slice of all that craziness would come rarin' right into the home. A rent party, they called it, the kind that started on Friday and staggered on till Sunday. Mama Laura charged all the drinkers and gamblers for entrance, food and booze, and then maybe joined the good times herself while her little boy, the man of the house, peeked around corners. Who else was going to keep things under control?
How could he escape? The chaos was everywhere around him, in his neighborhood, in his house. One wrong move, and it was spuming up his throat; it was inside him! He had to keep it bottled up, had to keep it caged . . . but how?
Speaking softly helped, he found—it calmed the molecules, and the people around him undid their fists. So he worked at making his voice gentler and gentler. Neatness soothed him too. He began to arrange everything in his room in perfect piles and then went into his mother's drawers to refold and stack all her clothes. "Haven't you got anything better to do?" Mama Laura would say, laughing and shaking her head.
He found one other weapon: poetry. He would go into his room and shut the door, utter the great verses quietly and write them down into a notebook, read and reread them until he could recite them anywhere, anytime. The cadence of the words, their rhythm and rhyme, was like magic. Murmur them in just the right sequence, with just the right pauses for air, and a door would spring open; on the other side there was a roomful of beauty and order and calm. At 13, the boy who lived in Black Bottom memorized and murmured this:
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
When his soul was full with Keats's song, he would put away the book of magic words, go outside and play basketball. He was always smaller and slighter than the other boys his age, but he could jump just as high, could dribble sweet and low. The big boys would get frustrated after a while, and then they would reach down for the ball and catch him with an elbow or an insult.
That was all it took. The quiet bower collapsed. The world went black. Mr. Futch bloodied their goddam heads. It nearly got him killed, Mike. The rage, I mean. At 16, he took a job as a room-service waiter at the Wolverine Hotel in Detroit, where he served breakfast to Hank Greenberg, who always stayed there when the Tigers played at home. Such a quiet, respectful kid, people said of Mr. Futch. And then one day when he was 20, the American Legion came to town, and a whole regiment of World War I vets, all tanked up on nostalgia and booze, holed up at the Wolverine. No, Mr. Futch didn't want any part of that white girl in the lobby who kept chatting with him; he knew that made white people crazy, and so he tried to back away. Too late. Across the lobby stood five Legionnaires, pointing and glaring at him.
One of them, a West Virginian, started walking right at him. "Hey, boy," he called. "Hey, nigger." Mr. Futch felt it coming over him. He stepped out of the lobby, out a service exit, and hid behind the doorway. Stay inside the lobby and you're fine, sir, he said to himself; step outside and you're mine. The man stepped through the door. Mr. Futch crumpled him with his fist, picked him up and hit him again and again.
"A beer bottle," lied the bleeding man when he stumbled back inside. "The nigger ambushed me with a beer bottle."
Mr. Futch went on to the restaurant down the block where the hotel got its room-service food, picked up another order and headed back toward the hotel. There stood the five men, waiting in an alley behind the hotel, four rifles and a pistol. He stepped back to put down the tray, get ready for trouble. The desk clerk came running. "Leave, now!" he hissed. "Leave the food with me, go the other way and take a taxi home!"
"I don't think that's nec—"
"Are you crazy? They're drunk, and they're from the South and their guns are loaded. They'll kill you." Mr. Futch relented. A little after he left, he learned later, the men burst into the kitchen, guns cocked, looking for him.
Death—that wasn't really the trouble, Mike. The trouble was, there was a beautiful room inside of him that nobody knew about, a room inhabited by Shakespeare and Khayyám and Keats. Somehow, if he let the insult stand, the elbow pass, the beautiful room would be ransacked, and then what reason was there to live? The trouble was your trouble, Mike: no tepid zone between the sweetness and the incinerating rage. Mr. Futch didn't argue. He hit. And he lived with a fear, the sweet little man did, that one day the police would pull him over for some minor thing, and one of them would drop an insult and. . . .
Maybe that was what drew him to boxing, the chance to creep to the frontier of frenzy, to bring under control, through strategy and skill, that which was always so frighteningly close to the edge. The edge, Mike—that's what you said you loved about boxing, remember?
"Life is never a bore," Mr. Futch would write one day to Yvonne, "for it could hardly be called dull hanging over a precipice suspended on a rotten rope."
Not long after the incident with the Legionnaires, he began working out at the Brewster Recreation Center. Within three years he was lightweight Golden Gloves champion of Detroit. Joe Louis outweighed him by more than 40 pounds, but he would motion Mr. Futch into the ring to spar. "When I'm sharp enough to hit you," Louis would say, "I know I'm sharp enough to hit anyone."
