Not too long ago, writing about the death of Nelson Algren, I recalled a scene in Sag Harbor with Roy “Big Blue” Finer, the 6-foot-6 NYC homicide detective, who was Algren’s friend.
Another friend of Algren’s, Roger Groening, sent the following message, which — given the stupid controversy surrounding best-picture Oscar contender “Million Dollar Baby” — is worth sharing because it has everything to do with boxing and nothing to do with the stupid controversy. As Frankie (Clint Eastwood) tells Maggie (Hilary Swank), who wants him to turn her into a boxer, “Girlie — tough ain’t enough.”
But sometimes it is:
Jan — Roy Finer and I became Golden Gloves entries in the early fall of 1960, both trained by Tony the Barber, ex-welterweight pro and part-time evangelist. In “the Cretin,” as we all called Roy, Tony saw a prospect. So we worked out every morning, running along Northern Boulevard from Utopia Parkway to Flushing’s Main Street and back, Tony at our side, Roy cool in newly purchased Modell’s athletic gear, Bum’s cap tilted rakishly to the side, puffing one cigarette after another, gasping hideously, since the remainder of his regimen was a quart of Scotch and two packs of Pall Malls daily. Tony was undeterred. He thought my own attitude lacked enthusiasm and was pleased with my early retirement.Now go watch “Fat City,” John Huston’s 1972 fight flick, or go read “Fat City,” the 1969 novel it was based on, by Leonard Gardner, for the real truth of the fight game. Both Huston and Gardner make Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” look like a Hollywood fantasy. Which of course it is, all its spare, “art-house” virtues notwithstanding.
He now devoted himself to the refinement of the Big Fella’s skills, keeping him working at the big and little bags hanging in the room behind his shop. They were going to the top. And it looked that way. Roy won the first few fights by KOs in a walk, opponents terrified by his size. The next he easily took on points, though there was a question about his stamina. But his record was enough to make him the toast of Jimmy Rutha’s, the bar where we were most at home. “Hey, Champ, let me buy you a drink” was a constant refrain. He was the most celebrated guy in the neighborhood.
Then he ran into Arnold Silverstein, taxi-driver from Brooklyn, in the fifth fight. Silverstein was about 5-foot-7 but built like a tank and covered with a pelt of Neanderthal hair, and he gave the appearance of being a very angry man. The first two rounds went fairly well for Roy, although he was clutching and clearly winded from the Taxi man’s short-armed but furious aggression. The champ from Flushing looked confused between rounds. The third was it. Roy charged from his corner, Arnold sidestepped — and hit him with a left hook I can still hear. A double sound of impact, like the echo of a rifle shot. Finer is down! Flailing, helpless, in a night of his own. Finer is counted out! Minutes pass. Smelling salts are applied. They have great difficulty removing him from the ring. He is carried away in a stretcher.
The double concussion I heard was caused by the snapping bones in his left leg as he hit the canvas. The great thing is that there is a record of this fiasco. Bill Gallo, the sports cartoonist for The Daily News, was there that night, and in the next day’s paper there was a drawing of a felled giant, legs and arms spread over every rope in the ring, and a small hairy figure glaring triumphantly at the audience, foot propped on his victim’s chest. Roy wore a leg cast for three months after that episode. So much for boxing glory