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The Journeyman

The first in a series of writers recalling first fight memories, each are paired with seperate long-term photographic look behind the scenes of fight-night on HBO.

Geoffrey Gray is a contributing editor at New York Magazine. Nicholas Hegel McClelland is an award-winning photographer and editor. View the full slideshow here.

I remember the locker room because there wasn't one. The upstairs of the Amazura Ballroom is an empty office of a space, and the fighters and their trainers were camped out near their bags and gear. How unfair. Didn't it violate the prizefighters' code, that guys who were about to pummel each other had to warm up in front of each other? Before battle, wasn't it only courteous that a combatant get to put on his cup and exercise his stomach-wrenching fears in private

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Whap. Whappity whappity whap.

The sound is gloves against pads as a Mexican lightweight moves with his trainer. I smell sweat and socks and menthol. The shoulder of another fighter is rubbed with gobs of a mysterious-looking substance. His skin glistens gold.

What's that goo?

"Camphor," the guy next to me says. Camphor is an oil, loosens up the muscles, he says.

He is average-looking. Brown hair, sweats, squat. He lingers in the locker room like me. I am anxious. I feel out of place. I have never been to a boxing match before. I feel I know about it though, a fraternal connection. My uncle was a boxing writer and covered the fights as a teenage stringer and later as an announcer. I couldn't remember a family dinner that didn't include a story about how he tried to manage boxers and was hustled by the game's great hustlers. Before promotions, the boxers wouldn't fight on my uncle's cards because they felt ill.

"But for $500 they will feel a lot better," wily managers would tell him.

In between lectures on the pugs and promotions of the past, mini-lessons on American history, my uncle would tell me about driving his fighter from upstate to New York for sparring sessions at infamous New York gyms like Gleason's, and driving the bruised fighter home. The world he described was not only one where courage and strength and skill were tested like no other. It operated with no boundaries. It required no diplomas. It celebrated self-invention - for the fighters, and for those who wrote about them. Boxing was a way for athletes to transcend their environs, to literally fight their way of the ghetto. For aspiring journalists, boxing was also a way out of unemployment, a way to get a few clips and earn a few hundred dollars documenting a blood sport many editors find abhorrent.

And here I was, in the non-locker room of the Amazura, looking for a story.

And what about the man telling me about the camphor oil? What's he doing here?

"I'm fighting."

Him? Fighting?! No way. Where is his trainer?

"Don't know," he says.

Whap. Whappity whappity whap.

His name is Michael Rothberger, I learn. He's a heavyweight. He works full time as the driver of a fruit truck, and so far his pro career is off to a miserable start. His first fight was perhaps his finest: a loss by unanimous decision. On the comeback trail, he was roughed up so bad the fight was stopped in the first round. The experience was especially bitter considering Rothberger had to pay $380 to cover his stitches and his purse was $400, a hundred a round. Factor in meals and bus fare, and Rothberger was in essence paying to get beat up on his weekend off.

The Amazura fight is another comeback of sorts for him. He needs to win or else it is unlikely anyone will take him seriously. That moment might have passed already. Rothberger takes off his shirt. Oh my. He is not in shape. He hasn't sparred much either, he tells me. How could he with a full time job at night?

I scan the locker room for the face of his trainer Hector Rocca. Still missing. Wasn't this a HUGE problem? Wasn't there enough time to duck out of the fight? Maybe Rothberger's opponent would be a fruit truck driver like him?

I ask Rothberger who he is fighting. He points.

I see arms as long as legs. I see legs that rise up to my shoulders. Yacoubou Moutakliou is the biggest human being I have ever seen. Each muscle is rippled and defined and now covered in a light sweat as his trainer warms him up. It is their pro debut. Poor Rothberger is going to die.

I look for exits. Maybe we can sneak out, together, before the fight is called. But he's not going anywhere. No trainer? Who needs a trainer?

"I'll fight anybody," he says. "I never back down from a fight."

He begins to wrap his hands.

I run to my seat. The crowd has filled in by now, and my eyes flit from Zebra hot pants to gold teeth smacking on chewing gum. I see colorful pelts of faux fur, and faux breasts stuffed in faux Cobra skin tops. I meet the members of the New York fight mob and begin to piece together the micro-economy. There is Snake, who carries the bucket in the ring and drives fighters to medical exams for cash. There is Tomas, who waves the flags in the ring. There is cut man Al Gavin, who worked the corner for marquee fighters like heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis in Las Vegas and is here now at the Amazura agreeing to patch up nobodies like heavyweight dreamer and fruit truck driver Mike Rothberger.

And now here he is, making his way to the ring with his shirt off and getting introduced by the ring announcer as "Shake and Bake." To get warm, he bounces off the ropes, which leave a red crease in the chubby folds of his skin.

His beating isn't too bad. Mercifully it ends in round one with a gut shot from Moutakliou that is so fierce Rothberger's mouth guard pops out and rolls around the canvas like a runaway car tire.

His beating isn't too bad. Mercifully it ends in round one with a gut shot from Moutakliou that is so fierce Rothberger's mouth guard pops out and rolls around the canvas like a runaway car tire.

"I'm just a late bloomer," he tells me after. "I just need sparring. I can't get no sparring with my job. It's the hours."

He vowed to keep on fighting. After his fourth straight loss, the state threatened to suspend his license. After the next loss, he traveled to Bermuda where he could fight without a license and lost again. A few months later, he was knocked out in round one at a club in Philadelphia. Rothberger retired with an official record of 0-7 (four losses by way of TKO, one by KO, and two decisions.)

In the weeks preceding his fights, Rothberger and I would take walks or hit a diner to talk about why he would want to fight when he kept on losing. He said he needed the money, but I didn't believe him. Was it the attention of getting in the ring? No, he said. "The ring is the worst place in the world."

For a fighter, I couldn't understand why he was so sensitive, a hyper pacifist, naively loyal, and always giving. One night coming home from the fights in the Bronx he was driving., My stomach hurt.

"I'm going to stop and get you a ginger-ale," he said, and pulled the car over.

I wondered if it was love he needed and wanted, and getting beat up was some twisted psychological way of receiving it. Or a twisted way to punish himself.
 
We lost touch. I thought the bitterness following so many losses would turn Rothberger off boxing. The other day, I wanted to track him down. I called his old fruit company. Yes, he was still driving a truck. And later that night, my phone rang. It was Rothberger.

What is he up to, I asked.

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At 38, he was still in the fight game, and more than ever, he said. He was managing fighters, some tomato cans like him, some prospects, booking fights. He complained about having to pay for their meals, airfare and buying them opponents to pad their records. "You gotta buy everything," he says. "But that's how business goes. It's business. I never got that."

Later, he had other news to report. He got a call. From a matchmaker. For a fight.

"Lighting Rod Jacobs," he said, telling me the name of his opponent. It was the most promising offer he'd received in years. Jacobs was older-way older, at 48. And his record was actually worse than Rothberger's, with one win 11 years ago followed by 11 straight losses. Now they both were looking for a state that will allow them to fight. Eight rounds. And the pay?

"He offered me $550, I'm taking 800," Rothberger told me. But I got the idea that he would get in the ring for free, if given the chance.

Geoffrey Gray is a contributing editor at New York Magazine. He  covered boxing for The New York Times, writes for other newspapers and magazines, and once drove an ice-cream truck.

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