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Making the Time Count

Times Staff Writer

About This Story

Italics designate statements recalled by subjects in the story. Statements heard by the writer are enclosed in quotation marks.

[Unpublished Note: The italics may not display depending upon the archiving system you are using.]

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The timekeeper carried his bell. Once he had used it to control boxing matches. Now he used it to honor the dead.

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Slowly and wordlessly, he walked, with shuffling half steps, the four blocks from his dark Hollywood apartment to the restaurant.

He stood in front of a group of people: retired boxers, referees and fight fans. Many were stooped and shaky. For years, every Tuesday, when his body was not betraying him, the timekeeper had been meeting them here.

He placed his bell on a table. Then he spoke of three boxers who had just fallen for the last time.

Jerry Moore. Great puncher, he would remember telling the group. Great manager. Friend to us all.

Tears welled in their eyes.

Coley Wallace. Once beat Marciano. This was in the amateurs, 1948. I was there.

Heads bowed.

Max Schmeling. Lived 99 years. Deserves our utmost respect. He beat Joe Louis, who was the greatest of them all.

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With a small hammer, he tapped the bell 10 times, a steady rhythm ... bing, bing, bing, bing ... to pay tribute.

They surrounded the timekeeper, telling him how important he was.

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Arnie Koslow is a lonely man. He is 80 and lives by himself in a bare-walled studio apartment filled with dust, cardboard boxes, a framed photo of his parents -- and his bell.

He does not have much left.

He never had a wife and never had children.

He has aching feet, unreliable kidneys, a bad heart and a thin body that seems to grow slighter by the week.

Among his greatest possessions has always been time; he loves and respects its steady march. Now, though, even time is slipping through his fingers. Arnie Koslow knows this because of the condition he is in. “A senior and weak,” he says, frankly. “I could die any day. I’m not afraid of it.”

A boxing enthusiast since his childhood in Brooklyn, he became a highly regarded timekeeper. He had been an awful boxer and never made much of a mark as a manager’s assistant. But he found his niche as a timekeeper -- a job that offers little recognition, although boxing could not go on without it.

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He worked more than 1,500 fights, almost all in Los Angeles. He kept time for youth bouts, sideshow bouts and big-time professional fights. Boxing: the stage, the drama, the ugliness and the beautiful precision of it all. Keeping time: watching seconds turn into minutes, minutes into moments, moments into memory.

In his life, they became intertwined.

“I’ve always been one to reminisce about days gone by,” he says, his voice still tinged by Brooklyn. “As I get older, the things I remember, it’s like they are becoming clearer and clearer in my mind. Like a movie. Oh, I miss so much of it. Miss it bad. But I’ve had a great life. Had my friends. Survived the war. There were two women I loved ...

“And boxing, the greatest sport in the world. I was lucky to be a part of it.”

‘It Just Grabbed Me’

He was 9, and it was an amateur fight: the New York Golden Gloves, the first bout he ever saw. He cannot recall who fought, but he can still smell the roasted hot dogs and hear the crowd yell. Two boxers stepped into the ring. They were lean. One was in dark trunks, the other in white. “It just grabbed me,” he says. “From that moment. Love.”

Two years later, he saw his first professional fight. “Dexter Park, Long Island, June 7, 1937,” he says. “I remember it specifically. That was the night Jean Harlow died. Ah, Harlow, what a dame.... The opening bout was a four-rounder. Then there was a six-rounder.

“You know what? I used to know the first 100 bouts I ever saw. But now I can’t remember all 100. It’s age, and it makes me mad. But that night, the big shot coming up was Petey Scalzo. Then the main event: Freddie ‘Red’ Cochran. Did I tell you? He just died. I rung my bell for him. I rung that one at home. I was all by myself. In the apartment. Sometimes I can’t make it to the restaurant, so I ring it right there. These guys are heroes, larger than life. When they die they deserve to be honored by somebody.”

