Transcript

98:

Throwing the First Punch
Transcript

Originally aired 03.27.1998

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/98

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Pierre is 10, and he practices in matches of the Stateway Park Gladiators, his community boxing team. At the end of a fight, if Pierre needs that extra boost, he has a special technique. He says he got it thinking about the cartoon, The Incredible Hulk.

Pierre

Because I was thinking about the Hulk when [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. So Incredible Hulk, throw you down and stuff. He go wild and stuff.

Ira Glass

When he spars, here's what happens. His buddies on the team, led by Coach Frank Smith, start chanting.

Frank Smith

Hulk time, baby.

Team Member

Hulk time, baby.

Frank Smith

He's getting mad. Uh oh. Hulk time, baby.

Ira Glass

And then Pierre, in the middle of the ring, starts to shake. His whole body vibrates. His head lowers. His eyes get glassy. He transforms from a loser into somebody who dominates with punches, with a crazy flurry of hitting.

Pierre

I started hitting him so hard when I get mad, thinking I was going to lose. And I turn to Hulk.

I look all wild, silly. When I get to punching, there ain't going to be no taps. It's going to be hard, like real fighting people. And they winning belts and stuff.

Ira Glass

A guy named Max Kellerman, who does this public access TV show called, Max on Boxing, told me this story. He said that in Muhammad Ali's biography, Ali said that when he was hit really hard in the ring, he would enter this room in his mind. A room he says that all boxers enter when they're beaten hard enough. And on the wall of the room were these masks. And at some point, Ali had a fight where he took a real pounding and he entered the room and he looked around at the masks and he realized that he could put one of the masks on. So he did and he says that's how he was able to last the round.

Frank Smith

Hulk time.

Team Member

Hulk time.

Frank Smith

Hulk time.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Ira Glass

It's the most natural thing in the world to punch someone in the face. And it's also the most unnatural. You have to psych up. You have to transform yourself. You have to do something to become the person who could put himself or herself straight into danger and throw the punch. And then, once you become that person, once you become that, then who are you? From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Today on our program, Throwing the First Punch. And who you become when you're able to throw the first punch. And how hard it is to stop being the person who throws the first punch. Round One, I Would Probably Slug Jesus, A nice guy from Brooklyn explains why he loved to fight in bars and how hard it is to stop.

Round Two, To Boldly Go Where No Woman Has Gone Before, the story of someone who finds the thing that means more to her than anything in the world is boxing and why she has to give it up.

Round Three, Fighting Is Work, A man who, at 2:30 in the morning in a club in Chicago, takes on all comers, and beats them, and well and why for him it's just a job. Stay with us.

Round One. I'd Probably Slug Jesus.

Ira Glass

Round One. Manny Howard grew up in Brooklyn in a working class Irish enclave. He learned to fight with the other kids there. And he loved fighting, saw himself as a bully. He was such a committed fighter that when he got older he became the first person to get suspended from Vassar College for fighting. And now he's trying to stop. He's trying to stop being the one who always throws a punch. But moving from that world into the world that most of us inhabit isn't easy. He spoke with Paul Tough.

Manny Howard

Heidi takes a cab ride home every night, which is $8.50. And we took this ride that ended up being $11.00. Clearly the meter was fast and I said to the guy, give me the receipt. I'm not going to pay for the ride. And he said, oh, I knew the meter was fast. I meant to get that fixed.

One thing led to another and I basically snapped and grabbed him and folded him up. He was outside of the cab and I was outside of the cab and I threw him inside the cab and slammed the door on his legs and he drove away.

Paul Tough

So was it like a standoff sort of thing where the two of you were standing outside the cab sort of shoving each other?

Manny Howard

Yeah, you pay me. You pay me. No, I won't pay you. You pay me no. No, I won't pay you. And then he said that I was an enemy of the people. Which, since he was ripping me off, seemed like a pretty outrageous claim. But I snapped, and I just charged him. That's a failing on my part. I should be able to take his number and complain to the Taxi and Limousine Commission and take him to court, do it the right way. There's always a way out of a fight.

Paul Tough

You were with your wife and you were with another guy. And how did the two of them react?

Manny Howard

Sam loved it, and Heidi hated it. Heidi walked away.

Paul Tough

Did she give you a hard time?

Manny Howard

Oh, yeah. I had to sleep out of the house. I had to go around the corner, sleep at my mom's house. Arguably, a fair punishment.

I remember being a little kid and running away from a fight and being terrified and being blind and running and running and running and running. And it occurred to me that if people-- it's like playground fighting, but it's pretty traumatic when you're a little kid. Somebody chasing you around threatening to beat you over the head and you're just terrified about what-- you're not sure exactly what it is except that somebody said they're going to beat you over the head. So you run and you run and you run and you hope that you never get caught. And then, if you do get caught, you get a beating on the head. It's more humiliating than it is hurtful. But at some point you decide, well, I'm not going to be the guy being chased in the playground. I'm going to do the chasing. It's as much to avoid the humiliation of having to run away as it is really enjoying doling it out. Although you quickly learn to enjoy being a bully.

Paul Tough

But you're saying there was a moment where you made that decision for yourself?

