(The following is entirely a work of fiction):
They called me “the Twister” because when I’d hit a man with a right cross or a left hand he’d kind of spin as he fell. That’s because of the fat thing.
I suppose if I was to train hard and eat the right diet and all that I’d weigh something like 260. I’m a big man, so there is muscle under all the flab, but I am fat. Right now I’m about 330 pounds, and I’m six foot five. I tell you all that not because it’s interesting (it ain’t) but because it is part and parcel to this story.
See I’m tall enough that I can try to keep a fellow off of me with a jab (if you don’t know what a jab is, I think maybe you’re reading the wrong story). While I’m doing that I’m watching for a chance to hit him on the head with an overhand right, or an uppercut or sometimes just a straight one. That generally will make him wobble, then I can throw “the Twister”.
The fat thing comes in at this time. I have only fought guys that are shorter than me, so they need get close to me to hit me. Or if I hit them first, they try to hug me. When they get inside and their head is right about where you’d be holding a basketball before making a free throw, right there is where I got my power.
Other fighters throw long looping punches and can put some Chinese mustard on them too. I ain’t that fast or athletic. But put that head on a tee right in front of me and I can turn, sort of pivot, and put my weight into it. This is why they would sometimes spin as they fall. People enjoyed watching me do this and I made an embarrassing amount of money doing it.
I had a crisis of conscience early on, felt bad about it. I’ve been a boxing fan my whole life, but understand that I was not a sportsman engaged in competition on a level playing field. No, I was hurting men for money, and that seemed a little sordid. That is, until I realized that the guy cheering for me in April was standing in the ring with me in May, and the guy I knocked out in April was now in the crowd hollering for me to lower the boom, to apply “the twister” to his buddy.
“C’mon let’s twist again, like we did last summer
Let’s twist again, like we did last year
Do you remember when things were really humming?
Yeah let’s twist again, twisting time is here…”
It all started as a dare. It was Louie the bartender. I know that sounds like a cliché, like a made-up name; “Louie the bartender at the Boxing club” but that’s his name. If it wasn’t I would tell you different. They got other bartenders there, but it was Louie that night.
They generally had a fight night once a month or so, maybe six weeks. Once a year they would have an amateur night, a “tough man contest”. This is a chance for a bunch of regular guys to blow off steam. They get drunk, they issue a challenge, they pay an entry fee and they fight. The club hires referees, and a doctor, a ring announcer and they even bring in some ring-card girls. To keep it safe, these fights are real short, like three one minute rounds. Even at that distance, maybe half don’t go the full three minutes. Everybody drinks a lot of beer and shouts a lot.
There is no round-robin, no prize money. The winner of each bout just gets bragging rights. Most fights are two buddies that want to fight each other.
It was an off-night (no fights) and the place was near empty so Louie and me are just having a conversation. The annual tough-man contest was coming up in a couple weeks, and he starts in suggesting, at first, but eventually ramping up to full-on nagging that I sign up to fight. He said there was a heavyweight that had signed up but didn’t have an opponent.
Basically I said yes to shut him up. It made me nervous though. I started doing sit-ups and running in place every day so I wouldn’t be quite so soft as I had become. My only experience boxing was a class I had taken at the Y when I was 12. I was 38 years old when I entered the tough man contest.
The fellow I fought was about my age and about my shape (pudgy). He was both shorter and smaller than me, at six foot two and 280 pounds. I dropped him twice in the first minute. The first time was a right to the head, the second time an uppercut to the breadbox.
That earned me an invitation to fight at the next event as a “professional”. Stan Martel was the fellow’s name. He was the promoter, the guy that arranged and managed the actual boxing at this club. Somebody else ran the foodservice and booze, Stan ran the boxing. He offered me $200 to fight “another stiff”. That’s how he put it.
I told him I was no boxer, I just did the tough man contest as a lark. He said I had some natural talent and he thought we could have fun and maybe make some money. I laughed and thanked him but said no.
You see, back in those days the heavyweight fighters were smaller, the champ was just six foot nothing and two twenty. I was a freak of nature. I think Stan wanted me as a side-show attraction: “Come see King Kong squash some dude” or “David vs. Goliath” or some-such.
The typical fight card back then would feature mostly local guys, young kids just starting out, and a half-dozen real fighters, from out of town; men hoping to make a living at it. The main event would be two of these guys, both with a winning, if not spotless record, hoping to win and move up one notch to something less skeevy. Stan, I believed, wanted to present me as a novelty on the undercard in an effort to sell more tickets.