Arnie Koslow’s family was poor, so he worked odd jobs to cobble together enough nickels and dimes to pay for the subway and the 75 cents for admission to the local fights. His weeks were filled with boxing. Mondays at Dexter Park. Tuesdays at the Broadway Arena. Fridays at the old Madison Square Garden. Saturday nights at the Ridgewood Grove.

On Sunday afternoons, he rode the train from his neighborhood of mostly Polish immigrants into Manhattan to watch a live radio show that featured boxing greats. In the waiting room, he met a string of champions. One day, a large man in a gray suit sat next to him. It was Joe Louis, the heavyweight title holder.

“I look at him and I say, ‘Mr. Louis, can I have your autograph?’ Did I ever tell you? His hand covered the whole pencil, and his writing, it was so small? Anyways I says to him, ‘Thank you, Mr. Louis.’

“And he says to me, ‘You’re welcome.’ You are welcome? Joe Louis spoke to me? One of the thrills of my life.”

Power in His Hand

Not long afterward, Arnie Koslow began to box. In his first match, he took a beating. After a few more fights and a few more beatings, he quit.

He joined the Army. Soon he was on the shores of Normandy, 10 days after D-day, part of a company heading through France, then into Germany. Grenades. Bullets. Snipers. Death. Moments that still come to him in nightmares. But he had boxing.

“Did I ever tell you,” he asks, “about Phillips?”

Indeed he has, but he tells the story again anyway.

It was cold, sometime in February 1945. He was in a British hospital, suffering trench foot. Good God, there were doctors talking about amputation. But he knew he was still himself when he found out about a championship bout in Manchester -- Al Phillips, one of the best fighters in Europe, would fight Nel Tarleton -- and he, Arnie Koslow, tried to break out of the hospital to see it.

He took another man’s uniform and hobbled through the door. A military policeman caught him before he got off the grounds, and he missed the bout. But inside of himself he knew he was OK and that he would survive, even if they told him to go back to the battle. He knew this because, in spite of everything, he was still holding tight to the thing that made him whole: boxing.

When the war ended, he returned to New York. He fell for a girl, Sylvia, 18, brown-haired and sweet. They kissed on their first date. But he hated New York’s weather. He wanted a new start, to be part of a new boxing scene. Like thousands of others after World War II, he came to Los Angeles. In early 1951, he climbed into an old Dodge and drove all the way. Sylvia came out west for a while. But then she moved home and stayed.

He met another woman, Louise. Fell for her, too. But they argued too much, and soon it was over.

Maybe it was just bad luck; he’s not sure. Both times, things ended so badly that he looks down at the ground in sorrow, even today. He knew his chances at having a family were gone.

At first he worked as a sound technician at a recording studio and lived in low-rent apartments on the outskirts of Hollywood. Then it occurred to him: “I got used to it, not having a family, being alone.”

It’s not hard to guess what made it easier: boxing. During the 1950s and ‘60s, Los Angeles was a boxing hotbed. He saw “the great Davey Moore, Jerry Quarry, Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier.” If there was a fight, especially a big-time fight, he was there, at the Olympic Auditorium or maybe the old Hollywood Legion, happy as he could be, because the boxing was as good as any in New York.

Then, one evening in the early ‘70s, he went to a bout in East L.A. The timekeeper was a no-show. Somebody asked him to step in.

They gave him a stopwatch and told him to sit at ringside. They said to make sure that each round lasted exactly three minutes and that each break between the rounds lasted exactly one minute.

He had power, control of the bell. When he rang it, the fighting started and stopped.

It wasn’t long before he was a timekeeper at boxing matches all over Los Angeles, dressed in his black-and-white-striped uniform, a stopwatch on a cord around his neck, always arriving early so he could test the bell and the acoustics long before the crowd came.

“I was just drawn to the whole process,” he says. “I just felt important, like what I did mattered. I never wanted to give that up.”

‘One Light Touch ...’

Timekeepers toil in obscurity, with hardly a nod from boxers, managers, promoters, referees or fans.