Manny Howard

Yeah, I thought if you can choose to be the guy throwing the beating, then you might as well be that guy instead of the guy getting the beating.

The things that I learned early on were you prepare for a fight way ahead of time. If you're going to go out at night, you wear big shoes because you end up on the floor getting dragged around and sometimes you have to kick people. Always throw the first punch. Punch in the throat and the eyes, the nuts, and the knees. Don't bother with any other part of the body if you want to win the fight. Never tell anybody you're going to fight them. Just punch them.

It's important to be the guy who can throw the punch to me. And it's more important than whether or not you win the fights or not, I think. But it's a hard thing to do, to throw a punch. Because you don't know what's going to happen afterwards. Then you get your ass kicked, and it's happened a lot. You throw a punch and then they come back at you 10 at a time and you lost that one.

Before I got into fights, or before I had my first fight and was mostly running away from fights, everything seemed to happen really, really quickly. Never was clear in your memory what had happened and why you were running down the street or the panic. But after the first fight, I realized that if you actually get in a fight, everything slows down. I suppose it's adrenaline. You have time to think about everything. It's like being in a car crash. You notice things-- what people are looking at, what the person you're about to fight with is looking at, what he's paying attention to, where his hands are, if he's the kind of guy who's going to hit you first, all that stuff. You have this heightened awareness. It doesn't hurt then, but it's scary. But nothing hurts really.

Paul Tough

Really? So when you're in a fight there's no pain at all?

Manny Howard

I mean, I'm sure that there is, but it's not unbearable pain. You don't give up because of the pain. And I don't think I've ever been beaten bad enough so that you would-- I've never been beaten with a bat so that things break and start working. But being punched doesn't really hurt. It's just exhausting. That's why fights don't last very long. It's too exhausting.

Paul Tough

It's exhausting to punch something, or it's exhausting to get punched by somebody?

Manny Howard

Both.

Paul Tough

How is that exhausting?

Manny Howard

It takes a lot of energy to punch somebody, and it hurts a lot when you do it. I know that you're never more tired than after you've gotten a good beating or you've given one. And it doesn't seem to be any more tiring getting beaten than beating up somebody.

We were at some college bar and somebody came running over all dramatic and flushed and said Evan was in the hospital and had his teeth knocked out by the rugby team. So we all got in this car and drove to the hospital-- I think it was St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie-- and stormed the emergency room through the double doors, screaming Evan's name, looking for Evan, feeling very excitable. And Evan appeared from behind the screen. I'll never forget his face. His front two teeth were just gone, and his lips were all swollen He had these big eye like, big, puppy dog eyes. And he's speaking with a lisp, talking to us. And very dramatically somebody-- it was probably me-- said, what do you want to do? Do you want to go get them, or do you want to call college court in the morning and press charges? Because we can't do both.

Paul Tough

It was kind of a little bit of a movie moment?

Manny Howard

Oh, God. It's hideous, yeah. And so Evan of course said, with his big lips said, let's get them.

About eight of us went to a bar off campus where we knew the rugby team would be. And we called them out to have a fight.

Paul Tough

What do you mean? How'd you do that?

Manny Howard

We opened the door and started screaming at them to come out and fight. We'd been drinking for the most part of the evening, so I don't remember exactly what it was that was said. Anyway, 11 guys piled out of the bar with about five rugby girls, the women who hung around with the rugby team. And Evan started insulting the women, which just incited everybody. Including actually, the rugby coach was there as well. A guy named Dennis. And at some point Dennis got upset because Evan was insulting his girlfriend and rushed Evan. And Evan ran away. And poor Evan had had his teeth knocked out already. But that wasn't good for morale for the troops. Because everybody but me and the two other guys named John left.

And the fight had already progressed to a point where we were in a circle of guys and it was about to happen. So there was no real going back. And I'll never forget watching John-- the bigger of the two Johns-- grab a guy named Andy by the balls and by the throat and lift him up over his shoulders and over a bush, where he just disappeared. There were no more Andy. And then he clapped his hands, cleaned his hands, and walked away across the street to find somebody else to punch.

Now I remember seeing that while I was getting the back of my head and the front of my head pounded at the same time by two other guys. Every time I turned around to face somebody to fight them, the guy behind me would punch me in the back of the head. And I remember thinking, this is how people die in fights. This is what happens. You get hit so hard that your neck breaks.

And then I heard this inhuman scream. And I looked on the floor, and there was the other John, the smaller of the two Johns. And the rugby coach had three fingers of John's hand is his mouth. And there was blood rimming from his mouth. He was chewing on John's fingers. And John couldn't move, and his hands were being chewed on. I was so freaked out by that. I walked over and I kicked the coach in his head as hard as I could. And his jaw sprung open, and he sort of looked around. And he got up. And so it was me and the coach facing each other. And he just started walking towards me. And I started walking backwards. And he just kept coming. And I thought, well, I can walk all the way home. He's just going to follow me, so I better just stop. And then I stopped and as he came towards me, I set my foot and took that step forward and I punched him as hard as I could in the face. Harder than I've ever punched anybody in my life. And he fell over.

And first of all, it hurt like hell. My hand hurt. And I thought, wow, I knocked out the coach. But he popped up, like one of those Bozo the Clown punching dolls. He was on the ground for a second before he was standing up again.

