JANUARY 24, 2008
As some of my friends know, I love boxing. I trained as a boxer for many years and in High School boxed as an amateur. I loved how isolated and fair the sport was. Team sports were difficult for me because I really didn't understand the rules of many sports growing up. My dad died when I was of an age to learn from him, and after that, I entered a more private, interior world. Still, I was very fast and aggressive. I enjoyed playing hockey, football and baseball with my friends, but never dared play these sports on a team. I did play baseball the spring after my dad died and it was horrible. I was in no mood to play and every game was approached with dread. I stayed away from team sports until Jr. High School and played football. The coach was a great guy and helped teach me the sport, but I quit that after I found Track a better fit. I was a sprinter and actually went one season losing only one race. Boxing was the dream though. I wanted to try it having grown up loving Muhammad Ali. I wrote to a local Police Athletic League and got a quick response. They welcomed me with open arms. Boxing is a complicated and intricate sport to do right. I was never a heavy puncher but my speed was an asset. I also hated getting hit in the face and learned to evade getting hit in the head, though some say not enough. I followed the sport religiously and read every book about it. As time went by I started to recognize my true talents and I pursued art in college. After I graduated and began illustrating, I found myself in Philadelphia, living in a neighborhood with a boxing gym. My weight was no longer a svelte 147, so I entered the gym and started working out. Quickly, I fell in love again. This was a real gym, inner city, gritty and full of life. The fighters were all shapes and sizes except white. I was the only white guy. This earned me the nickname, “Rocky” to the kids in the gym. In this gym I learned that my skills were pretty good, but I knew nothing about fighting inside, a Philly specialty. I also learned that I was not going to ever be a boxer. Every good boxer in that gym taught me that lesson in sparring. Boxing was something I learned and I thought about how to do it all the time. To throw a left hook I had to think of the mechanics of it and try it out over and over. The gym was understaffed and I began training kids. This was an amazing addition to my life and helped me in ways I won’t go into in this article but someday soon. The gym was busy but poorly run. I was the guy who was there at 5 as it opened up and stayed until it closed. Trainers stopped coming on time, probably because they knew I would open up so I was given access to the gym and was now a serious trainer. I could articulate how to do things, how to deal with fear and soon was allowed to help train the professionals. My favorite was a guy named Tommy. He was a strong southpaw featherweight, older than me actually. Training him was a challenge. I had to do everything backwards and work with him with my knees bent really low to assume the size of fighters he would meet in the ring. He was a great, gentle guy who was a garbage collector in the wee hours and would go home, run, then go to the gym. Dedication. As a trainer I had the experience of trying to relax a fighter before a fight. Kids usually find out who they are fighting minutes before a fight. Pros sign contracts and know weeks or months ahead. Tommy fought many times at the Blue Horizon and I will forever remember those seedy, backroom dressing rooms where fighters eyed each other and trainers did their best to deal with their fighter’s anxiety. I would talk to Tommy about anything but boxing until a half hour before he was to go into the ring. One magical night, in a televised fight, I was with Tommy as he prepared to fight an Irish fireplug from Dublin. He was a hard punching guy and Tommy was talking about going right after him. What were working on with him was to get him to counter wide shots to the head by taking them on the glove they throwing short, sharp hooks inside. When the fight started Tommy was being out punched. He was out of his fight, winging wild punches back. It took a few rounds for him to calm down and recognize that he was not going to win this way. IN the third everything changed. He stayed inside and threw crisp shots as counterpunches and after a few exchanges, had his rival dizzy. A punch or two later and this nice Irishman was knocked out and I lifted a very light Tommy up over my head and listened to this crazy Philadelphia crowd roar with joy. Peter Cusack has been posting some lovely paintings with boxing themes and it made me think of the sport I love. I kind of put it on hold as I trained for the marathons these past two years. To rehab a dislocated shoulder I’ve been boxing again. I love it. I’ve always had a hard time taking this sport I love and turning that into paintings. For some reason for me, it’s more difficult to imagine. Photos of boxing are amazing and enough for me, but painterly works are cool too. Ordinarily my painting style is too stiff for the action scenes and better at moments. I had an opportunity to illustrate an article by Teddy Atlas about the quiet moments fighters have with their trainers. Drawing on my experience in the dressing rooms prior to fights, I did this little painting.
This was an alternate sketch. I like it very much and to mix things up would have preferred doing it, but I was hired to paint people and It was enough that I didn't have to paint their heads.
I shot photos of all the fighters in the gym back then. I must have been an odd person for them to meet. I think in the end all of our horizons had broadened. I miss Tommy and lost touch over the years. I have many stories about my time in Philly and when I get a chance will add a few in the future.
© 2023 Tim O'Brien