Authors: Grant Bywaters
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To the memory of Kurt Bywaters.
Not a day goes by I don't think of you. Miss you, Dad.
The first time I met Bill Storm was in New York in the early part of what would become known as the Roaring Twenties. I was broke then, making little money boxing. That night I was in a heavyweight bout against some pugilist Italian named Horace Francisco. The purse had been set at thirty dollars: twenty-five to the winner and five to the loser.
Not satisfied with the money being offered, I told the promoter that I would not even bother suiting up unless he promised to give me a cut of the gate receipts. He refused, and delicately explained to me that if I did not get my “black ass” in the ring, I would not leave the venue alive. I believed him.
Nonetheless, it was a sure shot I'd be making off with most of the purse. I was so confident of the win, if not bored at the competition I was getting, that I did little training or roadwork to prepare for it. With a record of 52 wins, 2 draws, and 50 knockoutsâmy only three defeats coming from debatable decisionsâit was hard to find suitable opponents. It did not matter that most legit rankings had me ranked in the top three of heavyweights; I had the misfortune of having heavy hands. This made promoters and managers of name contenders avoid me because the last thing they wanted to see was their cash cows sprawled out on the canvas.
The only thing Horace had going for him tonight was having a longer reach than me. At six foot one his reach was measured at the weigh-ins from fingertip to fingertip as seventy-eight inches, while at the same height mine was seventy-six.
He was able to survive the first few rounds because he boxed me, staying on the outside and using his extra reach to his benefit. In the end, his ego got the best of him. After being on the receiving end of a few nasty jabs to the face, he moved the fight inside, where I went at him with pinpoint combinations.
I dropped him twice midway through the rounds. First was with a vicious left hook that knocked him through the ropes and into a spectator's lap. The second time was with a right-left-right combination. The referee pulled me over to a neutral corner and stalled the count the best he could. He did everything outside of putting Horace's gloves on and fighting me himself to get him back in the fight. The delay was enough for Horace's head to clear by the count of eight, and he got up on wobbling legs.
He clenched, ran, and danced until the final round in an attempt to decision me. The seconds worked me over in my corner before the final bell, while my manager, Karl Monroe, in his habitual Panama hat, leaned into my ear and said “You managed to bust up his left eye in that last round, and it's starting to swell over. He's probably got a blind spot there. So keep hitting it. You're the puncher, so you need to go in there and outgun him. Cut that ring off like I told you so he can't keep punching and runnin' like he's been doing. Don't leave it up to them judges to make the decision, because you know they'll go against you.”
He was right. Even though the Walker Law had ended the no-decision days when, in a futile attempt to rid the sport of corrupt judging, a fight was won only by a knockout, I still needed to win by one. If left to the judges, it'd end in a “majority draw” at best. It made little difference to them that I landed more clean, effective punches, or that I scored two knockdowns and had not a scratch on me. The same could not be said about Horace. His face looked like it'd been shoved into an airplane propeller.
At the start of the bell, Monroe shoved in the gum shield and I leapt toward Horace, who again played it safe. He jabbed and retracted, jabbed and retracted. I swung at him, but he used his lateral movement to evade me. His constant running away annoyed me enough that I hit him with a haymaker that sent him against the ropes. When I closed in, he head-butted me and then hit me below the belt. In pain, I looked over at the referee, who along with the crowd ignored the fouls, and so did the crowd.
Irate, I threw out all notions of going easy on him and charged after him until I bullied him into a corner. There was no longer anyplace for him to run and hide. I sent hooks and jabs into his eye until there wasn't an eye left, and then focused on his jaw. The referee stepped in, pulled me off, and called the fight. The crowd was on its feet and shook the arena with a prolonged roar of disapproval.
In my respected corner, Monroe went between the ropes and leaned in to me. “Sweet Jesus, what the hell was that?”
“I'll be surprised if he'll ever be able to see clear out of that eye again. Probably shattered his eye socket, and his jaw don't look too good, either.”
Horace was crammed in his corner with the ringside doctor bandaging him up. I went over to mitt him, but Horace didn't get up off his stool.
From a swollen mouth he said, “You fight dirty, Fletcher. I had this fight and you know it.”
“You best get that eye and jaw looked at.”