Paul Tough

A second where everything was working out.

Manny Howard

Time slows down. And he just kept coming. And so I turned around to run away. And I turned around and ran into a visiting alumni whose name was Bear. And he was so much bigger than me. He just got me in a bear hug, which I guess what he's named for. And he turned me on my head, and he dropped me on my face on the concrete, right on the curb. And then the coach stood on my head and started stomping my head into the road. And it's one of those suburban roads that are paved with gravel. And so I got all the skin torn off the high point on my face, above my eye and on my chin and on my jaw. And then mercifully, we all heard police sirens.

I remember seeing Dennis the next morning after breakfast. My face was still all raw, and he had this big, black eye. I looked at his face and he looked at my face and we sort of apologized to each other in that way without saying I'm sorry. And we got along fine after that. We never had any trouble. And that's true for the rest of the team. If anything, we all never spoke about it again. But we all got along much better afterwards.

Paul Tough

Do you feel like there's some fights in which it's just like-- I mean if you're at a bar and you're with some people who want to fight and there's other people who want to fight, I mean that's just-- everybody wins?

Manny Howard

Yeah, it's a win-win. We used to do that. We'd just fight with each other. John broke a chair over my head once. Over my back, not really my head when I was getting up from him throwing me on the ground. And it was fine. It was part of the fun. We decided to have a fight. He poked me, I poked him. He punched me, I punched him and then we were going. And it wasn't play fighting at all.

I would really, really, really feel bad about myself if I did any of the things that I did then, now. I suppose at some point it doesn't seem appropriate anymore to be behaving that way, to be looking for a fight. I see it differently. Besides my wife.

Paul Tough

So do you feel like-- I mean, you talked about this one moment on the schoolyard where you decided you were going to be the guy who punched instead of the guy who got punched. Do you feel like now you're trying to make the opposite decision, you're trying to become the guy who runs away again?

Manny Howard

I have the self-confidence now, I think, having been a bully, that I can do without it. I wouldn't be satisfied with that answer if I had never done it, if I had gone from running away to finding a solution to the problem. I'd always be haunted by the-- why didn't you just pound the guy into the ground, see if that doesn't solve the problem. And a lot of times it does. It's really fun sometimes. Square off against a guy in a bar and you know before the fight starts that you're just going to kick his ass. And he's a schmuck, and he's starting a fight with you. And he's starting a fight with you with his arms at his sides and he's leading with his face. You just can't wait for him to say enough for you to just pop him in the face. Have it be done with and hopefully you really humiliate him. That's fun.

Paul Tough

So even now you would still feel that way in a bar if there was a guy just being clearly the idiot? You'd take the first swing and you'd feel good about it?

Manny Howard

I don't know. Part of me would like to say yes, definitely. And part of me knows that I wouldn't do that anymore. In fact, I was thinking about this the other day. I wondered if I would turn the other cheek if something happened. I just don't think I would. I don't have the strength, the fortitude, to do that.

Paul Tough

What do you think of that line in the Bible of turning the other cheek?

Manny Howard

I don't even know where to start with it. I don't know where to start with it. I can only understand it as a metaphor. I don't know how you apply it. I've only ever been in situations since I decided that I was going to be the guy throwing the punches, not getting them that I looked for the fight. So I'm the other end of the spectrum. One day I'll probably slug Jesus. I don't think that I've got what it takes to take a hit. I've spent so much time defining myself as a guy who never would.

We have a neighbor who has a dog who barks all the time, and I used to get in big screaming matches with him about the dog. His behavior as a neighbor is outrageous. He's a bad neighbor. He should be punished. But I can't punish him. I'm not the one who's going to do the punishing. So I made that decision. And when I think about this particular instance, I think there was a time when I would have fed the dog steel wool or broken glass or something and then created a situation where the dog was dead and I obviously did it. And then there would be a fight and I could muster all the moral righteousness for being falsely accused of killing this dog and then beating the guy up as well. That sounds like something I would-- I love the idea of it now. But I know that I'm not going to poison the guy's dog. So we're just going to keep going around and around in this horrible circle where I frown at him when he says hi to me and I let him know that I disapprove of him.

Paul Tough

That's the problem with the world where you don't throw punches, things just go on and on.

Manny Howard

It's true. Exactly right. No quick resolution.

Ira Glass

Manny Howard still lives in Brooklyn where he writes a column about bars for the New York Press and does other writing. He talked to This American Life senior editor Paul Tough.

When is fighting cathartic? In Kodiak, Alaska, on the Fourth of July, in front of the American legion Hall, they used to set up a boxing ring and all day long, with hundreds of people watching, the citizens of Kodiak would fight. Third grade kids, fifth grade kids, and adults, lots of adults. They called it rough house boxing. Radio producers Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson, The Kitchen Sisters, witnessed it a few years back.

Davia Nelson

A lot of these were sort of grudge matches that had built up on fishing boats all season, and people can't very well on a fishing boat, duke it out, and have a successful run. So it's I'll meet ya at the Fourth of July and we'll work this out then.

Ira Glass

Do you see people fight their own employers?