Of course I was right.
I changed my mind.
A couple days go by and I can’t get it out of my mind. Winning that fight, I don’t know, just felt good. I was like a kid again having just won a little league game. I had a smile in me that started at my spine and kind of radiated from there all over. I wanted to see if I could do that again. Maybe a couple of times.
So I went to the gym that Stan runs and told him if the offer was still good I was in.
I started training a little then too. That was tough. The other boxers there looked down on me, like I was a joke. They called me “Pops” and other, worse things at first. That went away in time when they saw that I was going to stick with it.
I sparred a little bit and hit the heavy bag, but mostly I wanted to work so I could have more stamina. I didn’t want to get beat because I got winded.
My first pro fight was a lot like the tough man fight. This fellow was about the same size as the guy I fought that night, but where the first guy had a long hair and a beard this one was bald-headed.
And I knocked him out in the first round. Just like I told you above.
Sure enough, a month later Stan put a picture of me on his poster, down in a corner under the names and photos of the real fighters as an “Added Attraction: King Kong Willis vs. TBD”
And that’s how it was for my first five fights. One or two rounds, and a KO. And Stan’s hunch was right. I had fans. People came to see me wallop somebody.
On one of those occasions, somebody (who had come to watch somebody else) saw me and approached Stan (I didn’t have a manager or nothing) and Stan came to me and said “They want to put you on TV”.
I was immediately nervous “Look I told you I’m not looking to “advance my career” here. I mean, I don’t mind getting hit, but I don’t want to be embarrassed, especially on TV!”
Stan went on to explain that they wanted me to fight four rounds, just as I had been doing, and they wanted me to “knock some guy through the ropes” just like I had been doing.
“There’s money in it. They’ll pay you $5,000.”
“I can help you. I’d like to help you if you want to do this.”
I had to get new elaborate and shiny trunks, ka-ching! And new shoes, ka-ching! And I had to hire a cut man, and now I had to pay Stan as well, as I agreed to let him be my manager / trainer. Ching! Ching!
The $5,000 melted down to less than $1,000 by the time I added up my expenses, but man, it was fun. And less skeevy.
The locker room didn’t smell. That in itself was a miracle. I liked that too. It made what I was doing seem more legitimate.
I hit my man in the first round with a right cross counter (more on that later) right after my opponent threw a left hook. He missed and I connected and he was off balance and he did a pirouette with both arms out helicopter-style and flopped to the canvas.
Everyone called it a counter punch, but I don’t really think it was. I think we both swung at the same time, but mine just took longer to get there. It did make me look like I knew what I was doing though.
The clip of that punch was shown on TV again and again. It even made it to ESPN’s top ten. And this is when things really got rolling.
A few months later they invited me back, and I had to go to three rounds, but I knocked that fellow out too. This one got some attention, but not as much as that first one. I hit him with a straight right and he started to fall backwards, but turned and tried to get his feet under him and he kind of ran across the ring and fell down face first with his head poking out through the ropes.
For both of those fights I was introduced as Hanford “King Kong” Willis.
The third time I was on TV I had to fly to Vegas. That was fun, too. I had never flown before and I got a kick out of just looking out the window. Stan sprung for dinner that night at a nice restaurant. I liked that too.
When fight time approached, I got dressed and wrapped and gloved and when the ring announcer called my name I started out the tunnel into the auditorium and the PA started playing “Twist Again” by Fats Domino.
Come on, everybody, clap your hands!
Aw, you’re looking good!
Gonna sing my song, and it won’t take long
We’re gonna do the twist, and it goes like this:
I don’t dance, but I smiled and kind of bounced as I walked to the ring. I walked a little slower too, enjoying the moment
A minute later, the ring announcer introduced me as “the Twister”
My purse for that fight was $15,000 which, like before, largely melted away after expenses. But I didn’t care.
I put on a show that night. I was riding high on the excitement. I liked the new nick-name. I liked the crowd cheering for me. I like the flight and the steak dinner and I wanted more of all of it.
I feel bad for the guy I faced that night. I was extra motivated. I had my heart set on getting back to the highlight reel.
I didn’t get the helicopter or knock him out of the ring, but what I did do was knock him out in less than a minute. It was the first punch I threw. He had to move toward me to hit me, and I just caught him coming in. Boom! One and done.
