Colliding Egos: Boxing as Personal History

The Seattle Times
April 26, 1998
By Alex Tizon

I DON’T WANT TO brag, but I’ve been punched in the face more often than any of my closest friends. This is partly because most of my friends are pacifists. I am not. I’m one of those people who believe that violence is built into our species, that some situations call for it, and that the capacity for it lives in each of us.

On those occasions when I’ve been hit in the face, I was usually trying to do the same to somebody else. Avoiding punches was never my gift. Although I had my moments, I wasn’t especially gifted at delivering them, either. This is why I’ve spent two decades studying fighters instead of being one.

It hurts to be punched. In college, I fought in martial-arts tournaments. During one fight, I charged into a straight right that fractured my nose and opened a faucet of blood somewhere inside my head. I won the fight, my only victory that year. Seeing my own blood gave me a certain vigor. Terror, I think it’s called.

My worst injuries came at the hands of my brothers, one older, one younger. We grew up fighting one another, mostly with boxing gloves on. Fraternal hierarchies were re-arranged by our fights.

I remember the day my younger brother became my equal. It was in our living room, with couches and chairs serving as ring boundaries. We were trading blows, and I was getting the better of it, as usual, when he reached back, far, far back, maybe to that vault of memory that held all the instances of my pulling rank on him, my bullying him, and he let loose a left hook that hit my chin so hard, my whole body spun around, except my left leg, which stayed planted in the carpet and which splintered at the knee like green bamboo. I was on crutches for six weeks.

My brother and I would fight many more times, happily administering hurt on each other and tending one another afterward. Why did we engage in this strange ritual?

“Fun” isn’t the right word, but it’s the word we used. We found a joy in this particular language of the body. It was a brutally honest language, and yet in moments, eloquent beyond words in the way that only the body can be.

Boxing summoned the warrior and savage in us and gave them a place to play with rules and poofy mittens. The idea was to turn the wild energy into a kind of poetry. We rarely succeeded, but the activity gave us a mysterious seminal pleasure, a sweating, snorting, animal high.

Anyone wanting to understand the appeal of boxing without acknowledging this high will never get it. “To know war,” said James Hillman, “we must enter its love.”

To enter the Bumblebee Boxing Club, a hole-in-the-wall gym across from the Holly Park housing project in South Seattle, slamming open the metal door to a sweat-thick room of grunting men and women in various poses of menace, and squaring up eye-to-eye with the grizzled old man in dreadlocks known as Coach Bumblebee — this is to look into the face of love.

THE FACE ISN’T pretty. It’s small and intense, with eyes as all-seeing as a fly’s. There’s an elastic quality to the face. When it’s mean, it’s fiendish. When it laughs, it’s a party, with eyes dancing, white teeth filling the room like floodlights.

The head is attached to a body partly paralyzed from the waist down from a traffic accident. It now relies on crutches to get around. It’s a body that has gone through four wives, fathered 23 children, and been shot, stabbed, punctured and punched on a regular basis during 58 years of hard living.

Willie Briscoray, or Coach Bumblebee as everyone calls him, after his fighting nickname, was born and raised not too far from the gym he now runs. He went from thug to pug, becoming a world-ranked featherweight contender back in the 1960s, back when Seattle was still a boxing town.

With one hand (he uses the other to balance himself), he can still make a speed bag sing. His body has moved to a rhythm for so long — rat-ta-tat-ta-tat-ta-tat-ta-tat-ta-boom — he talks like he used to fight, repeating the last part of his sentences like a triple jab meant to send the message home:

“Starting next week, every time I tell you to keep your chin down, it’s gonna cost you 50 pushups, Marcus. Keep your chin down, chin down, chin down. That’s right. There you go! You can’t just do that some of the time. You gotta do it all the time, all the time, all the time!”

It’s Tuesday night. It’s raining outside and kids from the neighborhood have come into the building. The gym takes up one room in the Union Gospel Mission youth center, tucked behind a Safeway off Martin Luther King Jr. Way South. The building is mostly beige and gray. The kids are mostly black and brown.

In the gym, Coach Bumblebee watches one of his prospects, Marcus Cotton, dancing in circles inside the ring. The ring is 10 feet square, with PVC pipes for posts and garden hoses for ropes. A regulation ring is twice as big. Cotton, a heavyweight, looks huge in there. He’s warming up to spar with Sam Simms, the super heavyweight.

Cotton, 21, is all sinew and ripple, with large, wide-set eyes on a handsome face. His long, combed-back hair gives him the appearance of the great sphinx of Egypt. He does in fact come from boxing nobility: He’s the grandnephew of the venerable Eddie Cotton, the middleweight contender from Seattle in the 1950s and ’60s.

Coach Bumblebee sees a champion in him. The coach has nicknamed him Mayhem. “You’ve seen his fights,” the coach told me, “you know what he does.” I’d watched two of Cotton’s fights on videotape. Both were quick, sensational knockout wins. The kind of wins that left opponents asking “What happened?”

He has weaknesses, though. He keeps his head too high, which makes the chin vulnerable. He showboats. He wastes energy with a lot of unnecessary bouncing, as if his feet were spring-loaded. Earlier in the afternoon, I asked him which boxer he’d like to emulate.

He uttered three names: “Muhammad. Sugar Ray. Mike.”

He was referring to Ali, Leonard and Tyson.

