James Helwig is the Heavyweight Champion of Texas

So what has it gotten him?

July 1974By Comments

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?”

“Well, yes.”

“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?”

“No.”

“You ever seen fighters just before a fight?”

“No.”

“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 on the speed bag. Then he skipped rope for a few rounds and Tiger ended the workout. It had been very light. This was Wednesday; James’ fight was Friday. After James had left the ring to shower, the onlooker asked Tiger how long he’d been with James; but Tiger did have a way of answering the question he wanted to answer.

“Sure, I’m going to be with him. I’ll always be with him. I’m his trainer. I’m his trainer. I’m Tiger Reed.”

“Well, how long has James been training for this fight?”

“Since he was fifteen.”

“But how long for this fight?”

“Since he was fifteen years old.’’

Everybody knew the fight meant a lot to James but not everybody knew why or how much. He was going to fight Terry Daniels, the mediocre heavyweight from Dallas that Joe Frazier had mauled for five rounds until the referee put it to a stop in New Orleans in 1971. Frazier fought Daniels because it was an easy way to make some money against a fighter he knew he could beat and because it looked good to let a white guy have a shot at the title. Terry had gone into retirement shortly after that fight and only recently come back out of retirement. But since Terry’s old manager, Doug Lord, was also James’ manager, Doug bad to make a choice between Terry and James. He sold Terry. Needless to say this fight was important to Doug, too.

It was important to James in a lot of different ways. Professionally, if he couldn’t beat an older Terry Daniels than the one that Joe Frazier had wasted, it meant he wasn’t the boxer he thought he was and he wasn’t going to go as far with it as he’d hoped. He would lose his title which, though it didn’t carry much prestige in the world of boxing, still was worth some money in Europe where people who had never heard of James Helwig might pay to see The Heavyweight Champion of Texas. James’ next fight, about a month away, was scheduled for Berlin. He wanted to fight more over there. The money was a lot better. James thought he could probably make $10,000 clear in a year or so. The fights only went eight rounds and the competition was weaker. On a previous tour James had knocked out the French Heavyweight Champion in the second round. And James had plans for that $10,000. It was going to get him through college; it was going to get him a place of his own to live; it was going to be the start toward what he really wanted—not money completely, not status exactly, but a kind of professional distinction he could maintain even when he was through boxing.

And there were as well darker reasons for winning. James really hated Terry Daniels. It was a hatred James had to work at. Not that it wasn’t real; it was rather that kind of hatred that natural adversaries, wary of one another, develop into a focused prejudice. They were too much alike, both young, white, clean-cut, collegiate types, and nobody doubted that one or the other was the best heavyweight in Dallas. But there were evidently no ancient affronts or stolen girlfriends to account for the hatred.

“Oh, I don’t know why,” Tiger said. “I heard two or three things. It’s one of those things.”

And James was reticent about it, too. He mumbled something about never getting along. The problem was that the hatred he expressed for Terry far exceeded any logical reason he could give for it. James had to fight Terry; there was room for only one top dog in Dallas. But how could James say that hatred was because his life wouldn’t work out the way he’d planned if he lost?

Now, the traditional assumption about boxers is that they are from poor backgrounds and are using fighting as a way of escaping into another world. But James wasn’t poor growing up: “If lunch cost 30 cents at school, I always had 50 to buy a little extra.” James was middle class, the son of a postman father and working mother who have labored long and hard, saved their money, invested here and there in property so that their life—though modest—is stable and comfortable. It is a life that has no appeal for James, has never appealed to him, and he is using boxing as his ticket out just as surely as black fighters hope the sport is a ticket out of the ghetto. Somehow, sometime, looking around the world he grew up in, looking at its attitudes, its furnishings, its houses, its cars, its people, James decided he wanted out. Making more money was only part of the problem. He has an aversion to bad taste, to chintz, to the ordinary. Money didn’t mean much if you didn’t know the right things to buy with it, things that showed some class. And for James, moving up in social class was associated in his mind with becoming professional. He wanted to have the same natural assurance of what he was and where he fit in his society that a successful lawyer might have. And the road James saw to what he wanted, strange as it might at first seem, was boxing.

His formal boxing career began when he was a sophomore in high school when he won the Golden Gloves high school division. The next year, at seventeen, James decided to enter the open division of the Gloves for which anyone up to the age of 26 is eligible. Although everyone had advised him against that move, he won the Dallas title and finished second in the state contest in a decision that might have gone either way. He was at that time a student in Bryan Adams High, one of the largest high schools in the state. Its students are predominantly white middle and upper middle class kids for most of whom boxing calls up images of seedy gyms and obscure articles with Everlast labels and smelly sweat and swollen eyes and the necessity of voluntarily exposing yourself to the threat of the roughest people from the roughest parts of town. And here was this student, no different in age or background from the rest of the school, who had immersed himself in all of that and not only come up unscathed but victorious. It may not have caused students to go rejoicing in the halls and it certainly wasn’t going to win student council elections or make you captain of the football team. But there are either, more subtle roads to status in high school. High school is a labyrinth of plots, hates, challenges, and response; it’s a place of wild rumor and speculation about who is rougher than who and why so and so is after so and so, a place of stretching and straining new muscles, of testing new selves, of fights around the corner from the school. But it was a game that James no longer needed to play. He had beaten the roughest and the wildest, not just in his high school or even in Dallas, but in the whole state. It gave him a distinction of his own. It separated him from the ordinary, from the chintz and tack he feared people connected him with; he found he could date desirable girls, even older girls; he found he could live his own life. He felt he had class.

