PHILADELPHIA — "Can't nobody beat this kid."
That's not a question. It's a statement. And it's what they're saying this week in Philadelphia's tough gyms. It means that Mike Tyson has passed his toughest test yet. He has passed muster in Philly's gyms.
On the day after Tyson had knocked out Larry Holmes in Atlantic City, N.J., a reporter visited three gyms in north Philadelphia, which may have more boxing gyms per capita than any other city in America.
In Philadelphia, folks know a thing or two about boxing. Tex Cobb observed a few years ago: "I saw two winos fighting in a Philly alley once, and one of them was throwing out double jabs."
Bonecrusher Smith, one of Tyson's victims last year, said that when he decided to learn to box, he went to Philadelphia from his North Carolina home.
"The best fights in America aren't on TV, they're in Philly gyms, every day," he said, recalling his Philadelphia schooling. "It's World War III every day in those gyms. You go home every night with cut lips, bloody noses . . . "
In other words, you're probably not a good fighter until someone in a Philly gym says you're a good fighter.
A tour of Philadelphia's boxing gyms, in search of the truth:
Joe Frazier's Gym--"You lookin' for Smoke (Smokin' Joe Frazier)? Smoke's in San Diego. Rodney's got a fight there soon," says Mark Frazier, nephew of former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, and a fighter himself. The Rodney he speaks of is Rodney Frazier, another of Joe's nephews.
Frazier's may be the best known of Philadelphia's gyms, but it's just one of dozens. It's in a four-story building on Broad Street, a few blocks from Temple University, wedged up against a railroad bridge.
Visitors are greeted with a sign explaining the ground rules.
"You will be put out if you talk loud, you litter, you come in without a shirt, and if you horseplay."
This may be hard to believe, but Joe Frazier has nailed pictures of himself all over the walls of his gym. Huge pictures, the size of small billboards.
It's early evening. Chairs are set up around the ring, to accommodate about 250 people who are filing in, at a dollar a head, to watch an amateur card.
Through the door, with two amateur middleweights, walks one of Philly's legendary characters of recent years, Bobby (Boogaloo) Watts. A decade or so ago, Watts had a good run as a pro middleweight. But he'll be best remembered for one achievement of which only two other men can boast--he once beat Marvin Hagler.
"Can't nobody beat this kid," Watts says, when asked to assess the craft of the 21-year-old Tyson.
"I don't see no one out there (who can beat him). He's come along at just the right time. He'll tear up Michael Spinks. (Evander) Holyfield? Holyfield's a cruiserweight. Say he bulks up to 205, 210. That still ain't big enough.
"See, this kid wears you down with all those combinations, man. Pretty soon, you get scared 'cause you see he's throwin' so many punches you ain't even seein' some of them. And the more tired you get, the more punches you ain't seein'. Then it's always the same--the one he takes you out with is one you never see."
Ray Paquette was in the Navy for 20 years and boxed for about 10 of them. Today, he referees amateur bouts in Philadelphia and occasionally trains a boxer or two.
"What I like about this kid is his physical condition," Paquette says. "He's always in great shape. If someone does tag him pretty good one of these days, the fact he's in such great shape might bail him out of trouble.
"I'm sold on the kid. Look what he's done at 21. How many fighters, in any weight class, have done what he's done at 21?"
Tyrone Frazier, Joe Frazier's cousin and one of five fighting Fraziers, was at ringside for the Tyson-Holmes fight.
"It was ugly, man," he says. "I was sitting behind (Larry Holmes' wife) Diane, and it was ugly. She took it real hard, and I felt bad for Larry. I've fought on Larry's cards in Easton.
"I talked to Mike after the fight, and he looked at me and clenched his teeth and said: 'They can't beat me! They can't beat me!' He's got that right."
Champ's Gym--On 24th Street, near Ridge Avenue, the small sign on the old brick building reads, "Champ's Gym (2nd floor)." On the sidewalk, just to the right of the battered front door, is a pile of bricks.
There are several abandoned and stripped cars nearby. Parts of cars--tires, seats, engines and transmissions--litter the sidewalk. It's a mean, tough neighborhood. No one has ever sold a broom here. Trash is everywhere. Entire buildings are boarded up.
Of such neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Cobb also once said: "I didn't mind the wars I had in the ring in the Philly gyms, it was the walk from my hotel to the gyms. I was terrified!"
Champ's is one of the busiest of the Philly gyms.
"On any day in Champ's, you can find more first-class trainers, maybe 12 or 15, than in any gym in Philadelphia," said Elmer Smith, former boxing writer and now a sports columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.