Glove Story

In search of rhyme or reason inside Phoenix's boxing subculture

Ricky teaches the kids by using a code based on numbers. Number one is a jab. Number two is a right hand. Number three is a left hook, number four an uppercut, number five an overhand right. He calls out numbers to the kids while they spar. "I have all kinds of signals," he tells me. "But that's the basic recipe." When he calls out instructions to his fighters, only they know what the combinations of numbers mean.

Madison Square Garden's motto is "Champions Against Drugs and Gangs." No drugs are allowed in the place, and the only uniform colors permitted are the blue and gold of the club uniform. Have many of the kids been involved with gangs? "Oh, yeah," Ricky says sadly. "But the kids back each other in the regional championships, no matter what gang they're in. They're boxers, representing Arizona."

In the evenings, the gym is a den of fistic industry. Fighters from other clubs come there to train, and the place is soon crowded. Some of the visiting fighters used to be trained by Ricky, before defecting to other clubs. Ricky still welcomes them. "I don't hold grudges. Let's be friends instead of enemies."

One of the visitors training at Madison Square Garden is the bearer of the only white face aside from mine. But Larry isn't from another club. He doesn't belong to a club. He likes to float around and get to know people, so he trains at five different clubs. At 27, he's the Arizona Tough Man champion. And he believes he's the toughest stockbroker in the world.

He asks that I don't reveal his identity in case the firm he works for has a problem with one of its financial planners being known for entering Tough Man Contests. These events are pretty much the same as regular boxing matches--they wear gloves and headgear and fight to the same rules--except that the participants are street brawlers who don't know how to box. They're not usually in great shape, either, so the rounds only last one minute, which suits a guy like Larry who doesn't always have time to train.

He's always loved to fight. Back in high school, he organized impromptu Tough Man Contests with the other kids, placing bets on the outcome. He never lost a fight. While at college, he didn't play any sports, but worked out in a local gym. He met a 70-year-old boxing coach, who sparred with him. "He was good." Larry grins as he remembers. "He kicked my ass."

He got a B.A. in political science at the University of Arizona, but Tucson didn't have enough of a sports scene for him. He moved to Phoenix. Outside of sports, his main interest was in finance, so he wound up in his current job, designing portfolios.

He likes doing it. "I choose my own clients. I hire and fire my clients. I have bikers, attorneys, construction workers, athletes . . ."

He wishes he had more boxers. It depresses him to see boxers end up destitute. When he talks about it, his words are harsh but his manner is compassionate. "Boxers blow their money not just because they're idiots, but because the people around them are, too. When they quit boxing, it's, 'Let's open a taco stand or a car wash. . . .' But they don't know how to run it.

"I want boxers to have their money. I tell them, save now or you'll have nothing later. You're not going to have a good job--you've no education. I recommend an SEP--a simplified employee pension plan. It's like an IRA, but it doesn't limit you to $2,000 a year. It allows up to $24,000 a year, which can be about 15 percent of a pro fighter's salary. This also lowers taxable income. The gains aren't taxed until they take it out, and the minimum age they can do that is 59 and a half."

How do boxers respond to what he says? "It's over their heads, and half the time it's over the managers' heads as well. Most don't understand. But I have a couple of fighters as clients."

And he has ambitions. Although modest about his boxing skills, Larry deliberately goes into Ali-style motor-mouth mode when discussing his future as financial planner to the fight trade.

"I will have the market. I will be the premier broker for every fighter. Everyone knows who I am. But I'm not trying to make money off boxers. If I depended on fighters to make money, I'd be broke. I'm here to help them.

"I care. I'm in the game. I fight, I referee, I judge. No financial planner knows the sport more than me. Fighters and managers like to deal with their own kind."

And Larry is their kind. With his collar and tie and sandy hair and long nose and professional smile, he seems like the whitest of white boys, the kind of guy whose involvement with boxing goes no deeper than watching it on the TV of a sports bar. But his record shows why he's so easily accepted by a working-class, ethnic community. He's won seven out of eight fights, and he claims that the one decision against him--in a Tough Man Contest in Utah--was robbery, a hometown decision. He finds the contests easy. "I'm not a great boxer, but anyone with basic boxing skills can do well in a Tough Man Contest."

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