In this corner, at five-ten, 175 pounds, one of the greatest female boxers of all time, the only boxer to have won four world titles in four different weight classes at the same time, Ann Wolfe. And in that corner, standing five feet, nine inches tall and weighing 165 pounds, one of the greatest American musicians of all time, seller of more than fifty million albums, Willie Nelson. She is 41. He’s 79. She is considered the hardest female puncher of all time. He once put out an album called Face of a Fighter.
On Wednesday Wolfe and Nelson went toe to toe in a sport that turns otherwise rational men and women into crazy persons. We’re not talking about boxing. We’re talking about dominoes. The two battled at Nelson’s ranch in Spicewood—the scene of a match last year, where Wolfe won handily. They were set to play again, straight dominoes, first to 250 points wins a game, and best of seven games wins the day. “Loser leaves town,” both agreed beforehand.
The game began at twelve, with red dominoes on a black table in Nelson’s saloon. Both fell into easy trash talk.
“I’ll beat you.”
“We’ll see about that.”
Wolfe had brought some friends with her, and Nelson had his people there too, including his ex-wife Connie. It’s through Connie that Nelson and Wolfe met a few years ago, when Connie went to an aerobics boot camp taught by Wolfe, who has made a living as a trainer since retiring from the ring in 2006. He wore black shorts and shirt and a cowboy hat. Wolfe wore white jeans and shirt and a red bandana.
Nelson took an early lead in the first game, 150-135. It was his home turf, and he sang along with the Sirius XM radio, which was set to “Willie’s Roadhouse.” “Hey, good lookin’” he sang, then hummed along with Hank Williams.
At several points in the game Wolfe didn’t have any dominoes in her hand to play, meaning she had to pick a domino from the pile of spares. “What do you call that?” she asked Willie. “We call it the well,” she explained. “We call it the boneyard,” he cryptically said. When her bad hand forced her to fish in the pile again, Willie cried, “Oh no, this is horrible news!” before slapping down his last one, scoring some more points, and securing the first game. The two shook hands.
They talked about last year’s match. “Ask him who won,” said Wolfe. “I don’t want to talk about it,” said Nelson, only half joking. Dominoes is serious business—both players have played it since they were kids, Nelson in Abbot and Wolfe in Oberlin, Louisiana. “It’s better than boxing,” said Wolfe. “It gets my adrenaline going.”
At one point in the second game, the line of dominoes looked like a giant fish hook, but Wolfe couldn’t find a play. “Ain’t this some shit?” she said. Nelson replied, “That’s the way it goes.” He whistled along to “Somewhere My Love” and played a five, picking up a dime–dominoes parlance for ten points. It opened the game up to Wolfe, who laid down ten of her own. “Very sneaky,” said Nelson. “Just a little bit,” she replied. “Faded Love” came on and Nelson sang along.
Near the end of game two, Wolfe said, “Unless you get fifteen, I’m gonna win.” Nelson put down two fives. “I’m gonna take my fifteen.” She slammed her last one down and laughed. “You gotta watch him. He’s tricky. I don’t know how he does it.”
“He cheats,” said one of Nelson’s friends.
Wolfe pulled ahead in the third game by fifty points, but Nelson stormed back. “You know, I don’t like to lose,” she said. “That’s what bothers me so much,” he replied. Nelson, on a hot streak, won the third game. “I never lost this bad in prison,” said Wolfe, who did eighteen months for drugs back in 1990. “Well, when you go back,” said Nelson, “this time you’ll kick their asses.”
They talked about playing dominoes–or “throwing bones” to the dominoes obsessives–when they were growing up. “I learned by playing old guys,” said Wolfe. “That was the way I learned too,” said Nelson. He asked her when she started boxing. “Twenty-five,” she said. “I was homeless, and I saw some women boxing on TV and I said, ‘I can do that.’”
The fourth game went quickly, with Nelson winning—and taking the match. They shook hands and embraced. “He tore my ass up,” said Wolfe. “I ain’t never gotten beat that bad in my life.” She walked around the saloon, talked to Connie and some of the others, and posed for pictures with Nelson. Then she asked him to sign a CD she had brought. “My favorite song is ‘Whiskey River.’”
“We’ll do it again next year,” announced Nelson. “We’re tied now, one to one.”