Aging athletes have a tendency to live in the past, reveling in the days that were and wishing beyond good sense that they could do what they did just one more time. For some, an echo of applause that resonates through their memories is too much to ignore, and the desire for a comeback won't go away. So it is with former lightweight boxer Joey Barnum. He's 81 and itching for one last shot at glory.
As trim and muscle-hard as he was as a No. 3 three contender in the 1940s, Barnum has been talking about a comeback for the better part of a year. He's in the kind of physical condition a 20-year-old would envy, eating right, drinking moderately, running three miles three times a week and working out in a gym.
Making a comeback isn't a foreign idea to the flashy Barnum, who runs a bail bond service in Monterey Park and refers to himself as Jail House Joey. After a 16-year boxing career, he turned to managing a fighter who wouldn't follow his orders. So Barnum came out of retirement, got back into the ring and punched the kid's lights out. But since then, he's been content to accept the glory of his past, including induction into the World Boxing Hall of Fame, without attempting to revive a dormant career. He saunters easily through life in tinted, oversized glasses, tailored suits and a diamond-studded miniature gold boxing glove hanging from a chain around his neck. His silk shirt is invariably unbuttoned halfway down his chest.
His real name is Giuseppe Roselli. He's a familiar figure around Matteo's on Sunday nights, when old-time celebrities gather to be seen and heard. Sinatra used to drop by and Reagan was said to have favored the Italian chicken in the days preceding his political ascendancy. There's always a table available for Barnum, who moves through the place with the grace of a cat, tipping big, looking around, being noticed. It was at Matteo's that he broke the news of his comeback. He squeezed a sponge ball as he told about a fight he'd been watching on television. Midway through the bout, it hit him how clumsy the boxers were, pawing at each other like kids in a play yard. "They didn't know how to fight inside," he said, grimacing at the memory. "I watched these guys, and they spent the whole fight grabbing at each other. It wore the referee out pulling them apart."
Barnum considered the display an offense to the name of boxing. He would make a comeback, he said, and show them how a champ fought. It wasn't just idle talk. He began upping his workout schedule and increased his long-distance runs to six times a week. In the meantime, he took on a manager and convinced boxing promoter Ken Thompson to think about setting up a fight for him at Ontario's Doubletree Inn.
He figured he'd probably fight in a preliminary, maybe a three-rounder, "then work up to a match with the 10-round boys." When asked whom he'd fight, he'd shrug and say, "Who knows, maybe Shirley Temple." He could joke about it, but he was serious. Here was the opportunity to get back in the ring and to hear the roar of the crowd one more time. The dream come true.
The California Athletic Commission insisted Barnum undergo a series of medical tests before it would license a fight. And it wanted to see him work out in the ring with a sparring partner to determine if he could still defend himself. I watched Barnum hitting the bag and shadow boxing in a South El Monte gym. On the balls of his feet, head tucked into his shoulders, fists flashing out like angry cobras, he looked every bit the contender. I could buy the comeback, and so could a lot of others. But it wasn't to be.
Despite a series of clearances from a variety of doctors who found Barnum in outstanding physical condition, the Athletic Commission required that he be tested by one of its own neurologists. While the man found nothing wrong with him, he told Barnum he was crazy to get back into the ring and recommended to the commission that he not be allowed to fight, primarily because of his age.
That could have been the end to it all. But Barnum, like the kid he was in the ring 60 years ago, doesn't give up. He was scheduling another MRI when Thompson decided not to set up a match. It was too risky. Instead, Barnum will appear in the Doubletree ring in March preceding a regular fight, dance around the way he did in the old days, hands upraised, hearing the crowd and basking in the light remembered from so long ago. It won't be a fight, but at least he'll know the thrill of being seen in that squared circle, just one more time.
Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Fridays. He's at email@example.com