In 1936, when Mr. Futch was 25, he was 37-3 as an amateur, married and a father of three, and about to turn pro. A doctor put a stethoscope to his heart before a fight. Thump-thump-pffffff. Thump-thump-pffffff. A trainer's heart could make that noise, but not a boxer's. Mr. Futch had a heart murmur. Mr. Futch became a trainer.
It's hard to put this into words, Mike, but, somehow, all that reading and thinking he had been doing about quiet bowers and Grecian urns helped him teach other men how to take their opponents' heads off. Maybe the connection was what you were trying to get at too, that day you started telling me about how you had read some Hemingway and George Bernard Shaw—"that strange, skinny-looking dude," you called him. What art is to life, boxing—more than any other sport—is too. Somehow, everything Mr. Futch taught about one applied to the other—and he could teach you a left hook like a buggy whip, besides.
Ten kids, 15- and 16-year-olds, knocked on his door one day in 1941. Neighborhood kids. Teach us to box, Mr. Futch, they begged. He was working eight hours a day as a playground director in the summer, running the boxing program at the Brewster Center the rest of the year, and was about to take a job rebuilding the furnaces at Ford. He sighed and said to the kids, "You come to my door at nine each morning. If there's 10 of you, I train you in the backyard. If there's nine, don't bother knocking."
One of the 10, Mr. Futch's paperboy, Jimmy Edgar, became a world-ranked middleweight and fought Jake La Motta three times, once to a draw. A second kid, Bob Amos, became a light heavyweight contender and twice fought Archie Moore. A third, Big Boy Brown, became a ranked heavyweight. A fourth became a surgeon; a fifth, a school principal; a sixth, Gordy, founded Motown. Neighborhood kids. Coincidence, Mike? Or him?
Little things, Gordy remembers about Mr. Futch. Like the time Gordy lost a fight and people told him it was O.K., not to let it get him down. When they were finished, Mr. Futch approached him. "They're wrong," he said. "You should feel bad. You made mistakes, that's why you lost, and if you don't feel bad about that, it means you don't care."
"Sure, I may have had heart before I met him," Gordy says, "but it didn't come out until I did meet him. Seems like all the principles that I used to build Motown came from him. Often I think that in Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson there's a little bit of Eddie Futch."
That's Mr. Futch's reward, Mike, far more valuable to him than any headlines or money. At 77 he's like an inner-city teacher whose former students keep coming up to him to say, "That year I spent in your class, it changed my life." And every time he hears that, another memory of being overlooked or mistreated because he was small and quiet and black, another swallow of the old poison, dissolves, loses all its venom.
Do you remember how you ranted that night at the restaurant in Catskill, Mike, how your face became pinched and your eyes burned when you spoke of the way white men in this country have treated blacks? As an oddity, as a black manager and trainer of boxers in the 1940s, Mr. Futch knew about that better than most. All those years of driving thousands of miles because the local promoter wouldn't pay a colored fighter half what he might pay a white, of flopping in rickety rooming houses and eating at YMCAs, of taping his fighters' fists in segregated dressing rooms and cradling his fighters' heads in anger at referees' decisions. But all those years, he never let the poison spread to his heart or his eyes; he stored it down deeper and turned it, when he was weariest, into a kind of fuel, and then turned it, when he had reached his goal, into the milk of a smiling old man's story.
He folds his arms, half closes his eyes, and it's as if he's back there, 1948, alone, in darkness, eyelids sagging from want of sleep, driving from a fight in Youngstown to one in Chicago, skirting Lake Michigan in the heart of winter, sagging, sagging. . . . My god, he needed sleep or coffee, he needed it now! He pulled off the road and tried to nap, but the moment he turned the engine off he was trembling from the cold. He drove on, spotted a diner, went in and ordered a cup of coffee, black with no sugar.
"Sure," said the waiter. "But you have to drink it in the kitchen."
He glared at the white man, walked away, got back in the car and drove on, muttering to himself, muttering, muttering. . . . And then, screaming to himself at the wheel: Wake up man, you're on the wrong side of the road!
He pulled off and tried to doze again, froze up and tried to drive again, saw another diner and tried once more for coffee. "Coffee?" said the waiter. "Only if you drink it outside."
No! He walked back to the car, squeezed the wheel and, shaking with cold and anger, steered back onto the road. Rage would be his caffeine, he told himself, but within minutes his head was dropping and his car was weaving as tractor trailers blew by. He thought: This is it. I'm going to kill myself and take one of them with me. I'm going to die in a heap for a principle, but better that than to slurp down coffee in a kitchen like some dog, better that than. . . .