Davia Nelson

Yeah, a guy told us about fighting his own boss and that he'd given his boss two black eyes but that he had almost had a heart attack in the ring while giving his boss two black eyes. And he had to go to the hospital for a couple of hours after the event to kind of recover. It was ugly.

Emcee

Well, we need some more people on up here. Women preferably. Little kids.

Davia Nelson

In listening to the tape, we're hearing the emcee of the boxing event urge different couples that he knows are having marital trouble to get in the ring. Come on, Roxanne. Come on, Jack. get in the ring.

Emcee

Jones, you and Roxanne get in there. Art, how about you over there?

Davia Nelson

It was kind of an all-purpose kind of a cleansing. A kind of a village cleansing. And I have always called the event Yom Kippur with Gloves. Because to me, I was raised with what Yom Kippur was.

Ira Glass

Let me just say that Yom Kippur is the Jewish holiday of atonement.

Davia Nelson

Which you had to atone for your sins and you had to at least forgive. You might not forget, but you got to get over it. You got to move on. You got to work it out. You've got one day to do it. It was great too because it was sort of like the block party gone wild. Block party with silks.

Nikki Silva

The crowd fed it, and the crowd was like hungry for the game, for the sport. And people were all around us commentating, practically grabbing the microphone to get their two cents worth in.

Man 1

--difference in weight. Look like a boy against a man. [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE]

Ira Glass

I don't even know how to say this. You know what this puts to shame is like Judge Wapner and The People's Court. That isn't what you want to see. What you want to see is this. If this were on TV, don't you think this would be just like a huge thing? Where like two people who have a grudge come before whoever the host of the show is going to be. Let's say George Foreman. And he's the referee of the match. He's the Judge Wapner of this thing. And then the two people would come before him, and they both would sign some sort of liability form before they go on. And just like The People's Court, then they would explain what their little tiff was about. And then we'd watch them duke it out.

Davia Nelson

And it would be called The People's Ring.

Ira Glass

The People's Ring.

Seriously, when you think about this, do you think this would be a healthy thing if more people had this in their lives? Or do you think there's something kind of horrifying about it too?

Davia Nelson

I do think it would be healthy if there was some-- Nikki's making--

Nikki Silva

No.

Davia Nelson

--worse face.

Nikki Silva

I know. I'd be kind of horrified.

Davia Nelson

We might have to box it out.

Nikki Silva

I know, we will. The Kitchen Sisters get in the ring. I don't know. I can't see it.

Davia Nelson

Look, I'm not going to start the committee to let's spread rough house boxing for the millennium throughout America. I'm not arguing for violence. I'm not defending violence. I just think you can't deny the violence inside most people.

Ira Glass

Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson. The town of Kodiak stopped rough house boxing years ago because of insurance reasons. There was no way to prevent lawsuits about split eyes and busted noses. Those insurance companies ruining our great American traditions.

Coming up, girl meets ring, girl loves ring, girl leaves ring, sort of. And boxing as a job. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Round Two. Where No Woman Has Gone Before.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, being the person who throws the first punch and what happens to you when you become that person and how hard it is to stop being that person. We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Round Two, To Boldly Go Where No Woman has Gone Before. We have this story of loving to fight from Meema Spadola.

Meema Spadola

Maritza was an accountant, a financial analyst at a huge insurance company. She was living day to day like anybody else. Then she heard about this boxing class that was being offered at the company gym. Some guy named Milton was teaching. Maritza liked sports. She'd even taken an aerobic boxing class before, so she decided to go down and check it out.

Maritza Arroyo

Here I am in a suit, coming in. It's the first time. I didn't have a chance to change. So I'm walking in all suited up. So he comes in, he's saying well, you know, I'm hear to teach boxing. I said, well, so? And? I wasn't impressed.

Milton

So Maritza comes up and she's so short. She goes, I want to get rid of my stomach. I want to get rid of my gut. And so she was so short. I look at her. I go, honey, I teach boxing. This ain't boxing aerobics. You know, aero boxing. This is boxing. You want to learn how to box, you came to the right place. If you want to come and dance around, jump around, I says, I'm not the guy for you. So this ain't what you want.

Maritza Arroyo

He wasn't even thinking about me. There's another girl who thinks this is aero-- I mean-- so I threw a punch at him. Oh, you got a pretty good punch there. And he goes, let me see what you got. Bam, bam. You got a pretty good punch there, he goes. But who taught you how to box? Two steps. Then he's like trying to fix me. I'm going to teach you how to weave, but I'm going to shine you up like an old shoe and polish you up. He made me laugh. I thought he was amusing. I found it amusing. It reminded me of watching the old movies and this guy telling me I'm like an old shoe. He's going to polish me. This guy's got an act.

Milton

So I started working with her every day, come down with the pads. Giving her combinations so she started falling into place. So I was like, whoa. I said, you know something? If I could bring you to my gym in Brooklyn, I says, you could win in New York City Golden Gloves. She goes, I can? I go, honey, what I got you doing right now, no girl fights the way you do right now.

Maritza Arroyo

That's how it all started.

Meema Spadola

Every day after work in Manhattan, Maritza would take the subway all the way out to Brooklyn to train for three or four hours at Milton's gym and then go all the way back home to Queens. She spent her weekends at the gym. No one in her old life understood what she was doing. She'd grown up in the projects, put herself through college, gotten an MBA, held a good paying job, and here she was back so close to the streets.

