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A few years ago, four former boxing champions -- Floyd Patterson, Rocky Graziano, Jake "The Raging Bull" LaMotta, and I -- were in a television studio ready to respond to questions from a bold, cocky host who, as we say in Puerto Rico, "had no hair in his tongue."
He was notable for asking compromising questions to his guests. Our group also included Chuck "The Bayonne Bleeder" Wepner, a former top heavyweight contender from Bayonne, N.J.
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As we discussed the motif of the show, LaMotta, and Rocky already had a can of beer in hand. Patterson, Wepner and I were sipping on soda and munching on some wonderful hors d'oeuvre. When asked if we understood the order of things to come in the show, we all nodded our heads, laughing. Obviously, we were not believed.
From the beginning, I thought this would be an afternoon of great fun. Patterson was naturally shy and withdrawn, LaMotta was the exact opposite, Rocky was not very eloquent but loved to talk, and Wepner seemed too sober-minded for the type of interview I was expecting.
In any case, soon enough, with miniscule microphones pinned to our lapel, we found ourselves seating comfortably around a round table with plenty food and drinks and three TV cameras moving around us.
Suddenly, the show began... live!
When asked why we had selected boxing as the way to earn our living, Rocky, LaMotta, Floyd and "The Bleeder," each offered a reason connected to poverty and a difficult social upbringing. At the time, already experienced with government and community work, I had decided never to adopt a "victim mode" in order to justify my life as a prizefighter. So my answer didn't match any of my ex-colleagues'.
"I became a prizefighter," I said, "because I didn't want to be hurt." We all laughed, including the host, for it was an intentional wise-crack answer. "Hey," I continued, but this time in a serious tone, "a person gets to the top induced by smartness, sensitivity and character. If you are poor and abused, or rich and happy, but stupid, your chances to be successful at anything is almost null. But if you are all those things and smart and determined, then you may have a better chance at reaching great heights."
Myself? I had many good choices available when I reached adolescence. My father had his own prosperous trucking business in Puerto Rico and was absolutely fair and generous with his five sons and two daughters. He wanted everyone of his offspring to go to college. We all made it to high school, but only two finished college -- I wasn't one of them. For I selected boxing when I joined the army at 18, simply because since childhood and inspired by Joe Louis, "Sugar" Ray Robinson and Willie Pep, I idolized one-to-one competition. And after watching these three super champions in fight films over and over again, I wanted to be a boxer. They were the reason why I loved to street fight in Playa de Ponce, the barrio where I was born and raised in Puerto Rico.
Now, around the table in a New York TV studio, every time we had a break, Floyd, Chuck and I munched on something solid while Rocky and Jake sipped on beer.
"Were you guys always in shape," the host wanted to know at one point, "or did you engage in female circumstances once in a while?" We smiled and looked at each other confused. I decided to answer the question.
"If we looked at women during the free time we enjoyed training for a fight," I said, "and were lucky enough to score, then we had no problem. But if we missed training or the proper rest in order to chase them, then we were definitively asking for trouble."
"Not me," Floyd butted in. "I could never be with a woman during training."
"Why?" the host wanted to know.
"Because my knees would get very weak," Floyd said looking down. "My opinion is based on personal experience."
"Sex," I asked surprised, "weakens your knees?"
"How do you make sex?" Graziano wanted to know. "Running?"
"Well," Floyd responded shyly but assuredly, "I don't know what sex does to you. But it makes my knees and my boxing spirit very, very weak."
Of course, I didn't feel like contradicting Floyd right then and there, but I was amazed with his statement. After all, we were both managed by Cus D'Amato, who had one set of rules for everyone he trained. And Cus taught each and everyone of his good fighters that sex could be convenient for athletes as long as it didn't interfere with their training. [Boxers can spend anywhere from 3 months to 6 weeks to train for a prizefight.]
"I guess," Floyd continued, "that sex affects different people in different ways."
"Well," I said, "most champions and top contenders I know feel more comfortable having sex during training than not having it at all. What do you say to that?"
"Like I said before," Floyd quipped succinctly, "I guess it works differently on different people."
Graciano bumped in and said, "Well, I couldn't control myself when it came to women. So, I always sneaked out. And I won many more fights than I lost. So, I guess sex worked for me." (He had a record of 83 fights,10 losses and 6 draws, scoring 52 KOs in the process.)
