There is a trick developed out of necessity by those who sit ringside at boxing matches. You take your fight program, fold it into thirds, and rest it like a canopy over your http://stranger.dispatch.net/dispatch_images/spacer.gifdrink. This way, if the fight becomes messy you can avoid ingesting the blood and sweat that flies from the faces of the men in the ring. But on January 12, in the event pavilion of a casino in Tacoma, the blood I inadvertently swallowed was familiar to me. I had tasted it before, because it came from a deep cut over the left eye of my best friend.
It was the second round of a four-round fight, and already Neil Stephens' face and chest were covered with blood. He was hurt, but the sight of his own blood seemed to urge him on. I had stopped taking notes for the fight report I was supposed to be writing, stopped everything and just stared, without blinking, at the physical destruction of the man I've loved like a brother for a decade. Boxing can bring out the best and worst in sports fans, and I could hear drunken frat boys yelling behind me, "Fuck him up! Kill him, kill him!" I wanted to pick up my chair and rack it over the heads of the dipshits sitting two rows back, or to jump in the ring and wrap my arms around Neil, telling him that he didn't need to prove anything, that we could go home. I thought about leaving on my own, running out the door and turning my back forever on the sport that I have come to love.
But I stayed, unblinking, and watched as Neil got floored in the fourth round. He rose to his feet, and something changed; both in his eyes and in the mood of the crowd. Hurt, bloodied, and beaten, he chased his opponent around the ring. The man that had busted him up for the entire fight began to run. The collective tide of emotions in the crowd turned, and instead of screaming for Neil's blood, they began to cheer him on. The final bell rang, and the room roared in primal appreciation.
Well past midnight, Neil and I were in the dressing room, among the rented partitions and discarded hand wraps, waiting for the doctor to load the syringe with Novocain. We'd been drinking, so we were both a bit pissed (Neil is British, so bear with the U.K. slang) as we sat and talked about the beating he'd just received. The crowd had roared for Neil, but he still lost the fight. The doctor jabbed the needle into Neil's brow, then told him that he needed to set down his beer if he expected the sutures to be applied in a straight line. Neil looked up at the doctor, winking with his good eye, and said, "Do what you can. I'll still be pretty."
I first met Neil nine years ago when he came to work in the restaurant where I was washing dishes. The first time I saw him I almost shit myself out of fear. He had rolled-up jeans and Doc Martins, a massive neck and shoulders, and a British bulldog tattooed on one of his rippling biceps. I was certain he was a modern-day SS soldier sent here to kick my skinny punk-rock ass, and when he turned around and said, "Oi, what's your name?" my knees began knocking together.
Neil Greggor Stephens was raised in Gilford, just outside of London, where his father was an engineer with the Royal Air Force. At 17, Neil came to Seattle when his dad was assigned to work on Boeing's AWACS radar aircraft. Neil was reckless as a teenager, and he became Capitol Hill's poster boy for troubled youth. He drank, he used drugs, and he did a stint in juvenile detention. "I was in desperate need of discipline, something to straighten my life out," says Neil.
As it turned out, Neil was far from a Nazi skinhead (his favorite singer is Sade), and he had no intention of drowning me in the Auto-Chlor sink when no one was looking. Over the course of our friendship Neil has taught me several things, like how to drink like an Englishman, how to get high, and not the least of which, how to fight. Unlike him, I was much more introspective as a kid, and I had decided early on that I wanted to express myself on paper. Not to say that I didn't have a fair share of delinquency during my youth, but boxing wasn't in my genes. So the three times a week when Neil and I would rope off a small square in the parking garage of my first apartment on Summit Avenue, he would pretty much beat the crap out of me. This became my introduction to what is now a complete devotion to the sweet science, and to the honest and unpretentious love that can occur between heterosexual men.
For years we would sit in the window table at Eileen's Sports Bar, fantasizing about our futures. Neil had always been a scrappy kid, starting with his school days in London, where he fought almost every day. "Where I grew up in England, you got respect from beating people up. I like that respect," says Neil. His innate need to fight led him to the boxing gym, but during our Eileen's years, the closest he came to being a boxer was being offered a job in "collections" by a guy who ran illegal card games in Seattle. I wanted to be a writer, but the closest I had come was a few half-filled notebooks in a drawer and several rejection letters from literary journals. But we always hoped for the day that he would be in the ring as a professional, and I would be ringside, covering the fight.
So on that early Sunday morning, with both of us drunk, one of us bleeding, and the other taking notes while a doctor sewed an eyebrow closed, it all made sense.
* The Comeback Trail *
Neil recovered physically from that January night, but psychologically something was still off-kilter. "It shattered my confidence in all aspects of life, not just boxing," says Neil. "I didn't feel like myself, and I drank a lot after that fight. I don't think I'll feel like myself again until I beat Josue." [Josue Cielos, the fighter who beat Neil that night.]
