By Jesse Kaellis
In 1983 my coach and a handful of fighters from the gym drove down to Kirkland, Washington, for a novice tournament. It was five fights or less to compete.
I had one going in. A one point split decision loss in my first fight which was in the gym on the downtown east side.
One point equals three punches, so, yeah. It was close.
Anyway, all the way down to Washington I’m eating and breathing fear.
We get there. It’s an auditorium in a school if I can remember.
I strip down in the bathroom which is crowded with fighters hitting the scale. I’m aware of guys sneaking glances at me, especially if they were at or near my weight.
I was ripped to shreds. I trained like a pro because I trained with my friend, a pro, every day. I did everything he did but sparred less rounds. Anyway I made weight at 131.5. The amateur lightweight limit is 132lbs.
There are two rings set up. I’m out in the auditorium warming up, hitting the focus mitts with my coach. I swung wild with a left hook and knocked his glasses off. I saw fear in his eyes and I apologized.
He says, “There’s your opponent” and he points. I look. A skinny black kid surrounded by two white kids on either side. This kid is looking straight ahead. His eyes looked like saucers. The other kids were pointing and snickering, which I don’t know why the one kid was laughing. He was my # two.
The lighter weights always fight first. The place was filled up now. My coach holds the ropes open and I step into the ring. He tells me this, “He didn’t warm up. He’s cold. Knock him out.”
The ref asks me how I feel. I tell him I’m dying. He laughs and says, “You’ll be all right.”
Now all this time the fear is indescribable. It had nothing to do with this kid or anything. There is something about getting into a ring surrounded by people watching you and fighting.
All this time I’m thinking it’s me or him, over and over. Like a drumbeat in my head. I felt like a cornered rat, scared mean and viscous.
The bell rings. Like most fights I just remember fragments. It was the same combination, the whole fight; three quick, hard jabs and a right hand. The first knock down I thought he slipped. I didn’t feel any contact. It felt like I was punching a sheet hanging on a line. I was punching right through him.
The second knockdown was…I started to get excited. I realized that I could get out of there RIGHT NOW! I never wanted anything so bad in my life.
And then it really hit me. I could win!
This kid was backed up on the ropes getting an eight count.
The ref had waved me to a neutral corner. I looked to the corner where the judges were. There was a lady judge, a blonde. Good looking. Her lips were parted and her eyes were shiny. She looked hungry. They all did. I felt this huge rush of adrenaline. I started to jump up and down in place. The murder came up in my eyes and I turned my eyes on my opponent. I had picked up the count at five.
The ref waved me in and as I closed the distance I felt my head lower and my chin tuck and it was like I was outside of myself and within at the same time. But the point is that I was being careful. I saw the brass ring. I had him on the hook and I wasn’t going to let him off.
Three hard jabs and he brings his gloves in front of his face. He’s trying to hide behind his gloves.
Now here is the peroration of my whole story. I saw an opening, a space between his head gear and his gloves. It was like the clouds parting for the sun. Time warped, slipped away disappeared, a moment frozen in time. I was in hyper focus.
I decided that my glove would fit through that little opening. I pulled the trigger and knocked him out. At the moment of impact I twisted my hip into the punch. I put my ass into it. A perfect right hand and the hardest punch I ever threw and I could really punch. That punch would have knocked out any amateur at lightweight anywhere.
He went down and his neck was on the bottom strand and his eyes were wide open but sightless. The doctor came running.
I looked into the audience. Two teenage girls, about eighteen, were looking at me, their eyes shiny with lust. I thought, “So that’s the way it is” the intoxication of power.
There was such a confluence of feelings going through me, deep, deep pathos. I thought: “This is one fucked up world.” I didn’t prance around with my gloves held high. He was just a kid. But it was me or him.
So I hug this kid. He looked resentful. My coach is spreading the ropes for me. I tell him, “I still don’t like it.” Then I start snickering, “I could learn to like it.” He tells me, “They won’t all be this easy.”
I beat the next guy. He ran and held.
There was a three hour break until the finals. I was tired. I was emotionally spent. I didn’t want the last fight. And I had seen the guy fight and I really didn’t know how I was going to beat him.
I later learned that he had lied to get into the tournament. He had seven fights going in, instead of five. I had one, as I said. One of the guys he beat told me that.
He stopped me with a right hand that hurt me and I got an eight count and I rushed in and got caught again. I never went down.
RSC; referee stops contest.
Yeah, I felt ashamed. A lot of people wanted me to win. There is a lot of racial shit in the states. I’m not really a fighter. I made myself do it. I wanted to be like my friend. I admired fighters. I got a very late start. The success I did have was because I had very heavy hands.
Once I asked a very good retired fighter and trainer, Hedgman Lewis, a welterweight active in the late sixties, I asked him if I could even call myself a fighter. He said, “You got in there. You fought.”
Yeah, I didn’t have much of a career. I was basically 50/50.
Seek ye me and live.