"I hear mediocre boxers talk all the time about the lousy effects they got in the ring after sleeping with a woman days before a fight," said Chuck, chuckling, "but most of them had awful records. So I figure they used sex as the excuse for their failures.
"But the truth of the matter is that I know plenty of winners... top contenders, who never hesitate to engage in sex any time they got the chance," the "Bleeder" concluded.
LaMotta, known for his ability to assimilate and resist punishment while marching forward in the ring, was smiling and moving his head with every word we said. He also had a reputation of dating beautiful women during his fighting days, marrying a few of them.
"If you train hard and fight bums," he said, "you're liable to win no matter how much sex you had during training. But if you train very hard and fight guys like "Sugar" Ray Robinson ... sex or no sex there is a very good chance you may find yourself kissing the canvas." The "Raging Bull" looked around and said, "I fought 'Sugar' Ray so many times (they fought four times) it's a wonder I didn't develop diabetes."
Floyd laughed. "I was quite aware of Cus' philosophy," he said of our late former boxing manager, looking at me. "But real or mental, I felt my legs tired and weak whenever I sparred in the gym or fought in the ring after having sex two or three days before."
"One thing I could say," I snapped, "I'm no psychiatrist but I'm almost sure that athletes are more prone to suffer from psychosomatic conditions than ordinary people."
"Psycho what?" said Rocky, making a face.
"You know," I said, "when la testa plays tricks on you... and you, conveniently, allow the mind to make excuses for you."
Rocky smiled, shaking his head.
"You mean," he said, showing interest in the subject, "that a fighter is in trouble when his mind goes blank?"
"To the contrary," said Patterson. "You get into serious trouble when -- during a heated exchange -- the mind starts to ask questions about your behavior prior to the fight."
LaMotta and Chuck nodded simultaneously as Patterson, surprisingly, took the lead.
"That's why many times we see a fighter doing quite well in the ring," he said, "hitting the other guy almost at will and suddenly, after a couple of rounds of failing to put his rival down or out, he starts to think about the wrong things he did during training.
"Yeah," interrupted LaMotta, "like missing a couple of days of training; messing around with his girlfriend or wife a few days before fight time; having a 'wet dream,' or being too horny to sleep properly for a day or two while in training..."
"That's what a prizefighter's mind does," I interjected. "It searches for excuses to justify his frustration."
"Then," Floyd continued, "the fight starts to switch. The guy who is winning withdraws from his attacks to 'reserve energy' for later use, provoking the bout to change direction."
Prizefighters who pose great confidence in their physical prowess usually become the main targets for these mental maladies. A first encounter with an experienced boxer who is not too accomplished but is hard to hit with clean punches, for example, may forced a strong, KO artist to the painful state of mind of feeling exhausted and "lacking power" prematurely.
"Why?" the boxer usually asks himself, "I knock everybody out with this punch but I can't with this sonofabitch?"
He's not aware that experienced boxers are very difficult to connect with clean punches in sensitive areas, as it is with beginners. Unaware of such specifics, he begins to lose confidence in himself, and becomes an easy pray to a psychosomatic condition. He becomes impaired by his mind, not his physicality.
"In the course of a fight, however, usually during the first few rounds after touching gloves, seasoned boxers get a pretty good idea as to the outcome of the bout," I said.
"True, but that is if they have been nice, clean guys during training. For if you train hard and responsibly your confidence surge to a maximum," said Patterson.
"'Nice and clean' means no sex?" I asked.
Floyd smiled timidly. "Like some famous, big shot once said, 'One man's meat, another's poison.'," he answered.
After the show we were asked to do a "public service announcement" for the station. We all agreed. It went this way:
"My name is so and so. It's 10:00 p.m. Do you know where your children are?"
I did it in four takes. Wepner in four. Floyd in three. LaMotta in eleven. And after 27 takes Mr. Graziano, whom we thought extinguished his thirst with one beer too many during the program, was still trying to say his name.
Floyd finally said, "Let's go. This guy had too much sex while preparing for this program."
José "Chegüí" Torres won the Olympic silver medal in 1956 for the United States and was the light heavyweight champion of the world in the mid '60s, retiring with a record of 41-3-1, 29 KOs. The author of several books, Chegüí is ESPNdeportes.com boxing columnist as well as color commentator for ESPN Deportes and ESPN International.