In 1970, when I was 6, I lost my first fight. I was playing by the pond behind my home. I had my sweater pulled over my head so that I would resemble Spider-Man. I was alone, narrating internally my various heroic deeds. Then someone snuck up from behind and pushed me down with quite a bit of savage force.
I figured it was my older sister, and, staring through my sweater, I saw that she was fleeing. I chased after her, pulling my sweater down so that I could see better, and then I realized it was not my sister but some older boy, who was at least 9. I hesitated. Then I remembered I was Spider-Man and kept up my pursuit.
He stopped running and faced me. I brazenly pushed him. Next thing I knew he was sitting on my chest. He reeked horribly of peanut butter, and he pounded my face until I began to bleed. He leaped off and ran away. I staggered up to my house, wailing.
My mother heard my cries and came to me. “Your sweater from Israel!” she shouted. She thought the blood all over me was mud from the pond. I could hardly articulate what had happened, but she quickly caught on and held me in her arms. I had to be taken to a doctor—my nose was fractured and wouldn’t stop bleeding.
In 1974, in the fourth grade, I had my next loss. Two boys, after school, called me and my friend “dirty Jews.” We chased after them, which was insane. They were the class bullies and must have run simply to lure us into the woods by the school.
In the sylvan shadows, we paired off. I began with the lesser bully and was soon sitting triumphantly on his chest, but then I looked over at my friend and he was in the exact opposite position and was getting choked. So I jumped off the beta bully and tackled the alpha bully. Then the alpha bully was on my chest and down came the fist and there went my nose again.
After that I retired for 10 years, until 1984, when I was 20, living in Paris, and very much under the influence of the short stories of Hemingway. Subsequently, I got into a bar brawl with a Frenchman, whose father was probably a leader in the Resistance. This Gallic champion broke my nose, split my lip, and kneed me in the side of the head.
This precipitated another retirement, which lasted 12 years. Then in 1996, while living in New York, I called a gay sex line, which only cost 15 cents a minute. The straight line cost $3.99 a minute. Being broke was affecting my sexuality. On the phone line, I met a man who wanted to box in a hotel room. We met up and I thoroughly routed him. Well, I landed one punch and he jabbed his hip into a dresser and had to stop.
Three years later, in 1999, I recounted this tale of my hotel-room triumph on the stage of a nightclub in the East Village. A performance artist in the audience, a friend of mine named David Leslie, took offense at my story, since he had once fought Riddick Bowe on a crossing of the Staten Island ferry and wanted to be considered the only artist-boxer in the East Village. Thus, Leslie challenged me to a boxing match, which I accepted, and I immediately dubbed myself “the Herring Wonder.”
I saw myself as a reincarnation of an early-20th-century Jewish boxer who would train by eating herring. I also worked out for two months at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn. Our fight was to be held November 10 at Angel Orensanz, a 19th-century synagogue that had been converted into a performance venue.
A week before the fight, while sparring with a training partner, my nose, once again, was broken. Leslie convinced me to go through with the fight. He was producing the whole thing and had sold 600 tickets. He said he wouldn’t go for my head.
On November 10, I entered the ring in that old synagogue, carrying a jar of herring, and my fans in the crowd waved silver herrings made from cardboard and aluminum.
In the first round of our four-round fight, Leslie, whose fight name was “the Impact Addict,” pinned my arm and struck me in the head nine times. Our agreement before the fight had obviously been forgotten, which was for the best—the crowd got their money’s worth and they went nuts. In the second round, he rebroke my nose. I also got a concussion, whiplash, my jaw was knocked out of line, and my ribs were bruised.
Traumatized by the fight, which, naturally, I lost, I ended up a few weeks later in Havana, Cuba, on something of a bender. One afternoon, tipsy and despairing, I was coming up the stairs of the Hotel Nacional. A young man in a straw hat stopped me.
“Are you Jonathan Ames, the fighter, the Herring Wonder?” he asked.
I pulled myself erect. I was an internationally recognized pugilist!
“Yes, I am,” I said.
“I saw your fight. You were great! … Well, I have to run, catch this tour bus. Goodbye!”
No longer despairing, I swaggered into the lobby of the hotel and bellied up to the bar. I was a fighter on vacation in Havana, Cuba! I was still a loser, but for once I felt like a winner.
Shortly after writing this piece, completely certain that my life as a boxer was over, I was challenged by Soho Press to fight a Canadian writer, Craig Davidson. Davidson wrote a novel called The Fighter and promoted it in Canada last year by fighting a poet. Now the book is coming out in the States and Soho Press must have gotten wind of my exploits as “the Herring Wonder” and challenged me on behalf of Davidson.
Perhaps because I am somewhat insane, I accepted this throwing down of the glove, as it were, and I am, once again, coming out of retirement. I am 43 years old.
I have commenced training at Gleason’s and will face Davidson, who is 32, on July 26. Our bout will be a part of a night of amateur fights being held outdoors on Pier 84 in Manhattan. The evening is being called “Rumble by the River.”
I don’t know what will become of me. One thing is nearly certain, if history has taught me anything: My poor nose will bear the brunt of my folly.
So, in advance, like a character out of Gogol, I offer this apology to my poor, misshapen, wounded beak: I am sorry that you will be hurt.