On Saturday, I went down to Haverhill to help my sister Kim (who recently had Achilles Tendon surgery and is still on the mend and hobbling around on crutches) go food shopping and run a few errands. I made myself useful and cleaned a couple of litter boxes, hauled her trash down to the driveway and laughed as she rode around in Market Basket on one of those electric chairs that beeps like the beejesus whenever you throw it in reverse.
As we were driving to the bank, before heading back to her apartment, we went past a small, beat up building on the corner of Locust and Orchard. A bunch of guys (ranging in age from 10 to above 40) wearing sweatshirts and black Adidas track pants are standing out front talking and leaning against the sides of their cars. The front door of the joint is open and a flash of red catches my eye. I whip my head around to the right and swear that I see a heavy
bag and a sign in the window that says “TITLE BOXING” on it
I say to my sister, “Holy shit, is that a boxing gym?” And she says, “Yeah, a lot of young kids come here. Sometimes, I sit out in my truck and watch them train.” I say, “We’ve GOT to stop there on the way back. I have to check it out.”
She hobbles up to the ATM, gets the cash she needs and we fly back up Main Street toward the gym. Just as we pull up, a guy with a bald head and a grey mustache, is making his way over to the cars. The door to the place is now shut and it looks like he’s just locked up for the night
My sister says, “I think they’re closed.” I say, “Rats! Looks like it, but I’m still gonna ask.” And so I throw on my blinker, take a sharp left down their street and as I pass them, a few of the older boys give us the eyeball. I slow down, bang a U-turn and pull up next to the guy that looks like he’s in charge
I roll down the passenger window, lean across my sister and her metal crutches and yell out, “Hey, you guys closed?” And in classic Merrimack Valley fashion, the guy with the bald head and Fu Manchu says, “Yeah. Why? What do you want?” Ahhhh, the sounds of home.
I smile and say, “I’ve been boxing at TITLE Boxing up in Concord, NH and I drove by, saw your gym and was hoping to check it out.” He looks me over and says, “Yeah?” A pause, just a beat – then, “OK, I’ll show you the place. C’mon. Real quick.”
And the little kid in me shouts out, “Really? YES!!!” and I pump my fist, park my car, tell my sister to sit tight and hop out like a bunny on speed
As I cross the street towards him, he spots the TITLE Boxing hoody I’m wearing and says, “I’ve got the same sweatshirt.” And I smile as I realize I just got some instant street cred.
Stuck on the door is the number 84 and in black bold lettering it reads “HAVERHILL DOWNTOWN BOXING”. There’s a pair of stenciled boxing gloves and stacked beneath that in red it says “RAY HEBERT” and lists a 978 phone number. There’s a mailbox nailed to the door with a pretty serious master lock on it. He digs in his front pocket, keys the door, swings it open and I realize as I cross the threshold – this guy - he must be Ray
Before I can take two steps into the place, Ray’s already snapped on the overhead lights and made his way across the room. He moves fast, with efficiency – like a guy who doesn’t have any time to lose. He’s telling me bits and pieces about the history of the place – but he’s yelling them over his shoulder at me as he strides away. A few facts I pick up; that the gym’s been here for a few years. Ray works with a lot of inner city kids. He thinks it helps to keep them off the streets and out of trouble
Later, I read an old newspaper article about Ray opening the boxing club in a 2013 issue of the Eagle Tribune. He’s quoted as saying, “When you’re in a gym every day, you’re not hanging around on corners. Boxing teaches you discipline. It teaches you to be a gentleman and it keeps you grounded.”
I hustle after him, resisting the urge to hopscotch across the bright red and blue interlocking foam mats that cover the floor. I take in the T-shirts tacked to the walls, and the tea-colored newspaper clippings about various fights taped underneath them. I bob around the heavy bags and “focus speed-balls” hanging from the ceiling and snap a quick picture of Ray’s back as he disappears past the mirrors and Muhammad Ali posters into the next room
I turn the corner and step down into a small space with white and red peg-board on the walls. The paint seems new but everything else in the back of this building has clearly been knocked around. It’s an old building that looks like a lot of recent elbow grease went into it. It’s what I call “clean dirty”.
I spot Ray standing about 10 feet away from me, in technically what’s supposed to be the next room. But that whole area is taken up – almost wall to wall - by the footprint of a boxing ring. The square footage is so tight that when you step into that room, you’re actually stepping right into the ring. To my left, there’s a beat-up door that goes out to the street that’s not flush to the floor. The gap underneath it is leaking cold October air that drifts across the concrete floor and wraps around my ankles
Ray says, “You see this ring? I got it from my buddy, Arthur Ramalho. It came from the movie, The Fighter.” I discover later that Arthur Ramahlo is a trainer from the West End Gym in Lowell. He’s been around the boxing scene forever and he used to train Micky & Dicky Ward. Some of the scenes from the movie were filmed in Arthur’s gym in the very ring that Ray’s standing in now. Ray tells me, “He donated it to our gym after the movie was done.”