Up ahead, a tearoom. He had to try. "No, no coffee to sell you, this is a tearoom," said the lady. "But I do keep a coffeepot around for myself, and you can sit and drink a whole potful if you're willing to wait for it to percolate." He drank two cups. He made it to Chicago. But the best part of the story, Mike, the part you've got to hear, the reason why you need this old man, comes now, four decades later, when he pulls off his glasses, rubs his eyes, looks off at nothing and says, "And you know, it's funny. Of the people who turned me down that night I remember nothing, not a single thing; they're gone. But of the woman who helped me, I remember every single line on her face, every feature. I can conjure her before my eyes right now; she's right there . . . a human being!"
How? Are you wondering too, Mike? How does a man sup at a banquet of flesh peddlers for 56 years and keep hold of his soul? Scum—that was your word for them, Mike. You stared into a plateful of shellfish in that restaurant and said it as if it were growing right there on your mussels. "My business attracts scum," you said. "All my life, I've been dealing with scum."
Think, Mike—must it be that way? There he is, Mike, right in front of you, the filter for the scum. A master of the half smile and the occasional "ummm-hmmm," so that the vermin would think he was listening—ha!—and possibly even agreeing to their propositions, when he was really a million miles away. A practitioner of the polite hello and goodbye, a man rarely seen lingering in the hotel lobbies and coffee shops where the other fight people gathered and gabbed. When his work was done, he would return to his room, listen to Tchaikovsky or Count Basie or Broadway show tunes, update his files on fighters, and type letters to family and friends on the electric typewriter he carried everywhere, or he would lie on his bed and read from a collection of poetry and essays he had assembled. Now and then fight people would see him in a restaurant or an airplane with his lifelong traveling companion—a leather-bound volume of Persian verse, The Kasidah, its face more scarred and weathered than his—and they would look down at the title, look up at him and say. . . . Hell, what could they say? A moment in which he wasn't improving himself or his fighters, Mr. Futch believed, was a moment down the drain.
Of course, it didn't pay to shout about that side of himself, might make folks nervous. Men worked beside Mr. Futch for years and never had a clue. They spoke of him in the same way that Emmanuel Steward, trainer at Detroit's Kronk Gym, recently did: "Never heard a bad word spoken about the man, and in a business like this, that's something."
It confused people sometimes, that distance Mr. Futch maintained. Close enough for people to shake his hand, but rarely close enough for anyone to sling an arm around him. Close enough for him to touch them, far enough away that he might not be touched. Integrity, he prized; he prized it over love.
Ali-Frazier III, in Manila—do you remember that, Mike? How many times did Cus D'Amato, your old trainer and guardian, thread it through a projector? How many times as a teenager did you dim the lights and watch? Fourteen rounds of gale and lightning, the wind finally shifting to Ali, but one thunderbolt from Joe, and maybe, maybe. . . .
No. Mr. Futch looked in Frazier's eyes and stopped the fight. Mr. Futch said no.
There were other moments that defined him. He turned down offers to train two world champions, Hector Camacho and Livingstone Bramble, because of their life-styles. Walked away from roughly $800,000 by sitting out both Holmes-Spinks fights rather than choose between two men he trained.
The bright lights and dollars, he could take or leave, but reputation, for that he became a bulldog. When he felt it threatened, his head would drop into his neck, his eyes would narrow, his face would go blank. It shocked people. He was so courteous, so quiet and physically slight, that careful men let down their guard, never imagining that behind those kind eyes Mr. Futch's mind was working like some hungry animal's jaws, always planning the next minute, always determined to stay in control.
Futch, Mike—did you know that comes from the German word for fox? Get him to tell you about the fight he worked in Mexico City in 1957, about the local referee who was giving the Mexican fighter instructions in Spanish during the round, never dreaming that Mr. Futch might understand. How Mr. Futch, instead of crying foul, let the ref continue . . . and simply shouted out the perfect counters for everything the ref prescribed.
Better yet, Mike, have him tell you about that time in the Philippines: It was 1961, and a local promoter sized up Mr. Futch and rubbed his hands in glee. He had this American guy halfway around the world; he would get him to sign a contract that would pay his fighter peanuts. The promoter had his lawyer write up six different contracts; six times Mr. Futch made his changes with a red pencil. Next the promoter told two of his henchmen to drink Mr. Futch under the table and get him to sign; one of them surrendered at midnight, the second fell facedown on the table just before dawn. Two months passed like this, and finally, the morning Mr. Futch was leaving, still without a signed contract, he noticed that breakfast had a funny taste, and he pushed part of it away.