Unless they make a mistake and, say, allow a round to go extra seconds, and there is a knockout.

Arnie Koslow made few mistakes. He loved the precision that came with keeping the time. He tracked each round, each break, and when a fighter hit the canvas, he began the official count -- “one, two, three, four...” -- shouting so loudly he could be heard above the crowd, slapping a hand hard on the canvas with each beat, until the referee took over.

Then there was the bell.

For many fights, he brought his own. It was a humble bell. Black. Eighteen inches in diameter, affixed to a small wooden panel. It had a particularly high pitch that he liked. Although he bought it mail order for just $80, he still holds his bell with the same loving gentleness with which a concert violinist would caress a Stradivarius.

“I see it as a musical instrument,” he says. He is cradling the bell in his apartment, looking at it with admiration. “Even the technique. It’s all in the wrist. It’s physics. You bing it low, the sound will resonate -- up.”

The only bell better than his, he says, was the one at the Olympic Auditorium. It was big, brown and, he thinks, once a brake drum in an old Ford truck. No bell sounded as good as that one. “The best. Absolutely.

“Did I ever tell you about that bell?”

He imagines it is in front of him. He lifts his right hand, as if clutching a hammer. “One light touch ... " His hand moves, as if he were hitting it. “The sound. Oh, the sound ... “

His voice rises as he remembers all the bells he rang at his favorite fights. Julio Cesar Chavez. Oscar De La Hoya. George Foreman.

Then he begins to remember the ugly fights, and his voice falls to a whisper. Two of them: among the worst days of his life.

Sept. 19, 1980. Arnie Koslow rang the bell for Johnny Owen when he fought Lupe Pintor at the Olympic Auditorium for the world bantamweight title. A right to the head in the 12th round sent Owen crumpling to the canvas. He went into a coma. Three weeks later, he died.

Sept. 1, 1983. Arnie Koslow rang the bell for Francisco “Kiko” Bejines in his bantamweight title fight against Alberto Davila at the Olympic Auditorium. In the final round, Bejines was hit with a jab that dropped him like a bag of crushed bricks. His head slammed back, he sprawled against the ropes, and his eyes stared into nothingness. It was a stare from the beach at Normandy. Bejines, too, went into a coma. Three days later, he died.

Arnie Koslow would have given back all of his time in boxing, every bit of it, he says, if those two fighters could have lived.

Every boxer tempts fate. Some become champions. Others achieve greatness but go unrecognized. Some have little talent and endure beatings. Some die.

And his own fate?

By the mid-1990s, as he turned 70, his health began to fail. He fought a terrible battle with colon cancer, and boxing began to phase him out. Suddenly, from the state officials who decide, he stopped getting work. He doesn’t know why. He refuses to blame his age. He worked a kickboxing bout in the Los Angeles suburbs. “Reduced to karate,” Koslow scoffs.

Then it was over.

What had made him happiest, what had made him feel useful and alive, was taken away completely.

“It eats at me,” he says. “I miss it, but this is a fact I have to live with. Boxing is full of risk, and it is highly subjective. But not the timekeeper’s part. Those seconds passing? That’s a fact. We work with the facts. Every second, time is ticking. Time is not gonna wait for you. Funny thing is, it’s the same in life.

“The moment you are born the clock starts. That’s a fact.”

Sparring With Ghosts

Now it’s 2005. March 15. Tuesday. Lunch.

He sits inside the restaurant, the Old Spaghetti Factory.

He doesn’t have his bell. He brings it only when someone has died.

Thirty men and five women have assembled in a yellow-walled room, elderly boxers, trainers, referees, officials and fans. They call themselves the Golden State Boxers Assn. They have been meeting for lunch on Tuesdays for three decades.

The boxers talk while they eat. They tell crude jokes. They conjure up their toughest foes and bravest victories. They try to put together enough money -- $10 here, $20 there -- to help other old fighters: men who are sick or poor, maybe homeless, unable to pay their bills, maybe even about to run out of time forever.

