When friends lose, it hurts

May 6, 2003 6:14 AM

It was sad watching the best young fighter I ever saw, now a pudgy old man, take a terrible beating from a pug who wouldn’t have been allowed at ringside years ago.

Tony Ayala Jr. was a terrible disappointment, of course, for much worse than a ring career cut short because of a violent rape he committed at the age of 19.

A few years before that, at 14 or 15, they brought the reigning welterweight champion of the world, Mexican icon Pipino Cuevas, through Torito’s San Antonio hometown and the two sparred. They had to pull the adolescent off the champion.

He tried to resurrect his career after more than 15 years in prison, but couldn’t. The demons were still with him and he was still getting in trouble and as I watched I couldn’t help thinking of that old wisdom, "Don’t ever fall in love with a fighter, they’ll only break your heart."

I couldn’t remember who said it, but the broken syntax reminded me of the late great trainer Freddie Brown, whose contribution to boxing’s Bartlett’s was "When you’re out of town, you’re out of town."

I then asked a fight lawyer, John Hornewer (used to be with Lennox Lewis and Roy Jones Jr., now with Chris Byrd, Antonio Tarver, Tim Austin et al).

"I don’t know who first said it, but Dan Duva was the guy who told me and I know he didn’t originate it," Horny said.

I asked Duva’s widow, Kathy, who now runs Main Events, and she said, "Hemingway, though it might have been changed by now, but I’m pretty certain it was Hemingway."

Now I don’t want to get involved in any literary arguments with dead idols, and I know it wasn’t Faulkner or Fitzgerald who first said this, "It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all."

Yeah, you hang around boxing as long as I have, and there are terrible disappointments. But for every Ayala, or in different ways, for every Hector Camacho (Sr. and Jr.), Aaron Pryor and Leon Spinks, there’s always a Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Larry Holmes and Thomas Hearns.

It hurts when one of your favorites gets beaten. Don’t let any writer kid you. As much as we try NOT to be fans, we silently root for some guys.

The first time Mark Breland lost, I turned behind me and there was Mike Tyson, tears running down his cheeks. Certain guys, when you get to know them, make you share their pain.

But it is worth being able to share their joys on a visceral level. I wasn’t there when Hagler first won the middleweight title and had to duck bottles from a drunken London crowd after knocking out Alan Minter. I was on duty in Las Vegas getting ready to cover Holmes vs. Ali. My bosses at The New York Times didn’t want me to leave.

I had to watch a taped replay, with some moron already spoiling the drama by blurting out that Marvin was champion. Watching him cut Minter to shreds, after having spent so much time with him, learning of his frustrations (Joe Frazier told him, "You’ve got three strikes against you, you’re black, you’re a southpaw and you’re good"), hearing him say "I don’t want to die in somebody’s gym," remembering how, after the draw with Vito Antuofermo, he was walking hand in hand with Bertha and told me, "We’re going to do it anyway."

Hagler had always told her she was going to marry a world champion and that she had to wait until he had the title. Now, a couple of hours after that terrible draw decision, he said, "I feel in my heart that I won tonight and in my heart and I feel I’m the champion, so we’re going to get married."

It took more than a year later for him to make the marriage "official" in London. Okay, it didn’t last, but marriage is often more fragile than boxing careers.

Yeah, I would cry for Leon Spinks with Breland (my all-time Favorite) the morning after he got knocked out in the first round by Gerrie Coetzee in Monte Carlo. Leon forced my wife and me to drink Drambouie and cokes with him, before breakfast.

A couple of years later, when Spinks was in camp preparing for Larry Holmes, I ran into him at the bar, which was closed. He was watching Benny Hill on television and I asked if he was affected by comedians making fun of him.

"Some nights," he sighed, "I cry myself to sleep."

It’s good to see his son Cory is now a world champion.

They make you cry, they make you laugh. They make you feel alive, even as a spectator. But remember, "Bet with your head and not your heart." I think it was either Homer or Chaucer who first said that.