Monday, August 10, 2009

The Man In My Corner

by Michael Fetherston

Al Gavin's professional life reads like a who's who of the fight game for the last fifty years. His abilities as a cut man became so legendary that the countless champions, trainers and managers the world over who sought his services referred to him simply as "Big Al". If that name was said out loud in almost any fight club from Brooklyn to Las Vegas, people knew who he was and they knew his presence in a fighters corner could mean the difference between a title belt being won or lost.

Al spent a lot of time on t.v. and in the spotlight and now that he's gone there's a crowd of great men who have a lot of great stories to tell about him, and I'm sure they're all true. I myself was never a champion, and I never basked in the spotlight with Al, but in the moments that I did spend with him I learned that this great man was at his best when it mattered most in life, and that's when no one was looking.

I met Al when I was twelve years old, the day I climbed the stairs to the old Gramercy Gym on 14th St. Walking into that gym for the first time was a hard thing for any kid to do, but as soon as I saw the big man sitting in the beat up old easy chair in the middle of the room it felt easy. Al had his trade mark poker face on when he first looked me over, tight lipped and stern eyes, but that look didn't fool me one bit.

He was one of the good guys, and anyone who ever looked Al Gavin in the eyes knew it. He had only two questions for me- where did I live and was I in school (it occurred to me that he must of been used to dealing with a rough bunch of kids if they were dropping out of school at the age of twelve) and he told me to come back the next day with fifteen bucks and a pair of hand wraps.

Over the next few months, Al taught me to box. Like I said, I never became a champion or even made it past a disastrous amateur career. The fact was, I didn't have "it", that special ability that only a few among us are ever blessed with. I simply didn't have the talent to be a real fighter, and the expert eyes of Al Gavin must have seen that early on. He had to have known that I was never going to make him a dime (not counting the fifteen bucks, of course), I was never going to put him under the spot light and I was never going to add to his legend.

But for some reason, Al Gavin still took the time out to teach me to box.

I'd walk into the gym everyday after school, prime-time for the pros and the champs. Al would be working with a contender here, an up and comer there, and still he'd take the time out to work with me, a scrawny kid off the streets who didn't exactly have 'title shot' written all over him. He was patient and thorough, never accepting a sloppily thrown jab or lazy right, and always gave me an attaboy when I did it right.

He taught me to not sulk when things didn't go my way in a sparring session and not to gloat when they did. He kept track of when my school issued report cards and let me know passing grades were a requirement for gym membership (yeah, I kept my grades up, and yeah, he checked). I was a sullen, slouching kind of kid, but Al didn't accept that either. If I wanted to leave the gym each day without a lecture, I had to do so with my head held high.

Later that year, the Gramercy closed for good. I bounced around to other gyms for a while, but I never trained with Al again. I would stop into Gleason's as often as I could to say hi to him, and he always wanted a full report of my goings-on's.

Over the years, I begrudgingly accepted that my dreams of championship were never to be, but hanging up the gloves was never the end of my friendship with Al. He was always there to support me in whatever endeavors I had in life, and when many years later I became a New York City Police Officer he made sure I met all the right people he knew in that world as well.

Al knew way before I did that I was never going to find what I was looking for in the ring, but he never told me so. He knew that there's no way to explain that to a kid, he has to find that out for himself, and when I did he still continued to work my corner. In the game of life, just like the fight game, everybody needs a good corner man, and some of us are lucky enough to have a great one.

Even now, when the going gets tough and I find myself slouching, I can still see Al's stern face and kind eyes and hear his voice, "Keep 'em up kid, keep 'em up".

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