The Vanilla Thrilla

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:19

    I met Leslie in February of 1997 at the Den of Cin performance space beneath Two Boots Pizza on Ave. A. After the show I had attended was over, people were milling about, and I overheard Leslie?a medium height, barrel-chested man with thinning hair, a sweet smile, a peacockish posture and a vibrato of physical vitality?talking to a friend of his about boxing. Leslie had produced the show I had just seen and I knew that he was a retired performance artist, that he was something of a legend in the East Village, but I didn't know why exactly. I managed to join his conversation?he and his friend were discussing a big fight that was coming up?and as we talked it became clear to me that Leslie was a huge boxing fan and then it came up that he had dabbled in the sport himself. I then said, rather offhandedly, "You and I should box sometime. Could be interesting. Two artists fighting."

    That was about all I said. And I meant it. I've always had an interest in boxing. I grew up watching the fights on tv before the expensive advent of pay-per-view, and I got to see?at least these were the fighters who made the biggest impression on me?Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Norton, Spinks (Leon), Holmes, Leonard, Duran, Benitez, Haggler, Antuofermo and Hearns. And I feel lucky that I caught a lot of the Ali fights in the 70s and then the ones in the early 80s where he was like Willie Mays at the end of his career when he was playing for the Mets?slow and old, no longer beautiful to watch, a humbled man not knowing yet he's been humbled. But still there was the feeling of seeing something great, of something magisterial, even if it was in decay.

    In addition to watching boxing, I fantasized as a kid about being a boxer. When I was around nine years old, I had a set of boxing gloves, and when my friend, Stuart Fishbein, who was somewhat physically feeble, though exceedingly bright, would come over, I'd give him the right-hand glove (wanting to give him some advantage) and we'd fight. But he was very timid and poorly coordinated and would cower in the corner of my room as I pounded him with my left. One time, though, he poked out a punch and caught me in the nose and I began to bleed. But this was not an unusual occurrence for me. I was something of a nasal hemophiliac as a child. I had a weak vessel in my left nostril from having been beaten at the age of five by a violent, retarded 10-year-old boy, who was later institutionalized; the boy, while sitting on my chest, had broken my nose, causing the weak vessel, which I made worse with frequent nose-picking. To this day I still bleed rather easily from the nose because I haven't been able to quit putting my finger in it, and also I live in New York with steam radiators that dry out my nostrils, making them vulnerable in the winter months. Anyway, when Stuart Fishbein drew blood, I loved it. I spread it all over my face and said to him, "Now I'm a real fighter!" And I pummeled him more. I hope I'll be that brave on Nov. 10.

    Fishbein was my only boxing experience, until 1992, when I moved to Manhattan and decided to experience firsthand what boxing was all about. I was hoping it was something I could write about; it had been three years since my first novel came out and I was desperate for material. So I joined the Kingsway Boxing Gym at 40th St. and 8th Ave., looking for stories. For about three weeks, maybe two or three times a week, I went and trained in the evening. I shadowboxed in front of the mirrors with young black and Latino men. Then after my training, I'd walk three blocks and go to Sally's?this transsexual bar on 43rd St., where other young black and Latino men stared in mirrors, but in a very different way, for very different reasons. Eventually, I dropped the boxing, and took the lazy route and just went to Sally's. And what you do is what you write about. I wrote about Sally's, and not about Kingsway.

    So boxing dropped out of my life, except for a brief fight with a man in the St. Marks Hotel in 1996. A man I met on a phone-sex line who had a fetish for boxing. I knocked him out. It's a story I recounted here in a column a couple of years ago. My one other fight was in 1984 in Paris when I was severely beaten in a bar, also recounted in the Press. So my record is 2-1. Fishbein and the man in the hotel are my two victories.

    Now back to 1997. After meeting Leslie that first time, we became friends. I learned that in the 80s he was known as "The Impact Addict." MTV called him the Evel Knievel of the performance art world. His resume included jumping off the roof of the six-story-high P.S. 122; fighting the then young heavyweight contender Riddick Bowe during the duration of a Staten Island ferry crossing; and attempting to fly a rocket over a mountain of watermelons on a Soho street, but the rocket exploded and he was pulled from the flaming wreckage. The man had put his life on the line for art. He had cracked ribs. Dislocated shoulders. Defied odds. Made the nightly news. Then at the age of 31, in his prime, he retired. He became a casting director and a producer of downtown events.

    He produced a show for me at Den of Cin in June of '97. I told stories and then challenged audience members to come onstage and arm-wrestle me. I beat three men in a row and then Leslie took me on. I had been weakened by my three previous battles, but I pinned Leslie as well. And his arm was twice the size of my mine, but I've always been lithely muscular, deceptively strong.

    Our friendship grew; often I went to his house to watch fights on pay-per-view. Then in January of 1999, he called me up and said he was going to call me again the next day and wanted a cameraman to film me taking his call. "Why?" I asked.

    "Can't tell you," he said, "just let the guy in and I'll call you."

    I agreed. Figured it was some kind of joke.

    The next day the cameraman arrived, another East Village legend?the photographer and filmmaker Richard Sandler, whose documentary The Gods of Times Square is a classic. So Sandler got set up and then the phone rang. "Jonathan," Leslie said, "remember when you challenged me to fight you?"

    "What are you talking about?" I said.

    "Two summers ago at Den of Cin, you said you wanted to fight me."

    "Oh, yeah, but that was two years ago. It was hardly a challenge."

    "I don't care when it was. To me it was a challenge. And I'm calling to let you know I accept your challenge."

    "You've been stewing about this for two years?"