When she got a broken nose and black eyes in the ring, she lied to her coworkers about it, didn't tell them she was boxing. Her parents didn't approve of women fighting. They were conservative, born in Puerto Rico. Her friends were suspicious of her weight loss. They accused her of being anorexic, infected with HIV, or addicted to drugs. But at the gym, everyone believed in her. Maritza was the only girl at Milton's, his first girl, so she'd spar with the men there.

Milton

She took Joey one day and she was throwing nonstop combinations and punches repetitiously. There was an old man sitting down in the chair and he goes, god damn that boy can throw some punches. She had the head gear on. So when she finished he came over to me. He goes, that's going to be one good damn fighter. That boy is going to be great. He goes, who is that? I go, what guy you talking about? He goes, that guy. I go, I hate to tell you this, that's no guy. He goes, what do you mean, that's no guy? Looked like a guy. I go, that's a girl. That ain't no damn girl. I go, that's a girl. He goes, get out of here. So I said, Maritza come here. So she come over to me and I took off her head gear. I go, does she look like a girl now? He goes, oh.

Meema Spadola

Looking at Maritza, you probably wouldn't think boxer. She's small, just over 5 feet tall and only 106 pounds. Her features are fine and delicate. But when she talks about her love for boxing, you can see her in the ring. She's radiant. It's like speaking to someone who's had a religious conversion.

Maritza Arroyo

Boxing has shed a light on me. It's like my vision. It's like I just obtained vision. This is what I was put here for.

Announcer

Ladies and gentlemen, tonight's next bout is the women's 106 pound class. The referee is Pete Santiago. In the gold corner, Maritza Arroyo, from the Supreme Team Boxing Club. Arroyo is a financial analyst and a part-time personal trainer. She's been boxing for a year and is a Metros champ. This is her first--

Meema Spadola

With Milton's training, Maritza was unbeatable. Within a year she had taken all the amateur titles in New York. She won the Metros, the Empire States, and in '96 she won the biggest of all, the Golden Gloves in Madison Square Garden, a fight televised around the world, held in a ring where some of the greatest boxers in history have fought.

Commentator

Two straight left hands by Arroyo. And another straight left. Four straight left hands by Arroyo.

Meema Spadola

Maritza and I get together to watch the video of her '96 Golden Gloves win. The Garden's packed. The crowd's going wild. Martiza's incredibly fast and beautiful in the ring. Watching her, you understand what it means to be a smart fighter. She's calculated. The woman she's fighting is taller than she is, with longer arms. So Maritza ducks down low and jabs up to the body, choosing where she lands her punches-- to the ribs, then to the chest.

And when her opponent can barely catch her breath, Maritza's up, giving her a fierce combination to the face and head.

Maritza Arroyo

There goes the upper cuts. There goes another one to the body.

Meema Spadola

Ow.

Maritza Arroyo

Another one to the body. Another one. Another one.

Commentator

And another. Followed by a big right hook. Manson in trouble.

Meema Spadola

In the last 10 seconds, Manson gets in a good punch, straight to Maritza's face. Maritza stumbles back and then seems to go crazy. She throws nonstop combinations, and the crowd is screaming.

Maritza Arroyo

There, there goes the hook. See that? That's it. 10 seconds. Bam. There you go. I threw it all. Go, go. There you go. There you go. There you go. There you go. Throw it. I missed a lot, but I threw.

Meema Spadola

Can we just watch the last 10 seconds? That was so cool. Oh my God, you are so good, Maritza. I want to see you fight so badly.

After the fight ends, we're laughing. We keep rewinding to watch Maritza's amazing finale.

Maritza Arroyo

I'm like, really? You got it good, right? Well, OK. All right. All right. All right. All right. OK, OK. That was a grin. That was a good grin.

Meema Spadola

We're both completely high and hysterical. Maritza's face is transformed. This is pure joy. And in a way, it's terrible because we both know she's quitting boxing.

Maritza wants to go pro, but there doesn't seem to be any way she could make a living at boxing. She's only 106 pounds. They don't even have a name for her weight class. If she went pro, no one knows of any women who are good enough to match her. As it is, there are only two amateur women at her level. In all her title matches, she's always been put up against these same two opponents over and over. And she's beat them every time.

Maritza's lucky enough to have found the thing she loves, the thing that makes her life complete, but unlucky enough that the timing worked out all wrong. More women are getting into boxing all the time and starting younger. In 10 years, there may be enough women that Maritza would be able to make a career of it. But she's already in her 30s. She says she has to be realistic about the future. So she's gone back to school, and she's working full-time.

Maritza Arroyo

I get mixed feelings. When I go into the gym, I want to do it. But when I come away from the gym and I start looking at reality, it's like, I'm sad. It's a sadness.

On the outside, no one sees it. But on the inside it's like it died. It's like, God, it could have been you. You should be in there boxing.

Meema Spadola

It's like she's in love with someone she knows she has to leave. So she circles around boxing, quits, comes back for one night stands.