I step forward, put my hand on the shiny top rope and say, “Wow! That’s so cool” and ask if I can take his picture. He says, “Sure” and stands in front of the brick wall, squares off his shoulders and holds up his fist. I lift my iPhone to take the shot and he sets his eyes right on me. Unwavering. Like I’m an opponent. Before I can press the button he informs me, “I don’t smile.” Which only makes me smile more
He steps out of the ring, snaps off the light and heads back to the room paneled with the peg-board. I spot a USA Boxing New England Championship poster taped to the wall and next to that hanging on a hook, is what used to be a white (now slightly faded to yellow) boxing robe, with red (slightly faded to pink) trim on the color and the cuffs.
Stitched on the back in 2” high navy felt material it says GOLDEN GLOVES. My eyes light up, I point at the robe and tell him how I grew up in Lawrence and my Dad used to take me to the fights down in Lowell when I was a kid
He nods and says, “Those are mine” and gestures toward the aging robe with a quick flick of his chin. “Can you believe it? I used to wear those when I fought in the Golden Gloves back in the 70s.” I later read that he also trained his sons, Randy and “Rocky” and they went on to become Golden Glove novice champs
I touch the hem of the sleeve and move the silky material back and forth between my fingers. I realize I’m feeling not only a piece of local boxing history but also a part of Ray’s family legacy
He lets me snap a few more pics and says, “OK follow me, I gotta show you one more thing.” And he leads me towards the back of the room and down a set of dusty wooden stairs. At the bottom I find two rows of black lockers, some random dumbbells, a few rusty weight plates, a candy apple red punching bag and a canary yellow bench press. I look around and just know that I’m grinning like an idiot. I say to Ray, “Dude, you guys are not messing around here. This is some old school, hard core stuff man.” Ray nods his head in the affirmative. I continue with, “I totally love this. I really believe we’ve all got a little Rocky Balboa in us, ya know?”
That’s when Ray asks me how long I’ve been boxing. I tell him all about my training at Title in Concord and how I’ve been learning some basics and recently started working on slips and bobs and weaves. And for some reason, I can’t help myself and as I say the words my body automatically starts to move. I give him an unintentional quick demo. He sort of grins (or maybe grimaces) at me in that way that tells me that: 1) He’s humoring me and that 2) He’s about to drop some wisdom on my ass
He says, “All that fancy stuff, in a real fight, that’s not gonna be necessary.” He turns to me and asks, “You want to know what boxing really is?” I nod my head at him in the affirmative, like an enthusiastic, bobble head doll. He says, “It’s this” and he throws a jab-cross combination so fast – it’s like watching a coiled serpent strike and recoil back in the blink of an eye. I think I literally said, “WHOA” out loud
He says, “Someone comes up to you to fight, you do this” and he throws that vicious cross punch again, “And it’s done.” His arm and clenched fist has got so much snap and power to it that I kind of wince just imagining it hitting someone in the face.
It makes me think about my friend and writing mentor Andre Dubus III – whose beautiful memoir "Townie", depicts his own violent childhood and how he had to fight his way through the streets of Haverhill. It’s a story full of brutality and sucker punches and finding ways to make the other guy hurt. I say to myself in my head, “That fucking punch right there. That would definitely make the other guy hurt.”
So I paraphrase Ray and say to him, “Ok, so if someone walks up to me with malice. There’s no conversation. There’s no pause. You just…” and I throw a quick snappy cross with my right hand. His eyes light up “bam” (like all good trainers, coaches and teachers do when their students finally get it) and he says, “Yes!” And I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I felt a little proud of myself
Ray tells me that he’s got to get going, so we make our way up the basement stairs, past the famous boxing ring and the old Golden Gloves robe and back out into the main room where the heavy bags hang. As I’m checking out a few incredible black and white pictures of the one-and-only Muhammad Ali in his prime, I ask, “Was this always a gym?” And Ray and another stocky guy start to chuckle like little boys. I say, “What?” Ray says, “You won’t like what this place used to be.” And I take a stab at it and say, “A strip club?” He says, “No, worse. It was an adult entertainment store. A porno shop.” And I mutter, “Sweet Jesus” under my breath
I tell him how much I love the Ali shots and he says, “Yeah we’ve got some good ones in here.” I look above his head and blurt out, “Hey, is that Micky and Dicky Ward?” And he says, “Yeah, that’s me with Dicky” and he points to a framed photo blown up to poster size, hanging above a speed bag next to the front door. And then he leans over, pulls a computer printer away from the wall and points at the pic back there and says, “And that’s my son Rocky with Micky.”
He says again, “OK, I really gotta get going” even though I suspect he’s totally enjoying the impromptu tour as much as I am. I shake his hand firmly and thank him again for his kindness, for showing me around and tell him how much I appreciated it
He digs his keys out of his pocket again and we step out onto the street. As he’s locking up the front door with his name on it in red, he says, “Hey, anytime you’re in town, stop by, come see us.” And I tell him that I’d love to. That I plan on it. That it would be an honor to learn from the “real-deal”. And he looks back over his shoulder at me and actually smiles