texasmonthly.com: Are you a big fan of boxing in general?
John Spong: No. I’ve actually kind of hated boxing ever since the night in college that I sat in an Austin bar watching a bunch of rich white frat boys yelling at a television set for Buster Douglas to kill Mike Tyson. It seemed to me that the whole reason we even have a Mike Tyson was to make money for people like them, and all they wanted was to see him destroyed. It was really offensive. However, I have had a couple of occasions to do boxing stories, one on an old heavyweight named Tex Cobb, and now this one on Elmo, and one of the thrills about such a story is the way it lets you in to this weird and passionate boxing subculture. Although boxing doesn’t matter to America as a whole nearly as much today as it did thirty years ago, there are these pockets of fight fans in places like Philadelphia, New York, Reno, and San Antonio, who still think about nothing but boxing. I found a guy in Minnesota who has videotapes of more than nine thousand fights available for purchase online. And if he’s got them to sell, that means there are people out there ready to buy. Talking to those kinds of guys and seeing their passion was fantastic.
texasmonthly.com: Where was your doctor friend working when he encountered Elmo?
JS: He was in the ER of a hospital here in Austin, and he actually ended up seeing Elmo on three different occasions. Each time Elmo’s routine was the same. The doc would ask for identification, and Elmo would show the photo and tell the stories. Elmo didn’t recognize my friend or remember meeting him.
texasmonthly.com: Had you heard of Elmo before you began working on the story?
JS: No. I hadn’t, but that’s the cool thing about delving into that boxing subculture. Every old fight fan, trainer, and promoter is an amateur historian, and they all seemed to have some recollection of Elmo. And they all wanted to help him out. All, that is, except for George Foreman. Big George refused to return ten phone calls or respond to two letters that I faxed outlining Elmo’s situation, letters that his secretary told me she gave him. That strikes me as particularly cold since, if Elmo is suffering now from ring-related injuries, it’s a safe bet that some of it stems from those brutal sparring sessions with Foreman.
texasmonthly.com: Was it Elmo’s past or his current circumstances that made his story worth telling now?
JS: We actually tried pretty hard to keep this from being a check-out-the-cool-homeless-guy story. On the one hand, those stories serve a purpose; they give their subjects a sense of dignity that people don’t often afford them, and that’s a good thing. But on the other hand, I always feel like I’ve read those stories before. And more to the point, defining a homeless guy by some old accomplishment means the reader gets to look past what he’s actually going through now. It makes it easier not to notice the unpleasant parts, like the fact that he’s pissed himself, or that if he does have a bunk at a homeless shelter, then he’s going to be locked overnight in a dorm room with a bunch of crazy guys, any one of whom might steal everything he owns. Thinking about the irony or surprise in someone’s plight is much less unsettling than thinking about the reality of it; you can focus on how good it used to be rather than on how bad it is. So the point here was to talk about Elmo’s encounters with people like Ali, Foreman, and Mailer—which are simply interesting stories—and then, to the extent that those experiences and that period contributed to his situation today, to get him some attention that will hopefully bring some help.
texasmonthly.com: Have you kept in touch with Elmo since writing the story? Do you know where he is?
JS: I’ve only seen Elmo once after the last scene described in the story occurred, although he became enough of a fixture around the office that co-workers of mine see him walking around downtown and say hello to him at least once a week.
When I saw him last I was walking to the office from where I park my car, and he was sitting on the curb eating peanuts and drinking a Dr Pepper, which was perfect Elmo, because one thing I noticed in taking him around the office is that he can’t walk past a drink machine without buying a Dr Pepper. And instead of wearing a hat, he had a bandanna on his head. But it looked funny. It was tied Aunt Jemima–style with the knot on top and was apparently an old Michael Jackson Fan Club give-away item, because it had pictures of Jackson all over it. Fortunately, Elmo had his Sea World hat in his bag because this ended up being the only chance we had to take his photograph, and the do-rag wasn’t quite right.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything in Texas today comparable to the boxing scene that Elmo encountered?
JS: Boxing today is a lot different. But like I mentioned, there are those die-hard boxing nuts who still live and die with it, and they were a big help in researching Elmo’s story. Richard Lord, who runs a boxing gym in Austin and is about forty years old, only vaguely remembered Elmo, but he was able to give me the names and numbers of about ten or fifteen old-timers who all had good stories to tell.
If you’re looking for a boxing scene, there are a few still out there but harder to find. There aren’t many places where local fights make the front page of the sports section anymore, and there certainly aren’t any fights being shown on major network television. But there are frequent fight nights in Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston, and if you’re not offended by the violence in the ring, checking out the fights and the people who attend can be fun.
texasmonthly.com: How do you think Elmo’s story would be different if the safeguards for boxers’ health had been more stringent or enforced more uniformly during the time he was fighting?
JS: Elmo obviously wouldn’t have fought as long as he did if today’s laws had been in effect. And the fact is that he could have made his way without boxing. We didn’t go into it in the story, but he held a bunch of different jobs through the years. He drove a truck delivering slot machines for a while; he was a bouncer and night watchman at a number of places; and he shined shoes and did lawn work. He even went to beauty school for a short period and opened up a combination beauty shop–record store while in Dallas. But by all reports, he was never crazy about working and going back into the ring for half an hour never stopped being an attractive alternative to a full-day’s work. As Elmo liked to say, “I guess I was too pointed up on the dollar.”
texasmonthly.com: Did Elmo’s successful libel suit against Norman Mailer give you cause for extra diligence in researching and writing this story?
JS: Yes and no. Courtroom stories actually have a tremendous advantage over other stories in terms of research: There is a written record. If you can get to that record, you’ll find all kinds of information, and the truth of all of it should have been sworn to by somebody. So if you can find old discovery answers, you’ll find names and numbers, supposedly, of all people “with knowledge of relevant facts,” or so the boilerplate requests for potential witnesses always goes. And if you can find a deposition of a party, you’ll get that person’s whole biography. I knew Elmo’s deposition had been taken in this case, and that it would be a huge help since Elmo had forgotten so much of his own story. And the other documents would be just as helpful, since neither Playboy nor Norman Mailer would talk to me.
But the difficulty here was in getting at those files. The defense attorney, David Krupp, no longer had access to them. Bill Nutto, Elmo’s lawyer, had the files but was pissed off at Elmo and wouldn’t let me see them. Apparently, Elmo had filed a couple of complaints in the past year with the Texas state bar association alleging that Nutto didn’t pay him all the money that was owed him back in 1977. (The state bar summarily and correctly dismissed both complaints.) So that meant I had to go to the regional branch of the federal archive in Fort Worth. But wow, was it worth it. Not just the courtroom section but really the whole story came together that day.