THE GYM

The gym is legendary. Ali has sparred here, as has Roberto Duran. Four world champions train here. The air, as usual, is flooded with the twin smells of sweat and disinfectant. As always, there are men at work. They jump rope, shadowbox and spar; they work on the speed bags. There are grunts of exertion and pain, the swish-swish of feet dancing on canvas, the thunk of leather on flesh and bone—sounds heard here over the years as thousands of young men tried to box their way out of the ghetto and into the American Dream.

But these are not ghetto boys. That man in the corner, punishing the canvas bag, is a $150-per-hour lawyer, fresh from counseling a major corporation about its stock issues. The skinny guy shadowboxing in the blue sateen trunks is an insurance mogul; he comes to the gym in his chauffeured Rolls. And in the ring, taking his medicine at the hands of one of the club pros, is—can it be?—a slumming psychotherapist.

Please, don't call it yuppie boxing. "Yuppies," says David Lawrence, the 39-year-old insurance king, "never put themselves on the line. Yuppies would never do a sport where they might get uglified." Don't make such a big deal of it, they plead; rich men have dabbled in the sweet science at least since the Marquis of Queensberry got tired of being socked in the kidneys. And then there was Robert Cohn, the pugilistic Princetonian in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, who took "inner comfort in knowing he could knock down anybody who was snooty to him, although, being very shy and a thoroughly nice boy, he never fought except in the gym." And Hemingway himself.

But the fact is that in the era of homo yuppus, the number of men who trade their wing tips for high tops has gone up dramatically. Boxing gyms in Washington, Houston, Las Vegas and Chicago report that young urban pugilistic professionals now constitute up to 25 percent of their membership.

At Gleason's, in Manhattan, where we are today, 60 white-collar boxers work out regularly. There are only two rings and five speed bags here in the "Home of Champs," but there are also those ghosts and memories. Having honed their instinct for purchasable authenticity on unfinished oak dressers and Cajun food, the yuppies know the real thing when they pay for it. Says Gleason's co-owner Ira Becker, slyly: "If you tell your buddies you go to Gleason's, your respect goes up 300 percent. It's like owning a Gold Card."

Still, why do they do it? Each, it seems, has found something unique here. For some it is an extra measure of macho or just the chance to blow off tension. "My friends get smashed drinking and doing drugs," explains 32-year-old real estate broker Larry Seidler. "Hitting is more fun." Others find an outlet for the drive that put them in high tax brackets to begin with. Attorney Richard Novick, 42, won't have his frequently broken nose fixed, maintaining that "it's no big deal to be a doctor or a lawyer anymore. This is one way to prove yourself."

Novick's nose is discolored and bulgy, like a battered fruit, and prompts you to remember that the American Medical Association has determined that after 20 to 30 bouts, the average boxer sustains a detectable level of brain damage. The yuppies have heard all that. "Those doctors are a bunch of wackos," says Lawrence, the insurance king. "We're not here to knock each other out." Ron Puddu, the psychotherapist, sees the benefits as outweighing the risks. "Normally you don't draw on your total resources unless you are in life-threatening danger," he says. "It's fantastically invigorating to have to depend on yourself, your ingenuity and your skills. It puts a lot of things in perspective."

THE CONTENDER

In the church of blood
the bell was my Lord
His son,
the broken down fight doctor,
asked me if I knew where I was.
I have never known the answer
to that question...
—David Lawrence

David Lawrence's path in life has baffled many people, not the least himself. "Most of our friends would never think about boxing," says his wife, Lauren. "They think David is a little unusual in many ways." Says her husband: "I regularly start up doing things that at first seem wrong to me, although they work out in the end." Ten years ago he was an English professor out of a job, despite much scholarly writing and published poetry. So he took a night course in insurance brokerage and joined a friend who was starting a small firm. "I felt I was missing some deep satisfaction if I was not a scholar," he says. But it turned out he was a natural in the business, so much so, that after six years he was president of the company, Allied Programs Corp., and found himself with the Rolls, a swank East Side apartment and a house in the Hamptons.

Beyond his business, Lawrence's love of competition expressed itself in in athletics. In 1984 he was a ski racer, a dirt biker and an active competitor in over-35 amateur tennis. Tennis, however, was beginning to get on his nerves. "John McEnroe degraded the sport," he says. "More and more, it had become a bunch of sissies standing there and arguing over a line call." One day he got into a locker room conversation with a player who said he had been sparring at Gleason's. The man had enjoyed it but had to stop because of "some internal bleeding."

A bell sounded somewhere in Lawrence's soul. "The idea lingered with me," he says. A few months later he bought an outfit, heavy and light bags and began working out. One day he sparred with a houseguest. "It was fun," he says. That day David Lawrence, 39 years old, 5'10", 140 lbs., decided to go down to Gleason's.

Lauren Lawrence, 35, was horrified. She knew her man, having been married to him since his professorial days. "His poetry expressed a lot of anger," she says. "But I wished he would work it out on paper rather than with his fists." He promised her that he would merely exercise and shadow-box, not spar. For three months he kept his promise. Then one day he came home, furtively, with a black eye. "He tried to hide it with makeup," she says, "but it was a lousy job." A month later he had a swollen nose.

At Gleason's, Lawrence had met Sam Allen, a lawyer. Allen, too, thought he was there just for the bracing regimen. But after several months, the friends changed their minds. "If you go to Gleason's for a while," says Allen, "you either have to make a leap and go in the ring or you're thought of as a wimp." Neither of them wanted that. They hired Hector Roca, a trainer for pros, to teach them to box. A Gleason's regular named Charles Colbert was drafted as Lawrence's sparring partner. "In the beginning," says Colbert, fondly, "I couldn't hit him at all. He just ducked. But now he don't mind taking punches. He enjoys it."