They sit in the middle of the room: Joey Barnum, a top-ranked lightweight in the 1940s; Art Aragon, who enchanted Los Angeles with his flair in the 1950s; Danny Valdez, a title contender in the 1960s; and Bobby Chacon, twice a world champion, one of the toughest fighters of the 1970s and ‘80s.

Some are vital still. They stand and throw punches into the air, suddenly young again. But others limp and shake, slur their words and have trouble keeping track of the past.

“It’s sort of sad,” Arnie Koslow says, under his breath. He looks at Chacon, a smiling, boisterous man, but so shellshocked he must constantly write notes to himself, reminders so he does not forget where he was, where he should be, or who should be around him. On a portable DVD player, they watch one of Chacon’s greatest moments, a 15-round title fight. “Knew I had ‘em here!” Chacon shouts in a mumble, raising his hands.

The men clap and shout. They pat him on the back.

“Bobby, you were the best!”

“Bobby, Bobby.... Oh, man!”

Arnie Koslow grimaces. Is Chacon shellshocked because of the boxing? He tries to answer his own question. “I don’t know. I’ve seen high school football players in bad shape, too. I believe boxing, if the rules are applied properly, is a very safe contact sport. Some say it’s that dementia, caused by boxing. That Alzheimer’s.”

One of the old boxers interrupts. “It ain’t the all-timers,” he says. “Just people getting old is all.”

Arnie Koslow laughs. “Getting old. Don’t I know it.” He shakes his head. “Getting old. Jeez.”

‘Kid, I Saw Louis Fight’

Tuesday again. May 9. Lunch.

“Hey, Arnie, who was the best fighter ever?”

“Louis.”

“Better than Sugar Ray Robinson?”

“He was great. [But] I liked Louis.”

“Better than Ali?” asks another man, in his 50s. Then the man adds: “I don’t know about that.”

“I do. Kid, I saw Louis fight. At his peak, he could take apart any man. I saw Ray Robinson fight, too. This must have been in the late ‘30s. In Manhattan. I think it was Harlem, and it was the Golden Gloves. He had it all. But Louis, he was my idol. Did I ever tell you about the time I met him at Sam Taub’s radio show ... ?”

Nearby, someone stands and makes a plea. “We gotta help out the Bossman,” the man says, referring to Eddie “Bossman” Jones, a light heavyweight who sparred with Ali. The Bossman, he reports, is down on his luck in South Los Angeles.

Arnie Koslow shakes his head. “He could hit. Whew, the Bossman could really hit. It’s a shame.” He would give money, if he had any.

An hour later, he walks stiffly down the front steps of the restaurant.

“These people here are family,” he says. “It keeps me going. God, it keeps me going.”

The March of Time

This summer, Arnie Koslow nearly died. Kidney stones and two heart attacks, he says. In July, after more than a month in a veterans hospital, he came back home: weak, bone-thin, 30 pounds gone from his frame.

He began missing Tuesdays at the Old Spaghetti Factory. He couldn’t walk that far. Rarely did anyone come to pick him up.

Rarely did he have visitors at all.

Now, on most Tuesdays at lunchtime, he sits alone in his room, waiting for Meals-on-Wheels, a tired man with crinkly skin, his wavy hair mostly gray. He turns up his TV so loud people can hear it on the sidewalk. He reads the sports pages. He looks at the framed picture of his parents.

Sometimes he screams, mad as hell at what his body has become.

He jots down stream-of-consciousness memories in a black journal with a wire binder: He writes about New York and Normandy, rainstorms and retirement, boxing and his bell.

He writes about time.

“Time on my hands. If memory serves me right, ‘Time on my hands’ [was] the opening line of a beautiful love song in the 1930s. Strange for me to think of that, because I haven’t actually been in love for such a long time....

“So what does that leave me with? Let’s see. What is time? Time waits for no one ... [and time] reminds me of a wonderful job I had for years in the sport of boxing.

“I was the boxing timekeeper.”


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