"Can't nobody beat this kid."
That's not a question. It's a statement. And it's what they're saying this week in Philadelphia's tough gyms. It means that Mike Tyson has passed his toughest test yet. He has passed muster in Philly's gyms.
On the day after Tyson had knocked out Larry Holmes in Atlantic City, N.J., a reporter visited three gyms in north Philadelphia, which may have more boxing gyms per capita than any other city in America.
In Philadelphia, folks know a thing or two about boxing. Tex Cobb observed a few years ago: "I saw two winos fighting in a Philly alley once, and one of them was throwing out double jabs."
Bonecrusher Smith, one of Tyson's victims last year, said that when he decided to learn to box, he went to Philadelphia from his North Carolina home.
"The best fights in America aren't on TV, they're in Philly gyms, every day," he said, recalling his Philadelphia schooling. "It's World War III every day in those gyms. You go home every night with cut lips, bloody noses . . . "
In other words, you're probably not a good fighter until someone in a Philly gym says you're a good fighter.
A tour of Philadelphia's boxing gyms, in search of the truth:
Joe Frazier's Gym--"You lookin' for Smoke (Smokin' Joe Frazier)? Smoke's in San Diego. Rodney's got a fight there soon," says Mark Frazier, nephew of former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, and a fighter himself. The Rodney he speaks of is Rodney Frazier, another of Joe's nephews.
Frazier's may be the best known of Philadelphia's gyms, but it's just one of dozens. It's in a four-story building on Broad Street, a few blocks from Temple University, wedged up against a railroad bridge.
Visitors are greeted with a sign explaining the ground rules.
"You will be put out if you talk loud, you litter, you come in without a shirt, and if you horseplay."
This may be hard to believe, but Joe Frazier has nailed pictures of himself all over the walls of his gym. Huge pictures, the size of small billboards.
It's early evening. Chairs are set up around the ring, to accommodate about 250 people who are filing in, at a dollar a head, to watch an amateur card.
Through the door, with two amateur middleweights, walks one of Philly's legendary characters of recent years, Bobby (Boogaloo) Watts. A decade or so ago, Watts had a good run as a pro middleweight. But he'll be best remembered for one achievement of which only two other men can boast--he once beat Marvin Hagler.
"Can't nobody beat this kid," Watts says, when asked to assess the craft of the 21-year-old Tyson.
"I don't see no one out there (who can beat him). He's come along at just the right time. He'll tear up Michael Spinks. (Evander) Holyfield? Holyfield's a cruiserweight. Say he bulks up to 205, 210. That still ain't big enough.
"See, this kid wears you down with all those combinations, man. Pretty soon, you get scared 'cause you see he's throwin' so many punches you ain't even seein' some of them. And the more tired you get, the more punches you ain't seein'. Then it's always the same--the one he takes you out with is one you never see."
Ray Paquette was in the Navy for 20 years and boxed for about 10 of them. Today, he referees amateur bouts in Philadelphia and occasionally trains a boxer or two.
"What I like about this kid is his physical condition," Paquette says. "He's always in great shape. If someone does tag him pretty good one of these days, the fact he's in such great shape might bail him out of trouble.
"I'm sold on the kid. Look what he's done at 21. How many fighters, in any weight class, have done what he's done at 21?"
Tyrone Frazier, Joe Frazier's cousin and one of five fighting Fraziers, was at ringside for the Tyson-Holmes fight.
"It was ugly, man," he says. "I was sitting behind (Larry Holmes' wife) Diane, and it was ugly. She took it real hard, and I felt bad for Larry. I've fought on Larry's cards in Easton.
"I talked to Mike after the fight, and he looked at me and clenched his teeth and said: 'They can't beat me! They can't beat me!' He's got that right."
Champ's Gym--On 24th Street, near Ridge Avenue, the small sign on the old brick building reads, "Champ's Gym (2nd floor)." On the sidewalk, just to the right of the battered front door, is a pile of bricks.
There are several abandoned and stripped cars nearby. Parts of cars--tires, seats, engines and transmissions--litter the sidewalk. It's a mean, tough neighborhood. No one has ever sold a broom here. Trash is everywhere. Entire buildings are boarded up.
Of such neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Cobb also once said: "I didn't mind the wars I had in the ring in the Philly gyms, it was the walk from my hotel to the gyms. I was terrified!"
Champ's is one of the busiest of the Philly gyms.
"On any day in Champ's, you can find more first-class trainers, maybe 12 or 15, than in any gym in Philadelphia," said Elmer Smith, former boxing writer and now a sports columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.
Smith says that Philly fighters and pool shooters have the same philosophy: Avoid ground floor establishments.
"Most Philly gyms are usually over something, usually a garage, or under something, usually a garage," he said. "The same with pool halls. No one I know would ever shoot pool in a ground-floor pool hall."