Neil returned to the gym, but his heart wasn't in the training. Preparing for a fight is often more grueling than the fight itself. A typical day for Neil is to run for five miles in the morning, then head off to his job waiting tables at Chang's on Broadway. After dealing with assholes and nut jobs for five hours, he is off to one of two gyms: either the Credit Boxing Club in Renton or the Hillman City Boxing Gym near Rainier Beach.
After warming up in front of the mirror for a few rounds, Neil moves to one of the several heavy bags for 30 minutes. Watching Neil hit the bag with full force is a frightening thing. He gets his legs, back, and shoulders into every shot, smacking the 100-pound cylinder around like a rag doll. It is impossible not to pity the poor bastard who has to step in front of those punches.
After the bag work it's time to spar. Professional boxing in the Puget Sound has been on an upswing, enough so that there are usually a few fighters in the gym preparing for a fight on any given day. Sparring is where a boxer hones his skill, and it allows the fighter to know where he stands in terms of his conditioning. Some of Neil's sparring partners include Jody Hill, a former amateur standout who is now a trainer at Hillman's; Tim Shocks, the Seattle area's top middleweight; and Mike Samms, whom Neil fought and lost to early in his career.
"I like sparring with Jody because he's on you the whole time," says Neil. "He doesn't let you take a breath, and that's good for your lungs. And he can take a shot. Tim and Mike are slick movers... they like to make you miss. It's good work for me."
Even with this type of training, Neil was not yet in shape. He was drinking more than normal, and would frequently skip days at the gym. Sam Ditusa, Neil's manager, did what any good manager would do in a situation where his fighter needs a lift in spirit. He lined up a fight with a punching bag. "We needed to get his confidence back," says Ditusa, "get him some guys he could beat. After that we'll start taking on the hard guys."
So on February 22, six weeks to the day after his loss to Josue Cielos, Neil stepped into the ring with perennial loser James Partch. Partch is a tough pug, and he is a willing opponent, but with only one win in 10 fights, he wasn't exactly a dangerous choice. On a good day Neil would blow James out of the ring in less than a round, but with his shaky state of mind and questionable conditioning, Neil had to work hard for the entire fight to get a majority-decision win.
With a win under his belt, Neil was ready for a step up, and Sam found just the guy to test Neil's progress. On April 27, we headed to the dog track in Portland for a fight to be held inside the beer garden. The dog track was a perfect backdrop for boxing, with the crowd of hardcore gamblers in cowboy hats and pinky rings, dogs racing around the oval outside, and the constant haze of cigarette smoke. Neil's opponent was Luis Lopez, a former thug who had just done five years in prison, where he learned to box. I saw him walking around before the fight, covered in jailhouse tats, and he scared the shit out of me. He had that crazy mad-dog glint in his eyes, the kind normally reserved for SoCal gangsters. I wasn't sure if Neil was ready, and I began to prepare myself for the possibility of my friend suffering serious injury.
The fight was intense, the whole crowd up on its feet and screaming throughout. Every time Neil landed a punch Lopez would smile and step to him again. He tried to lower his head like a bull and push Neil onto the ropes, but Neil would throw a combination and skip out of the way. This worked for the first half of the fight, but soon Neil began to tire, which favored Lopez. For the last three minutes of the fight, the two men stood toe to toe in the center of the ring, each trying to take the other's head off with wide looping punches. Defense was out the window, and every time a blow landed it looked as if the recipient might fall. The audience loved it.
Neil won the fight, and things seemed to be getting back on the right track. After the promoter paid everyone, we spent the weekend in Portland celebrating the win and Neil's newfound dedication. After stumbling around River City's east side, we ended up at Beulahland, a working-class tavern co-owned by Jimmy James, an old friend from Neil's teenage years. Jimmy's wife, Andrea, secured us a bucket for Neil to ice his right hand in, and we spent the night and most of the next morning telling old stories while the Pogues and the Jam played on the jukebox.
"Neil was always a wild one," said Jimmy. "We all were. I remember him before the muscles, when he was a skinny little firecracker. He was always the toughest son of a bitch I ever knew." Jimmy and Neil sat across from me with their arms draped around each other. "You know, a lot of us didn't make it through that time," said Jimmy. "I'm just glad my boy here is still alive and well."
* The Guns of Brixton *
Still reeling with the glow of victory, we returned to Seattle. On Neil's first day back in the gym, his manager took one look at his swollen right hand and ordered him to visit the ER. His fifth metacarpal was fractured, and he'd need a cast and 12 weeks with no impact. Without being able to use his moneymaker, or even train with it, Neil's progress was halted.