Mr. Futch grins, the crow's feet crinkle; he's remembering. He got on the airplane that day and then it hit him, an hour out over the Pacific. Sweat ran down his face, his insides screamed. For 2½ hours he thought he was going to die. When the plane landed in Guam, airline officials were prepared to rush him to the hospital. Almost as suddenly as he had become sick, he began to feel better. It wasn't until years later when Mr. Futch retold the story in a dinner conversation and described the precise nature of the pain that a doctor sitting at the table told him it was likely he'd been rat-poisoned.
He had moved to Los Angeles by then. After all those years on the road with his fighters, perhaps there had just been too many miles between Mr. Futch and his first wife, Kathleen Jeter, or too little Shakespeare and Keats, but in 1952 he pointed the car west and left Detroit behind. His four children soon followed.
He remarried that year, a white woman named Ethelyn Finney. Whenever they traveled together, he had to let her out of the car a quarter mile before he pulled into a gas station; whenever it came time to sleep, they had to spread a sleeping bag on a roadside picnic table or curl up in the car. Nothing came easy. He found a few sweet fighters—one, Don Jordan, he even took to the world welterweight crown in 1958—but he watched the best of them throw it all away. In the early '60s, money was so tight he took jobs as a sheet-metal worker and a post-office clerk to get by.
He would lean back and reflect; Khayyám would drift into his mind and calm him:
The moving finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.
One day at a gym in Los Angeles in 1961, two weeks after Mr. Futch had undergone major surgery on his prostate, a man half a foot taller and 30 pounds heavier than he began telling one of Mr. Futch's fighters what to do. Mr. Futch was 50, Mike. Mr. Futch flattened him.
Sometimes he felt funny inside. Now and then—like the time in 1957 when he ran two boxers' training camps simultaneously, starting each day at 5:30 a.m. and going strong until midnight, doing all the grocery shopping and cooking as well as the training—the room would begin to spin when he lay down. A doctor wrapped a blood-pressure cuff around Mr. Futch's arm and casually took a reading every few minutes as they discussed his work in boxing, his family, his relations with people. The physician removed the cuff and shook his head. "Mr. Futch, this is amazing," he said. "Do you know that when we talked about certain subjects, neither your face nor your tone of voice changed the slightest bit, but your blood pressure jumped 50 points? This is dangerous! You've got to let these feelings out."
Let them out? Didn't people know about the incinerator? Didn't they know that if he let out a little, it all rushed out; didn't they understand that the blood-pressure readings were a triumph? One of his proudest moments would come when he watched a film of Ali-Frazier I. Between rounds, the camera moved from one corner to the other. There was Angelo Dundee's corner, an emergency ward. There was Mr. Futch's corner, a library. "That," said Don Dunphy, the commentator, "is a coooool corner."
Dundee lifted his fighters by exhortation. Mr. Futch did it with intellect and calm, by sharing with them, for one full minute, in the midst of tarnation and thunder, the quiet bower, a seat inside his clean, ordered room.
"Hey, what's the deal?" people would say to Freddie Roach, a former Futch fighter and now his assistant trainer, when they would see Roach after fights. "Futch didn't say a thing to you between rounds."
"Yes he did," Roach would say. "He told me what I needed, nothing more. Just one or two things, very quietly. You never tune him out, like you do most trainers who are screaming. You hang on every word."
Just one or two things, Mike. No, you will not need them to beat Bruno, or Francesco Damiani or Evander Holy field. But some day, not so far off as you might think, you will, you will. . . .
Mr. Futch smiles. "I'm known as a strategist," he says. He understands the law of paradox—that strength can be weakness, and weakness, strength; he delights in studying an opponent, finding the flaw, and then plotting, act by act, the unraveling. Ali's unraveling, for instance, in 1973 against Ken Norton, an awkward and virtually unknown fighter before he came to Mr. Futch.
"The jab," Mr. Futch told Norton. "It's Ali's best weapon, but also his flaw. When he throws it, he carries his right hand out a little way from his face, instead of right up against his cheek. Now, when everyone else fights Ali, they try to slip his jab, or to block it and counter, but Ali's so quick that by the time they do that, he's gone. You must keep your right glove pressed to your face, Ken, and with your left, jab him right in the middle of the face as he's jabbing at you: That's when he's open. Two jabs and he'll be back against the ropes. Now, when you get him there, don't go to the head with the left hook, like all the others do. He'll only lean on the ropes and stretch back. He's got that quickness. You'll miss him, and then you'll be off balance and that's when he'll flurry. No, hit him in the body with both hands, and this will make him try to protect the body, which will make him bring his head down toward you, and then go to the head with the hook."
