The Vanilla Thrilla

Written by Jonathan Ames on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

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.

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.

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?"

are you talking about?" I said.

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

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

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

been stewing about this for two years?"

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."

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."

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

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.

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?"

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.