But when heady feelings like that swell up in high school they sometimes become haunting spectres in the following years. James’ skill in high school football won him a scholarship to TCU. There they changed him from linebacker and fullback to a guard, a change he never got accustomed to and which left him feeling dislocated. He wasn’t satisfied. Football in college was supposed to fill the role boxing had in high school, but there he was buried in the middle of the offensive line, pulling out blocking for better known names, not that any names for TCU those years were particularly well known. After practice he found himself feeling even more out of place. He cut classes, drifted around the campus, hung out at the dorm or the gym, chased skirts, drank beer, and sank into a dismal funk. He was redshirted his second year and when his sophomore year of eligibility rolled around he began to see that in three more years he would graduate at 23 after an average career as an average college football player on a below average team with a degree that he hadn’t done much for and which would probably be pretty worthless anyway. He left TCU and went back to boxing. It was time to turn pro.

James was looking down a long road. The decision was irrevocable since, at that time, a professional in one sport was considered a professional in all sports. James’ football career was over and, with it, his college career, unless he could make enough money boxing to go back. He was taking a risk. The change from amateur to professional in boxing is as radical as it is in most sports, the fight game is not notorious for its long, lucrative careers, and James had not fought for three years.

His first two fights were inauspicious. The first one was in Fort Worth in July of 1971 against a journeyman boxer named L. G. Walters. It was only a preliminary four rounder but after the first two rounds James sank into the stool in his corner and wondered how he was going to make it through the next two rounds. For brief moments he thought he might have made the wrong move, that he would never make a boxer. But he forced himself through the next two rounds and won a decision. His second fight was both better and worse. Joe Frazier, then world champion, was going to fight a four-round exhibition, the first two rounds against Houston heavyweight Cleveland Williams, a hard-hitting, seasoned pro, once almost a contender for the title, and the second two rounds against James.

James sat at ringside near Williams’ corner. When the bell rang, Frazier flew across the ring and started ravaging Williams. He absorbed six sledgehammer blows before he had moved a step. Tiger leaned over to James. “Don’t look, son,” he said. James waited the rest of those two rounds with his eyes turned from the ring. He could hear the storm of punches landing on Williams and he knew it was his turn next.

James climbed into the ring. When the bell rang he moved toward the center. Frazier, confident that he had less to fear from James than he had from Williams, took things easier. The two fighters traded some blows and about half way through the round James noticed some blood on his chest. Knowing he hadn’t been cut, he looked over at Frazier. The champion’s nose was bloody. “Oh, Jesus,” James thought. “Now what’s he going to do to me?”

Seeing the blood, some friends in the crowd started yelling, “KILL HIM, JAMES! KILL HIM!”

“Please! Just shut up,” James thought. He snuck a look at the champion knowing he might decide to put an end to all this aggravation right now.

But the barrage that Frazier had thrown against Williams never came, although James and Frazier traded some good licks in the second round. James left the ring glad the whole thing was over and not feeling too bad about the way he’d acquitted himself. But it made the world of big money fights seem a long way away and the championship seemed even farther still.

Since then James has worked himself into his present position. His record is 21 and 2 with 16 knockouts. He won the Texas championship from Sonny Moore in April of 1973. James gets up at five, runs several miles, works out in the gym starting at noon, usually gets to bed about nine. He’s proud of the way he sticks to that schedule. “I thought I was getting into boxing for the glory and the money, but it turns out it’s the training that’s the sustaining thing.” But even rigorous training can’t insure physical soundness. James has had an operation on his hand for a pinched nerve and had to cancel the Terry Daniels fight twice due to a lung infection.

The fight itself was anti-climactic. Daniels was wary of Helwig, boxed cautiously, ducking into clinches often. He knocked James down at the end of the third round; otherwise the fight was never in question. James won a unanimous decision.

In the locker room afterward a reporter said, “It looked like you were friendly with Terry after the fight.”

“Well…” James shrugged, “I won.”

For his efforts he would receive 25 per cent of an approximately $18,000 gate, not much, really, for several months work but better than a lot of fighters could hope for. In a preliminary fight that evening Hector Pena, the eighth-ranked junior welterweight in North America, earned $300.

The Monday after the fight James’ hands were still so swollen and bruised it was difficult for him to drive. The knuckles on the back of his hand were indistinguishable beneath the soft, puffy skin around them; his fingers were thick as frankfurters; his palms were inflated just as if someone had pumped air into them. Driving along, he would lift one hand off the wheel and try to make a fist. His fingers barely moved. The night before he had stuck both hands into bowls of ice water and left them there for twenty minutes, literally freezing his hands, and then, his nerves no longer registering pain, the blood driven from his veins, he opened and closed his hands, opened and closed his hands, until they thawed and the pain was too much and the stiffness returned as before.