Last year, Milton signed her up for the Metros tournament without telling her. On the night of the fight, he called her from ringside and told her they were holding up the match for her. Maritza got in her car and drove from Queens to Brooklyn, while Milton lied to the judges about Maritza being stuck in traffic. She arrived, beat in her opponent in three rounds flat, but was so disgusted with herself for fighting when she was trying to retire that she left without even collecting her trophy. But being back in the game felt too good and after that win, she just couldn't bring herself to walk away. Despite her reservations, she went on to fight in the 1997 New York Gloves and, of course, won.

For his part, Milton had no reservations. Maritza will always be his best girl, his first girl. But he's now becoming resigned to the fact that she doesn't have much time left in boxing.

Milton

She boxes like street people were to call [UNINTELLIGIBLE] in his prime. She's slick. She's smart. She thinks in there. She doesn't really get hit. She don't let you give her a beating. She hands out the beatings.

You know, I wish I would've found her when she was a little bit younger. A lot younger.

Meema Spadola

Here's how hard this is for Maritza. Even her plans for retirement from boxing include boxing. She's training to be a massage therapist. To massage boxers, she says. She quit her job as an accountant and now works full-time as a trainer in a gym. She has this theory that she'll get over boxing by going to boxing matches all the time.

Maritza Arroyo

Maybe I'll overcome it by being there. Maybe that's what I need to do, is to face it. To face the fact that finally I'm not doing it anymore, that I'm not going to be boxing anymore. Maybe that's what I need.

Milton

Go. There it is. That's good. Come out here real quick. There you go. See the difference? Go.

Meema Spadola

In February, just after Maritza misses the deadline for the 1998 Golden Gloves, I go to Milton's gym to see her fight. Even though these days Maritza isn't there much anymore, Milton has promised me that Maritza will spar with a new girl he's training. We wait and wait and no Maritza. An hour passes.

When she finally shows, she looks worn out and tired. She's not dressed to box, and she says she's got the flu. She's not going to fight. Right away everyone starts pushing her.

Woman

Well, let's just do a little.

Maritza Arroyo

You want to? But I got nothing with me.

Woman

What do you need?

Maritza Arroyo

Everything. I don't have nothing.

Meema Spadola

She says she didn't bring her shoes. She doesn't have any of her gear. Milton points to some shoes lying in the corner, says they're her size. Suddenly Maritza doesn't look so tired.

Maritza Arroyo

But I got to tell you, I have no mouthpiece.

Meema Spadola

Then Maritza drops the pretense. We head down in the elevator to her car. It turns out she's been carrying her gloves, her mouthpiece, her wraps, all of her equipment in her car for the past year just in case.

Maritza Arroyo

I knew this was going to happen. That's why I don't want to come around. That's why I don't want to come.

Meema Spadola

You've got the biggest smile on your face. You look so happy right now.

Maritza Arroyo

Because I love boxing. That's why. It's what's got me where I'm at today. Very happy and very balanced I guess. We're around Second Avenue. Second Avenue. Between Second and Third and 13th Street. So here I am with no voice, going in this room to go spar. Is that crazy? That's crazy.

Meema Spadola

She grabs her bag, and we race back to the gym. And as Maritza's getting dressed, I notice she wears tiny golden gloves on a chain around her neck. Milton stands ringside, pumped up, ready to see his favorite in action again.

Howard Kelso

This is Howard Kelso live right here from Supreme Team Boxing.

Man

Box.

Milton

Relax your shoulders, Maritza. Relax your shoulders. Too tight. Oh, good one.

Meema Spadola

Maritza's stiff at first. Then she starts to relax. She's ducking down, dancing around the ring. And in the last 10 seconds of the fight, she has a surge of energy. She's punching hard, moving fast, throwing nonstop combinations.

Milton

Come on, girls. Time.

Meema Spadola

And afterwards, she's pumped up with adrenaline, sweating, laughing with Milton and the guys in the gym. She says she'll be back to spar and train every week. And even though she's missed the deadline for this year's Golden Gloves, she swears she'll take the gloves next year. Stay tuned for 1999, she says. Stay tuned.

But Maritza doesn't show at Milton's the next week or the week after. She breaks two appointments with me. She doesn't return my calls. And when I finally reach her, she's angry. Angry she fought again. Scared she's getting sucked back in.

Meema Spadola

And how about the fact that you're still carrying around your gear?

Maritza Arroyo

Well, I guess I can't let go of boxing yet. Maybe it's my security blanket. It's like always knowing that it's always there, that I can always hit that bag. I get in front of the mirror at my house every day. Just jab and come around and do the moves. It's my connection to boxing. I carry this with me. I sleep with it. I have gloves in my car. I love it. It's me.

Ira Glass

That story by Meema Spadola, a documentary filmmaker in New York, who also boxes.

Round Three. Fighting As A Job.

Ira Glass

Round Three, Hard Work. Well, so far on our program we've heard from people who love being the person who throws a punch, unofficial fighters and amateurs. This is a different kind of story. Frankie Cruz Junior boxed in the Olympics twice, won silver and bronze medals. He's a six time Florida State Golden Glove champ, four time National Golden Glove champ. And a year ago he quit amateur fighting, decided he was going to try to make a living from boxing. It's the kind of job where people try to hit and injure you for a living, but you get no health insurance. In a year Frankie's had a broken rib, broken ankle, broken hand, a case of cauliflower ear that's gone untreated. And he's not officially even gone pro yet. He spoke with This American Life producer Julie Snyder.