After that we negotiated a contract for five more fights at $25,000 each. Not exactly screw-you money, but it was an improvement to my lifestyle, even after expenses. I was fighting for them two and three times a year, and in between times I’d still fight at Stan’s club. He paid me more than $200 too. I had some notoriety, I put butts in the seats.
I was 40 years old, getting close to 41.
Round and round and
up and down we go again
oh baby make me know
You love me so…
One night at Stan’s club I fought some guy with an iron chin. Couldn’t put him down. The fight went the full four rounds. I won the decision, and he was swollen and bleeding. I gave him the customary brief hug after the fight and thought we were OK.
In the parking lot, as I was headed to my car, I got cold-cocked by his brother. I fell on my ass, hard. Before I could get my hands up to block, this guy whacked me two more times, knocking out a tooth. Then he spit on my leather jacket. Then he turned around and shouted “I just knocked out the Twister! He ain’t so tough, he ain’t nothing!”
I had to spend a fortune getting that tooth replaced with an implant, but the spit…that really pissed me off. When I found out that he was a fighter too, I asked Stan to get me a match with him. No. I insisted that he get me match with him. No police, I just wanted to take care of this myself.
He wasn’t as tough as his brother, and I knocked him out in two rounds. Afterward I gave him the little hug and said, “That’s how it’s done, asshole.”
So I was 41 years old, 14-0 with 13 knockouts.
Who’s that, flyin’ up there?
Is it a bird?
Is it a plane?
Is it the twister?
I started to believe my own hype, that was my problem. My weight had dropped to 300 – 305 but then bounced back up after I started making money. I started asking Stan to get me better fights – harder competition. I had no designs on a title – I was not delusional. I just wanted to reexperience the emotional peak that I had that night the first time they called me “Twister”. I still enjoyed the crowd, and my new car and so forth, but the buzz was wearing off.
At first he would remind me of what we set out to do, that is, put on a show. We were successful in that. Why take chance at losing our audience by getting whupped? I would argue with him, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t make a lot of sense, because his was a good point. I just came back with “because I wanna!”
Then he stopped arguing with me, saying “If that’s what you want, okay!” I talked with the TV guys and they said they were on board too. I only had two more fights under my contract, I wanted, no I needed them to be special, to be highlights of my career.
What Stan did was lie to me. He’d tell me “this guy has wicked power” or “fantastic footwork” (my footwork was crap) but I’d nose around and look up their record and in reality they were just more turkeys.
I realized that Stan didn’t believe my hype. He thought I would lose to a better fighter, even a slightly better fighter, and the money would dry up. He was using me, stringing me along, just so he could continue to take his percentage.
Then the TV guys called with an offer. They had a fellow, they said was “a significant step up” that was willing to fight me. It would be a co-featured event and they offered $50,000. The catch was I had to agree to fight eight rounds.
I had long thought that would come up. When you say you’ll only fight four-rounders you are basically saying “I’m not a real fighter!” “Don’t take me seriously!” “I’m a side-show!” This is what I thought back at the beginning, back when they called me “King Kong”. I knew I was freak then and nothing had changed in the years that followed but my appetite for it.
I had time to prepare, some ninety days, but not enough time to get fit. Besides at almost 42 I could never get into the same shape a 30-year-old could. So, I thought about it and thought about it and thought about it. It was damn frustrating, the very thing that I wanted was right there, but I was not sure I could pick it up.
Of course, I decided to do it. I fired Stan for his lack of confidence in me, and hired Mauricio, another fellow from the gym to be my trainer and manager. We continued to work in Stan’s gym and he pretty much gave us the silent treatment.
That was okay – an understandable reaction. And I didn’t have time to worry about that – I had work to do! I had get ready to go 8 rounds.
I focused like before on strength and endurance. I did lots of running, lots of calisthenics. After a couple weeks I could see improvement and that built up my confidence, thinking that I was going to be in the best shape of my life.
And I was. After eight weeks my weight was down to 306 and I had to order new trunks.
At ten weeks, for the first time in my life I attended a press conference. Sure, the main event guys were everyone’s focus but we got five or ten minutes on the platform as the co-featured fighters. We exchanged some polite trash-talk and posed for photos with our fists raised. It was pretty stupid, but I loved every minute of it.