Otherwise James didn’t look too bad. He had a bruise between his eyebrow and his right eye, a few tiny scratches on the side of his face, a few little daubs of Vaseline in his hair that ten washings hadn’t dislodged. His back was sore, his shoulders stiff, his arms hung heavily at his sides. All that was only to be expected after a fight, but he had hoped his hands would hold up better. He lifted them off the steering wheel one at a time, turning them slightly, and stared down at his swollen palms. “The hard thing is wanting to do something,” he said, “and worrying about getting held back. Held back…” He lifted both hands face high, like a surgeon waiting for rubber gloves, “…by something you can’t control.” In the back seat of the car several textbooks he used in his courses at SMU waited quietly for James to earn enough money to enroll in school again. “Without boxing,” he said to the onlooker, “I’d be selling cheap insurance right now.”

Later, James and the onlooker had lunch with a girl James had known for a while. She was about 23, small, very pretty, with an excited and purposefully dizzy little voice, like Betty Boop’s. She made the onlooker think of Cosmopolitan magazine. And she really knew how to get James’ goat.

“James, darling,” she would say, “James, sugar, honey sweetest, would you pass me the salt, pretty please?”

James, without looking at her, glumly pushed the salt closer.

She opened her mouth and ran her tongue along her upper teeth. “James, darling. Oh, James, sugar, honey sweet . . .”

The still heavyweight champion slammed the pepper down in front of her.

She mocked great surprise. “Why, James!”

Outside the restaurant, after she had gone, James said, “She wants to be interested in me so I let her.”

“James, that’s so big of you.”

He blushed. “Okay. But if I hadn’t won, she wouldn’t be interested.”

They walked along looking in the windows of the shops they passed. They stopped in a bookstore for a while. He said he liked John Updike’s Rabbit Run and Rabbit Redeux and a book called The Dice Thrower about a man who decides among various possible alternatives in his life by a throw of the dice. In the store he read a fair amount of a new novel by Irving Wallace.

At the window of another store, a tacky home furnishings emporium, just a cut above a dime store, James saw a wall-hanging made from some kind of cheap synthetic cloth. It showed a large robin whose breast was lipstick-red little feathers and whose eye was a piece of black glass; the background was the oily blue of the cloth with little pieces of shiny tin sewn here and there.

“Now that right there is what I’m talking about,” James said. “Think if you had to live in a place where somebody had put that on the wall. Where they really thought it looked good! Could you stand it?”

He was right. The hanging went hand in hand with glitter-speckled ceilings and formica coffee tables and leatherette couches and stringy matted shag carpet.

“I’ve had to live with that stuff all my life,” he said.

A little later they were back in his car driving toward his house. On the way they drove past Bryan Adams High School, James’ alma mater. The baseball team was practicing on a large playing field. Balls were flying every which way, bats flashed in the sun, and 25 or 30 kids in baseball uniforms swarmed back and forth across the field.

“Let’s go watch ’em,” he said. James had mentioned earlier how much he liked the baseball coach there. When James had played, there had been a little incident during a game and that coach had kicked James off the team. “I probably could have got back on if I’d tried, but I never did.” 

It was still the same coach. He was a tall, wiry Scandinavian with a narrow, rather handsome face and an effortless, lanky dignity. He was wearing a green tee-shirt, sweat pants, baseball shoes, and carrying a fungo with adhesive wrapped around the thick end. James was a little subdued around him, introducing the onlooker in a formal way to the coach, asking with real interest, but politely, how the team was doing. They still had a slim chance for the championship.

“I saw you won your fight,” the coach said.

“Yeah.” James was neither cocksure nor did he go into any “well, it was a tough fight” routine.

The two of them talked for a while longer about fighting; then James said, “Well, we better let you get back to practice. Mind if we watch for a while?”

James and the onlooker walked over to a low chain-link fence that bordered the field and sat and watched the coach hit balls for infield practice. They started out making simple plays to first. Then the coach hit balls that made them move to the left, then to the right, and then they started practicing double plays. The only sounds were the crack of ball and bat, the slap of a ball in a mitt, the swish the ball made in the grass.

“Two bits,” the coach said once. The shortstop made a nice play on the ball, scooping it up at his ankles and pitching it to the second baseman all in one motion. “See,” James said, “as soon as he hits the ball he knows it’s going to be tough and right then he says ‘Two bits.’”

“Don’t rec’anize it,” the coach said a few plays later when the same shortstop made an awkward stop.

“Don’t rec’anize it,” he said again on the next play. “Get in rhythm with the ball.”

“He’s really a good coach,” James whispered. “They work out in these practices just like a major league team.” James pulled a blade of grass with his swollen hand and stuck the green sliver in the side of his mouth. “He’s really a good coach,” he said again. “Maybe I should of tried to play more baseball. I mean, what does he think of me now?”

James watched the practice for a few moments longer. From time to time he tried to make a fist, each time moving his fingers farther than they wanted to go. He pulled the blade of grass from his mouth, flipped it away, and got slowly to his feet. “I feel like doing some running,” he said. “Want to come?”

Related Content