Nearly 40 years have passed since the first “Rocky” movie. In some ways, that movie, and the idea of being a Rocky, would define my fairly good career as a pro boxer.
When that first movie came out, I identified with the title character. Few could impersonate Sylvester Stallone’s deep voice as well as I could, and I felt like no one had more reason to.
To me, a Rocky is any Philadelphia fighter, especially one who boxed at the Spectrum. In a larger sense, a Rocky is a million-to-one-shot. That’s all of us, in a way.
I was an amateur boxer in the late 1960s through 1973, and turned pro in June of that year. I boxed at the Spectrum in Philadelphia a total of seven times through 1979 (once as an amateur). The timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
Boxing is an incredible experience, mostly great and partially horrible at the same time. You’re surrounded by hundreds or thousands of people, all whom are sitting in the dark while you fight for your life with a fierce and desperate opponent under Broadway-bright lights.
If you get blasted on the jaw and stunned under those lights, it can feel like a bad dream. If you’re knocked down, you’re greeted by the thunderous roar of the other guy’s fans and the hammer of the timekeeper pounding the canvas to start the count for the referee.
Boxing’s greatest life lesson begins here: When you’re knocked down by bad luck, personal failure or overwhelming sadness, “Get up, baby! Get up!”
But boxing is mostly glorious, not sad, and boxers are usually happy-go-lucky jokers who balance the pressure they put on themselves with fun. I like to think I’m still that way.
Does the sport have any actual value? It does.
The grass roots level of boxing is in Boys and Girls Clubs, Police Athletic Leagues and private or city-sponsored amateur boxing teams. The sport has steered millions of kids from trouble over the years.
Boxing even has a second, less significant value. It helps the small or wimpy kid get strong and confident, and that’s what it did for me.
I was a small child and only weighed 70 pounds or so at age 13 in 1967, when I walked up the street in Ocean City to the American Legion Hall on 14th Street to join the team.
Fast forward to when I was fighting as a pro, and I can tell you it’s the exact opposite of being on a team. In team sports, two-to-five coaches may work with 10 to 40 players. But in pro boxing, it’s two-to-five coaches working with one person. You.
One guy manages you, one guy trains you and one guy is your corner man/cut man. Another guy carries your dry-cleaned robe and your equipment.
At the Spectrum, you walked down the hallway where the dressing rooms were, and you saw poster after poster, all in glass cases, of the many great events that had been there. The Spectrum had the Flyers (and Kate Smith), the 76ers, every singer you could name (including Elvis), the circus, the rodeo, indoor lacrosse, ice shows, even Olga Korbut and the Soviet women’s gymnastics team. (Boy, did I have a crush on Olga).
I got dressed in the Flyers dressing room once — and in the 76ers dressing room once.
My boxing record ended up at 11 wins, 4 losses and 5 draws, but in Philly, the world’s most famous fight town, every guy you fought was just about as good as you. I also fought in Scranton (a great town), Convention Hall in Atlantic City, now known as Boardwalk Hall, and once at the famous Tower Theater in Upper Darby.
Now about that Rocky connection ...
I thought I looked like Stallone, although I wasn’t a southpaw and didn’t punch hard. I’m half-Italian (my great grandfather was named Gargani).
Many years have gone by since my boxing career, and a couple of years ago a woman told me she thought I looked like “that movie star.” I was happy at first, but then she said, “You look like ... Steve Martin.”
I remember raising my hands in triumph when they announced that “Rocky” had won Best Picture of the Year in 1976. With the success of the movie “Creed,” (I haven’t seen it yet, but I will, of course), the story continues to be part of American culture.
But the real Rockys were the Spectrum boxers, and being born at the right time made me one of them.
I’ve lost touch with most of my old ring pals, and a few have died. Many were good friends, although a few I only knew a little bit.
Sorry, but I have to name them: Ernie Bing, Richie Kates, Rochelle Norris, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, Augie Pantellas, Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, Mike Picciotti, Duane Bobick, Jerome Artis, Mike Koranicki, Leon and Michael Spinks, Randall “Tex” Cobb, Mike “Youngblood” Williams, Mike Rossman, Frank and Anthony Fletcher, Tony Burwell, Tyrone Taylor, Richie Bennett, Mario Saurennann and Ted Mann.
I’m not a showy person, and I’m easily embarrassed. That’s why I plan to someday go to the Art Museum late at night and run up the steps while no one watches.