"The time off was very frustrating. I couldn't even wait tables properly," says Neil, "and I was a bit off. I yelled at some co-workers and nearly got fired. It was the type of thing I normally would have brushed off, but not being able to hit anything made it worse."
Neil missed three fights--as well as an opportunity to be a paid sparring partner for a ranked contender in Vegas. Instead of sparring, Neil spent his free time working on balance, and running several miles a day with his sister's two rottweilers. He was completely stir crazy, and everyone around him noticed. "I'm much more pleasant when I box," he says apologetically.
Eleven weeks later, Sam Ditusa signed Neil for another fight in Portland, this time at the Rose Quarter, the same arena where the NBA's Trail Blazers play. His hand wasn't yet fully healed, and he had not sparred in three months, but the risk of injury or a bad performance was outweighed by Neil's need to get some action. His was the first fight of the night, and the crowd of 4,000 oohed and aahed as he walked toward the ring, his face hidden behind the hood of his stark white Lonsdale robe. He looked fierce.
We touched fists as he passed me into the bright lights that flooded center court. After the brief introductions and the ring of the bell, Neil utterly destroyed Scott Sales in 90 seconds. That was it. It was over. Neil went to his corner and the doctor scurried into the ring to help Sales, who was writhing in pain on the canvas. My boy was back in a big way.
With his confidence restored, Neil's conditioning began to rise to a new level. Soon his hand was fully healed, his drinking was in check, and his training regimen had become consistent. Up to this point, all of Neil's fights had been four-round affairs. He was now ready for his first six-round bout. To the layman, four rounds may not seem like much, but in the ring, 12 minutes can seem like an eternity. If you doubt this, try skipping rope for three-minute intervals with a 60-second break in between. If you are still unsure, repeat the same process but this time ask a friend to punch you in the face and stomach repeatedly as you skip rope.
Neil's manager signed a six-round fight for August 10 at the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma. Ditusa is a shrewd and respected boxing manager, both here and in Chicago, but his strong sense for the business side of the sport is balanced by his affection for his fighters. He has a fatherly quality when he is with his boys, softly encouraging them when needed and then sternly admonishing them when they're slacking off. If he feels his fighter is not performing up to his ability during a fight, he will often threaten to call it off. "If you don't get your fucking hands up in this next round I'll throw in the fucking towel!" On the 10th of August, he sensed Neil was ready for a challenge, so he put him in the ring with Scott Lansdon.
Lansdon has a losing record, but with over 20 pro fights and a rock-solid chin, he was a daunting test for Neil. After a shaky first round, Neil settled into what he does best: moving, planting, and banging. Neil dropped Lansdon with a left hook at the end of the second round, and went on to beat him silly in the third until the referee stopped the fight to spare Lansdon any more punishment. Another knockout victory for my friend Neil, his fourth win in a row.
* Still Scrappy After * All These Years
After Neil's latest win we traveled to Portland again to blow off some post-fight steam. At the end of a night that included salsa dancing and a visit to a strip club, we stopped off at a bar so Neil could run in and say hello to a friend. What was supposed to be a quick stop on the way home turned into one of the best knockouts I've ever seen.
Waiting in my car outside the bar, I watched as Neil walked out and began talking to a rather large man. At first I thought they knew each other, as Neil was relaxed and chatting away with the stranger. Soon the man put his arm around Neil's neck, like he was trying to place him in a chokehold. It didn't seem right, and I began to get out of the car. Before I had my seatbelt unbuckled I saw the quick flash of Neil's shoulder turning from right to left, and the man was on his back. His arms were splayed out on the sidewalk, and he was unconscious.
Neil casually returned to the car, suggested that we leave, and then with a quiet charm only achieved by the English, he apologized to my girlfriend. "I didn't know that idiot. I'm quite sorry. I shouldn't have done that in front of you, my dear." You can take the lad out of London, but you can't take London out of the lad.
"He is a surprising contrast to the stereotype I previously held of boxers," says Celia Beasley, who along with John Gow is filming a documentary on Neil titled In the Ring, to be aired in October on PBS's New Voices series. "Yet at the same time, I see he is a boxer in his very being. In a sense, getting to know Neil makes me understand and accept the duality and extremes that humans live by--kindness and violence, respect and aggression."
When asked why he boxes, Neil answers, "It's the honesty of it. Independence. You can't rely on anyone but you, and that feels good. Wherever I go [in my career], if it's as good as I can be, I'll be happy. I'm happy now. It's kept me alive."
And wherever we go from here, in his career or mine, I know I've got the baddest mofo in this city watching my back.
Neil's next fight is Sat Sept 21 at the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma. Matt Sorenson is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.