Horace leaned over his stool and spit a mouthful of blood at my feet. “Better give me a rematch. If you don't, you're a coward because you know I'll lay you flat in the first.”
I didn't argue with him that it was a one-sided fight, and he was lucky not to have gotten more hurt than he already was. The audience was still frantic.
I went to my corner, where Monroe was waiting. “You done fine, kid. He had this fight dead fixed for him to win. Had his own referee, and I heard his manager paid two of them judges off.”
“I'm tired of fighting these palookas that got no business being in the ring with me,” I said. “At least I still got my shot against the champ.”
“Nothing doing on that one, kid,” Monroe said. “I didn't want to tell you before the fight, but I spoke with the champ's manager a few hours ago. He's pretty sure now that he don't stand a chance against you. But the champ said he don't want to hand over his strap to a nigger and that's all there is to it.”
This was not the first time I had been denied my shot against the belt. No promoter was going to let a colored like Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, to ever again run off with the most coveted crown in sports. Not when Jack London's call for a “Great White Hope” to defeat Johnson had proved to be so difficult.
“What'd I got to do? Murder one of these pugs in the ring to get my shot with the champ?”
With disgust, I ripped the last glove off my hand myself and went to change. When I had finished yanking into my togs, I left the boxing pavilion. A tall man who looked like the missing link between man and primate approached me.
“I've been watching you for a while, kid. You got a pair of hands, and I've been thinking of using a guy like you.”
No introduction was needed. I knew who he was. Most folks in the area did. Bill Storm was a prominent heavy who local syndicates hired out to do muscle work. Even back then he was aging. What hair he had left was starting to gray. Lines were outlining obliquely along his grill, which almost certainly was never handsome to begin with. His nose had been broken so many times it went off in several different directions. No matter, his cold gray eyes showed there was life left in him. They burned with a brutal hatred and a primal urge for violence.
“I don't think I'd be interested in your kind of work,” I said. “I'm sure you can find some poor colored that doesn't mind getting thrown into the grinder when the time comes for a fall guy.”
Storm laughed. “Look here, kid. I don't sell out anyone that works for me. One thing that means more to me than anything, even more than money and dames, is loyalty. Do straight with me, and I'll as soon as take the fall myself than sell you out.”
I expected him to say something like that. Most of his kind did. However, I knew there was rarely loyalty among his type of crowd.
“What'd you need me for anyway? Seems you been doing just fine by yourself,” I said.
“Sure I was, when I was younger. Now mugs are getting the idea that age has slowed me down, and trying to take a pop at me when they never would've had the backbone before. It's a mistake on their part, I assure you, but my job is mostly intimidation, see. My employers don't like seeing their customers constantly gettin' roughed up. But if I had a bird like you with me, they'd think twice about getting cute.”
Massaging my sore knuckles, I did not know whether to believe a word he was saying. Being a clever man, he quickly picked up on this.
“Look here, kid. I'm offering you a chance to make some real dough. I figured you'd be tired of busting yourself up over chicken feed. You're the one doing all the fighting, but them promoters and everyone else is making the money, not you. So you got to decide whether you want to keep making other people rich for the rest of your life or rise above it.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
That's how it went. A partnership had been formed, more or less. For the next few months I worked alongside Storm, mostly as backup, or as a stand-in. We made our rounds, collecting payments for various syndicates. Most of the time, the people paid up, from gambling receipts to “protection” payments. Sometimes, they'd get wise, but often would back down when they realized Storm and I were gearing up to do major violence to them.
I made more money than I ever did before. It was more than I was getting paid doing boxing exhibitions, which were nothing but glorified sparring sessions between fights to supplement what little I was getting boxing. Instead of spending it on women and booze, which Storm advised I do, I put it away. I spent very little. I moved out of the flophouse I was living in and moved to a place in Harlem that was somewhat better. With just 750 square feet and plumbing and heating that sometimes worked, it was as good of housing a colored could get at the time. Segregation had a funny way of limiting one's options.
I did not tell Storm I was putting the cash away. I got the impression that if I did, he'd start getting worried I'd ditch him as soon as I got enough dividends stocked up. Presumably, that was why he always encouraged me to spend it as soon as I got it. Things were going sound, but I knew it would not last. Business never stayed efficient with guys like Storm. If it got too calm, he'd make sure to create some sort of disturbance. His temperament dictated that he needed chaos to thrive.