[This Commentary originally appeared in the May 31, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]
One of the great things about an ethic upbringing is ethnic pride. Growing up Italian meant adopting the many Italian-American heroes of my parent’s and grandparent’s time. Two particular heroes stand out above the rest in my childhood memories – Joe DiMaggio and Rocky Graziano.
Truthfully, I can’t say I saw either of these athletes perform. Both retired nearly a decade before my birth. Yet, honoring these men pays respect to the judgment of my parents and grandparents.
I guess I’ve always had a sort of liking for boxing. I recall my brother and I spent a lot of time with our father watching the sport on our modestly sized black and white TV set. I grew even more interested in the game when I got over that famous little kid question, “Daddy, are those small men really inside the TV?”
Informal training began covertly around the age of six or seven. My youngest uncle would take my brother and me into our grandparents’ basement. Since my uncle had only a single pair of boxing gloves, he would issue the both of us one glove each. Being right handed, I got the right-handed glove while my southpaw brother would get the left-handed mitt. At the signal from my uncle, my brother and I started flailing at each other.
Of course, my uncle got in big trouble when my teenage aunt revealed these events to the adults. My mother never approved of fighting – whether on the street or in the ring. Then again, my mother never approved of football. Nonetheless, I continued playing football in the streets but never donned a boxing glove for another fifteen years or so.
Throughout college, I had hoped the athletic department would offer a boxing program, (after all, they did offer a fencing program). Unfortunately, either they never did or I never found out about it.
About five years ago, a friend introduced me to Ossie Sussman, who at the time had a gym at the Technoplex Mall in East Rochester. The former boxer offered a training regimen for those wishing to learn the art of self-defense. Figuring I needed to get back into shape, and with the opportunity to finally satisfy my curiosity, I signed up for ten weeks of boxing lessons.
The Spartan gym intimidated me when I first approached it. Already in his gear, a more seasoned student waited on the wood bench. He looked tough and had finely toned – not bulky – muscles. I shivered. As I walked towards the locker room, I passed a display case. In it sat a pair of weathered boxing gloves. A sign said, “The gloves worn by Rocky Graziano.”
Wow. I didn’t think I merited being in the same room as those gloves. I questioned whether I was worthy enough to be taught boxing by a man who possessed the gloves of Rocky Graziano.
Ossie had a knack for the practical. He realized he had only two kinds of students. The first group, like me, consisted of younger men who wanted to work out but refused to get involved with the aerobics craze. The second and larger group consisted of boys whose fathers never wanted to see their sons get beat up by bullies. In short, Ossie knew he would not be training professional boxers.
He often had to remind his students of that. One time, when concerned about my stance, I asked, “How far away should I stand from my opponent?”
“Six feet,” shot back the master without thinking.
“Six feet?” I countered, “I can’t reach him with a punch if I’m that far away!”
“Don’t worry about your punches,” said the former military trainer knowingly. “You stand six feet away because you never know when the other guy is carrying a knife.”
Good point. I had failed to remember I’d never be using my boxing knowledge in the ring. The fact is I’d never want to be in a position where I needed to use those boxing skills. Ossie’s bottom-line: Avoid trouble. Don’t seek it.
A couple years later, Ossie moved his gym to Culver Road. I kept up my twice-weekly boxing workout with him. The move changed a lot of things. For one, the display case with Rocky’s gloves never appeared again. For a long time, I wondered what Ossie did with those gloves.
The change to the city also brought more students. Sometimes, Ossie just didn’t have enough space and training equipment to go around, so the late-comers could not be included in that hour’s lesson.
By this time, Ossie and I had become friends. Actually, I had begun to revere Ossie as the Great Samuri Master. Of course, I knew the practical Ossie just saw me as a regular guy who liked to sweat. Many times, though, Ossie would allow me to have a session outside of regular hours so I didn’t have to sit through the beginner’s lessons.
One day, though, I decided to attend at the regular time. Upon arriving, I immediately saw student boxers taking up all the available spaces on the wooden benches. “I’m only short one pair of gloves,” Ossie said. He suggested I might want to share a pair with one of the other students.
We both knew the infeasibility of that option. I offered to come back another day. Ossie felt bad.
“Wait,” he said as he opened his personal locker. From the top of the locker, he pulled down a pair of old gloves. He gave me the gloves and said, “You have big hands. These gloves should fit you.”
As he strapped the gloves on me, he spoke, “You know, Rocky Graziano once wore these gloves. I used to show them in a display case.”
[What is this and why is here? See Interested in Discovering My Time Machine? for more details.]