And so, visitors trudge up the stairway to Champ's, in darkness. They stumble, sometimes, because the wooden stairway has been scaled so many times that the middle edge of each step has been worn into a half-moon shape.
Champ's is jumping. It's a small gym, with only one ring. In two open areas, about two dozen boxers pound bags, jump ropes or do sit-ups. Unlike Frazier's, you can't get thrown out of here for talking loud, because the rock music is so loud no one would hear you.
No one has ever selected Champ's as a site to train because of the facilities. One of the heavy punching bags hanging from the ceiling is a duffel bag, filled with sand. Almost everything is torn, chipped or worn. And it's so dark that fighters sparring in the ring look like two shadows fighting one another.
A sign says: "Pro fighters have first option on all equipment."
Here, as at every Philly gym on this day, everyone is talking about "this kid."
"Holmes just didn't have enough to stop this kid, and I think he knew that going in," says Smiley Haywood, who trains four fighters, including the International Boxing Federation's light-heavyweight champion, Prince Charles.
"And you know what? In his prime, Holmes didn't have enough to stop this kid. Holmes had a lot of courage and heart, but he needed a lot more last night."
Haywood is asked what manner of fighter could beat Tyson.
"To beat him, a guy's gotta have a great jab to keep him off," he said. "And he's gotta have great legs because he's gonna need lots of lateral movement. And he's gotta be right mentally. See, most guys this kid is beatin' now, he's got 'em whipped mentally before the fight.
"They're goin' in there with the attitude: 'Well, maybe I'll hit him with something lucky, but I'm not going to let him knock me out.' See, they're tryin' to survive, not tryin' to win. Hey, it takes nerve to get in the ring with this kid."
Charley Spicer runs Champ's.
"We got 30 or 40 pros trainin' regular here, and a few amateurs," he says.
Two featherweights, one black and one white, are preparing to spar.
"See the white boy?" Spicer asks. "That's Anthony Boyle. Only white boy we got here. Lives in Kensington. He's a good one. His folks were worried about him comin' down to this neighborhood every day to train--but hey, this is where it's at. You want to learn to fight, you gotta come to Champ's."
If Champ's is a tough gym, you wonder about the ones in Kensington. There's a gym there called "The Blood Pit."
Charley points to a trainer leaning over the top rope to watch Boyle spar with an amateur, Ivan Robinson.
"That's ol' Jimmy Beecham," he says. "He was a Philly fighter, a welterweight. Had 86 fights. Jimmy's the guy who got Muhammad Ali into poetry when he was Cassius Clay. Jimmy wrote all his poems."
Of Tyson, Charley shakes his head, gathering his thoughts for a moment.
"Larry (Holmes) never fought a guy like Tyson, even in his prime," he said. "Spinks and Holyfield? This kid walks through both of them. He's another Rocky Marciano. He takes a good shot, too, like Rocky.
"But here's why no one's gonna beat this kid now. See, he was tough enough two years ago, when he was comin' up. But now he's got confidence . See (Charley taps his skull), he's got in here that he's the best fighter in the world and that no one can beat him. And that makes him double tough."
Bentown's Hard Knocks Gym--Hard Knocks, like a lot of Philadelphia gyms, is running on a dream. It's similar to Champ's in that it takes a climb up a pitch-black stairway to find it, and facilities are Spartan and in poor repair.
Downstairs is the Socko Garage. Upstairs, apparently, used to be part of Socko Garage, too. A paved ramp runs upstairs, right into the gym.
It's also unheated. It's about 40 degrees inside, except real close to either of two portable gas heaters.
Bentown's is owned by George Benton, a ranked middleweight from the 1950s and '60s who now trains Olympians Mark Breland, Tyrell Biggs and Meldrick Taylor in the Duva organization in New Jersey. Biggs and Taylor, by the way, are Philly fighters.
On the side, he runs Bentown's. He's out of town on this day, and Dwight Triplett, once a Philadelphia heavyweight who fought Carl (the Truth) Williams and Eddie (the Animal) Lopez, is in charge. Bentown's is quiet. Two young boxers shadowbox in front of a mirror. Triplett tapes the hands of a third.
"Larry had a good strategy (tying up Tyson early), he just didn't have enough goin' for him," Triplett said. "With this kid, you gotta have a lot of strength to work with him inside, he's so strong. You got to make him miss, too, and Larry couldn't do that.
"Larry wasn't right mentally last night, either. 'Course, this kid will do that to you. In his prime, whenever Larry got hurt against guys like Cooney, Berbick, Snipes, Larry always got up and fought his . . . off. Last night, he wasn't like that.
"This kid is awful tough," Triplett continues. "I don't see no one out there can handle him."
In other words, can't nobody beat this kid.