Julie Snyder

Frankie Cruz got his job from one punch. A year ago in a nightclub in Miami, the 170-pound Frankie knocked out a guy weighing 260 with a right hand. He says the punch brought everyone to their feet, including a middle-aged dance club owner from Chicago named Ruben Pazmino.

That night, Ruben had a vision for his Tropicana Club, and it revolved around Frankie Cruz. Later that week, Frankie was on a plane to Chicago.

Frankie Cruz

I came in a limousine. They wanted to pick me up in a limousine. They took me to Tropicana. They treat me the nice way. It was fun.

Announcer

Let's get ready to rumble!

Julie Snyder

It's 2:30 in the morning at the Tropicana, a Latino nightclub that houses four bars, a VIP room, a restaurant, and a huge dance floor with a balcony. It's 2:30 in the morning and nearly a thousand people are packed inside on a Tuesday. After the weightlifting contest and after the lip syncing and after the four erotic dancers finish massaging a shirtless man with baby oil, there's boxing in a regulation ring set up in the middle of the dance floor. It's fight night, and the star is walking in the door. It's Frankie.

Announcer

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Julie Snyder

Hip and beautiful Latinas turn to look at the 5 foot 10 Nicaraguan born fighter with dyed blond hair and a broken nose. He's not yet dressed in his boxing gear. Instead he wears a mustard-colored sports coat, slacks, and so much jewelry that he literally makes noise when he moves.

Here's Frankie's job. Here's the job he left his kids and family for. It's free-for-all boxing. Anyone can fight. You can fight. I could fight. Anyone. All you have to do is sign a release form agreeing that if your nose breaks, teeth get punched out, or you end up with a mild concussion, you know it's your fault for being too drunk and easily encouraged by your friends to get into a boxing ring in the first place.

You can choose to fight your best friend, your nemesis, or you can take your chances and fight Frankie. If you knock down Frankie, you get $1,000 in cash or the mysterious grand prize. Everyone goes for the cash.

Frankie Cruz

The first guy that did it was wow, he took so much punch. He didn't want to go down. But you know, he finally quit in the second round. And then another one came, bigger. And every time bigger and bigger.

Announcer

[UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] please come to the ring.

Julie Snyder

Frankie will fight anyone who signs up. Sometimes he's boxed five or six matches in one night, an incredible feat of endurance, something no pro boxer will ever do. And Frankie gets paid the same whether he fights one guy or five guys.

He's fought with one arm tied behind his back. He's fought three guys at once. He's fought, in all, 128 fights at the Tropicana. He's won 127.

Frankie won't say how much he gets paid, but it's not much. And he says he sends most of that money back to his ex-wife, his three children, and his grandmother in Miami. So he's broke all the time.

For the first seven months he was in Chicago, Frankie lived in a back room of the Tropicana. He also worked as a bouncer on the nights he wasn't boxing. So for days on end, Frankie never left the club. Sometimes on a Saturday or Sunday when the business offices were closed, Frankie would be locked inside and would have to wait for the Tropicana to open in order to leave.

He says he didn't mind it that much until Ruben, the owner, took his television set away in order to start up a new karaoke night.

Frankie Cruz

I finished fighting sometimes four or five guys in the night. I used to go outside and cry and say, why I'm doing this? I think I'm not getting paid enough to do it. Everything is business. And if you don't talk business good, you don't study the business good, you will never make it.

Announcer

OK, uno, dos, tres, por favor!

Julie Snyder

Right now two African American guys from the audience have signed up to fight each other and are going at it in the ring. Both weigh well over 200 pounds. While they clumsily stumble around the ring, taking wide punches and falling against the ropes, the almost preteen-looking ring girls get instructions on what they're supposed to do when Frankie re-enters the ring.

Woman

Walk around that way real sexy and then stop in front of the camera so he can take a picture of it. You take your robe off when you get inside the ring. And then you put your robe on before you get back out.

Julie Snyder

The girls in thong bikinis hustle around as Frankie emerges, now wearing a blue and gold running suit, a straw cowboy hat, and a Nicaraguan scarf tied around his neck.

Frankie stands with the announcer while the two ring girls walk in circles, each holding an end of his championship belt. The belt always gets the center spotlight.

When training, Frankie lays the belt down next to his treadmill, says a prayer, and starts running. It's on the floor next to him when he's jumping rope.

Once when I showed up to interview him at his gym, before we could go off to talk, he opened his gym bag and pulled out a little plastic stand that you use for picture frames. He put the stand on a desk facing the front door of the gym and put the belt on it.

On one end of the belt is Frankie's name. On the other, Viva Auto Sales Park because unfortunately, the Tropicana didn't give him the belt. For several months Frankie says, he continually asked Ruben for one but kept getting blown off.

Frankie Cruz

I just thought at least to get a boxer of the year in the club. And I've been talking about him. Do some thing special, you know? When I wanted to get the belt for him I want him to present it, give it to me. But he never gone there and told me here, Frankie. Here, go have fun. It's not fair.

