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With America going to glory in combat, I decided to put my personal spin on the quest by going to the Chicago Golden Gloves. For years I’ve planned to attend the Gloves–a legendary training ground for boxers and an annual fixture at the Saint Andrew gym on the north side–yet somehow I never made it until the prospect of another night watching bombs drop on Baghdad drove me out last Thursday. The Golden Gloves tournament is rich with associations–the smoke-filled arena, the square ring at its center, the film-noir lighting–and this one didn’t disappoint, even if boxing has succumbed to being smoke-free. Aside from the clean air, it was almost exactly as I’d always imagined it. Outside, a banner announced the schedule–this would be a night for semifinals in the novice division, perfect for a novice fight fan who’d never experienced the sport in the flesh–alongside a marquee promoting “STATIONS OF THE CROSS IN THE CHURCH 6 P.M. FRIDAY.” Indoors, Saint Andrew proved to be the woodiest gymnasium I’ve ever seen: wooden floors and ceiling, wooden bleachers in the balcony, and wooden seats on many of the folding chairs on the floor. The ticket taker at the door gave me a taste of the superior attitude of the fight aficionado; after I gave him my ticket and stood there waiting for him to rip it and give me back the stub–holding up the line–he growled, “That’ll be all for this evening.” There was no need for a stub in the general admission seating, thus no need for him to go to the trouble of ripping the tickets, so move on. I took a seat in the balcony over dead center of the ring, which lay there in light that shone on the Budweiser logos on the canvas. It was a sponsorship extended at the forbearance of the Catholic church to $3 Buds sold from a concession stand in the corner. I settled in as the houselights dimmed.

The gym was never crowded–at most a few hundred people were in attendance by the middle of the fight card–but the place bustled with a unique energy and excitement. I’m guessing half the crowd was either involved with the bouts or related to someone who was. The PA announcer called on boxers to go to a check-in table to have their gloves examined. In the far corner, a lumbering, slope-shouldered boxer displayed a remarkably quick punch, pounding his trainer’s oversize mitts with a smack intensified by the trainer’s pushing the mitts forward to meet each blow. In the near corner, a woman–her trunks high on her thin waist–did the same with her trainer, creating smacks almost as loud as the behemoth’s; she had a crisp, short punch she put into brisk combinations. Yet it soon became obvious that punching a trainer’s mitts is a completely different talent from punching someone who’s trying to punch you.

In football, a receiver who shows timidity going over the middle is said to have “alligator arms”–he’s refusing to extend himself in case he might get hit. But timidity in boxing produces the opposite effect: The first bout, between Ivan Vargas and Marco Coll Dimayo in the 112-pound division, saw both throw a series of loose-armed punches; they were jabbing with no shoulder behind the blows, as if reaching for a light switch in the dark. They opened the third and final round with a flurry, however–a tactic in every fight that went the distance, as the boxers tried to win over the judges. At the final bell they slapped gloves and embraced, and after their gloves had been removed each visited the other’s corner. Vargas got the decision, and no one argued otherwise.

The big boxer I’d seen warming up, Alfonso Gonzalez, came next, meeting Doug Glisson in the superheavyweight division, over 201 pounds. Gonzalez certainly couldn’t be called chiseled, but Glisson looked worse, with a considerable spare tire around the middle. His boxing was just as flabby, and Gonzalez stalked him with purpose, chin low to his chest, and threw hard punches from the shoulders. He clocked Glisson in the side of the head in the first round, sending him to the canvas, and the ref waved the fight off, the ringside announcer explaining that at this level discretion was preferred to courage. Gonzalez may not have been an impressive specimen, but he was a good-looking fighter.

The only women’s fight of the night came next. “Brought to you by Budweiser, the king of beers–or in this case the queen of beers,” the announcer said. Amelia Hannus, the determined little woman I’d seen warming up, took on Krista Hutley, and Hannus pretty much dominated the bout from beginning to end. Her combinations were nowhere near as clean in the heat of battle as they had been in practice–there was a lot of flailing about by both fighters–but she peppered Hutley into a standing eight count in the first round, reddening her face, and controlled the action to win the decision.

