Understand the smell.
Boxing smells like wintergreen and failure.
This is last week, way out the J Line into Brooklyn, into East New York, out past Bushwick and Bed-Stuy and Cypress Hills, out past Brownsville and the 24-hour Fulton Car Wash and U.S. Chicken and Biscuits, past the MTA garage and the Prince Hall Temple, past the Latter Day Saints and the Adventists and the E-Z Pawn, a couple blocks down Pennsylvania and around the corner on Liberty Avenue from the old Magistrates' Court.
The Judah Brothers Boxing Gym smells of liniment and hot dust. It stinks of honest sweat and dishonest sweat, of old cologne and dollar weed and every corruption of the flesh, of exhaustion and mildewed ambition and rotten canvas.
Three swayback rings for the neighborhood kids and a faded American flag hanging from the sprinklers. Even the light here seems secondhand.
There's a radio playing low on top of a locker, and the locker is papered with photos of Ali, Lumumba, Che, Zapata and Sitting Bull. Power 105 is lost in the sound of men laughing, in the slap of the gloves on the trainers' big mitts, in the broken metronome of the speed bag.
To watch a prizefighter working out for the media the week of a big fight is to see a simulation of work long since finished. Work done months or years before in solitude, sometimes in loneliness, often in poverty, but always long before the money and the belts and the women and the fame. Zab Judah is here to shadowbox for two dozen photographers and reporters.
He jabs and feints and circles, pop pop pop, his sweat coming up fast, the ring apron crowded with his seconds
"That's it, champ. That's it," his cornermen say as Judah moves right and left, hands high and low, throwing punches at nothing. Pop pop pop. Fast and strong, goofyfoot smooth and beautiful, hooking off the jab, inside and outside and back inside, pouring sweat from his dome, "That's it!" Pop pop pop. Ducking, rolling, firing combinations into the strobes and the video rigs, smiling, the blog shooters and the newspaper guys and the podcasters and the fans and the hangers-on elbowing each other for a better look at the familiar blur of hands and teeth. The ropes are shoulder to shoulder with DSLRs and smartphones and flat brims and shaved heads, track suits and pendants and leather jackets, friends and enemies.
"Look at him," the reporters say. By which they mean Zab Judah looks unbeatable, unbreakable, as if carved from some ancient native tree, as he always has. They mean he should never lose a fight. But he has lost and he does lose and no one, most of all Zab Judah, is ever sure why. Khan, Cotto, Baldomir, Mayweather. Bad beats. Some failure of the mind? The heart? The spine? The spirit? Pop pop pop.
The Blade, former champion Iran Barkley, moves quietly between the rings shaking hands, heavy headed and slow, nodding, standing for photos with fans who have to be told who he was. Maybe he's a ghost.
There are only winners and losers in boxing. No cautionary tales. Not since the time of Virgil. The sport can't afford them. So Iran Barkley isn't here for your pity or to teach you a life lesson or to help you puzzle out the human riddle. He's here because he won 43 professional fistfights against contract killers like Tommy Hearns.
"That's it, champ! That's it!" Pop pop pop.
Every boxing gym is a shrine to craft and imperfection and possibility, to violence and to truth. The truth inside this gym is no harsher than the truth outside it, and after school the neighborhood kids will run through the door here burning with something like purity, anxious to put their hands to use.
* * *
Gleason's smells like history. At least since the rising tide of Dumbo real estate lifted this whole Brooklyn neighborhood into prosperity. The old gym finds itself marooned just upstairs from the $10,000 sofas and clean, well-lighted showrooms of West Elm and BoConcept, and surrounded by storefronts and streets freshly painted and paved with new cash. The Vespas and the arbitrage moms and the carbon-fiber strollers roll past without slowing on their way for an almond croissant.
Once inside, Gleason's is as it ever was. The stink of human work is 30 years deep in the walls and the floors and the ceiling, and the place is all downbeat and syncopation, leather on leather on leather, heavy bag and speed bag, skip rope and mitts and hard footfall on the treadmills. It's like standing inside a drum.
