Manny, Rocky, and Tony Skopelli enter the mix.
Out Into The World
By the time Sean was born, Manuel Liebowitz was in the fifth grade of an elementary school in Brooklyn. From his birth he had been called “Manny.” His parents were Jewish immigrants from Ireland, and his father made a modest living as the proprietor of a small shoe repair shop.
Unlike many of his peers, Manny did not excel in scholastics. By the time he was attending high school it was clear that higher education was not in the cards for him. When his classmates discussed their plans for college, Manny would use his family’s modest economic means as a feeble excuse for why he didn’t plan to continue beyond high school. But none of the others were fooled. It was common knowledge that Manny just wasn’t very bright … at least not in mathematics and the sciences. As a result, virtually all of the Jewish girls gave him the cold shoulder. By the end of his sophomore year he had developed a healthy inferiority complex.
It was a fluke that Manny wandered into an athletic club early in the summer before his junior year. He asked the manager if there was anything he could do to help out, and the manager hired him (at sub-minimum wage) to sweep and do other odd jobs. Manny worked “off the books,” which meant that none of his pay was withheld for taxes. And that was fine with him. It just meant more money in his own pocket, and he had never seen anything wrong with breaking the law (other than getting caught).
The so-called athletic club was in actuality a training facility for boxers. Manny quickly developed an affection for the place. No one there had any education beyond high school. Many of the aspiring fighters had not even graduated, and some of the foreigners were barely literate.
In his junior year Manny continued working at the club after school and on Saturdays. His father and mother were not religiously active, and no one objected to him earning a little money on the Jewish Sabbath. While his peers in high school were busy making plans to attend college, Manny wormed his way deeper into the fight world.
The one high school friendship he did cultivate in his senior year was with a Polish boy whose nickname was Rocky. The name was apt. Rocky feared nothing. He had a crushing punch, and had used it more than once on hapless young men who rubbed him the wrong way. Manny mentally toyed with how he and Rocky might have a future in the fight game.
Many of the aspiring fighters at the club were “owned” by Mafia figures. The fighters’ expenses were partially or fully paid by these sponsors (depending on how promising the fighter was), and in return the Mafiosi would get all of the fighters’ winnings when they went professional. How much of those winnings got channeled back to the fighters was strictly up to the sponsor.
In his senior year, Manny approached one of the more prominent sponsors. His name was Tony Skopelli. Skopelli had grown fat from years of overindulgence on rich Italian cuisine. He knew who Manny was, but acted like he’d never seen him before.
“Whadda yuh want? Do I know you? Get lost! Can’t you see I’m busy watchin’ dis sparrin’ session?”
“I know, I know, Mr. Skopelli. But I got somebody you might wanna have a look at,” Manny suggested. What Manny might have lacked in scholastic prowess he more than made up for with chutzpah.
“You got nothin’! Gedoudda here!”
“No, I do, Mr. Skopelli. Really! Why would I lie?”
Skopelli glanced sidelong at this nervy punk. He took the stub of a well-chewed cigar out of his mouth and heaved a bored sigh.
“Where is dis wonder?” he grunted.
“I can have him here tomorrow!” Manny answered excitedly. “You gotta see this kid in action, Mr. Skopelli. He can punch like a … like a …”
“Yeah, yeah,” Skopelli answered. “Have Super Boy here in the ring at 4 tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Skopelli! You won’t be sorry!”
“Your boy might be,” Skopelli smirked, waving Manny away.
Manny wangled a short-term locker rental and a pair of gloves, trunks and shoes from the equipment room manager. He promised all of his next week’s earnings to pay for the gear. When he left the club that night his head was swimming with ideas. He was a manager! He called Rocky and told him what he’d set up. It was all news to Rocky, and Manny had to sell his friend on the idea. But eventually Rocky agreed.
The next afternoon Manny and Rocky slipped out of school early and hurried to the club.
“This is your locker, champ,” Manny said expansively, once they were in the locker room. “Here, here’s your key. Suit up and we’ll have you do some warmin’ up.”
Rocky looked at Manny incredulously. Nobody but Manny could even come close to ordering him around that way. But somehow he found himself always deferring to Manny. He unlocked the locker. Inside were gloves, trunks and shoes.
“You get a towel from the equipment room for showerin’, after you’re done for the day,” Manny said, acting like this was all old hat stuff to himself.
Rocky nodded compliantly and changed into the boxing togs.
“We won’t tape your hands,” Manny explained. “This is just gonna be a short sparrin’ session I set up for yuh.”