"I said, 'That's it,' " remembers Lauren. " 'You're not fighting any more.' " David protested. He would quit, he said, as soon as he broke something. And the one thing he would never, never do, he assured her, was box in a tournament.

A year later word got to Gleason's of the 1986 Wall Street Charity Fund Bouts, a tournament of white-collar pugilists organized by two traders to benefit One to One, a group supporting the handicapped. David signed up. "If you look back at the highlights of your life," he reasoned, "there will always be the night you fought at the Garden." Lauren: "I was very upset."

The new goal meant changes. "Before," says Roca, "I taught them to fight, but not to be fighters. But in the arena, you have to fight. You have to hurt your opponent, so you don't get hurt yourself." Lawrence went on Roca's training diet ("no hard drinks, cut out your cigars, no fat") and increased his gym visits from three times a week to five, from 6:30 a.m. to 9. "I don't know how many appointments I canceled," he admits. "I lost money."

He also lost heart, now and then. According to the rules, each participant had to spar every week for several weeks before the event with the man he would fight in the Garden. Lawrence had drawn Victor "Sic Vic" Nogueira, 24, a clerk at the brokerage firm Einhorn & Co., who had been boxing for four years. Each time Lawrence sparred with Nogueira, he was pounded. "Sometimes," he says, "I asked myself, 'What am I getting into?' " Nevertheless, boxing calmed him. "I got very mellow," he says. "If somebody got angry at me during work, it just looked silly to me. I became less rude." As the tournament neared it didn't even bother Lawrence that he and Nogueira would be the first bout. He had a pair of sky-blue trunks made up and acquired the nickname AWESOME.

FIGHT NIGHT

The Garden's Felt Forum is half full. The audience is dressed in Brooks Brothers and Guccis (men) and Brooks Brothers and Reeboks (women). The emcees explain the charitable nature of the 16 bouts and hype the evening's special event, a mock battle between former greats Rocky Graziano and Jake LaMotta. In the locker room hallway, Lawrence, gloves and head protector on, waits for his call. "I've stopped being nervous," he says. He bangs his padded fist against the wall. The call comes. Later, Lawrence will remember, "I felt the spongy floor. I felt very happy. The ring was a nice, safe place to be. I felt no responsibilities, and life became very simple."

There was music in your punch.
I listened closely
pushing my face through the violin
arriving on the other side
of the concert.
After a solid hit
the silence is numbing,
you are on a beach
with a pool of sweat in your sandals
and the seagulls circling around you
opening and closing
their beaks without a sound.

Awesome dances away the first round, not scoring. Sic Vic is aggressive and quick handed, closing in, making his jabs tell. A clinch. Seconds later, Awesome is on the canvas. "A cheap shot," he will say later. "A good punch," Vic will reply. Awesome sits there. Amazement is written on his face. The bell.

The second round is fought more evenly. "You're doing beautifully!" shouts Hector from the corner. Awesome is attacking more, landing some shots to the body. The bell.

Round three. Disaster. Vic is hooking over Awesome's jabs and making regular contact with his face. A short right to the belly takes the wind out of the older man and a left-right combination puts him on the ropes. Vic closes in, pounding head and body, and Awesome stumbles. He recovers, but the world is spinning. The lights are flickering. The bell. The ref lifts Sic Vic's arm.

When David Lawrence emerges from the locker room, Lauren collars him and moves him toward an exit. She has had enough boxing. She wants to skip the other bouts and go directly to the post-fight party at the Fifth Avenue Grill. As the two depart arm in arm, Lauren gives David a playful punch in the belly. "If you ever fight again," she whispers in his ear, "I'll kill you."

Thus the Lawrences miss the remainder of the Night the Yuppies Fought in the Garden. Tom "The Bomb" Gimbel, the department store scion and a first vice-president with Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co. scores the evening's only knockout, flooring Randy "Round House" Reis, a trader with Englander Capital. In the final bout, Joe "One Punch" Kelly wins a decision over Rich "Earthquake" Uva of Walsh, Greenwood and Co. Kelly had earned his nickname in a recent Golden Gloves tournament by knocking out the heavy favorite in the first round. In a subsequent TV interview, Kelly had told New York viewers that all he wanted in life was a Wall Street job. Within a month, he was a trainee with RMJ Securities.

There is cheering as Kelly's decision is announced. Lots of cheering. Kelly's and Uva's employers had made a $25,000 side bet on the outcome.

THE PARTY

The Fifth Avenue Grill is a swank place, a place where Gleason's regulars could never feel at home. But at 11 p.m., the mood is expansive and jolly. The evening's bruises have turned out to be minor, the noses have stopped bleeding. Gimbel's KO victim is hoisting a Beck's and shaking hands with his vanquisher. The evening has grossed $200,000 for the handicapped. Gold medals are awarded to all fighters. And a rumor is spreading, whispered behind cupped hands and hinted at tipsily over the draft. Could it be that the side bet on that last fight was not $25,000 but $500,000? Nobody seems to doubt it much, and only the organizers categorically deny it.

The story makes its way over to Dave Lawrence, standing with Lauren. For once he seems taken aback. "That's a lot of money," he says. Then he chuckles: "I guess I could have made a killing by betting a thousand dollars against myself. I could have been a winner!"

Early Monday he is back at Gleason's, working out. "I think every businessman should take up boxing—and businesswomen, too," he says. "There is nothing like a fight in the morning."

  • Contributors:
  • Susanne Lingemann.