My opponent was 24 years old, he was 6’-3” and fought around 220 pounds. His record was 12-2. (I was now 17-0 with 16 KO’s). I was very pleased that they didn’t try to bullshit me like Stan had done before, this really was a step-up fight, and if I win this one, the next one will pay even more.
At fight time I weighed 304 and my opponent 224. This was the lightest I had been in my career. So I felt good, confident.
When the fight started my opponent met me at the center of the ring, then started backing up. He backed up till he reached the ropes then he ducked right and continued backing up. This forced me to chase him. And as I told you back at the beginning, I am not athletic enough to leap forward with big wide swings. I could not hit him. He would pause for a moment, me lumbering toward him, and sting my eyes with a jab.
This was pretty much how it went. Round after round, me pursuing, occasionally catching him on the ropes with a couple shots, many of which he blocked, and him retreating and jabbing and sometimes counter punching.
By the eighth round I felt like I had sandbags tied to each limb. He was fresh as a daisy and that spelled the end for me. He stopped retreating and started pot-shotting me, rapidly getting more and more comfortable in range, and by the middle of the round he was on flat feet, hammering away at my head.
Next thing I know I’m in bed, curled up and comfy with my pillows and quilt and dreaming of a ride in a colorful spaceship the size of a sports car. I was zooming along, miles above the earth, having a great time, when “Five!” What was that? I looked to my left, and blinked and “Six!” I blinked two more times and “Seven!” I opened my eyes and “Where was I?” and “Eight!” And I heard a roar, a crowd cheering, and I saw a very happy man waving to the crowd across…
A boxing ring! I was fighting! Why can’t I stand up?
About that time the doctor showed up and started looking me over and saying things I couldn’t hear over all the noise. Eventually he got me to my stool where I continued to spin for a time. At length I slowly got up and walked toward my opponent who saw me coming and he raced over and lifted my right hand in the air. The crowd roared at this gesture. I looked at him and said “You done good.” He smiled. “Did I do good?” I asked. “Fuck yeah, that was a great fight”. I later looked it up and if I could have made it to the end of the fight on my feet, even losing the eighth, I would have won by decision. The judges gave me all the early rounds because I was more aggressive.
The sportswriters and talking heads all said the same thing, that I had exceeded expectations. That they had watched, as some described it “through their fingers” fearing that I was in over my head and going to get hurt.
They said I rocked him several times but was not quick enough to get in the second or third shot I needed to close the deal.
The powers that be (I heard someone call them “the tapeworm” once) decided that since they had paid me double for that last fight, that my contract with them had been fulfilled. I doubted that, but I sure wasn’t going to hire a lawyer to take on those guys. They could hire five attorneys that could run circles around anybody I could afford.
So, I had some time to reflect, you know, and drink. I know, when you’re a prizefighter and you get depressed, you’re supposed get hooked on cocaine, but I couldn’t afford that either.
Richard Brautigan once wrote “I feel like a sewing machine that just sewed a turd to a trash can lid”. And if you don’t think it proper for a prize fighter to quote a hippie poet, well fuck you too. I think that quote about described my mental state perfectly.
I got knocked out. At age 42. They said I fought the fight of my life, but nobody wanted to take chance on me. I get it. I was too old to try to climb the hill. Had I won, then yeah, maybe I get a shot at a gate-keeper fighter. But I didn’t and no-one wants to be the one responsible for hurting an old man.
It was like a death in the family. This thing, this all-engrossing avocation, this fantasy, this enchantment that supported the weight of my ego…just disappeared…
I already told you what happened to my ego – you know, the sewing machine.
And I did not know where to go, or how to get it back.
So in time I went back to the gym to apologize to Stan, to tell him he was right but I had to see it to believe it.
I told him I was available to knockout a stiff or two if he had a mind to it. He said “Why don’t you try training a younger fighter? You get the same rush from winning, you don’t have to watch your weight, and it hurts a lot less.” So I started doing that. It’s like drinking white wine when you really want a whiskey, but at least it scratches the right itch.
What’s that? You want to know what did before I started fighting? I did your mother, OK? That ain’t the subject of this interview. The thing I did before I fought I did while I fought too. Up until that last fight, then I quit in order to train. I’m still doing it, but I ain’t talking about it. Same goes for my family. I ain’t talking about them either. Just forget it.
My message? I would say the point of my story is this: getting old sucks, but you adjust, you go on.
Peace out. That’s what the kids say. Used to say. I don’t know.