Manny had Rocky run in place and do some pushups. He laced Rocky into the gloves and had Rocky punch him in his open palms. Even with gloves on, Rocky could make Manny’s hands tingle.
“Feel good?” Manny asked, pulling on Rocky’s gloves.
“Yeah, man, they feel real good,” Rocky answered. He was starting to get into the spirit of the thing. He suspected he was a natural!
The big clock on the wall clicked to 3:55.
“It’s time. Let’s do it!” Manny said. As they walked out of the locker room, Manny gave Rocky a pep talk. He told Rocky to just think of the pug they’d put him in with as one more high school mama’s boy. Hit him hard! Take charge!
Rocky listened intently and nodded. So this was the fight game! Already he found himself dreaming about fat purses and his name in the papers.
“Well, here he is, Mr. Skopelli,” Manny said as they approached fat Tony. Skopelli eyed Rocky.
“Just a kid,” he thought. “But what a jaw! He looks like he can take a punch.”
“Ever fought in a ring before?” Skopelli grunted at Rocky.
“No,” Rocky answered, slightly mortified by his lack of experience.
“You’re steppin’ in with somebody’s had a lotta fights. You sure you wanna do this?”
“Sure, I think so,” Rocky answered, trying to sound casual.
Skopelli motioned to some men across the room, and one in his forties approached. He was dressed in sweats and boxing gloves. He looked like he weighed at least 100 pounds more than Rocky. Manny noticed that one of his ears was cauliflowered.
“Let’s see what yuh got,” Skopelli said in a throwaway tone. Manny helped Rocky into the ring.
“How long will they spar?” Manny asked Skopelli, feeling he should establish some sort of proprietorship.
“As long as I want,” Skopelli snarled. “Now gedoudda there.”
Manny stepped through the ropes and gingerly sat down a couple of seats away from Skopelli. Rocky looked down at them, uncertain of what to do. Skopelli looked up at Rocky with amused eyes.
“Ding!” he said, placing his cigar stub into his mouth.
The other fighter walked out toward the center of the ring, holding his gloves out for the customary “hand shake.”
“How old’re you, kid?” he asked quietly.
“Twenty … one,” Rocky lied. The older man shook his head somberly.
“Well, let’s see what you got. Don’t hold back. Give me everything you got. You ain’t gonna hurt me.”
The two men backed away from each other.
Bam, Bam! The older man snapped Rocky’s head back with two fast jabs.
Wham! He slammed a left hook into Rocky’s jaw. The force of the blow sent Rocky back pedaling across the ring. But he didn’t go down!
“I knew it … he can take a punch,” Skopelli thought. He’d seen plenty of men knocked flat by a shot like that.
“See? Didn’t I tell yuh, Mr. Skopelli? Can’t he take a punch?” Manny yammered excitedly.
“Shaddup!” Skopelli snarled.
In the ring Rocky’s face took on a set look. He wasn’t used to being hit like that. In fact he had never been hit like that. Most sane people would have started having second thoughts after being stunned so. But Rocky seemed to be rallied by the realization that, for the first time, he had some real competition!
He came back toward the center of the ring in a crouch. The older fighter debated for an instant whether to finish him off. He was only a kid! It was a mistake.
Rocky feinted high and drove a fist deep into the older man’s abdomen. With a grunt and a look of surprise the older fighter dropped his gloves slightly.
Boom, Boom, Boom! Rocky hit the older man with a crunching right, left and right to the jaw. The older fighter went down hard on his back, nearly doing a backward somersault.
“Dat’s enough!” Skopelli barked.
Manny looked at him with shining eyes. Skopelli looked back, waiting for Manny to shoot his mouth off again. But Manny instinctively kept quiet.
“Be here with your boy tomorrow at 3,” Skopelli said in a slightly more friendly tone. He rose to leave.
“You OK, Pete?” he called to the older fighter as an afterthought. Pete rose up on one knee and nodded. As Skopelli left by a side door, Pete smiled up at Rocky.
“You punch pretty good, kid,” he grinned. Rocky noticed that one of Pete’s front teeth was missing, no doubt from one of his many professional bouts.
“Thanks,” Rocky answered. He reached out a gloved hand to help the older man to his feet. Pete’s first impulse was to wave him off. But then he thought better of it and took hold of Rocky’s forearm.
“I’m gettin’ too old for this,” he muttered.
Down at ringside Manny was glowing. He flashed Rocky the OK victory sigh. They were on their way! Fame and fortune awaited!