Julie Snyder

Instead, a friend introduced Frankie to the owner of Viva Auto Sales. The guy agreed to buy the belt for Frankie if he could put the Viva name on it. It's a good investment. You meet Frankie, you meet the belt.

Leaving the belt with the ring girls, Frankie climbs between the ropes and gets in his corner. His managers, Danny and Hank, are there with him. They're grooming him to go pro in June. They give him a place to live. They see that he eats right, doesn't drink, and trains every day.

Frankie's opponent doesn't look too intimidating. Staggering, he enters the ring wearing jeans, a long sleeve green shirt, and Doc Martens. He's at least 240 pounds, complete with overhanging gut and love handles. It would take a lot of alcohol to make someone like this believe he belongs in a ring with a trained Olympic medalist. But he's had a lot of alcohol.

Hank and Danny size up the guy. The fact that he's drunk means his fighting may be sloppy. But it also makes it harder on Frankie because the drunks don't feel the pain as much. As the bell goes off, Hank screams instructions from the corner.

Hank

Get out of there. Get out of there. Come on.

Julie Snyder

Frankie's splayed against the ropes. In a shocking move, Frankie's opponent came racing out of the corner and immediately began swinging. It's a barfighter's tactic, get in the first punch. He gets Frankie up against the ropes in the corner and on the defense, as Frankie only manages to get in a few body jabs.

Hank

Punch him. Frankie, punch him. There you go! Don't let him push you around.

Julie Snyder

It never occurred to me how hard Frankie would have to work to win his fights, how much of a beating he takes. He looks tired and confused.

Hank

I want him on the floor. On the floor. On the floor.

Julie Snyder

At the end of the first round, Hank and Danny counsel Frankie in the corner. Mostly it's a big pep talk. You're the champ, they yell. You're the champ.

Hank

Frankie, hey! Show me some intensity. You know what to do. Kick his ass.

Julie Snyder

In round two, Frankie comes back. His opponent's punches becomes weaker. At times they miss Frankie completely. And almost gently, Frankie edges the guy up against the ropes in his own corner and does combinations to his head, pounds away at him. Blood spurts everywhere.

It's an incredible moment, satisfying in a way I never would have guessed. Sweat and spit fly off Frankie's body. Hank and Danny go wild. The crowd goes wild. Frankie breaks the guy's nose and the ref ends the fight.

When Frankie staggers back and drops his hands, blood drips from his gloves onto the starched, white mat. Hank screams at him.

Hank

Hey, that's the beating I like to see. That's the way you throw the punches.

Julie Snyder

Boxing can make you feel so small. The force of the punches is so brutal and penetrating that it's almost mythical. When Frankie climbed out of the ring, he asked me if I was impressed. I couldn't even answer. I couldn't talk to him.

In only a few minutes, this guy who has to beg for a belt from a used car dealership suddenly seemed untouchable.

I've asked Frankie over and over what he loves about boxing, and he doesn't really say anything. He doesn't like hurting people. He doesn't have any romantic ideas about the tradition of boxing or its primal appeal. That's not why he boxes. It's a job. A job that doesn't pay all that much in grimy, punishing, working conditions. A job that he's good at, but that doesn't hold a lot of mystery anymore. The one thing that makes it special for Frankie is the crowds.

Frankie Cruz

What I love about boxing is the people. I think if people don't go see you, it won't be fun. I believe the people, even if they're not cheering for me, or they're booing for me-- but after I win or after I finish the fight, I know I got all those people who didn't cheer for me, they're going to give me their hands and they're going to say, wow, you had a great fight.

Julie Snyder

After his match, Frankie begins jumping around, running through the crowds up to the top floor of the nightclub, looking for fans. He does this every time, Hank says. When Frankie sees me, he stops and motions for me to follow, so I can record how much the crowd loves him.

Man

Frankie.

Frankie Cruz

Yeah, baby.

Man

Congratulations, brother. You're getting bigger and bigger, baby.

Frankie Cruz

I'm getting better and better too.

[INTERPOSING VOICES]

Man

That's right. You knocked that guy pretty good, esse.

Julie Snyder

Out of the ring looking for attention, Frankie doesn't seem like a giant anymore. He's a guy, boyish even.

A lot of people come over and shake his hand, say a word. A lot more push right by him, heading down to the ring where six women from the audience are now taking part in a do-it-yourself strip tease. Men in the audience pull dollar bills from their wallets and shove past. They don't look at Frankie.

[MEN CHANT "TAKE IT OFF"]

Woman

Oh, it's Lisa's birthday today, y'all. Say happy birthday to Lisa.

Ira Glass

That story from This American Life producer Julie Snyder.

We thought we'd close out our program today with this recording. It's Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, recorded in 1964.

[MUSIC- "STAND BY ME" BY CASSIUS CLAY]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Julie Snyder and myself with Alix Spiegel and Nancy Updike. Senior editor Paul Tough. Contributing editors Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Rachel Day, Laura Doggett and [? Sahini ?] Davenport.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

If you want to buy a cassette of this program, call us at WBEZ here in Chicago, 312-832-3380. 312-832-3380. Our email address radio@well.com.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who every single day calls me into his office, points to a picture of Garrison Keillor and says--

Manny Howard

Let's get him.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.