Boxers are not primarily men of words, but they can be some of the most expressive people on earth. Muhammad Ali’s trainer, Drew Bundini Brown, used to weep watching Ali shadowbox in the ring. It was because the trainer knew the language of the ring, and he saw that Ali did with his body what great poets have done with words, which is to hint at an unreachable beauty.

Even now, as I watched Cotton dancing around the ring, I saw flashes. You have to know the language or else you will see only shuffling feet and lunging arms. You need to see how he moves his feet, one never crossing the other, but gliding along nimbly, synchronized to maintain balance and be able to shoot forward in an instant, as quick and stealthy as a snakelick. You need to see his head bobbing to an inner rhythm, dodging jabs and crosses, slipping an uppercut, turning at just the right moment to soften the impact of a hook. You need to see that when he throws a combination — jab-jab, straight right, left hook — he’s threading his fists through the defenses of an orbiting target, requiring the pirouetting agility of a ballerina and the precision of a surgeon.

You see all this and you might not weep, but you might say, “Wow.” Or if you’re a grizzled old coach, you might say, “Not bad, not bad, not bad.”

BOXING GYMS, MORE than ever, have receded to the most obscure corners of society. I’m not talking about “fitness centers” that offer boxing aerobics classes. These are for suburban housewives and frustrated office men who like the gritty glamour of the fights but, really, are more interested in getting buns of steel than in learning how to throw a left hook to the liver.

I’m talking about boxing gyms where people learn to fight and, in doing so, actually hit each other. The few gyms left in Seattle exist in near-total oblivion, as do the people in them.

Seattle has had two recent champions that almost no one in the hip neighborhoods of Wallingford, Queen Anne or Madison Park can name.

John D. Jackson was a middleweight world champion just a year ago, and is still a world-ranked contender. David Jackson (not related) is the current national amateur lightweight champion — the equivalent of a football All-American. David Jackson is a grandson and disciple of Coach Bumblebee.

The men and women who come to the Bumblebee gym are what a friend of mine calls “left-to-die” people — abandoned by the world in a most fundamental way. They’re usually dark-skinned and poor. They come from families not just broken, but obliterated, with too many fragments to keep track of. They’re hard-eyed, stout-hearted, fight-for-every-scrap kind of people who’ve found a place to cultivate what comes naturally.

And they come face to face with Coach Bumblebee who tells them the story of his name. You know, a bumblebee isn’t supposed to fly, he says to them. Its body’s too big and its wings, too small. “But you know why it flies?” he says. “Because it doesn’t know it can’t.”

The world tells these left-to-die people they can’t; the raggedy man on crutches tells them they can. In this way, love blossoms.

SAM SIMMS STANDS 6 foot, 3 inches tall and weighs 263 pounds. Coach Bumblebee calls him “The Sheriff.” Sims pounds away at the heavy bag across the room. Every now and then, he glances over at Cotton. They’ll be sparring in a few minutes.

Simms, 27, is the sweetest person in the gym. His way of talking implies a “Ma’am” or “Sir” without actually saying them. His face has the creased, fleshy appearance of a big Shar Pei puppy.

As a boxer, he has the finesse of a steamroller. His power punches shake the rafters and make the lights on the ceiling flicker. He’s not as fast as Cotton, but if Simms connects solidly, with the weight of his body behind the punch, it’s lights out.

Today, he looks a little tight.

“Relax, Sam,” the coach tells him. “Just relax, relax, relax.”

It’s time.

Coach Bumblebee motions Simms to come over. Cotton is already in the ring, wrapped and gloved and ready to go.

Simms presents his hands to the coach like a gift. The coach looks them over, feeling the knuckles, straightening the fingers, and then with long strips of cloth, he begins wrapping them, mindfully, almost tenderly. First the right, then the left.

The others in the gym know what’s about to happen. They’ve paced themselves to finish their workouts so they can watch. Whenever two fighters step in the ring, even if it’s only a sparring session, anything can happen. Even if the fighters are friends, as Cotton and Simms are. The impact of two colliding egos, anywhere it happens, can make for compelling drama.

Ultimately, that’s why I watch the fights — not to see blood, but drama. To see two willing, gifted human beings test each other in the most nakedly physical way. It’s not something everybody can watch.

On some visceral level, watching boxing is a little like watching strangers have sex: Some people can handle it, some can’t. Others, like me, find it repellent and fascinating at the same time. It’s a voyeur’s dilemma.

Some of the best fights the public has never seen take place in garden-hose rings like this. Boxers enter with the belief that their careers can only be as good as their sparring sessions, that in some basic way they’re putting their futures on the line. If they’re going to become something, they’ve got to put out here.

Simms enters the ring. Cotton paces on the other side. Coach Bumblebee scoops out a wad of Vaseline and smears it on both fighters’ faces. Cotton walks to his corner, pounding his own head like a drum, psyching himself up. Simms bends his neck from side to side, then shakes out his arms. He goes to his corner. The fighters turn to face each other.

The day has come to this. The other boxers have crowded around. The coach leans forward against the top strand, eyes wide as a fly’s. He will now observe the fruits of his labor. He motions to somebody at ringside. The bell sounds. The fighters move toward the center. Each throws a jab. Cotton’s punch lands square on the face. Simms’ whistles past with the promise of hurt.

The fight is on.