And that's what happened. Things like that brought Mr. Futch deep satisfaction. The panicked heaving of lungs, the tempest of elbows and fists—step by step, Mr. Futch subordinated them to logic, rescued them from chaos, moved the arena from the entrails to the head.
It wasn't so different, Mike, from the way Mr. Futch packed his suitcase when he traveled: T-shirts, socks and underwear each in their own Ziploc plastic bag, everything precisely folded, 16 different vitamins, each with its own little compartment in a plastic case. The right knee that sometimes swelled and stiffened, he didn't get that in a ring. He got it extending himself across a motel bed, trying to make the bedspread hang just right. At home, he neatly aligns seven combs on his bathroom counter, one for when his hair grows longer, one for short, one for dirty hair, one for clean, three more just in case. People chuckle at his meticulousness, but they don't know what he knows, what you know, Mike: how easily a man could lose his grip, how suddenly chaos could swallow order and cadence and logic, how swiftly thump-thump, thump-thump could become thump . . . thump. . . .
Arrhythmia, the doctor told him in '85, your heart misses beats, Mr. Futch; your body lacks potassium; you can't fool with this. Your blood pressure is high; take your tranquilizers.
Retire? Come to think of it, he was vaguely considering retirement in 1981, but then, within a span of seven months, Larry Holmes called, Michael Spinks called, Alexis Arguello called.
Retire? "I'll die if I retire," he told his wife.
Retire? "One day the paramedics will come," says his sister, Agnes, "and take him from the ring."
"You don't press my father on certain things," Yvonne says. "He's a complicated man. About the only time I've seen him cry was when he was going through his trunk, reading old letters his dad sent him after he left. He's a wonderful man—I'd wish my dad on anybody—but there's an old hurt there. I think, and he's made up his mind, he'll never be hurt like that again. Even with us, he holds a little back. Sometimes I've wanted to scratch through it, but you can't. He needs that space, he needs that room. I can tell when he's distancing himself—he gets more and more polite."
Four years ago, Mr. Futch was sitting ringside, working a fight in Atlantic City with middleweight James Shuler, when he sensed it coming on again, what he had felt in the middle of the night a few times before, the irregular thumps, the light head, the black dots swimming through his vision. Not now, he screamed to himself, not during a fight, I can't lose control! He sat there, gripping the chair, his mind racing against the feeling, planning how he could stay seated when the round ended and give instructions to the bucket man to relay to Shuler, planning what he wanted to tell his fighter, planning. . . .
The world went black, he had lost control. Suddenly, he was on a gurney being rushed to an ambulance, in an ambulance being rushed to a hospital. For a week he remained there, growing fidgety, aching to be back with his boxers, while doctors decide whether to open him up and implant a pacemaker.
He sagged back onto the pillow. The Kasidah advised him:
Cease, man, to mourn, to weep, to wail;
Enjoy the shining hour of the sun;
We dance along Death's icy brink,
but is the dance less full of fun?
The doctors advised him to stop driving himself so hard in the Las Vegas heat, to stop forgetting to take his potassium medication before rushing out of the house to his boxers, and then they released him. A few months later, Mr. Futch parked his car outside a supermarket. He was coming from a wedding, resplendent in white suit, white shirt, white tie. He came out of the store, noticed another car blocking his, and asked the man to move. The man sneered. Mr. Futch was 74, Mike. Mr. Futch busted a finger, but drew blood with his left hook.
Do you see what I'm driving at, Mike—or am I, too, weaving all over the road? Maybe there's a simpler way to say this. Maybe it all has to do with that afternoon when you led me to your closet and pulled out the white full-length fur coat, wrapped yourself in it and giggled, looked in the mirror and all but hugged yourself at what you saw. A teddy bear, big and round and soft.
That's what I'm getting at, Mike. Wrappings. Why you need him. Funny, isn't it, how we all bundle up and hide what scares us most in ourselves—how you wrapped your sweetness with rage, how he wrapped his rage with sweetness? Or maybe we don't do any wrapping at all, maybe it just happens to us.
Maybe you see it now, Mike—he's you turned inside out, he's what you need, yes, outside of the ring even more than inside of it—a trainer, a father, a friend. I know it, Mike; you're scared. "Only Cus," you told me. "Only Cus could ever make me do what I didn't want to do. No one else. But he's gone now. I don't think I could ever respect anyone that much again."
It was dusk when I left Mr. Futch. He was leafing once more through his collection of poems, murmuring the words, soothing himself, remembering. He had forgotten he had already quoted this one to me, and began it again: To have a beautiful old age, you must live a beautiful youth. . . .
Think about it, Mike. You're running out of youth, Mike. He's running out of old age.