A boxer’s training camp is supposed to be a certain way. It’s supposed to be in the woods; there’s supposed to be a ring set up in a clearing of pine trees; there’s supposed to be trails leading through the woods where the boxer takes his early morning roadwork, his breath in clouds before him, his head and neck wrapped in thick towels; there’s supposed to be a retinue of trainers, sparring partners, a punchdrunk old friend who sweeps the place up at night, and a gaggle of hangers-on—sports-writers, managers, fight fans, maybe a gambler or two, all of whom sit on wooden tiers to watch the champ train in the ring in the clearing in the pine trees. The boxer’s creature comforts are few. There’s supposed to be bare wooden floors in his quarters, a simple metal bed, very hard, with clean sheets and grey blankets. And the boxer sleeps alone.
James Helwig, the Heavyweight Champion of Texas, in training for an important fight, also sleeps alone. He sleeps in a small bed in his parents’ house in Dallas. He sleeps alone from choice. Usually he shares his bed with a little black dog named Tiger, after James’ manager; but before a fight James makes Tiger sleep outside where it curls up by the closed door to wait for morning. For this fight James has hired another heavyweight from Florida to come to Dallas to spar with him. That has been the one special expense allowed for this fight. Training camps in the woods were out.
He trained instead in Pikes Park gym, an old, solid stone building in the middle of a park on Harry Hines Boulevard. The building, squat and grey even in bright sunlight, has a flight of steps on one side which leads down around behind to a narrow door whose paint, a venerable grey, had started peeling long ago. It opens uneasily on rusty hinges. Behind it is a low-ceilinged room, smaller than many living rooms, dominated in both space and spirit by a makeshift boxing ring. Four cast iron posts hold up the corners; the ropes, thickly wrapped in long yellowed adhesive tape, sag dispiritedly; plywood slats covered by an old purple carpet are the floor. And the fight-camp hangers-on were nowhere to be seen. Only three people were in the tiny gym: James, his trainer Tiger Reed, and a curious onlooker. James, beneath Tiger’s gaze, was sitting on a low bench against a wall getting ready to wrap his hands with gauze and tape. James and the onlooker shook hands. Like classical pianists, James protects his hands with puny handshakes. He laid his hand across the onlooker’s so loosely it was like holding an empty glove.
The onlooker sat down in an old folding chair and watched James slip a loop of gauze over his thumb and start wrapping it around his hand and wrist. Little in his appearance suggested he was a heavyweight boxer. He’s short, only 5’10,” with most of his weight in his thick legs. His chest and shoulders and arms, though muscular, are not startlingly developed. In street clothes he would look perhaps 20 pounds lighter than his 195 pounds. That combined with his blond moustache, semi-long blond hair, his straightforward blue eyes make him no different from any number of young men on the streets of Dallas who have a certain visible confidence in themselves and are trying to start making their way in the world. Only two small details in his appearance hinted at his occupation. His two front teeth are chipped and his nose through six years of fighting, has been bashed flat. A blow there no longer hurts him and in idle moments he is in the habit of using his right forefinger to press the tip of his nose absolutely flat against his face.
James was intent on wrapping his hands so the onlooker turned to Tiger Reed, the trainer, a powerful looking black man of about 50. His smile, calm and amused, exposed gold-capped teeth.
“How many fighters do you have in training?” the onlooker asked.
“Lots of fighters,” Tiger said. “I trained Curtis Cokes, welterweight champion of the world. I trained hundreds of fighters,”
James looked up from wrapping his hands. “Now what did he ask you?”
“I told him.”
“No, you didn’t answer his question. He wants to know how many fighters you have right now.” He looked at the onlooker. “Isn’t that right?”
“See?” James said. “Now answer the man’s questions.”
Tiger looked down at the onlooker where he was sitting in the folding chair. Tiger’s white tee-shirt was stretched across his powerful chest. He was smiling. “You ever been around fighters before?”
“You ever seen fighters just before a fight?”
“They all like this before a fight. The bigger the fight the worse they are. The fighter’s nerves is all on edges.”
James stared up over his bound hands at Tiger: “Not ‘edges’. On edge.”
“Now listen here, professor. You worry about the fightin’. That’s plenty for you to worry about. You let me worry about the way I talk. Now why don’t you just do that?”
James returned to his wrapping. His face was a little red.
Tiger turned his attention back to the onlooker. “See what I mean? We go on like this all the time. It don’t mean nothin’. His nerves is all on edges.”
While Tiger timed three minute rounds on a stopwatch, James shadowboxed. He moved around the ring with great deliberation, throwing series of jabs, following with hooks to the chin and uppercuts. He moved in close to the ropes, snorting as he punched, and held his invisible opponent trapped while he mauled his midsection. “Snap that jab,” Tiger kept shouting. “Snap that jab.” When Tiger called the end of a round, he and James met at the side of the ring. Tiger talked quietly to him, their faces very close, James nodding while Tiger’s hands darted in the air to illustrate his points.
James shadowboxed for three rounds, fought the heavy bag for three rounds, and worked three rounds