    "I'm sick of you telling that story about beating that guy in a hotel. Sick of you prancing around acting like you're a fighter... So do you accept? You'll fight me?"

    My manhood was on the line. My reputation for being slightly psychopathic myself was on the line. "Yes," I said. "I accept."

    "All right, we're on, fucker. This is going to be a real fight. I don't do things halfway. I'm coming out of retirement to kick your ass."

    "Well, I'm going to beat the shit out of you. Just like I did in arm-wrestling."

    "Fuck pussy arm-wrestling. This is the real thing, and you're going down."

    After that we hung up. Sandler then filmed me as I went into a tirade, bouncing around my apartment, throwing punches, imagining myself pummeling Leslie as if he were Stuart Fishbein, and I shouted into the camera, "I'm going to be the reincarnation of a Lower East Side Jewish boxer. I'm going to train by eating herring. And I'll eat herring right before the fight and have terrible herring breath and keep Leslie away with my fierce breath and my fierce jab. I'll be known as The Herring Wonder. I'll kick his ass!"

    And so my fight name was born?"The Herring Wonder." It took a few months to get everything set up, but now the fight is on for Nov. 10 at the Angel Orensanz Foundation, which is a renovated 19th-century synagogue?the perfect setting for me to unleash my Yiddish wrath on Leslie's skull. It's a four-round fight, we'll be wearing 14-ounce gloves as well as headgear (I may have a yarmulke under mine) and before our main event there will be three unusual undercard bouts. To announce the rounds of our fight there will be card girls, and, naturally, the Mangina will be one of them. The whole thing is called "A Box Opera," but I'm also calling it "The Vanilla Thrilla."

    Leslie is white, 42, stands 5-feet 10-inches and weighs 178 pounds. I'm white, 35, 5-11 and weigh 152. He has a lot more fight experience, but he's a bit slow and has been known to wear himself out as a passionate denizen of the New York's nightlife. I on the other hand have not smoked crack cocaine since 1994, but I do bleed easily from the nose. I'm not sure who has the advantage based on the above facts.

    Anyway, I've been training for one week now. I've been extremely fortunate in that I've enlisted one of the best trainers in New York, Harry Keitt. I met him when I went to a screening of the beautiful boxing documentary On the Ropes, directed by Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen.

    Harry is one of the main characters of the film, if not the star, and I asked him after the screening if he would train me. He said yes. And so the last week has been the most intense physical experience of my life. I've recently moved to Brooklyn, and for the first few days of my training, I rode my bike to the New Bed-Stuy Boxing Center on Marcus Garvey Blvd., where Harry began to teach me how to fight. He told me that my head is the meat and my hands are the bread, that the hands, like with a sandwich, must protect the meat.

    So the first four days I was at Bed-Stuy, but then some grotesquely unfair internal politics at the gym resulted, at least for the time being, in Harry having to evacuate the premises, and so now for the last two days I've been training with him at Gleason's Gym under the Brooklyn Bridge. I don't want to reveal the secrets of my rigorous training?Leslie will read this?but I hope to be ready to dismember in November.

    Last week to help promote the fight Leslie and I did a talk show at P.S. 122 called The Lucy Show, which beats the drum for the theater's upcoming events. P.S. 122 is helping to throw the fight, and will stage a press conference and weigh-in on Sept. 28th and so that's why we were on the talk show. I should mention that in addition to P.S. 122's assistance, we're also being generously sponsored by NYPress and by, which will do a webcast of the fight; I'm hoping to have the Press logo on the back of my robe, and maybe the kosher delicatessen Russ & Daughters logo as well, since they have the best herring in New York.

    So Leslie and I were sitting next to one another onstage for The Lucy Show, which is set up like the Leno show with multiple seats for the guests, and I made some comments about him not needing a brain for what he does?jumping off buildings, etc.?but that I as a writer was putting far more at risk for this fight. To his credit, Leslie took this ribbing about his intelligence good-naturedly. Then the hostess, Lucy Sexton, invited two audience members to participate in a game. We interviewees?there were two other artists, a man and a woman, onstage with me and Leslie?were to be asked the most exciting place we'd ever had sex, but we could lie if we wanted to. The two audience members were to then declare which artist was telling the truth and which artist was lying and who ever had the most correct answers would win a prize.

    So the woman artist said her most exciting place was a back corridor of the New England Aquarium, the male artist said the basketball court in front of Stuyvesant High School, and then it was my turn, to be followed by David. So Lucy asked me, "Well, Jonathan, where was the most exciting place you ever had sex?"

    "Recently," I said, "I was at David Leslie's house and he was trash-talking me, saying how he was going to knock me out and punish me, so I went into his bathroom and masturbated into his shampoo bottle." This brought laughter as well as looks of disgust and shock from the audience.

    I then added, "I was also clutching his girlfriend's panties."

    When I said this, David, as he should have since I brought his girlfriend into it, punched me hard in the chest. I then reared back and knocked him off his chair. There's untapped power in my muscles and he went flying and I saw panic and surprise in his eyes. He crashed to the floor, trying to prop himself up with one arm and I leaped off my chair and shoved him down farther and he weakly grabbed at my sport coat, ripping two buttons. The whole thing was Jerry Springeresque, but it was not scripted, we had not planned on fighting, and during the melee I was vaguely aware of the audience screaming, but I was in some quiet, lovely zone of male aggression. After shoving him, I took hold of this enormous balloon-champagne bottle?an unexplained prop that was onstage with us?and I hit him with it. At this point he rose up, but we were separated by several people. The whole thing was thrilling. My blood was pumping. In our first skirmish, I had scored a victory. I had knocked him down. It may be a vision of things to come. It will be a vision of things to come.