Danny Garcia is here to shadowbox. They've got him in the ring by the windows. He is the "unified junior welterweight champion," and as the old heads say, he is a good-looking kid.
He rocks side to side as he moves and carries his arms high and tight across his chest, his right hand mostly tucked along his jaw, but sometimes when he sends out the left, the jab, his right rides across to his collarbone for a second, fluttering there, like a man adjusting the flower in his lapel.
"That's it, champ. That's it!"
Only the cornermen and the track suits are different.
Pop pop pop.
The watchers are all the same watchers, the high fades and the razored necks, the bad hats and the soft-focus tattoos, every hand choking an iPhone. Same press eyeing the same press. And they'll watch all the pro forma fight week nonsense, too, the entourage shoutdowns and the ticket hype, the fake confrontations and the phony melodrama of the weigh-in, the bug-eyed finger pointing, mouths wide and loud with trash, every boxer everywhere now a child of Ali.
But Garcia's father hates Zab Judah, and Zab's father hates Danny Garcia, and the brothers all hate the brothers and the sons narrow their eyes and talk about shame and public blood, and the enmity of the fathers and the sons and the brothers is like something out of Shakespeare.
* * *
When the bell rings every prizefighter walks that last 10 feet alone.
"Lock him down. Lock him down!"
"Tie him up!"
"He don't like that. He wants to fight! Don't let him fight!"
"Step in! Step in! Close the distance!"
"Use your reach!"
"That's it, champ. That's it!"
This is the Barclays Center last Saturday night, boxing's latest home. Brooklyn for Brooklyn by Brooklyn. Not the New York Times/Henry Alford Brooklyn, the punchline Brooklyn, the organic locavore fedora Brooklyn.
Jay-Z Brooklyn. Zab Judah Brooklyn.
And tonight Brooklyn smells like money.
The thing itself. And the fight is the fight. And what Zab Judah carries across that last few feet to the center of the ring is the question of his character.
The first round is a wash, both fighters sending out probes and collecting data. Then Danny Garcia beats Zab Judah around the ring for the next seven rounds.
Garcia staggers him in the fifth and again in the sixth, hurts him so roundly and deeply that Judah can only grab at Garcia's neck and cling to him like a man caught in a flood. People are surprised to see him come off the stool for the seventh. Shocked to see him stand up for the eighth.
No one more than Danny Garcia.
"Dan-NY! Dan-NY! Dan-NY!" chants the crowd.
Middle of the eighth Judah sees Garcia drop that right, reach to adjust his boutonniere, so sends a hard left into Garcia's face by way of notation. Garcia responds in the same instant with a right so hard it splits Judah's cheek like overripe fruit and sends him sliding across the canvas on his ass.
But somehow Zab Judah hasn't read or heard yet that Zab Judah is a dog and a quitter. So he rises. Returns to his corner. Rises again for the ninth. The crowd roars.
The only person in the world who understands a fighter is the fighter standing across from him, but the expression on Danny Garcia's face is now one of confusion, even betrayal. How are you still here?
Across the final four rounds, every time Danny Garcia reaches to straighten the carnation in his lapel, Judah throws a hard left. Hard left. Hard left. Hard left. Judah wins the last four rounds and, at the bell, the look in Garcia's eyes is that of a man awakened from a very bad dream.
"Ju-DAH! Ju-DAH! Ju-DAH!" shouts the crowd.
Zab Judah loses the fight on every card but remakes his reputation. Fanned across his shoulder blades, hands raised, the tattoo reads "Brooklyn."
At the news conference, Zab Judah floats the notion of a Judah-Mayweather rematch. No one laughs. Promoter Oscar de la Hoya, the Golden Boy, sleek as a mink, nods and considers. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.
Mayweather, the future perfect; Judah, past imperfect. Boxing, always rotten with wanting.
This beautiful and pitiless business.