There were 14 bouts in all for the night, and most went about like Hannus’s, with one fighter clearly better. Some set themselves apart with little tics of style and craft. In the 156-pound class, Paul Littlejohn had a way of twisting his left wrist before delivering a blow, like the twitch of a scorpion before the strike–or maybe like the palsy of a Parkinson’s sufferer. He beat Andrew Prigorski. Back down in the 112-pound class, Gerald Referford and Levon London had the most spirited bout of the night. Referford displayed long arms, a looping punch, and a stick-and-move style, while London stood and punched. They opened the third round with such an exchange that a kid in the front row stood up and started throwing punches in imitation. They punched themselves out, and both staggered home, with Referford getting the decision.

Marvin Carey and Julio Carnalla had a real clash of styles in the heavyweight division. Carey was tall, thin, and sculpted, but he boxed as if he were fighting bees. Fighting with blue gloves out of the blue corner, he was entreated, “You gotta hit him, Blue!” by a fan. Carnalla was shorter and flabbier, but had a legitimate haymaker, and he slogged through to a decision that sent Carey out of the ring shaking his head, in one of the night’s few quibbles of sportsmanship. Joseph Dewlow in the 147-pound class was the prettiest boxer, with a tousled head of hair that stuck out through the top of his helmet like the bed-head locks of Little Nemo in Slumberland, but he carried his fight against James Hannah with an aggressive third round. Michael Bovenizer in the 178-pound class was the most impressive pure boxer of the night. He and Nicolas George both came out sporting red-white-and-blue flag helmets, but that was where the similarities ended. Compact and self-contained in his McGarry’s Boxing Club T-shirt, Bovenizer had it all over George, clocking him with a short left hook in the first round and taking it from there. George fought admirably, bulling his way in close in the third round, but even then Bovenizer’s short punches picked him apart. As Larry Merchant once said about Larry Holmes’s meeting with Gerry Cooney, the longer they fought the clearer the difference in quality between the two fighters.

A long-armed, furious puncher, Derek Zugil advanced to meet Bovenizer in the 178-pound finals by knocking out Daniel Radomski in the first round. Hit a few times, Radomski wagged his head sneeringly to show he wasn’t hurt, at which point Zugil clobbered him with three good ones that brought the referee running. When Bovenizer and Zugil meet in the finals next month I’ll bet it’s a hell of a fight–and my money’s on Bovenizer.

In an event dominated by loose-fitting singlets and baggy boxing trunks, Lewis Barnes earned style points by coming out in white silks with red stars on them to face Daniel Pulse in the 139-pound division. Barnes fought with his elbows out as if he were holding cell phones to both ears, but with that stance he threw good hooks from both sides, and he dominated the third round before winning by knockout. Rahmani Kushtrim landed a couple of good punches early in the other superheavyweight semi, but Jamey Medlock fought back with combinations. “Hook to the body, hook to the head!” one fan kept yelling, and though Medlock didn’t follow that exact advice, he landed enough punches in the third round to claim the decision.

The final fight of the night, pitting John Truce against Efren Mendoza in the 147-pound class, was another collision of styles. Truce, his high-top boots peeled down like banana skins, bounced and moved, and he had a way of hissing as he punched more pronounced than the usual gust of air through the nose that fighters are taught to expel. Mendoza, hunch shouldered, simply plodded and jabbed, and while both threw a bunch of punches it seemed to me that Mendoza landed more. Truce came on in the third round, but Mendoza fought back. Truce got the nod in the end, and I think it was largely on style points.

Throughout, the crowd was avid but never feverish. It was a wonderful mix of people unlike that at any other sporting event in the city–mostly men, but with a considerable number of women; mostly white, but with a considerable number of minorities. There were families and singles, and after their fights some boxers sat down next to their girlfriends in the ringside seats, still in their trunks and their hands still taped.

What was most impressive was the sportsmanship. Boxing is one of the most compelling sports because the combatants are so vulnerable. Trainers and fans can shout all they want, but there’s no one to help a fighter in the ring, and his or her strong points and shortcomings are on naked display. These novice fighters seemed hyperaware that they and their opponents were in the same delicate position, which is why most fights ended with an embrace and why every fighter made a point of visiting the other’s corner before the decision was announced. It’s a brutal sport but one that creates a unique camaraderie, whose presence a fan in the stands can sense like the lingering cigar smoke of boxing arenas long past.