I covered the Golden Gloves during the 1980s and knew very little about boxing aside from being an avid fan of the game. It was like being dropped deep behind enemy lines - there was a crushing mayhem everywhere I turned. Just absolute chaos. Remember, there were hundreds of fighters back then and some cards featured as many as 32 fights and went well beyond midnight.
Enter Al Gavin.
The laconic man who stood at the back of the dressing room, saying nothing, taking it all in. The man who knew all and kept it to himself, sharing his wisdom only with his fighters - and me.
"Watch out for the kid who stands in his corner and doesn't say anything and doesn't do anything flashy - that's a kid you need to take seriously. He didn't come here to show off he came to fight. Most of the people here in this game - the fighters and the managers and the trainers and the hangers on - they're here to show off. But there's that few who are here to win, here to compete, and those are the people who make this game great."
Just like Al Gavin.
I used to watch him watching a fight and it was all in his eyes. The face betrayed very little. A small smile. A barely discernible frown, a growl so low it was almost inaudible. He taught me how to watch a fight, he did. How to watch the sequence of punches, the speed of a fist, the telling blow, the moment a fight goes one way or the other.
He taught me the best fight is the one nearly lost. When a fighter gets beat up and then somehow from somewhere discovers he is still in it and gains a new level of life and tastes victory and seizes it. That always brought a smile to Al's face, to see a kid come along who made up his mind to win and did it. Often against substantial odds. That was Al's favorite fight and it became mine too. A fight where you might say goodness won.
I remember Al taping hands and it was a thing to watch. I remember Al grabbing me when I did something stupid and pulling me away from a fight of my own. I remember Al in deep discourse with a fighter, his face so close, his hands moving across a cut so expertly, all the while dispensing the most lucid advice, encouraging and cajoling and inspiring some unknown kid to a kind of greatness.
Because Al was great. He knew the game very, very well and he knew people and he knew that the great virtues - integrity, hard work, purpose - were what championship fighters had to aspire to to be truly great. Al worked with a lot of legends and a lot of unknowns and he was the same with everybody. Al was a good adult, you see, a good grownup. There aren't a lot of people out there like that. Very few, if you must know.
Al had very little patience with the baloney - and that's the word he used - that is such a part of the boxing scene. He was the man who focused on those moments in the ring when normal existence came to an end and something else took over. Something wonderful and something beautiful. Al Gavin made the boxing scene something clean, and dignified and wonderful. He was the most honest man I met in a largely dishonest flesh trade and proved that good men exist everywhere, and often in places you least expect them to be.
If I had had a son I would have brought him to Al to learn how to box. Because I know in the process he would learn something far more important than how to hook and jab. To learn what it means to be a real man.
God I miss him.